Being a tourist in Myanmar

By Kristina Jönsson, Associate Professor
Department of Political Science, Lund University

The political changes currently seen in Myanmar (former Burma) were for most observers unthinkable only a few years ago. I am not a specialist on Burmese politics, but have over the years followed the developments in the country from a regional perspective in relation to the neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, countries I have studied more closely.

Recently I travelled in Myanmar for three weeks, not as a researcher but as a tourist on an organised trip. Although I spent my time doing touristic activities, enjoying the beautiful country and friendly people, I could not help making a few observations based on my academic background.

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

I was not certain what to anticipate, but my impression of the country was more positive than I thought it would be – probably because of all the negative publicity over the years. Practicalities did overall work better than expected during the tour, and my impression was that Myanmar is a country with great potentials to develop rapidly under the right circumstances. Yangon with its bustling atmosphere reminded me of Thailand, the tourist spots made me think of Cambodia and the countryside of Laos.

However, the pace of change varies. To mention a few examples, modern materialism, such as cars and smart phones have been made affordable to the non-elite after years of exorbitant prices. ATMs and the use of credit cards are spreading as international business and tourism expand. These changes co-exist with the widespread use of traditional longyies. It is impossible for foreigners to use their cell phones with a foreign subscription. Also, most of the country has yet to get electricity and the indicators for health and education are among the worst in the region.

Still, the political development is the most noteworthy change. The control over media has relaxed and political prisoners are released en masse. The by-election in 2012 was a victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of the parliament. President Thein Sein has even indicated support of changing the constitution in order for Aung San Suu Kyi to run for presidency (which is currently impossible because of her marriage to a foreigner).

Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, the national hero General Aung San, are highly present in everyday life through pictures and calendars, both in Yangon and in the countryside. We saw many NLD offices in the villages but only a few bureaus of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In general, the support of the opposition seemed widespread except where the army has its bases (e.g. close to conflict areas).

Party office of National League for Democracy

Party office of National League for Democracy

The outcome of the 2015 election will be an important indicator of the real political changes. What will happen if NLD wins a landslide victory as in 1990? Will the result be accepted or will there be a backlash? Are current political changes a serious attempt to democratise the country, or just a survival strategy for the regime to achieve ‘performance legitimacy’? The top-priority of the regime is clearly stability, and what we can see so far is a strictly controlled top-down transformation. This has been going on since 2003 by implementing the seven-step roadmap towards the establishment of a ‘disciplined democracy’, including a new constitution and elections.

Many issues threaten a positive development. For instance, the issue of ethnic conflicts is still unsolved, the drug trade is apparently increasing, and communal strife between Buddhist and Muslims is increasingly violent – amply illustrated by the persecution of the Rohingyas. And even if the ‘freedom of press’ has improved, journalists have recently been arrested and there are reports of the army assaulting civilians.

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Moreover, there is an emerging symbiosis between business and the state, supporting crony capitalism and corruption empowering a narrow oligarchy, not the least in the borderlands. Besides the extraction of natural resources, the tourist sector is booming. Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake may have difficulties coping with the influx of foreign visitors, but the prices for hotel rooms etc. are increasing, enabling lucrative business. Ordinary citizens may benefit from this development, although it is probably the elite, the army included, who make the largest profit.

The development in Myanmar may not be unlike other Southeast Asian countries that have experienced similar development trajectories. Some draw parallels to Indonesia due to historical similarities. Others make comparisons to Cambodia, where external pressure led to the introduction of democratic institutions without significantly altering the political-economic powers structures under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Another issue is the effects of the political changes in Myanmar regarding regional dynamics. Myanmar used to be ‘worst in class’, but now the regime gets international praise and heads of states have been queuing for audience with President Thein Sein. From 2014 Myanmar even holds the chair of ASEAN. This development indirectly puts pressure on countries like Laos and Vietnam to introduce political reforms.

So, what are the ‘pros’ of being a tourist on an organised tour? You see a lot of the country (even if some areas are not accessible because of opium cultivation and armed conflict), you do not have to apply for permits (the guide takes care of that), and you experience comfortable hotels as well as unpretentious home-stays.

Tourist spot Bagan

Tourist spot Bagan

But perhaps this is also the ‘cons’ of being a tourist. You have a pleasant experience, but only see changes on the surface in parts of the country where people gradually are improving their lives. Those with lesser means probably will have to wait a long time for a better life, while others with the right connections rapidly can further their wealth.

Sources and further reading:

Croissant, Aurel & Kamerling, Jil (2013) Why Do Military Regimes Institutionalize? Constitution-making and Elections as Political Survival Strategy in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 21(2): 105-125

Holliday, Ian (2010) Ethnicity and Democratization in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 18(2): 111-128.

Jones, Lee (2013) The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44(1): 144-170.

