Asian Correspondent » Kyi May Kaung Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Aung San Suu Kyi: A triumphal progress like Elizabeth I Sun, 01 Jul 2012 00:14:33 +0000

Elizabeth I of England, with her signature red hair, pale coloring, frilly ruffs and over-embellished clothes, used to love making stately progresses through the countryside.

Since June 13, Burma’s democracy leader Dr. Aung San Suu Kyi has been on a tour of Europe (she arrived back in Rangoon on June 30) and earlier when she visited Thailand for six days, and die-hard Suu Kyi fans and democracy lovers everywhere have been treated to a daily dose of Suu Kyi mania, but in a nice, meaningful way.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi made excellent impressions during her recent travels abroad. Pic: AP

In her immaculate, finely calibrated formal silk and cotton clothes,  Suu Kyi wowed everyone with her gilt-edged words, which were as carefully edited and thought through as her attire.

Her pronouncements were issued to the public through the press in carefully sequenced steps.

According to an aid, she wrote the whole set in about eight days before she left Burma.  That would explain the careful logic, but hardly explains the skill with which each sound bite was delivered at the appropriate place and time.

In 2011, when she started traveling inside Burma, she first went, for legitimacy’s sake, to the 11th Century Bagan Temples of the first Burmese kingdom with her son Kim Aris.  Then she went on to full-scale campaigning leading up to her party winning 43 of 44 assigned seats, or 6.49% in the April 1 by-election this year.  This was following by back-to-back meetings over months with world and Burmese ethnic leaders.

If I were the uncharismatic, rather inarticulate, balding general turned “civilian,” with the part in his scant hair close to his left ear for a comb-over, I wouldn’t even try competing in this popularity contest.

I’d just fall over and die.

Here’s a summary of Daw Suu’s triumphant progress overseas:

In Thailand, starts strong, declaring where her loyalties lie, who her principal constituents are, by going to Mahachai “Big Victory” – about 50 miles southeast of Bangkok,  where thousands of Burmese migrant workers live and work.  Says, “It’s just like Burma.”

At the World Economic Forum, dressed in pale blue to match the stage, warns against reckless optimism regarding change in Burma.  She went to the Burmese refugee camp, Mae Hla, but Thai authorities denied her a microphone.

Went back for about one week to Rangoon, where she met Muslim leaders and Bob Carr from Australia, who lifted sanctions (a move an Australian friend calls “bovine”).

As soon as Suu got off the plane in Geneva, she told the head of the International Labor Organization who came to meet her “the international community is trying very hard to bring my country into it.  It’s up to my country to respond in the right way.”

At the ILO headquarters the next day, she told a crowd of labor representatives and other officials that what Burma needs is “democracy-friendly development.”

She was wearing a tailored white jacket with black piping at the neck and cuffs, a black sarong with white flowers, which matched the white phaelanopsis orchids, and a bold green scarf that matched the primary colors of the flags on the stage.

As another 60-plus Burmese woman who once traveled a lot to international conferences, but never at her pace or level, I don’t know how she does it.  And she was properly shod, too.

In Oslo, she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, which she could not accept in person in 1991.

Bono of U2 came to meet her and ferry her to Dublin in his private airplane for a rock concert.

At the London School of Economics, she discussed the Rule of Law with other high-powered panelists.

At Westminster Hall in the UK she addressed both Houses of Parliament.

She planted a black tulip magnolia with Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

In France, she accepted the Citizen of Paris Award in French and gazed at the headless Winged Victory and Monet’s Water Lilies in the Louvre.

In all these places, she made sure to spend time with old friends and exiled Burmese.

Her stately progress reminds me of something another dissident once said, “What people discount is love.”

There is no other way to explain this.

In many places, the standing ovations went on longer than her speeches.

The ball is now in the junta’s, dressed as civilians, court.

They need to show, not tell, us how they have actually changed.

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Satire, fiction/creative non-fiction: A Burmese vampire story Thu, 03 May 2012 02:28:46 +0000

An empty stomach does not make a good political advisor.

From a Fortune Cookie.

I should have written this on April Fools’ Day, but on April Fools’ Day I was busy writing about the “April Fools’ Day” by-elections in Burma.  So I am trying this hybrid-form political satire now.  Some of the names are changed and some of the characters are fictional or fictional composites.  But everything in here definitely happened to someone in reality, it’s just a little skewed, for fun.  After all, the funniest things are the most real or true.

Zardandan, one of the most vocal of dissidents, named after Marco Polo’s term for “the golden and silver towers” of Bagan in Burma when Polo came down the Salween from China on his way home, sometimes spells by-election as “bi-election.”  That too.  Or we could spell it “bye-election”.  That too.

Zardan calls Burma “the resource whore of Southeast Asia” like we used to hear in school, “the sick old man of Europe”.  But it’s not the country nor any “resource curse” that made it so.  After all, resources – metals, natural gas and trees – are inanimate, with no will of their own.  It’s the junta that made it so.

I knew a couple who broke up when she said to him “Do you see a Green Card in my face?”  A Green Card is a permanent residency card which will lead to American citizenship.  Likewise, I heard of an older couple who broke up because he kept saying “Myanmar” and she thought a bland “junta” would suffice.  I haven’t yet heard of the breakup of couples who each use either the M word, or the B word (Burma) exclusively.

Catherine Ashton, E.U. Foreign Minister, who was recently in Burma, has a curious “sideways cast” to her face, and appears often on CCTV, the Chinese TV broadcast in English.

At the opening of the new EU Rangoon office a few days ago, Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi did not appear too happy, but she maintained her upright posture.

In an article in the U.K. Independent called “What’s really happening in Burma today”,  human geographer Nancy Hudson-Rodd, who has done a great deal of grass roots research on land loss by farmers to “development projects” describes the 17th and 18th century colonizations of Canada, Rhodesia and India (of which Burma was a part until 1937) with David Cameron’s recent visit to Burma, and the scramble for Burma’s resources. Asian Correspondent’s  Francis Wade in an article in Al Jazeera called “Myanmar’s New Battle” suggests Burma may be inundated with capital which might only build up the army, as the army is the main entrepreneur, if there are not also accompanying institutional reforms.  There are not.

