Beyond Mandalay, the road to isolation and xenophobia

December 25, 2008

In the New York Times, a review of “The River Of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma” by Thant Myint-U:

Burma has the dubious distinction of playing host to the world’s longest-running civil war – it began with independence in 1948 and still goes on – and its most durable military dictatorship. If not for North Korea, Burma might also claim top honors in two other categories, most isolated and most xenophobic, but it could still win the prize for most misunderstood.

Geographically remote, politically retrograde, economically backward, Burma, today called Myanmar, struggles on, burdened by one of the largest armies on the planet and desperate for help. In “The River of Lost Footsteps,” Thant Myint-U offers at least a little understanding, “an introduction to a country whose current problems are increasingly known but whose colorful and vibrant history is almost entirely forgotten.”


Not such a hero after all

November 11, 2008

Aung San Suu Kyi made the world take notice of Burma’s struggle for democracy. But her failure to react to recent key crises means that many of her followers now question her ability to lead the fight against the military junta. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy in the Guardian:

suuAung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma, is the world’s most famous political prisoner. She has spent the best part of the past 20 years under house arrest, detained by the military dictatorship she opposes. Her current imprisonment began in May 2003, when her convoy was attacked and 70 of her supporters killed by a militia of government-sponsored thugs known darkly as the Masters of Force. She has been confined to her Rangoon home ever since.

Suu Kyi was born into the family that drove Burma’s independence movement: her father was General Aung San, who was murdered by his political rivals in July 1947, shortly after negotiating his country’s independence from Britain. Suu Kyi was pushed into politics in 1988 after thousands of students protesters were gunned down on the streets of Rangoon – when she delivered her inaugural speech at Rangoon’s Shwe Dagon Pagoda on August 26 that year, a crowd of 500,000 came to hear her. A nation held in a headlock by a junta since 1962 fell behind her gutsy message of hope, and she led the NLD to a landslide election victory in May 1990, winning 392 out of 485 seats.


Burma’s bloody trade

October 29, 2008

Rajeshree Sisodia recently entered Burma, where she spoke with workers dependant on the country’s exploitative jade mining industry. Here she reports for

Imperial green jade is unique to Burma – and jewellery made from it can sell for millions of dollars on the international market.
But the country’s mining industry is built on suffering: forced and child labour, land confiscation, drug abuse, sexual exploitation and environmental damage – all of which, according to pro-democracy campaigners, have scarred the trade.
More than 20,000 people migrate, or are forced to work for mine companies which are either partly or completely owned by the nation’s military leaders and its business partners.
From mining, to cutting, polishing, trading and selling, the regime’s generals control the gem industry with a vice-like grip. Profits from the lucrative trade filter down only as far as the junta, which spends around US$330million a year on arms – roughly twice the amount it invests in health and education combined. This in a nation ranked among Asia’s poorest; the average person earns less than US$1 a day.


Burma’s Fleeing Masses

Mark Fenn / Far Eastern Economics Review

With his good looks and fashionable clothes, 27-year-old Su could pass for an Asian pop star, or perhaps the small-time kickboxer he used to be back home. In fact, he works illegally as a waiter in a small restaurant in central Bangkok-one of an estimated two million migrants who have left impoverished Burma to seek a better life in Thailand. Fleeing poverty and sometimes brutal oppression at home, they often find themselves living in the shadows, persecuted and exploited in Burma’s wealthier neighbors. Not that Su considers himself a victim. A member of Burma’s Karen ethnic minority, he speaks English in staccato, half-finished sentences punctuated with swear words. He hates the Burmese junta and is a fervent supporter of the struggle for Karen independence. Su admires Burma’s imprisoned democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as Che Guevara-and Rambo. In the latest Rambo film, released this year, the hero teams up with Karen rebels to take on the Burmese army. Pirated DVDs of the film, circulated underground, were reportedly a big hit in Burma. “I like the Rambo style,” says Su, smiling.


