Friday, June 15, 2012

Why sectarian conflict in Burma is bad for democracy

Posted By Min Zin  

Sectarian violence in the western region of Burma that shares a long border with Bangladesh has now claimed at least 25 lives since Friday. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Arakan State, where a feud between ethnic Arakan Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims has spiraled into full-blown communal violence. The looting, arson, and mob clashes are spreading fast.
Although a predominantly Buddhist state, Arakan is home to a large number of Muslims, including the estimated 800,000 Rohingya, who are regarded by the Burmese government as stateless illegal aliens. The United Nations has described them as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. However, many Burmese call them "Bengalis," or even use a racial slur, kalar, a derogatory term for foreigners, especially those of Indian appearance.
Given the present situation, it's worth recalling J.S. Furnivall, the scholar who introduced the idea of the "plural society" to early 20th-century scholarship. Furnivall, a top Civil Service officer serving in colonial Burma, came up with his theory after studying Burma under British colonial rule. In his view, the myriad ethnic groups in Burma led to a disintegration of common social will.
"In Burma, as in Java, probably the first thing that strikes the visitor is the medley of peoples -- European, Chinese, Indian, and native," he writes. "It is in the strictest sense a medley, for they mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways."
Furnivall blamed the atomization of society on the laissez-faire economic forces introduced by British colonial rule in Burma. The medley of peoples was held together solely by an economic nexus and had no social or cultural ties. What an insight!
For Burmese nationalists, Furnivall reasons, the objective is not to reform and humanize plural society, but to resist and reject it. Furnivall, who wrote as early as in 1931 that "[N]ationalism in Burma is morally right," felt that ethnic Burman nationalism was an apt solution to a divisive plural society.
Unfortunately, Burmese history has produced ample evidence that Furnivall's optimism was unfounded. Burman-Buddhist nationalism, which historically lacks inclusiveness, has deepened ethnic divisions, triggered intractable civil war, and prompted coercive assimilation in minority regions. This is a failed model for an otherwise promising multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.
President Thein Sein was right when he warned in his televised speech this weekend that "if we put racial and religious issues at the forefront ... if we continue to retaliate and terrorize and kill each other ... the country's stability and peace, democratization process, and development ... could be severely affected and much would be lost."
There are other people among the ruling elite, however, who, though not responsible for causing the outbreak of violence, have effectively exploited it for their own agendas. The reports in both state and private media treated last month's rape and murder of a local woman that led to the outbreak of violence not as a criminal case, but as a racial crime. The reports highlighted the identity of the victim as an Arakan Buddhist girl and of the alleged perpetrators as Muslims. On June 3, 10 Muslims were killed in the same region in apparent retaliation for the murder of the Buddhist girl. The state media even used the racial epithet kalar when referring to the Muslims, but then issued a correction (not an apology) the following day. A senior official in the Presidential Office has used his personal Facebook page to inflame matters by framing the issue as a matter of national security, and urging the people to rally behind the armed forces. Racially chargedcomments from proud-to-be-Burman racists are proliferating across social media. There are several violent racist blogs and groups, such as the "Kalar Beheading Gang," on Facebook.
Since politics is all about "who gets what, when, and how," it would be naive not to think in terms of winners and losers. Both sides in this conflict are underdogs: the Arakan people, who are repressed and exploited by the Burman-dominated military regime, and the Rohingyas, who reside at the bottom of Burma's discriminatory landscape. By killing each other, they themselves become the ultimate losers. It is the military that ends up as the clear winner. The government's initial passivity in enforcing law and order in Arakan state has led the public to demand decisive military intervention. The longer the conflict goes on, the more likely it is that the army will emerge as the indispensible defender and savior of "national security."
The timing of the conflict clearly benefits the rulers. The sequence of events could cost Aung San Suu Kyi dearly. Suu Kyi, who begins her first European trip in 24 years on Wednesday, humiliated Burma's nominally civilian government when she visited Thailand last month to an enthusiastic public reception. But the ongoing communal clashes will likely overshadow her trip and undercut the domestic coverage of her actions abroad. The government's proxies will say that she's promoting herself and her personal popularity while her people suffer back at home.
She is already being pressured by the local media and some public figures to take a clear stand on the Rohingya issue. In Europe, where a network of Rohingya exiles is well-established, she will be asked by the media about her position on Rohingya rights. I'll bet that the Burmese military will be very happy to see her tackle such questions, since her answer could either cost her a large number of domestic supporters who are hostile to the Muslim minority, or contradict her moral stand of prizing equal rights for minorities.
Meanwhile, the international community has called for a halt to the violence and a transparent investigation. The communal violence, however, continues to rage in Arakan state, and local residents say that the authorities are still failing to restore stability and enforce the rule of law.