I was “happy” to know after seeing a YouTube version of a panel at Payap University in Thailand that I am not the only one who thinks the “reforms” are cosmetic and just “enough” to get sanctions suspended (the junta wants them lifted permanently).

Well known dissident Khin Ohmar mentioned that the Myitsone Dam that President Thein Sein suspended to so much applause that started this whole process is only one of 7 or 8 dams, and only suspended for the duration of his presidency.  She also mentioned the hundreds of political prisoners still in jail, the long sentences which were not obliterated and could be reinstated and the lack of peace in the ethnic areas.  Aung Zaw, editor of the influential Irrawaddy magazine, called the reforms “half-baked” and painted a bleak picture for the future.  On one recent visit to Burma, he said he was invited to a “crony’s house” and saw a Lamborghini, a Rolls Royce and a wine cellar – “as big as this auditorium.”

All this may be anecdotal, but Truth is made up of anecdotes.

In an upcoming Vampire movie, the wonderfully zany actor Johnny Depp stands in front of a mirror brushing his teeth.

Are foreign investors already preparing for their next meal in Myanmar?

I think we know the answer already.

In Beijing, the USA and Mrs. Clinton have already sacrificed the blind dissident Mr. Chen to the exigencies of America’s enormous national debt to China.  China holds most of the USA’s treasury bills.  How can we say Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy and the “ordinary” democrats of Burma will not be the next sacrificial lambs?

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Mirrors and Shadows of Burma and Iran: Amir and Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise – a book review by Kyi May Kaung Thu, 26 Apr 2012 00:23:19 +0000

Amir and Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise

A graphic novel

First Second Books

First edition 2011

ISBN 978-1-59643-642-8

The evening of the book reading, we were stuck in rush hour traffic, and tiptoed in as Amir, in tan slacks and an old green sweater, was talking in front of the black book shelves and wine racks at the Book Cellar on Lincoln Square in Chicago.  I sat down on the only empty chair, while the bookstore attendants unfolded more chairs silently behind me.  Our hosts went to the front row, where seats had been reserved for them.

At once, listening to Amir talk about “cranes as the hand of God” and public hangings in Iranian cities from construction cranes, I thought, coming from Burma as I do:  I know exactly what this man is talking about when he speaks about Iran.  Amir’s light brown hands, with their long fingers, wove elegantly in the air as he spoke of horrible atrocities.

Just the week before I had decided not to buy any more books, but sighed and gave up at the end of the presentation, quickly bought a copy and had it signed.

Zahra’s Paradise, a graphic novel or manga, is a fictional account of a mother, Zahra’s search for her missing son after the clampdown following the stolen election of 2009 and the protests immediately following the election.  Zahra is the Persian word for “flower”, and Zahra’s Paradise is the name of a real cemetery north of Teheran.

I’ve only passed through Teheran once in 1969, on my way to an economics diploma course in Warsaw, Poland, from Burma.  I was only at the airport for about 45 minutes.  All I remember is a dry, bare, tan landscape with a mid-sized hill or mountain in the distance.  In Teheran we changed from PanAm to the Polish airline Lot.  At the time, with the exception of medical doctors, the only places Burmese students could go for post-grad studies was to the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.  “These buggers know what they are doing,” a family friend who had an Inner Temple law degree from England said, referring to the military junta or Burmese Revolutionary Council, “Why don’t they get an Eastern Bloc-trained doctor to cut them open.”

Zahra’s Paradise is the first graphic novel I have read, not counting the superman and cowboy comics I read as a child in the fifties in then-democratic Burma.  The Burmese military staged its first coup in 1962.

I’ve heard of Maus, and now Persepolis, but haven’t actually read them yet.

Zahra’s Paradise is not a rapid page turner.  It’s not meant to be.  Instead, I found myself reading it slowly, partly to savor the beautiful writing, partly because every frame reminded me of similar stories in Burma and partly because the artwork by Khalil is so excellent.  Without color, he manages to convey character, actions and emotions vividly, though the Wikipedia article cited above says some Japanese manga are in color.  I imagine they are part of the Japanese woodblock print tradition.

In terms of the images, the most memorable are:

  1.  i. “The judicial system” composed of conveyor belts which started out as tongues, on which those caught in the system line up interminably – weaving in and out of the Ayatollah’s giant mouths, ending up as ground meat coming out of a hand-cranked meat grinder.  In Burmese, we call orders and “laws” coming from above ta chet hlut ah meint, or “orders released once” coming out of someone’s mouth.
  2. ii.  The other unforgettable image is an M.C. Escher-like
  3. drawing of endless steps and stairs, and doors, some going “the wrong way” or at right angles to 90 degrees, like Fred Astaire walking on walls and stairs, in a nightmare sequence.

In terms of words, every word is beautiful and well-chosen, the most spectacular the mother’s long drawn out cry of pain and anguish, an over the top aria that forms the climax of the story.  This would make a great opera, like I Lombardo.  I should not say more.

In Chicago over 4 days, I attended 3 different presentations by Amir, one a “what would you do if you wanted to be really nasty?” session with a Northeastern Illinois University audience.  I am told the Mid-West is noted for its hospitality and optimism and I have certainly found it so.  I could feel born-Americans straining to be “mean” while those of us who have experienced more totalitarian systems prompted them from the sidelines.  I did not get the sense, as I sometimes do, that here is an author giving a pat little presentation, with canned jokes like olives spattered about.

This is really a Dickensian novel with well-rounded characters and a wide and ambitious scope, masquerading as an “easy” graphic novel.  Go buy it, read it and keep it.

Amir and Khalil use only their first names.  About Khalil, all I could find was one lovely blue eye on the Zahra’s Paradise website.

Kyi May Kaung, originally from Burma, holds a doctorate in political economy and writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry.