Jones, Lee (2014) Explaining Myanmar’s regime transition: the periphery is central, Democratization, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2013.863878. Published online 28 Jan 2014.

Renshaw, Catherine Shanahan (2013) Democratic Transformation and Regional Institutions: The Case of Myanmar and ASEAN, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 32(1): 29–54.

Rieffel, Lex (2012), Myanmar on the Move: An Overview of Recent Developments, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31(4): 31-49.

Taylor, Robert H. (2012) Myanmar: From Army Rule to Constitutional Rule? Asian Affairs, 43(2): 221-236.

Taylor, Robert H. (2013) Myanmar’s ‘Pivot’ Toward the Shibboleth of ‘Democracy’, Asian Affairs, 44(3): 392-400.


Myanmar – a country opening up?

After 50 years of isolation Myanmar, formerly named Burma, is finally opening up to the outside world. According to the media the country is now welcoming tourists, foreign investment and development aid. But exactly what does the picture of openness look like in reality?

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Photo taken in a small village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: children curious to see what is happening at our meeting inside the monastery.

Having spent a month (restricted time period for tourist visa) collecting empirical data for a master’s thesis in Myanmar, the general picture of ‘openness’ has become more nuanced and complex. The mysterious Myanmar is a country known for a variety of reasons ranging from its beautiful landscapes decorated with golden pagodas, Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes to a repressive military rule followed by fear and poverty. As a master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication I had a desire to explore the country and to study how the development of civil society in Myanmar is influenced by the political changes in the country, and what role development organisations play in this process. This required a field visit to Myanmar.

With the help of the Danish Embassy in Bangkok a collaboration with ActionAid Myanmar was established. ActionAid Myanmar is managing two projects, amongst others, implemented by a consortium of local (and international) NGOs named the Thadar Consortium. The two projects are implemented in the Dry Zone, in the central part of Myanmar, and in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, in the southern part of Myanmar, respectively, and both projects focus on the strengthening of civil society and improvement of livelihood.

The field visit was an eye-opening experience, based on positive as well as negative surprises, and by sharing this experience I am hoping to give the reader a deeper understanding of what it is like to do fieldwork in a country like Myanmar that has just “opened up” to the outside world. What challenges can you expect to meet when working under these circumstances?

Background

Before getting into a detailed description of my fieldwork I consider it necessary to briefly describe the country Myanmar and to highlight the most important historical and political events. In 1962 a military coup led by General Ne Win and the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) changed Myanmar from being a wealthy country to a country of repression, isolation and gradually increasing poverty. From 1962 – 2010 the situation in Myanmar was characterized by a number of uprisings against the military regime. One of the most well-known uprisings was in 1988 where large groups of students took to the street and, despite continued military ruling, managed to generate the resignation of the unpopular General Ne Win. However, the uprising was violently suppressed, and a large number of students died.

Seeing her country in that stage of repression, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s national hero Bogyoke Aung San (assassinated in 1948), made her entrance into the political arena to fight for a free and democratic Myanmar. She established the political party NLD ‘National League for Democracy’, but in 1989 she was placed under house arrest. 1989 was also the year when the government decided to change the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, which caused further anger and frustration. In 1990 an election was held and the NLD won a landslide victory, but unfortunately, the military regime refused to recognize the election results, allowing the regime to stay in power.

The second well-known uprising, named the Saffron Revolution led by monks dressed in saffron-coloured ropes, took place in 2007. This event was violently suppressed and the action made the outside world aware of the critical situation in Myanmar.

Another event that attracted the attention of the outside world was when Cyclone Nargis struck and killed around 150.000 people in the southern part of Myanmar in 2008. For months NGOs were denied access to the areas.

From 2010 onwards the country started changing. In fall 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest – by this time she had been in house arrest for 15 years. A week before her release the government held a Parliamentary Election, but the NLD decided to boycott it. In 2011 a new democratic government was officially formed, with the leadership of the pro-democratic president Thein Sein, and this gave birth to a number of democratic reforms. In April 2012 the NLD won a landslide victory in a by-election, which meant that the party was now represented, although with a minority part of Parliament.

 

Fieldwork in Myanmar

 Freedom of speech

Judging by national and international media channels it appeared that Myanmar had actually opened up, allowing tourists, development aid and foreign investment to enter the country. This, however, didn’t necessarily mean that the Burmese people were ready to express their opinions on sensitive issues like politics, the military government, civil society or democracy, topics upon which my master’s thesis is based. In order to adapt to these circumstances the research and interview questions were moderated accordingly.