Visit Myanmar — That’s an order

September 30, 2008

Travel to Myanmar has slowed to a trickle. But a decade ago, with great fanfare, the government launched a new tourism campaign. Stephen Brookes, then Rangoon bureau chief for Asia Times, remembers its bizarre launch ceremony. From World Hum:

The 7-foot dolls had taken their papier-mâché heads off and were milling around behind the stadium, smoking cigarettes and chatting up the dancing girls from the Ministry of Culture.

You could hardly blame them-the enormous heads were hot and airless, and the guys inside had to peer out from two little eyeholes cut into the mouth. Besides, the dancing girls were cute and had jasmine flowers in their hair, and they weren’t due in the stadium for another 15 minutes, to do their part-along with more than 5,000 other costumed performers-for a massive ceremony to usher in “Visit Myanmar Year.”

It was November 18, 1996, and at 5:30 that morning, Myanmar’s military junta had rounded up the few foreign journalists in town and bussed us to a stadium just outside Rangoon, for what they promised would be the media event of the year. Now, two hours later, most of us had managed to sneak out of our assigned seats and were wandering around on the field, trying to figure out what was going on. I stumbled into a makeshift staging area, where I found the gigantic papier-mâché dolls. One of them offered me a Marlboro.


After Saffron Revolution, all is black in Myanmar

September 25, 2008

Rajeshree Sisodia in The National:

Yangon: In many ways this is a story of failure. Of a government that failed to deliver on long-made promises of freedom and democracy; of a people who stood up not once but twice against repression, and were cut down both times; and of an international community that champions human rights but has so far failed to turn rhetoric into reality.

A year ago, spiralling inflation and growing political repression in Myanmar led tens of thousands of people, including Buddhist monks and nuns, to take to the streets in peaceful protest. The mass demonstrations, known as the Saffron Revolution for the colour of the monks’ robes, were brutally suppressed.

On Sept 27 2007, soldiers and riot police, armed with assault rifles, tanks and smoke bombs, opened fire, killing about 50 people. Thousands were rounded up and detained.

It was as if a mirror had been held up to reflect the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations, or 88 Generation uprising, when thousands of students protested to demand multiparty democratic elections. The dissent two decades ago was similarly smothered; thousands paid with their lives.


Kawthoolei: The Karen’s long wait

September 5, 2008

Italian photojournalist Massimiliano Clausi in Himal:

Massimiliano Clausi

Photo: Massimiliano Clausi

For the past thirty years, millions of Karen villagers in Burma have been living a precarious existence, regularly being displaced from their huts into the surrounding forests and state-controlled relocation sites. All the while, the Karen have continued to struggle against a military-run state that exerts absolute control over their movement, land, farming, produce and every other aspect of their lives.

The Karen are an ethnic minority living in the forestlands along the Thai-Burmese frontier, who trace their lineage back to Tibet. Since 1948, when Burma broke free from British rule, the Karen have been fighting for independence through an armed group, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), overseen by the Karen National Union (KNU). This makes the Karen struggle one of the longest wars for independence in the world today.


The world’s 100 most powerful women

August 29, 2008

Forbes’ list has five names from this part of the world:

#3 Indra K. Nooyi, Chairman, chief executive, PepsiCo, U.S.: Nooyi continues to grow PepsiCo, the $39 billion food and beverage giant, through new product offerings and acquisitions

#21 Sonia Gandhi, President, Indian National Congress Party, India:Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of India’s most powerful political party, the Indian National Congress Party, has by now assumed the role of elder stateswoman.

#38 Aung San Suu Kyi, Deposed prime minister; Nobel peace laureate, Myanmar: Since the democratic elections in 1990, when she was elected prime minister, Suu Kyi, 63, has been kept from power and is now in the sixth consecutive year of house arrest.

#59 Mayawati Kumari, Chief minister, Uttar Pradesh, India: In the running to be prime minister, from her perch as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

#99 Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman and managing director, Biocon, India: Trained in Australia as a brewer, she founded Biocon in 1978 to make industrial enzymes with a small Irish company, Biocon Biochemicals.