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Analysis: The April Fools’ Day by-election in Burma Sun, 01 Apr 2012 01:06:31 +0000

So it has come to pass.

Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, went through with the campaigning for the by-elections as she said she would.  As her campaign for, she says, 44 out of a total of a reported 660 seats (some reports say over 250), heated up, the reports of harassment by the military junta’s USDP also increased.

Burma election

Villagers walk towards a polling station in Wah Thin Kha, Burma Sunday. Pic: AP.

The Union Solidarity Development Party is an offshoot of the former thuggish “brown shirt” organization USDA or Union Solidarity Development Association, which among other things attacked her convoy on May 30, 2003, in the infamous Depayin Massacre, after which Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the third time till Nov 13, 2010, a week after the sham election of Nov. 7 the same year.

Near Pegu yesterday, there were reports that an entire village was burned down, as the villagers were attending a National League for Democracy (Suu Kyi’s party) rally.  Throughout the campaign, the NLD was denied auditoriums and stadiums in town centers.  Suu Kyi was forced to give speeches out in the open, in paddy fields in the burning sun.  Her entourage was shot at with jingles (sharpened bicycle spokes), hard betel nuts and clay balls with catapults and one woman was injured.  Only a few international observers have been allowed in, a few days before the April 1 by-election.  One observer from AFREL was deported.

Suu Kyi complained to Derek Mitchell, US Special Representative on his sixth visit to Burma in seven months, of irregularities in the electoral rolls, such as names of dead people appearing.  She also said yesterday in a press conference at her home that there are many cases of intimidation and that the election is unlikely to be free and fair, but she and the NLD are going through with it as “the people want it.”

In an article in the Washington Times, chief sceptic Dr Maung Zarni, Fellow at London School of Economics, was quoted as saying Burmese will be treated to a bit of political theater on April Fools’ Day, but the power structure will not change.

I am probably the second biggest sceptic after Dr. Zarni.

To scroll back a bit on Burma constitution history, in 1974 (while I still lived in Rangoon, working at the Institute of Economics) there was an election, but even at the university level it was neither free nor fair.  We were told who to vote for and to vote again, when we tried to vote for the late professor of physics to represent us.

In 1990, while under her first long stint of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won the country-wide general election, but power was never transferred.  When it became clear that Burma’s constitution writing was going at a glacial pace, (see Ian Findlay’s Burma Redux, p.  60-61) she formed the CRPP or Committee to Represent People’s Parliament, which still exists.

In 2005 the SPDC (the new name of the junta after 1998) set up the King’s Royal City of Naypyidaw, in the heartland.

In 2007, the Saffron Revolution took place, with monks marching and chanting en masse.  During the upheaval, Japanese journalist Kenji Nagaii was shot point blank, his death captured by many camera persons on the scene.

In 2008, a few days after Cyclone Nargis hit, the “Nargis Constitution” – i.e. the Referendum that “legalized” the constitution, was pushed through, while the country was still reeling from the terrible cyclone.

In 2010, “Myanmar” as they call it, became a nominal civilian government, when the top brass changed from army uniform to Burmese traditional dress.  But be mindful that the so-called constitution was written by a few army-designated persons, maybe even by one person, as the late Dr Maung Maung did for dictator Ne Win in the Socialist period 1962-1988.

This “constitution” is a top down one where all the rules and regulations are stacked already to favor the power holders.  I’ve read a copy, when with several well known Burma experts, I helped the Exile Government or NCGUB prepare a Plan for Democracy and Development in 2008-2009.  It can be read on their website.

There’s been a debate over the sincerity or lack thereof of the President, U Thein Sein, until 2010 a top general in the junta, now with changed clothes.  Time Magazine may compare him to Gorbachev, but in the end what he manages to push through will depend on how powerful he is.  As his commands to cease shooting on the front lines in the ongoing ethnic wars in Kachin and Karen States have been ignored twice already, and the “talks” of a few months ago are widely considered to have expired, we can say his power is limited.

In an eloquent interview with a VOA reporter, the recently released Mahn Nyein Maung, legendary KNU (Karen National Union) leader and author of the famed memoir Against the Storm, Across the Waves, claims that he was initially arrested after being deported from China and Thailand (he just stopped short of claiming these two governments were implicated) – “as a hostage.  If the talks went well, I would be released.  If not I could even be given the death sentence.”

At least 600 political prisoners also remain in jail.

Derek Mitchell responded diplomatically to an RFA reporter’s pointed questions.

“We know things are not perfect, but we are watching the situation closely.”

In conclusion, as a sad gift, I give you the Slaves’ Chorus from Verdi’s first breakthrough or “Jewish” opera, Nabucco, which he wrote at a particularly difficult time in his life, when his wife and all his young children had died.

The melody just came to him as he was looking at the first words of the libretto.  At the rehearsal, stage hands were so pleased they shouted and banged the floor in approval.,_pensiero

Here from the English translation:

Oh, my country so beautiful and so lost!
Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!

Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom’s memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!



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Opinion: West must not lift Burma sanctions too soon Sun, 11 Mar 2012 03:30:03 +0000

Countries that wish to see democracy and a free market in Burma should not lift sanctions too soon.

Since nominally “civilian” President Thein Sein suspended the Myitsone Dam to much acclaim and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma late last year, the media spin by both Burmese language and Western publications that there is change in Burma has been relentless.  Reporters love to preface their interviews by feeding the interviewee “Now that there is change/reform in Burma –”

In fact, there has been no meaningful structural or institutional reform.  Naypyidaw, the new capital carved out of the jungle and paddy fields in 2005,  and the “parliament” remain largely an expensive “movie set” where audiences are given to foreign dignitaries who come to court.  Myitsone is only one of 10 dams in Northern Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself said a few days ago, in Mandalay, “We are trying to get on the road to democracy.  We’re not on the road yet.”  At the very start of the process, she said, “There is the potential for change, but it has not changed yet.”

