Friday, January 19, 2018

Ethnic Entertainers Make the Scene


Ethnic Entertainers Make the Scene

By Min Zin MAY, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.4 

Burma’s ethnic diversity hasn’t translated into equal representation in the entertainment industry, but young ethnic stars are gradually rising above the prejudice held by the Burman majority. 

Back in the 1970s, when Sai Khan Lait would walk the city streets to go to school at Mandalay Medical Institute, kids along the way would heckle him for his peculiar attire: an ethnic Shan outfit. When hanging around campus, schoolgirls simpered at him. When at the hospital, he would be roundly upbraided by the nurses. "As a student coming from an ethnic minority group, I was very much aware that my life would not be easy in Mandalay," says Sai Khan Lait, who has since become the most famous and respected composer of original modern music in Burma. "Those experiences were deeply personal, and compelled me to compose the song, ‘A Shan Living in Mandalay’." The song went on to become one of the biggest hits in Burmese pop music history. I don’t swap my identity with others I am proud of being a hill person But it’s not easy to be a Shan living in Mandalay —"A Shan Living in Mandalay" Like most other ethnic entertainers looking to break into the national scene, Khan Lait had to hurdle walls of discrimination and prejudice. And while much of his work reflects on his untoward encounters in the predominantly Burman cities, Khan Lait never conceals the proud fact that he is Shan. 

His ethnic pride was tested, however, when he fell in love with a woman who was ethnically Burman. Heated pressure to reconsider his affection came not only from Burmans, but from his own ethnic peers as well. "After I married my Burmese wife, my Shan community freaked out," remembers Khan Lait. "They didn’t talk to me for a year." Earlier in his career, Khan Lait only composed songs in the Shan language, but his affection for his wife compelled him to start putting his music to Burmese lyrics. 

But Khan Lait’s amorous exploit is not applauded by all Shan, particularly the younger generation. "I would never marry a Burmese woman," vows Sai Bo Bo, a 28-year-old model who was born and raised in Shan State. "I have a responsibility to preserve my ethnicity. I’ll surely marry a Shan woman." Not that he’s turned his back on Burma. "I see my country as a union," explains Bo Bo, "but people don’t treat one another as equals." When speaking to his friends in Shan amid Burmans, he says, the latter would deride him for his choice of language. Burmanization has proved an irrepressible phenomenon, and has served the majority Burmans well. Burmanization is a typical practice of the dominant group to ride roughshod over the minority. Bo Bo says, "It’s not only Burmans versus Shan—we can also see how Shan mistreat the Pa-O a sub-ethnic group in Shan State. I hate it." 

Unfortunately, ethno-racism has plagued efforts at national unification for decades. Racist attitudes, whether concealed or flagrant, are found among all societies in various degrees and forms. But such grudges run especially deep in newer, post-colonial nations, where textbooks excoriate imperial powers for destroying the glory days of old and government statements feed citizens a steady diet of propaganda and political diatribes against outside intruders. In military-ruled Burma, however, ethno-racism thrives and proliferates in the dark. Since the country gained independence in 1948, ethno-racism has gained enormous destructive power as successive military regimes have systematically advanced such bigotry to bolster their legitimacy and to detract the masses from turmoil at home. 

Burma is a mosaic of ethnic diversity, but that has not translated into equal representation in the entertainment industry. Ethnic minorities and indigenous people represent one-third of the country’s 52 million inhabitants, which speak more than 100 different languages and dialects. Yet, the Burman-dominated military is bent on Burmanizing the entire country by eliminating—through military and other means—any potentially threatening vestiges of cultural independence in predominantly non-Burman areas. 

Thus, for young ethnic stars to make their mark on Burma’s entertainment landscape, they must assimilate into the Burman’s culture. But with this rise in popularity, observers have begun to explore the dynamics of Burma’s ethnic relations and the ethnic influence in popular culture. "When I speak Burmese, I have a difficult time adjusting my Chin accent," explains the 21-year-old superstar model, Thet Mon Myint. Born and raised in Chin State, she moved to Rangoon a few years ago after graduating from high school and is now a second-year economics student. After arriving in the capital, she gave up her given Chin name, Zung Cer Mawi, to become Thet Mon Myint. Since adopting the Burmese moniker, she says she never experiences ethnic discrimination, but actually receives encouragement from her adoring fans. "I think many of my fans love my Chin accent." 

