Archive for the Burma News Category

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….

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.

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.