Speaking on Myanmar Genocide of Rohingyas, The Oxford Union Genocide Panel, 29 Jan 2018

Saying "Sorry!" to a Rohingya brother who survived Myanmar Genocide, Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh, 7 Nov 2017.

Speaking on the Slow Burning Genocide of Rohingyas in Burma, with Professor Amartya Sen, Harvard University, Nov 2014

N. Ireland peace activist Mairead Maguire presenting Zarni with the Cultivation of Harmony Award on behalf of the Parliament of the World's Religions, Salt Lake City, USA 18 Oct 2015

Meeting with The Minister of Foreign Affairs Rt. Honourable Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, M.P., State Guest House, Dhaka, 4 Nov 2017

"National Traitor and Enemy of the State" for his opposition to Rohingya Genocide. Sun Rays, 16/9/17

2-Minutes Speech dedicated to Rohingya victims of Myanmar's Genocide

2-Minutes Speech dedicated to Rohingya victims of Myanmar's Genocide

Myanmar commissions Rohingya genocide, Dr Zarni, FCCT Bangkok, Fall 2012

Myanmar commissions Rohingya genocide, Dr Zarni, FCCT Bangkok, Fall 2012

ဗြီအုိေအျမန္မာပုိင္းမွ မလႊင့္ထုတ္ခဲ့သည့္ အဆုိေတာ္ မြန္းေအာင္ႏွင့္ အင္တာဗ်ဴး

ဗြီအုိေအျမန္မာပုိင္း အစီအစဥ္က ေအာက္တုိဘာလ (၆) ရက္ေန႔မွာ အဆုိေတာ္ မြန္းေအာင္ကုိ အင္တာဗ်ဴး ျပဳလုပ္ခဲ့ေသာ္လည္း မလႊင့္ထုတ္ခဲ့သည့္ အင္တာဗ်ဴး အသံဖုိင္။

အဆုိေတာ္ မြန္းေအာင္က ၂၀၁၅ ျမန္မာေရြးေကာက္ပြဲ၊ တပ္မေတာ္မွ စစ္ပြဲမ်ားအတြင္း က်ဴးလြန္သည့္ ျပစ္မႈမ်ားအပါအ၀င္ ကခ်စ္ ခရစ္ယာန္ ဆရာႏွစ္ဦးကုိ သတ္ျဖတ္မႈ၊ ရုိဟင္ဂ်ာမ်ား အေပၚ လူမ်ဳိးတုန္း သတ္ျဖတ္မႈ၊ ကခ်င္ႏွင့္ ရွမ္းလူမ်ဳိးအေပၚ ဆင္ႏြဲေနသည့္ တုိက္ပြဲမ်ား၊ ဦးသိန္းစိန္ အစုိးရ၏ အတုအေယာင္ ျပဳျပင္ေျပာင္းလဲမႈႏွင့္ သတင္းေထာက္ ကုိပါႀကီး အသတ္ခံရမႈမ်ားကုိ ေျပာၾကားခဲ့ပါသည္။

ေအာက္ပါ အသံဖုိင္တြင္ နားဆင္ႏုိင္ပါၿပီ။

Buddha would not protect Buddhism

Photo courtesy Today

By Kalana Senaratne
October 21, 2015

The ‘Mad Monk’ Phenomenon: BBS as the underside of Sinhala-Buddhism

The marauding Buddhist monks, who appear to be tied to a long political leash, have run out of control. They need to be stopped. But it is equally necessary to take a cold look at the complexity of the phenomenon that groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have come to represent. This is no freak show, and is hardly an aberration in post-war Sri Lanka; also because we know now that critics such as Ven. Dambara Amila (JVP) who predicted that the BBS was bound to dissipate in a matter of months were hopelessly wrong.

Sinhala-Buddhism & BBS

That it is necessary to take a hard and uncomfortable look at the complexity of this BBS-phenomenon is brought to light when reading the Sunday Island political column written by CA Chandraprema, pithily titled ‘Saffron robed destroyers of Sinhala-Buddhism’ (13 April, 2014). While Mr. Chandraprema is to be congratulated for his bold critique of the BBS and the silence of the Buddhist Sangha community, it is difficult to agree with the broad thesis of his column. For Mr. Chandraprema believes that the BBS is primarily another conspiracy launched against the Sinhala-Buddhist majority of the country; that its aim, far from damaging the religious/ethnic minorities, is to damage and destroy the Sinhala-Buddhists.

This, I admit, may be an obvious by-product, one inevitable consequence, of the action of the BBS. But the BBS-phenomenon is a far more complex one, largely because the BBS, far from destroying Sinhala-Buddhism, is giving expression to the very causes espoused by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists. Thus, BBS is the underside of Sinhala-Buddhism.

This is largely because the underlying or foundational reasons that give birth to Sinhala-Buddhism and groups such as the BBS are somewhat similar.

One has to do with the historical grievances and fears harboured by the Sinhala-Buddhist community, given that the promotion of other religions, especially the Christian faith, was central to the European colonizing missions even in Sri Lanka; resulting in numerous forms of discrimination of the Sinhala-Buddhists (numerous scholarly works, ranging from those of Professors KNO Dharmadasa to Susantha Goonetilleke, would point this out). No religion has been, and can be, innocent in the hands of its zealous teachers and propagators. Sinhala-Buddhists would know that all too well.

But the more fundamental reason for the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhism, as well as groups such as BBS, has to do with the inadequacy of the true Buddha-teaching for contemporary political engagement, especially in an identity-seeking, identity-promoting multi-ethnic and pluri-national political setting. In other words, the teachings of the Buddha woefully lack those elements with which you can zealously promote, protect, construct your own identities, your own political interests and prejudices, or engage in contesting those promoted by other ethnic and religious groups (more so, in the contemporary state-centric geopolitical framework). The Buddha-teaching is unhelpful in this political struggle: since that teaching is one which, inter alia, promotes as an ultimate goal the ceasing of greed, hatred and delusion, the realization of all identities as constructed identities; in other words, it is a teaching which helps you to expose the artificial and constructed character of all identities, for they are all without self, without an abiding and unchanging self or core. So from the Buddha, you don’t get a clear teaching on how to defend your state and its sovereignty, how to increase your own kind, how to protect Buddhism, how many times to pray during a day, etc. Even the very idea of ‘protecting Buddhism’ the way it is sought to be done today would be meaningless for the Buddha.

This is what explains the yawning and enduring gap between precept and practice. And it is this vacuum of a solid political ideology which is sought to be filled through the adoption of a culturally-constructed form of Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, this comes to be called Sinhala-Buddhism. And the wonderful thing about this twist is that while you can be attached to the Buddha and his teaching, you can also satisfy many of your political prejudices, aspirations and grievances. That which you cannot do with the Buddha’s teaching, you do with the help of Sinhala-Buddhism.

So with Sinhala-Buddhism, you can pretty much defend a lot of things. You can promote war in the name of self-defence or in the name of protecting Buddhism (or you can be against war too); you can kill terrorists (or you can be critical of the careless use of the ‘terrorist’ tag); you can promote village-level devolution (or you can promote the self-determination of Sinhala and Tamil nations); you can be against the 13th Amendment (or you can call for the need to go beyond the 13th Amendment); you can build more temples in the name of protecting Buddhism (or you can be against such a practice); you can be vociferously critical about ‘Halal’ and call the Buddhists to ban the consumption of such products (or you can promote peaceful engagement and seek ways of ensuring how a valuable concept such as ‘Halal’ can be made useful for the Sinhala-Buddhist community as well in a non-religious way); you can go around crying out in utter filth on the pretext that this is what needs to be done if others are not willing to listen (or you can act in a refined manner); and the list goes on. History would suggest that doing those things stated outside the brackets is more convenient and a sure way of acquiring a greater following, and would help you avoid being bracketed as a separatist. But there is still that indeterminate character to Sinhala-Buddhism which gives you some freedom to construct different political positions. And like any other religion-inspired political ideology, this is the character of Sinhala-Buddhism too; and it is due to this indeterminate character that I am not an outright rejectionist of Sinhala-Buddhism – what depends is what you do with that label, and there is nothing essentially or inherently wrong with it, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with Tamil nationalism).

