Burma at the Crossroads
This fall, Burma is scheduled to hold a historic presidential election. But with ongoing persecution of ethnic minorities and many other human rights issues, many wonder if the nation is ready for true reform.
On this episode of America Abroad, we examine the history, politics, and promise of this nation in transition. The guests helping us unravel the story include:
- David Williams, Executive Director of The Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University
- John Knaus, Senior Program Officer for Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C.
- Peter Popham, former South Asia correspondent for The Independent and author of The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi
- Priscilla Clapp, former US Charges d'Affaires in Burma from 1999-2002
- Robert Herman, Vice President for Regional Programs at Freedom House in Washington, D.C.
- Myra Dahgaypaw, Policy Advisor for U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, D.C.
- Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, 2001-2009
- David Steinberg, Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University
For more about this topic, view the articles below.
It’s been 47 days since Abdul, a scrawny Rohingya male in his 40s, sent his 14-year-old daughter Dildar away from the Internally Displaced Persons camp where they’d been living in squalid conditions with little food or health care. Dildar left on a fishing boat crammed with other Rohingya Muslims escaping oppression in Rakhine state in the westernmost part of Burma, the country also known as Myanmar.
Until Dildar’s traffickers are paid off, she is being held captive in a secret location, somewhere on the border between Thailand and Malaysia.
These traffickers are criminals, out to make a profit. They use lies to lure people onto their boats. Dildar was told her trip would only be a couple hundred US dollars. Now the traffickers are demanding $1500 for her freedom.
“Most of the cases hinge on deception that takes place on shore,” says Matthew Smith, the executive director at Fortify Rights — an organization that has documented the persecution of Rohingya for many years.
He explains that the Rohingya are told they’ll pay a certain fee to get on a boat to take them to Thailand or Malaysia. But when they get on that boat, they find the conditions are not what they expected — they’re deprived of adequate space, food and water. And the gangs who operate these boats are highly abusive. Sexual violence and murder have been documented, and in some cases Rohingya have committed suicide at sea.
But the hardships do not end there. The Rohingya who survive the trip over the Andaman Sea will face further abuses once they get to shore.
“Most people get on the boats thinking they are going directly to Malaysia, but what they find is that they are taken on shore in Thailand and clandestinely transported to what we refer to as ‘torture camps,’” Smith says.
He says thousands of Rohingya are being held captive by these transnational criminal syndicates. They are beaten and tortured. They’re handed cell phones and told to call anybody they can to raise money to ensure their freedom.
At that point, the fee is no longer a few hundred dollars, but up to as much as $2000. And even if the families cannot pay, the traffickers can still make money off the refugees.
Smith explains that after several months, if their families are not able to raise the money to free them, they can be sold to work on fishing boats or for others in Thailand and Malaysia. Young women are often sold into forced marriages.
Abdul is facing a similar bait and switch. When he calls the trafficker from the refugee camp, he is told: “$1500 and Dildar will be set free.”
Abdul works as a trishaw driver, and on a good day he can earn up to $1.50. He explains that he will never be able to earn enough money to raise $1500. So he asks the trafficker, at the other end of the line, if there is any chance that they could marry off his daughter, just to get her out of the jungle camp.
”All the other girls here are leaving because their parents are paying,” the trafficker says. ”It’s only Dildar that no one wants to pay for.”
Then, the trafficker hands over the phone to Dildar, who at this point hasn’t had any contact with her parents since she left more than six weeks ago.
“Papa?” she asks, and Abdul starts crying.
”My daughter! I don’t know what to do,” he says.
”Can’t you borrow money from someone?” she asks.
”From who? I have no relatives that can lend me that kind of money. We are broke,” he says.
”Daddy, all the other girls are leaving here,” Dildar says.
Before Dildar gets a chance to say goodbye, the trafficker takes back the phone. ”If you manage to raise the money, call me again,” he says.
”I will try, God willing,” Abdul says, and again begs the trafficker to try to come up with some kind of solution.
This trade in people has become a very lucrative business, and the number of Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma has reached record highs over the last few years. Smith’s organization, Fortify Rights, estimates that around 250,000 Rohingya have left the country on boats since 2012.
This June, the US State Department will present its annual Trafficking in Persons report — a worldwide ranking of countries’ efforts to combat human trafficking. Smith expects that this year’s report will downgrade Burma to the lowest possible ranking.
Axel Kronholm is a freelance journalist covering Southeast Asia and Myanmar in particular. His reporting spans over a wide range of issues but focuses mainly on politics, conflict, economic development and human rights.
