Burma: Modernity at Warp Speed

We in America are familiar with how roiling innovation makes work disappear.  Buggy whip makers were once a respectable part of the working class, etc.  But in Burma of the last few years, job after job has begun to disappear — some for the good, of course, but all creating dilemmas of sustenance and shelter for the former practitioners.

…as this country opens to the world, the phone rental business is losing customers quickly, one of a number of antiquated trades that are disappearing from a rapidly modernizing country. Who needs a roadside phone shop when you can now buy a cheap cellphone and call from anywhere you want?

The list of soon-to-be obsolete professions is growing: The typewriter clerks who sit outside courthouses and government offices are losing ground to computers and email. The mimeograph machines and a whole neighborhood of men who manually carve rubber stamps are being replaced by laser printers, scanners and photocopiers.

In every society, professions disappear in the name of progress. But the pace of change in Myanmar, where army generals introduced a form of democracy two years ago, has been compressed into months, not decades.  NY Times

U Say Thu has made rubber stamps on a Yangon street corner for the past decade.

U Say Thu has made rubber stamps on a Yangon street corner for the past decade.

Burma: Nation Waiting

Interesting news today from Burma/Myanmar:

Burmese President Thein Sein, who has steered a wave of reforms since the end of military rule, will not be seeking a second term at the next election in 2015, the leader of his party said on Thursday.

Which of course raises questions about the country’s First Lady – Aung San Suu Kyi:

The hugely popular Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to run, but only if the constitution is changed to eliminate a clause that bars Burmese from the presidency if their children or spouse are foreign nationals. Her two sons are British, as was her late husband.

The current speaker of parliament and leader of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Shwe Mann has also expressed an interest in running.  Like Thein Sein, he was a member of the now disbanded military junta — though it can be assumed the feelings in his heart and mind are not similarly disbanded….

Burma Royhinga

Ethnic tensions remain high in parts of the county with military shelling in Kachin state and Buddhist-Muslim communal violence in Arkan state.  Aung San Suu Kyi, herself, came under fire by some human rights activists for a BBC interview last week in which she seemed to shifting blame for the initiation of violence from Buddhists to a more “moderate”  view of “violence is coming from both sides.”

“It’s not ethnic cleansing. … I think it’s due to fear on both sides. And this is what the world needs to understand—that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well,” she said. “Yes, Muslims have been targeted, but also Buddhists have been subjected to violence. There’s fear on both sides, and this is what is leading to all these troubles.”

This could be helpful if it leads to a damping down of tensions and steps towards reconciliation.  It will not be helpful if it constitutes a blind eye and tacit permission for one of the two ‘aggrieved’ parties to muscle up even more.

South East Asia

Keeping a closer eye on South East Asia than I used to, after a fine 5 week trip through 5 countries in Feb/March this year.


Today marks Burma’s Martyrs’ Day, a holiday commemorating the anniversary of the assassination of anti-imperialist revolutionary Aung San, father of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and newest member of Burmese parliament Aung San Suu Kyi. Recognized as the architect of Burma’s independence from Britain, the young leader was gunned down in a government building on July 19, 1947 along with six of his cabinet ministers, just six months before his country would achieve independence. In Burma, today is a day of mourning, both of the leader and the principles that would have likely become manifest in Burmese society if his life had not been cut short. Tricycle


Officials announced this week that the controversial copper mine project worth $1 billion, which locals and activists have been protesting for months now  will resume operationQuartz



Prime Minister Hun Sen — who maintains a difficult-to-defeat political machine — faces what analysts describe as a formidable contest, tougher than the governing party is accustomed to and one that features starkly competing political priorities.

…The rallying cry of the young opposition supporters in Phnom Penh is “change.” They campaign throughout the city on motorcycles, emblems of greater mobility and incomes than their parents knew.

The opposition was galvanized by the return last Friday of Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister who fled Cambodia in 2009 rather than face charges in a highly politicized trial. Mr. Sam Rainsy, who was greeted by tens of thousands of supporters at the Phnom Penh airport… NY Times + photos


Marvelous photos by David Butow of Buddhist ceremony around the world.

