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Archive for the ‘Burma’ Category

She who once represented the hope of democracy now speaks the tongue of the military. The youth of Myanmar tell Sonia Sarkar how bitterly disappointed they are in Aung San Suu Kyi

Sonia Sarkar Sep 09, 2018 00:00 IST

: A protest against Aung San Suu Kyi during the Asean-Australia special summit earlier this year

Picture Credit: AFP

There is an animation clip on Aung San Suu Kyi’s verified Facebook page. Titled, “The Real Disaster in Burma is the government”, it is the first thing that catches one’s attention.

It shows a Burmese girl who survives, first the cyclone, and then the starvation and diseases that followed. But then follow visuals of heavy military boots closing in on the little girl. The male voice-over artiste says in clipped British accent – “In Burma, there are no fairy-tale endings, because the government and military dictatorship torture and kill people…” At the end of the clip, the same voice urges people to bring human rights and democracy to erstwhile Burma, now Myanmar. It urges, “Please use your freedom to gain theirs.”

The animation is 10 years old.

Ten years ago, Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Since her return from the UK in 1988, she had been a vociferous critic of the military government. The 15-year house arrest, beginning in 1989, was a consequence.

Welcome to 2018. Suu Kyi looks just the same. Everything about her appears the same too, that attire, the rose in bun, the stoic Mona Lisa smile. And yet if she is unrecognisable, it is because of her hugely altered political stance. She speaks more in favour of the military now, less for the people. And, of course, she is Myanmar’s de facto leader.

The whole world is witness to this transformation. And now, the people of Myanmar who once vowed to turn a blind eye to all failures of their beloved “Amay Suu”, have begun raising a collective voice against her. Students, writers, artists, cartoonists and civil rights activists have started to revolt. Their complaint: she has done nothing to stop the army’s violence against Rohingyas in Rakhine state on the western coast of the country.

Rohingyas have been subjected to state violence for years in Rakhine. They have fled to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, from time to time, for survival. But in August last year, over seven lakh Rohingyas were forced to leave their homes as the country’s armed forces allegedly burnt their villages, raped women and even implanted landmines to kill them. Suu Kyi was steadfast in her refusal to recognise this persecution. She has even denied that Rohingyas are indigenous people of Myanmar.

Eaint Thiri Thu, an MA student at the United States University of Minnesota, keeps a close eye on developments in her country. She says, “Aung San Suu Kyi is accountable for denying crimes against humanity and for covering up the extra-judicial abuses of the military. She is also accountable for providing wrong information to the public about the Rohingya crisis.”

Thiri Thu is away from her country but now, even those in Myanmar are saying enough is enough. An open letter issued some months ago by a Yangon-based civil rights forum called Saddha: Buddhists For Peace, reads, “We kept faith in the National League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, hoping that she could finally bring Burma out of military rule. Now, by their wilful inaction, she and the NLD have become complicit in this violence against Rohingya civilians carried out by Myanmar security forces, which the United Nations has called ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’ and ‘acts of genocide’.”

Yangon-based Thinzar Shunlei Yi, former president of Yangon Youth Network and advisor at Burma’s National Youth Congress, says Suu Kyi is now acting as a shield for the military. “But we, the people of this country, are taking note of it,” adds Shunlei Yi, who is one of the 77 signatories to the open letter.

Suu Kyi’s sympathisers argue that the army still controls law enforcement, local administration and embattled frontier areas. They point out that she doesn’t have any real power. But Thiri Thu retorts, “She should have separated herself from the military. She should have tried to receive the right information.”

Chu May Paing, a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says, “We had high hopes from her but the longstanding ethnic conflicts and the Rohingya issue frustrated us. Either as a ‘state counsellor’ or as ‘puppet’ in the hands of the Myanmar army, she cannot escape her responsibilities on the issue.”

Suu Kyi is a state counsellor. She can’t be President as no one with dual-citizen relations (including parents or children) can be president as per the Constitution of the country.

A satirical website, Burma Tha Din Network, had put up a post about how the Suu Kyi holding office currently is actually a clone created by Russian geneticists. The real Suu Kyi, according to it, is in captivity and wondering – how the hell can people believe I’d do that?

Cartoonists who once took jibes at the military junta are now taking potshots at Suu Kyi and her authoritarian ways. In one of his cartoons, Maung Maung Fountain shows two boys wearing the traditional gaung baung worn by men on formal occasions and at parliamentary sittings, complaining to their bossy older sister – “You told us what you want, but when we said what we wanted you got angry.”

Suu Kyi has failed on other fronts too. The worsening civil war in Shan and northern Kachin and the flailing economy. Says social scientist Htuu Lou Rae, “Plus, foreign investment and tourism are reeling from the crisis in northern Rakhine.” The world is not oblivious to these things. In a paper titled “Interpreting Communal Violence in Myanmar”, Australian author Nick Cheesman writes, “…the new government has, like its predecessor, been criticised for inaction, anti-Muslim prejudice and restricting journalists’ access to affected areas.”

Suu Kyi didn’t allow Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, to visit the Rakhine state last year. The media is barred from using the word “Rohingyas”. And the government recently published the book, Myanmar Politics and the Tatmadaw: Part I, whose thrust is: there are no Rohingyas in Myanmar. They are the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. There have also been fake news doing the rounds about how Rohingyas are Islamist militants and mosques in Yangon are stockpiling weapons in an attempt to blow up various Buddhist pagodas. In 2016, when a Rohingya woman provided detailed allegations about her gang rape, the State Counsellor Office Information Committee posted a banner on its Facebook page that read “Fake Rape”.

Even her own party members are disappointed. Maung Sangkha, a youth leader of NLD, who joined the party in 2012, says, “She should have admitted there is a problem… She should have gone and checked the situation in the areas where violence took place.” Sangha, who is also the executive director of Myanmar-based ATHAN, a freedom of expression activist organisation, fears he will be fired soon for openly criticising Suu Kyi.

Young people like Sangkha were a big votebank for NLD in 2015. That year, voters between 20 and 39 years exceeded 50 per cent of the total registered voters. Says young Shunlei Yi, “And now it feels like we have lost a political leader we looked up to. There is a vacuum.”

(This story appeared in The Telegraph, September 9, 2018 —

https://www.telegraphindia.com/world/the-rose-that-revealed-her-thorns-257867 )

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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

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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