Sunday, August 19, 2012

Burma: A nation At The Crossroads by Benedict Rogers

Burma: A nation At The Crossroads by Benedict Rogers is a Random House publication. Thank you Random House for sending me a copy.

I had vaguely heard of the author's name before and must say was quite happy to be able to read a book that dealt with the changing times - in this neighbouring country of ours. As you are aware, Burma, now Myanmar, is much in the news these days though not too long ago nothing much emanated from there; news was controlled and the nation itself was off the international radar.

A Snapshot, some snippets and a bit about the author: Today, it is a linchpin country in the evolving geopolitics of Asia. It shares borders with both China and India and in a way is the gateway to South-East Asia as well. Burma has an extraordinary wealth of untapped natural resources. So, needless to say, that policymakers everywhere, especially in Beijing and New Delhi, are feverishly planning ambitious infrastructure projects - pipelines, highways and railroads - that will allow them to boost their trade between each other as well as with Burma.

However, Myanmar is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment. From MBAs to lawyers, doctors and accountants, shortages abound. Of particular concern, is the lack of skilled technicians and workers, who will be sorely needed if an investment boom does come. So, to my mind there could be a tremendous opportunity for India here. We share a lot ... and not just our borders. There is a common history, culture, heritage and cuisine too. Buddhism came to Burma from ancient India, and the beautiful Pagodas there ... stand testimony to our ties that dates back not just centuries but perhaps millenniums.

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights advocate specializing in Asia. He has traveled to Burma several times - to meet people, who either by providing information or by sharing their own personal experiences with him - contributed towards the writing of this book.

Rogers met with former political prisoners, members of Aung San Suu Kyi's former 'Tri-colour' security guards, elected members of Parliament, UN representative of the exiled government, '88 Generation activists, Chin activists, Kachin activists, Karen and Arakan Rohingya representatives, members of Burma's Women's League and Shan Women's Action Network, among others. He also interacted with people outside Burma - who work tirelessly for Burma's freedom and they have provided invaluable insights and information. These (people outside Burma) also include past British, American, Australian, Thai and Japanese diplomats who shared their recollections and analysis; as well as many former British Ambassadors. He also accessed St. Hugh's College (Oxford University) archive of press cuttings and other information about Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma.

Rogers, also the author of 'Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant', has been to almost all of Burma's borders, spending time with internally displaced people (IDPs) in the jungles of eastern Burma, meeting defectors from the Burma Army, Buddhist monks who participated in the Saffron Revolution and other dissidents and ethnic resistance leaders. He has sat with the 'Moustache Brothers', courageously outspoken comedians in Mandalay, met some of Suu Kyi's closest associates, including her lawyer, U Nyan Win, and the prominent journalist and dissident U Ludu Sein Win. He finally met the lady - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself, in January 2012. Rogers is effusive in his praise for her.

On 26 May 1989 the military regime in Burma changed the name of the country to 'Myanmar'. The democracy movement and the leaders of the ethnic resistance organizations, however, continue to use 'Burma', and have urged the international community to do the same. Recently, there was a controversy involving Suu Kyi as well - if you remember?

The regime also changed the names of various cities and divisions. Rangoon became 'Yangon', the Irrawaddy Division became 'Ayeyarwady', Maymyo became 'Pyin Oo Lwin', the Karen State is now called 'Kayin' and so on and so forth.

The Karen leader - Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, the then General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), the major resistance organization struggling on behalf of Burma's Karen people, one of the largest of the country's ethnic groups - has already been shot dead by unidentified gunmen. He - unlike some other Karen leaders that sometimes focused narrowly on their own specific Karen struggle saw the bigger picture for Burma. Padoh Mahn Sha worked closely with the broader Burman-dominated democracy movement and with the other ethnic nationalists, without compromising his devotion to his Karen people, that is. 

A nation of approximately 55 million people, Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse in South East Asia. Besides the Burman, Burmese-speaking majority, there are seven major ethnic groups. These are the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Mon, who inhabit eastern and southern Burma along the border with Thailand (although the majority of Karens are in the Irrawaddy Delta, Tenasserim Division and Rangoon); the Kachin in northern Burma along the border with China; the Chin, in western Burma straddling the Indian and Bangladesh border; and the Arakan or Rakhine, along the border with Bangladesh. There are numerous other sub-groups, such as the Pa-O, Lahu, Lisu, Naga, as well as smaller groups such as the Wa, the Chinese-speaking Kokang, and the Rohingyas.