Click here for the complete Forbes list and the profiles:

‘To be busy helps them forget’

July 7, 2008

Burma’s storm survivors cobble together a meager future. From The Washington Post:

Two months after a cyclone savaged the fertile Irrawaddy Delta, in Burma’s southwest, the bones of drowning victims still clutter the muddy banks of waterways.

One bamboo stick at a time, survivors in hundreds of flattened villages are struggling to rebuild their lives. For shelter, they squeeze several families into a single tent. For drinking water, they collect monsoon rains that trickle off tarpaulin roof coverings into buckets or salvaged ceramic vases. For food, they cook communal meals with rice, beans and oil from handouts. Sometimes it is spoiled.

On a recent visit, one village looked as if it had been carpet-bombed, a cratered landscape of muddy pools, debris and the remains of water buffaloes. A few hundred feet away, villagers sawed and hammered at planks salvaged from the wreckage. A teenage boy in an oversize shirt donated by a Buddhist monastery picked through piles of smashed wood.


Myanmar’s new capital isolates junta

June 24, 2008

The transfer of Myanmar’s junta to Naypyidaw, a relatively remote location, has drained the country’s finances and widened the gulf between the rulers and the ruled. From The New York Times:

The bamboo forests and sugar cane fields that once covered the gently sloping hills here have been replaced by hulking government buildings, roads so long and straight they resemble runways and a vast construction site marked by a sign: “Parliament zone. Do not enter.”

Naypyidaw is Myanmar’s new capital, built in secret by the ruling generals and announced to the public two and a half years ago, when it was a fait accompli.

A nine-hour drive north from the former capital, Yangon, it looks like nothing else in this impoverished country, where one out of three children is malnourished and many roads are nothing more than dirt tracks.


The power of the powerless

June 16, 2008

In The new York Times, a review of Justin Wintle‘s “A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience

There are not many countries whose stories are so intensely bound to the character of a single person, much less a person with no tangible power, not even the power to leave her house or receive a visitor or make a telephone call. Yet for nearly two decades, events in Myanmar (formerly Burma) have revolved around the condition, the policies and most of all the victimization of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now 62, who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years. Hers is a symbiotic power, as Justin Wintle describes it in his aptly titled “Perfect Hostage,” bestowed by the almost cartoonish thugs who have made her “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless,” in the words of the former Czech president Vaclav Havel.

[Photo: Protestors in London with masks of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 2007.]


At home with the General

May 24, 2008

There have been street protests, a cyclone and appalling loss of life, yet Burma’s junta remains untouched, winning a 92% ‘vote of confidence’ amid the devastation. The Guardian’s Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy report from the leader’s hideaway:

Two matching pairs of soft cotton slippers are laid outside the sliding glass doors. Lilies in the adjoining palm grove fill the air with a heavy perfume. This seaside villa on Burma’s west coast – made from polished hardwood, marble and mother-of-pearl – is the holiday hideaway of Senior General Than Shwe, head of the latest incarnation of a junta that has clung to Burma like bindweed for five decades.

It is hard to reconcile the quiet luxury of this villa, its infinity pool overlooking five miles of Ngwe Saung (Silver Beach), with the devastation in the Irrawaddy delta region just a few miles to the south, where cyclone Nargis struck on May 3, killing thousands and destroying a million-plus bamboo-and-wood homes. The Ngwe Saung villa is a haven for the Senior General and his family, and for his fellow generals who share a holiday camp just along the beach. Here, Than Shwe could relax after brutally crushing the uprising by the nation’s monks in Rangoon last September. His villa survived the cyclone.

Cushioned by luxury, serviced by junior officers terrified of imparting bad news, the junta rarely gets to learn of the hardships facing their battered people, Lord Malloch-Brown, foreign office minister, argued this month. He was one of many diplomats and international leaders who criticised the regime for delaying or blocking relief to victims of the cyclone.

