Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Muslims

Crosstown Traffic

This article appeared on Page 9 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday January 6 2015.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html

Vote in hope and repent at leisure

About twenty years ago, I had a meeting in Whitehall with a Conservative MP who was concerned that one of his constituents had been falsely accused (by his estranged wife) of child abuse. After the meeting, I noticed that my umbrella was missing. Soon after, I was watching the news on TV when I saw the MP announcing that he had switched to the Labour Party. “That’s the man who stole my umbrella”, I cried.

Alan Howarth, for it was he, was the first MP to defect directly from the Conservatives to Labour, and the first former Conservative MP to sit as a Labour MP since Oswald Mosley. Howarth wanted to be seen to be doing the decent thing by winning a seat as a Labour candidate. He failed at Wentworth and then again at Wythenshawe, but got a chance at the safe Labour seat of Newport East. Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, who had been emasculated by Thatcher, stood against him but Howarth easily held the seat for Labour. He now sits in the House of Lords, as does his partner Baroness Hollis. They came under a cloud for claiming separate expenses although they live next door to each other. He did send my umbrella back.

New Labour

When I lived in the UK, I always regarded it as my moral duty to exercise my franchise. Because of my class and family background, it would have been anathema for me to ever vote for a Conservative candidate. The Labour Party stood for my class, the working class; it had provided the welfare state (with some help from Liberal Party thinkers); it had allowed me (with some help from Conservative education minister RAB Butler) to go to grammar school and university. Labour candidate Jack Diamond came to our school. He always won the Gloucester seat- until he lost to Conservative Sally Oppenheim.

When I moved to Wimbledon, I found it rather creepy when I received a letter from Sir Michael Havers welcoming me to his constituency. This was a rock-solid conservative seat, so I later tactically voted Liberal-Democrat in the hope of unseating Sir Michael’s successor Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes. I was unsuccessful in my attempted coup. However, in 1997, miracle of miracles, Roger Casale won the seat for Labour.

That was the year that New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative rule. On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997.  He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions. Sound familiar?

The Myth of Political Parties

The story of the development of political parties is a fascinating one but must wait for another article. Briefly, the theory is that like-minded people band together and agree a set of policies. They exert a discipline within the group in order to translate those policies into legislation and administrative procedures. They persuade the public to support them by placing before them an outline of what they propose to do if elected. The public can compare this with what rival parties propose to do.

How does this work out in practice? Blair had won power by jettisoning many traditional Labour policies. The Blair government achieved some progressive measures but the effort was undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism that undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit? Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One can see why New Labour was attractive to a Conservative like Howarth – it was carrying on Thatcherite policies and it was in power. Power attracts crossovers.

Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.

Democratic elections involving political parties are often little more than the chance to get rid of one set of scoundrels when we are tired of them, only to replace them with another set. Blair replaced Major but carried on the same policies. In Ireland, Fine Gael replaced Fianna Fail. The voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.

Sri Lankan Party Theory

What do the Sri Lankan political parties stand for? We think of the SLFP of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a party of the left. She had Marxist parties, LSSP and CP, as members of her governing coalition and she moved a long way towards a command economy with nationalisation of key areas and subsidies alongside austerity.

The UNP of JR Jayewardene was instrumental in introducing economic liberalisation even before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. When he was prime minister from 2001 to 2004, Ranil Wickremasingha tried to continue such policies. Strange to note then that in 2014 the official website of the UNP says: “We are being cheated by the neo-liberalists and the Washington consensus: the UNP vehemently opposes ‘social protection’ cuts and wants more subsidies”.

Crossovers in Sri Lanka

Incessant party-hopping is bad for democracy, confuses the voters and casts doubt upon who stands for what, if anything. There are stories of vast sums of money being paid to those who change allegiance. The case of Amir Ali vs. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Others (2006) opened opportunities for crossovers. That same Amir Ali, only a fortnight after being nominated as an MP by the UPFA, crossed over to the Opposition. As I write, 26 UPFA MPs from a 225-member parliament have defected and more are expected.

After weeks of speculation, Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, finally said he would resign his ministerial portfolio to support Sirisena. This is in spite of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena strongly rejecting Hakeem’s demand for a separate administrative district in the East for Muslims. I will never forget Rauf Hakeem’s comment back in 2007: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Blair would appreciate that.

 

Fissiparous Alliances

Keeping the governing coalition together must have been like herding cats. The opposition will find it as difficult as the government to herd its constituent components. Although the UNP has retained some atavistic loyalty among the planting community in places like Uva Province, Ranil Wickremasinghe has not been able to match the populist appeal of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the rural Sinhala Buddhist masses. Siresena might be able to eat into Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist support but he will also need support from the minorities.

