Posted By Min Zin Friday, January 25, 2013 - 1:50 PM
When I left Burma sixteen years ago, the last place where I stayed was the Rangoon home of my friend Thet Win Aung. We got up at three in the morning and said goodbye to his parents as monsoon rain poured down outside. Then we got in a car and headed for the Thai-Burmese border. Little did I know how much was to happen before I would be able to return to my homeland.
As I wrote in one of my earlier blog posts, Thet Win Aung and I both spent years in hiding after the student rebellion of 1988 was brutally suppressed by Burma's military junta. By 1997 we decided that we could no longer stay inside Burma: Military Intelligence had managed to track down almost all of our hideouts. But in 1998, my friend decided to slip back into Burma to organize a peaceful movement calling for national reconciliation, but was later arrested. The authorities sentenced him to 59 years in prison for his work as a non-violent activist. He died in detention in October 2006. To those of us who knew him, his memory remains vivid.
So there was a good reason why one of the first places I visited after returning to Burma for the first time last month was his house. His parents are old now, but they are still gracious, courageous, and supportive. We had a long conversation in which we tried to assemble the missing pieces of his story. It turned out that his mother had no idea that he had returned to the country, so she was caught completely off guard when she saw her son's face on state-run TV when they announced his arrest. The news came as her husband was heading back home from a visit to Thet Win Aung's brother, another well-known activist then languishing in a remote prison. They had been consoled by the thought that at least Thet Win Aung was living beyond the harm of the regime in a Thai border town. They also told me that his life could have been saved if the prison officials had responded in a timely fashion when he collapsed in his prison cell. But, of course, they didn't. The pain of those long-past events is still palpable. When I knelt down and paid my respects to them in good Buddhist fashion, I couldn't help noticing that I was alone, and that Thet Win Aung was missing. I said goodbye and left. My mind was heavy, weighed down by a sense of unfinished business.
Not all of my encounters were sad. My return to Rangoon also gave me the opportunity to see my siblings for the first time in twenty-three years. My wife and my family invited our relatives, neighborhood friends, and teachers to join us for a reunion at a Rangoon monastery. There were greetings, cheers, hugs, and tears. Old memories resurfaced. Relatives and friends shared photographs of me from long ago. They said, "We kept these pictures for you in the hope that we would see you again and be able to give them to you personally." Our nine-month-old daughter, born in America, was the real center of attention, though. Suddenly she discovered the many advantages of having an extended network of relatives, all eager to spoil her.
My cell phone rang again and again. "Do you know who I am?" the callers kept saying. "Oh, you don't even recognize my voice." It's hard remembering people's faces and voices over two decades of forced separation, but they refused to accept that as an excuse. They insisted that we had managed to remain connected nonetheless. "We always listened to your programs on the short-wave radio." "We saw you on TV." "We just read your Foreign Policy article." I realized that ties among people who care for each other can be strong even without physical presence. It was a transcendent experience.
Though the warmth of the people hasn't changed, the physical landscape of Rangoon, my old neighborhood, and even my high school have been transformed to such an extent that I hardly recognize them. Single-family houses are giving way to six- or seven-story apartment buildings, increasing the population in my small street by a factor of ten. The place feels crowded in a way it didn't before. And as soon as I stepped outside of suburban Rangoon, I was jarred by people visibly suffering from poverty and disease. Over the past two decades my country has undergone intense polarization. There are the rich and the poor, and few people in between. There are the soldiers and the pro-democracy activists, and no one in the middle.
And yet Burma is a place where you can now feel free. Back in the early 1990s, I couldn't make a turn at an intersection without reflexively looking behind to see whether someone from Military Intelligence was following me. It was a habit that stuck with me even after I arrived in Thailand. But now I don't feel that pressure any more, and it was a relief. The liberalization process clearly has momentum, though whether it is really a path toward democratization remains debatable.