A monk praying at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

A monk praying at Angkor Wat, Cambodia



4 decades after war ended, Agent Orange still ravaging Vietnamese

Ly is … very different from other children. Her head is severely misshapen. Her eyes are unnaturally far apart and permanently askew. She’s been hospitalized with numerous ailments since her birth.Her mother, 43-year-old Le Thi Thu, has similar deformities and health disorders. Neither of them has ever set foot on a battlefield, but they’re both casualties of war.Le and her daughter are second- and third-generation victims of dioxin exposure, the result of the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. Air Force sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides over parts of southern Vietnam and along the borders of neighboring Laos and Cambodia


Bearing a copy of a letter from Ho Chi Minh to Harry S. Truman, the president of Vietnam met President Obama on Thursday and pledged to deepen trade and military ties with the United States even as they tangled over human rights.

Mr. Obama referred gently to the [alleged human rights] abuses, saying: “All of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.”

Mr. Sang, sitting next to him in the Oval Office, mentioned the legacy of the Vietnam War and said that “we still have differences” concerning his country’s human rights record.

NY Times

Myanmar Reports Truce in the Works

The news from Myanmar/Burma has not been good these last few weeks.  Almost continuous clashes, initiated by Buddhist mobs, with Muslim minorities are being reported, with a second day of attacks in Lashio in eastern central Burma, far from the more dangerous areas of Rakhine state.

Today a bit of good news broke, though not between Buddhists and Muslims.

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and President Thein Sein’s government held three days of talks in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin. Previous rounds of negotiations had been held across the border in China.

They also agreed to hold political dialogue, a key demand of the Kachin,  who have long argued that negotiations should address their demands for more political rights as well as greater autonomy.

The two sides also agreed to hold discussions on resettling people displaced by the fighting and create a joint monitoring team.

The KIA are one of about a dozen armed groups which have risen inside the border of Burma, representing different ethnic groups.  It has been the largest, and most difficult to subdue.


It would be good all around for the negotiations to yield fruit.  See Al Jazeera for more


Religious Youth Push Back Against Buddhist Extremism in Myanmar

A bit of fresh air reported today from Myanmar:

A group of youth activists began distributing t-shirts and stickers promoting religious harmony in Rangoon and Mandalay on Friday, as part of a grassroots campaign to counter the growing threat of Buddhist extremism in Burma.

MyanMar flyers

Dozens of activists travelled through several townships in the former capital planting stickers on cars, shops and windows in response to the growing anti-Muslim “969” movement – led by the notorious Islamophobic monk Wirathu — which calls for Buddhists to shun the Muslim community.

Democratic Voice of Burma


The bad news is that Buddhists and Muslims, mutually seeking to escape the violence in Indonesia have gone at each other, with deaths resulting:

Fighting between Buddhist and Muslim asylum seekers from Myanmar at a detention centre on Indonesia’s Sumatra island left eight people dead Friday, police said.

The fighting broke out at around 2:00 am (1900 GMT Thursday) at the Belawan Port immigration detention centre in North Sumatra province, said local police spokesman Heru Raden Prakoso.

“We don’t know how many of the dead are Buddhists and how many are Muslims, or how the clash broke out. But our preliminary findings suggest they were beaten to death with wooden objects,” Prakoso said.

Sayadaw Wirathu

Sayadaw Wirathu

And here is the center of the storm himself:

 Buddhist Monk Saydaw Wirathu, the self-styled “Burmese bin Laden”, has called for a national boycott of Muslim businesses in Myanmar in a controversial video that emerged on YouTube.

Wirathu, who has led numerous vocal campaigns against Muslims in Burma and was arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim literature, urges Burmese people “to join the 969 Buddhist nationalist campaign” and “do business or interact with only our kind: same race and same faith”.

“Your purchases spent in ‘their’ (Muslim) shops will benefit the Enemy,” says Wirathu. “So, do business with only shops with 969 signs on their facets”.

The numerology of 969 is derived from the Buddhist tradition in which 9 stands for the special attributes of Buddha; 6 for the special attributes of his teaching or Dhamma and 9 for the special attributes of the Sangha or Buddhist order.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar Military

myanmar_span-articleLargeIt was with somewhat of a shock yesterday that we saw pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myamnmar’s apostle of nonviolent resistance, sitting on the reviewing stand of an Armed Forces Day parade, amongst those who certainly had a voice in keeping her under house-arrest for 15 years, unable to leave even to be with her dying husband in England.