But what’s problematic (and this is a personal perspective, of course) about contemporary Sinhala-Buddhism is that it is those projects and ideas that were mentioned above (i.e. those which remain outside the brackets) which are the dominant causes of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism today. And interestingly, they are the very causes and projects espoused by groups such as the BBS. The main difference however is that BBS reflects the more grotesque and dangerous expression and promotion of these projects. The BBS reflects the ugly underside of Sinhala-Buddhism; and it is the movement which will literally and forcefully execute the project of Sinhala-Buddhism. What some Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists think, the BBS will do. And that’s what’s happening today.

BBS as a necessity

The importance of a group such as the BBS for promoters of Sinhala-Buddhism of the above kind, lies precisely in this.

In a broad sense, and contrary to what critics would say, this is precisely the vehicle that powerful elements within the Sangha community would require to promote Sinhala-Buddhism. The Sangha community and its leading monks would, indeed, be quite uncomfortable about the particular modus operandi of the BBS. But there is hardly any rejection of the causes that the BBS stands for. This was most strikingly reminded to me at a recent public talk given by Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri at the Colombo University. During the discussion that ensued after the talk (which was on the theme of recent Buddhist political resurgence), Nirmal posed a question to a leading monk who kept on articulating the broader BBS-line (about the illegality of certain Muslim mosques, etc). Nirmal asked what the Buddha’s teaching was as per the Metta Sutta, the Discourse of Unlimited Friendliness. And then came the unabashed reply from the monk: it was the Metta Sutta that made life difficult for them! (i.e. a statement to the effect that ‘karaneeya metta sutraya thamai apita weraduna thena’!). This was a clear but extremely rare admission of the gap between precept and practice. But more seriously, it was damning evidence to suggest that the BBS is not without its use for contemporary Sinhala-Buddhist politics.

The broader necessity of a BBS-type movement is more acute in a post-war context wherein the promotion of Sinhala-Buddhism and establishing the dominance of the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology appears to be the fundamental and defining political goal of a government. We see this happening given the pace at which the building of temples and Buddha-statues take place (ably supported by the domestic film industry as well). This is not a project that can be carried out without some forceful entity in the backdrop. But also, a movement of this nature appears to be necessary for distracting purposes, given also the mounting international pressure, especially for a government which is not ideologically committed to adopting policies that are any different to those which have been adopted since the end of the war. In other words, the very political circumstances of the present make groups such as the BBS necessary.

So it is not the case that the BBS is determined to destroy the Sinhala-Buddhists. Rather, the BBS is the natural end product of unchecked and unrestrained Sinhala-Buddhist fervor; especially in a post-war context where the political victory and spread of Sinhala-Buddhist ideology is the principal and determining goal of a government. This is why the government rushes to ban Tamil diaspora groups (some of which promote separatism), but not groups such as the BBS. This is why a government would not see groups such as the BBS as a serious threat. If the BBS was out to destroy Sinhala-Buddhism (as Mr. Chandraprema claims), the government would have banned this group sometime ago.

Silence and Support 

Critics such as Mr. Chandraprema are angered (rightly so) and startled by the relative silence of the Buddhist Sangha community. He points out, for instance, that the Chief Prelates or the Ven Mahanayake theros and other senior monks cannot be unaware of the danger the BBS-type monks cause. Mr. Chadraprema refers to the “moral pressure” that can be exerted which would compel these groups to change or modify their behavior.

But then it’s difficult to expect groups and entities giving moral support for these groups to exert moral pressure to change their behavior.

The BBS receives this support, perhaps a bit grudgingly, by the leading monks (as explained before) because the BBS appears to be the contemporary vehicle through which an uncomfortable message can be spread most speedily within a population; a message that is in any case central to the Sinhala-Buddhist project (for e.g., one cannot expect the Mahanayaka theros, or even lay figures of leading Sinhala nationalist parties, to get on the podium and demand Sinhala girls to make more children; but that’s the task the BBS-monks did). In any case the promotion and protection of (Sinhala) Buddhism along with the nurturing of political leaders to take up that task, has been one of the defining historical roles of the Sangha community in Sri Lanka. Mr. Chandraprema considers these monks to be unknown during the war-time. But then, some of the leading monks behind this phenomenon are those of the caliber of Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi (who is the founder of the Buddhist Cultural Centre of Sri Lanka). That’s how serious the BBS-phenomenon is. And perhaps this involvement of the Sangha community also explains the relative silence maintained by the likes of Ven. Sobitha. After all, the saffron robe carries tremendous political clout in the country; and politically ambitious monks like Ven. Sobitha know this all too well, having been in the forefront of the political movement that rejected devolution for the Tamil community some decades ago.

The BBS-phenomenon derives moral and ideological support, not only from the Buddhist monks, but also from political entities and the state apparatus. And it is surprising how an astute political analyst and the distinguished author of such works as ‘Gota’s War: The The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka’ did not deal with this aspect and pose the question to the government in his column. Furthermore, the BBS-phenomenon can be expected to receive much ideological support from Buddhist scholars and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist writers.

These are then, to borrow a fantastic line from Prof. Nalin de Silva (who uses it to explain the ideological forefathers of the LTTE), the granduncles, uncles and cousins (the seeyala, baappala, ha massinala) of the BBS. Their silent acquiescence is not a consequence of their inability to understand what’s going on; but precisely because they understand the underlying project promoted by the BBS.


A critical question then is about damage and destruction: who is the BBS trying to destroy? Is it, as Mr. Chandraprema thinks, the Sinhala-Buddhists? Groups such as the BBS would not intentionally destroy Sinhala-Buddhism. This is also because their attack is more widespread. There is, for example, the targeting of the Muslim because he is a Muslim, and therefore a particular ethnic and religious bias is clearly evident in BBS-inspired action. Apart from the attack on the ‘Halal’ logo, we gather this from the statement once made by a monk about Muslim restaurant holders spitting into the food that is served to their (non-Muslim) customers; a practice which, according to this monk, is sanctioned by the Quran. This is one specific way in which a Muslim is targeted for being a Muslim.

Also, the sense of fear and terror spread by groups such as the BBS is not something felt by the Sinhala-Buddhists alone; rather it applies to all ethnic and religious communities. This is irrespective of the claim made by some that many there are certain sects within the different religious groups that are not targeted by the BBS.

Therefore, in short, the BBS needs to be stopped, not primarily because it is destroying the Sinhala-Buddhists but because it is a menace to the Sri Lankan polity and its constituent peoples. The BBS and such groups need to be stopped because they are generating such hatred that people will come to view violence as the only practical option available in the face of the marauding monks approaching them.


Contrary to what I had thought a few years ago, it is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to critique or reform a phenomenon like the BBS from within. One cannot be attached to the contemporary project of Sinhala-Buddhism and seek to dismantle groups such as BBS. In other words, BBS is just the ugly underside of Sinhala-Buddhism; but they are, in their view, clearly and convincingly on side of Sinhala-Buddhism.

In the short term, BBS will perish only if it decides to clash head-on with the most powerful in the country, President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The chances of that happening are slim. But for a phenomenon like the BBS to be rooted out, what is needed is a radical rethinking and re-articulation of what it means to be a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’. It is only such a re-thinking and re-branding of the Sinhala-Buddhist identity which would make groups like the BBS redundant, unnecessary, deplorable.

That again, however, is a long-term political project; one which has little support on the ground anyway. In the face of the actual dangers posed by BBS-like entities, swift and quick action is required. Perhaps Mr. Chandraprema’s provides the hint. He calls the BBS-phenomenon a “mad-monk phenomenon”; and he considers the monks involved in this movement to be “mad monks”. So the message ought to be clear. It is customary to lock up those who have gone mad.

