BY MIN ZIN NOVEMBER 26, 2014
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Return of the Myanmar Military?
By MIN ZIN
NOV 17, 2014
YANGON, Myanmar — During his visit to Myanmar last week, President Obama sounded a word of caution, saying the process of reform was “by no means complete or irreversible.” His tone was decidedly less enthusiastic than during his previous visit, in 2012. Back then, the recent inauguration of the pseudo-civilian government of President Thein Sein seemed to signal the advent of liberalization after almost half a century of military rule. Many political dissidents were then released from jail or house arrest, notably the democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
But now progress has stalled on almost all major issues: power sharing with the opposition, peace talks with armed ethnic groups, Buddhist-Muslim relations, minority rights, media freedom. Progress has stalled because the military is tightening its grip once again.
The Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are called, has grown increasingly assertive in recent months, even as the country prepares for a historic general election next year, the first since the military junta’s formal dissolution in 2011. Not only is the Tatmadaw increasingly exercising the expansive prerogatives it gave itself in the 2008 Constitution; it is trying to extend its powers further.
The recent killing of the freelance journalist Par Gyi, a former bodyguard of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, is just one glaring example. Mr. Par Gyi was allegedly shot while in army custody in early October. At first the army tried to hide his death, only to claim three weeks after it occurred that he was shot by soldiers while trying to escape. After the authorities exhumed Mr. Par Gyi, images of his mutilated body circulated on Facebook and outraged the general public, confirming suspicions that he had been tortured.
But the episode seems only to have revived the military’s siege mentality. The army is unlikely to allow any civilian court to look into the case; it will rather prosecute its own commanders if necessary to protect the institution’s credibility overall. And under the 2008 Constitution, “in the adjudication of military justice,” the decision of the commander in chief is final.
Submitting to civilian oversight would be risky. A recent report by Harvard Law School names three senior generals in connection with crimes against humanity and war crimes suffered by ethnic Karen between 2005 and 2008. Transitional justice is a threat to the army’s unity, and in the past would have been just the kind of threat to justify a coup. The issue today isn’t so much whether the military would consider a takeover — times have changed — but rather how far it will go to protect its narrow interests in the face of public opposition, just a year before a general election.
Another gauge of its resolve is constitutional reform. Throughout 2013, a special committee appointed by Parliament solicited views from the public about whether, and how, the 2008 Constitution might be improved. In a separate petition, the main opposition party gathered five million signatures from people asking for a relaxation of the amendment clause. Modifying major provisions of the Constitution, including the amendment clause itself, requires a 75 percent majority in Parliament — which gives the military veto power since by law it holds 25 percent of parliamentary seats — and then a majority of votes in a national referendum. This exceedingly high threshold blocks any fundamental constitutional reform, including of the provision prohibiting Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy for the presidency and of clauses governing taxation and the appointment of provincial authorities in ethnic areas.
Yet during debates in Parliament last week, the military’s representatives declared that the amendment clause should be maintained. The Tatmadaw may never have considered allowing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president. For a time, however, it did seem to want to increase the autonomy of ethnic regions, if only to curry support among ethnic political parties and armed groups. Its recent inflexibility is a notable change, and a sign of its growing insecurity.
This is especially ominous because the military’s hardening risks causing friction with the Thein Sein government: Last December, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, an offshoot of the old military junta, had granted its conditional approval for amending the Constitution’s amendment clause.
In the initial phase of liberalization, the military tended to follow Mr. Thein Sein’s reform initiatives. The generals rarely defied the political agenda of the president, himself a career army bureaucrat, except to defend their economic and tactical interests. But according to several senior aides to Mr. Thein Sein, relations between the president and the commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, are increasingly out of sync. Several sources close to both men told me that General Min Aung Hlaing’s tougher tactics of late were reminiscent of the style of Senior Gen. Than Shwe, Myanmar’s military leader from 1992 to 2011, suggesting that General Than Shwe may still be pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Lately, the military leadership has called for expanding the role of the National Defense and Security Council, a military-dominated 11-member body that holds wide-ranging powers, including the right to take over from the civilian government in a state of emergency. During the parliamentary debates last week, military representatives argued that the N.D.S.C. should be able to dissolve Parliament if one-third of the seats become vacant.
Were this proposal an isolated case, it might simply be a maneuver by the military to increase its leverage. But like one of several such moves recently, it is evidence that the generals are hardening their stance with little regard for international opinion, the will of the voters, or even relations with Mr. Thein Sein. After a brief moment of promise, the new Myanmar is increasingly starting to look like the old.
Min Zin is a contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog Democracy Lab, and serves as a Myanmar expert for think tanks and NGOs like Freedom House.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 18, 2014, in The International New York Times.
Monday, June 9, 2014
The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
The People vs. The Monks
By MIN ZIN
JUNE 6, 2014
One of the darkest aspects of Myanmar’s political transition is a surge in religious intolerance, especially toward Muslims. Liberalization has lifted the lid on many pent-up grievances, and old-timers in the government and the monkhood are stoking these sentiments.