Significant numbers of Tamil and Muslim politicians have gone over to the opposition, but will that be enough to convince minority voters that their needs will be met when the JHU seems to be exerting an unhealthy influence on opposition strategy? Rajitha Senaratne cited as one reason for his defection the ruling party’s silence over the hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist groups who were allegedly involved in anti-Muslim clashes. Faizer Mustapha decided to join the common opposition because the government failed to take action against BBS. Hunais Farook crossed over for the same reason. The opposition’s dependence on the JHU should cause Muslim voters some anxiety. The common opposition candidate has agreed with the JHU to preserve the constitutional prominence given to Buddhism.

Tamils are seeking greater devolution of power to Tamil areas but the JHU sees that as creeping separatism. Many Tamil politicians are unhappy that the TNA is supporting Sirisena. TNA Northern Provincial Council Member Ananthi Sasitharan told the BBC Tamil Service that the TNA election manifesto for the last Northern Provincial Election was clear on its stance on Tamil identity and autonomous rights. There is nothing in the JHU-inspired Manifesto to give Tamil voters confidence that their lot will be improved by an opposition victory. The hand of the JHU can be seen in the formulation: “I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country.”

Conclusion

The president has been seen as a canny populist who understands the rural masses in a way that Ranil Wickremasingha never could. Recently, many have remarked that the President appears fatigued and overworked. He was once the youngest elected MP and he has spent 40 years in politics and nearly ten years as President. US presidents always seem to age rapidly in office but they are limited to eight years. Tony Blair became haggard by the end of his reign.

Blair tried to appear hip by associating with the likes of Noel Gallagher of Oasis (the more truculent brother Liam Gallagher refused to be wooed). An indication that the president may have lost touch with the masses is that he has recruited Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Jacqueline Fernandez to help in his campaign. According to The Hindu newspaper based in Tamil Nadu, under his usual rates in 2012, Salman Khan charged approximately 30,000,000 Sri Lanka rupees per day for public appearances. Near where I live there are people living in temporary accommodation in schools because their homes have been destroyed. They may not be impressed at this time by Bollywood stars. The Hindu also reported that 30 people had been killed and 650,000 displaced because of severe rain.

The historian, Tony Judt, wrote: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.” Thinking about an election in 2015 prompts a recollection of an article I wrote about an election in 2008, which prompted a recollection of an election in 1997. Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo. It has not been closed yet and today Obama seems unlikely to take action against those found guilty of torture. In 2008, I advised those euphoric over Obama’s victory: “Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.”

Where Are the Prosecutions, Punishments?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday 25 June 2014

Colman's Column3

 

On Monday 16 June 2014, I went to Badulla to take a dog to the vet. Everything seemed normal in town. I was shocked to see pictures later in the day on Asian Mirror, showing a mob stoning familiar shops on Bazaar Street. The BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) staged a protest in Badulla demanding the release of several suspects who were arrested for attacking a Muslim shop in the town a few days before. The suspects, according to Police, are members of the BBS.

This is a disturbing echo, closer to my own home, of the appalling events at Aluthgama. The Aluthgama riot and bloodshed apparently arose out of a road rage incident or a physical assault on a bhikkhu. The Badulla incident apparently arose out of a sexual harassment allegation.

The Badulla story goes that two Sinhalese girls had entered a Muslim-owned shop and asked to purchase a pair of denims. The girls then allege that the sales clerk videoed them from above the changing room using his cell phone. A variant version was that the shop owners had fixed CCTV cameras in the changing room. The girls’ father recruited a mob and stormed the shop, assaulting the salesman. Police had intervened to maintain the peace and taken the sales clerk into custody. Police investigation into the incident is in progress.

On June 20, Badulla was calm but tense. On every street there were policemen in riot helmets carrying big sticks.

Malinda Seneviratne wrote: “Not only are things lost in narration, lots get added on too in the process. A disagreement becomes dispute, dispute becomes argument, argument raises voices, raised voices lead to in-your-face closeness, proximity tends to contact, contact is read as aggressive touch, touch is blow, and blow is assault.  What happens between two human beings is then an altercation between two persons from two communities, religious communities, that is.”

As a Guardian reader succinctly commented: “What ‘triggered the incident’ was the propensity of stupid people to believe stupid things, especially if the stupid things target a group they are predisposed to hate.” Another viewpoint is that this is becoming a common ruse adopted by extremist organisations to attack Muslim-owned businesses, and that Muslim entrepreneurs need to take adequate precautions to protect their interests. Could that lead to further violence?

These incidents reminded me of a much more serious “trigger”, even closer to my home, a couple of years ago. A Muslim youth stabbed and killed a Sinhalese boy. Their dispute was not about religion and had nothing to do with communal strife. The two boys had been firm friends since childhood. This was a crime of passion – they had fought in rivalry over the affections of a girl. Luckily, BBS were not around to exploit the incident and all sections of the local community sprang into action to dampen any sparks of conflict. All local shops closed voluntarily and the police imposed a curfew. Meetings were held between Buddhist and Muslim clerics, the families of the dead youth and his assailant and the police. There was no further violence, although one still reads about jealous husbands killing wives and vice versa.

