Reconciliation in Burma
What’s in a name?
I generally like to call this South East Asian nation “Burma” rather than “Myanmar”. In doing so, I am in line with the US State Department: “Although the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) changed the name of the country to ‘Myanmar,’ the democratically elected but not convened Parliament of 1990 does not recognize the name change, and the democratic opposition maintains use of the name ‘Burma.’ Due to consistent, unyielding support for the democratically elected leaders, the U.S. Government likewise uses ‘Burma’.”
Burmese lessons for Sri Lanka?
That “State Peace and Development Council “ is the name the dictatorship gives itself. They have been giving a show recently of relaxing their grip somewhat. On July 30, US Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats told the Washington International Trade Association: “My baseline scenario is they will continue to move in the direction of reform”.
President Thein Sein
The “new” government, led by President Thein Sein, a former military general, has started overhauling the country’s economy, easing media censorship, legalizing trade unions and protests and freeing political prisoners. The most prominent of those, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, has been allowed to travel outside the country.
I have seen a few bizarre comments in the Sri Lankan media suggesting that the Sri Lankan should look to Burma for lessons on how to conduct itself. These commentators seem determined to think the worst of Sri Lanka if they think the nation consistently placed at number 190 in the human rights league of shame could be an exemplar to anyone.
“There has been one admirable quality among many Burmese leaders in the past and present, unlike in Sri Lanka. They were modest enough to admit failures. Ne Win himself declared that ‘Burmese socialism’ was a failure and stepped down in 1988. That led to continuous social upheavals asking for democracy.”
General Ne Win
So says Laksiri Fernando, author of Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka writing in the Asian Tribune. Fernando can even see the bright side of the ethnic conflicts in Burma: “There are thousands and thousands of internally displaced people in the country due to the ethnic conflict. No one calls the ethnic conflict a myth like in Sri Lanka!” Another great thing was, according to Fernando, that “no insurgency evolved into ruthless terrorism like in Sri Lanka”.
British rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese Wars through the creation of Burma as a province of British India. The First Anglo-Burmese War arose from friction between Arakan in western Burma and British-held Chittagong to the north. The British navy took Rangoon without a fight in 1824 but the war itself had cost 15,000 European and Indian troops and cost the equivalent of 48 billion US dollars of today. This caused a severe economic crisis for British India. In 1852, the Second Anglo-Burmese War was provoked by the British who wanted the teak forests in Lower Burma as well as a port between Calcutta and Singapore.
The Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 was because of the British desire to get their hands on the resources of the north. The British government justified their actions by claiming that the last independent king of Myanmar, Thibaw, was a tyrant and that he was conspiring to give France more influence in the country. After 25 years of peace fighting started again and lasted until the British occupied the whole of Lower Burma.
The Third Anglo-Burmese War lasted less than two weeks during November 1885. British troops entered Mandalay on 28 November 1885 and Burma was incorporated into the British empire on 1 January 1886. The new colony of Upper Burma was attached to the Burma Province on 26 February 1886. Rangoon, having been the capital of British Lower Burma, became the capital of the province.
The British tied Burmese economy to global market forces and forced Burma to become a part of the colonial export economy. Suddenly a large amount of Burmese resources were being exported for Britain’s benefit, thereby extracring the resources needed by the Burmese to continue living their lives as they had before colonisation. Vast tracts of land were converted for cultivation of rice for export. Burmese farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders at high interest rates prepare the new land for cultivation. This often led to the eviction of indigenous farmers and most jobs went to indentured Indian labourers.
An account by a British official describing the conditions of the Burmese people’s livelihoods in 1941 describes the Burmese hardships as they must quickly adapt to foreign trade:
“The peasant had grown factually poorer and unemployment had increased…. The collapse of the Burmese social system led to a decay of the social conscience which, in the circumstances of poverty and unemployment caused a great increase in crime.”
Burmese were excluded from the civil service and the military which were staffed by Indians, Anglo-Burmese and minority groups such as the Karens. The Burmese resented both the British and the Indian migrants, and staged guerrilla warfare, often led by former Burmese army officers, against the British army of occupation.
The British rulers imposed a separation of church and state and exiled King Thibaw. This was a way of imposing direct control. The monarchy had supported the sangha and the Buddhist monks were dependent on the monarchy and explained the monarchy to the public. The imperial power introduced a secular education system and encouraged Christian missionaries to found schools Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture were discouraged as part of a plan to deprive the Burmese people of a cultural unity separate from the British.