The case of Burma provides a unique glimpse into the challenges of moving from a military dictatorship to a more open society. To get insight into this process, we reached out to David Williams, the Executive Director of The Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University, who has spent years working with ethnic minorities in Burma. He spoke to our host, Madeleine Brand, at length about the nation’s future.
Madeleine Brand: Let’s talk about your role. You have worked with the government in Burma to refashion the constitution or write a constitution.
David Williams: Right. They have a constitution that they developed in 2008. My role has been primarily working with the ethnic minorities, about 40 percent of the population. They've been in civil war since 1947, or at least some of them have been. That's because they feel that the constitution that was written after World War II allowed the ethnic majority to dominate them. This was a civil war fought really over constitutional design. That's the kind of work I do so they asked me in to advise them.
For a long time, I was walking in across the border to meet with the generals of these ethnic resistance armies in the jungle, because I was the only one who was in a position to do it. These days, luckily things are a lot better. It's a lot safer for me. I was an enemy of the state for about 10 years.
Everything has changed recently because the new government, I think, genuinely wants peace with the ethnic resistance armies. They're looking for ways to settle this conflict.
They understand that's going to include reform of the constitution. As a result, suddenly I'm welcome in Rangoon. I've been there once. I'm going to go again in a few days. I got a visa, which is amazing, because I was an enemy of the state for so many years. They understand that I'm closely connected to these ethnic resistance groups and that they tend to take my advice. If I tell them that a deal is a good deal, they will be more inclined to go along with it.
MB: Are you aligned with all of the ethnic resistance groups?
DW: Not all of them. A few of them, to be blunt, are narco-traffickers. I have nothing to do with them. What I think of as the good faith resistance groups, yes. We advise almost all of them. I like to believe that we have helped them put together a common platform. When we first came in, they were all fighting for different things. If you fight for different things, then you fight in disunity and that means you fight in weakness. It's only when you come up with a common platform that you can actually negotiate from strength.
Part of the miracle of the last couple of years is the government has now agreed to negotiate with all of these groups together. The groups are now mostly united around their common demands. The peace talks that are going on right now are all about constitution reform. For years in Burma, federalism was the F word for the government. They just hated the idea of federalism. They thought it meant that the country would fall apart.
MB: What is the main point of disagreement between them and the government?
DW: Traditionally, the disagreement is over the following: the government disliked the ethnic minorities in principle. The policy was one of Burmanization, which means to make them more like the ethnic majority group. The government would forbid the speaking of ethnic minority languages. They would burn down churches because a lot of the ethnic minorities are Christian and the majority is Burman.
More generally, it was just animosity that the army hated these minorities. I've been in villages in Burma that no longer exist because the government mortared them flat because they hated the idea of resistance as such. A lot of this is just deep-seated ancient hostility.
The new issue that has been arising in a big way has been natural resources. Since the economy has opened up, a lot of foreign companies are coming in and starting to develop areas in the ethnic minority regions. Suddenly, the ethnic minorities are finding their land disappearing out from under them because they don't have state recognized title. A lot of what they want is control over natural resources development.
MB: Now where does Aung San Suu Kyi the famous resistance leader who was under house arrest for many years, fit into all of this?
DW: In the past, she was a spiritual leader. She was under house arrest so she couldn't really do anything at all, but she could speak for people who were hurt inside Burma. Her father, Aung San, was the founding general, sort of their George Washington. She comes into this with a very profound family pedigree.
Since there have been elections, she has now moved into Parliament, where she is one of the Parliamentary leaders. The government has mostly kept her to the one side. The Parliament is dominated by military-backed political parties who, in the first election, won almost all the seats. The NLD [National League for Democracy], which is Aung San Suu Kyi's group, won a lot more seats in the last election. Clearly the NLD is a growing power and clearly Aung San Suu Kyi is herself a significant leader.
Now, under the 2008 constitution, she cannot become President. This is one of the big political issues inside Burma. She's disqualified because she has foreign entanglements. That is to say she married an Englishman. One of the big pushes is to change the constitution to allow her to become President. I worry a little bit about this focus, though, because the reality is even if she becomes President, the situation in Burma is such that there's not that much that she can do. The constitution is still really, really bad.
The hope that she will become President and save Burma I think is mistaken. She's not going to be able to do that unless there are many other changes. There's a wish fulfillment thing going on here, a kind of fantasy, that if she becomes the leader, all things will be healed.