Our memory of clandestine politics is still fresh. My house in Rangoon was once a center for leading student and youth activists in the opposition movement. One of my old colleagues, the founder of a political prisoner support group in exile, suggested that we all act as if my house were a hideout and that we hold a meeting there just as we'd done twenty-plus years ago. Oddly enough, the whole thing turned out to be great fun, a wonderful attempt to relive and cherish old memories. As the afternoon yielded to evening, my old friends and colleagues, all of them former political prisoners, kept dropping in. Around nine in the evening, Min Ko Naing, once a chairman of our clandestine student union and now a leader of the 88 Generation Student Group, walked in. He was dressed just the way he was twenty-four years ago: Wearing a blue denim jacket and a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his face, as if he were still dodging surveillance. Everyone laughed. But we couldn't help missing those who have been parted from us.
Coming back to your native country after such a long absence is bound to be a bittersweet experience. The same was true of my trip to Pagan, one of the centers of ancient Burmese civilization. One of our sayings has it that returning to Pagan is like going home. And so it was for me. Staying at a monastery on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, we got up every day before dawn to make food offerings to the lines of monks walking by. My siblings and I did this as a way ofmaking merit for our late parents, who passed away while I was in exile. I was also honoring my former friends and colleagues who gave up their lives for the pro-democracy cause. A few years ago the junta forced the monks and villagers to move away from Pagan and as a result the monks now find it harder to get food. We were happy to do whatever we could to make up for the shortfall. Offering food to those in need and sharing merit with those to whom I owe so much always fills me with bliss.
One of the places that struck me the most in Pagan was the eleventh-century Manuha Temple, built as another act of merit by an eponymous king who was defeated in war. With the permission of the victor, who had taken him prisoner, Manuha built a temple filled with very large Buddha images enshrined in small niches. They are said to represent the feeling of being under detention. They fill all the space in the cramped interior, leaving barely enough room for visitors to sit and pray. I could feel the stress and discomfort that the captive king had to endure. At the temple's dedication, Manuha prayed that "wherever I travel in the cycle of rebirth, may I never again be the prisoner of another." The temple visit sobered me. I said a prayer of my own: That we, the Burmese people, may never again be the prisoners of tyrants.
Posted By Min Zin Sunday, November 18, 2012 - 4:06 PM
The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims that started in western Burma last June has now taken 200 lives and caused some 100,000 refugees. This issue should take a prominent place in President Barack Obama's agenda as he stops off in Burma this week. It will be the first time that any U.S. president has visited the country.
In the run-up to the Obama trip, his Burmese counterpart Thein Sein has chosen to address the bloodsheed, which is still continuing between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan (Rakhine) state. He made the remarks at a meeting with leaders from both communities on Friday. Though his speech dodges some of the key underlying problems, it does tell us something about how the Burmese president views the conflict and its international implications. Thein Sein attributed the violence to structural causes such as poverty, the lack of opportunities for jobs and education, and the geographical isolation of Arakan due to the lack of proper transport and communications. He also faulted young Buddhist nationalists and some radical Muslim Bengalis for aggravating tensions and preventing international aid from reaching the affected population.
"The country will lose face among the international community if we fail to pursue the norms of human rights and humanitarian work being practiced in many countries," Thein Sein warned. He called for concerted efforts by the government, Buddhist monks, and people of all races and religions to work for a harmonious society in which the rights of each group can be respected without conflict.
Thein Sein also sent a letter to the United Nations on the same day. He took the opportunity to condemn the "senseless violence" in Arakan. Thein Sein said his government was prepared to address contentious issues "ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to the granting of citizenship," according to a statement from the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that contained excerpts from the letter.
Now, the irony here is that is the sort of high-minded talk that one would usually expect from someone like Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But we continue to wait in vain for anyone from the opposition to come up with a bold public stance on the conflict -- something, say, comparable to President Obama's great speech on race in 2008. Suu Kyi has chosen to focus instead on the problem of "illegal immigration" from Bangladesh. (It's worth noting that many Buddhist nationalists dismiss the Muslim Rohingya as "Bengalis" who have no business being in Burma and thus do not deserve citizenship. It's also worth recalling as well that, during her first foreign trip in late May, Suu Kyi demanded that the Thai government provide better rights and protections for about three million Burmese workers, almost all of whom are illegal immigrants, and even gave public speeches to "illegal Burmese workers" in Thailand.)
