The Future is Murky in Burma, A Comment on Recent Changes — Part I

Posted in Burma News, Ethnic Issues, Human Rights on December 5, 2011 by burmaperspective

Not so long ago, I wrote this post, imploring people not to try to read the tea leaves regarding change in Burma.  I was really enjoying the first positive news coming out of the country in a long time and I just wanted some time to let it all soak in before trying to predict the future.  But now, events are moving way too quickly not to comment.  I’d like to share my thoughts on where we are now and what the international community can and should be doing.

Before we even begin, let’s keep in mind that just a year ago, this government completely rigged an election to maintain power and before that, “reformer” Thein Sein was a general in a military junta, and described as having “absolute loyalty to military supremo Senior General Than Shwe.”  This very recent backdrop should be kept in mind as we evaluate the current reforms.

Recent Changes – Good News, But….

Let’s first be clear about what the recent changes are and what they are not.  What they are is positive step in the right direction.  What they are not is any kind of wholesale change.  And for every change in the right direction, there is a big BUT that follows.  Some examples:

In spite of ceasefires, fundamental issues remain with regard to Burma’s ethnic minorities

First of all, as discussed above, the Kachin are still very much at war with the regime.  Moreover, we have seen ceasefires before.  Unless this go-around is accompanied by a fundamental policy shift granting some autonomy and respect for ethnic rights, the ceasefires won’t hold.  Many ethnic leaders are still in prison.  In spite of reforms, I do not see ethnic armies turning over their weapons any time soon.  Until that happens, civil war will always be a risk.

Second, while most ethnic leaders are truly fighting for the best interests of their people, some use their armies, not just to fight for equal treatment, but also to protect significant sources of income.  The Wa, for example, are among the largest producers of meth in the world, having graduated from heroin.  Other leaders have set up quite nice lives for themselves by heavily taxing their people.  There will be significant unwinding to be done.

Third, there are currently about 150,000 refugees living in camps in Thailand.  Plus, there are more in India and Malaysia.  How are these people going to be repatriated?  And, is their security going to be guaranteed?  Plus, the unconscionable treatment of the Rohingyas cannot be ignored.

Economic Oppression is Alive and Well

With all the recent focus on political reforms, it can be easy to forget that for most Burmese, the oppression that impacts their lives most directly is economic oppression.  That economic oppression started with Ne Win’s disastrous socialist experiment and continued with the military junta’s rampant exploitation of the country’s natural resources for personal gain.  While the majority of Burmese have lived in poverty, the generals and their cronies have amassed considerable wealth.  The recent changes directly impact only a small percentage of Burmese.  For the rest, reform has brought little relief.

The question is,  What can be done about it?  Last year, in anticipation of “reform,” the Burmese government privatized large segments of its industry.  Of course, most buyers were the very tycoons with close ties to the regime and with places on U.S. sanctions lists.  We know that the U.S. certainly is not going to back any kind of redistribution of private assets, so there is an open question regarding how political reforms are going to trickle down to Burma’s large poverty stricken population.

With economic oppression comes human rights violations

While ethnic warfare and political retribution has led to significant human rights violations, some of the brutal treatment of Burmese people, including forced relocation and loss of livelihood, has been a result of plain old fashioned greed.  Abuses in the name of profit are nothing new and certainly not limited to Burma.

The recent changes are not going to fix this, especially since the lack of any real democracy deprives locals of the most powerful tool against those who take advantage of them – voting out the government that lets it happen.    Just this week, an activist who was trying to organize farmers to protect their land was put on trial.

In the next post, what the international community can and should do to help….