This article was originally published here

South-east Asia: thousands of Rohingya refugees may have perished at sea - new report

Rohingya refugees adrift off Thailand gathering food dropped by a Thai army helicopter in May © AFP/Getty Images

October 21, 2015

100 new testimonies show how persecuted Rohingya refugees from Burma suffered horrific abuses on board boats where beatings were systematic

Report comes ahead of new refugee ‘sailing season’ in the region 

Men, women and children from the persecuted Rohingya people who fled Burma by boat earlier this year were killed or severely beaten by human traffickers if their families failed to pay ransoms and thousands may have perished at sea, said Amnesty International in a new report today.

Amnesty’s 40-page report, Deadly journeys: The refugee and trafficking crisis in Southeast Asia, is based on interviews with more than 100 Rohingya refugees - mainly victims of human trafficking, and many of them children - who reached Indonesia after fleeing Burma or Bangladesh across the Andaman Sea. 

Particularly harrowing events unfolded in May - triggered by Thailand’s crackdown on human trafficking - as the traffickers’ subsequent abandonment of people at sea left thousands of refugees and migrants stranded for weeks in desperate need of food, water and medical care. While the UN estimates that at least 370 people lost their lives between January and June, Amnesty believes the true figure is much higher. Eyewitnesses who spoke to Amnesty saw dozens of large boats full of refugees and migrants in similar circumstances, but only five boats landed in Indonesia and Malaysia according to UN sources. Hundreds - if not thousands - of people remain unaccounted for, and may have died during their journeys or have been sold for forced labour. 

Amnesty International’s Refugee Researcher Anna Shea said:

“The daily physical abuse faced by Rohingya who were trapped on boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea is almost too horrific to put into words. 

“They had escaped Burma but had only traded one nightmare for another. Even children were not spared these abuses. 

“The shocking truth is that those we spoke to are the ‘lucky’ ones who made it to shore - countless others perished at sea or were trafficked into forced labour situations. 

“With the monsoon over and a new ‘sailing season’ already underway, thousands more could be taking to boats and Amnesty is urging regional governments to urgently step up their response to the crisis.” 

Hellish conditions and beatings and killings over ransoms 
Many Rohingya who spoke to Amnesty said that they had seen crew members kill people when their families failed to pay ransoms. Some people were shot by the traffickers on the boats while others were thrown overboard and left to drown. Others died because of lack of food and water or because of rampant disease.

Refugees have also described how they were kept for months in hellish conditions on very large boats, and severely beaten while traffickers contacted their family members, demanding a ransom. One 15-year-old Rohingya girl said the crew called her father in Bangladesh, made him listen to her cries while they beat her and told him to pay them £1,000. Virtually every Rohingya woman, man and child said they had either been beaten themselves, or had seen others suffer serious physical abuse. People were beaten with metal or plastic batons - sometimes for several hours - simply for begging for food, moving or asking to use the toilet. Many have been left with long-term physical or psychological scars.

Beatings were often carried out in a chillingly routine and systematic way. One 15-year old Rohingya boy said: “In the morning you were hit three times. In the afternoon you were hit three times. At night you were hit nine times.” 

Rohingya refugees were kept in inhuman and degrading conditions during their journeys. Boats were severely overcrowded, with people forced to sit in extremely cramped positions, sometimes for months on end. A local man who helped rescue people off the coast of Aceh in Indonesia said that the stench was so bad that rescuers could not board. Food and water was severely lacking and rations usually consisted of a small cup of rice per day. Many of the Rohingya who reached Indonesia were emaciated, had difficulty walking after being cramped for so long, and suffered from dehydration, malnourishment, bronchitis and flu. 

Persecuted at home 
The Rohingyas’ desperation stems from decades of persecution and discrimination in Burma, where they are effectively denied citizenship under national law. Waves of violence against the Rohingya, most recently in 2012, have forced tens of thousands into overcrowded camps where they live in desperate conditions. Some people said that they had been abducted by traffickers in Burma or Bangladesh, whereas others had been promised a safe passage to Malaysia for a nominal fee - a tactic commonly used by traffickers looking to coerce people into forced labour. 

Anna Shea said: “The Rohingya are so desperate that they will continue to risk their lives at sea until the root causes of this crisis are addressed - the Burmese government must immediately end its persecution of the Rohingya.” 

Doubts over safety in Indonesia
In May, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand initially pushed overcrowded vessels back from their shores and prevented thousands of desperate passengers from disembarking. Following international criticism, Indonesia and Malaysia eventually agreed to admit a number of asylum-seekers on the condition that another country accepts them by May 2016. Indonesia should be recognised for devoting resources to housing hundreds of vulnerable people in its Aceh province and working to fulfil their basic needs in cooperation with local civil society and international agencies, but there are serious unanswered questions about a long-term solution as the government has not clarified whether the refugees can stay beyond next May.

Is the US Giving Myanmar a Free Pass?

Image Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Hunter Marston
The Diplomat
October 18, 2015

The U.S. can do better than to treat Myanmar’s democratic progress as “good enough.”

Washington’s excitement at Myanmar’s opening to the West may have been premature, but the Obama administration appears to have deemed the country’s tentative democratization “good enough” to fit the overall U.S. strategy in Asia. That is, Washington hopes to coax potential partners in China’s orbit toward democracy, free trade, and Western values, in order to preserve the status quo balance of power in Asia. 

Amidst Myanmar’s democratic birthing pains, the U.S. government has sought to provide succor to the country’s reform-minded leaders, while seeking to dispel criticism, which distracts from its overall strategy. As Myanmar prepares for nationwide elections, scheduled for November 8, U.S. officials see the country as a potential democratic partner in the region, hinting at further military cooperation down the road, and hoping to expand trade, education, and cultural ties, as well. Drawing Myanmar out of China’s sphere of influence was touted in Washington as a great diplomatic boon for the U.S. pivot to Asia. 

Despite the quasi-civilianization of Myanmar’s government since 2011, the rollout of progressive laws liberalizing the economy and relaxing controls on civil society, free media, and the right to assembly, accompanied by upheaval in the social fabric, the country still faces familiar problems from its pre-democratic era. 

Myanmar’s dramatic reforms notwithstanding, the democratic transition is experiencing setbacks on many fronts. This is especially troubling in an election season, as campaigning has unleashed nationalist forces that could disrupt the fragile peace. The midnight ouster by security forces of the ruling Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP) Chairman “Thura” Shwe Mann in August; a draft ceasefire agreement signed this month, but without the most powerful insurgent groups; and the continued repression of Rohingya Muslims detained in squalid camps, are all worrying signs of political stagnation. 

Organized Buddhist organizations, such as Ma Ba Tha, continue to proselytize anti-Muslim hate speech and legislation that would severely curtail the rights and safety of Myanmar’s Muslims. The strongest political parties are loathe to take a stand on the issue for fear of alienating voters among the two-thirds of the national population that are ethnic “Bamar.” For the time being, it seems clear, nothing will be done to alleviate the dire situation until after elections take place in November. 

As the United States continues to defend Myanmar’s democratic progress and downplay the severity of its obstacles, it has taken a more strident position on Thailand’s reversion to military rule. While the Obama administration has been critical of neighboring Thailand’s military coup and subsequent democratic unraveling, U.S. officials have been reticent to condemn Myanmar’s recent political turbulence. White House, State Department, and Defense Department messaging point to larger geopolitical concerns: namely, how Myanmar fits into our China strategy and the “Asia pivot.” 

Thailand had long been a bedrock of stability in the region. Despite numerous military coups throughout its history, the country remained a reliable democratic and market-oriented partner in the Indo-Pacific. Thailand, a treaty ally of the United States, will likely not return China’s close embrace in the long-term for fear of overreliance. Nor will the Thai government permanently turn away from the West, whose liberal economic policies and educational institutions it has adopted with great success. 