Burma became independent from British colonial rule in 1948, and after a decade of democracy following independence in 1948, the civilian government was replaced by military rule - led by General Ne Win in 1958, with the purpose of restoring order to a nation torn apart by armed uprisings by the communists and several ethnic groups. In 1960, fresh elections were held and the previous government led by Prime Minister U Nu was returned to power. Two years later, however, Ne Win launched a coup d'tat and the military have ruled the country ever since, making it the world's longest-ruling military regime.

Albeit a regime that brutalized and humiliated it's own people and nation. Child soldiers that were recruited by the Burmese army (Tatmadaw) and sent to fight in the ethnic areas, were fed on dire warnings by their senior officers about what the ethnic resistance groups would do to them if they were caught. These child soldiers really had no choice, if they did not join the army they would have been sent to jail instead. These (child) soldiers too were subjected to cruel treatment, including regular beatings for failure to carry out basic tasks, so much so that life for them in the Burmese Army 'was like hell'. They witnessed attacks on villages and saw civilians being rounded up and forced to work as porters for the military. Some child soldiers that Rogers spoke with claimed that the troops were under orders to burn, rape and kill and that 'there was no law'. Some (like Kyaw Zeya) had been repeatedly warned that if he ever escaped and were captured by the Karen, they would kill him. He believed these warnings, but life became so intolerable that he decided to flee. 'I did believe that the Karen were very bad, and I knew that if I escaped, I might face the Karen,' he admitted. 'But I did not want to live.'

The reality was diametrically opposed to the Tatmadaw propaganda though. Almost as soon as he escaped, the Karen captured Kyaw Zeya, but instead of killing him, they provided him sanctuary. With the Karen he told Rogers, he felt 'safe and free and loved'. Other children tell similar stories. [Burma has perhaps the highest number of child soldiers in the world proportionate to its population.]

Aung San Suu Kyi is a very great leader, but our government does not like her very much: These words caught me by surprise not because of the words themselves or the sentiment they expressed, but because of who they were spoken by: a serving military officer in Burma.  'She is in a very difficult situation: he continued. 'But I pray for her: Discontent with the current regime, and a desire for change in Burma is not limited to students, monks and political activists. In the junior ranks of the military, morale is believed to be so low that rates of desertion and defection have reached worrying proportions for the regime.

Rogers also tells us that astrology is taken extremely seriously among many Burmese people, as are other forms of spirituality and superstition, including numerology, and a belief in nats or spirits. At 4.20 A.M. on 4 January 1948 Burma regained its independence following little over a century of British colonial rule, and several years of Japanese occupation. This early hour was selected by Burmese astrologers - as the most propitious for the country's new beginning. But at a party held to celebrate their impending liberty, someone had reportedly predicted that the wrong date had been chosen for independence; and that there would be nothing but bloodshed and fighting among themselves, and they would not be able to do anything to change this. This person had apparently done all the astrological calculations.

Yet whether or not the astrological dangers of the date chosen for Burma's independence mean anything, other factors contributed to a fragile birth. Just six months prior to independence, on 19 July 1947, the man who had led Burma's struggle against colonial rule, General Aung San, was assassinated, along with half his cabinet. Burma's most competent leaders, who had been preparing to take over from the British, were dead before the country had even become independent.

Interestingly, Aung San predicted his own death when he met the British Governor Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith in 1946. 'How long do national heroes last?' Aung Sang reportedly asked. He then answered his own question, saying: 'Not long in this country; they have too many enemies. Three years is the most they can hope to survive. I do not give myself more than another eighteen months of life.' Aung San is respected to this day in Burma as the father of the nation and the founder of Burma's army; he was also the father of Burma's current democracy icon, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San's assassination in 1947, when his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi was just two years old, deprived him of the opportunity to see his dreams fulfilled and his country of an exceptionally able and wise young leader. He was just thirty-two.

In his meeting with Suu Kyi, Rogers informed her about this book and that he had changed the title. Originally, this book was to be called 'Burma: A Captive Nation'. She responded by commending the new title (Burma: A Nation At The Crossroads) - saying that Burma truly is at a crossroads and people must shed their status as captives. Suu Kyi went on to say that in her view, in the debate over Burma's future, there are three types of people: those who are unquestioningly euphoric and enthusiastic about the process of change; those who are supportive of her decision to engage with the regime and in the political process, but are cautious, skeptical and weighing the evidence; and those who, for whatever agenda of their own, simply do not even want the process to be tried. It is the second category that she values, and she made it clear that she does not understand and has no time for the first or the third.

Besides Rogers, another undercover journalist that has toured Myanmar several times and has met Suu Kyi twice, has penned a new biography titled, 'The Lady And The Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma'. His name: Peter Popham.

Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle against the government at the end of the 1980s was characterized by a steely refusal to entertain the possibility of any contact or dialogue with a morally tainted regime. Today, it is precisely this path, the path of dialogue - difficult, messy and opaque - that she has chosen to travel. The choices ahead will be tough, and they are likely to involve more pragmatism than principle. (Indeed, the NLD's entry into parliament was briefly marred by the activists' refusal to take an oath to the current constitution - a point they were soon forced to concede.) At the end of Popham's book, Gene Sharp, the famous theoretician of nonviolent regime change, trenchantly observes that Aung San Suu Kyi "is not a strategist, she is a moral leader. That is not sufficient to plan a strategy."

In April 1988, Suu Kyi returned from England to Burma - to nurse her sick mother (Khin Kyi) ... but, within six months, found herself the unchallenged leader of the largest popular revolt in her country's history. When the party she co-founded (NLD - National League for Democracy) won a landslide victory in Burma's first free elections (held in thirty years, in 1989), she was put under house arrest (in July 1989) - and barred from taking office by the military junta. Suu Kyi has sacrificed much - remaining under house arrest for so long and been denied contact with her family too. She left her sons (Alexander and Kim) then aged 15 and 11 respectively, in the UK - to come back to Burma, to care for her ailing mother. 

Her husband, Dr Michael Aris, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, it was later found to be terminal. But despite appeals from prominent figures and organizations, the Burmese junta refused to grant Dr. Aris a visa, on the pretext that they lacked the facilities to care for him, and instead urged Suu Kyi to leave the country to visit him. She was at that time temporarily free from house arrest, but was unwilling to go, fearing that she would be refused re-entry if she left. She did not trust the military junta's assurance that she could return. [Aris died on his 53rd birthday on 27 March 1999.]

My two pence: Most of the positive moves (with respect to democratization) made so far can be (sort of) traced or attributed to the personal initiative of the current President Thein Sein (a former general); yet he is an elderly man whose health is clearly not the best. He suffers from heart disease, and has paid a visit to Singapore a few months ago - to get his pacemaker replaced. If he were to suddenly vanish from the scene, it is entirely possible that hard-liners will seize the opportunity to reassert themselves. The Burmese system remains opaque and it is extremely hard to assess the strength of the support, rather approval - for Thein Sein's somewhat reconciliatory course within the regime - i.e., within the military as well as the military dominated Parliament. Very few are likely to claim that the current president's reforms are irreversible.

Now though Aung San Suu Kyi is feted for her struggle, I would say she has lost valuable time and opportunity. Ideology and values are all very good but one has to be pragmatic too; that is the nature of politics, of governance and is the mark of a visionary leader. Instead of losing over two decades - agitating and remaining under house arrest, a dialogue with the powers-that-be and with other political stakeholders may have been a better option; so as to collectively agree on common points and arrive at a road-map, for the future. Networking and building bridges is important, and staying the course is most crucial. Positive change - the type that we want to see in society - does not happen suddenly or by itself; the big picture is essentially made up of many many tiny pixels that has to be patiently and painstakingly put together. Perseverance and remaining focused is the key to achieving this.

Staying out of the political process only helps in creating a void, a political vacuum, and it does not remain so indefinitely. Other forces rush in to fill the gap and one can only speculate as to the nature of the forces that fills such voids. Non-participation only makes difficult situations even more difficult; left unattended, wounds start to fester and result in gangrene - if you know what I mean.

Suu Kyi's party offices are crumbling, there is little organization, the leadership is old and archaic ... and she herself is 67 and not in the best of health. Infusing new blood and ideas into the party, grooming them, turning it into a close-knit unit, adapting to changing times and geo-political scenarios, reworking the vision and the mission (of the party) and getting the rank and file to identify with it, engaging with various political groups within and with key international players ... is a gigantic task. Apart from her, Burma does not have a tall leader, someone who is respected cutting across identities. But most importantly, Burma lacks a visionary leader ... and there exists a lot of push and pull from various directions.

There are a total of 664 seats in Burma's national parliament and Suu Kyi's party (the NLD) holds only 38 of them. It won a total of 43 seats in the much-trumpeted April 1 by-election, and that includes these 38 seats (in the national parliament.) That's a tiny fraction - translating to less than 7% [6.4% actually.]

As for how much maneuverability this would provide ... well, my guess is as good as yours!

Also there are at least two generations of students lost, and empty classrooms gather dust. It is a country  severely handicapped vis-a-via skilled and semi-skilled workforce, but blessed with immense natural resources. And given their geography, there was and remains many possibilities.