Last week the government proposed a law that would require anyone who wants to change religion to first seek permission from local authorities; it would also penalize proselytizing through “improper influence and persuasion.” This is one of four bills the government has drafted at the instigation of a powerful group of radical Buddhist monks called Mabatha, backed by a petition with 1.3 million signatures. The other three bills contemplate restricting interfaith marriage, birth rates and polygamy. Though phrased broadly, all are a veiled attack on Myanmar’s religious minorities, especially its 2.2 million Muslims.
A coalition of almost 100 civil society groups, led by well-known women activists and ethnic minority leaders, immediately protested the president’s endorsement of the discriminatory laws. The Mabatha denounced them as “traitors,” but that only prompted more civil society groups to oppose the bills. Facebook lit up with posts and comments like, “Count me in; I am a traitor, too.” The publication The Voice criticized “crony monks” for trying to advance the government’s authoritarian agenda.
Mitch Blunt, the illustrator
This reaction is unprecedented. Myanmar’s Buddhist order is arguably one of the clergies in the world that commands most deference from its followers, and never before have so many lay Buddhists pushed back against the monks for political reasons. Buddhist sects have had disputes among themselves about the tenets of monastic discipline: Should a monk’s robe cover both shoulders or just the left? And there have long been conflicts between the order and the state. Many monks opposed British colonial rule, with some joining the armed struggle against it, and from the 1980s through the late 2000s, monks rallied students to form the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement.
Intellectuals have sometimes criticized monks, but typically it was for falling short of their own rules, not for political reasons. We were taught to think of any corrupt monks as deviant, keeping intact our faith in the virtue of the robe and the wisdom of the Buddha.
But now a gap is growing between a significant segment of the monkhood and a significant segment of society over the issue of religious radicalism.
Buddhist nationalism took a turn for the extreme in mid-2012, when riots broke out between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, killing 300 people and displacing about 140,000, mostly Muslims. (The government refuses to acknowledge the Rohingyas as a distinct ethnic group, and many people in Myanmar consider them to be intruders from neighboring Bangladesh.) When the violence spread to other parts of the country and to non-Rohingya Muslims, who were thought to be better integrated, it seemed that natural bigotry was being manipulated.
Two radical religious groups, Mabatha and the 969 Movement, have emerged since the political transition in 2011. Like Mabatha, the 969 Movement — named after the nine qualities of Buddha, the six qualities of his teaching and the nine qualities of monastic community — wants to ensure that Myanmar remains a majority-Burman and majority-Buddhist state. It is led by the firebrand ultranationalist Ashin Wirathu.
Mabatha and the 969 Movement have run a broad anti-Muslim campaign, from organizing economic boycotts against Muslim businesses to, some charge, inciting pogroms. During a visit by a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation last year, monks marched through Yangon with banners calling Islam “a faith of animals with uncontrollable birthrates.” Other monks have even been accused of instigating killings early last year in the town of Meiktila, in central Myanmar, where Buddhist mobs destroyed Muslim neighborhoods, killing at least 44 people, including 20 students and several teachers at an Islamic school.
These extremist monks are proving to be valuable political allies for the ex-military leaders of the pseudo-civilian government. Ashin Wirathu’s camp criticizes the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for being too weak in her defense of nationalism and Buddhism. (The other side criticizes her for being too weak in her defense of minority rights.) The radical monks oppose amending the current military-drafted Constitution to let Myanmar nationals with a foreign spouse or children run for the presidency, which would open the way for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2015 election. Meanwhile, some monks are pushing to obtain the right to vote, which the Constitution also bans.
But this rise in religious radicalism has created a countermovement bringing together over one hundred civil-society actors, including the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group; popular monks like Metta Shin U Zawana; Muslim and Christian groups; ethnic minorities; associations of intellectuals like PEN Myanmar; much of the mainstream media; and young bloggers like Nay Phone Latt. Together they have launched an anti-hate speech campaign, released official statements of protest, petitioned the legislature and lobbied the international community to condemn discrimination in Myanmar.
Their approach has a distinctly Burmese feel. They are rejecting extremism without entirely embracing Western values. Wholesale secularism hardly features in their calls; religiosity and spirituality are still prevalent in Myanmar. But local prejudice does feature: Some leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group also refuse to acknowledge the Rohingyas as a distinct ethnic group.
Critics of Mabatha and the 969 Movement tend to couch their objections without reference to human rights. Instead they challenge the radical monks for staying silent about deepening poverty throughout the country and, say, the crackdown in late 2012 on Buddhist monks protesting a Chinese copper mine. In other words, they are mostly criticizing the extremist monks for doing the ex-military’s bidding.
The unprecedented chasm between the monkhood and the people is for now a source of tension and turmoil. But it augurs well for the country’s political and social development in the long term. The advent of a countermovement to Buddhist extremism suggests that the people of Myanmar are emancipating from traditional elites and taking a major stride toward modernity and democracy.
Min Zin is a contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog Democracy Lab and serves as a Myanmar expert for think tanks and NGOs like Freedom House.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 7, 2014, in The International New York Times. ntinue reading the main story