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 The streets of Yangon: a young nun talking on her blue smart-phone

On arrival in Yangon, and all during the two weeks spent in Yangon, the picture given by the media appeared to reflect reality. To my surprise the changes in the country were visibly and audibly reflected in the city-life in Yangon. The majority of the taxi-drivers were eagerly explaining, in well spoken English, how the new government is better than the old one, and that they believed this transition would change their lives to the better. Many had a picture of the national hero, Bogyoke Aung San in the car, indicating that they were now free to voice their opinion. Others explained how Aung San Suu Kyi had saved the country. Judging by the Burmese history the people have been suppressed and restricted for the past 50 years, particularly in regards to freedom of speech. In my opinion, this openness characterizing the people of Yangon is an indicator of the changes in the country.

The prospects of the fieldwork now appeared more promising, as open-minded people are easier to interview. Unfortunately, the hope for success faded already after the first meeting with the Thadar Consortium. The Consortium emphasised the need to be extremely cautious with sensitive issues, like the political reforms, when entering the project areas. This obviously came as a surprise to me, as I got the impression from people in Yangon that they were now free to voice their opinion.

2012-11-11 02 33 23

Village in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta Region

 

Permission

Obtaining permission to enter the project areas turned out to be more challenging than expected. Through correspondences prior to the field visit to Myanmar it was decided that the empirical data should be collected in the Dry Zone project, as this project seemed more relevant for the research. However, after arrival in Yangon, the Thadar Consortium didn’t succeed in obtaining permission to visit this area. In fact, no foreigner apart from project staff had ever been granted permission to enter that area, and even local people have to apply for permission to enter. After this discovery, which also seemed to be a surprise for the Consortium, efforts were made to obtain permission to visit the Delta project. Unfortunately this did not prove successful in the first place, and after a new attempt was made for the Dry Zone (also unsuccessful), a visit to the Delta finally worked out. This process cut a week off the limited time available for fieldwork.

Based on the impression from the media that Myanmar has opened up, it came as a surprise to me, and apparently also to the project staff, that it was this difficult for foreigners to enter certain areas of the country. In fact, before leaving Denmark a Burmese friend of mine, living and working in Denmark, encouraged me to stay a couple of nights in the homes of local people, as this would give me a deeper understanding of the Burmese culture. With this encouragement in mind it was particularly surprising to discover that even local Burmese people need to apply for permission to stay at the house of a friend or relative – and foreigners shouldn’t even bother applying, as they would not get the permission. This is today’s Myanmar.

Going “undercover”

During the preparatory meetings in Yangon I was briefed by the Consortium on how to present myself and on what to be aware of when operating in the field. First of all, I could not introduce myself as a student doing research in the villages. Apparently, the word ‘research’ is extremely sensitive, as it may raise suspicion among the local authorities of interference in local affairs. Under these circumstances I was given an “undercover” title as employee from the Thadar Consortium, and the purpose of my presence in the local villages was to collect information to write the Thadar Consortium newsletter. On the one hand, this new title made it possible to travel and conduct research in the project area. However, on the other hand, these precautions may have affected the answers given by the interview persons. They considered me as part of the Thadar Consortium, placing them in a position where they did not feel free to express their true opinions, for fear of jeopardizing their relationship to the organisations supporting them. This was of course unfortunate, but without the support of the Thadar Consortium it would not have been possible to enter the villages.

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Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: poor family


Furthermore, words like “political reforms” and “democratic reforms” could not be used – not during the interviewing and not even casually. In fact, it was extremely important that the interview questions were not in any way political or critical of the former military regime. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, ActionAid as a non-political organization is emphasizing the importance of not interfering with national or local political affairs. Secondly, the local authorities do not want outsiders spreading political information, possibly for fear of local resistance or unrest. Thirdly, despite the fact that the country has opened up the villagers living in the local communities still may feel insecure when being confronted with political issues. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the villagers to obtain information about the changes in the country, and they therefore may have a lack of knowledge about which rules have been abolished and which still apply. For example, during the fieldwork it turned out that the term ‘civil society’ was banned until after 2008.

These restrictions made it challenging to obtain comprehensive information from the interview persons. As an alternative to the sensitive terms I used the term “change” anticipating (and hoping) it would be understood as “political changes”. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. However, despite the restrictions and different understandings of “change” it was possible, by re-phrasing the questions and thus approaching the central issues in alternative ways, to achieve satisfactory outcomes of the interviews.

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Travelling by boat to the villages in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: interpreter and interviewer taking a nap after a long day in the field.

One morning, when travelling by our usual motorised boat to one of the small villages, one of the project officers received a phone call from the police. He explained to me that he functioned as the contact person for the police in the township where we were staying, because they wanted to know our exact whereabouts every day, and they wanted to make sure that we returned from the villages before nightfall. The project officer assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Whatever the reason for their concern, I now decided to save the interviews recorded in the villages on three different digital devises – two of them located on our bodies. If the recordings of the interviews were confiscated by the police it would of course be devastating for my research, but my greatest concern was the safety of the interview persons. Later that night, when returning from having dinner at a small restaurant, our trishaw driver told us that the police were in our hotel. They were concerned because a Californian project officer, the only other foreigner in the township – and entire area, had not returned from the villages. We, on the other hand, didn’t need to worry, because the police knew where we were – having dinner at the small restaurant by the water. This constant surveillance emphasised the necessity in saving the interview recordings in a number of different places. This could have been an over-reaction, but after thus far having encountered numerous surprises in this country I was not going to take any risks.