One year of the Kachin war

Posted By Min Zin  

As of June 9, the war in Burma's Kachin State has been going on for one year. It's a sad anniversary.
In early January 2012, the Kachin journalist Lahpai Naw Ming was hit by a bullet fired by a Burmese soldier. But Naw Ming's companions had no way of getting him to a hospital for immediate treatment, because of the heavy on-going fighting between Kachin rebels and Burmese government troops. Bleeding profusely, the 44 year-old Kachin journalist was forced to hide in a trench in the Kachin lines for almost two hours. By the time he arrived at a hospital in a Chinese border town, the bullet in his throat had already caused damage to his main nervous system.
"I still can't move the lower part of my body up to the chest," Naw Ming told me on the phone from his hospital bed. As the chief reporter for Kachinland News, Naw Ming filed a series of dispatches from the frontlines of the war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese government troops, which broke out last June after 17 year of a ceasefire agreement. The journalist also documented on video how the Burmese army has wantonly killed Kachin villagers and razed their houses.
On May 27, Naw Ming was honored with the Citizen of Burma Award, chosen by a public online vote.  Although he was not a high-profile figure in the Burmese public in comparison to other candidates in the final list, Naw Ming won the award, receiving 51.25 percent of the 513,922 votes cast.
"The voting statistics showed that Naw Ming won significant and sweeping support from the voting public," says Htain Linn, of the Citizen of Burma Award organization. "The ratio of the votes he received was over two times higher than the runner-up."
The news of the award surprised even Naw Ming: "I was amazed because this award was not just given to me by my fellow Kachin compatriots, but by mostly ethnic Burman voters and other supporters," Naw Ming told me. "I see this prize as increasing [public] understanding of the ethnic struggle among members of the Burman majority."
Many unprecedented things are happening around the war in Kachin state. A group of well-known musicians go on the road every Sunday to perform at teashops in Rangoon to raise funds for the support of Kachin war refugees. Respected Burmese charity organizations, such as the Free Funeral Service Society, have also been sending aid to those fleeing the war. Some publications have published interviews with Kachin rebel spokesmen and featured articles on the war and the resulting humanitarian crisis. Five journalists are hosting a photo exhibition this weekend to highlight the urgent need for ending the civil war and bringing peace in Kachin state. And influential members of the 88 Generation Students group have visited the war zone and offered to mediatethe conflict.
While many ethnic Burmese are demonstrating their solidarity with the Kachin people, the Burmese army's continuing crackdown on Kachin rebels shows a very different picture. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, the Burmese army has indiscriminately attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged property, and forcefully displaced tens of thousands of people. Soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations. They have also raped women. The army has also used anti-personnel mines and conscripted forced laborers -- including children as young as 14 -- for work on the front lines.
Combat incidents have been occurring an average of four times a day since June 2011. The number of refugees has reached an estimated 75,000 people. Most of them have been seeking refuge in some 30 camps for the internally displaced along the Chinese border in KIA-controlled areas. With the rainy season around the corner, an imminent humanitarian crisis is looming in these refugee and IDP camps.
In his  open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, KIA leader Zawng Hra calls on the UN to "intervene before the conflict becomes even wider and more complex." Zawng Hra warned that there is strong evidence that the Burmese army is not only waging war against the KIA and its political wing but also against the Kachin population as a whole. The war, he said, is turning from a political conflict into a racial one.
Some ethnic Burman volunteers who regularly deliver food to the Chinese border-based IDP camps told me they were recently cautioned by camp leaders not to speak the Burmese language inside the camp. "Anti-Burman hatred is growing fast among the refugees, because they do not make any distinction between the government army and Burman ethnic people," said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military analyst base on the China-Burma border. Such sentiment, however, is not confined to refugees.
Gen. Sumlut Gun Maw, the vice chief of staff of the KIA and one of the most influential Kachin leaders, also told me that the Burmese army's relentless offensive and manipulative "peace strategy" has radicalized the urban Kachin population and some of the key Kachin rebel leaders.
As a journalist, Naw Ming has been tracking the increasing ethnic tension. He warned that a quick-fix "peace strategy" is not going to work: "It will take time and patience to restore trust and ease tensions on the ground. But it's encouraging that more and more of the general public in the Burmese heartland are taking interest in the ethnic issue and showing their support."
The one-year anniversary of Kachin conflict is filled with tragic memories. Yet Naw Ming's Citizen of Burma Award revives the hope that Burma's many different ethnic groups really have the will to live together in peace. And that does offer grounds for optimism.