Accents and other indigenous traits may attract instant attention from Burmese fans in search of new tastes and sounds, but no matter how exotic the appearances or the music, penetrating a domain that has traditionally been dominated by Burmans requires courage and great sacrifice. Sung Thin Par, a celebrated ethnic vocalist, is a prime example. "When I was setting off on my first venture into music," she says, "I was strongly encouraged by my producer and others to change my Chin name and use a new, pretty Burmese name." But the 23-year-old didn’t bow to the pressure. Her name, which translates as "noble" or "treasured flower", was given to her by grandma, and Sung Thin Par explains she would rather have forfeited the opportunity to sing than to embrace a Burmese sobriquet—a wise decision in retrospect. "I’ve heard some of my fans got interested in my albums now because of my name." Other singers also refuse to compromise their ethnicity to gain acceptance from the mainstream. "Since it is known that I am an ethnic, I believe that my fans will accept me as I am," explains an ethnic celebrity requesting anonymity. "But the producers and directors may be reluctant to give me contracts." But talent, of course, is what matters most—regardless of the singers’ social, ethnic, or economic backgrounds. "At the end of the day," says a renowned movie director in Burma, "the most important thing is whether one is a good actor or performer." 

Still, many young ethnic celebrities are keen to don their traditional apparel, not so much to set them apart from the Burman majority, but to express their ethnic pride. "The times when I wear my own ethnic dress are cherished moments," says Thet Mon Myint. "When I have photo shoots for calendars and posters, I love putting on my Chin outfit." Several ethnic celebrities also want to show Burmans that traditional attire is not reserved only for special festivals or state-sponsored events, such as the Union Day commemoration. "Traditional clothes are just that—not something we wear only for formal occasions," says Sai Bo Bo. "I wear Shan trousers almost all the time." 

For some aspiring ethnic performers, Christianity marks another distinction from the Burman mainstream. Attending church was key in shaping many singers’ identity and also proved a suitable venue to sing hymns. Sung Thin Par says that she tries to sing at least one religious song on each of her albums. Hackett, the 23-year-old heartthrob, also says that his experiences in church afforded him the opportunity to nurture his musical talents. The mixed blood Karen-Karenni first entered the entertainment industry in 1999 as a dancer before becoming model. He is now cutting his first album. "My life was enriched by my faith and ethnicity," Hackett says cheerfully. "But I am not parochial. I speak Karen as well as Kayah (Karenni) at home, but I get along fine with my Burman friends." Although he refers to his mother’s ethnicity as Kayah, the term given to the Karenni by the Burmese government in the 1950s, Hackett says his life’s mission is to improve the lives of fellow ethnic people, something that requires more than his art and performances. "My dad gave me the name Hackett. To me, it means that I must represent our region and devote my life to ethnic causes. My dad wants me to serve the development of the hill people." 

Nevertheless, nationwide popularity alone is enough to earn stars like Sai Bo Bo and Sung Thin Par adulation from their ethnic peers. Sai Khan Lait, however, cautions that while the fame and respect showered on ethnic celebrities by all quarters of Burmese society is certainly a step forward, further progress is needed. The bigger test, he explains, is whether the talents of these entertainers can lead to a better understanding between the marginalized ethnic people and the Burman majority. Sai Khan Lait has reason to be skeptical. He was recently approached by a Burman video director who asked permission to make a video comedy based on the hit single "A Shan Living in Mandalay." It is a deeply personal song that he says reflects the trying experiences of all ethnic people. "I was shocked and saddened by the proposal," he says. "Does he want to make fun of ethnic sentiments?" The lyrics he composed for that song over three decades ago still appear to ring true today: The life and experience of a Shan Who tries to settle in Mandalay Is the same as before. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dragon's Lady

The Opinion Pages  | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR 

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dragon's Lady

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Opinion Pages  | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR 

In Myanmar, a Soft Coup Ahead of an Election

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is Burma’s Opposition Ready for the Post-Aung San Suu Kyi Era?

Is Burma’s Opposition Ready for the Post-Aung San Suu Kyi Era?


