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Burma

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South-East Asian Fall?

A quarter-century before the Arab Spring of 2011, there was a democratic spring in South-East Asia: the Philippines in 1986, Burma in 1988, Thailand in 1992 and Indonesia in 1998. The Arab Spring was largely drowned in blood (Syria, Egypt, Libya), but democracy really seemed to be taking root in South-east Asia – for a while.

But look at it now. The army is back in power in Thailand, and it never really left in Burma. The Philippines still has the forms of democracy, but President Rodrigo Duterte is a homicidal clown. And last week saw the demolition of the facade of democracy in Cambodia. What went wrong?

In Cambodia’s case democracy never was much more than a facade. Hun Sen, who was just ‘re-elected’ president with 80% of the vote, has been in power for 33 years, first as the leader of a Communist puppet government put in place after the Vietnamese invasion of 1971, later as the ruler of an independent country where opponents sometimes disappeared and his party unaccountably always won the elections.

But there was a relatively free press and a real opposition party, so Cambodia was loosely counted as a democracy – until the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party did surprisingly well in the 2013 election. After that the free media were shut down one after another, and in late 2016 the CNRP was dissolved by the supreme court. No wonder Hun Sen won again.

So nothing much lost there, you might say – but actually the facade of democracy, shabby though it was, did provide some protection for civil and human rights in Cambodia. Now it’s gone. “Whatever Mr Hun Sen wants, he gets. People are so fearful,” said deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua, who fled to Germany last month. (The CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, is in jail on treason charges.)

Thailand went a lot further into the business of building a real democracy. A populist party that attracted peasants and the urban poor actually got power and started moving resources their way. But the reaction was ferocious: military-backed conservatives, including much of the urban middle class, fought that party in the courts and in the street.

The populist party was forced to change its name and its leader several times, but it was still in business until the military coup of 2014 shut all political activity down. Each year the generals promise a free election for the following year, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Next door in Burma the army never lost power at all. The attempted non-violent revolution of 1988 was thwarted by a massacre of students worse than the one carried out by the Chinese Communist Party on Tienanmen Square the following year.

It’s only in the past few years that the military were forced to hand some power over to civilians through free elections. But the generals then struck back with a pogrom against the Muslim minority in Rakhine state, the Rohingya, whom they falsely accused of being illegal immigrants.

700,000 Rohingyas were driven across the border into Bangladesh, Buddhist Burmese nationalists cheered the army on – and Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-standing leader and hero of the democratic movement, did not dare to condemn the crime. The army is basically back in the saddle.

And then there’s the Philippines, where the elections really are free. The trouble is that in 2016 the Filipinos elected Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed murderer, by a landslide. At least 3,000 death-squad killings of alleged drug-dealers later, he still has the highest popularity rating of any Filipino president since the ‘people power’ revolution of 1986.

Vietnam and Laos, of course, are still Communist-ruled autocracies. Only two of the eight countries in the region, Indonesia and Malaysia, are real democracies. It falls far short of the high hopes of the late 20th century, but it’s a good deal more than nothing.

Despite local scandals like the jailing of a non-Muslim mayor of Jakarta on spurious blasphemy charges, Indonesian democracy works, and is less corrupt than the regional norm. Malaysia has just voted out the most corrupt prime minister of its history, who is now in jail. And these two countries alone account for almost half the region’s population.

As for the rest, it’s the old game of glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty. The setbacks are clustering at the moment, creating the impression that the democratic experiment has failed in South-East Asia, but every retrograde regime still faces far stronger democratic resistance than existed in any of these countries a generation ago.

In the century after the French revolution there were two emperors, one ‘directorate’, two monarchies and three republics, and most of the transitions were violent. The general direction of travel, in South-East Asia and elsewhere, is still towards democracy, but it’s a longer journey than it looks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“So…charges”)

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya

Nobel Peace Prize winners sometimes go on to undistinguished later careers, and some seem to have got the prize by mistake. Barack Obama, for example. But there has never before been one who went on to become a genocidal criminal.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s elected leader, richly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for her thirty-year non-violent campaign (much of it spent under house arrest) to restore democracy in the country. Two years ago, when she finally became the de facto prime minister, her reputation was as high as that of Nelson Mandela.

Hardly anybody had noticed an interview she gave in 2013 in which she said that Buddhists in Rakhine province live in fear of “global Muslim power”. You know, the same global power that lets Muslims dominate the world’s refugee camps. (Muslims make up three-quarters of the world’s refugees, although only a quarter of the world’s population.)

Back then, this was merely a bizarre remark and Suu Kyi was still a saint. The Muslims of Rakhine state, known as Rohingya, were having a hard time at the hands of the authorities, but it wasn’t her fault, and there was no ethnic cleansing yet. There is now, however, and she is fully complicit in it.

When at least 7,000 Rohingya have been murdered, thousands more have been raped, and 700,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh, leaving behind another half-million of whom many are in ‘internment centres’ (concentration camps), you can legitimately call it ethnic cleansing. Or genocide, if you want to get legalistic about it.