Resistance continued in northern Burma until 1890, with the British systematically destroying villages. Grass-roots control was exercised by burning villages and uprooting established families regarded as disloyal. Dissent was suppressed by mass executions.
An independence movement emerged in the early 20th century, initially led by monks and students. A nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA). Between 1900 and 1911 the “Irish Buddhist” U Dhammaloka (a hobo variously known as Laurence Carroll, Laurence O’Rourke and William Colvin or “Captain Daylight”, who was probably born in Dublin in 1850) publicly challenged Christianity and imperial power, leading to two trials for sedition.
By the 1930s a new radical movement known as the Thakin was formed. Its leading figures included Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win. They began to look to neighbouring powers to help break the yoke of British rule. One student, Ko Aung Kyaw, was beaten to death by British colonial police in the third Rangoon University student boycott in December 1938. Students had been supporting striking oil workers. In Mandalay, police shot into a crowd of protesters led by Buddhist monks, killing 17 people.
Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, sought support for the Burmese independence struggle from Japan. Japan invaded Burma in 1942 but never succeeded in fully conquering the whole country. On 1 August 1943, the Japanese declared Burma to be an independent nation. Aung San was appointed War Minister. He became disillusioned with the Japanese. One of his followers told General Slim: ‘If the British sucked our blood, the Japanese ground our bones!’ When the British defeated the Japanese Aung San was offered the rank of Deputy Inspector General of the Burma Army, but he declined and became the civilian political leader and the military leader of the People’s Volunteer Organisation (PVO).
He was assassinated on 19 July 1947 Former prime minister U Saw was tried and hanged. A number of middle-ranking British army officers were also were tried and imprisoned. There were rumours of higher-level British involvement, and/or involvement by Ne Win Aung San’s long-term rival.
U Saw with Lord Halifax
For most of its existence as an independent nation, Burma has been a military dictatorship. There were sporadic protests against military rule during the Ne Win years and these were almost always violently suppressed. In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant, Burmese UN General Secretary. Student protests in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were quickly suppressed by overwhelming force.
General Saw Maung
In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression led to pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators. General Saw Maung staged a coup and established SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration council. In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years and the NLD – National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 80% of the seats. SLORC continued to rule until 1997, and then ruled as the SPDC until March 2011.
Pace Mr Fernando, analyst Martin Smith believes “Burma has been the scene of some of the most-sustained and diverse ethnic insurgencies in the contemporary world… conflict resolution––with integrated support from the international community––remains a primary need if Burma and its peoples are to achieve peace, democracy, and a stable nation-state.” There are 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Burma. Martin Smith writes: “In the deep mountains and forests of the borderland periphery, over 20 armed opposition groups controlled, under their own administrations, vast swathes of territory and continued to reflect an often changing alignment of different political or nationality causes.”
The Thailand Burma Border Consortium’s (TBBC) annual report on conditions in South East Burma “found that more people had been forcibly displaced from their homes during the past year than any other since data was first collected in 2002.” Jack Dunford, the TBBC’s Executive Director, said: “A determined and sustained effort to resolve ethnic conflict in Burma is essential to avoid another generation of violence and abuse.” In recent years the TBBC’s and its partner agencies have documented “the destruction, forced relocation or abandonment of more than 3,700 civilian settlements in South East Burma since 1996.” The TBBC statement estimated that during the past year at least 112,000 people were forced to abandon their homes. “While some fled into Thailand as part of an ongoing flow of new refugee arrivals and others returned to former villages or resettled elsewhere in Burma, over 450,000 people currently remain internally displaced in the south eastern region.”
Mr Dunford said that while democratic reforms by the “new” government are both vital and welcomed but conflict has increased in ethnic areas.
Even though some wish to be optimistic about Burma, oppression of minorities hits the headlines even today. Burma has a substantial Muslim population, known as Rohingyas, of 800,000. Rohingyas have been subjected to persecution for decades. According to Amnesty International, 200,000 of them fled to Bangladesh in 1978 to escape a brutal military operation. Another 250,000 went into exile in 1991-92. The refugees complained of rape, persecution and forced labour by the military. Another 100,000 fled to Thailand, but were forced to leave for camps along the border. Although the Rohingyas have lived in Burma since the eight century they are regarded as illegal immigrants with no rights. A 56-page report released Wednesday by Human rights Watch group called for strong international reaction to “atrocities” committed during last month’s bloody unrest between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas, which left 78 people dead and about 100,000 homeless.
Recently a foreign journalist asked Aung Sang Suu Kyi whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know. We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” This can be translated as “I won’t get any votes by defending a minority group”.