Since I and a few other voices are the only ones remaining skeptical, we think with reason, and our voices are all but drowned out by the sounds of the big media wheel, it behooves me to provide a summary and an update here.

Only now is the euphoria clearing up a little.

U.S. Special Envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell is in Burma from March 11-18.  In announcing the trip, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said about what has been done in Burma is, “so far so good.”  But she stressed the need for closer watching.

When  Suu Kyi announced she would participate in the April 1 by-elections, Aung Din of U.S. Campaign for Burma warned that once she becomes part of the system designed by the junta, as a Member of Parliament, she will be able to do nothing.  Recently she responded to rumors that she’d be given the posts of minister of health and education. She said, according to the rules (i.e.  rules set by the junta), if she becomes a minister, she would have to resign as MP.  She said she hasn’t been working so hard to become an MP and have a say, just to resign.

That’s just the point.  The whole “game’ has been elaborately rigged by the junta and players participate at their own considerable risk.  I am never able to blame Daw Suu, as at that time she had few options left.  My view is like that of long time NLD strategist, U Win Tin, who said, “Even if we don’t agree, we must support her.  We can’t appear to be divided.”

One commentator said, “Once she gives away sanctions, she will have played her only remaining trump card and have no cards left.”

See Adam Selene in the Irrawaddy, “How the game was lost.”

In an interview with VOA (Burmese) which I have translated (see Asian Correspondent) – Daw Suu’s first cousin whose father was assassinated in 1947 with Aung San on the same  July 19 morning, now P.M. of the NCGUB or Exile Government, pointed out that even if she wins all 48 seats allotted to her of a total of 250 or so, she will still be the minority.

The area she has been assigned, and you can be sure a lot of gerrymandering went into it, is tiny Kawhmu, an agricultural village near Rangoon.  I expect she was given this as the junta must have thought that her support would be highest in the educated, big urban areas.

However, Suu Kyi, with the savvy of someone to the manor born, has been campaigning all over the country.

When she was first released on Nov 13, 2011, she made her first visit outside Rangoon “on a pilgrimage” to Bagan (previously spelled Pagan) – with her “half-breed son” (to paraphrase J.K. Rowling).  Kim Aris showed his NLD colors tattooed on his arm right at Rangoon airport on first reuniting with his mother, and turned out to be as well loved and as charismatic.

Eleventh century Bagan is “where it all started” – where Yone Hlut Kyun or a small village called Place of the Hare’s Release (see Bob Hudson’s research on this) became the first Burmese empire of King Anawrahta, the first of the three great conquerors which are the junta’s role models, as iconized by the three “great king statues” in Naypyidaw’s parade ground.

This time Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign trips are as well orchestrated also as Obama’s campaign in 2008.  She went slowly north right up to Kachin land in Myitkyina, where she had dinner with a veteran Kachin activist who had been her father’s (very young) contemporary in 1947, and remembered the promises of the Panlong Agreement.  She dressed in appropriate ethnic clothes in ethnic areas.  Then she “ended” this round with the biggest crowds in the junta-bureaucrat stronghold of Naypyidaw, where she courted civil servants.  “Civil servants are people just like you and me.  . .”

“You’ve heard of natural gas?  Do you know where the proceeds of these sales of natural gas go?”

“Don’t think you are just small and poor and can’t do anything.   Please remember always, there is only a nation because there are people.  If there are no people, there will be no nation.”

But the campaign trail has not been as smooth as it seems in the colorful videos taken by VOA and RFA correspondents.

Stadiums have been denied to her, so that she has been forced to give speeches in the blazing heat, and had to cut her first speech short because of the up to 104 degree Fahrenheit heat.

Today the temperature in Mandalay will be 93 degrees and will be 97 on the weekend.

In Mandalay she was sick, it could be from (heat) exhaustion, but said she was better the next day.  “Due to the good wishes and love of the people, I am quite well again.”

Her campaign continues to be assigned to large open spaces far away from town and city centers.  In Mandalay, there were large tree stumps and thorn bushes, which had to be cleared by bulldozers overnight.

Her supporters always manage to pull it off.

Japanese TV NHK reports that her entourage was shot at with sharpened bicycle spokes called jinglees, a word we first heard in 1988.  Also stones, according to Democratic Voice of Burma.

She complained to visiting Canadian Foreign Minister, John Baird, that electoral rolls are inaccurate, and include names of dead people.  The NLD’s complaints of signboards vandalized and other harassment, has been largely ignored.

I can’t say if this is due to a power struggle between Thein Sein and the so-called moderates on one hand, and the hardliners, including “retired” Sr. General Than Shwe.  Thein Sein has denied there’s an internal junta split, but he also said that the West should do their part now that his administration “has made all these changes.”  Last year even after the process started, he said there are no political prisoners.

U.S. Envoy Derek Mitchell will be accompanied by Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Barbara Shailor, who will meet with local labor representatives and will look into government-labor relations.  She needs to visit factories and other work sites.

Labor strikes continue, labor laws are weak, child labor prevalent (see video documentary, They call it Myanmar.) and the work conditions of most people dismal, with no legal channels for recourse.

There are tens of thousands of landless, former farmers forced to migrate to neighboring countries, especially Thailand.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Dan Bear will also accompany Mitchell, and will meet with former political prisoners.  Remember, there are still an estimated 1000 political prisoners still in jail.

I want to end with a quote from a commentator who calls himself “Kyansittha” in the Irrawaddy Magazine, March 9.

He derisively calls the 2008 constitution, The Nargis Constitution, as the referendum was pushed through a few days after the deadly cyclone which killed an estimated 200,000 to 2.4 million (initial UN estimate).

“USDP (Union Solidarity Development Party, the junta’s proxy party) still holds 350 seats, including 25% unelected (i.e. assigned) military personnel snoring in the whore house (parliament) .  .  . Dictators never give up power voluntarily.  Lifting sanctions after April Fool’s day elections would be akin to handling (sic) the IMF/WB/IDA all combined to Ali Than Shwe led thieves at Naypyidaw.”