I know that Suu Kyi is very busy traveling around the world and giving beautiful speeches, but I have two suggestions for articles that she might want to read. The first is a Reuters report detailing how Buddhist Rakhine organized mass killings of Burmese Muslims. The second, from The Economist, describes the state of development in Bangladesh, showing that this country has made some of the biggest gains in the basic condition of people's lives ever seen anywhere over the past 20 years. So it doesn't make much sense that Bangladeshi Muslims would choose to migrate from there to Burma, which has experienced nothing like that sort of growth in recent decades.
In short, much of the controversy over the violence and its origins can be resolved with the help of a few empirical observations. It's easy to get the facts straight if sincerity and political will are present.
Thein Sein's detractors might argue that he is making an overture to the U.S. president (who is due to arrive Burma on November 19) in order to improve his negotiating position. But if that's true -- so what? Trying to get a better deal for Burma is fine with me. And if he says the right things, all the better.
Of course, it's quite clear that these recent remarks aren't consistent with Thein Sein's previous positions. In early July, he told UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres that the country will not allow the "illegal immigrant Rohingyas" to live in the country, and that the only solution to the problem is to hand the Rohingyas over to the UNHCR, which must put them in refugee camps, providing food and shelter. Otherwise, Thein Sein declared, Burma's government will be compelled to deport them to a third country. Meanwhile, Burmese immigration officers conducting a census in Arakan have been trying to force Rohingyas there to register themselves as "Bengalis." (Many Rohingyas refused to comply, according to a report of BBC Burmese Service.) Now this same Thein Sein is telling Ban Ki-moon that he's willing to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas (although, of course, the details of his proposal are still unknown).
All this adds up to a great opportunity for President Obama. He should seize the moment to drive home the point that the international community cares greatly about minority rights, and that this is an issue that is closely linked to support for Burma's democratic transition, economic development, and social welfare.
As the political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan once noted, "In a democratic transition, two potentially explosive questions are unavoidable: Who is a citizen of the state? And how are the rules of citizenship defined?" One of the major causes of the Rohingya crisis is the unwillingness of the Burmese state to address these two questions in an internationally acceptable manner.
Obama must make it clear to Burmese leaders that the international community won't tolerate "ethnic cleansing" of any sort, and that the citizenship issue needs to be properly addressed. He should encourage Thein Sein to follow up on his recent comments with credible actions. For example, Obama should ask Thein Sein to expand an "Investigative Commission" that the government formed in August to probe the communal violence and give recommendations to the government. In order to make this commission's findings and recommendations internationally credible, the government should invite independent experts from the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This is one way for Obama to ensure that Thein Sein's proposals find the proper institutional form.
A couple of photo ops with Rohingya leaders won't be enough. Well-meaning words about minority rights, while welcome, won't do the trick on their own, either. Let's see whether the U.S. president can do what's needed to persuade Thein Sein to live up to his own rhetoric.
Posted By Min Zin Friday, November 9, 2012 - 12:59 PM
I don't think there are any reliable opinion polls, but judging by anecdotal evidence, most Burmese are pretty happy to hear that President Obama has been re-elected. I spoke with a number of people who attended the U.S. embassy's election night party in Rangoon, and all of them were optimistic that the extension of his term in office will boost U.S.-Burmese relations across the board, in areas ranging from economics to security. They're particularly excited by the news that he's planning to visit Burma later this month as part of the planned Southeast Asia tour that has just been confirmed by the White House. (The tour will also include stops in Thailand and Cambodia.) This will be the first presidential visit to Burma in more than half a century.
For what it's worth, I share my compatriots' joy. I think Obama has a profound understanding of the difference between living in an authoritarian country and a democratic society. In his acceptance speech on Tuesday night, he said, "We can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today."
This appreciation of freedom and democracy is exactly right. People living in the free world often take for granted the rights that they enjoy. I always accept invitations from U.S. high schools to talk with the students about Burma and my personal experience, because I want to convey the same point that the president made on Tuesday night.