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts abroad are bemoaning the moral turpitude of “the average Sri Lankan”. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”. I would hesitate to judge “the average Sri Lankan”. I  would like to take a more optimistic line. I do not like headlines about “communal strife”. I live in a poor village, which has many Muslims and Tamils. It sometimes feels as though the Sinhalese are the minority. I am not saying that it is an idyllic paradise. There are often disputes but they are not on an ethnic basis. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese generally get on OK and even intermarry- a woman who works for us is a Tamil married to a Muslim and they have an adopted son who is Tamil (but does not know it). We have Sinhalese workers who live in the Tamil lines. Many Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu. The broker who arranges our car insurance has a Muslim name but is a staunch Catholic. There could be harmony if the BBS would allow it.

Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese seem to get along with each other, and with the Sinhalese, and with this Irishman. Our immediate neighbours are Muslims. We were here before them. We have not always enjoyed perfect harmony- there used to be some intimidation from them and on one occasion, there was an angry mob at our gate wielding knives. They were responding to a false rumour about what we were doing with the water supply. This was the kind of thing Malinda referred to. I responded to other incidents of aggression on my neighbour’s part by presenting him with a box of avocadoes from our trees. Our sympathetic response to a couple of deaths in their family has led to a situation where we rub along generally and help each other out on occasion. As I write, their cattle are tearing at our hedge again!

We are fortunate in that the high priest of our local Buddhist temple, who has been a good friend to us for ten years, is a wise, compassionate and humorous man. Most of the people who work for him are Tamils and they worship him. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school at the temple. He regularly attends events organised by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

As I write, the situation is still not clear because most of the news is coming to us from abroad and the Government is saying nothing. It seems that seven died, three of whom perished in a drive-by shooting indicating that BBS might have an armed militia. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) a research and link aggregator  owned by the Beacham group, classified Bodu Bala Sena as a ‘terrorist organization’ in April 2014

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts who live abroad have expressed fears that nothing has been learnt from the horror that was Black July in 1983, when Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils and sparked off a thirty-year civil war. One woman in Aluthgama was quoted in the press: “At this rate, it won’t be long before a Muslim Prabhakaran is born.”

There was one positive aspect in 1983. Many Sinhalese -and I have heard eye-witnesses reports about this – endangered themselves by having the courage to protect Tamils who were strangers to them. This time one of my Muslim contacts reports that “Buddhist work friends collected funds in an office and donated for the affected at Aluthgama. Very noble of them. Why , it’s entirely possible that BBS will lose adherents in greater numbers than gaining them. Allah Akbar!”

In Aluthgama, a Sinhalese citizen told Dharisha Bastians. “We have no grouse with the people on that side of the village. They are our friends. We know them. We didn’t recognise the people who fought last night, they were not from here”.

Encouraging news came from Dickwella. The Chief Incumbent Priests of eight Buddhist temples spent two hours at the Muhiyibdeen Jumma Mosque at Yonakpura, Dickwella. The act of solidarity was to strengthen communal ties and avert any fears of copycat incidents in the area. The clergy said that the root cause of the incidents in Aluthgama and Beruwala was misinformation and that the people of Dickwella should be vigilant about attempts to instigate communal disharmony in their town. Dickwella Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Krishali Muthukumarana said that Dickwella people have lived in harmony by respecting each other’s beliefs and customs. All the members of the PS irrespective of their political affiliations would ensure that no communal hatred was instigated.

Harendra Alwis on Groundviews explored this issue in a philosophical mode but also offered some practical advice on avoiding despair, promoting tolerance and social integration and embracing diversity. I feel a smidgeon of caution about one thing Harendra says. “Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say.” It is true that these issues have to be exposed to the cleansing sunshine and fresh air of open debate. Groundviews has an important role to play in this. There is, however, a danger that passions could be further inflamed by polemic in the social media. As Nick Hart commented on Groundviews, it is “nonsensical and irresponsible to attempt to tar all Buddhist monks with the brush of intolerance, or to imply that every individual from a minority group is an innocent victim. Sri Lanka and the world know that this is not the case.” I recall that Groundviews itself seemed to be dangerously stoking the fire in the controversy over halal products, when Sanjana Hattotuwa strained very hard to find insult to Muslims in the packaging of a certain item.

 

The use of terms like “communal strife” makes me queasy. Just like every act of communal violence in Sri Lanka’s history, the recent “riots” in Aluthgama against Muslims were not spontaneous expressions of ethnic or religious grievance involving ordinary civilians. There is legitimate fear on the part of Muslims. Buddhists need to convince their Muslim neighbors that BBS are not acting in their name. That, of course will be futile if the police allow BBS to continue their thuggery. Where are the prosecutions and punishments?

 

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”.

 

 

Colonial background

 
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.

 

 

King Thibaw

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.

 
Independence

 
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.

 

 

U Dhammaloka

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, 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

Dictatorship

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.

 
Ethnic conflict

 
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.

 
Muslims

 
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”.

 
US involvement

 

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.

 

Garment industry

 
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.

 

Resources

 
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.

 

Human rights

 
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.
Reconciliation

 

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.”

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