Burma's Slave or Burma's Save: Democratic Reforms, Human Rights, and the Reluctant Generals of Myanmar


The world is waiting, trying to decipher how to angle itself to an American government that appears to be changing, but may be just end up being same-old, same-old. In spite of the "shellacking" given to Democrats in the elections two weeks ago and the prospect of the greatest degree of Republican control over both houses in the bicameral Congress, and sharp divides on a handful of important issues, in most respects there is absolutely no indication for any revolutionary change in regard to internal and external goals for both major parties. While President Obama has lost considerable power in numbers to get legislation passed through Congress when it doesn't have true widespread support, there is quite a lot achievable without needing assent from legislators by simply using executive order. And while both GOP members of both House and Senate claim a willingness to be productive, they seem to actually be speedily constructing impeachment proceedings. Who knows if anything at all will get done in the next two years? With America's economic, military, and cultural clout, the rest of the world wonders whether their will be ripples or avalanches boosting or buffeting their respective countries for good or ill. In Burma, if one were to mention "the election" on the street this morning, the listener would likely not conjure up concern for the productivity and potential of Obama's final two years holding office, but rather of the possibility of Aung San Suu Kyi holding it and being able to create durable and sustainable reconciliation in a divided nation. So will they or won't they empower a full, free, and fair election Burma-wide in 2015?

For those not paying attention, Burma (aka Myanmar by some, and more on that later) was once the powerhouse of Southeast Asia. Over decades of corruption, despotism, military rule, and good old-fashioned, homegrown xenophobia, it became the region's least developed country and a bit of a reliable sawhorse to use when painting the most extreme reaches of countries in the political laughingstock and possibly the original reference for what we now refer to as "Orwellian." This was a significant departure from the hopes that were once pinned on Burma, which entered independence from the United Kingdom with some of the best infrastructure and most deeply-educated populations in the region. In the despoils that followed, Burma, the country of 138 (officially registered) ethnic groups and possessing vast geographic diversity, saw its human and natural capital truly tank in value and become ruled only just over a decade later by the military dictator Ne Win, partial to wizards and ill-hatched "solutions" that caused tremendous problems. This continued for decades until, in 1988 the once-powerful general/wizard/crackpot/dictator, threw the nation into yet another of his massive turmoils when a numerologist prognosticated that he should demonetize paper money denominations base on the power inherent in particular digits.

In the protests that followed and continued to grow again and again, the amazing happened and Ne Win chose to step down and protests erupted nationwide against the government and people began to truly hope for the first time in decades. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, beloved daughter of national founder and Independence Hero Bogyoke Aung San, who'd recently returned to the country for her mother's care and later funeral and stayed on to organize in the aftermath of the 8/8/88 uprising and bloodbath, and ran to victory with her party in the elections. The SLORC military junta (State Law and Order Restoration Council is the name chosen for themselves by the thugs of the new junta replacing Ne Win to run the country, for those keeping track on their "Orwellian" bingo cards -- though they're ostensibly a different name right now, they'll always be SLORC in the minds of many) responded by simply refusing to recognize of the widely observed and credible results showing the opposition National League for Democracy to have won in a landslide, and decided instead to keep The Lady under (mostly) house arrest for the better part of over two decades. During this period and before, virtually all forms of dissent were subject to vicious and brutal responses by the ruling regime. Listening to a BBC radio broadcast? Prison. Forming a political discussion group? Prison. Petitioning for better education? Prison, and not just any prison, but one inspired by the ideas that Bentham used to create his Panopticon and going by the actual name of "Insein" (yes, it's pronounced the way you think, and for that one, you can add another one to your "Orwellian" bingo card).

The horrors that the military rulers in Burma visited upon its peoples included the use of forced labor for construction projects, forcible conscription of child soldiers, defunding education and health to a mere fraction of viability, the looting of the country's national resources to enrich the generals but not the people, and the forcing of a constrictive ethnically chauvinist national identity based on a very narrow and limited "Burman" segment of the population. It is no wonder that ethnic armed groups have encircled the borders of the country and elsewhere with long-running insurgency campaigns, including the current battles raging in the far north's Kachin State against an amazingly diverse population, the "arranged autonomy" of the Wa in the northeast who have the meth-and-gambling markets cornered in their modern armed fiefdom in exchange for letting generals skim profits, the campaign in the west of the country that is building to a de facto genocide against the Rohingya people for having the audacity to be both Muslim and to look darker than the artificial standards of the Burmanized ideal, and the world's longest civil war against the Karen on the eastern border with Thailand (and note the name of the Thai junta for a bonus point on your bingo cards).

To be clear: Lots and lots have changed since the generals-in-civilian-clothing came up with their (not) visionary plan to open the economy to the stampede of investment and speculation that was clamoring for a new market and they realized that overt ethnic cleansing was slightly off-putting to dinner parties in the West. So the jails were emptied of many (but not all) political prisoners, the lists of foreign journalists and academics and the like were cleared to permit travel inside, the most egregious forms of overt human rights cataclysm were at least hidden behind jacaranda hedges in the gleaming new capital built at Naypyidaw (and possibly kept trimmed with conscript labor). Publishing was reopened inside the country and censorship was sharply curtailed. Sort of. But not really.