General Electric is rumored to be entering Burma.  It is quite likely.  News reports say the current crunch on hotel rooms is not being caused by tourists but by NGOs and businesses, anxious to get a foot hold inside Burma.






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Burma: Economists, generals and culture vultures Fri, 10 Feb 2012 04:55:30 +0000

On February 11th, three notable economists, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, will give lectures in Rangoon.  In my previous piece I mentioned that both Ronald Findlay and Hla Myint were born in Burma, and as states scholars before World War II and in the democratic period immediately after Independence from Great Britain, studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and London School of Economics respectively.

Hla Myint (Burmese have one name only.  Most don’t have first and last names)

was stranded in the UK during the war.  In the postwar period he worked at LSE, and became, with Sir Arthur Lewis, one of the pioneers of development economics.

In Rangoon where I studied economics, Prof. Findlay was one of my mentors and my MA thesis supervisor.  I remember reading a short article by H. Myint (this is one of the ways he signed his name) about how the name of the field itself had metamorphosed from “economic backwardness” to “underdeveloped countries” to “developing countries”.

I was one year late to become a student of his, as he left Burma in 1962, the year of Ne Win’s coup.  He had been working as Rector of Rangoon University, and the rumor was that he and his British wife Joan, had sold their house in England to come and work in Burma, but Ne Win, the dictator made things hard on intellectuals with a western education, and he left.  Shortly before he did so, I went with my friend, a very beautiful young woman from a very rich family, who had just gotten a Columbo Plan scholarship, to his house on campus.  As I remember it, Dr. Findlay was also there – it was noontime or so, and we were between classes.  Yin (not her real name) talked about what career prospects she might have and what subjects she should take in Canada.  Dr. Hla Myint did not seem to be in a bad humor.  He joked “It won’t matter.  You’ll be lost anyway.” Yin did not understand it.  I explained what he meant when we walked back to the classrooms.

Ne Win had a poor education.  It was said he had been a postal clerk before he joined the Burma Defense Army (under Aung San) against the Japanese invaders.  He had the dictator’s classic insecurity and desire to dominate.  All the time I was in Rangoon, I heard stories of how he had beat up someone with a golf club; how he beat up a university instructor who had had a bit too much to drink at a Burma Research dinner and had insulted Ne Win’s second wife Kitty.  As late as the year 2000, when I interviewed Louis Wallinsky, then 92 or 93, in Washington DC, Louis told me of how he had witnessed Ne Win beat up the driver of their car at the Rangoon Golf Club because the car pulled up too quietly behind him as he tied his shoe laces.   At that time Wallinsky was the then PM U Nu’s economic advisor.

Findlay likewise had a bad time, even though he was a brilliant economist (still is) – a likeable person and a mild-mannered one, and a gifted, generous teacher.  He was passed over for the economics department professorship, solely on account of his racial origins, I thought, and given a research professorship, where he no longer taught.

All throughout the time I was writing my MA thesis, he was in small office at the Economics Institute. I seemed to be the only one who went to his office, to deliver chapters I had written.  In 1969, he left Burma to work at Columbia University in New York.

By then we had lived through the July 7, 1962 shooting of students, the demonetization of kyat 100 notes and the rice riots of 1967, which Ne Win diverted to anti-Chinese riots.

The worst part of the military junta has been its treatment of its people, not realizing they are, to use Adam Smith’s words, the wealth of the nation.


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Democratization in Burma: Dr Sein Win, PM in Exile speaks out Wed, 08 Feb 2012 10:49:40 +0000

Lately, there are endless reports of people going to Burma, so much so that as the saying goes – chaung pauk tawme, or a river will soon run through the worn footpath.  It was therefore refreshing to note that the usually soft-spoken Dr Sein Win, elected Prime Minister of the US-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, gave an interview to VOA, in which he calmly pointed out that we are still not at the end game with regards to democracy in Burma.

Sein Win was elected to his constituent state in the 1990 election, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won.  Power was not transferred.  In danger of arrest, he and other MPs fled to the Burma-Thai border, where they formed the Exile Government in the Karen stronghold of Manerplaw, which fell to SLORC’s forces (the former name of the State Peace and Development Council – the Burmese junta).

Sein Win has a doctorate in mathematics from a German university, but has spent the last two decades as a political activist and advocate for Burmese democracy.  In 2009, in Malahyde, Ireland, he was re-elected by secret ballot to the Prime Minister post.

Three prominent dissidents including the famous comedian Zarganar who was recently released and was at a National Endowment for Democracy event in DC a few days ago, reiterated points made by Sein Win.

I transcribed and informally translated this.

MC Thar Nyunt Oo’s intro:  Even though it is said there are reforms in Burma, because there is still no political solution, there is still a need for overseas-based activist groups, according to Dr Sein Win, PM of the Exile Government or NCGUB.  When VOA’s Khin Soe Win interviewed him, Sein Win explained –

Yes, on our part, we do welcome the changes that show a positive sign.  This is a hopeful trend.  However, in some areas (change) is not consistent.  For example, ceasefires with respect to various ethnic groups.  In Kachin State, (the Burman army) is still waging a serious offensive.  Besides heated battles, civilians are suffering all kinds of troubles.  We do need to look at this, talk about this.  The release of political prisoners is not yet complete.

They let go of the leaders, but there are still many (about 1000) still in prison.  So it’s not consistent.  Also, in the nature of reforms, it’s not enough just with this one issue.  From the background, (just) laws (which come from grass roots debate of the people’s legitimate representatives) must appear.

The 2010 election was rigged and the “constitution” written entirely by the SPDC.

Interviewer:  “As they did not recognize the 1990 election, if she (Aung San Suu Kyi) should win the by-election .  .  . will government recognize the results?”

“I think, they will help organize it so that it’s free and fair.  I assume they will accept the emerging results.  By-elections are in only over 40 places.  The total number is over 450.