Thailand remains a hub for Western investment as well as tourism. Therefore, the U.S. may believe it can afford to criticize Thailand’s political crisis. Since the May 2014 coup in Bangkok, Washington has slashed military aid by $4.7 million, reduced the scope of its annual Cobra Gold exercises to less than half of 2013 levels, and condemned the Thai junta’s grip on power in numerous statements

Optimistic Projections 

Alongside Thailand’s return to military rule, Myanmar’s democratic lapse should pose concerns for optimistic State Department projections on Southeast Asia’s spreading democratization. Yet Obama’s policy team has touted Myanmar as a shining exemplar of his administration’s democratic idealism. To some, the country’s reforms showed what a policy of outreach and conciliation could archive with even the most hardline of pariah states. Hillary Clinton devoted an entire chapter to the country in her memoir Hard Choices. 

The United States has limited strategic interests in Myanmar, chief among them security, with democracy and free trade as secondary concerns. The U.S. aims to inhibit China’s expanding regional influence in order to preserve the status quo security architecture put in place by the U.S. and Europe in the aftermath of World War II. The security priority helps explain why the United States has refrained from criticizing Myanmar’s shortcomings in light of President Thein Sein’s efforts to push further democratic reforms. The U.S. needs a “good enough” democratic partner in Myanmar to provide a bulwark on China’s strategic southern border with India. 

The lack of vital U.S. interests in Myanmar means Washington has invested less in ensuring its democratic success, while nonetheless applauding the nation’s progress. This is unfortunate, because American values do not always align with its interests, as they do in the case of Myanmar. U.S. leaders should throw their full weight behind a coherent Asia policy and seek to balance Congress’s pessimism on Myanmar with the White House’s overly rosy picture of the country. Leaders like Jimmy Carter have traveled to the country extensively to support peaceful and credible elections. Trips like this earn the U.S. legitimacy and a positive image. Civil society groups, like the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute, can leverage these advantages to encourage Myanmar’s leaders stick to the democratic transition in times to duress. 

Myanmar’s leaders look to the United States with respect yet with mixed feelings regarding its expectations of a swift and total change. U.S. Asia policymakers need to exercise strategic foresight and show some patience with Myanmar. That doesn’t mean withholding criticism. The U.S. should seek greater engagement to strengthen ties with Myanmar’s leaders and to cultivate cooperation from within its government. It would be remiss to dismiss the genuine reformers who struggle with bureaucratic inertia and endemic corruption. They deserve strong encouragement and support. The U.S. can signal approval while still pointing out areas for improvement and vocalizing disapproval of certain policies, such as genuine efforts to assuage religious and ethnic repression. 

November’s elections are a major chapter marker in Myanmar’s democratization. The United States must be ready to help where it can and when asked. The U.S. should indiscriminately provide technical support to political parties competing in upcoming national elections. It can work with Myanmar civil society groups to conduct voter education, political party training, and election monitoring. Myanmar’s increasingly independent – yet still constrained – media has a critical role to play in this phase. Freedom of assembly and expression, both dearly defended rights in the United States, are essential to the conduct of free and fair elections. International media organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders, can help by providing capacity building exercises to local journalists and newspapers in terms of election coverage and media strategy. 

Myanmar’s leaders have opened the floodgates to a range of voices, domestically and internationally. Domestically, Myanmar has a torrent of nationalist, religious, and ethnic, tensions to quell in order to pave the way for a stable and peaceful democracy. Many international observers are criticizing the Thein Sein administration for not moving quickly enough with political reforms. Others are more supportive of the substantial progress made thus far. Washington has sent a bevy of mixed signals, one part congratulating the USDP for its efforts, another part plainly conveying its support for the NLD party, and still other parts chiding all parties for intransigence. 

In the long run, Washington will gain a more reliable friend and more resilient democratic partner in Myanmar if it speaks openly and with conviction based on America’s respect for human rights and an understanding of the complexities confronting Myanmar’s leadership. Assuming November’s elections are deemed reasonably legitimate, it will be essential for Washington to work with the next administration to continue its supporting role alongside Myanmar’s democratizers, whichever side they be on. 

Hunter Marston is a Washington, D.C.-based political analyst, who focuses on Southeast Asia. He has worked in international development organizations and the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar.

Norway's spin on Myanmar 'peace' process vis-a-vis on-the-ground realities

Katja Nordgaard, Norway’s former ambassador to Burma, met with President Thein Sein in August 2013. (Photo: President’s Office website)

"We have to keep fighting for our freedom, for our political rights," said Thar Phone Kyaw, the general secretary of Ta'ang National Liberation Army, which also refused to sign. He said no cease-fire agreement will be signed without assurances they will get the "federal union" promised to them by Myanmar's independence leader Gen. Aung San more than 60 years ago. 

from - "8 ethnic rebel armies sign cease-fire pact with Myanmar government; major groups stay away", AP, 15 Oct.

Norway and its leading support role in Myanmar's ceasefire prcoess.

"War is Peace; Slavery is Freedom; Ingnorance is Strenght and NCA is Nation Wide Ceasefire.", a facebooker posted a variation of Orwell's timeless wisdom. 

That applies to how the ceasefire process has been framed by those who hold it up as the only bitter medicine to swallow for the oppressed - peace on the regime's terms. Norway is one of the players in promoting this false narrative - just as it did, most recently in Sri Lanka, and in the Israeli occupation of the Palestines - heard of Oslo Accord?

The sad joke about Norway is this: Norway is a warm, and fuzzy face of the USA while Israel is its nasty and ugly proxy.

Here Norway's propaganda machine is at work, again. 

On Sri Lanka, Norway spinned itself until the entire movement of the Eelam Tamils was brutally crushed by Colombo, with the approval and support of US and UK.

Today, Norwegian travellers are said to pretend they are from Sweden because of their role - alleged or real - in the destruction of a Tamil national community. And it is not clear what Norway gained from the Sri Lanka peace process, but Eelam Tamil got a mild UN support in the form of a recommendation (and a report) that a Cambodia-like hybrid UN-Colombo International Tribunal be set up to try Sri Lankan leaders for crimes against humanity.

In the case of Burma or Myanmar, in spite of the (empty) talks of 'peace dividends' - out of the failing process and the support role Norway takes pride in playing - Burma's ethnic peoples are being forced to exist in increasingly bloody and difficult conditions. 

Tangibly for Norway it is raking it in - in absolute US$ terms - Telenor's profits are up; Statoils has exploration permits for gas off the Rahine coast where Rohingya flee and drown by the hundreds. (How kind that Norway gave about US$2 million to the 'boat people'! - that will cover the expenses to retrieve the Rohingya bones from the bottom of Andaman Sea, and exhume the dead traffiked Rohingyas from mass graves in Malaysia and Thailand!)

Shame on Oslo! Down with Norway's official Myanmar delusions. 

Ceasefire agreement in Myanmar: an important step towards peace 

Press release | Published: 2015-10-15


8 ethnic rebel armies sign cease-fire pact with Myanmar government; major groups stay away

Here is how Associated Press covers it, in 3 words, "no real deal", (despite the hype).

Myanmar President Thein Sein, right, sits along with Mutu Say Po, chairman of Karen National Union (KNU), for a group photo session during the signing ceremony of "Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement" Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Myanmar's government and eight smaller ethnic rebel armies signed the cease-fire agreement to end more than six decades of fighting, but other more powerful groups refused to come on board, signaling that peace will remain elusive for some time to come. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo) 


Myanmar’s Refugee Problem: It’s Not Just the Rohingya

Other ethnic groups from Myanmar are facing an increasingly difficult situation too. 