When I was involved in the democracy movement in Burma in the late 1980s, I was only a 15-year-old high school student. Producing or circulating pro-democracy pamphlets were considered criminal acts that could land you at least three years in prison. I remember that when almost a dozen student activists from our high school student union network were arrested in 1994 for distributing democracy literature, many of them were severely tortured in interrogation centers and later given three- to seven-year prison sentences for their activities. After sharing these stories with high school students in the United States, I always remind them that there are infinite differences between a country under tyranny -- where an uncensored pamphlet can land you a lengthy prison sentence -- and the free world, where you have the freedom to speak the truth and say that "two plus two make four," as Orwell beautifully wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Two years ago Burma was still a country under tyranny. People risked their lives just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, for the chance to cast their ballots freely, and to see their choices honored. Thousands were killed and imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression in popular uprisings in 1988 and 2007, and in 1990, results of a parliamentary election which saw a large win of National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi were denied by the military. Much to the surprise of observers, however, that picture began to change in early 2011, when the liberalization process began. Hundreds of political prisoners were freed, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to enter mainstream politics, ceasefire deals with many ethnic rebel groups were either reached or renewed, media censorship was abolished, many exiles were allowed to return, and so forth. This is what President Obama called "flickers of progress."
President Obama will be meeting his Burmese counterpart, Thein Sein, and opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi. His talking points will very likely touch upon the further release of remaining political prisoners, ending the civil war against ethnic Kachin rebel groups in northern Burma, and solutions to the communal violence in Western Burma that The Economist recently described as "ethnic cleansing" against the Muslim Rohingya minority. As a symbolic gesture, the president is probably also going to avoid visiting Naypyidaw, the country's newly-relocated administrative capital widely viewed as military home turf, to which the United States and many Western embassies have refused to move their offices. Obama will likely speak with civil society groups and vow to support reforms in Burma's education and health systems. According to a Washington lobbyist I spoke with, one of the locations where the White House is considering holding such meetings is the once-prestigious Rangoon University, which was closed down by the previous junta because the military viewed it as hotbed of student democracy movements. These substantive issues and symbolic gestures from the president are all important -- and necessary.
However, I think there are two areas which deserve more attention from President Obama during his trip to Burma. First of all, according to Burma's 2008 Constitution, President Thein Sein is not the commander-in-chief of the military; that role is held by Vice-Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Given the indisputable fact that the military is the most important force in determining Burma's future, President Obama, acting in his role as the commander-in-chief of the United States, should make a gesture that expresses a sense of recognition and obligation to his counterpart. By this I mean that he should send a message to General Min Aung Hlaing explaining specific incentives that the United States can offer if the Burmese military continues to accept the ongoing political reforms. (The message can be delivered to the general by a senior member of the White House national security team.)
Second, the President should be sensitive on the issue of China, Burma's giant neighbor and rapidly rising great power. There is no question that Chinese officials view Obama's trip to Burma as an intrusion into their own backyard. If I can be allowed to recycle an old metaphor of East Asian international relations, the Chinese are inclined to see a pro-U.S. Burma as a dagger pointed at the heart of the dragon. As an astute Burmese journalist writes, China will not sit idly by and let Burma go without a fight. More importantly, Burma can't afford to get stuck in any regional geopolitical rivalries, since the country urgently needs to move forward with reviving its economy and building state capacity. The president must reassure China by stressing what his ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, recently said: "There is no intent of the United States in its relationship with Burma to have any negative influence on China-Burma relations." This will be a hard sell, of course. The Chinese are going to be skeptical. But the president has to give it a try.
I think historians will judge the success of President Obama's Burma visit by measuring his impact on these two areas. These are the most fundamental issues that have long-lasting effects on Burma's stability and prosperity.
Posted By Min Zin Friday, October 26, 2012 - 5:01 PM
Burma's pseudo-civilian president, Thein Sein, held his first press conference for local media on Sunday, after he was re-elected last week as the chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP took about 80 percent of the seats in the 2010 elections that critics have condemned as a farce.