It appears that the authorities have a need to constantly be in control by knowing the exact whereabouts of foreigners staying within their area of responsibility. Before the country started changing the NGOs, international NGOs in particular, were denied access to the rural areas. Today the situation has changed, but in my opinion it seems that the fear and need of control is still evident in the behaviour of the authorities.

The changes in Myanmar

Without doubt, Myanmar is changing. In cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD, the pro-democratic president Thein Sein and his government is working to democratize the country, a political development that was unimaginable a few years ago. However, it appears that these changes are mostly evident on a national level. In the poor villages in the rural areas the changes are still tentative, and as a foreigner it is extremely difficult to get access and to operate in these areas. There is still a long way to go.

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Photo taken in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta: grandma smoking a cigar

Marie Ditlevsen
Master’s student in International Development Studies and Communication, Roskilde University
Workplace student at NIAS


So..what is the definition of Genocide, again?

Rohingya: Rohingya is an ethnic minority with dark skin, Muslim beliefs and, for the most part, no citizenship anywhere. Some groups live as sea nomads.  Others live as illegal immigrants in Thailand, India or Bangladesh. Some live in refugee camps different places. Most live in poverty and most live in Burma.

 

Nobody likes the Rohingya here, though:

Since the group was collectively stripped of citizenship in the 80s by Burmese strongman, Ne Win, they have been systematically persecuted by authorities, and denial of basic human rights, humiliation, slander and ethnically motivated violence are existing circumstances in the life the Rohingya.  This does not differ them from a range of other minorities, especially not in Burma, where the government frequently is at war with rogue militias representing repressed ethnic groups in the country.

But the scale of it does. The above is the preexisting condition. This is the current situation:

In May this year, a young Buddhist girl was raped by three Muslim. It happened in the Northern province of Arakan and that is an absolute disaster. It is horrible to that girl and her family.

But the retaliation… The retaliation for the incident was brutal and frightening:

A mob of Buddhist Burmese attacked a busload of Rohingya people, killing 10 of them. Fighting erupted and spread, and this is what happened over the next few weeks:

The already overwhelmingly larger group of Buddhists was aided in carrying out organized attacks on several Rohingya villages by the military. The attackers rounded up the villagers, put them in vans and took them to concentration camps. Several girls were raped, houses were burned down, people were beaten and tortured.  650 Rohingya is confirmed dead, 50,000 have been displaced and an unknown number is simply: missing.

The main reason why this was frightening was not the violence itself though, although that is certainly frightening enough.

The main reason was that these attacks are largely supported by the Buddhist people of Burma.

Yup. That´s the same dudes that marched so beautifully peaceful in their orange robes in 2008, and for the first time really gave the Burmese people the international focus it needed to make changes. It is the same people who through 20 years waited quietly and took abuse from a self installed government, only to turn out by the thousands at the house of Ang San Suu Kyi to see her released.

Those are the people, who, when asked, cannot see anything particularly wrong with ridding Burma of Rohingya all together. Burmese bloggers have deemed them “thieves, dogs, terrorists and black monsters.” Burmese historians have challenged their “burmeseness” due to their aforementioned black skin, dialect and religion.

Even The Lady is hesitant to denounce the violence, knowing that by doing so she will estrange a large part of her followers.

So congratulations, Burma, on all the positive changes you have achieved in the past year or so. Hooray for brave monks, for the Saffron Revolution, for the free Lady and for finally starting to move towards democracy.   That is fantastic, no one in their right mind will argue otherwise.

By the way, the definition of Genocide, as per the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is:

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Sound familiar?

 

Anya Palm,

Freelance journalist and NIAS Associate, Bangkok


Myanmar open for business, not its people

by Gerhard Hoffstaedter, School of Social Science at the University of Queensland

Aung San Suu Kyi has just left Myanmar (Burma) for the first time in 24 years visiting Thailand and Europe and calling for more foreign investment in Myanmar. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions in Myanmar continue to erupt to the surface in a country that is slowly shaking off its pariah status in international affairs.

The recent by-elections in Myanmar, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy claimed 43 of the 45 seats available, have awakened hope and a flurry of activity around the world to weaken if not dissolve the Western sanctions regime against the ruling military junta.

For now, Suu Kyi will take her seat in a parliament that remains firmly in the hands of the military-backed ruling party.

The by-election follows extensive market reforms, the release from house arrest of Suu Kyi, the re-registration of her party that allowed her to contest the election, the freeing of political prisoners, and the relaxation of media censorship controls.

