33. Hope for Myanmar

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Southeast Asia: “After World War II, my people finally broke free from the European colonial powers that had dominated my territory for centuries. Unfortunately, the International Business Cartel’s political and military branch, the US government, stepped in to assert control.

However, it was a different type of political rule. Instead of taking over, they simply bribed significant local officials to do their bidding. Due to the inefficient and unpredictable nature of democracies, military dictatorships were preferred. A partial list of the military dictators and their countries that the US provided with military assistance includes: Diem in Vietnam, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Ne Win in Burma, Phibun in Thailand, Lon Nol in Cambodia, Marcos in the Philippines, and Suharto in Indonesia. By granting the pliable sultanates political control, Malaysia was able to avoid a military dictatorship.

Ultimately, the indigenous people in many of these countries forced repressive regimes out of power. The Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986), Indonesia’s Suharto (1965-1998) and Burma’s Ne Win (1962-1988) all stepped down due to popular uprisings. Widespread outrage frequently led to social disturbance resulting from peaceful protest and outright rioting. We left the individual narratives of these nations at the point in time that these long-term dictators left the annals of history. What happened to these countries in the decades after their dictators stepped down or were forced to leave?

We’ve seen what happened to 3 of my mainland countries – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. After the French colonized the territory as Indochina in the late 1890s, these 3 nations were tied together as a group. They revolted from France together. They were subjected to the traumatic US bombing and suffered the destructive aftermath together. All three went through and recovered from the disastrous communist social experiment during the same time period. It is only in the 21st century that their destinies are separating.

What about my other mainland country – now Myanmar, previously Burma? As a British colony separated by independent Thailand, this nation’s course has been quite different from the rest.”

The immediate consequences of Burma’s 8888 Uprising

Recall that Burma became an independent democracy in 1948 in part due to Aung San’s prodigious efforts. Unfortunately he was assassinated. Due to the multiplicity of ethnicities, perhaps over a hundred, there were numerous revolts in the new country, with many groups attempting to establish religious and ethnic autonomy from the greater state. Ne Win, Aung San’s second in command, was appointed head of the police and then the military in order to establish social order and prevent the country from fragmenting.

In the early 1960s, Thakin Nu, Burma’s president, attempted to enforce majority rule on the rest of the population by making Buddhism the exclusive state religion and establishing strict requirements for citizenship. These racist and intolerant political moves ignited revolts. Then he nationalized the shipping industry, which was run by the military. To reestablish social stability and regain the military’s prerogatives, Ne Win took over the government and banned the democracy.

Ne Win ruled Burma as a military dictator from 1962 until 1988, either directly or from behind the scenes. It is reasonable to characterize him as Burma’s abusive father, as his regime’s repressive measures aggravated the political tensions in the multi-ethnic population. Further xenophobia, centralization and internal corruption isolated the Burmese from the international community and destroyed the economy. Due to the disastrous economic policies that mixed communism, Buddhism and superstition, the impoverished country earned the dubious distinction of being on the Least Developed Nation list.

In addition to being repressive and corrupt, Ne Win was also superstitious. He considered the number 9 to be lucky for him. With this in mind, he 'demonetized' any currency that was not divisible by 9 in September 1987. In other words, the only bank notes that were worth anything were the 45 and 90 kyat bills. The rest of the currency was worthless after his ‘demonetization’. Besides wiping out the savings of the vast majority of people, Ne Win’s bizarre strategy caused a major downturn in the economy.

This strange move catalyzed the resistance movement that had already been growing. In March and June of 1988, the police brutally suppressed student-led protests, which resulted in the deaths of over a hundred citizens. Outraged, the public engaged in widespread pro-democracy protests and demonstrations throughout the country. Presumably due to the growing social turbulence, Ne Win finally resigned.

However, civil disobedience only increased. In a well-coordinated effort, massive protests and demonstrations erupted on August 8, 1988. As such it is called the 8888 Uprising. The country seemed on the verge of revolution. The military stepped in to reassert control, killing thousands in the process. Shortly after, the military junta established martial law to quell this expression of social rage.