On the other hand, those who are thrust into such positions have to learn to play the long game.  She cannot afford to act out of personal resentment.  If Myanmar is ever to escape the yoke of the past 50 years the army must come along too.   [NY Times: Fuller]

I thought as I watched The Lady the other night, Luc Besson’s bio-pic of her years under arrest, that he missed showing us a major part of her character and charismatic power:  until the very last moment there was no suggestion of how she dealt with the soldiers she saw daily for all those years.

It’s for sure certain, unless resistance to dictatorship can make inroads into the rank and file of the armed forces, making it hard to impossible to carry out orders to kill their fellow citizens, no toppling of the generals will ever happen.  Even in the case of full fledged, armed civil war, disaffection,  desertion and refusal to join play large parts in who comes out with ability to govern.

In any event, I am always suspicious of arm chair pundits opining on what others should do.  The only tough question is of ourselves: what would I do?  Indeed, what do I do in the difficulties of my own, less exalted, life?


The US is right of course to be concerned with the military and the ongoing communal violence in Myanmar.

“We do remain deeply concerned about the communal unrest in central Burma,” State Department acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters, using the country’s former name.

“We are urging Burmese authorities… to restore order and maintain peace in a manner that respects human rights and due processes of law… So that’s really the appropriate role for the military.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for letting her voice grow silent about the murder of Myanmar Muslims.  The army has been faulted for standing by, even for abetting the nationalist-Buddhism on the rise, especially given its well known intrusion with fire and blood on the civil unrest of just a few years ago.  Much to be done in little time.

‘Buddhist’ Thugs Make Their Comeback

Having just returned from a week in Myanmar, the news from there is brighter to me than previously. Especially troubling is what we hear about on-going attack-and-burn raids on Muslims, reportedly led by Buddhist monks.    In an opinion piece in The Irawaddy Magazine from the founder, Aung Zaw:

“There is no doubt that the violent attacks on Muslims in Meiktila, a garrison city in central Burma, were politically motivated. It has been a gruesome spectacle. Muslims were beaten, dragged out into the streets, doused with petrol and burned alive.  Read more of this post

News in the Traveler’s Eye

Still getting my feet under me after five weeks in Southeast Asia — Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  It’s strange once again, after 37 mornings of 6 a.m. wake-up calls and eating around hotel tables with traveling friends, to be  quiet with the morning NY Times and brief exchanges with the dear reader across from me.

As is usual, places that we’ve been leap out from the pages. Sadly, this morning, it is the rioting in Myanmar, and not just along the coast where it has occurred in recent month, but inland, at Meiktila– the scene, as it happens, of the last enormous battle between the Japanese and the Allies at the near-end of WW II.  If the reporting is right, the saddest of sad things is that the anti-Muslim rioting, and threats against reporters, are being lead by Buddhist monks with sharpened weapons.


Having been with a guide in Burma who was not shy about voicing his quarrels with the government — as well as his hope– and having just seen Luc Besson’s fine movie, The Lady, about Aung San Suu Kyi and her fifteen year struggle it is strange indeed to see the red neckerchiefed police acting as police are supposed to act — stopping communal rioting and making space for cooler heads….

Rioting and arson attacks spread on Friday to villages outside Meiktila, as mobs of Buddhists, some led by monks, continued a three-day rampage through Muslim areas. Witnesses reached by phone said security forces did little to stop the violence.

“Mobs were destroying buildings and killing people in cold blood,” said U Nyan Lynn, a former political prisoner who witnessed what he described as massacres. “Nobody stopped them — I saw hundreds of riot police there.”

News services, which had reporters in the city, said that Buddhist homes had also been set on fire and that while thousands of Muslims had fled to a stadium for safety, at least some Buddhists were also taking shelter outside their homes, in shrines.

Images from Meiktila showed entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, some with only blackened trees left standing. Lifeless legs poked from beneath rubble. And charred corpses spoke to the use of fire as a main tool of the rioting mobs.  NY Times


In Thailand’s north west, which we didn’t get to, but heard of quite often,  Karen refugees have piled up in make-shift camps, fleeing from fighting between the Myanmar army and Karen separatists.  A fire broke out yesterday, killing 30.  Likely started from the slash-and-burn farming which takes place all over Southeast Asia and is much in evidence in the air almost everywhere, as we did experience.

NY Times

Literary Festival in Rangoon

With a trip to Burma/Myanmar coming up in one week I’ve been going nuts trying to learn a little bit more about the country than the latest causality figures from the northern border where Kachin rebels have been waging a 50 year struggle against the Burman majority. As dire as that is for the people involved much more is happening, and with auspicious signs.