In Burma, The Wrong Way to “Help”

Posted in Civil Society, Tourism on November 14, 2011 by burmaperspective

There have been some recent positive changes in Burma, but make no mistake that the country remains an authoritarian regime.  Authoritarian regimes have rules.  When you don’t follow those rules, the worst thing that will happen to you is that you will get kicked out of the country.  But for those who may have helped you, or could be perceived by the authorities as helping you, the consequences can be much, much worse.  Which brings me to this guy:

There are so many things wrong with his approach, which I hope will be self evident to anyone reading this blog.  But, I want to point out one quote:

I agreed to stop walking and leave Burma because others were being held responsible for my travel. That was never the purpose of this walk. I wanted to see the country I had read about in books for the past three years. I wanted to dramatize Ying’s walk through Burma over a decade ago to send her to school. I wanted to get away from the approved tourist areas and meet and talk to the fifty-three million people living in Burma in order to deepen my interest in the country. But I can’t accept Magado Travel taking the blame, stress, and loss for my decisions. They are not my whipping boy.

The fact is that this guy’s trip was all about him.  If he really wanted to help Ying, he would have put her in touch with one of the many fine organizations that are working to provide opportunities for Burmese students and who you know, actually know what they are doing.  If he wanted to publicize her plight, he could have gotten in touch with the media or many other things.  Instead, he decided to act recklessly and put people in danger — not just the travel agent, but any person he met and spoke to in areas where he was not supposed to be.  All so this guy could blog about his great adventure.  Shameful.

What is the moral of the story?  If you have a great desire to “do something,” please pause.  Contact an NGO.  Contact your embassy.  The folks at the US Embassy are extremely friendly and helpful.  Get in touch with a Burmese civil society organization.  Talk to people who have spent time in the country.  You can even go down to 50th Street Bar and just start asking around about good places to donate or help.  Just stay away from political topics and people will be willing to talk with you.   But, please do not just go start breaking the laws of the country because you feel you have some moral high ground.  You are not going to do any real good and you may well put people in danger.

Enjoying small victories in Burma without reading tea leaves

Posted in Burma News, Human Rights on October 17, 2011 by burmaperspective

The recent decisions by the Burmese government to suspend development of the Myitsone dam [There is now some question as to whether work has completely stopped on the dam] and to release some political prisoners are the latest in a series of positive steps in the country.  Other such steps include meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and senior government officials, including President Thein Sein, and the unblocking of several websites, including VOA and DVB.  The press is seeing greater freedom and there is talk, from the government, of censorship-free days ahead.  On the economic front, workers now have the right to unionize and strike and there is word that banks will soon start being able to offer currency exchange. Maybe one day we’ll be able to actually use currency that is not practically perfect in every way.

In addition to these reported developments, I am told by people inside the country that there is an overall relaxation of restrictions on civil society organizations.  For example, local groups are no longer obligated to report the names of volunteers to the government.

I, for one, would like to just take a minute to enjoy some of the good news coming out of the country.  Yes, there are still political prisoners, and yes, ethnic armies are still under attack, but life for many Burmese is now a little better than before.  In fact, the pace of change is such that Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s deputy foreign minister said, “I almost left the country thinking they’re moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar.”

These kinds of sentiments are being echoed among many long time Burma-watchers.  And, honestly, right now, in this moment, I couldn’t care less whether the government is taking these actions in order to get support its bid for the ASEAN chairmanship or as a proactive measure to weaken the NLD.  I’m just going to be feel good about the fact that there are finally some things to feel good about.

Of course, for most, enjoying the new developments is not sufficient.  Advocacy groups and newspaper columnists feel the need to opine on “what it all means.”  Exile groups are quick to remind us about remaining political prisoners and human rights abuses and those with other agendas are ready to proclaim a new day in Burma.   I understand why groups try to add context to the news, but I think that trying to read the tea leaves is fruitless at best and misleading at worst.

The dynamic between and among various Burma-watching groups is fascinating complex and deserves its own post.  What is important to understand here is that each has its own agenda and it is impossible to tell how much of the analysis is either self-serving or colored by a natural organizational bias.  Each move by the regime can provide support for any and all positions.  Take the release of prisoners.  On one hand we read “Don’t be fooled by Burma’s meagre prisoner release” and, on the other, “This prisoner release is a genuine move and must elicit a positive response in kind by the West.”