Burma has a national election coming up in a few months, and its outcome is uncertain. But one thing is already clear: Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the immensely popular leader of the democratic opposition, won’t be a candidate for president. That’s because the country’s military-dominated political establishment has refused to countenance any changes to the current constitution, which includes strictures that prevent her from becoming head of state.
And that, in turn, means that the opposition movement already has to start addressing an impending leadership vacuum. The problem has been compounded by Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to cultivate a successor. The election, scheduled for Nov. 8, would seem to offer an ideal opportunity for cultivating a new generation of political activists and pro-democracy politicians — not least because Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), currently doesn’t even have enough qualified candidates to contest every constituency that’s up for grabs. Yet when she recently had a chance to bring some fresh blood into her party’s electoral list, the Lady (as her admirers call her) demurred.
The general public, as well as a majority of the members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, are keen to see her seek unity with the largest and most respected pro-democracy group outside the NLD — namely the 88 Generation, made up of the leaders of the 1988 student-led uprising that transformed Burmese politics. (Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of activists were killed in the crackdown by the ruling military junta at the time.) The NLD’s Central Executive Committee had urged including leading members of the 88 Generation on the party’s electoral list. Yet the Lady recently shocked many of her supporters by rejecting the applications of more than 20 candidates (the precise number is unclear). She accepted only one.
The 88 Generation and Aung San Suu Kyi are old allies in the fight against dictatorship. The student revolt gave Aung San Suu Kyi her first opportunity to present herself as a national political leader. The NLD even adopted the student union’s symbolic fighting peacock as its own symbol. For more than a quarter-century, the members of the 88 Generation have supported Aung San Suu Kyi with unyielding faith. Its members endured harsh consequences for their loyalty, including long stints in prison. This year the group even stood by the Lady during her fruitless campaign to pressure the military into allowing constitutional amendments that would enable her to run for the presidency.
The NLD leaders’ rejection of the new recruits thus came as a particular shock. Observers were particularly caught off guard by Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to accept Ko Ko Gyi, a top leader of the group who spent over 17 years in prison for his political activities and who is widely regarded as a rising political star.
The Lady’s decision prompted unprecedented complaints and street protests by NLD activists across the country, who claimed that her ruling flouted party procedure. Hundreds of local NLD officials have either resigned or been expelled by the party as “punishment” for their refusal to go along.
Inside sources in both the NLD and the 88 Generation told me that the decision to turn down the new arrivals was Aung San Suu Kyi’s own. “She was afraid to recruit politically influential figures because she does not want any rivals for the throne of the party or the country,” said one former high-ranking party official. Key members of the 88 Generation told me that Aung San Suu Kyi said she was worried that accepting the newcomers might stimulate factional conflict within the party.
The paradox is painful. The woman who once articulated a powerful philosophy of “freedom from fear” now seems to have succumbed to it.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s rejection of the 88 Generation is not an isolated case. The party’s relations with other political allies are also strained. The NLD recently decided to contest almost every constituency in the states dominated by ethnic minority groups, which are usually represented by their own political parties — parties that are also natural friends of the NLD because of their opposition to the authoritarian policies of the central government. The NLD declined to negotiate with the ethnic minority parties about candidates and voting districts, deciding instead to treat the local political groups as outright electoral competitors. One of the most respected ethnic minority leaders, who once headed a body that brought together representatives of the NLD and the ethnic minority parties, has accused Aung San Suu Kyi and her party of “lying” to the ethnic minority political parties about their election plans.
The NLD also has poor relations with civil society groups, which used to be staunch supporters of the party. These groups accuse the party of disregarding democratic principles, above all its reluctance to denounce harsh government crackdowns on public protests, particularly the recent student demonstrations for an education reform bill. In June, NLD officials sought the help of civil society groups in checking for flaws in voter registration lists. Only a dozen groups, a small fraction of the total, agreed to cooperate with the NLD. Since then, though, even this limited collaboration has fallen apart.
So why has the Lady chosen to burn her bridges like this? There are two possible answers.
First, she believes that she can still lead the NLD to a landslide election triumph. She is firmly convinced that she can rely on her personal standing to carry her to victory. She has urged the crowds who greet her at rallies to “vote for the party, not the name of the candidate,” according to Radio Free Asia. Observers believe it is highly likely that the NLD will win the popular vote and control of the lower house of parliament, but that still won’t give it control of the government or the presidency, given the constraints placed upon Burma’s political system by the current constitution, which was drawn up under the old military regime.
Second, Aung San Suu Kyi has apparently been banking on her recent political friendship with Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament, to help her forge a post-election coalition. Some NLD insiders had suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi might endorse Shwe Mann — himself a former general with ties reaching deep into the political establishment — as a presidential candidate, rather than someone from her own party. Her hope, apparently, was that, once in power, Shwe Mann would push through the reforms that would enable her to run for president later on. This strategy would help to explain her rather cavalier attitude toward so many of her longtime allies.
The generals, however, have now thwarted this plan. On Aug. 12, in what some have described as a miniature “coup,” the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) purged Shwe Mann from his post as the head of the party (thus effectively robbing him of his power base in parliament). His fate now appears precarious, and his alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi has become a liability. (Reuters reported that Shwe Mann was removed from the USDP thanks to his “ties to rival party leaders,” citing the president’s spokesman.) The political demise of Shwe Mann now dramatically narrows Aung San Suu Kyi’s options in post-election horse-trading. The loss of her ally from the ruling elite may well mean the end of her last chance to achieve the presidency.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s strategic blunder on alliance politics has not only created a leadership vacuum within her party. It is also likely to prompt a split within the main opposition party once the elections are over. Her authoritarian leadership style, her failure to build up proper party institutions, and the likely inflow of opportunists after an election victory will all contribute to a more fragmented party in the future.
Unless the second-tier leaders of the overall opposition movement begin serious preparations for the post-Aung San Suu Kyi era, the movement will face serious problems. Even if the NLD wins the most votes in the November election, Burma will still have a long way to go before it achieves anything remotely resembling a democracy. But the country might get there a little bit faster if the new generation of opposition leaders can find a way to unify the pro-democracy movement once again.
The photo above shows Aung San Suu Kyi registering as an election candidate at a district court in Rangoon.
Photo credit: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Corrections, Aug. 19, 2015: Aung San Suu Kyi told supporters to “vote for the party, not the name of the candidate,” according to Radio Free Asia. An earlier version of this article mistakenly quoted her as saying, “vote for the party, without taking into consideration the ‘stature’ of those selected to contest the election, and not even giving a look at the name of the candidate.” The words “without taking into consideration the ‘stature’ of those selected to contest the election” were written by an Irrawaddyreporter when paraphrasing Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks. Burma’s ruling party is the Union Solidarity and Development Party. An earlier version of this article mistakenly called it the Union Social Development Party. Based on an interview with the president’s spokesman, Reuters reported that Shwe Mann was removed from the USDP thanks to his “ties to rival party leaders.” An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed the quote “ties to rival party leaders” directly to the spokesman.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why There’s Less to Burma’s Peace Process Than Meets the Eye