MB: Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for not being as vocal a proponent of ethnic minorities as perhaps she could be.
DW: I'm afraid that I will go on record as saying that I think she has not been as vocal a proponent for any of the ethnic minorities. Early on, she spoke strongly in favor of ethnic self-determination. Since she's moved into the Parliament, she has not done nearly as much I believe as once she did. I was always concerned that if she went into the Parliament, she would become more of a politician.
I thought that maybe she would be a better spiritual leader, outside of the Parliament, where she could speak her mind. My perception is, and it may be wrong, that now that she's inside the Parliament, she figures she's got to deal with the other members of government and that includes some of the military-backed parties. I think her silence on this is in fact marked. It's a change.
MB: The President met with Aung San Suu Kyi. I think he tried to press her to be a little more forthcoming and a little more supportive of the ethnic minorities. Why is the United States interested in what happens in Burma?
DW: Southeast Asia has moved sharply in a democratic direction in the last several decades. In part, that's because of US encouragement and part is because of internal developments. The reality is that the US does better with democracies. This is a big, big thing because of China. China does not do as well with democracies. Southeast Asia is China's back door.
What I think President Obama has realized is this is an emerging area of influence for us. Of course the emerging global conflict, if there is going to be a conflict, will be between us and China. For us, therefore, to have feet in Southeast Asia is hugely significant.
MB: Is the ruling government more inclined to align itself with the United States or with China?
DW: I think a huge part of the reason for the change is they wanted to shift towards the United States and away from China. I think that continues to be the case, though there's division at the highest levels.
China tends to be a very heavy-handed partner, especially if you are in their backyard. China treated the government of Burma as though they were servants. I think part of what happened is the government in Burma got very, very tired of that thumb. The wanted to be treated with more dignity and they wanted to have more independence.
Part of the reason for liberalization is they understood that unless they did that, the US would never warm up to them. They want connection with the United States as a buffer against China. I think they're hoping that their trade links with the US will increase. Overwhelmingly right now, they trade with China. I think they're hoping that there will be a political buffering effect that we can play.
Finally, and I know this is very hard to grasp at one remove, but psychology is hugely important in a place like Burma. Having face, having dignity, having respect, having independence—these things all matter a great deal. When the President of the United States goes to Rangoon and meets with leaders, there's an enormous amount of prestige that comes with that. I think the leaders of Burma had felt like they were pariahs for a very long time. Everybody spoke very badly of them and they hated that feeling. Now they're actually feeling much better about themselves.
MB: Give me your assessment of President Thein Sein. What kind of man is he? Is he someone that is truly interested in reform and in democratizing the country?
DW: Thein Sein was kind of a yes man for Than Shwe, who is the outgoing military general. Than Shwe really, really didn't want democracy, and really hated protests of any kind on principle. He wanted to oppress everybody. If you talked back to him, no matter what you were saying, even if it was true, he wanted to kill you. Everybody thought Thein Sein was going to be another Than Shwe. It turns out he's really not. He actually is somebody who is interested in change. My read on him is that he's not truly interested in democratic reform for its sake. He's an opportunist. That is, he wants good things for his country and if it takes democratic reform to get there, that's what he's prepared to do.
His chief negotiator, Aung Min, really has been remarkable in being willing to grant certain concessions to the ethnic resistance armies in terms of the constitutional demands. These two are guys who, if they've got to compromise in order to get good things for their country, they will do it. That's not because they really deeply believe in democracy. They don't.
Thein Sein was a general for years and years and years. He's realizing now he's the head of the civilian government. His interest is no longer in letting the military dominate things. His interest is in making sure that the civilian government manages to be the leadership. That may mean moving in a democratic direction.
MB: Who are the other players in the election?
DW: I think the NLD will gain some seats. The ethnic minority parties I think will gain some seats. Part of what's going to be interesting is: will there be movement in the top leadership? Thein Sein has been President now for a while. I think he wants to remain President. There's every possibility that a guy named Shwe Mon will come in. He's another one of these ex-generals. He's a significant leader, a little bit more hard-line than Thein Sein but an effective politician.
Burmese democracy is so new that it's very hard to know how the elections will go and how political power will move around. I'll be honest, I've been surprised at how free and fair the elections actually have been. That's not to say they have been free and fair, but they have been freer and fairer than I would have anticipated. I think the number of parties is going to come down. There's talk inside the country about changes in the electoral system, about moving from a first past the post system to a PR system. If that happens, that would have huge consequences.
