Monday, November 19, 2012

What Obama should tell the president of Burma

Posted By Min Zin  

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.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

President Obama is coming to Burma

Posted By Min Zin  

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.

The curious relationship between Burma’s president and his not-quite-ruling party

Posted By Min Zin  

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.

Friday, October 12, 2012

He was a hero -- and my friend

Posted By Min Zin  

My former colleagues in Burma are preparing a special commemorative ceremony to be held next week to honor a fallen hero, Thet Win Aung. They've asked me to write an essay about him, as they plan to publish a book about him on the sixth anniversary of his death. For several days I've been unable to complete the task.
It reminds me that I was also incapable of reporting on Thet Win Aung's death in October 2006, while I was working for a Burmese broadcast media outlet in the U.S. I remember my energy was completely drained and my heart sank as I listened to Thet Win Aung's father explain to me the details of his son's death in a Mandalay prison. As an activist-turned-journalist, I always hoped I would not have to report on the jailing, torture, and deaths of my former colleagues still inside military-ruled Burma. But I never got my wish. Those tragedies were the order of the day in Burma. They were never simply news stories to me, and yet a single death on October 16, 2006, in a single junta-run prison, broke my heart and brought me closer to these stories than ever before.
Thet Win Aung was my close colleague during Burma's democratic struggle in 1988, as well as my childhood friend. We attended the same class and lived in the same township, and spent our teenage years playing guitar and soccer together. We stayed in the same hideouts when we were engaged in pro-democracy politics and were on the run together to evade arrest by Military Intelligence. Our childhood friendship was deepened by our shared commitment to Burma's cause for democracy and human rights. This commitment sustained our dedication and hope in the darkest period of our lives. But he was cruelly forced to leave us. The parting was undue, and final.
When the initial student demonstrations of the 1988 popular uprising broke out on university campuses, Thet Win Aung and I secretly organized a student union in our high school, and contacted other high school and university student activists. Since 1962, when the military regime banned the university student unions and dynamited the student union building at Rangoon University, union membership -- let alone organizing a union -- became illegal. Thet Win Aung played an instrumental role in the founding of our national high school student union in 1988.
Leading up to the 8-8-88 ("four eights") mass uprising that occurred throughout the country on Aug. 8, 1988 -- an uprising calling for democracy -- he and I wrote and produced student union statements in the attic of his house. This political literature was etched into inked wax paper and "copied" page by page, using a fluorescent tube, since we didn't have access to printers or Xerox machines. The original was set face up in a wooden tray with a blank piece of paper over it. Then the tube was rolled across the paper and the copy removed. Each copy had to be produced separately. The pamphlets had to be packed into many parcels so that each package could be easily and safely distributed to the different student activist teams. Thet Win Aung worked out all these details with tremendous patience and ingenuity.
After I went into hiding in July 1989 to evade arrest by the junta, Thet Win Aung was taken into a Military Intelligence camp for interrogation, since the military knew he was my close colleague. He was in an interrogation center for several weeks. Despite being severely tortured, Thet Win Aung refused to reveal any information about other activists. In fact, he was arrested, interrogated, and tortured several times throughout the first half of the 1990s, but never betrayed his colleagues or the cause.
Once when visiting my hideout, he happened to talk to me about one of the torture incidents during his imprisonment. The prison authority stripped him, tied him to a pole, and beat him severely with a wooden stick. After looking at the scars on his shoulders and torso, I asked him, "How could you manage to stay strong in face of such attempts to breaking your spirit?" He looked at me, smiled, and said: "Honestly speaking, moods never stay constant. At times my feelings are down, and other times they are up. I think that's natural." He paused and continued, "The most important thing that enables me to keep going despite the up and down of my emotions is that I never give up my self-respect and my commitment to my colleagues." Those words were very simple, but they've always stayed with me, deep in my heart.
When the military cracked down on the demonstrators and organizers of the 1996 student movement, many student activists, including Thet Win Aung, were at great risk. He struggled hard to find a hideout where he could stay, even for a few days at a time. But he had made up his mind to stay inside Burma as long as he could. Thet Win Aung and I moved to an area controlled by an ethnic minority rebel group that had signed a cease-fire agreement with the junta. But the military was able to track us down. We were constantly on the move. Eventually, we decided to make our way to the Thai-Burmese border in late 1997. In August 1997, Thet Win Aung and I, along with three other student activists, fled to Thailand by walking through the jungle for five days. By the time we arrived in Thailand, Thet Win Aung had malaria and had to be hospitalized in Bangkok.
As an exile, Thet Win Aung felt cut off from the people he loved and served. Soon after we arrived in Thailand, he discussed with me his idea of returning to Burma to pursue non-violent political activities. Out of the five of us who snuck into Thailand together, one had already gone back to Burma. He was arrested by the military and sentenced to death in early 1998. Rather than being frightened by this news, Thet Win Aung felt an even greater obligation to return to Burma and continue his underground activities. He ignored our pleas to remain in exile, and we eventually prepared for his return.
I can't forget the final days when we discussed day and night the details of his mission once he got back to Burma. I kept reminding him to put his safety first, and provided him with emergency exit plans.
One early morning in August 1998, we stood together at the entrance of our hide-out in Mae Sot, a Thai border town, waiting for the contact person who would take Thet Win Aung back to Burma. Though the motorbike had arrived, we were still going over what we had discussed. We hugged each other tightly, and I whispered to him, "Keep three gems (Buddha, dhamma, and Sangha) in your heart. We'll see each other again." Then he got on the bike and left. I watched his back until the bike disappeared. I tried not to think that it might be our last meeting.
It turned out to be the last time I ever saw him. After he had coordinated several student movements supporting Aung San Suu Kyi's political actions in 1998, Military Intelligence launched a manhunt for him, and finally captured him in October 1998. He was severely tortured during interrogation. The regime alleged publicly that he was receiving support from foreign sources (mainly from me), and sentenced him to 52 years in prison, later increased to 59 years. He was sent to Kalay Prison in Northwestern Burma, far away from his family and far from medical care.
Thet Win Aung, however, did not bow down. He staged hunger strikes to protest the inhumane conditions in the prison. The authorities beat him and sent him to another prison in the far north where malaria is rampant. His malaria infection worsened and paralyzed him from the waist down. Then he was sent back to Mandalay Prison in central Burma, where he was wheelchair-bound.
The regime turned a deaf ear to calls from abroad for his immediate release, notably because of his worsening health. The regime even re-arrested his brother Pyone Cho on September 30, 2006: Pyone Cho had already served a 14-year prison term and was released in 2003. His condition and his brother's arrest pushed him too far, and Thet Win Aung collapsed suddenly early in the morning of October 16, 2006. He received no medical treatment before his star dimmed and fell forever.
My life, my work, all of it, is based on words: Using them to inform, to enlighten, and to heal. And yet I could find no words to console Thet Win Aung's father when I spoke to him that October evening in 2006. At the depth of his sorrow, I felt I was with him, sharing what Barrington Moore, Jr. has called "the unity of misery."
When I reported on the death of Thet Win Aung, I could not pretend to distance myself as a reporter, as if I had nothing to do with him.
Once again, there's no point in making a show of detachment and neutrality. As a friend and colleague, let me pay tribute to Thet Win Aung here, and to all of his countless sacrifices.