I would think that many, especially the young, would be dizzy with excitement in the ‘new’ Burma/Myanmar.  After decades of censorship, harassment and jailings, writers are able to write and read in public.  Burmese authors are being published in the country.  The daily press is able to pursue stories as they see fit. It’s not perfect by any means but it sure looks fun.  Better than being arrested for writing a Valentine’s day poem, as Saw Wei was in 2008.

Last week actually saw a literary festival in Rangoon with some 80 indigenous writers participating, as well as international stars such as Jung Chang of China whose “Wild Swans” has just been published in Myanmar though it is still banned in China.

Associated Press is beginning a year-long series about change in Myanmar.  The first article is about the lifting of censorship and how some writers are responding.

Aung San Suu Kyi gives a talk at the Irrawaddy literary festival in Burma, the first event of its kind in the country. Photograph: Khin Maung Win/AP

Kate Hodal reports for the Guardian U.K about the festival:

Sessions at the Irrawaddy literary festival, which ended on Sunday, were held in Burmese and English and varied from workshops on photojournalism and discussions on censorship and violence to poetry readings and film screenings.

Audience members stood up to share their tales of being political prisoners under Burma’s five-decade long military regime, or to ask questions on how their country could gain greater literary clout. Tents selling secondhand books spilled onto the lawns of the Inya Lake hotel, which was hosting the festival, while poets and writers crowded around picnic tables discussing art and literature.

The three-day festival’s most popular talks invariably involved the opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — who acted as patron of the festival — during which she told sell-out audiences that books helped stave off loneliness while living for nearly 20 years under house arrest, and joked that however courageous she might seem to others, she would never be brave enough do what Harry Potter had done.

“[Reading] gives you a chance to understand how other people think, and what kind of experiences other people have been through,” she said. “And it also helps you to cope with your own life.”


Burma Bleeding

Once upon a time, many centuries ago, we were all stateless beings. Under the shadow of the nearest biggest guy with horses and throwing or stabbing weapons to be sure, but stateless; no borders except those around the royal game preserves. Along the trading routes peoples of different hues and tongues mixed, changing hues and tongues as random encounters encouraged. Being stateless was not only not a crime, it was unknown. Not so today. If the state hasn’t entirely supplanted clan, ethnicity and religious feeling as the central sense of belonging in people, it has the structural, legal and military upper hand. ‘You may not feel your identity is with me, but you belong to me,’ the State Avatar might say.

Open Society We Are Rohinga

We Are Rohingya from Open Society

So, when a significant body of people are in fact stateless, serious consequences flow. As they are with the Rohingya Muslims, come from Bangladesh decades ago, fleeing turmoil there and seeking security and livelihood along the Burmese coasts.  Here is a very short history from The International Observatory on Statelessness:

The British annexed the region after an 1824-26 conflict and encouraged migration from India. Since independence in 1948, successive Burmese governments have considered these migration flows as illegal. Claiming that the Rohingya are in fact Bengalis, they have refused to recognize them as citizens. Shortly after General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) seized power in 1962, the military government began to dissolve Rohingya social and political organizations. The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act stripped Burmese nationality from the Rohingya. In 1977, Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) constituted a national effort to register citizens and screen out foreigners prior to a national census.

The resulting military campaign led to widespread killings, rape, and destruction of mosques and religious persecution. By 1978, more than 200,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh. The Burmese authorities claimed that their flight served as proof of the Rohingya’s illegal status in Burma.

Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingya were declared “non-national” or “foreign residents.” This law designated three categories of citizens: (1) full citizens, (2) associate citizens, and (3) naturalized citizens.

Clearly the road to the current troubles has been paved over time with the aggregate of animosity and the concrete of legal fiat.  Changing the direction of the road is going to take significant work — beginning with  rescinding the discriminatory laws, application of the highest moral appeal from Aung San Suu Kyi, and on the ground community organizing by tough international mediators — in all the affected communities — and calling on the best in the Buddhist and Muslim faiths to overcome the worst.

The new de-Gerneraled Myanmar state is in sorry shape, despite the exuberance of recent elections but it has no choice but to build itself into its best self right through the troubles at hand.

The news today is that some 20,000 have been displaced.  Time is slipping by.