I think an awful lot is still very much up for grabs. Really the question is ultimately how much is the government going to allow to go forward? Are they actually going to keep the elections free and fair or are they going to start to rig the system?
The shoe that's always ready to drop in the background is: will the military come out of retirement and take over again as they did before? What everybody wonders about is if the constitution is changed so that Aung Sung Suu Kyi is allowed to become President, will Than Shwe decide that's the one thing he will not tolerate? We just don't know the answer to that.
There's been a lot of liberalization. There's been a lot of opening. The very fact that I could get a visa and speak openly about reform is a miracle. That's something you never would have seen. Nonetheless, the constitution is profoundly deformed and the military is still allowed to be utterly in power if it wants to be. The government is also strongly hierarchical. The decisions come out of the President's office. He runs everything at this point.
What we need here is more genuine democratization in the next 10 years or so. The US should really be pushing hard for reform. Meanwhile, in the ethnic areas, things have not gotten a lot better. The war is still going on and there are still atrocities being committed by the government. It's way too early to say, "Mission accomplished," which I'm afraid a lot of the international community is saying. The mission is not accomplished. There are many, many, many more miles to go before the situation in Burma should be deemed remotely tolerable.
In the heart of downtown Yangon — formerly known as Rangoon — the 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda buzzes with the chants of monks and worshippers. Over the years, this iconic Buddhist structure has been a major attraction for both the pious and the political in Myanmar, serving as a rallying point for what was then called Burma’s 1988 student uprisings and again for the 2007 Saffron Revolution.This country’s incredible diversity of cultures, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities are crushed together in the rapidly developing city. Yet many of its residents share the experience of decades of oppressive isolationism and military rule.
Meandering through gridlocked traffic below the Sule Pagoda, Muslims filter past their Buddhist countrymen and cross the street to the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque, just in time for sunset prayer. Down a small alley by the mosque is Mg Mg Nyunt’s electronics store. In a small, air-conditioned office at the back of his shop, he considers how the political landscape is changing.
“I haven’t seen any real democracy in my lifetime. But everybody wants to see something new, and they are eager to have democracy. We even have a common saying now whenever we go to a funeral, we feel sad for the person because they never had a chance to see democracy,” he says.
Nyunt has followed international affairs since childhood, and he’s now keen to analyze politics a little closer to home. And yet, even with his excitement, he’s quick to temper his positivity.
“I’m really not too optimistic, even though Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will win the election. I think these transitional problems will continue for decades,” he says.
A few blocks to the east of Sule Pagoda, Than Than Naing busies herself at her food stall, quickly loading plates with hot food and shouting orders to her family. For her, the politics of elections come second to surviving and the practical realities of making a living.
“The reason I’m not interested in the elections is we are running a business, so we can’t keep politics in mind too much. I have to care about myself, I have to struggle myself, whichever government comes in. I hope that something will change. It would be much better if the country had justice and rules of law. Everybody is struggling and I want everybody to be alright,” she says.
Just around the corner from her food stand sits a small newspaper shop. Inside, a worried Kyaw Wanna Soe seems overwhelmed with the myriad issues affecting the people of Myanmar.
“There are a lot of problems right now. The problems between the students and the government and the different types of people. There are problems here and there and it never gets solved. If one problem is solved, another pops up,” he says.
With his floors a mosaic of newspapers and his walls plastered with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, Soe feels torn between a desire for a stability that won’t threaten his livelihood, and a desire for a National League for Democracy (NLD) victory and positive change.
“I’m worried about whether the demonstrators will cooperate, or if the elections will be canceled, because I witnessed the Saffron Revolution and when that happened I had to stop my business for some time. If something like the 1988 demonstration happens again, I truly worry what the future of my business will be,” he says.
Another part of his anxiety lies in the constitutional ruling that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. For him, this is a sure sign that true change is not coming anytime soon.
“Everybody wants change, everybody hopes there will be change. But I have to say that the change that everyone hopes for is not really happening so far,” he says.
For many, Aung San Suu Kyi is the personification of change. And yet for others, her worrying silence on more recent human rights matters, such as the plight of the Rohingyas, Myanmar's persecuted Muslim population, is concerning.
David Mathieson can see why people would feel this way. He’s an Australian in his 50s who’s been travelling to the country for 20 years and now works as the main researcher for Human Rights Watch. He says many people in the West — and in Myanmar — are oversimplifying the situation she’s in.
“I think the new disappointment with Suu Kyi is a convenient diversion for their own delusions for how complicated the country is,” he says.
Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former political prisoner and research assistant for Suu Kyi's NLD party, agrees that things are more complicated than they appear to be.
“People still recognize her as an ideal, [the] human rights leader of the world, and at the same time they want to see her to be a successful politician. She is trying very hard,” he says.
While the international community and many within Burma place the spotlight solely on Aung San Suu Kyi, for the ordinary people of Myanmar the priorities are simple: A chance to enforce positive changes for others like them. Reforms have been a start, but with the elections just around the corner, too many feel there is too much at stake where too little is guaranteed.
Reporter Adam Ramsey is a British journalist based between Bangkok and Cairo. He focuses on topics of conflict, politics, human rights, and the abuses of power.
Aung San Suu Kyi has a devout following in Myanmar and throughout the world. She’s not only the daughter of Aung San, a beloved figure who secured her independence for her country, then known as Burma, from the United Kingdom before being assassinated in 1947. She’s also an icon in her own right, having emerged from a wave of student protests in 1988 as the leader of a growing opposition movement, the National League for Democracy.
Though condemned to house arrest, by 1991 her efforts earned her a Nobel Peace Prize. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Burmese government released her, and in 2012, they gave her a seat in parliament. But despite this good news, some of her biggest supporters are worried that she’ll forget about them as she becomes entrenched in the system.
Madeleine Brand: Let's talk about The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a recognizable figure across the globe — a Nobel Peace Prize winner and famous political prisoner who spent many years under house arrest. Tell us about her rise to political prominence.
Peter Popham: She lived in England for many years. She was married to an Oxford professor and bringing up her two sons in a perfectly normal, respectable, middle-class way. She went back to Burma in 1988 because her mother, who was a former ambassador and an important person in her own right, had a very serious stroke. The medical services in Burma were and still are terrible. As the only available child, Aung San Suu Kyi realized that her duty was to be at her mum's side, so she went back to nurse her.
This was the time when, by coincidence, there was a major uprising against the military government, which presided over one economic catastrophe after another. After a period of months, she found herself besieged by people involved in the uprising asking her to get involved, mainly because her dad was a symbol of Burmese independence as the founder of the Burmese army. She was regarded as a potentially good figurehead for the popular uprising, very unwillingly at first, and with great doubts because she was a mother and a working woman and her life was in England. Finally, she was persuaded to speak. She galvanized an enormous crowd with her very strong, very brave speech and, really, that was the beginning of the story.
MB: What made her decide to accept the offer to become the symbol of the opposition and to become political in Burma?
PP: You cannot overestimate the importance of Aung San, her father, in her life. She's often talked about him. He died when she was a small child. He always had a sort of George Washington or Jefferson-like presence in the Burmese national story as the founder of the army, the guy who had stood up to both the Japanese and then to the British, and who then got assassinated. It's a classic martyr story.
In her early years, when she was working at the UN in New York, she wrote about how, in some vague way, she saw that she would have a role of some sort in Burma, but she couldn't see what it was. It never came into focus, but it was there as something which she told her husband about before they married.
MB: She accepts her destiny in 1988. Then, a year later, she's placed under house arrest.
PP: She had this extraordinary six months of storming around the country, holding mass meetings with tens and hundreds of thousands of people hanging on her words and joining her party. The group climbed to three million members within about six months. The government took serious fright, and in July 1989 she and the rest of the people who were the founders of the party were locked up. She was locked up in her home. The rest of them were locked up in prison.
They kept her in detention until 1995, when a lot of outside pressure persuaded them to let her out, but that didn't last long. They again took fright because she was still so popular, and they locked her up again. This was repeated three or four times until 2010 when the whole situation had changed and she was released for good.
MB: Meanwhile, what happened to her marriage and her family?
PP: It's a very cruel part of the story. The regime really wanted her to go back to England. They thought the best way to convince her do this would be to prevent the family from seeing her, to prevent her from spending time with her children or her husband. They were forbidden from getting visas for years and years and years. There was this war of wills between her determination to hang on and the regime’s determination to make her solitary confinement away from her family as painful as possible. It was very cruel, but quite typical of the behavior of the junta in those years.
Her husband, Michael Aris, became her great ambassador in the outside world. Although he was still working as a professor in England and sometimes in the US, he was also traveling a lot, talking about Burma and spreading the word about her and her writings and her plight. Then, at quite a young age, he got prostate cancer [and died in 1999]. The regime refused to give him a visa, again, with this cruel expectation that she would run to England and could be kept out of Burma from then on.