Friday, June 1, 2012

It’s time for Aung San Suu Kyi to get serious about management

Posted By Min Zin  

This week, The New York Times covered Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Thailand -- the first foreign trip for Burma's opposition leader in 25 years. Many people who have dealt with Suu Kyi and her political entourage over the years say that the Times report, which described a striking lack of organization in the upper ranks of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was spot-on.

Last week, Suu Kyi's staff turned down a request for a meeting from Paul Collier, one of the world's top economists. Their excuse: The Lady was busy. "Perhaps her staffers don't know who Collier is," one source in the opposition told me. "The Burmese opposition movement has missed the chance to benefit from a great mind." Meanwhile, government newspapers covered have reported that ministers and presidential advisors gave Collier plenty of time.

Prominent experts from the Burmese exile community, many of them with valuable experience acquired in their years abroad, say that the NLD is ignoring them even while the government is actively soliciting their services. "There is no proper mechanism set up by Suu Kyi for Burmese researchers to play a contributing role to the opposition movement," says a Burmese scholar who graduated from a top U.S. university and visited Rangoon a few months ago.

The NLD is also having problems with reporters. Lately there have been increasing tensions between the NLD and local journalists. In early May, a member of Suu Kyi's security staff manhandled a local photojournalist who tried to take pictures of the Lady. Local reporters say that the bodyguards abused them, saying: "You media people are doing this for money. We don't make a f---ing penny. We face jail time because we're doing politics."

Many NLD members suffered under the previous regime. But Suu Kyi, who holds to a rigorous moral code, rightly tends to dismiss those who bring this up. She once famously said: "If you choose to do something, then you shouldn't say it's a sacrifice, because nobody forced you to do it." Moreover, since many journalists (and activists-turned-journalists) were also imprisoned by the military regime for their political and professional work, the self-righteousness and arrogance of the NLD members are likely to backfire.

Local reporters have complained in the past few weeks that the NLD no longer issues open invitations to the media to cover important political events, such as Suu Kyi's recent meeting with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Maung Wuntha, a well-respected veteran journalist and a former leading member of the NLD in 1988, told me that the NLD staffers who are close to Suu Kyi need to learn how to work in a more media-friendly manner: "Many of them tend to see journalists as careerists who do not have any principles and commitment to the interests of the country. This perception is a serious problem. Unless they realize that journalists are doing a public service, we aren't going to see any fundamental improvement in relations between politicians and reporters."

Another public criticism of Suu Kyi and her staff has come from an unexpected source: staunch NLD supporters outside of Burma. Eight major Burmese exile organizations -- including such dedicated and well-connected groups such as the Network for Democracy and Development, the Women's League of Burma, and the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma in Thailand - asked for some face time with Aung San Suu Kyi during her visit in Bangkok, but to no avail. For perhaps the first time since 1988, many prominent exiled activists came together to express their frustration in the Burmese-language media. "We feel sad," said Khin Ohmar, NDD chairwoman, told The Irrawaddy, a leading Burmese-language magazine. "We have worked tirelessly for our country since 1988. We can't go home, so while our leader's visiting us here, we all would like to meet her and exchange views and experiences."

You can find signs of frustration not only on the Thai-Burmese border, but also in the capitals of the United States and Europe. Several lobbyists who relentlessly advocated on behalf of Suu Kyi and her "principle-centered policy" of economic sanctions for decades are now disoriented by the Lady's apparent lack of coordination and inability to delegate. A dedicated Suu Kyi advocate told me he's been trying to get in touch with the NLD's information department for months to arrange a conversation between Suu Kyi and the president of a newly democratizing Asian country, but his correspondence has gone unanswered.

Of course, it's not fair to blame Suu Kyi for all these problems, given that the party's organization is still weak. Most party activists (including herself) have spent long periods in detention - perhaps the most important among many legitimate excuses for the problem. By now, though, it's high time for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to step back, practice self-criticism, and think aloud about whether they have burned too many bridges too quickly in this transitional phase. Perhaps what Suu Kyi needs is not just an entourage, but a full-blown chief of staff with a proper team that is capable of strategic planning and management and can support her in the decision-making process. Moral courage and clarity are hugely important in politics, but you also need the capacity to cultivate your base and craft sound policies if you really want to get things done.

