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Archive for the ‘Burma’ Category

Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Swedish author and Sino-India specialist, Bertil Lintner, chats with Sonia Sarkar about hawks and doves

Last week, at the New Delhi launch of Bertil Lintner’s book, China’s India War, one of the panelists joked that India feels gratified whenever the West takes a pro-India stance in the ongoing India-China rift, because international opinion is still shaped by writers from that part of the world. Sitting on the dais, the Swedish journalist and author laughed.

Lintner’s narrative on the Sino-Indian war of 1962 is the antithesis of British journalist Neville Maxwell’s 1970 book, India’s China War. Maxwell had argued that it was India that provoked China in 1962 and China had fallen prey to Jawaharlal Nehru’s hostile policies.

Later that week, when Lintner and I meet in a noisy café at the India International Centre, he tells me, “I think, he [Nehru] had too much faith in China; he didn’t realise that the Chinese were not of the same wavelength.”

Dressed in a deep brown pullover and a pair of jeans, Lintner speaks softly. He tends to explain things in great detail too. The pair of thick, square-shaped glasses he has on adds to the general impression of gravitas. But what is most startling perhaps, off-dais, is the impassive expression on his face.

Inevitably, Doklam comes up. Recent media reports claim that over 1,600 Chinese troops are still present in this region of Bhutan. Most other years, they leave by November. Says the 64-year-old, “Doklam was not about a road. It was the Chinese attempt to create a wedge between Bhutan and India. Bhutan also wanted to show that they are independent of India; they thought India should not get involved as it is about Bhutan and China.”

But there is a view among a section of Indian security experts that New Delhi has irked China several times ever since Narendra Modi assumed power. The invitation extended to the “Prime Minister” of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014 did not go down well. Then again, this year, India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a territory China claims.

Lintner starts to say something and then stops midway. The words that finally emanate from his mouth, “That’s not my subject.” I find it strangely cautious, if not surprising, coming from one who is known to be vocal about issues such as human rights violations by the Myanmar Army, has questioned disappearances and imprisonment of politicians and civilians alike in Myanmar and has written extensively on organised crime in the Asia Pacific. He is known to be a champion of Press freedom, too.

And while Lintner makes it abundantly clear that he is not interested in antagonising the Modi government, he does remember to warn India about China’s intrusion into the Indian Ocean. He says, “Most of China’s oil supplies come through the Indian Ocean, most of its minerals sourced from Africa pass through it and most of its exports, which go through Europe, to Africa pass through this ocean, which India considers as its own lake. When China enters this area in a big way, there is concern – what is China up to?”

Lintner also talks about how China’s presence in South Asia – it is building ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – is a cause for concern. “It’s part of China’s global strategy and India happens to be in the way,” he adds.

China’s influence on the Northeast is also huge. In his book, Lintner writes that China has not ceased to support the rebels. “These groups buy weapons on what is euphemistically called ‘the black market’ in China.”

He even claims that The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) chief Paresh Barua, who still evades arrest, stays in Chinese towns and travels freely across the country.  Lintner has met Barua thrice – Myanmar (1985), Bangkok (1992) and Dhaka (2010).

In his book, Linter writes,  China is providing Barua a safe haven because it argues that it is only “reciprocating India’s act of providing sanctuary for the Dalai Lama, allowing the enemy of one country to stay in the other.” India’s decision to give shelter to Dalai Lama in 1959 certainly did establish that “India is China’s enemy,” Lintner, who met Dalai Lama twice, stresses.

Lintner first met Dalai Lama at McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh  in 1984 when he was touring India as a correspondent for a Danish daily.

Lintner’s India ties date back to 1975. That is also the year he visited Calcutta for the first time. Lintner’s mother is Swedish, his father an Austrian refugee from Nazi Germany. He was a political prisoner before he managed to escape to Sweden and, thereafter, left for Brazil. Lintner was six months old at the time.

“When I was 19, I managed to track him [his father] to a New Zealand address, where he had moved with his new family. It was to meet him that I left Sweden for the first time, in 1975, to travel to New Zealand, overland,” he says.

Lintner explored India by train and bus. He recalls how he stayed in a dormitory at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House on Calcutta’s Sudder Street for Rs 8 per night. He also suffered three bouts of dysentery and lost more than 20 kilos.

During that trip he caught another bug. Lintner claims it was Calcutta that inspired his 22-year-old self to become a writer.

“My favourite part of Calcutta is College Street with all its bookstores and the Indian Coffee House,” says the veteran journalist who has travelled the world before choosing for his home, Chiang Mai in Thailand, three decades ago. He is married to Hseng Noung, a Shan or ethnic person from Myanmar.

And that is not the only Myanmar connection he is known for. Globally, Lintner is known for his relentless reporting from Myanmar (erstwhile Burma). The military junta blacklisted him for 23 years, beginning 1989. He started visiting Myanmar again only recently, since 2013.