The good news is that we have seen unprecedented newspaper coverage on Myanmar in recent weeks.  The bad news is that, for the most part, the coverage from those news outlets that do not usually cover Myanmar has merely echoed the rosy predictions from one side or the warnings from the other, without more independent analysis or recognition of the inherent biases of the observers these articles are quoting.

In my mind, any realistic analysis of recent developments looks something like this:

Some good things have happened in Burma recently.  A lot of very bad things are still happening.  We have no idea what will happen next.

Development and Aid: Amateurs, Volunteers, and Do-It-Yourself in Burma and Beyond

Posted in Development on August 8, 2011 by burmaperspective

I will pick up the Reflections on a Journey series soon, but I wanted to comment in response to a series of blog posts and articles that I’ve read recently.  They have a common theme, a rather old one, where aid workers basically tell people to leave aid and development to the professionals.  One of my favorite blogs, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, gave a rundown of articles relating to the debate between aid professionals and amateurs late last year.

Let me start by saying that I truly enjoy reading aid blogs.  I appreciate a healthy dose of snark, and many blogs by aid workers are filled with it.  I also respect the general view that “doing something” is a patently ridiculous notion.  As a lawyer, if someone who was unqualified told me they were giving legal advice to the poor because they wanted to do “something” to help, I’d be appalled.  I don’t see why it should be any different for aid or development work.  But somewhere between those who started in the Peace Corps and have spent their entire lives in the developing world and those who decide on working at an orphanage because Cancun is “so last year,” there is another group whose potential contributions often go unutilized.

There is “Expertise” and there is “Expertise”

In my experience, aid and development workers are so defensive and protective of their roles and have such disdain for “amateurs” that they deem insufficiently experienced, that they leave no room for dedicated and committed amateurs to become better educated.  I have come to believe that because many aid workers make such low salaries, they pay themselves in ego and arrogance.

This post made me literally laugh out loud.  Seriously?  In order to help a community to improve their lives,

[y]ou need to know (fluently) standards like Sphere, HAP, or those related to your area of technical expertise/interest”?

You need to understand R2P (don’t know what that is? Better Google it…) and why it matters.

You need to know industry best-practices related to humanitarian protection. You need to know the difference between OCHA and UNOPS and UNHCR.

That’s like saying that in order run a lemonade stand I need to have the same comprehension of my market as the people that run Coca-Cola.   While the person who knows nothing about supply and demand or marketing will see his lemonade stand fail pretty quickly, a little bit of training and study will allow him to be productive on a small scale.

I graduated from an Ivy League university and a top 5 law school.  I spent 6 years as a corporate lawyer, surround by similarly educated people doing what most would consider to be highly sophisticated legal work.  Yet, if you gave me an interested, smart, and dedicated person, I could have taught them to be a valuable member of my team in a month.  Could they be in charge of a deal or lead strategy sessions with our client?  Of course not.  But, if they were willing to work for free, I would see a return on my training investment pretty darn quickly while giving that person a good education in my work.   But that same person volunteering in development work?  Too complicated for mere amateurs.

No room for informed and committed “amateurs”

The poverty tourist who wants to take 2 weeks to work at an orphanage so they can circulate pictures of the poor kids they helped at their next cocktail party is pretty much a lost cause.  But for those people who are genuinely interested and are willing to put forth the time and effort?  What exactly are their options?  I volunteered as an English teacher because that was the only opportunity I could find to put my skills to use in Burma.  While doing that work, I met people across a range of qualifications, from Masters in Asian Studies to scientists and everything in between.  All of us English teachers because no one else could see any value in our skills.  The irony of it, of course, is that many of us were not particularly qualified to be English teachers.  Though I believe I brought value to my students in a variety of ways, I gladly would have swapped places with a qualified English teacher if I could have found a more appropriate use of my skills.  The shame of it is that many of the committed and skilled volunteers I met are now back at home working in offices because they couldn’t find a way to be useful and they became disillusioned with the entire notion of doing development work.  I wish those people had started doing it themselves.