About Suu Kyi, we have to see how things unfold. Being an icon is much easier than being a hands-on leader. The latter has to try and take along various shades of people and opinion ... and find common grounds - for cooperation. For a leader, give and take, compromises and difficult choices are the order of the day; one needs to get their hands dirty - so to speak. A leader has to be a strategist of the highest order, be clued into the goings-on - both within one's shores as well as globally; for international politics is a very choppy water ... not to speak of smoke and mirrors. There is always much more to it than meets the eye, rather ... it is never really what it seems or appears to be.

My Verdict: The production quality of the book is very good, it feels good to hold and that adds to the reading pleasure. The language is not too meandering or exalted, and hence is easy to understand. However the book jacket cover doesn't quite capture the colours and flavours of Burma (or even Myanmar.)

Though the author may have spent time in Burma and spoken to a cross-section of people, it is still very much a book through the eyes of a foreigner, more precisely ... from a westerner's perspective. The language, the observations, the inferences, the thought process, et al is clearly western. The human rights abuses, the brutal military regime, the hapless people, the sufferings, the poverty, the conflicts, the ethnic issues, the religious issues, the colour of skin, the remarks about beliefs, etc; the viewing of everything in black-and-white - is very unlike us. It is very unlike South Asia. Frankly, I was looking forward to having a sneak peek at the various shades in between: the cuisine, the culture, the customs, the attire, the rich heritage, the unique architecture, the colonial era, the natural beauty, the crafts, the folklore, the humour and the repartee, the music, the similarities despite the many differences, the festivals ... and the small milestones, as well. Or at least a few of these, if not all of them. Instead the book overwhelms the reader with ethnic conflicts, figures and statistics. Even the pictures - in black and white - are so depressing.

I mean, I cannot even imagine looking at a majestic Pagoda (a Buddhist Temple) - in black and white! Can you?

When I was studying, we had a fellow hostelite from Burma. Meaning: there was a Burmese student staying with us in the hostel. She spoke decent English, something that I would classify as Burmese English, the type we are likely to find being spoken across Burma - by ordinary citizens. But we had no difficulty in communicating with each other whatsoever. And from what we observed, she was very organized and neat, simple and humble ... and with a deep love for her motherland. She wore the Burmese dress: a long brightly-coloured wrap-around skirt or longyi, paired with a shirt or long blouse. I don't recollect seeing her wasting food or water, and in the hostel we all ate the same stuff - from the hostel kitchen, rustled up by South Indian cooks: rice, wheat chappatis, sambar, some curry (consisting of potato, cabbage, tomato, carrots, peas and the like), curd or raita, papad and pickles (for lunch and dinner) - i.e., a vegetarian diet. And poori-saagu (puri-sabzi), chappati-sabzi, idly-sambar-chutney, masala dosa, chitranna (lemon rice), puliogre (tamarind rice), etc - for breakfast; and she quite liked it. Different cuisine, you see; though the generous use of oil (in the dishes) did pose a problem sometimes. But she would be ever smiling.

We chatted a few times; she was always polite, friendly and soft-spoken, never interrupting while the other spoke - very attentive and a good listener. She also worked very hard at her studies. This, she did not take lightly, and if you are an Indian, you would instantly know what I mean :)

Though much older to us, nearly forty, and in a long-term stable relationship, she confided that they had not married yet as they were both keen for their respective families to accept the match. And for this to happen, they were prepared to wait. [Their families were taking their time but not harassing them, nor were they barred from communicating with each other; and both had immense faith in and respect for each other too.]

To my mind, if people of any country were to have similar or even some bits of these above-mentioned values, open-mindedness, qualities, thoughts and traits, a nation can and will be built - on strong foundations. Crossroads or no crossroads! It is best that the people of Burma themselves resolve their issues since they understand each other better, despite what may seem to alien eyes - as differences and tensions. In spite of magnified ethnic differences, there may be unknown reserves or undercurrents of tolerance and commonalities; perhaps many if not all may want to put their collective shoulders to the proverbial wheel. Let us wish Burma and her people all the very best in their journey forward. May they build their nation - together!

Details of the book: Burma: A nation At The Crossroads/ Author: Benedict Rogers / Publisher: Random House/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: 2012/ Genre: Politics/ ISBN-10: 1846043468/ ISBN-13: 978-1-84-604346-8/ Pages: 304/ Priced at: 12.99 pounds [Rs.1,134.90]

Photograph: The book jacket cover of 'Burma: A nation At The Crossroads'. Picture courtesy: link.

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