While it is easy to understand Lintner’s take on the Sino-India face-off, his views on Myanmar and the ousted Rohingyas are more layered, somewhat difficult to grasp and to process, thereafter.

For one, he does not seem outraged at the recent killings and exodus of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. He does not even blame the National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who runs the Myanmar government, for failing to contain the sectarian violence unleashed against the Muslims by the Buddhists.

“There is a democratically elected government in Myanmar but three most important ministries – defence, home and border affairs – are controlled by the military. Suu Kyi has a very limited role to play,” says Lintner, who is the author of Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy.

But yes, he concedes, she could have visited the victims of violence, along with other elected representatives, to show the military there is also a civilian space in the country. So far, so good.

But prod him further and you learn that Lintner is not willing to dub the Rohingya situation a “religious” conflict at all.

The real problem is, he says, is that the Rohingyas live close to Bangladesh and they have many similarities with the natives of Chittagong there. “Rohingyas comprise only five per cent of the Muslim population in Myanmar. Most Muslims are in the cities; they are merchants, shopkeepers, professionals- they have Burmese names, they speak Burmese and they are Burmese citizens. Rohingyas are a rural community and they live in an area next to an overpopulated country, (where they have) exactly the same people on the other side of the border. They speak Bengali in Chittagong dialect, they don’t speak Burmese. Other Muslims (in Myanmar) see it like this — we have a small Rakhine state with 3.5 million people whereas next door, there is a country with 180 million people. It is a completely different story,” he explains.

And what, in his opinion, triggered the recent violence that led to the exodus of an estimated seven lakh people from Myanmar to Bangladesh?

Lintner now launches into an elaborate explanation of how on the night the Kofi Annan Commission Report came out this August – the same that asked Myanmar to scrap restrictions on movement and citizenship of the Rohingyas – the armed radical group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked 30 police stations and one army base at Rakhine. “This triggered enormous backlash. Thousands of people have suffered because of this, but nobody is questioning the Arsa,” he says.

The insinuation is obvious – the Rohingyas are responsible for their own situation. And if there is any doubt about his stance in this debate, the next statement makes things clear as daylight. To a question about whether there will be a guaranteed safe passage for the Rohingyas to Rakhine state following the pact between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Lintner says, “First of all, they don’t want to come back. Plus, in order to return, they have to prove they are residents of Myanmar and not Bangladeshis. And they cannot prove that.” This last is a reference to the fact that in 2015, in Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, Rohingyas were not considered an ethnic group of the country.

I have heard him the first time and the second, and both arguments seem at variance with his professional persona. I keep talking to hide any apparent disappointment on my part.

Some Rohingyas have also come to India for shelter, but the Indian government doesn’t want them. India regards Rohingya Muslims a national security threat. I am yet to frame the question, but he is already dodging it, laughing. “Well, ask the Indian security agencies…”

This time, I cannot help but say it out aloud – so he is hell-bent on being politically correct when it comes to India? Is that it? “No, no… I am not here to talk about contemporary Indian politics. It is beyond the scope of my coverage… maybe, I will write about it in a book in future…”

Getting answers from journalists isn’t easy at all, but books are fair game.

tétevitae

1953: Lintner is born in Sweden and then in 1975 leaves for Asia

1980: Starts working as a journalist; is the Burma correspondent for the Hong Kong-based weekly, Far Eastern Economic Review

1984: Visits India as a correspondent for a Danish daily; covers the stand-off at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and also interviews Dalai Lama in McLeodganj

1985: Undertakes an 18-month, 2,275-kilometre trek from northeastern India across Burma’s northern rebel-held areas to China. Codifies this expe-rience in the 1996 book, Land of Jade: A journey from India through Northern Burma to China

Has written 17 books to date, including Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia and Aung San Suu Syi and Burma’s struggle for Democracy

A shorter version of the story has appeared in The Telegraph. December 17, 2017.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/world/doklam-was-not-about-a-road-it-was-the-chinese-attempt-to-create-a-wedg-194070

 ENDS

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Myanmar goes to the polls today – and change is in the air. A flowering of art, music and films is underway, writes Sonia Sarkar

The painting is stark. Military men – dressed in olive green – stand in a row. Their heads are covered with bird cages. The work by Aung Kyi Soe, in the Blind in Knowledge series, is called Cages and is on display at an art gallery in Yangon, once called Rangoon.

Young musicians strum their guitars and sing at a club. The lyrics are simple – “We hate the system,” they chant.

A local news website displays a cartoon called “Religion and Elections”. Two sumo wrestlers are fighting each other.

As Myanmar goes to the polls today to elect a new government after five decades of military dictatorship, there is talk of change in the air. Changes are taking place not just in the political milieu but in the country’s art and culture field, too. Liberal voices once muzzled by the junta are slowly regaining their pitch. And painters, musicians, cartoonists, filmmakers are all a part of the transition.