“Even though they may do things equitably for these 48 places, when the general

election takes place, they need to be fair.

Q.  I have heard that if the NLD registers as a political party, the Exile Government will dissolve itself.  What is your opinion?

Now they will enter (the by-election) and run – in April, the MPs will get into the parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi will get there too.  When that happens, whether it will be an Exile Government, or a Parallel Coalition Government, will be something to think about.  .  .  There is the main base which elected the NCGUB.  We have something called the Members of Parliamentary Union (outside Burma), and it will be decided there by majority vote.

Q.  What is the NCGUB’s future role?  Will you go back?  Some have been invited.

Some people say go back, for this to happen, that to happen.  That’s not the main point.

“The main point is – how much progress there is inside the country.  How much real freedom do the people have?  Is there a real political solution?  Right now there is not.  What Suu Kyi calls a breakthrough is a political solution.  The main point is to give full democratic rights.  It depends on the constitution”

Note – in the 1990s, Suu Kyi called the constitution “just something written on a slip of paper.”

“In the present SPDC’s constitution, there are points which are not democratic, which are opposed to democracy.  Daw Suu has said this clearly too.  There are some corrective changes, but they are not solutions.  For instance – ceasefire.  Ceasefire alone is not the ultimate solution.  We’ve had ceasefire with the Kachin for 17 years already, now they’re shooting again.  Because problems have not been solved.  What we want is a real solution.  Go on the right path for politics, economics, social welfare.

“The economy too must be the right system.  Now there’s crony capitalism.  This is not right for our country.  Only when we have the solution can we say there’s democracy”.

In Jeffersonian democracy, it is still a continuous process, not a static situation.

Q.  Will you go back to help?

It’s not necessary to go to Burma to work on Burma issues.  It can be done from outside too.  OK, right now we have a bit more freedoms, we have more this and that.  Ceasefires.  But these have not reached the end of the process.  What stage has freedom of news reached?  Yes, when they invite you, you can go

(Khin Soe Win was first journalist to go)

When they talk to you and issue statements, you can listen and report it.  But can you really write what you want?  There is still censorship.  We know that.

“These things must be pointed out.  Constructive criticism exists even in a democracy.  From the outside we can point these things out.  That’s our job.”


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Burma’s economy: Can world-class advisors make a difference? Mon, 06 Feb 2012 17:56:44 +0000

On February 11, three world-class economists including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz will be in Rangoon, addressing a local audience.  The event is co-sponsored by Myanmar Institute of Economics Graduate Association (MIEGA) – a new alphabet soup I did not at first recognize.

This will be Stiglitz’s second visit.  The first did not go too well, as the Burmese government media deleted all his “political remarks”.  This time, the visit is also arranged by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and Dr. Myint, the Rangoon-based retired economist who got the ball rolling on all these “reforms” or at least the talk of reforms, which to me seems to be suffering from over-hype on the part of the western and Burmese exile media, will be the moderator of the session.

Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph E. Stiglitz. Pic: AP.

One sure sign of overhype is the use or over use of the M-word “Myanmar”, which dissidents still do not recognize.  It was shoved down our throats by the Burmese junta in 1998.  Now the M-word has become de rigueur.  Even the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times use it.  Is it “not to annoy” the Burmese regime?  Is it to engage in the mass deceit that “things are changing”?  Mrs. Clinton on her visit to Naypyidaw in December, avoided it all by saying “this country”.  I wish we could do so too.

Even some respected longtime mentors and colleagues, including some from Iran, have been taken in by this “change rhetoric.”   Even a 50-year veteran critic said, “Things have gone too far and are irreversible”.  But are they really?

U Gambira of 2007 Saffron Revolution fame said on his release on Friday the 13th January, “Don’t believe all the change rhetoric.  They learned it from Obama.”  The Maggin Monastery, ransacked and closed down in 2010, shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, because it was giving aid to HIV patients (Suu Kyi’s first foray into public was to this hospice and monastery), has been re-closed.  U Gambira and other Saffron Revolution monks had gone there, as they had nowhere else to go, and were re-ordained and trying to make the monastery habitable.  In jail they had been forcibly disrobed.

This just came in from “Monk”.

Today seeing the sayadaws (evicted monks) each carrying their little bundles and coming out of the Maggin Monastery was one of the most disturbing of my life.

The writer calls the junta “the kyant hput government” based on the name of one of its thug organizations, that came to forcibly close the monastery, and reminds the reader than anyone who merely stands by when a wrong is committed is also complicit.

Of the original over 2000 political prisoners, an estimated 1000 still remain in jail.

The Myitsone dam whose construction was halted at the orders of President Thein Sein is only halted till 2015.

In Dec 2011, Asia-Pacific Forum’s Michelle Chen interviewed Thelma Young of US Campaign for Burma, and me.  Ms. Young said, (nothing has changed except)”their PR has gotten better”.  I stressed that whether Thein Sein would be able to push through his reforms, which have sometimes been compared to Gorbachev’s, depends on how powerful he is.  There have been reports that Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the government capital city, gave orders for ceasefires, but commanders at the front just continued shooting.

In Himal Southasian of Dec. 1, I wrote that what is signed in Naypyidaw is different from what is perceived on the ground, where stakes are higher.  Now Zipporah Sein, spokesperson for the Karen National Union, says the KNU never signed a ceasefire in Naypyidaw.  They only signed an agreement that there would be another visit.

The Free Burma Rangers which provides medical aid within the free fire zone states:

In some areas such as Arakan State, western Burma, where there are no ceasefire negotiations, the Burma army continues its operations. In other areas such as Kachin State .  .  . the Burma army is continuing operations with over 100 infantry battalions. In Karen State, there has been a significant reduction of fighting, but the movement of supplies and Burma army troop movement continues. In Karen State no ceasefire has yet been signed but both the Karen National Union (Karen ethnic pro-democracy resistance) and the Government of Burma have ordered their troops not to shoot.

A government negotiator says the “peace negotiations” with the Kachin could take three years.