In the creeping way that these things tend to do when not actually really rooted out and vigil maintained against their return, censorship has crept back into the Burmese press and journalists have been arrested. The routine use of rape as a weapon of war by the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) against ethnic minorities hasn't been stopped. The mega-projects in mining and hydropower that benefit little-to-none for the power needs of local communities or even building firms has increased in the face of citizen protests against the looting by insider corrupt crony capitalists. The attempt to register real complaints against government failures in basic education and healthcare provisions has been met with a redoubled campaign against the Rohingya, already the most oppressed people on the planet, with the government taking a leading role in instigating horrific violence against them in an attempt to deprive them forever of citizenship and of, fantastically to the mind of anyone familiar with the noble ideals of both faiths, using Buddhism as a justification for tremendous acts of brutality against Rohingya on the ground of their faith in Islam.

Learning from their former colonizers, the British, who were really masters of divide-and-rule and the whole colonialism/imperialism thing in a way that would still make America itself blush, the generals-in-civilian drag have allowed the election of Aung San Suu Kyi herself to Parliament in the by-elections of 2011, where her party won all but one of their contested seats after sitting out the 2010 elections in protest. However, the generals don't want social change as much as they want the symbols of it. The military-engineered constitution itself forbids her from the Presidency for no real reason other than the anger of the generals for interrupting their own fantasy of "Myanmar" as their divine right. If Burma can't get real traction to make progress on its most pressing social concerns -- an infrastructure that is decomposing in the places its fortunate to exist at all, a healthcare system that would be the envy of Haiti on the day after its devastating earthquake and not anyone else, an education system that fails to teach even rudimentary literacy in a world that increasingly demands it, a cultural and environmental heritage that is falling under a race to development faster than efforts to even describe it as it disappears -- and to gain real political maturity, it seems unlikely that peace will long reign over the so-called "Golden Land."

A sclerotic judiciary, corrupt business-political alliance, and an actively cultivated contempt for both human rights and much that is deemed "foreign" to the country are no easy obstacles to surmount, but the inspiring Aung San Suu Kyi has the personal charisma and legacy credibility to ask for more of the Burmese people than perhaps any other political actor currently on stage (or likely to be so soon). Her election is likely the most reasonable way forward for the bulk of the country, which has long been signaled in its very naming with a litmus test of whether its called "Burma" or "Myanmar." The shortest story of the two is that while both have been historic monikers of the land, the latter had stronger connotation of a fealty and subordination to a Burman system of political and cultural superiority while the former simply was the status quo. As such, to accede to the SLORC-dicated (any of you have a bingo yet?) name change to "Myanmar" was thought of as empowering them to have the rights to tell the story of Burma-as-Myanmar which seemed like quite a different story from Burma as it actually is.

For nearly two decades, I have been concerned about this diverse and resource-rich land. If Burma's peoples (and I mean ALL of them) decide on renaming the country, then I'll sing off. But until there is a real freedom there, such that all citizens and non-citizens are able to enjoy the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to raise their children without the fear that they'll be dragged into military service as human landmine sensors or unafraid of being forced to live in squalor in the shadows of skyscrapers while land prices (and thus rents) skyrocket throughout the country or simply able to freedom from fear, until that day comes, I'll keep calling it Burma. For those of you who want the best change possible for the country, it is imperative to continue to support both Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). Contact your Representatives and Senators (and whoever might be replacing them after today too) and ask them, in unequivocal terms, to support the human rights for all peoples of Burma and to support Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the election next year in every ethical and legal way permitted. The people of Burma, and of the world, deserve no less.

It would be disappointing to not see her ability to take the presidency, and reconciliation will be harder without it. But she has herself begun to seemingly accept this as a possibility and is still unflagging in her commitment to win more of the country back for its own people rather than a handful of corrupt cronies and thuggish soldiers. The prospect of her not being the pinnacle of real power in the presidency after the election is not a disaster, but it is definitely a real bummer. As long as the NLD can stand tall for its own principles (and perhaps if she is truly ineligible then she might start to advocate forcefully for the Rohingya instead of maintaining a shameful silence so as not to upset the apple cart of deeply held bigotry in the Burman people) there is a real role for her to play as the national leader even if an unelected one. But sidelining her and sidetracking the NLD, fomenting violence against others for difference (especially in a nation like Burma where there is just so darned MUCH that is different?EVERYTHING is different? That is a recipe for disaster and a retrenchment of the abuse the (former, though very recently so) military government was supposed to leave behind and notably still could if it begins to actually follow through on commitments and human rights standards in the transition. Fail to un-stall reform? The nation may find itself an eve-more pariah nation than it was. Write to everyone and support the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.