“We are taking baby steps to democracy through art,” says artist and curator Pyay Way, whose Nawaday Tharlar Art Gallery is displaying the Blind Knowledge painting.

Way, who opened the art gallery in Yangon’s busy Dagon Township in 2012, says that he always wanted to create a liberal space for artists. “My artist friends felt suffocated not being able to express themselves,” he says.

Now there are at least 10 new art galleries in Yangon. Way’s gallery is also open to poets, singers and dancers. He organises an “open mic” evening once or twice a month where people express their concerns.

“There is a vibrant art community producing strong work in a variety of styles and formats, despite years of isolation and a limited domestic market for art,” points out historian and curator Melissa Carlson, who displayed the works of Myanmar’s artists at two exhibitions – Burma by Proxy: Art at the Dawn of Democracy (2015) and Banned in Burma: Painting under Censorship (2014) in Hong Kong.

Myanmar has been witnessing significant changes since 2010, when National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released after two decades of house arrest. The military government headed by President Thein Sein released more than 200 political prisoners. Regressive laws which prevented assembly of more than five people were repealed.

The spurt in art and culture followed changes in censorship laws and as the government allowed access to the Internet. Till 2012, all videos, both feature and documentary, had to go through the video Censor Board of the Television and Video Act, 1996, before distribution and screening. Failure to comply could result in fines, imprisonment of up to three years and confiscation of property. The rules of censorship have now been relaxed.

Cinema critical of the junta is no longer rare. An 18-minute short film Ban That Scene by Htun Zaw Win, for instance, criticises censorship. Kaung Sint’s 12-minute documentary film Enter on the life of a political prisoner in Myanmar exposes political abuse. “It shows how the government tortured political prisoners in jail,” Phyo says.

Since 2013, the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival has been organised in Myanmar in a bid to prod young filmmakers into making meaningful cinema. “This film festival is an effort to create a democratic space,” says the festival organiser Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who won the best documentary award at a 2010 film festival in Hanoi for his film The Floating Tomatoes.

It’s not just motion pictures – cartoons are coming alive, too. Satirical lines touch upon a vast spectrum of subjects once considered taboo, from child soldiers and military politics to Buddhist militancy.

Cartoonist Beruma put up a sketch that showed General Than Shwe, Myanmar’s former dictator, controlling Thein Sein. A cartoon by artist Aw Pi Kyeh makes a telling comment about the political situation in the southeast Asian country, where military men are seeking to join the electoral process. A footballer has been substituted on the field – but instead of a new player coming in, he returns in another uniform.

“There is a space for political cartoons in local news journals,” says cartoonist Kyaw Thu Yein, who does political cartoons for a satirical website, Cartoon Movement. “I started cartoons in 2000. But my cartoons then were not published in newspapers except for a local humour magazine.”

For many artists, the whiffs of freedom are heady. They remember the time when few artistes could raise their voice against the rulers of Myanmar. Celebrated painter Aye Ko was arrested for speaking out against military repression. After a year in jail, he joined a shoe business. And it was only much later that he returned to art.

Artists were not allowed to display their work against the government in the galleries. Political art was banned, as was nudity. Even excessive use of black, white and red was censored.

Music came under restrictions, too. Punk bands were not allowed to perform in concerts without taking prior permission from the government’s Censor Board. Rock bands had to submit their lyrics to the government before they could even be cleared for performance or recording. Many performed secretly in warehouses and railroad yards. Rock bands such as Side Effect, Broken Order, No U Turn, and Rebel Riot performed in underground clubs, and sang of abuse of power by the military.

“We were expected to sing only good songs, about the natural beauty of the country and about love. They wanted us to shut our eyes to reality,” says Darko C., vocalist and guitarist of Side Effect.

The band was set up in 2004 but couldn’t release an album till 2012, when censorship rules were relaxed. Even then, there were restrictions. He had to drop a song on prostitution from their first album, Rainy Night Dreams.

Darko is now all set to release a new album called Voice of the Youth, where he urges the young to be agents of change.

Artistes, however, rue that they are still censored. The pro-government Myanmar Music Association has replaced the Censor Board to exercise control over rock bands. Laws such as the Electronics Transaction Law, with a jail term of 15 years for anyone using “electronic technology that threatens the security of the State”, still exist.

Last year, several paintings featuring nudes by artist Sandar Khine were removed from Yangon’s Lokanat Galleries. Even now, art galleries have to take permission from the government before displaying their work.

Increasingly, though, artistes are violating the rules. “I have been threatened by security forces a couple of times for not taking permission,” Way says. “Intelligence officials always keep a tab on our work,” adds Ole Chavannes, a media trainer who works with the anti-government news website Democratic Voice of Burma.

But many are hopeful that today’s elections will usher in a new climate. “What is the point of having an election if no change takes place on the ground,” Way asks. “Suu Kyi should come to power to bring about that change.”


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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.