Thein Sein avoided breaking any news, and gave broadly worded answers about the ongoing war in Kachin State, the highly anticipated foreign investment law, the possibility of U.S.-Burma military relations, and so forth. One of the answers that struck me, however, touched upon his relationship with the USDP. He was asked if he will urge his party's parliamentarians to amend the country's constitution. Thein Sein responded: "As the constitution prohibits the president from taking part in [their] party's activities during his term of office, I can't go and urge them what to do. The constitutional amendment issue depends not only on the parliamentarians of the USDP but also on other parties."
Essentially he dodged the question, but his answer has interesting political implications. Let me highlight three issues that I think are important.
First, viewed according to the 2008 Constitution, the unanimous re-election of Thein Sein as a chairman of the USDP on October 16 was unconstitutional. The director of the president's officedefended the re-election of his boss as the head of the USDP as "in line with the constitution," so long as Thein Sein is "not involved in the party function." But this is a pretty lame defense. How can anyone possibly say that the president attending the USDP's annual conference was not also participating in the party's activities? Thein Sein was there greeting hundreds of delegates and giving speeches. He didn't just stop by and say hi to folks on his way home from the neighborhood gym.
Second, Thein Sein's answer at the press conference revised the much-hyped PR message that he was putting across during his recent interview with BBC's Hardtalk. Thein Sein said that he "would accept" Aung San Suu Kyi as president if the people accept her. But the constitution bars Suu Kyi from seeking the presidential nomination, since the candidate can neither be a foreign citizen nor have parents, legitimate children, or a spouse who hold foreign citizenship. Suu Kyi was married to a British academic and has two sons who hold British citizenship.
In his Hardtalk interview, however, Thein Sein implied that he would not mind seeing her as president. There is no doubt that the interview has triggered waves of hope (most likely false hope) among the observers and general public in Burma. Even Suu Kyi weighed in to respond to Thein Sein's remark. In a press conference, she declared that she is willing to lead the country as president and that her party will work to amend the constitution that blocks her from the position. Amending any of these provisions, however, requires the approval of more than 75 percent of parliament as well as a national referendum. Since the military has 25 percent of seats reserved in parliament, there is no way for to Suu Kyi to change the conditions without military approval even if her party won the available 75 percent of seats in the upcoming 2015 election. Currently her party only represents less than 7 percent in parliament. Thus, Suu Kyi seemed to be expecting the president to use his influence to make the necessary constitutional changes. But now, in his answer to a local journalist's question, Thein Sein has changed his previous message, refused to take any initiative, and passed the buck back to "the people."
The third significant implication of Thein Sein's reference to constitutional provisions disassociating him from his party is that it explains why Thein Sein has managed to pursue the ongoing liberalizing reforms. Those who are elected president or are given cabinet positions are not officially accountable to the USDP. They don't have to feel direct constraints imposed by the USDP. They don't need to follow the USDP agenda. They are not implementing the USDP's party policy.
This is significant because the USDP is much more conservative than President Thein Sein and his team. The USDP, correctly foreseeing that the Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party would do well in the 2012 by-elections, had opposed holding them. It also pushed to amend the constitution to allow executive officials, most of whom were USDP members, to retain their party affiliation. But the president managed to kill such initiatives because he wanted to hold by-elections as a proof of his reforms to attract the West.
Aung Thein Linn, one of the top former USDP leaders and chairman of the party's Rangoon Division, told Chinese media that some of the president's critical decisions were nothing more than "his own idea, not a resolution by the parliament." He continued to say that the party opposes the president's decision. "He (Thein Sein) trie[d] to sever the ties between China and Myanmar [Burma]," said Aung Thein Linn. Aung Thein Linn was later forced to resign for making comments against in Thein Sein and Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
In this regard, the USDP is a party that won the 2010 election, but not a ruling-party. While that makes Thein Sein rely mostly on technocrats for his policy initiatives, the same detachment frustrates those who are in the line-up for 2015 election. The institutional set-up of the constitution allows Thein Sein to be able pursue a "reform agenda" without party constraints.