By Kirsten McConnachie
October 14, 2015

​Dr Kirsten McConnachie is Assistant Professor in law at the University of Warwick. Formerly a research fellow at the University of Oxford, she is the author of “Governing Refugees” (Routledge 2014) an analysis of camp governance and the administration of justice in refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Myanmar in graphics: An unfinished peace

By The Economist
October 15, 2015

ON FEBRUARY 12th 1947 General Aung San, the father of independent Burma, signed the Panglong agreement with representatives of the Shan, Chin and Kachin people—three of the largest of the many non-Burman ethnic groups that today make up about two-fifths of Myanmar’s population. The agreement said that an independent Kachin state was “desirable”, and promised “full autonomy in internal administration” to “Frontier Areas”, as today’s ethnic states were then known. Aung San was assassinated just over five months later. Under the 60 years of mostly military rule that followed, the spirit of the Panglong agreement has never been honoured.

With all the optimism of the flourishing commercial capital of Yangon, where chic bars and restaurants are popping up, it is easy to forget that Myanmar remains embroiled in several of the world's longest-running civil wars. Over the years scores of ethnic militias have taken up arms against the central government. For six decades the Burmese army justified its repressive rule by saying it was essential to hold the country together. The government has signed ceasefires with many of the ethnic armies, but some have broken down. More than 20 years ago a ceasefire was agreed with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in the Kokang region of Shan state, yet ongoing fighting with that group has cost over 100 lives and displaced thousands of civilians, many of whom have fled across the border to China. The latest, signed to great fanfare on October 15th by President Thein Sein, a former general, included just eight of the 15 armed rebel groups. Among those that did not sign are the United Wa State Army, which operates on the border with China, and the Kachin Independence Army, the largest ethnic militia. Meanwhile, mob violence against Muslim Rohingyas that began in 2012 in the western state of Rakhine points to further conflict. Thousands have since fled by sea and overland, often aided (or kidnapped) by human traffickers.

In recent years the government has pursued reform more than repression. In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San's daughter, was freed from years of house arrest. America lifted crippling sanctions against the country, and Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Myanmar. Two years later, Miss Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party contested 44 of the 46 open seats. It won 43 of them; Miss Suu Kyi now sits in parliament in Naypyidaw. The NLD is favoured to do well in Myanmar's general election on November 8th, and many Burmese would like to see her assume the presidency. But she remains ineligible due to a constitutional provision barring those with foreign children from the top job (Miss Suu Kyi’s children are British—many believe the provision was written to keep her out of office).

Many complain that the pace of political reform that began in 2010 has slowed or even stalled. But that has not stopped foreign investment from flowing in: between 2010 and 2013 Myanmar’s foreign investment nearly tripled—a rate exceeding that of any other ASEAN country except the Philippines (though admittedly from a tiny base). It is not hard to see why. Myanmar sits between the markets of the two most populous countries in the world, China and India. Meanwhile, the workforce in neighbouring Thailand, a manufacturing powerhouse, is ageing and growing more expensive. Myanmar’s population of 51m is both young and cheap. The country abounds in natural resources, including gold, jade, timber, rubies, oil and natural gas. Yet many of those resources lie in territory controlled by ethnic armies. One more reason why many Burmese want peace.

A Hard Look at Peace in Myanmar

Myanmar Peace Rally (Photo: Scott Bleiweis)

Myanmar peace is not conceivable between the colonizer and the colonizer.

Peace is NOT even conceivable in Burma, despite all the hype, the pomp of the empty ceasefire signing during which the Shans were being attacked and driven out of their communities.

$40 million in 3 years didn't result in peace, and pour $4 billion into the 'peace fund', so-called, and there won't be peace. 

Peace is not conceivable between the colonizer and the colonized. 

Support self-determination of all other (non-Bama) ethnic groups. That is compassionate, principled and actually wise in the long run. 

As a Bama - formerly incredibly nationalistic and patriotic - let me state this for the record. I will unequivocally support the self-determination and freedom of any non-Bama ethnic community - either collectively or individually. 

Secession and independence of certain ethnic states is more conceivable than peace under the Tatmadaw rule - unless Myanmar generals stop being colonialistic towards non-Bama ethnic peoples. That is next to impossible: most of them will die racist and colonial. 

If I were a non-Bama minority who wants justice and freedom from Bama colonial rule, I would bide my time until a proxy war begins between USA and China, India and Japan. The last time a big war broke out these patches of communities were forced into a nation-state. The next time the opposite will happen. Mark my words: break-up of Burma.

Just look back and think how many were independent nation-states at the end of the WWII - in 1945, and how many there are today: about thrice as many in a span of mere 7 decades.

Who amongst the non-oppressed, the non-colonized have the moral authority to tell the oppressed what is pragmatic, what is good, and what is viable for them.

The question of independence and freedom is primarily the business of the oppressed - not the advisers, not the NGOs, not foreign governments and certainly not the crippled and paralyzed UN (which incidentally has collected 3 or 4 Nobel Peace prizes, but for what what?).

China courts hardline Buddhist party ahead of Myanmar poll

By Sui-Lee Wee
October 15, 2015

KYAUKPYU, Myanmar -- A powerful ethnic nationalist politician from one of Myanmar's poorest and most volatile regions said Chinese officials made him an irresistible offer during a recent visit to the country: Ask for anything, and we'll give it to you.

Beijing's courting of Aye Maung, chairman of the Arakan National Party (ANP), underscores how China is taking steps to protect its most strategic investments in Myanmar - twin oil and gas pipelines and a deep sea port - ahead of an unpredictable election in the Southeast Asian nation next month.

Such willingness to engage with opposition parties to secure its investments overseas represents a major shift in China's non-interventionist foreign policy.

"We want China, or even America, or Singapore, if the Indian government invites me, we welcome it," Aye Maung told Reuters. "We need so many investments for the development of our area."

The ANP, an organization of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists that is riding a tide of anti-Muslim sentiment, is poised to make a near-clean sweep of Rakhine state in Myanmar's first free and fair election in 25 years. There is speculation that Aye Maung could win the powerful post of chief minister of the state.

That makes him a key potential ally for Beijing, whose most important Myanmar investments are located in the western state.

The fishing town of Kyaukpyu, racked by violence three years ago between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas, is at the heart of China's drive for new resources and trade routes.

In particular, new oil and gas pipelines from Kyaukpyu connect China's southwestern province of Yunnan directly with the Indian Ocean, bypassing the narrow Malacca Strait, where a strong U.S. naval presence has long worried Chinese policymakers.


According to Aye Maung, the ruling Chinese Communist Party invited him to visit Fujian and Guizhou provinces in July. At one meeting, he says an official from the party's International Department told him China had only engaged with President Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and the ANP.

"They told me: we have connected with three parties. You are the one party from all the ethnic groups in Myanmar," Aye Maung told Reuters in an interview in Ann, a town near Kyaukpyu, where he was campaigning.

Aye Maung's two trips were covered in brief reports by local media in China and Myanmar, but no other accounts of what was discussed in his meetings have been made public.

The Communist Party's International Department did not respond to a faxed request for comment. Calls by telephone went unanswered.

A senior official from Thein Sein's office said the Myanmar president had encouraged ties between China and NGOs and rival political parties in Myanmar.

"I think their trying to improve ties with the ANP is just a part of developing this new policy," the official, Zaw Htay, told Reuters.

For decades, China has relied on a simple formula for its foreign policy: avoid anything that could be seen as interfering in a country's domestic politics.

But now, analysts say there is a growing belief in Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration that the old doctrine is insufficient to protect Beijing's interests.

"In recent years, we suffered great losses in only dealing with ruling parties, so that required us to make a change," said Xu Liping, head of the department of Asia-Pacific Social and Cultural Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a top government think-tank.

In June, Xi hosted Nobel laureate Suu Kyi.

Ties between Beijing and its southern neighbor were close when Myanmar was under military rule and treated as a pariah state by Western nations.

But in 2011, when the junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government, China was stung by Myanmar's sudden suspension of the Chinese-led $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project in the northern state of Kachin following a public outcry over its environmental impact.

The event prompted Beijing to tweak its policy on Myanmar. "It was a heavy blow to the Chinese government," said Xu. 