[Photo: Myanmar ruler Senior General Than Shwe attends Armed Forces Day ceremonies on Sunday March 27, 2005, in Yangon. AP]


She escaped strife, but embraced those scarred by it

April 9, 2008

Burmese-born Charm Tong Is among activists honoured for contributions to women’s causes. From The Washington Post:

Charm Tong was born in Burma’s conflict-lacerated countryside 26 years ago. She was 6 when her parents stuffed her into a straw basket strapped onto a donkey and sent her to join a caravan of villagers snaking its way through lush jungles to an orphanage inside the Thai border. Their desperate choice seemed a better option as the country’s repressive military regime moved through some 1,400 farming villages, taking ethnic Burmese from their lands and forcing them into labor, often after torturing them.


In Burma, assassination of a rebel leader

February 19, 2008

In the Wall Street Journal, Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy magazine, a publication based in Thailand that covers Burma, on the murder of Karen National Union leader Mahn Sha.

On Valentine’s Day, two gunmen walked up to a wooden house in this border town and assassinated one of Burma’s most prominent ethnic minority leaders. The killing inflicts a serious blow to Burma’s flagging pro-democracy movement.

Mahn Sha was the leader of the Karen National Union, an armed rebel group fighting for autonomy from Burma’s ruling military junta. He joined the KNU in 1966 after finishing his studies in history at Rangoon University. Over the next few decades, he rose steadily through the ranks, finally serving as General Saw Bo Mya’s personal secretary. At the KNU’s 12th Party Congress in 2000, he was elected secretary-general, the third highest-ranking position in the KNU.


Burma: Are sanctions the answer?

February 9, 2008

Stanley A. Weiss, Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, in International Herald Tribune.

In the often black and white, good-versus-evil debate over how to deal with the brutal military regime here, Ma Thanegi lives in a world of gray

To her admirers, the feisty 61-year-old Burmese painter and writer is a voice of reason – a former assistant to opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who, after being jailed for three years herself, bravely opposed Suu Kyi’s misguided call for Western economic sanctions to pressure the junta into relinquishing power.

To her critics in the democracy movement, Thanegi is a sellout who parrots government propaganda to foreign tourists and journalists. Meeting openly with me at a major hotel suggests that – with her writings on Burmese culture and cuisine, not politics – she has little to fear in the continuing crackdown on dissidents after the fall’s protests led by Buddhist monks.


Under the banyan tree

February 6, 2008

The dictators call it Myanmar. For the first time since they crushed the Saffron Revolution, Adam Karlin traveled to the country he calls Burma-and home. His dispatch on World Hum.

I was on my way home to visit my grandmother when she had a stroke.

Home. That’s a relative term when home refers to Burma. Because I’m half-Burmese, Burma-which I prefer to “Myanmar,” a name conjured up by the nation’s dictators-has always felt a little like home.

My relatives, even Burmese I’ve never met, treat me like a long lost son. I see elements of myself-my passivity, my faith, my taste for rich, oily hot food, and whatever capability I have for empathy-realized in this country and its culture. It’s a self-centered worldview, but travel can be narcissistic, especially in countries like Burma, which seems to naturally lend travelers a sense of self-discovery.


Aung San Suu Kyi: Prepare for the worst

January 30, 2008

Aung Hla Tun has a report on the detained Myanmar opposition leader in Reuters


Detained Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is frustrated at a lack of talks on political reform with the ruling military junta since last year’s bloody crackdown on dissent, her party said on Wednesday.

After a rare meeting between the Nobel peace laureate and leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD), spokesman Nyan Win said Suu Kyi held out little hope that unprecedented international pressure on the generals would bear fruit.

“Let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he quoted her as saying, adding she worried that Wednesday’s 90-minute meeting, and another immediately afterwards with junta liaison minister Aung Kyi, might give rise to “false hope”.


The waiting game in Myanmar

January 25, 2008

Myanmar’s junta plays to win, says The Economist

In a comic novel by Evelyn Waugh, an exasperated teacher tames his unruly class by setting an essay competition with a cash prize. Entries, he tells his rowdy students, will be judged on one criterion alone: length.

Myanmar has long been run on much the same lines. A convention set up to draft a constitution for a move to democratic rule eventually pronounced last September, 14 years after it first met. Its conclusion surprised no one: an arrangement ensuring the perpetuation of military dominance.



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