It seems like Myanmar is coming in from the cold. More than that, Myanmar is open for business and everyone is lining up to enter a large domestic market of 60 million untapped consumers and a largely un- or underdeveloped natural resources sector.

Thailand has a long trading history with Myanmar, dominated by logging and the import of natural gas among other natural resources. It is, however, the access to cheap labour in Myanmar that is seen as a great drawcard for manufacturing industries. Already Thailand is profiting from the cheap labour of Myanmarese refugees in Thailand who work illegally in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, most often on an itinerant basis.

Long the preserve of Thai business interests and cross-border trade, Myanmar is of great geo-strategic importance to the region as a whole, and its other neighbours are entering the fray. Two global players are increasingly overtaking the Thai special relationship: China and India.

At the forefront of this regional engagement is the Dawei Deep Seaport currently under construction in Myanmar’s south. It will offer an alternative entrée into the Indian north-east and Chinese southern markets. It will also be the country’s first special economic zone as well as the entire region’s largest combined port and economic zone.

Thailand stands to gain most from this endeavour. Firstly, as its closest neighbour, long-time investor and main trading partner, Thailand will have direct access to cheap labour, resource abundance and offer itself as a transit point for goods to Cambodia and Vietnam. Already, a Thai construction company is the main contractor for the first phase of the project and further investments in the energy and manufacturing sectors are in the offing. The figures are staggering. The first phase alone of the $US58 billion project is worth $US8.6 billion.

Secondly, Thailand still houses millions of irregular migrants in its borders, most of whom have fled or left Myanmar for Thailand. This massive scheme offers a way to resettle and offer opportunities to, especially, the economic migrants.

Indeed, some have begun to trickle back to Myanmar, including political exiles. The government is wooing them back for their expertise and capacity to support the burgeoning economy.

However, the Myanmar government has its work cut out to capitalise on these opportunities. On the one hand, China, in particular, will require order and stability in Myanmar to provide safe transport links for their products as a viable alternative to the South China Sea. On the other, the West and some ASEAN members will require Myanmar’s rulers to, at least, offer some vestiges of democratic governance (as we are seeing at the moment) and a durable solution to the refugee crisis along the Myanmar/Thai border and wider ethnic tensions.

Some of these tensions have resulted in all-out wars with intermittent ceasefires. The situation in the uplands and ethnic held areas continues to be tense, and despite the recent political changes in the capital, the situation for ethnic minorities has not changed significantly.

Thousands are still fighting insurgencies and vast stretches of the country remain off limits to government troops. These conflicts continue to elicit a steady stream of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing the fighting to Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and beyond. The diaspora networks of these refugee populations span the globe with small minorities settling in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.

Since last June, for example, the army has been in a protracted war in Kachin state, again displacing thousands of civilians. While some ethnic conflicts have calmed and ceasefires have been in place, the Kachin conflict is again causing destruction in the poorest, remotest and most disadvantaged areas of Myanmar.

Asked about the tens of thousands of refugees living in Malaysia recently, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that it was too early to return to Myanmar as, “They have got to have something to return to.”

Indeed, but the situation for them in refugee camps in the region or living as illegal immigrants in places like Malaysia, which does not recognise refugees, is no solution either. Late last year, Malaysia introduced a new registration program for illegal migrants, called the 6P program.

The program was designed to find out how many undocumented workers are currently in Malaysia and whether they can be retrenched into specific sectors that are in need of labour, or repatriated.

The program has been aided by the mass mobilisation of the army, police force, immigration department, and RELA, an auxiliary police force that is undertrained and poorly resourced but ideologically driven.

In addition, the Malaysian home minister proposed an immigration detainee swap program last year, no doubt inspired by the so-called Malaysia-swap agreement between Australia and Malaysia. The deal would see Myanmar nationals detained in Malaysia ‘swapped’ for Malaysian nationals detained in Myanmar.

The Malaysian government’s attempt to systematically register illegal immigrants living and working in Malaysia is aimed at enabling better law enforcement. However, the final part of the program is ‘repatriation’, i.e. deportation of those not needed in the Malaysian economy and those deemed unsuitable, e.g. those with criminal convictions. Caught in the midst of all this are the thousands of asylum seekers, political exiles and refugees who have fled Myanmar’s enduring conflicts.

It is they who fear ‘repatriation’ most, as they have no homeland to return to, much less interest in doing so.

Author’s note: The people I work with, mostly ethnic refugees from Myanmar, call the country Myanmar because calling it Burma invokes the notion that the country belongs to the Burmese Bamar, the dominant ethnic group. Most Western governments refer to the country as Burma.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. His first book Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia is published by NIAS Press.

This article was first published by the ABC Drum.


A brief report from a Burma visit 13-21 February 2012

Mikael Gravers, Aarhus University

The situation:

On the surface there is a more relaxed mood in Rangoon when I visited Burma. However, all agree that the old totalitarian system is still working. People are still arrested during the night. Thus, we are cautioned that the situation could change rapidly again after the by-elections.