To appease the international community, the new military dictatorship claimed it was merely putting down a communist uprising. However, no one was fooled. Everyone knew that the revolt had widespread support for good reason and was an internal call for government reform.

It was a good sign that the military government, instead of relying on a violent repression, made an attempt to alleviate the social unrest by introducing some significant changes. They changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar to reflect the multiplicity of ethnicities that made up the nation. Further, to appease the pro-democracy movement and the international community, they arranged to have a general election in 1990.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi

Early in 1988, the same year that Ne Win resigned due to popular protests, Aung San Suu Kyi returned home to care for her ailing mother. Suu Kyi was the daughter of Aung San, the revolutionary leader who had played a key role in leading Burma to independence. She was born on June 19, 1945, just as her country was shedding colonial rule. Two years later, as her father’s efforts were on the verge of success, he was assassinated.

Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi, was also a prominent political figure in Burma’s fledgling democracy. She was appointed Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960. As a teenager, Suu Kyi accompanied her mother on these diplomatic missions. After Ne Win seized control and Burma became a military dictatorship, she continued to travel and study abroad.

Dismayed at what was happening to Burma on her return in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi joined the pro-democracy movement. Partially due to her family’s prestige and partially due to her exceptional talents, she rapidly rose to a leadership position. Genuinely committed to social reform, she was equally devoted to a non-violent solution that would benefit all the diverse ethnicities that inhabited Myanmar/Burma.

As a Theravada Buddhist like 90% of the citizens of Myanmar, non-violence was certainly in keeping with the philosophy of her religion. However, as a student of Gandhi, Suu Kyi claims she instead chose non-violence as an expedient political tactic.

“I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons.”

Due to the purity of her motives, she became widely popular and the spokesperson for the democracy movement. Shortly after the 8888 Uprising, she addressed a half a million people, calling for a democratic Burma. At this time, she was also instrumental in forming the National League for Democracy, a pro-democracy party.

Understanding her power and national prestige, the military government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest before the national election of 1990. Although offered the option of exile, she refused, fearing that she would never be able to return to assist her people.

Even though she was confined, her party, the National League for Democracy, won 80% of the seats in the seemingly free and fair election of 1990. However, the military junta refused to step down. During the crisis, opposition leaders formed an alliance with the military with the intention of getting out from under the dictatorship and forming a new government.

Suu Kyi derailed the plan. She objected to this takeover of the government as rule by the masses, in contrast with democratic rule. Without her support, the popular revolution faded. Some have labeled this as a ‘major strategic mistake’ on her part, especially since, the military continued to rule the country for over 20 more years, until March 2011.

In hindsight, it is easy to imagine that the entire army would have shifted to the side of Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement with everyone living ‘happily ever after’. However, it is also possible that a significant branch of the military might have violently resisted this supposedly nonviolent takeover. Under this scenario, the consequence of this ‘people’s revolt’ could have easily resulted in a destructive civil war and/or social chaos. Suu Kyi’s reluctance to support mass rule, while potentially derailing the democracy movement, may have also avoided internal armed conflict. No one will ever know which strategy was best.

Suu Kyi remained under house arrest until 2010. Because of her integrity, she became a national, and even international, symbol of the power of the people standing up to a repressive regime in a non-violent fashion. Due to her peaceful efforts at social reform, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She donated the $1.3 million prize to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people.

To explain their choice the Nobel Committee stated:

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma) for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. ...Suu Kyi's struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression ... In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honor this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.” — Oslo, 14 October 1991.

During her house arrest, Suu Kyi was isolated from both her children and husband. Although the military government consistently offered to allow her exile, she chose to remain in Burma. As one of the world's most prominent political prisoners, her imprisonment focused the entire world on her country’s political plight.