Aye Maung said he has not responded specifically to China's offers of help. But he said he would like tractors and farm machinery to help with Rakhine's harvest, and had also discussed student scholarships.

Rakhine could certainly use the assistance - the state has a poverty rate of 78 percent, according to a 2014 World Bank report.

But although securing much-needed investment could strengthen Aye Maung's hand at home, accusations of land grabs and environmental destruction have fueled anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar, and embracing Beijing is not without risk.

"There has been a lot of criticism about Dr. Aye Maung's trip from local organizations and young people," said Htoot May, an ANP candidate running in next month's election. "We young people like Western policy and help, not Chinese policy."

Chinese investments in Kyaukpyu could amount to nearly $100 billion if all the current plans, including a special economic zone, materialize over the next two decades, according to C. Raja Mohan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But residents say the oil and gas pipelines built so far have not given them any jobs.

"With the gas project, everyone thought that when they came, they would hire our workers," said Tun Tun Naing, a 36-year-old local activist. "But when they arrived, even their cooks were Chinese."

Dr Zarni on UN-recommended Justice and Accountability in the case of Sri Lanka's genocide of Eelam Tamil, UN Human Rights Council side event, Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 2015

Dr Zarni on UN-recommended Justice and Accountability in the cae of Sri Lanka's genocide of Eelam Tamil, UN Human Rights Council side event, Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 2015

Myanmar’s Refugee Problem: It’s Not Just the Rohingya

Image Credit: Flickr/European Commission DG ECHO

By Kirsten McConnachie
The Diplomat
October 14, 2015

Other ethnic groups from Myanmar are facing an increasingly difficult situation too.

This summer’s boat abandonments made the world aware of the plight faced by the Rohingya. This was important and overdue recognition of a desperate situation. However, the Rohingya are not Myanmar’s only refugees. Other ethnic groups from Myanmar are facing an increasingly difficult situation, trapped in exile by a continuing fear of persecution but finding their supporters and sources of protection slipping away. What will the future hold for them, and what must be done to make return a real possibility?

During decades of militarization in Myanmar, millions of people left the country illegally in search of security and a better life elsewhere. The vast majority became undocumented migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia and beyond. A much smaller population is registered as refugees with the UNHCR: around 130,000 people in camps in Thailand, around 150,000 in Malaysia and more than 10,000 in India. To varying degrees, these people rely on international aid and assistance to support their lives in exile. Refugees in camps in Thailand are forbidden to leave the camp and are entirely dependent on external aid for food, shelter and other necessities of survival. In India and Malaysia, refugees are not confined to camps and can find (informal) employment to survive, but they continue to depend on the UNHCR and other organizations for protection and other assistance.

Currently, refugees in these countries find themselves in a perplexing situation. After decades in which the international community was united in condemning Myanmar, the political climate has shifted. Myanmar is no longer an international pariah but is seen as a country in transition, a country whose former rulers have freely divested themselves of power in favor of a path to democracy and equality. This perception has had important consequences for refugees outside the country who have become an inconvenient truth rendered invisible by the good news story of transition and transformation. One indication of this is the disappearance of funding for refugee programming. In Thailand, The Border Consortium is operating with a large funding shortfall and struggling to attract donor support. My own interviews with refugees in India and Malaysia have found a similar theme: “We used to receive funding from Australia/Norway/Prague but now it has stopped,” one said. “I used to be an interpreter with an NGO but now they have reduced their Burmese staff,” another noted.

Myanmar’s refugees also seem to be viewed with a more critical eye than previously. In Thailand, the government has made it plain that repatriation of refugees will be a priority if Myanmar’s elections in November are deemed to be successful. In Malaysia (another country with deepening economic interests with Myanmar) pressure is similarly building, with refugees repeatedly told by both national officials and international agency staff that Myanmar has transformed and they should return home. Across countries there appears to be a growing sense – bordering on suspicion – that many of Myanmar’s exiles are no longer “real” refugees but opportunists making demands on a system of international protection that they no longer require.

The fundamental question is: has Myanmar really changed? Most, if not all, refugees would say no. They have little trust in Myanmar’s government, none at all in its military – and fail to see any meaningful separation between the two. Even the most optimistic Myanmar analysts recognize that pockets of the country remain deeply problematic: the worsening persecution of Rohingya and Myanmar Muslims, the ongoing conflict in Kachin and Shan states, the brutal assault on the Kokang. To recognize this and remain confident that refugees can return requires dividing Myanmar into its constituent parts to determine that a fear of persecution continues to exist in Rakhine State but not in Chin State; in Kachin State but not in Karenni State. Of course, it is certainly feasible that one region of a country is safe for refugee repatriation while another is not. Myanmar may seem like just such a country, given its division of territory by ethnic group. However, it is also a country where a single regime has dominated the nation – and, more importantly, where a single sensibility has dominated governance.

For the past fifty years, under successive military juntas, Myanmar has followed a strategic project of Burmanization, i.e. the promotion of a single religion (Buddhism), language (Burmese) and culture (Burman). At its mildest, this is a policy of cultural assimilation. At its worst, it has verged on – and arguably pursued – ethnic cleansing. Ceasefires with ethnic armed groups have reduced military activity and human rights violations in several ethnic states. But the treatment of Rohingya shows the continued potency of Burmese nationalism, and highlights that Myanmar is no rainbow democracy but a country with deep-seated racism and discrimination that is entrenched in existing law and pursued through new laws.

Viewed in that light, it is much clearer to see why many refugees of the non-Burman ethnic nationalities continue to feel a risk of persecution on return. Depending on the outcome of November’s election, it is possible that more people will be willing to venture back home. The coming months therefore have the potential to be crucial in building confidence in Myanmar’s political future and in the future for returnees. Here, there is an important link with the peace process between the Myanmar government and the ethnic armed groups.

To date, the peace talks have been almost totally silent on the issue of displacement, though refugees and IDPs are overwhelmingly from the non-Burman ethnic groups and their future choices will certainly be shaped by the outcome of that process. It is an immensely complex peace process, both with respect to the number of participants (sixteen ethnic armed groups attempting to negotiate in unison through the NCCT) and the portfolio of issues to be addressed: constitutional reform; federalism; political structures and institutions of governance; control over natural resources; military reform; electoral reform and many more.

Addressing displacement has not yet been a priority but the peace process is vital for successful refugee return, both to convince refugees that the political environment has truly changed and to remove existing barriers to return. It must also be recognized that a successful return process has important implications for the peace process. If Myanmar is truly moving towards democracy, returning refugees can help embed that process and contribute to developing the country. But a poorly managed return process could lead to disputes over jobs, land and housing and ultimately create new problems of crime and political instability.

After some months of apparent deadlock, the peace negotiations have seen dramatic developments, with a split in the NCCT negotiation bloc and the signing of a ceasefire by eight ethnic armed groups, including the KNU. These signings are controversial – even within their own parties – and the failure of the “nationwide ceasefire” process to reach a truly nationwide agreement hints at some of the changes and challenges that lie ahead. Hopefully, possibilities for progress will be clearer after next month’s election.

At that stage, it will be essential to move beyond rhetoric. For peace-building to succeed, Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities need evidence of convincing, enduring change: a commitment to political autonomy in ethnic states, demilitarization of ethnic areas; investment in development and infrastructure; legal reforms to ensure an end to discrimination on grounds of ethnicity and religion. For return to succeed, Myanmar’s refugees need concrete guarantees: of security on return, of a restoration of identity documentation and citizenship status; of practical support to ensure future livelihoods. If these areas are addressed, it is likely that people will return gladly. Until these areas are addressed, many will remain trapped in a climate of dwindling protection.

Dr Kirsten McConnachie is Assistant Professor in law at the University of Warwick. Formerly a research fellow at the University of Oxford, she is the author of “Governing Refugees” (Routledge 2014) an analysis of camp governance and the administration of justice in refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Dr Zarni's analysis of "Failed Western Policies towards Myanmar or Burma"

Dr. Maung Zarni is an exile, commentator, critic and expert on the political affairs of Myanmar. His research interests include the political economy of violence, international development and conflict, as well as democratic transitions in Asia. He is Visiting Fellow (2011-2013) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, London School of Economics and Political Science, and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. 