Recruiting good people is hard work.  Trust me, I know.  Its what I do for a living now.  I love reading posts like this one, talking about how hard it is to find successful volunteers.  Well, of course it is.  Think about how difficult it is to find good people when you pay them.  Why would anyone think it would be easier when they work for free.   Especially since in this case, the organization in question seemed to just be taking in random people who emailed, rather than separating out the committed, informed, and dedicated ones from the rest.  The committed volunteers of today are the professional staff or donors or fundraisers of tomorrow.  Finding them is worth the effort.  And believe it or not, people with real world experience in other fields can actually be more valuable than college interns.

One reason why you get DIYers is because established organizations won’t give “amateurs” the chance to learn the ropes, even on a volunteer basis.  They put their skills to work in the best way they know how.  They become entrepreneurial – a trait, by the way which is celebrated in all areas of the economy except in aid and development.  Why don’t they just write a check?  Everyone has their own reasons, you only have to look at the Three Cups of Tea situation or any number of mismanagement stories that have come out of established charities to guess what some of those reasons are.   Moreover, during my own travels in and around Burma, local civil society organizations and activists were decidedly mixed on their view of iNGOs.  While by no means dispositive, hearing this did not make me run to grab my checkbook.

I guess my ultimate point is this – if aid/development workers want to knock someone for showing up and doing “aid” work without knowing anything at all just so they can feel good about themselves, go for it.  I’ll be right there with you. But, while they’re at it, they should ask themselves what they have

Reflections on a Journey Part III — Changed Perceptions of Burma

Posted in Burma News, Ethnic Issues, Sanctions on July 18, 2011 by burmaperspective

During the time I spent in Burma and on the border, my perception of the country changed drastically.  Much of what I leaned is likely obvious to anyone who has spent time in the developing world, or studying anything for that matter, but I think it is worth sharing nonetheless.  When our view of a problem is formed by a simplistic view of the facts, our proposed solutions tend to be equally simplistic.  If there is one thing I’ve learned, improving the problems in Burma will be anything but simple.

Information is very difficult to come by in Burma.  News tends to either come from government mouthpieces or opposition-funded news sources, which have their own biases (more on this in a later post).  As a result, I view with severe skepticism anyone who claims to be 100% sure about anything that happens in the country.  During my research, I asked the same question to many different people, with many different perspectives, and tried to put all these together to develop my own view.  I have outlined some of most significant realizations below.  Several of these warrant additional discussion, and I will discuss them further in later posts.

A smile is not always a smile

As I have discussed before, one cannot help but be blown away from reception received from Burmese people.  I was initially pleasantly surprised by the fact that, in spite of the harshness of life almost everyone I met was smiling.  As I developed friendships with many Burmese, I came to realize that the smile, while often a genuine expression of happiness, was just as often a mask for pain, sadness, or resignation.  Temper tantrums, crying, and other expressions of anger are unacceptable within the culture.  And for many, after countless disappointment, the tears have all been shed and the rage has been expressed to its fullest.  There is nothing left to do but smile.

The enigma of the Burmese smile was most clearly expressed to me during when a good friend of mine relayed her life story.  As she told me of a sister who was trafficked and infected with HIV and an HIV+ nephew who was shunned from his village, the smile never left her face.  Her tale of hardship endured by her family was interrupted by small giggles, as if neither anger nor tears could sufficiently express the depths of her emotion.

There is not always a clear line between “good guys” and “bad guys”

The Burmese army is bad.  The ethnic rebels are good.  So goes the simple narrative one encounters when first learning about Myanmar.  Then you meet the poor farming family whose son or nephew joined the army because there was no other work in the village; or the man whose sister who was going to marry a general because it was a way to escape crushing poverty.  The man who told me about his sister looked slightly ashamed as he described her new husband, assuring me that he had never even spoken to the man.  In Burma, people are sometimes faced with a decision about whether to stand up for principles or to eat, clothe, and shelter themselves.

