With their recent coup d’état the Burmese army hoped for a surgical shift in power that would leave everything else more or less untouched. Instead, the coup has sent the economy into freefall, raised the possibility of international intervention and triggered a political earthquake. The fight is no longer over elections and constitutional amendments. One path leads to dictatorship without end. The other to a revolution whose exact shape is difficult to see.
I met Aung San Suu Kyi just the once. It was in August 2012, quite soon after she was released from fifteen years of on-off house arrest. Myanmar’s military junta looked ready to loosen its grip on power, and I was there on behalf of an international organisation of human rights lawyers to investigate how the legal order might be stabilised. Serious business, but you wouldn’t know it from my souvenir photograph. I look thrilled to bits.
More than 620,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Burma’s Rakhine state in the last three months. At least 40,000 unaccompanied children were among those to cross the border, some presenting with bullet wounds. Nearly 60 per cent of Muslim villages in the north of Rakhine have been partially or wholly burned down. Survivors have accused Burma’s military of indiscriminate murder and sexual violence. The army carried out a devastating crackdown after Rohingya militant attacks on security posts in late August.
Burma’s decades-old regime of pre-publication newspaper censorship was dismantled in 2012. Three years later, ahead of the election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power, ten journalists were in prison. According to an Amnesty International report, Burmese journalists were labouring under a new ‘climate of fear’. ‘We don’t have any safety,’ the reporter Lawi Weng told the Amnesty researchers. The authorities ‘can arrest us, they can take us to court anytime.’ Lawi, a former colleague of mine and one of Burma’s most talented reporters, was arrested late last month.
It’s two days until the elections in Myanmar. The NLD’s campaign has ended, while the incumbent USDP is staging one last push with a rally in Yangon. There’s a lot of uncertainty about what may happen.
There was a sign on the floor of one of the boats abandoned off the coast of Aceh this week. ‘We are Myanmar Rohingya,’ it said in white capital letters. Its occupants may have been picked up by Indonesian fishermen, or they may have drowned. In the last couple of days, Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to give temporary shelter to 7000 or more people stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea, some for as long as four months. The Malaysian navy has also begun to look for boats in its own waters. Thailand won’t be joining them, though it has agreed not to turn the boats away for the moment. ‘Our country has more problems than theirs,’ the Thai prime minister said. He may well be right: a mass grave was discovered in the south of Thailand earlier this month, containing the bodies of 26 Rohingya. There are probably more. On 29 May, there will be a meeting in Bangkok of 15 countries including the US, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Burma, which is attending on condition that no one use the word ‘Rohingya’.
During two decades spent mostly under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was a symbol of democratic resistance at home and abroad: she won the Nobel Peace Prize and inspired her compatriots to continue struggling against the regime. But because she was essentially kept out of politics by the government, she rarely had to behave like a politician. Since she had so little freedom to act, she was nearly impossible to criticise: I never met anyone in Burma with a bad word to say about her. In the past year, however, freed from house arrest, running for parliament in the upcoming by-elections and working closely with the government of President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi has become a politician again, losing some of her iconic status and no longer above criticism.
Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, the first by such a senior US official in five decades, received front-page coverage in most American newspapers, and around the world. Images of the secretary of state meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and sitting down with President Thein Sein made it look as if Clinton’s visit would prove a monumental event in US-Burma relations, and in Burma’s political trajectory. Coverage of Clinton’s visit in Burma itself, however, was relatively muted. In the main state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, it merited only a brief mention, while the concurrent visit from the president of Belarus and his wife was given broad coverage. At the airport in Naypyidaw Clinton was met by only a small welcome party, while the Belorussian delegation got a huge one. The generals have a long, deep friendship with Belarus, and still mistrust the US. But the disparity also highlights a point that few in the Clinton delegation would have admitted: Burma may indeed be changing, but the reforms have little to do with the US, its policies or its secretary of state.