The Burmese government claims that the Rohingya are really illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It even refuses to use the familiar word ‘Rohingya’ any more, insisting on referring to them only as ‘Bengalis’ or ‘Bengali terrorists’. That is a despicable lie.

Rakhine state, between the Arakan mountains and the Indian Ocean, was a separate empire until the Burmese army came over the mountains and conquered it in the late 18th century. Most of its people spoke a dialect of Burmese, but a big minority spoke Rohingya, an Indo-Aryan language related to Bengali.

The Rohingya have been in Rakhine at least since the 1660s. The fact that they were Muslims posed no problem for the Buddhist kingdom of Arakan (Rakhine), which was heavily influenced by the Islamic sultanates of eastern India. The Burmese conquerors of Rakhine, and the British empire that followed, didn’t see the Rohingya as a problem either.

The independent Burmese republic founded in 1948 was different from the start. Only two-thirds of Burma’s 53 million people are Bamar (ethnic Burmese), but most of the other ethnic groups share the same Buddhist religion. Nation-building requires a common identity, so Buddhism got the emphasis – and the Rohingya, as Muslims, were automatically excluded.

Bit by bit the military regime that had seized power in 1962 took away the Rohingyas’ land rights, their civil rights, and in 1982 even their citizenship. They were redefined as illegal immigrants, and the local Buddhist population launched occasional pogroms against them.

The anti-Rohingya policy always played well with Bamar nationalists, who are obsessed with the alleged threat posed by Islam. (Only 4 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, and only half the Muslims are Rohingya.) It’s the one regime policy that is genuinely popular with most of the population, so the army resorts to it whenever it hits a rough patch. It’s losing power now, so it reflexively turns to the old remedy again.

Two years ago you could still argue that a wobbly democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi had to pick its battles carefully. The Rohingya was one that it couldn’t win, so best avoid it and let the military have its way. But that was before it turned into a full-blown genocide last August.

Tactical calculations of political advantage cannot justify mass murder, and it has become clear that Suu Kyi is willing to ignore mass murder if the victims are Muslims. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has known her for more than 30 years, is close to despair.

“She’s changed,” he told CNN last week. “She’s become, unfortunately, a politician afraid of the military and afraid to make the tough decisions to resolve one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.” And (although Richardson didn’t say this), she also probably feels the same unjustified hatred and fear towards the Rohingyas, and Muslims in general, as the general population.

Meanwhile, the 700,000 Rohingyas suffering in rudimentary refugee camps in Bangladesh have been told that they can start going home next month, but people who have seen their villages razed and family members raped, shot or burned to death are a bit reluctant to trust the Burmese army. Especially when they have no guarantee that they won’t end up in grim ‘detention centres’ back in Rakhine.

Taking the Nobel Peace Prize back from Aung San Suu Kyi wouldn’t help matters in Rakhine at all, but it would do the standing of the prize a lot of good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“Rakhine…Bengali”; and “The anti…again”).

Burma: Rohingya Genocide

During the past 65 years of military rule in Burma, the army has killed thousands of people from almost every one of the country’s numerous minorities: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karennis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced a genocide are the Rohingya, and it is happening right now.

Only two-thirds of Burma’s 52 million people are ethnic Burmese, and almost all the other groups have rebelled from time to time because they have no autonomy. Indeed, the original military take-over in 1962 occurred to stop an elected civilian leader from creating a federal state where the minorities would have some control over their own affairs. But the 1.1 million Rohingya are special, because they are almost all Muslim.

The other minorities are all Buddhist, at least in theory, and the army only kills enough of them to quell their revolts. The Rohingya never revolted, but Muslims are feared and reviled by the Burmese majority. Now the army claims that the Rohingya are all recent immigrants from Bangladesh, and is trying to drive them out of the country.

The ancestors of the Rohingya migrated from what is now Bangladesh between the 14th and 18th centuries and settled in the Rakhine (Arakan) region of Burma. They were mostly poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. Since then, they have been treated as aliens and enemies.

The ultra-nationalist military regime launched its first open attacks on the Rohingya in 1978 and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques. Even then, their civilian Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine helped in the attacks.

The Rohingyas’ citizenship was revoked in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. Then things went relatively quiet until 2013.

The trouble this time started with anti-Muslim riots in Burma’s cities, where there are around a million other Muslims, mostly descended from people who immigrated from British-ruled India after Burma was conquered and incorporated into the empire in the mid-19th century.

These urban Muslims, many of whom owned shops or other small businesses, attracted the envy and resentment of poorer Burmese, and have been the targets of sporadic rioting and looting throughout the past century. Since independence, the Burmese army has often supported these riots, or even incited them.

What lies behind all this hostility is a deep-seated fear that Islam is going to displace Buddhism in Burma as it has done in other once-Buddhist countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. It is a completely unfounded fear – Muslims are just four percent of Burma’s population – but many Buddhist Burmese are obsessed by it.

When the Taliban blew up the giant 6th-century statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, the Burmese army ‘retaliated’ by bulldozing the ancient Han Tha Mosque in the city of Taungoo. In the same year Burmese monks began distributing an anti-Muslim pamphlet called “The Fear of Losing One’s Race”, and since then Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of the attacks on Muslims – including in Rakhine.