Relevance to Burma of the economic advisors.

Dr. Ronald Findlay, in MIT’s doctoral program a student of the famous economist Paul Samuelson, was born and grew up in Burma.  His doctorate was in International Trade Theory.  According to Wikipedia he takes a political economy perspective.

and as a World Bank Research Observer in 1988 co-wrote “The State and the Invisible Hand”.

Wikipedia says of Stiglitz:

At the World Bank, he served as Senior VP and Chief Economist (1997 – 2000), in the time when unprecedented protest against international economic organizations started .  .  .  the Seattle WTO meeting of 1999.  He was fired by the World Bank for expressing dissent .  .  .

Stiglitz has advised American President Barack Obama, but has also been critical of the Obama Administration‘s financial rescue plan. Stiglitz said whoever designed the.  .  . bank rescue plan is “either in the pocket of the banks or incompetent.”

In addition, Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes wrote The Three Trillion Dollar War.

This is about the proverbial guns vs butter (or rice) argument, now more relevant than ever in a country like Burma or N. Korea.  Will we still pursue a nuclear program even though our people are starving and dying?  Why not?  There is no independent media and freedom of expression – so we can just control the “news” and say “There is no starvation etc in Burma.”

Stiglitz’s contributions include Information Asymmetry.

Information can be no more asymmetrical than in a dictatorship, where the dictator/junta controls all information, including economic information.  Stiglitz’s ideas are very relevant to both the Burmese economy and to (criticism of the Obama administration) that “there is too much government”.

Stiglitz wrote that  “Unemployment is driven by the information structure of employment”

I can’t find a job in the USA in 2012, because I have imperfect information about available jobs, I don’t know about all the jobs out there.  In Burma, because the junta and junta-related cronies know all the latest economic rules and regulations, in fact set them up themselves, they get all the plum jobs and employment and investment opportunities.  In 2004, a Burmese woman from a traditional business family in export said, “We only get what spills off the generals’ tables.”

According to the official invitation sent out by email, on the 11th, the three professors will talk about –

Stiglitz –Development strategies for inclusive and sustainable growth

Findlay – Prospects for Myanmar in the world economy of the 21st century.

H. Myint- Comments on rush to reform creates Myanmar burn outs.

I really look forward to who has been burned by the recent “Burma reforms.”

Banks and agents for foreign exchange outlets are complaining as there is no difference now between their exchange rate and the curbside rate, so they are in fact losing business and money with the large cache of foreign exchange that they accumulated, hoping for large profits.

In 1998 and again in 2008/9 Burmese exiles and overseas-based Burma experts tried to formulate visions for Burma’s new economic and democratic future

Now the Thein Sein administration, with the help of its advisors, is attempting to formulate its own new economic and political paradigm.

But it should be borne in mind that the reforms can reverse at any time, and right now are by no means comprehensive.

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Zarganar or Pincers: Great Burmese comic among few released Sat, 15 Oct 2011 00:03:43 +0000

Since at least the fake elections of November 2010, the Burmese junta has floated the fiction that it is now a “civilian government” with a real parliamentary process in place at the Potemkin capital of Naypyidaw or King’s Royal City.  Senior General Than Shwe, who “retired” in 2010, and his wife, are said to have a Burmese royalty fetish, with only two chairs in their reception room – everyone else, it is said, must sit or grovel on the floor and use the “royal language” of the pre-1886 Burmese royals when addressing them.  This may be apocryphal, but Naypyidaw does mean what it means, and the parade ground there features the three great conqueror kings of Burmese history.

General Thein Sein, now changed into civilian clothes, is the nominal “Prime Minister”.   He is supposed to be the “reformer” behind the so-called moderate group which is now said to be on the ascendant.  Since anti-sanctions, pro-junta apologists have always been seeing “young Turks” in the Burmese army, I think it is little more than a good cop, bad cop routine, but two weeks ago the controversial Myitsone Dam in North Burma was halted in response to “the people’s wishes.”

The junta announced it would free 6359 prisoners.  The hope was that all, over 2000 political prisoners would be included in this rather deja vu “amnesty”.  But, as of yesterday, the very well-regarded Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners, Burma (AAPPB) stated that only 207 political prisoners have been released so far.  Prominent leaders such as Min Ko Naing of 1988 fame, Ashin U Gambira, the monk who led the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and U Khun Htun Oo, are not among the released.

Famous Burmese comic Zarganar or Pincers is.

In an interview with the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma on Oct 12, (in Burmese, audio file)  Zarganar with the charming insouciance of the true comic genius who can’t help speaking the truth, even at possible detriment to himself said:

“Yes, thank you, my health has been good, but since before I got on the plane (hearing about) the possible reforms, I got a headache and my neck began to hurt.”   (I did all the translations presented here).

“Um, I can’t say that I am seeing any significant reforms, just because (I) have been released. .  .  I was allowed to read newspapers and 12-13 journals, so I could keep up.”

Zarganar had been sentenced to 35 years, of which he has served “only 3 years”.  In response to questions he said: “Up to yesterday (while still in Myitkyina prison), I sort of believed there might really be reforms, but today, doubt has entered my mind.  If it is true reform, then why aren’t all the (political) prisoners released?  The number released is miniscule.  (To put it bluntly) even former Lt. General Khin Nyunt (imprisoned in 2004 due to an internal junta purge and corruption charges) should be released.  These people weren’t arrested during the Thein Sein government.  If it’s true reconciliation, please let everyone go. .  .  I’ll put up my life as security, .  .  .  About the exiles being “invited home” I only want to say (slowly) please – wait and see.”

Zarganar said in other interviews that he needed to consult with Aung San Suu Kyi and that he would be starting to travel to see other political prisoners and lend support immediately.

About his arrest and jail time he quipped: “It’s the 10% rule” and “Since I was arrested for giving alms to Buddhist monks, I might have to excommunicate myself from Buddhism.”

Long live Zarganar, all jokes and artists/jesters.