Click to read this article on Foreign Policy Blog

In Burma, a return to the streets

Posted By Min Zin  

If history is any guide, it's the bread-and-butter issues that tend to make Burmese people take to the streets. Then, when the authorities use force against these initial protests instead of peacefully managing popular demands, popular outrage mushrooms into a full-scale uprising. That's what happened with the pro-democracy protests in 1988 and the Buddhist monk-led "Saffron Revolution" in 2007. The first was triggered by a confiscatory currency reform along with police brutality against student protesters, the second by a hike in fuel prices in combination with police attacks on monks. Now Burma appears to be facing a similar situation once again.

For days people in cities around the country have been publicly protesting chronic power shortages. The authorities tolerated the demonstrations at first. Then, on Thursday, police in the town of Prome (Pyay), 160 miles northwest of Rangoon, beat up hundreds of protesters, most of them holding candles to symbolize the lack of electricity. Several protestors were detained and subsequently released after intervention by local parliamentarians. Whether this crackdown was an isolated incident or a sign of growing impatience among the country's security forces remains to be seen.

The protests began in Mandalay, the country's second largest city, on May 20. Hundreds of local residents held a candlelight vigil and marched peacefully through the streets, calling for a 24-hour supply of electricity. (In recent months, power has been available in Mandalay only for a few hours each day.) In the days that followed, the protests spread to Rangoon and other cities. Local media reported some rough encounters with the police and the temporary arrest of some protest leaders. The marchers held posters and banners. One of the slogans was, "We want the same 24-hour electricity that Naypyidaw has." (Naypyidaw, the capital built by the military junta a few years ago, does not have to contend with the power cuts that plague other parts of the country.) Another poster read, "Our homeland is dark while next-door neighbor China is lit up with electricity generated from our natural resources." Even though the authorities predictably suspect the opposition of orchestrating the protests (judging by the questions police asked of detained protestors), they actually seem to be drawing on spontaneous grassroots outrage. One protest poster that read, "Electricity First, Democracy Later On," even drew criticism from pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She blames the current political system for the various hardships, including power shortages, suffered by the people.

Meanwhile, President Thein Sein seems to realize the danger of his government's failure to deliver basic public services. In a speech to his cabinet earlier this month, he said, "Our government must make a drastic improvement for the people's needs including residential housing, water, power, transportation and jobs." The nominally civilian government has been uncharacteristically responsive in its reaction to the protests. The authorities have tried to blame the power outages on the recent drought, which has reduced hydropower, and ethnic Kachin rebels, who have bombed power plants in the north of the country. The government has promised that the damaged plants will be quickly repaired, even announcing the purchase of six generators and two gas turbines from American companies - a move made possible after the suspension of U.S. sanctions last week.

Meanwhile, thousands of workers in industrial zones on the outskirts of Rangoon have been staging strikes against various foreign factories, calling for wage hikes.

What these protests show is that the government still hasn't gained much legitimacy at home despite the acceptance its policies have earned it overseas. This is the reason why the government has to be careful in managing these protests. On Thursday the head of the Association of South East Asia Nations warned the Burmese authorities onjust this point.

At the same time, the protest organizers should remain sensitive to the fact that it's precisely the recent political opening, no matter how flawed and limited it might be, that is enabling them to express their grievances. The Burmese state has plenty of capacity to suppress the protests if it so chooses, and the protests won't bear fruit unless political liberalization continues. Still, that process of liberalization remains far too fragile. The Burmese security forces, whose track record of killing unarmed civilians remains fresh in everyone's mind, presumably do not have unlimited tolerance.

Right now, the protests are taking place in a virtual vacuum. The big question is whether the demonstrators' demands can be solved within the existing system or end up undermining it, perhaps even through regime change. In reality, protests that push for radical demands without viable leaders or feasible political alternatives are likely to achieve little other than strengthening the hand of the hardliners within the regime.

Needless to say, there is no easy solution to the political and socio-economic problems that have piled up over decades of misrule. But it's clear that the government has to come up with a way to provide basic public goods if it doesn't want to derail the nascent reform process.

Click here to read this article on Foreign Policy Blog