Political Minutes: Burma in Transition

Friday for a marathon two hour and a half hours, a panel of experts gathered in Low Library to discuss the rapidly changing political environment in Burma/Myanmar. The speakers at Burma in Transition were Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in economics; Wakar Uddin, the Director General of the Arakan Rohingya Union; T. Kumar, the Director of International Advocacy at Amnesty International; and Elaine Pearson, the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. There was also a roundtable comprised of Nora Rowley, a medical activist in Southeast Asia; Kyi May Kuang, a dissenting Burmese artist and writer; Jacques P. Leider, the head of the Chiang Mai Center of the École française d'Extrême-Orient; and finally Maung Zarni, the founder of the Free Burma Coalition.

"There are many things to celebrate in Burma right now," Amartya Sen said as the first speaker. But that was about as upbeat as the afternoon got. Really, the title of the event was perhaps a bit misleading.

Over the summer, the American powers-that-be have been lauding the democratic reforms and Gorbachev-style-loosening supposedly taking place in Burma/Myanmar under the newly elected president, Thein Sein. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who will be speaking at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, was also elected to parliament and toured Europe to much fanfare.

But the panel wasn't about these changes. In fact, the panelists provided an unequivocally grim account of Burma.

The focus of the event was instead of the violence in Burma's northwestern state of Araka. I would conservatively estimate that  99 percent of Americans have heard nothing of this. But despite the dearth of news coverage, Araka has been mired with violence for the last few months. The ethnic Rohingya Muslim population has been jointly targeted by the majority Buddhist population and by state security forces. "There's no question that there's a failure of government here. The security [force] is in fact not secure," Sen said.

Wakar Uddin, T. Kumar, and Elaine Pearson more or less echoed Amrtya Sen. Kumar did a good job enumerating the Rohingya people's grievances. They can't go to school. They can't get jobs. They have almost no access to healthcare. They can't move around the area freely. And they can't get married without express government permission. "I have been doing human rights work for a long time," Kumar said, "but I've never seen anything like this."

The most interesting speakers by far, however, were those on the roundtable, who unfortunately were only allotted five minutes each. Nora Roweley pointed "the West is rewarding the regime because of it's reforms with investments that will enhance the regime," even though the reforms don't apply to huge swathes of the population. Indeed, while the Rohingya people have perhaps suffered the most systematic disenfranchisement, Myanmar's government is engaged in wars with at least ten ethnic armies.

Maung Zarini, the final member of the roundtable and by far the most impassioned and well-spoken, extended Roweley's argument. "What we are seeing today is nothing but the alignment of strategic interests domestically and internationally," he said. "What we are seeing is a process of the current regime trying to realign themselves, trying to play a different game" and "the Obama administration is creating wiggle room" for the Burmese government.

Zarini even pointed out the strange coincidence of Aung San Suu Kyi's resurgence with the outbreak of violence in Araka  – "the tried and true method [of mobilizing the public] is ethno-nationalism to drive fear into even the most educated citizenry in the world."

Ultimately, the panel was paradigm shifting for me. I had bought into the media's rosy picture of democratic reform in Burma. The question I prepared had to do with allowing Western companies in to provide better telecommunications access – Burma has the second lowest mobile-phone penetration in the world after North Korea. Before letting Western telecom giants cut deals with the Burmese power apparatuses' capitalists, however, the panel made it clear that we should wait for real reform.