There is a struggle in the government and the parliament between hardliners and reformists. The reformist are the President U Thain Sein and the Speaker of the parliament Thura Shwe Man. Recently they proposed to appoint village head men and other local officials by elections. This was rejected by the lower house. Headmen and other officials are appointed by the military. Thus, it is part of the social security for retired officers.

The president has not been able to stop the fighting in Kachin State. The army is not under government control according to the constitution. Arrests of individuals who criticize the army continues. The leader of the “Saffron Revolution” 2007, U Gambira, who was released recently, is in confrontation with the State Sangha Council who has warned him that he will end up in court accused of illegally entering his monastery, defaming the Sangha elders, and assisting the monk Ashin Pyinna Thiha who was evicted for making a political speech in the office of the National League Democracy (NLD), and for meeting Hilary Clinton. Monks are not allowed to act politically. Thus, freedom is still limited. U Gambira, who was dis-robed by soldiers and sentenced 63 years in jail in 2007, entered his monastery last month. The Maggi  monastery had been sealed by the army after the raid in 2007. U Gambira found all the destruction and blood left from the violent raid. He is now accused of illegally breaking into the monastery.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have been hackled during their election campaign by the USDP (Union Solidarity Development Party – the ruling party). USDP promised new roads to the voters and tried to impose a ban on the NLD using stadiums for their rallies. She is often prevented from using stadiums for her rallies. In villages near the capital Naypyitaw, officials told villagers that their electricity supply would be cut if they attended an NLD rally with Daw Suu Kyi However, Daw Suu Kyi draws huge crowds on her tour. NLD may take more than half of the 48 seats in the by-elections provided there is no fraud.

Thein Sein focus on the education of the young, and Rangoon University will be reopened in the near future. He said that the young ethnics should replace weapons with computers. One blogger ironically wrote the president and asked for a laptop. The mood is relaxed and cautiously optimistic, although the opposition is rather skeptical about the real intentions of the government. They say that relative freedom is about having the sanctions lifted and otherwise let the army stay in control behind the parliament.

Many international NGOs are ready to let big money flow into development projects and humanitarian aid. This can corrupt more than benefit those who are in need if it is not well prepared and sustainable. There is an over idealized view of the conditions. The old system is still in place and working – or rather not working unless ordered from the top. Bureaucrats are officers – they dare not act without clear orders from the absolute top. And since messages from the top are now blurred for and against, they do nothing! The frame laws are not resulting in specific laws on for example censorships,  the use of ethnic languages in education, investments and financial regulations. There is no rule of law yet.

The Karen:

The focus in following is mainly on the situation in the Karen State as related to the overall political changes. It is based on a very brief visit and the analysis is very preliminary:

The main stakeholders in the conflict(s)are:

  • Tatmadaw, Karen National Union and its Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Border Guard Force (BGF), The Phloung-Sgaw Democratic Party (Karen State), Karen Peace Council (Timothy Laklem), Padoh Aung San and his Peace Force, plus minor groups  of armed persons as well as the government represented by Aung Min (railway minister), Aung Thaung head of Union Solidarity Development Party (the ruling military party) and the final peace negotiations, and Saw Min, PM Karen State.[1]

The ceasefire in Hpa-an in January 2012 between Aung Min and the KNU delegation is obviously only an initial step towards a more realistic agreement. The impression from a two hour discussion with David Tharckabaw (Vice-President, KNU) before we came to Burma is that the KNU leadership is suspecting a Burmese trap. Tharckabaw and the hardliners of KNU seems to have rejected the agreement and there is a deep split within the KNU. Tharckabaw talked about the Karen being cheated so often by ‘ Bamah’ (ethnic Burmans). He also rejected the ‘developmentalism’ of the government. Development in their version, he said, means to take the resources from the Karen State and not real development for the Karen population. He claimed this ‘developmentalism’ is supported by Germany and other EU countries. He also blamed Harn Yawnghwe and the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) of supporting this line.[2] This indicates that there is a split among the pan-ethnic organizations, although they seem to agree on a federal constitution. Tharckabaw is in the leadership of United Nationalities Federal Council, another pan-ethnic organization of the armed ethic groups. He dislikes ENC and Harn. But he seems to support Daw Suu Kyi’s strategy: ‘She won’t betray the trust of her people’.

