Archive for the Ethnic Issues 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….

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.

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.