One of Suu Kyi’s strengths was her eloquence as an orator. As an example, she begins her notable Freedom From Fear speech with the statement:

“It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

During the first decade of the new millennium, economic conditions for the bulk of the population continued to degrade, while members of the military became increasingly wealthy. Further major human rights violations continued unabated. For instance in 2006, the International Labor Organization accused Myanmar’s military government of subjecting an estimated 800,000 citizens to forced labor.

In August 2007, the government suddenly stopped subsidizing fuel. This led to a sharp rise in transportation prices, including buses, a favored mode of transport. This economic burden upon an already struggling population ignited popular protests against government policies. Because Buddhist monks in their saffron robes led the demonstrations, it was sometimes called the Saffron Revolution.

Looking on the bright side, the government allowed these public protests, the first in a decade, to continue for over a month before cracking down. Further the number of protestors killed was less than 100, as compared with the thousands murdered in the 1988 uprising.

Then in May 2008, Cyclone Nargis wrecked havoc on the country. An estimated 1 million people lost their homes and another 200,000 lost their lives in the worst disaster in Myanmar’s history. The government’s belated response and reluctance to accept foreign aid for fear of intervention further outraged the citizenry as well as the international community.

In the same year, the military government announced that there would be national elections in 2010. Some analysts said that this decision was a result of international economic sanctions and isolation. Other commentators claimed that the junta had the political situation so well in hand that they had nothing to fear from an election. Further, in a new 2008 Constitution written primarily by government officials, the Burmese Armed Forces were able to appoint nearly one fourth of the representatives to the legislature – a bit tainted. Pointing to the true nature of their new policy, they referred to it as a ‘disciplined democracy’.

Of course, the government party won the widely criticized general election of 2010 in which Suu Kyi’s party did not participate. In signs of lightening up, they finally released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest just days after the election. Although all international observers agreed that the electoral process was corrupt, everyone was equally optimistic that Myanmar’s first election in 20 years and Suu Kyi’s release were at least moves in the right direction towards granting the citizenry more personal freedoms.

There was perhaps yet another factor influencing the military junta’s decisions to ease up restrictions. The Japanese government, one of Myanmar’s biggest donors, promised even more assistance if the government freed Suu Kyi and continued moving towards democracy and rule of law, as contrasted with rule by decree. Perhaps the carrot is a more effective persuasive tool than the stick.

Relinquishing control to the elected government officials that they controlled, the military junta peacefully dissolved in 2011 after nearly a half-century in power. The political situation brightened considerably in the following years as significant reforms were established. Perhaps because of dialogues with Suu Kyi, these reforms included, the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, general amnesties for more than 200 political prisoners, institution of new labor laws that allow labor unions and strikes, relaxation of press censorship, and regulations of currency practices.

All of these political moves have significantly improved Myanmar’s human rights record. Due to these improvements, the United States and the European Union have eased decades-long economic sanctions. Because of this opening up, international relations have improved and economic assistance has increased.

In the 2012 mid-term elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was finally allowed to participate. She won a seat in Parliament. Plus her party won nearly all of the vacant seats in the lower house. Because of these successes, she became Leader of the Opposition.

Suu Kyi continues to publicly campaign for a revision of the 2008 Constitution, which leaves power in the hands of the military. For instance, their absolute control of the judiciary system means that the court regularly ratifies government repression as a legal activity. Suu Kyi announced that she wants to run for the presidency in the 2015 elections. However, the government has written laws prohibiting her from becoming president. It is apparent that the political transition in Myanmar is not towards a liberal democracy, but instead towards quasi-military rule. Although political circumstances could be a lot better, these are all optimistic signs for the future freedoms of Myanmar’s citizenry.

Myanmar’s Religious & Ethnic Conflicts: Continuing & Preventable

Since Myanmar’s inception as an independent nation in 1948, domestic revolts and civil wars have plagued the country. This continues to be the case over 60 years later. Why?