To add to the complexity of the situation, the Karen Peace Council (KPC) under former KNU General Htein Maung and Dr. Timothy Laklem signed a peace agreement in Naypyitaw (7th. February) with minister Aung Thaung and the Union-level peace negotiating team.[3] He arranged a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi 10th. February to the deep frustration of the KNU and many Karen in Rangoon, because he posed as the front representative of the Karen. Aung Thaung thus undermined the efforts of Aung Min who negotiated with the KNU. It is also a clear sign that The NLD and Daw Suu Kyi need much more information about the ethnic situation, its complex political structure and its many actors. Lack of precise information on the ethnic situation can easily generate more mistrust. Many Karen still generalize in their mistrust towards all Bamah. Daw  Suu Kyi again referred to ‘The Spirit of Panglong’ during her tour in the Kachin State. This creates hope – but Panglong was a weak and incomplete agreement and there is a need for a specific political program.

The day after we left – 22nd. of February -, DKBA under commanders Saw Lah Pwe and Po Bi near Mying Gyi Ngu were attacked by the BGF – probably the group  commanded by Thong Hlaing. BGF took some of DKBA’s position and weapons. This group infringes upon the supporters of U Thuzana and does not respect the monk.[4] They drink, eat meat harass his followers and take taxes along U Thuzana’s new highway built with donations from large Thai food companies. U Thuzana had managed to establish some sort of a civil administration via his monks and lay followers. This structure could be dismantled by the BGF and the army if there is no general agreement between all groups.

In Hpa-an, the Phloung-Sgaw Democratic party left an impression of being a serious and concerned player. They have submitted questions from a Karen delegation (Kawkareik) to the local Hlutaw (parliament) about landmines and their removal. The party has a mentor (founder?), the monk Ashin Pyinya Thami, (Taungkalae) who is Mon-Chinese. He has been able to obtain large donations for a college, although it is not yet completed. He delivered a strong criticism of the generals, the NLD – “she wants to ‘burmanize’ the ethnic groups”. “She is like her father.” U Thuzana was dismissed: “he only collects money (and built zedis) for himself – proud of himself”- (It sounds as jealousy). “The 2007 monks demonstrations was a Bahma trick”, he said. Pyianya Thami is said to have direct line to Than Shwe’s wife who has supported him. In my analysis, he is a charismatic empire builder, but not a reliable political player.

Further, the Hpa-an Karen Student Association represents an important democratic segment. The town is however totally dominated by the 22nd. light infantry division and the BGF, although most of the mentioned groups including the NLD have a presence in Hpa-an.

Land confiscation is a huge problem in the Karen State (as elsewhere). The Karen complained that they also lost their commons for grazing animals, collecting firewood and leafs for thatching. This is probably the most urgent problem to deal with. A law is badly needed. Most of the confiscated land is now huge rubber plantations.

The ceasefire agreement between KNU delegation and Aung Min in Hpa-an was rejected by the KNU leadership. A new meeting took place in Chiang Mai, 2nd March. Both sides agreed to meet in April. Significantly, the government delegation included business people. This underlines the KNU fear that ceasefire is mostly about quick economic deals more than genuine peace and reconciliation.

The PM of the Karen State Hlutaw, Saw Min (a former officer), seems to be very conservative and a military man. He is seen as one who supports the BFG.

For a future peace to be established, an initial reduction of the army as well as a repositioning of all armed groups within a few scheduled and monitored areas is necessary!

Concluding remarks:

  • Lack of trust is a main problem, I believe, in all camps. It is without meaning if the government only negotiates with the KNU – all groups should come to the table and the agreement must be detailed – especially in relation to monitoring and conflict resolution if or rather when future disagreements erupt. In the situation, a neutral facilitator could be an idea if all agree on the selected persons/organization.
  • Trust and reconciliation work together. There should be a forum where the various Karen groups, their leaders/commanders could meet regularly with government representatives and local army officers and exchange information, share news and have informal discussions. This is a way of establishing mutual knowledge, recognition and trust. It takes time – long time!
  • Soldiers need a livelihood after a peace. But to offer money in order to persuade them to give up their weapons is to ignore the core political reasons to take up arms in the first place. Here is a huge task for NGOs to reintegrate thousands of fighters( this is closely related to de-mining programs).
  • The NLD need a detailed political assessment and project for the ethnic case. It could be an idea to have an All Burma Conference, round table, with all political parties, the government and all ethnic groups/organizations. It is a huge task to organize such a meeting. But the complexity needs to be addressed.

[1] KNU is the main Karen organization, largely Christian dominated; DKBA the Buddhist Karen in the Karen State, followers of the  monk U Thuzana; DKBA broke away from the KNU in 1994 but they work together now. BGF is the part of DKBA who joined the army in 2010. The other minor groups are small and are splinter groups follwing one leading person.

[2] ENC is a pan-ethnic organization working for a federate state in Burma. Harn Yawnghwe is the head of the Burma office in the EU. He supported the National Democratic Front party who broke out of the NLA and joined the elctions in 2010. Thus he is not popular with the NLD or the KNU.

[3] He is a hardliner and said to be the organizer of the violent attack on Daw Suu Kyi in 2004. He will have the final word in future peace agreements, as far as we understand.