MB: I wonder if you could explain her appeal. She's called a demigod by some people and is a hero to the opposition. What is it about her that commands so much respect and admiration?
PP: I think it's a combination of things. One thing, as I said, is the way she is bearing the torch for her father. She looks a lot like him, so she reminds Burmese people of him in a very direct way. She's also extremely beautiful and gracious, which is not to be underestimated as a source of appeal for a lot of people. She is a very devout Buddhist, and that rings bells with the Burmese, most of whom are also extremely devout Buddhists.
Then there is the simple fact that she galvanized resistance to a regime that almost everybody hated. She stood with her colleagues for election in 1990. She won a massive majority of the votes, and the regime simply ignored the result and pretended the whole thing hadn't happened. She's been regarded by a large majority of Burmese people as their legitimate ruler for a long time, and the fact that she hasn't been in power is because that has been prevented by the illegitimate rulers, who are the generals.
The fact that she also suffered the loss of her family and 15 years of seclusion just reinforces the fact that she has sacrificed a comfortable life and really devoted herself to her country's future. I think that's the sort of sacrifice which evokes massive gratitude and emotion in the people.
MB: While she was under house arrest, her power grew. She won a Nobel Prize and her reputation only got stronger. That must have infuriated the government.
PP: I think it was maddening for them. They were sexist and assumed that she was a weak woman who would crumble and give up. She was a foreigner because she had spent so much time abroad. They were trying to persuade themselves that she wouldn't matter for very long; that she would be easily quelled. To the contrary, she stood up to them. She survived at least two attempts to kill her, one of them quite serious and deliberate. Under the general, who is now the ex-general president of the country, Thein Sein, who is more intelligent than his predecessors, the regime finally realized that as they couldn't beat her, they would have to co-opt her in some way or another. That's the process that has been underway since 2010.
MB: We heard some criticism that since she became a member of parliament she's not been vocal enough in supporting minorities such as the Rohingya, the Muslim minority, and that some of her supporters have been actively persecuting or protesting the Rohingya. Is there something to that criticism?
PP: Oh, very much so. This is a big cloud that's appeared in the sky since her release. Because she is a synonym for human rights and the courage for resistance to persecution, they were expecting her to stand up and speak out for the Rohingya and for the Muslims in general when they were persecuted.
This she really has failed to do. She's been asked the question many times, and she's given many answers, but none of them really amount to a ringing declaration of support or ringing condemnation of the attacks on the Muslim community. For example, she said, "Bangladesh also bears some responsibility for this." (Bangladesh is Burma’s neighbor, and a 99 percent-plus Muslim country.) She also says things like, "Muslim power is a problem." She's avoided taking what her supporters in the West regard as the obvious line on this matter.
I don't want to try and exculpate her or be her spokesperson on this, but I understand part of the rationale, which is that she is regarded by the military and by her non-supporters in Burma as semi-foreign, having spent many, many years outside Burma, first in India, then in Britain, and having married an Englishman and produced foreign national children. Burma is quite a xenophobic country, and it's very easy for them to align her alleged foreignness with the alleged foreignness of the Muslims who claim to have come across across the border illegally from Bangladesh.
Her enemies are always trying to lump her together with foreign elements of one sort or another. I think she probably sees this as a trap that she absolutely must not fall into because there is a lot of anti-Muslim feeling among ordinary Burmese. If she were to identify herself with the Muslim minority, I suspect she fears that she would lose a lot of her mainstream Buddhist support. This is not to excuse her silence, but it helps to explain why as somebody who is determined to survive politically she has been very timid on this matter.
MB: What do you see happening in the November elections? Let's say she does gain a significant role or power in those elections.
PP: She turned 70 in August. She is still very youthful and very energetic, has no known ailments, and her personal assistant is also her personal doctor. No one is doubting her energy or her commitment. Once the election is over, if she gets a good result, then it's a whole new story and we'll watch with fascination to see what she does with power once she's got it. Aside from the points I made earlier about her broad policy decisions, it's hard to know how brilliantly or otherwise she will govern, but one can be sure that she will do it with all of her energy.
MB: Can you be sure that the existing government will allow her to assume power if she does, indeed, win it?
PP: That's the million-dollar question. This is why she's had such a ticklish game to play over the last three years since becoming a member of parliament. While remaining “The Lady,” a courageous emblem of democracy for the masses, she's also had to show the generals who hold power that she is sensible and careful, and that she won't put them all on trial and expropriate their money. It's been a balancing act. I think for a person who has had no political involvement before 1988, my own judgment is that she's carried it off pretty well.