Myanmar consists of wide river plains surrounded by high and rugged mountain ranges that provide the natural borders with India and Thailand. The bulk of the population lives in the fertile valleys. Most of these are Burmese, who comprise two thirds of the population. Most of the remaining citizens live in the hills. Due to the harsh terrain, the hill people consist of 100 culturally and linguistically distinct semi-nomadic groups.

When the government treats the hill people with respect, the diverse cultures respond in kind. This is why Burma could exist as an independent and powerful nation for so many centuries. Conversely when the Burmese majority forces its ways upon the rest of country, the isolated hill people resist and inevitably revolt.

Although 90% of the population is Theravada Buddhist, Myanmar has significant Christian and Muslim populations as well. If their religions are treated with respect, there are no problems. However, when their religions are singled out for persecution, revolution is the result.

During Ne Win’s autocratic rule, he favored the Burmese and Buddhism at the expense of the other ethnicities and religions. This led to major domestic rebellions. His administration spent vast amounts of time, money and energy fighting these local revolts. Although the stick didn’t work, the constant turmoil provided an international justification for Ne Win’s repressive regime.

Student revolts and social turbulence led to Ne Win’s resignation in 1988. The new military administration employed political accommodation rather than a military solution. As a result, they achieved a ceasefire with 135 of 150 rebel groups between 1992 and 1994.

However because of continuing corruption and repression on part of the government, Myanmar continues to be beset by civil wars, revolts and ethnic controversy. There are ongoing civil wars on the perimeters of the country, especially in the rugged mountains of the northeastern border. Predominantly non-Burmese ethnic groups, such as Kachin, Shan, Lahu and Karen, continue to fight for local autonomy. Some of these of minority groups are quite large.

For instance, there are 4 million Shan, 1/10 of the population, organized into some 30 small states. Shan, the language, is in the Tai language family of Laos and Thailand rather the Sino-Tibetan language family of the Burmese. They even have their own script. Because of their faraway northeastern location away from the coasts, the Shan still ruled themselves when the British were in charge of Burma. It was only after the Burmese attained independence from England that they were forced to give up their autonomy.

However, they never accepted their presumed fate. The many Shan states on the eastern border were key players in the opium poppy trade surrounding the Golden Triangle. They employed this drug money to fight for their traditional autonomy. Note that the Shan willingly joined the greater Burmese nation when they were treated well. Unfortunately the corrupt military dictatorship that ruled Burma for a half century did not fit into this category. In other words, the corrupt and repressive practices of the military government ignited and fueled the continuing Shan rebellion. The same could also be said to hold true for the other ethnic revolts.

Repressive practices on the part of the Burmese government have certainly created a hostile relationship between the Rohingya Muslims and Myanmar’s Buddhists. Inspired by certain Buddhist monks, the Burmese population has frequently rioted against the Rohingya Muslims – destroying property and lives. The government has looked the other way. Even Suu Kyi has refused to speak against the mayhem. Perhaps she doesn’t want to risk offending the predominantly Buddhist population due to the upcoming elections. Both claim that these are local problems and that the Muslims aren’t citizens anyway.

The 1982 Citizenship Law prohibited the Rohingya from becoming citizens due to their religious beliefs. As such, they are treated as illegal immigrants with prohibitions on property-ownership, education and public service. This internal discrimination and even genocide is a clear case of religious prejudice from a predominantly Buddhist population against an Islamic minority. Tsk, tsk, Suu Kyi!

For Myanmar to be truly at peace, the administration must extend basic human rights to all of its citizens, including freedom of religion. Further, the government must cease forcing majority views upon the rest. Although political circumstances seem to be improving, Myanmar’s corrupt and repressive military regime has left the country with an unfortunate legacy, continuing ethnic revolts combined with grinding poverty.

In summary, although the military has relinquished some control to civilian authorities since 2011, Myanmar has a long way to go. Elections are held, but the results are suspect as the army’s leaders still retain control of the media and appoint a quarter of the representatives. Further the government continues to look the other way when Buddhists attack the largely Muslim Rohingya minority.

 

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