[4] U Thuzana is a highly respected Karen monk who uses large donations (from Burma and Thailand) to built not only pagodas but schools clinics and roads in the Karen state


The waiting

Ang San Suu Kyi was released. And there was an election. And that’s about as concrete as this post is going to get – of course there are more to be said, but as is always the case with Burma and her elusive leadership, there are no answers to be found in Rangoon.

As always, details are sketchy, indecipherable and insufficient and what is really the situation for the average Burmese citizen is unclear. Getting more concrete than just stating the two above things is not an easy task.

The best way to get answers is to piece tidbits together yourself. Here is one:

On the Thai side of the border between Burma and Thailand there are several refugee camps and they have been there for decades. A majority of the people living in those camps are the ethnic Karen, who has rebelled against the Burmese leadership since the 70s. They came in 1984, when the Burmese military launched a major offensive and around 10,000 people were driven out of Burma and into Thailand. There was never a clear resolution to that conflict and thus, the refugees remained in Thailand.

By 1995, the camps had grown into housing around 115,000 people and because of the student uprising in 1988 that landed Ang San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the camps were not only populated by Karen, but now also by political refugees.

The junta had by then taken control of the border areas and clashes were not uncommon. The military started a process of carrying out an extensive relocation plan which affected around half a million people – in 2007, hundreds of thousands were unaccounted for, having fled to unknown whereabouts, and the population in the camps were now about 150,000.

So the fact that the recent election on Nov 7 resulted in fighting between Burmese military and Karen-rebels in that area is not surprising. Just weeks before the election Thai authorities had made it clear that it was their intention to return the refugees after the election, but – again – no clear plan was articulated and it was not certain how the refugees would be received once they got back. Later on, the Thai Foreign Minister declared that Thailand was NOT going to start repatriating the refugees immediately after the election, but rather when Thai authorities deem Burma safe for them to return to.

No wonder people reacted. When the election came, the Burmese soldiers came with it and people ran.  

They were caught in between the Thai soldiers on one side whose orders were to get them to run the other way and the Burmese military on the other side, whose orders no one has any clear idea of. That explains the contradictory reports that came out of the area just after the election where people were first running from and then returning to Burma.

Today, the situation has stabilized again, which is a nastily neutral way of saying that the refugees are back in the camps – there is nothing stable about living in a refugee camp, not even if that camp has been there for decades.

 What the future holds for them is impossible to foresee as the information coming from both Thailand and Burma is wildly changing every few days. So they sit there and they wait.

And what are they waiting for? Possibly they are not waiting for anything.

Possibly they are just waiting.

 

 


Is this what they call momentum? by Anya Palm

The Lady is free. She speaks to her people and what comes out of her mouth is the definition of grace and dignity – listen to some of her words here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11752918

Should anyone ever have doubted why Ang San Suu Kyi is the iconic symbol of hope in Burma, she put that to rest when she spoke to the thousands of followers, who had been awaiting her release outside her house this weekend. Having been placed under house arrest for almost 20 years, her first speech was in the “I have a Dream”-league and her ability to chose her words and focus on the Burmese people rather than the injustices she has endured herself raises hope for the future. She is not a martyr and she does not wish to be.   

Her case, however, is so symbolic and so political it is difficult not to dwell on it. The main unanswered question concerning her release is obvious: Why?

When asked by a BBC-reporter ” Do you think there is a reason that the ruling generals have allowed you out now?”  she herself replied: “I don’t think so…do you think there is a reason?”.

And this is very important. Because, the reporter – and many others with him – think there is a reason she was freed just days after the much criticized election. Very rarely do things like this happen in Burma without there being some sort of agenda behind it.

But Burma’s generals are not generous with information and so, we as the onlookers are left to ponder and guess about their motives. And we do, what else can we do? Within the answer to the Why Now-question lays an explanation to something, we really want to know: What is it that Burma’s generals want for their country? Her release is part of that answer, and it affects all of us.

But  Ang San Suu Kyi did something very clever in her speech. While all of us were trying to figure the above out, she made a less controversial, but way more valid point: She wants to know what the Burmese people expect of her.

And by doing so, she reversed the question from “what is on the junta’s mind by releasing her, where are they going with this?” to “what are the Burmese people’s wish for the country now and how can she help?”

So what if the elusive Tan Schwe and his generals are not an easy bunch to deal with? If they refuse, forbid and punish as they please? We can condemn that all we want – but we can also listen to The Lady and put our focus on the democratic powers that lay within the people instead of fuming.

What really matters now is to create a situation where it does not capsize the democratic process if she were to be arrested again.

What really matters now is to hold on to the momentum her release and the election combined have given to Burma and her way towards democracy.

What really matters now is getting Ang San Suu Kyi down from the pedestal she is on and into the role of an opposition politician, just like all the other brave and fearless Burmese democrats working for the same cause as her. She just told us that’s what she wants. We should listen.

 



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