Zarni spoke with PRAXIS on February 28, 2012 while he was attending a World Peace Foundation seminar on advocacy and human rights. 

PRAXIS: What do you think are the greatest prospects and greatest challenges facing Myanmar – both socially and economically – as it emerges from the last six decades of direct military rule and global isolationism? 

Zarni: On the future of Burma: No one is in a position to figure it out exactly. It’s not crystal ball gazing either. I’m a structuralist and look at interests as structures, such as commercial, strategic, etc. I don’t see a bright future for the country, but that doesn’t mean that I’m completely hopeless or desperate in the situation. The buzz word being used is “opening up” and the way “the new Myanmar/Burma” is framed in the Western discourse and the media, especially in government policy and institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, or the UN, no one has a better framing of Burma than Barack Obama, who framed Burma as his foreign policy success story in the [2013] State of the Union Address. That is outrageous. That’s the hype. The realities are that every single type of human rights violation has been taking place in Burma since the West adopted principles and punitive positions on Burma, which is to say Western sanctions of different strengths and types. Starting with downgrading diplomatic relations in 1988-1989. That was the turning point. Up until then, Burma was supported by the U.S. as a Cold War buffer. Burmese military generals stayed out of the Cold War but quietly were supported by the U.S. and the entire Western world, in terms of CIA involvement. The highest number of military officers are trained in the U.S. through the military exchange program. Returning to the realities, we have the same pervasive human rights abuses for which Burma was ritualistically condemned and diplomatically punished. 

Three things are happening: We have the economic displacement and economic disempowerment of rural populations, across the country – not confined to one ethnic area, but across the country, related to mega-development projects, there is a genocide, and there is a full-blown civil war where the full might of the Burmese air force is brought to bear across the Kachin people. 

Two parallel things are going on: The same old ugly realities with horrible new dimensions of class struggle, ethnocide, war against the Kachin. And the old pervasive human rights abuses. 

PRAXIS: How does ‘human security’ factor into current developments in Myanmar? 

Zarni: No one has ever raised the issue of human security. Human security is simple. Each time we academics talk about peace or peace studies, we’re talking about the absence of peace. Each time we use the word human security, we’re talking about the absence of it. The security of individuals and their communities are not a part of this new discourse of Burma opening up and its reforms. The discursive elements that structure the way we conceive of human security in Burma is the Burma of ethnic minority peoples, the Burma of rural people, and the Burma of dissidents and military elites. 

That’s the macro picture. That’s the scenario. The interest and well-being of security does not figure and that’s completely absent. Restructuring the country’s finances and debt forgiveness and everything is framed in this language and economic developmentalism. 

PRAXIS: The word “genocide” has been used quite a bit regarding the situation facing the Rohingya in Rakhine State. In one of your pieces, you labeled it “ethnocide.” Could you elaborate on your decision to use this term? 

If you look at the facts, the physical harm that is being done to the Rohingya, not just now, but over the past 40 or 50 years, or however long, it’s not just the physical harm. Described as ethnocide, in the attempt to erase a particular ethnic group with a voluntarily defined ethnic identity, with the full backing of a massively propagandized society. Whether the Rohingya was an external label or internally imposed doesn’t matter. The Rohingya were recognized between 1948 to 1962 by the government. There are historical documents on the background of Rohingya and this group existed and it was recognized officially by the modern state. 

The timing of the emergence of the Rohingya as a global issue has everything to do with the regime’s political calculations. It has ideological components and anti-Muslim hatred and racism on the part of the ruling military. Secondly, it has a political calculation by the regime. It also has the economic and geostrategic element to it, in addition to the anti-Muslim rhetoric. It’s a logical combination of what the Burmese generals have pursued over the last 50 years, which is an ethnic cleansing of the army. Getting rid of anyone with an ethnic identity in the army. Those that rise to the top happen to be Buddhist majority or thoroughly Burmanized minority. I’d be surprised if you ever saw a Muslim major in an army of say 1,000 brigadier generals. 

It’s a brilliant move on the part of the regime, strategically speaking. It’s thoroughly Machiavellian. The Rakhines among the ethnic minorities are the least liked by the majority. They are the most reviled ethnic minority and also the most nationalistic. They were the last empire and the Burmese made them disappear. At least the Mons enjoyed the respect by the Burmese of being a very advanced civilization. The Mons were very advanced, like the Khmer and Cambodians. Similar cultural background. The Rakhines got the raw end of the deal. If you look at the rise of Burmese nationalism, the Rakhines were the pioneers and were involved in the imperial scheme with the British, because they were the British people. They had the most respect and learned first the English language and went through English schooling, because they were the coastal people. During colonialism, the Rakhine elite and Mon elite forged a new identity and that’s the new modern Burmese identity. The British Raj, when he vacated, everyone returned to their roots and took up their new identities. 

They also keep hammering the message of anti-terrorism, of a preemptive anti-terror campaign. However if terrorism were present in the country, Rangoon would be seeing fireworks, and we haven’t seen it. The Rohingya are too broken down, too disunited to organize anything. With the words the regime uses, the language of preemptive anti-terror campaign, the operative word is preemptive, that is a word that the West understands, not prevention, preemptive. You only have to be suspected to be killed. It turns the entire Western concept of innocent until proven guilty – you’re guilty until proven innocent. 

So if you put all these together, commercial factors that are contextualized and located along the western coast of Burma, the regime’s need to deal with the rights of economic and strategic nationalism, the waning of USDP with the voters and the rise of ASSK’s popularity, and the sweeping of the parliamentary elections, and the likelihood of a landslide in 2015 – as you put all these factors on the chart – you realize, what do we have to do. So basically, this is like shooting six birds with one stone, not two birds with one stone. It’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant because they calculated that the West is already over-committed to holding the Burmese hand. 

Western policy toward Burma, is anything but about Burma. Western policy toward Burma is about Western interests, not about Burmese interests. Human security is not even a serious rhetoric. US Chamber of Commerce was leading delegations, and on the eve of the Rohingya genocide Hillary Clinton was in Phnom Penh for the ASEAN summit with Thein Sein, saying, look, I brought you some blue chip company executives, and I want you to meet with some of our most blue-blooded corporate executives because you are opening up. So it’s about Western strategic and commercial interests, that the regime has figured out, this is a structural equation, which the West is not going to modify in any significant way. Obama will be talking about the Rohingya in a speech, but it’s just a speech. 

PRAXIS: Could you comment on the backlash that you’ve experienced as a result of your views on this issue? 

Zarni: I’m very comfortable with backlash. I’m okay with condemnation from outside and I am okay with my internal moral compass. It bothers me as a person that has feelings. No one wants to be ostracized, but I am always guided by my own thinking. I am not always right. The chances are that I’m wrong many times. The chances that I may be wrong are possible, but two things enable me to come up with positions that are irreverent and unpopular. In my analysis, I don’t position myself. 

1) I dare to look at the realities and I describe what I see. My description may not always be always accurate but at least I try. 

2) My interest is my conscious. I don’t have material interests. I’m prepared to drive a taxi. I worked as a janitor as a student, so it doesn’t bother me. I can only eat two meals a day. In my analyses, I don’t position myself. I think positioning oneself in one’s analyses, it’s not analysis. That’s like political calculations, strategic calculations. I don’t calculate. Your interests are there. You make the decisions. Am I going to compromise my conscious on what I see? Or, compromise my interests? Or, am I going to call out what I see? 

I think that my problem is I have a set of very strong values that basically my parents instilled in me. Love of truth. This is not bragging at all. This is my truth. If you don’t live your values, you don’t have anything. It defines who you are and defines your position. 