It’s estimated that about five million Burmese have left the country and settled elsewhere in Southeast Asia and also in the United States. Among them is Myra Dahgaypaw, now the policy advisor at the US Campaign for Burma in Washington, DC. She was born as an internally displaced person and, as an adult, has worked to bring change to her home country.
Below is a Q&A with America Abroad's Madeleine Brand. It's been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Madeleine Brand: Tell us about what it was like growing up in Burma as a member of the Karen people, a persecuted minority in the southeastern part of the country.
Myra Dahgaypaw: I was born as an internally displaced person in Karen State, a very remote area where the Burmese troops and the Karen troops were fighting with each other very often. Basically, my villages were burned down many times. The reason why I say “my villages” is because once one village was burned down, we moved to another village, built it up, and established ourselves, but then, very soon after, that village was burned down too and we had to move to another place again.
There were times when I had to stay in caves in the jungle hiding from the Burmese troops. It was pretty scary. There was no safety, and I was always in fear.
MB: Did anything happen to your family?
MD: My parents were killed when I was very young, and my oldest brother, his wife, and his daughter [were killed in the mid-1990s]. I was raised by my uncle, my father's younger brother.
MB: Did you understand why you were being attacked or who was doing it?
MD: When I was a child I didn't understand a thing. All I understood was that we were the Karen people, and we fought for our freedom, and the Burmese troops didn't like it so they came in and they killed us.
With the mindset of a very young child, that's all I could understand. But, of course, as I grew up and started getting into the advocacy world, I reached the point where I can analyze the situation and why the Burmese government or the Burmese troops were trying to destroy us.
MB: You were able to get out of Burma. Now you're an advocate. How important is American influence in making Burma become more democratic?
MD: If our leaders here have the political will, I do strongly believe that the United States can still make a huge difference. The Burmese government will listen to the United States because it is a big, important partner for the government of Burma. There is no way the government of Burma will ignore what the United States asks for.
MB: Did you think it was too soon when President Obama visited Burma?
MD: It was too soon. The gift was too big. When he started talking about re-engaging with the Burmese authority, at the same time we talked about action for action. We would like the engagement, but with tangible action, tangible outcomes.
He started off quite right, but then all of a sudden he was giving up all the leverage we'd had over a decade. Then he went there, and for the Burmese government, it's a big showing to the world that they are putting their act together, and that is why now they are recognized as a government that is moving towards democracy.
But deep down, there are tons of problems. You name it, we have it all in Burma. Those problems have never gone away. Most importantly, they promised President Obama that they would release all the political prisoners by the end of 2014, but that didn't happen. President Obama didn't look into that seriously. But this is something serious for us. If the government of Burma is saying it is really moving toward democratic reforms, it should be able to show us the result.
MB: Is there something specific that you would like the US to do in advance of the upcoming elections?
MD: With the upcoming election, we always talk about free and fair elections. But what is the meaning of a free and fair election? What is our definition and what is the definition for the Burmese government?
A lot of times, the international community will talk about monitoring, but then to what extent they have the access for monitoring is also a big question. For instance, the 2010 election was considered the most free and fair election in 20 years, but it wasn't really fair and free. Once people in the rural areas and small towns got to the voting booth, the name of the person was already crossed out for them. Is that what we call free and fair? Is that the location where the election monitoring team can have access to? No. The Burmese authorities, one thing we have to always keep in mind is that they don't allow you to go to everywhere you think you need to go, or you think you need to see, or you think you have to be. They only allow people to go to the place where they want them to go, they want them to see. This is very important.
If we really wanted to see a free and fair election, the genuine change, somebody will have to stand up and demand free access to the locations where the election monitoring people were not able to have access to before. Otherwise, you don't really see the real situation on the ground.
MB: What would you like the United States to do?
MD: I'd like the United States to stay firm, and stand up for human rights, justice, and accountability. I want the United States to stand up for the people of Burma, and to demand the fulfillment of the basic rights of those people.
With that said, we cannot stop the engagement with the Burmese government. But at the same time, we can do it consciously, do it responsibly and do it with precondition. Basically we have to watch for actions. If the Burmese government is promising, do they deliver? If they don't deliver, then maybe it is time to be a little bit harsher. If we wanted to see the result, then we have to do what we need to do, instead of just giving it away freely.
MB: You're talking about sanctions, things like that.