Until very recently, the reforms brought in by Burma’s civilian government, elected last November in polls that were neither free nor fair, seemed worth treating with scepticism. Only a month ago, I pointed out that Burmese governments had instituted limited reforms before, in the 1990s and early 2000s, only to crack down on any dissent after getting what they wanted – foreign investment or membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The new president, Thein Sein, seemed like a reformer, but surely his power was limited: Senior General Than Shwe, the longtime military ruler, still lurked in the background, and the ranks below Thein Sein were filled with hardliners. Most notably, according to many reports, the vice-president, Tin Aung Myint Oo, is committed to blocking any real reforms. And the government has plenty to gain this time, too: the possible leadership of Asean in 2014, as well as rapprochement with the West, which might boost foreign investment and allow Burma to become less dependent on China. Still, even sceptics are starting to believe that this time the changes may be for real.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma last November, she has travelled the country, drawing large crowds in Bagan in July, launched plans to revitalise the National League for Democracy, and even appeared in the domestic media for the first time in years. She has also been talking with Burma’s new president, Thein Sein.
Over the past two weeks, a series of bombs have hit major cities in Burma, including Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, the purpose-built city in the centre of the country where the regime moved its capital six years ago. Even by Burma’s standards, Naypyidaw is a heavily policed city. A bombing there requires significant planning and, probably, some co-ordination with sympathetic police and soldiers. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, which wounded at least two people (any numbers coming out of Burma are notoriously unreliable), but they are the latest sign of a rapidly deteriorating political situation in parts of the country.
In all the excitement at Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, too little attention has been paid to the question of why the junta let her out of house arrest. Regime officials say that she had come to the end of her term and so, by law, they could not hold her any more. But that explanation won’t do: in Burma, the ‘law’ is whatever the junta says it is, and the regime has on numerous occasions over the past twenty years come up with new trumped-up charges to keep Suu Kyi locked up.
The election in Burma largely conformed to predictions. Condemned by outsiders, it was to some extent ignored by many in the country: turnout was reportedly low. The US, Britain, Australia and other industrialised democracies decried the junta’s apparent vote-rigging, slanted electoral rules and refusal to let the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest before the polls. There are suggestions in Burma now that she will be released within weeks, though the terms of that release remain unclear. Most major human rights organisations have also focused on the unfairness of the election and the impact of the rigged vote on Burmese politics. Meanwhile, in northeast and eastern Burma, a potential catastrophe is unfolding.
The date of Burma’s forthcoming elections (7 November) was officially announced on 13 August. But the news trickled out slowly here: internet access has been even more unreliable than usual. It often gets bad around the time of public events or incidents, though there’s no way of knowing whether that’s because of deliberate government intervention or simply weight of traffic. Maybe it’s paranoid to suspect the former, but there’s a lot of that going around. The same day, the government imposed new restrictions on the movements of international staff working for NGOs.
Over the past two months, the United States, which for more than a decade has isolated the Burmese junta, appears to have dramatically shifted its policy towards the regime. After a comprehensive internal policy review, the Obama administration announced that it would engage with Burma more directly, though it would also (for now) maintain sanctions on the regime. In a sign of thawing relations, the Burmese foreign minister, Nyan Win, went to Washington in September – a rare visit for a senior junta leader.
With Senator Jim Webb's return from Burma, policymakers in Washington who want greater engagement with the junta have begun considering their next steps. One South-East Asian diplomat I spoke with suggested Burma's neighbours would try to broker informal, higher-level contacts between American and Burmese defence officials. Webb said that the time had come for the US to abandon sanctions against Burma and pursue greater contacts with the regime. But what these urbane policymakers don't understand is that Burma's junta, seemingly so backward, can easily play them for fools. Over the decades, the junta has mastered the art of appearing to make concessions to the international community and reaping the rewards without making any real changes.
Over the weekend, Jim Webb, the senior senator from Virginia, flew to the isolated Burmese capital of Naypyidaw for a rare sit-down with the head of the junta, Than Shwe. Webb, the outspoken head of the East Asia and the Pacific subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went, in theory, to negotiate the release of John Yettaw, the American who was sentenced to seven years in prison for swimming to the house of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And he apparently got what he came for: the junta agreed to let Yettaw leave on Webb’s plane.
When the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a new term of house arrest this week the international community responded with shock and anger. The US government condemned the sentence, which a court handed down ostensibly because Suu Kyi allowed a deranged American tourist to rest in her house after he swam across a lake to see her. He was given seven years in prison. Inside Burma, the verdict seemed to cause little stir, though a heightened military presence in major cities helped keep the population quiet. The military junta had launched the absurd trial – Yettaw was able to reach Suu Kyi’s house even though it is probably the most guarded in all of Burma – in order to prevent the opposition leader from taking part in national elections scheduled for next year.