Why There’s Less to Burma’s Peace Process Than Meets the Eye

If you’ve been following the news from Burma over the past two months, you’ll have probably heard encouraging talk of a looming end to the country’s decades-old civil war. According to the headlines, negotiators from the government and ethnic rebel groups have been closing in on the holy grail of a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA), which aims to halt 60 years of ethnic conflict. Lately, though, it’s become painfully apparent that there’s a bit less to the whole story than meets the eye.

In a meeting last week, President Thein Sein urged the leaders of Burma’s political parties to work with him on launching an inclusive national dialogue aimed at creating a lasting basis for peace. The dialogue, which will include representatives from a wide variety of groups and institutions, is supposed to take a place before the general election later this year. The president described the dialogue process as a crucial precondition to reforming the constitution and establishing a federal state. According to the government’s peace roadmap, the conflict parties are supposed to draft a framework for political dialogue within 60 days of official signing of the ceasefire. The dialogue process is supposed to start within another 30 days after that.

The president is clearly eager to achieve a ceasefire agreement — a goal that has consumed enormous amounts of his administration’s energy over the past four years — as soon as possible. It’s important to remember that, even though the point of the NCA is to stop the various sides from killing each other, it’s not supposed to be a comprehensive peace agreement. Even so, reaching a ceasefire would be a major accomplishment for the Burmese president, and it’s clear that he doesn’t have much time in which to make it happen. By early 2016, he’s almost certain to have left office (since there’s little indication that he’s planning to run for a second term), and he’s eager to conclude the NCA and launch the dialogue while he’s still in power.

Yet his strategy raises questions. First of all, is it really feasible to reach the ceasefire agreement before the election? The answer is a qualified “yes,” since an NCA signed in haste will almost necessarily be fragile and incomplete. Second, will the ceasefire agreement necessarily lead to a political dialogue prior to the elections, thus promoting the broader peace-building process? Here the answer is almost certainly “no.”