The US had accepted Burma as one of the original beneficiaries of its Generalized System of Preference (GSP) program in 1976. It also granted Burma Most Favored Nation (MFN, now referred to as Normal Trade Relations, or NTR) status, and supported the provision of developmental assistance by international financial institutions.
There were also close military to military relations (including a major International Military Education and Training [IMET] programme) until 1988. The implementing of sanctions on Burma did not begin until after the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) brutally suppressed a peaceful, popular protest that has become known as the 8888 Uprising. Starting in the fall of 1987, popular protests against the military government sprang up throughout Burma, reaching a peak in August 1988.
Washington recently lifted some financial and investment sanctions in response to nascent democratic reforms but has retained the ban on imports — a restriction that a US Senate committee this month said should be extended by three years.
Prior to the passage of Customs and Trade Act of 1990, the Bush pére Administration had suspended Burma’s eligibility for the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program on April 13, 1989. President Bush also designated Burma as a drug-producing and/or drug-trafficking country under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 on February 28, 1990, which required the United States to oppose loans to Burma by international financial institutions.
Today, optimists on Burma have criticised sanctions as stifling key job-creating areas of the economy such as the garment industry rather than hurting the interests of the corrupt elite it targets. The
International Crisis Group(ICG) think-tank is well-known to Sri Lankans. Although it has called for sanctions on Sri Lanka it opposes them on the far worse regime in Burma. It says Myanmar’s reform process had challenged “the dominance” of crony businessmen, who flourished under the disbanded junta, and nudged the economy towards greater openness at the expense of some key hardliners.
ICG warned that renewing the US import embargo, due to lapse this year, “could have a serious impact on Myanmar’s economic recovery”. ICG believes the ban is skewing the nation’s economy towards “potentially problematic” extractive industries at the expense of sectors that employ large numbers of ordinary people.
Burma is cursed by being a resource-rich country. Burma’s GDP stands at $42.953 billion and grows at an average rate of only 2.9% ICG believes that current sanctions will skew the economy towards extractive industries such as oil, gas and gem mining which have long been linked with corruption and also raise fears over environmental damage.
The UN and several other organizations have reported consistent and systematic human rights violations in Burma including child labour and human trafficking. After Hurricane Nargis devastated the country international NGOs feared that the reconstruction effort would depend on forced labour – be it from children or migrant adult workers. The Tatmadaw routinely forces civilians to work on state infrastructure projects, such as the building of roads, bridges, military bases or even towns.
When friends have enthused about the joys of Burma as a tourist destination I have responded that I could not be comfortable in a hotel that had been built by slaves. A Boycott Burma campaign stated : “As a tourist to Burma you will travel on roads and railroads, see temples and palaces and stay in hotels built or rebuilt since 1988, which will definitely contain the dead bodies of the slave labourers who made them for you… I never met anyone going to Burma since 1988 to help the people there. Only selfish, ignorant people on holiday who want to see for themselves. See what? Burmese used as human landmine detectors? Burmese slave labour camps? Burmese people dead in piles in the no man’s land? If you go to Burma, you pay to murder the people you visit.”
The army has used villagers as human minesweepers to clear the way for the safe passage of soldiers. Convicts are used as forced labour. It is estimated that as many as 20 percent of prisoners sentenced to “prison with hard labour” die as a consequence of the conditions of their detention. It has been reported that at least 91 labour camps operate in areas across the country .
Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that there may be more than 70,000 child soldiers in the SPDC Army. The children are often kidnapped without their parents’ knowledge while on their way home from school. They are then brutalised and physically abused during their induction and basic training before being shipped off to fight in the country’s ethnic states. “Child soldiers are sometimes forced to participate in human rights abuses, such as burning villages and using civilians for forced labour,” said HRW. “Those who attempt to escape or desert are beaten, forcibly re-recruited or imprisoned.”
Back in 2009, The Independent reported that Burmese soldiers, who provide security for the Yadana oil pipeline on behalf of the French company, Total, are forcing thousands of people to work portering, carrying wood and repairing roads in the pipeline area. They have also been forced to build police stations and barracks.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? With poverty, inequality and racism, there will always be conflict.
In a media statement the TBBC said: “While government figures estimate that a quarter of the nation live in poverty, the survey found that almost two thirds of households in rural areas of the South East are unable to meet their basic needs.” The TBBC statement said poverty severe in the “conflict-affected areas of northern Kayin State and eastern Bago Region.”
Jack Dunford said: “As prospects for the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons are directly linked to national reconciliation, the urgency of finding a solution to conflict in Burma has never been greater.”