KNU/KNLA good.  DKBA bad.[1]  Another generalization that gets bandied about amongst Burma newbies.  At first blush, this makes some sense, as the DKBA signed a cease-fire agreement with the government and started fighting against their Karen brethren.  The reality, however, is much more complex.  The KNU are mostly Christian while the DKBA are Buddhist.  Missionaries have been a presence in Burma and in the border region for a long time, offering aid and spiritual guidance.  Christian groups have done wonderful work in and around Burma, but they have also perpetuated the notion that Christian Karen are more sympathetic than Buddhists.  The fact is that while many Karen citizens applaud the KNU for their stand against the Tatmadaw, there are also many complaints regarding forced conscription into the KNLA and heavy taxes imposed by the KNU.  While I was in Hpa-An, stories were circulating about a recent sniper attack and bomb blast, one attributed to the DKBA and the other to the KNLA.  Most ordinary people I met told me that, at this point, they weren’t taking sides.  They just wanted the fighting to end so they could farm in peace.

Aung San Suu Kyi is not universally revered

There is no doubt that “The Lady” has brought much needed attention to the plight of the Burmese people.  She stepped into a leadership void, and at great personal risk, gave an eloquent voice to the suffering of a nation.  She is, at least in part, responsible for western sanctions against Burma and the attention that is paid to the country by the international community.  Within Burma, she has thousands, if not millions, of followers who look to her for inspiration.

But, that is not the whole story.  Many people I met, especially in the ethnic areas, supported Suu Kyi tepidly, if at all.  Some still blamed her father, General Aung San, both for his role in brutal attacks against pro-British Karen, and for convincing them to join the Burmans to form a united Myanmar.  Many believe Aung San Suu Kyi pays only lip service to the plight of the ethnic groups.  Moreover, many who have been active in civil society for the last 20 years, while Suu Kyi was under house arrest, blame her and the NLD for inflexible policies that have only made matters worse.

The less than unanimous for support for Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to be heard by the casual visitor.  Why?  More on that in the next post.

[1] The KLNA and some parts of the DKBA have recently reunited to fight against the Burmese army.

A Plea for Reasoned Discussion

Posted in Sanctions on July 5, 2011 by burmaperspective

There are many reasons why Burma has been unable to get out from under dictatorial and oppressive rule. One that does not get nearly enough attention is the division among those that are ostensibly on the same side, against the abusive policies of the government. This division can be seen inside many of the ethnic leadership, among pro-democracy organizations on the boarder, and among activists abroad. For years, it was a battle over tourism and now the battleground has shifted to sanctions policy.

A recent opinion piece in the Guardian by Simon Tisdall is emblematic of the unnecessary and damaging divisiveness that pervades among Burmese activists. It purports to respond to an article by Markus Loening, the German federal commissioner for human rights policy. By the sound of Mr. Tisdall’s response, you would think that Mr. Loening wants to engage the ruling generals in a group hug and start sending them shipments of weapons. But this is not what he is advocating at all. Rather, because Mr. Loening has the audacity to question the efficacy of sanctions, Mr. Tisdall vilifies him.  Elsewhere in this blog, I have made my position against sanctions clear. However, I understand that reasonable people can disagree with my position and am more than happy to engage in reasoned discussion. Too many in the pro-sanctions camp are quick to call someone naive or an apologist for the regime for simply having a different opinion.

I recognize that I am not an economist, nor do I have a degree in foreign relations. However, I have done a fair amount of research on the subject of sanctions and the evidence is far from clear that sanctions are effective. While Britain was lauded by Mr. Tisdall in his piece for its commitment to sanctions, their effectiveness have been questioned by The House of Lords’ Select Committee on Economic Affairs in 2007.  Moreover, a 2008 study concluded that “the sanctions’ impact was inflicted disproportionately on small- and medium-sized domestic private firms and their workers.”