Several of the major armed groups and the government reached a preliminary agreement on a draft text for the NCA on March 31, but the deal has yet to be signed. (The photo above shows President Thein Sein presiding over the March 31 negotiation.) Delegates of the rebel groups that agreed to the draft, and who have said that they would submit the text to a gathering of the ethnic leaders for final approval in early June, are now saying that they want to amend key sections.

While the United Nationalities Federal Council, an alliance of ethnic groups, has been insisting that all armed groups should be included in the NCA, the military has refused to deal with one of the alliance’s members. That exception is the MNDAA, the political organization of the Kokang, who are currently locked in intense combat with the Burmese military in their remote northeastern territory along the border with China. Even though the alliance keeps insisting on an inclusive deal, I suspect that the government can eventually manage to persuade most of the ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA, thus putting the Kokang issue aside temporarily.

And this could lead to a rather ironic situation – namely that the ceasefire might end up being signed at a moment when more people are fighting and dying in Burma’s internal wars than at any other time in recent memory. In the northeast part of the country, the Burmese military is continuing its fight with the Kachin and the Kokang and their allies; in the west, government forces are still clashing with the Arakan ethnic rebels. The Burmese military has a long history of using “divide and rule” tactics against its ethnic rebel enemies; given the current situation, one is tempted to suspect that this is one area where little has changed.

And what about the groups that do sign up for the deal? Here, too, there are a whole series of problems that have to be addressed.

Signing on to the NCA is just the first step in a long and complicated process. Ensuring that the signatories live up to their commitments under the ceasefire is going to be a challenge. Based on past practice in other conflicts, a full-fledged ceasefire agreement should commit each conflict party to establish a military code of conduct dictating how their troops should behave, as well as an independent ceasefire monitoring mechanism to enforce the code. In Burma, though, the parties have not made any corresponding agreements, so there is no real mechanism to prevent backsliding.

Establishing a political dialogue will also require plenty of complicated negotiations. First the various parties have to agree on a group of “inclusive representatives” who will draw up the framework of the dialogue. Then the parties have to figure out who will actually take part in the process.

Another major obstacle on the path to a lasting peace is the Burmese military’s declared “six-point principles.” Its most controversial demand is that the ethnic armed groups must adhere to the 2008 constitution written by the military junta that then ruled the country. The constitution maintains a leading political role for the military, including an effective veto over future amendments. The ethnic groups worry that accepting the constitution could limit their room for maneuver in future negotiation with the government. An insightful report recently published by the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute neatly captured the sentiment among the ethnic groups when it noted that “acceptance of the present political system could mean envelopment in a constitutional straitjacket that will make meaningful dialogue impossible.”

At some point the peace process also has to address even more fundamental questions arising from the need to reform Burma’s political institutions. How should a new federal structure allow the regions to share power with the center? What about policies for disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating rebel fighters, as well as for reforming the Burmese military itself? And what can be done to end the broad range of highly destructive economic habits that have emerged during the long years of civil war, such as illegal resource extraction, land grabbing, and a rampant drug trade?

Finally, all the parties involved in the ceasefire also have to figure out how to reconcile the dialogue process with the possibility of a change in the government as a result of the election. (The precise date of the vote has yet to be determined, but right now a date in November looks most likely.) Sources close to the government have told me that the ethnic groups should seize the opportunity to sign the ceasefire agreement and enter the political dialogue before the vote. The implication is that the ethnic groups should seize what’s on offer while they can, since the next government could prove either unpredictable or more hardline. Ashley South, a consultant who has advised some of the ethnic groups, warns that a future government may not prioritize the peace process the same way that the current one does: “Indeed, a future government (especially if led by the [democratic opposition]) is likely to press the ‘reset button’ on political negotiations,” he noted.

Despite all these difficulties, though, it’s important to point out that at least one thing has changed for the better. President Thein Sein and his team deserve credit for creating a culture of dialogue where, until recently, only the principle of confrontation reigned. Today both the Burmese military and the major ethnic rebel groups are constantly being nudged back to the negotiating table by the president and his peace team even as bloody battles continue. The long-standing enemies are still talking. This is to be welcomed — even if the bar seems low to some critics.

So yes, talking is better than shooting. But those involved in the peace process still have plenty of work ahead of them if they want to prevent a return to war.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Real Problem With Myanmar

The Real Problem With Myanmar

The Opinion Pages  | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR 

The Real Problem With Myanmar