The poor Rohingya farmers of Rakhine have little in common with the Muslim merchants of Burma’s big cities, but they are now the main target of the army’s wrath. This is probably because Rakhine is the only province of Burma where Muslims are – or more precisely were until recently – almost half the population.

The attacks on the Rohingya, initially explained as part of intercommunal rioting between them and the local Buddhist population, have escalated until this year they have become straightforward ethnic cleansing. The army does not aim to kill them all, just enough of them to force the rest to flee across the border into Bangladesh – but that is still genocide.

It’s now well on the way to accomplishing its goal, thanks to a small group of misguided young Rohingya men who formed a ramshackle resistance group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attacked several police posts on 25 August, killing twelve people.

They were armed with home-made black powder muskets and swords, but the Burmese government has proclaimed that it is under “terrorist” attack and launched a “counter-offensive” that is the local version of a final solution.

About 300,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh in the past couple of weeks, leaving behind an unknown number of dead in their burned-out villages. The remaining Rohingyas in Burma, probably still more than half a million, are almost all in refugee camps that the regime carefully does not call “concentration camps”.

And what about Burma’s secular saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, now in practice the head of a democratically elected government (although one still subject to a military veto on security matters)? She denies that there is anything wrong going on.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. “These urban…them”; and “When…Rakhine”)

Burma’s (Not) Mother Teresa

12 April 2017

Burma’s (Not) Mother Teresa
By Gwynne Dyer

“I’m just a politician,” said Burma’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in a BBC interview last week; “I’m no Mother Teresa.” Fair enough: she has a country to run, and an army to hold at bay. But she’s no Nelson Mandela either, and that has deeply disappointed some people (including fellow holders of the Nobel Peace Prize) who expected better of her.

The issue that most upsets them is her refusal to take a firm stand on the mistreatment of the Rohingya minority, Muslims of Bengali descent who live in Rakhine state in south-western Burma. Since an outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the state in 2013, the army has treated the Rohingyas with great brutality, and at least a hundred thousand have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh for safety.

The repression has been particularly bad in the past year, with many Rohingyas in the northern part of the state raped or murdered by the army, and foreign critics have begun to describe the events in Rakhine state as “ethnic cleansing”. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” she said in the BBC interview, and a new wave of (foreign) outrage swept over her.

It is not too strong an expression at all. There is great prejudice among Burmese Buddhists against the country’s 4 percent Muslim minority, and especially against the Rohingyas. It is the one issue on which the majority of the population agrees with the generals, not with Aung San Suu Kyi – and she has no control over how the army behaves.

After decades of house arrest and years of campaigning, “the lady” (as she is known in Burma) finally took power from the army last year. But the army-written constitution gives the solders complete control of all “security matters”, and indeed does not even permit her to be the president. (They wrote it specifically to ban Burmese citizens with foreign relatives, like her British-born sons, from becoming president.)

So the “state counsellor”, as she is officially known, is in power, but not very securely. The army could decide to take power back at any moment, alhough it would probably face massive popular resistance if it did. For that reason, she doesn’t go out of her way to pick fights with the generals.

Even when she was asked by the BBC whether the Burmese army’s actions in Rakhine were aggressive, she refused to agree. Instead she produced the kind of diversionary talk that the Sean Spicers of the world spout under pressure: “I think there’s a lot of hostility (in Rakhine). It’s Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think that they are collaborating with authorities … It’s people on different sides of a divide.”

No it’s not. It’s the army torturing and murdering Muslims almost at random in northern Rakhine in retaliation for a terrorist attack on police outposts that happened months ago, and that the victims had nothing to do with. Most of the local Buddhists support the attacks on Muslims, but it’s men in uniform who carry them out.

Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t order the soldiers to commit these crimes, and she can’t order them to stop. She can’t even publicly condemn them, because the army might turn against her – and because most Buddhists in Burma probably approve of the army’s actions too.

Burmese Buddhists are paranoid about the perils of a Muslim take-over. It’s ridiculous, given the tiny size of the Muslim minority, but there is real fear about what happened centuries ago to other once-Buddhist, now-Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. If Suu Kyi ignores that ugly fact, she risks handing the country back to the army.

Nelson Mandela had it easy by comparison. Like her, he gained his status as a secular saint by steadfastly demanding democracy through decades of imprisonment, but when he became South Africa’s first freely elected president in 1994 he really had the power. There was no fear that the apartheid regime might come back and evict him. He made wise decisions, gave up the presidency after one term, and died still a saint.

Aung San Suu Kyi has no such luck. She has, miraculously, persuaded a clique of greedy, autocratic, hyper-nationalist generals to surrender most of their political power voluntarily. But it was a deal in which she had to guarantee them freedom of action in their own domain, although she intends to re-write that constitution when she can.

In the meantime, she is undoubtedly doing what she can to limit the army’s cruelty in Rakhine state, but she is not going to throw away Burma’s first chance of a real democracy after almost sixty years of military rule by going public about it. It’s not sainthood, but it does qualify as wise political leadership.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“No…too”)