Instead of disagreeing with Mr. Loening on the merits of the argument, Mr. Tisdall accuses him of positions that appear no where in his article. He accuses Germany of “self-serving fantasy,” and “too quick to buy in to the generals’ risable reform narrative.”  I challenge anyone to find any such concept in Mr. Loening’s article. To the contrary, he states, in no uncertain terms, that “human rights continue to be violated” and makes clear the importance of “keeping pressure on the regime.”  The only place Mr. Loening speaks of change, he is referring to political optimism coming from “civil society activists, opposition party leaders [and] Ms Suu Kyi herself.” Hardly the words of someone who is ready to get in bed with the generals.

The danger in Mr. Tisdall’s article is apparent in several of the comments to the article, which take his reading as gospel. Moreover, I have seen the article posted on Twitter multiple times. For those who do not read Mr. Loening’s article for themselves, angry letters and a denouncement of Germany is likely to follow. Instead of reasoned debate about the efficacy of sanctions, we have a name-calling session, compete with strawman.

Now, Mr. Tisdall is not the only one to misread Mr. Loening’s piece. In fact, he clearly draws his interpretation directly from Burma Campaign UK’s response to Mr. Loening’s article. Burma Campaign UK’s report is also filled with angry and nasty commentary, but at least it does challenge Mr. Loening on the facts.

Burma and Libya

Posted in Ethnic Issues, Human Rights on June 19, 2011 by burmaperspective

There has been some chatter among Burma watchers questioning why the international community so quickly intervened in Libya under the UN’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine. After reading a recent blog post on The Interpreter website, I was compelled to respond. I have reposted my letter to the author below:

Mr. Selth-

I very much enjoyed your piece. Like many Burma activists, I am often mystified by the US treatment of Burma as compared to other countries. I also agree that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has played a significant role in the way Burma is both perceived and treated by the international community. Once point worth considering is whether this is actually a good thing. Suu Kyi is undoubtedly an important symbol of freedom in Burma, but those that put her in the same category as, say, Mandela, are way off the mark.   There is no doubt that she bravely stepped into the spotlight in a leadership role when a leader was needed, but it was the chance illness of her mother that brought her to the country in the first place. There is some question about how much she has actually done to improve the lives of the people. Moreover, there are many in the ethnic communities, and even among Burmans, who believe she, and the NLD in general, is significantly out of touch with the desires and needs of ordinary Burmese.

More importantly, Burma is not Libya. In Burma, is there is a huge open question as to who the US or the UN should actually support in a military action. As you point out, there are few Burmese military personnel who have taken up arms against the government. The fighting, which has gone on since independence, has been conducted by ethnic armies. Put bluntly, the ethnic groups fighting against the Burmese military are not actually fighting for democracy. They are fighting for a variety of things, including cultural independence, autonomy, an end to forced relocation and land grabs, and, — lets be clear — money.  The Wa, which has the largest ethnic army, has been in the drug business for a very long time. If the US were to intercede militarily, would we support the Wa? Fight them? Other groups, including the KNU, who are often seen as the “white knights” in the fights against the Burmese (largely due to their Christian majority — a whole other set of issues), are also feared by many citizens who have been paying taxes to them and been conscripted by them for many years. Burma looks a lot more like Iraq than it does Libya. Overthrowing the government will just be the first step in a process of nation-building that will take years. Even within the various ethnic groups, unity has been impossible. (e.g., the SSA North and South, the KNLA/DKBA). Plus, there is a huge industry of exile groups still refusing to accept that their sacrifices in 1988 were largely for nothing who will continue to demand a seat at the table.

I abhor the actions of the military junta and their cronies, but I get concerned when I see so much media attention put on the lack of democracy, and so little on the assortment of other issues facing the nation. I have focused my work on development, rather than politics, largely because I have not been able get my mind around a solution. What I know for sure is that foreign military intervention is not it.