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Poetry reading in front of the Burmese embassy: What difference does one poem make? Wed, 28 Sep 2011 12:10:32 +0000

About a month ago I was fortunate to attend a poetry reading by Martin Espada at the Writers’ Center in Bethesda, MD.  My friend J. who has a child in intensive care for about several months now, bought the tickets ahead and made dinner arrangements.

I can’t remember when Espada’s poetry first came to my attention.  It must have been when an editor who published one of my poems, went to Chile, the home of the great, late Pablo Neruda.  Espada went along.

J. and I and her other friend, though all over 60, were like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Three Little Maids from School.  I asked to sit plunk in the middle of the second row.  Two male poets were in front.  I was sure the one on the left was Espada.  The others thought he must be on the right.  I was right, though Espada and his friend must have overhead everything we said, which was pretty amusing.

Espada read his poem Alabanza, or Praise, in honor of the service people in the Twin Towers who died in 9/11.

He’s aged some since the video was taken.  His hair is white, but he still “sings” his poetry.   His body language is a constant rolling motion of his entire body.

Sarah Browning of Split this Rock, which helps poets and other artists work for social change, invited me to read in front of the Burma embassy.  I said yes.

Martin signed his book The Republic of Poetry for me –  “Welcome to the Republic of Poetry.”

As I have been a citizen of this Republic since the mid-90s, I was pleased.

Split this Rock organized the readings on September 24, in front of the Yemen, Burmese (the junta calls the country it lords over “Myanmar”), Turkemenistan and Bahrain embassies.  The day before, the dictator of Yemen had just returned home, presumably to take over power again.  In Burma, in the north, four days of intensive fighting between the junta and the Kachin ethnic group was reported.

This was an offshoot of the so-called Border Guard Force issue, in the run up to the so-called 2010 “election” in Burma, where the ethnic groups were asked to lay down arms and join the central government’s army.  Some, such as the Karen, have been in continuous armed struggle against the center since a year before Burma’s independence from Great Britain in 1948.  As revealed in WikiLeaks, the US Embassy in Rangoon saw that the groups would refuse the “offer”.

On an overcast Saturday, a Lebanese-born poet read the Yemen poems.  One poem about a woman standing in a prison courtyard could have happened anywhere.  I took my poems in a plastic bag and read four, including War on Roaches.

Several interviewers, including from VOA, asked me similar questions.

If you are from Burma, why are you at the Yemen embassy?

What difference will one poem make?

I replied that even if it is just one poem, just one truth, it is one life-sustaining rain drop. All rain falls in droplets.  It does not matter where these atrocities take place, the human experience is universal.  To the more than 2000 political prisoners I sent regards to be strong and to value their humanity.

We are not to be shattered because one authoritarian oppresses us.

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VOA inside Burma… In a white jumpsuit Tue, 27 Sep 2011 04:11:03 +0000

This week saw the first ever TV broadcast from inside Burma, by a Voice of America newscaster.

In living memory, at least in my living memory, this has not happened openly before.  Foreign correspondents routinely need to enter Burma (oops, the official name is Myanmar, often mispronounced “Mee ahn mar”) declaring themselves paint salesmen or just plain tourists, on their visa application forms. So it was with surprise and some incredulity, that I watched the videos posted U Tube style at the VOA link above.

What’s this thing with international women correspondents and jump suits?

See “Kyra Phillips dons a khaki jumpsuit and goes to Iraq.”

Technically, a jumpsuit is all one piece, and so makes peeing in a developing country which might have challenging toilet arrangements, well, challenging.  You have to virtually undress to pee and do more called Number Two, in Burma, in a jumpsuit.  The late dictator, General Ne Win, was known as Number One – no, seriously, he was.

Harpers Bazaar says what Amanpour wears on air is a safari jacket (which has two separate pieces which aren’t sewn together).  Believe me I know the difference.  In Burma I sewed all my own clothes and still make all my own tops and jackets.

So we see this VOA correspondent with short, black, probably black-dyed hair, and in a white western-style pants suit in the new Burmese (since 2005) capital of Naypyidaw (King’s Royal City) in the middle of Burma, which is very dusty and hot.  Burmese, who are known for their wit and insouciance, call Naypyidaw – “Nay poo daw” – the royally hot place, and it sure is.

Here is an internal monolog, imagined, of what might have gone through the correspondent  Khin Soe Win’s head as she packed and waited for her Burmese visa, which was late, so she was not in time for new special envoy Derek Mitchell’s press conference, just before he left, at Rangoon International Airport:

“It’s hot – my legs need to be covered or other Burmese will consider me a fallen woman.  I can’t help it about my short hair.  I need to be properly dressed as a U.S. government employee.  I need to be up to international standards.”

Khin Soe Win is a VOA News Editor a former Burmese diplomat who defected during the 1988 uprisings, and a daughter of the late Colonel Htun Aung Gyaw, a well-known colonel from the Ne Win era.  There is no doubt that her family connections, Department of State intervention behind the scenes, and Derek Mitchell, helped get her and her videographer Zin Latt Aung their coveted Burma visas and entréz to Naypyidaw.

In the interview, the democracy leader and 1994 Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, continued on the theme of “there is potential for change, but I would not say we have changed already”.  The newswoman tried to put words into Daw Suu’s mouth – saying “as we now have a civilian government –”

Daw Suu looked sharply at KSW, known in Maryland as Aunty Lone or Roly Poly, and then apparently decided to let it pass.  It is after all a Potemkin capital, a Potemkin “democracy” and a fake everything else, and the photo opp has all the ambience of a western movie set, complete with youngish army officers leering at KSW and empty roads waiting for a high noon shootout.

But at least VOA knew to treat Daw Suu with respect.  The reporter changed into a conservative Burmese skirt when interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi at her home and didn’t try the rapid fire hard ball questions that other ill-advised Burmese of questionable loyalties  had tried in the past.

Copyright Kyi May Kaung

As for the rest, we will see what we will see.

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