I’ve also been criticized for my views on Aung San Suu Kyi. She wears her Buddhism on her sleeves and she wears her liberalism on her sleeves. But she fails on both grounds as a liberal as a Buddhist. And for me, ASSK is not a great icon, she’s a complete failure. She is a complete failure on both counts. If you see the ugly realities that involve genocide in front of your eyes, are you going to wait until the next Boddhistava/Buddha to retroactively rectify the situation or are you going to do something about it? Speaking out is doing. It’s very French. For the French, talking is speech is action. 

I am a small potato compared to people like herself. But I get airtime, and there will be a small number of people who will pay attention to what I have to say. She has a great global audience and moral authority and what people think she stands for. She’s no different than Machiavelli or Clinton. 

PRAXIS: What are your views on the local and global economic, political and strategic implications of the war and peacebuilding efforts taking place in Kachin State? 

Zarni: The Kachins are a small minority, without ties to the West anymore, but there is no serious discussion about how to deal with Kachin State. I think the Kachin areas are extremely strategic for the Chinese, for the Burmese, and maybe I think to a lesser extent the West as well. When we look at Kachin mega-development projects like Myitsone Dam project, we only see the Chinese. Actually the Chinese get the bad press. When you look at the whole Greater Mekong Sub-Region area the whole idea of marketizing Greater Mekong, marketizing energy, or creating a free market for energy, trans-border energy sales and purchases – this was written up in Washington. If you look at the entire Indo-China area, before the Vietnam War there was something called the Mekong Commission, and that was to use economic development as a way to draw poor peasants from Indo-China from the Communists. Their entire discourse of development had a very strong ideological and strategic dimension in the sense that poverty alleviation was virtuous only to the extent that it advanced the core containment goals of the West. Poverty alleviation was never a goal in and of itself. It’s like peace – peace is good as long as it allows the free market to come in and put a store there. 

The US, Canada, UN, EU are involved to do this peacebuilding. I think the only thing that’s missing in addressing these ethnic differences and conflicts is that they’re putting the cart before the horse. They’re talking about development, when in fact it’s about Kachins and the Karens and the others, they’re not fighting to establish a free-market, they’re fighting to establish their own identities, to gain full recognition as political communities. When the West comes in and says that economic development will help de-escalate the conflict, actually the total opposite is what is happening. Maybe 20 years from today, anyone who does the history of development in Burma will write about the war in Kachin as the world’s first war driven by developmental calculations. It’s a war for development. It’s a war about development. And this development is not about people, this development is about capital interest. 

Burma was at one time the world’s biggest rice-growing agricultural economy, so they see the potential for reviving this economy. The FAO came up with a paper in 2006 looking at the commercially expandable agricultural lands in Burma. The Burma delta is no longer commercially expandable – it’s saturated and all the land that remains fertile and virgin are in the corporate areas. Kachins may be in the mountains, but they also have valleys. It’s not just minerals, but if you look at the terraced agricultural methods like in Bali, Kachin State is at 4000m above sea level, but still with technology you can develop that. Economics is there. The Myitsone Dam project is a strategic plan by the regime. 

PRAXIS: What is your take on the current political climate and discourse in Myanmar? 

Zarni: People say, the process in Burma is not perfect, but everyone who uses that phrase – This isn’t perfect but it’s better than what we had before – No no, this is not better. Before we did not have genocide, we did not have a full-blown war against the Kachin. We did not have thousands of Burmese people displaced by mega-development projects. Now you have Burmese dissidents who enjoy support. The public in Burma knew who to side with. That’s why all the backers against me came from the perception that I had crossed the line, was holding the generals’ hands. That’s a hand that you must not touch with a long hand. They are not speaking truth to power. 

They provided a cover for everyone. They have all adopted the language of sovereignty and national security. They adopted these legal concepts of human rights, freedom, etc. Even recently Suu Kyi said, it’s up to the Burmese people and up to the Burmese State to grant whether the Rohingya are citizens or not. That’s the language of non-interference. That’s the language of state sovereignty. There is nothing humanistic or compassionate about it. It’s like look, we throw up a line and say don’t say anything about the Rohingya and whether we should grant citizenship to them or not. It’s our business. That’s no different from the generals in the past saying, these are our internal affairs, so stay out. The ‘88 Generation leaders like Ko Ko Gyi said we have to match these national security threats and concerns with human rights and humanitarian concerns – well that is if you think that human rights and humanitarian concerns are conditional, and to me human rights are non-negotiable, whether you’re a gay, or a cripple or a bisexual, so that is actually why I think morally the new scenario that is emerging is mixed. On the one hand there is a space where people can fight back, on the other hand structurally there are those against the people. It is harder to find allies and harder to know who are your enemies. 

PRAXIS: It seems there might also be a generation gap between those who were present for 1988, and those born after 1990 who only know Myanmar, who don’t know Burma, and pin all their aspirations on Aung San Suu Kyi. How do you see that tension moving forward? 

Zarni: The younger generation’s not stupid. The ones inside the country they are more critical, those who are in a position to contribute. They know that they can’t solely rely on Aung San Suu Kyi anymore. No Burmese is going directly to her with the exception of cronies and generals for blessings. The interesting thing is that in the past a human rights dissident and Burmese intellectuals would approach her to seek her advice and blessings. And now, the cronies are approaching her, the generals are approaching her, while we are abstaining from her. 

The whole notion and idea of leadership becomes much more amorphous and much more horizontal. The only problem is that the intellectual capacity of community organizations, leaders, is very, very low. It’s not their fault. They’re like third-degree products of the system. They are products of a system that doesn’t want people to think. That’s why it’s extremely challenging. There are so many different transitions, but this transition is going to be the most excruciatingly difficult. We have a problem both with the regime and with the people. So who’s going to lead the transition. In some places people are good, and they can take over, or they can run things. But in most situations I would be worried if NLD takes over the government today. I’m extremely angry that the generals are still ruling the country after 50 years. I wouldn’t be angry if NLD takes over, I would be worried if NLD takes over. It’s been hollowed out. Who are Suu Kyi’s advisors? She doesn’t want any talented Burmese to be around her because talented Burmese are ambitious and have self-interest. That’s why on Rohingya and Kachin issues she isn’t taking any purist position. She’s taking calculated positions. 

On the question of surrounding herself with talented Burmese she does take a purist position. She says all you have self-interest, you’re all young ambitious people, and I don’t want you around me. She wants good people around her, but not telling her what to do. Good people can be trained to talk. If we want a change for the people, I’ve come full-circle now. I started out as a grass-roots guy saying that we don’t need to work with the elite and speak their language and hold their hands. 

PRAXIS: If you were to chose one area to support in Myanmar that would breed the most positive change for the country and its people, what would you focus on? 

Zarni: The change in Burma today is a product, almost of strictly a pact between the elites and Western strategic interests in Washington, the European Union, and the corporate interests that they represent, and Aung San Suu Kyi and her own parties intersts and the ruling military’s interests. All these changes happened, or would not have happened, without this sustained push for change from the ground up, like the Arab Spring. We can’t name a single Arab leader who is Mandela like, or Suu Kyi like, or Ghandi like, but you can’t deny the fact that the Arabs on the street have been able to put popular pressure on regimes. Even against the house of Saud. What’s really clear is that when elites make pacts, usually they sell the people’s interests down the river. So if you really want change your number one focus will have to be the people. You have to find ways to educate people, to move people, to spread radical ideas. Without the people being involved in any change process it’s just elite power deals. So there are two processes going on, one is the elite pact and the elite deals that is portrayed as the opening up of Burma with commercial and strategic interests, and then you have ethnic and religious minorities fighting back for their survival. They are fighting out of liberal principles, 99% of these people don’t know what the word liberal means, but they fight back. When your land is taken away, the next thing you know you don’t have any plot of land to grow rice or vegetables or for your chickens to go, so this isn’t over. This is never over. 

PRAXIS would like to thank Maung Zarni for his insights into the complex political, social and economic situation in Myanmar today.

Originally pubished here.