MD: Sanctions are very important. A lot of people argue that sanctions don't work, but from my point of view, sanctions have been working, and that is why we reached the point where we are right now. Therefore, whatever sanctions we have left, we still have to maintain.
MB: Is there anything that's happening now that gives you some hope for the future?
MD: I don't really see anything that gives me hope, but I am still hopeful, because I do believe that change can happen. But it can only happen if we all work together, in our own arena, in our own scope, if we all work together in order to push this regime for the better. Therefore, justice and accountability are very important, because, otherwise, the perpetrators, the murderers, the rapists who are committing all these war crimes and crimes against humanities, which could even lead to genocide, will always get away from the crimes they are committing.
MB: Are there any Karen left in Burma?
MD: Yes, there are some. None of the ethnic minorities in Burma will disappear. One way or another, they will find a way to survive. I remember back in the early 1990s, one of the high-ranking Burmese army officers was saying that if you wanted to see Karen in the next 10 years, you'd see them only in a museum. What does that mean? It means that he's planning to terminate the whole ethnic group of the Karen people. But here we are, here I am, and one way or another, we're going to fight for our survival, and we're not going to disappear in this world.
While working on this program, we looked for young people who could speak about the experience of living in Burma as the country goes through some major changes. We met Bawi Za Kham through one of his teachers, Deb Fowler, shown here. He inspired her (and us!) with his courageous story of leaving Burma to pursue his education, and his endless drive to help his family. Some of Bawi's story is below.
I was born in Aasaw, a small village located on a mountain ridge in Chin state. There’s no electricity or running water. My first memory from my village is taking care of the animals — water buffalo, cows, horses, and pigs. My family and I raised animals to pay for food and school. Their care was my responsibility from the age of five until I left the village at age 13.
Education is limited to the few who can afford it, and only a handful actually graduate high school. I used all my strength and my instincts to survive hiking 45 miles to the border of India to sell the animals that my family and I raised so that I could pay for school.
In the village, mostly we only ate corn. We could only eat rice and meat on Sunday or a holiday. We used to eat mice and fish that I would catch with a net. If people had money, they would kill a lot of fish with a bomb. It doesn’t take a lot of time to catch a lot of fish that way. Asparagus grew everywhere in the forest, but we only ate it if we were really hungry or there were no other options.
I lived with a blended family, which meant two or three families shared a thatched home. Sometimes I would not have a place to sleep because we would have a visitor from another village. On those nights I would sleep at a friend’s house, or sleep under the stilts with all of our shoes. I didn't have shoes until I was 11. I kept them in a box to keep them clean, until I outgrew them.
Every year, one family from each religious sect would host Christmas for the others. About half of the people in Aasaw were Baptist, a little less than half were Catholic, and the rest followed the Assemblies of God. It wasn’t a law, but we didn’t celebrate with other denominations. Christmas was and still is the most important holiday in the village. It was the day when we got to wear our best clothes, the clothes that we never wore on a regular day. We would eat at long tables together. The religious leaders and elders and other leaders of the village would eat first, then parents, then Sunday school students, then us.
When I was 12 I lost my grandmother. I could not bear to walk past the place where she was buried. Each time I walked past was a cold reminder of my beloved grandmother's hope to stay alive until I grew up. My mother was not around to take care of me, and my uncle had five children to send to school. If I had stayed, I would have been forced into child labor, or I would have become a soldier for the Burmese Army. So in 2008, I left Myanmar for Malaysia.
When I finally got to Malaysia, I worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week. I did not have the time, the money, or the opportunity to attend school. I lived with 30 people in one apartment so that I only had to pay 50 RM, about $15 US, each month.
Working on my own and living in a crowded apartment, I thought of my cousins, my grandmother, and the countless times I played soccer with my family. Thoughts of my family and my village overwhelmed me, and also led me to a realization. I always knew that I loved my family, but I realized that we also needed each other to succeed. As a result, I have always tried to provide financial help for my family and be there for them when they need it. I feel that I am as responsible for them as I am for myself.
I wish to visit Myanmar again after I am done with school, and spend time with my relatives and friends. Until then, I have to focus on what’s in front of me, which is starting college as soon as possible, studying hard, and getting my degree.
Bawi Za Kham is planning on attending college in September and wants to study engineering.
Image Credits (from top): Bawi at nine months old with his parents; Bawi in Aasaw at two years old; Bawi receiving an award from his school principal in fourth grade; and a photograph of Bawi's friends who still live in Aasaw, taken in February 2015.