Burma – Protected from the World

Interview with Alexander Horstmann and Karin Dean, by Iivi Anna Masso. Published in Diplomaatia 87/88, December 2010 (also in Estonian).

Burma rarely makes international headlines. Everybody knows Aung San Suu Kyi and the fact that she has been under house arrest, but how much more do we know about Burma? Alexander Horstmann, a German researcher who monitors the situation of Burmese refugees, visited Tallinn in late October 2010. The Burmese elections, held in November, were widely dismissed as a sham. After the elections, the junta surprised the world by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi. Alexander Horstmann and anthropologist Karin Dean talk about what is going on in Burma.


IAM: What is the background to the current situation in Burma?

AH: It’s a sad story because it started out very promisingly. There was a democratic government; there was happiness about independence and the withdrawal of the British after World War II. But then there was a series of coup d’états. The military were very paranoid about imperialism. They felt they had to safeguard the nation and their own privileges. There was the coup d’état by Ne Win in 1962, which introduced a period of authoritarian military regime, and the modernisation processes that had begun very promisingly – Burma is full of natural resources and has enough rice for everybody to eat – failed because of self-isolation. When one day in 1990 the generals had the good idea to hold elections and the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi had a landslide victory, the military did not give up power, but began to heavily repress the democracy movement. Masses of people, intellectuals, etc. got long prison terms and there is a lot of documentation about human rights violations, including torture, in prisons.

There was also a second front – that of the ethnic minorities in the borderlands. The Karen felt betrayed, as they had been loyal to the British and made up much of the civil service and the military because the colonial power trusted the Karen (especially the Christianised Karen) more than the Buddhist Burmese. During the colonial period, the Karen Christians participated in repressing anti-colonial rebellions where the Buddhist monks were also involved in. The competition between Burmese and Karen, Buddhists and Christians, has historical roots. The resentment of the Buddhist Burmese against the Karen has been growing throughout history and there were massacres in World War II.

As the British left, ethnic minorities felt betrayed because they thought they would receive an independent state or at least autonomy – a limited control over their territory – but that did not happen. The military perceived them as traitors to the nation and that is why in 1949 the Karen organised a secessionist movement.

IAM: How big are the minority groups?

KD: Depends who you ask. Officially there are eight big groups, but the Burmese government has counted 135 ethnic groups and languages in the country. It is a very big and diverse country, but roughly about 60% are Burmese and the rest 40% are different ethnic minorities.

IAM: Is religion also divided along ethnic lines?

AH: Many of the minorities are also Buddhist, like the Thai-speaking Shan Buddhists. The Karen have their own language, which was developed by American Baptist missionaries, but some of the Karen and the Mon – a very old civilisation that once dominated South-East Asia – are Buddhist. Many of the ethnic minorities have taken up Christianity because it is a religion that empowered them and would bring them in a better bargaining position with the Buddhist Burmese.

IAM: Does the regime rely on any particular ideology?

AH: The ideology is that they keep the nation intact. It is their major argument against the democracy movement, which they accuse of being Westernised. They have always perceived Christianity as the religion of foreigners. In fact, many of the Karen intellectuals are fed up with the ongoing war and want peace. They have given up the idea of an independent state and would settle for some form of federalism. There are problems with distrust, but especially the Karen in central areas and towns in Burma are completely fed up with the civil war and they want to settle for reconciliation.

IAM: What is the name quarrel – Burma or Myanmar – really about?

KD: The military regime changed the name. Many don’t recognise the military regime, so choosing a name means taking a side.

AH: As the military see themselves as the ones who keep Burmese cultural heritage intact, they feel they need a kind of indigenous name and that’s Myanmar. They distinguish themselves from us who call it Burma. Most of the people would call Myanmar Burma, but maybe we should also recognise Myanmar.

KD: The neutral way is to use both names with a slash.

AH: There is no neutral way any more.

IAM: So the central ideology of the military is to protect authentic Burmese culture?

AH: Exactly. We have to understand their thinking.

IAM: And the main reason why people have taken up arms or left is violence against minorities?

AH: They took up arms because they felt betrayed and the only way to pursue their interests would be through armed struggle. They also felt being discriminated against. There were massacres against the Karen because of their alliance with the British.

KD: It is very complicated. Different ethnic groups and ethnic armies control the territory of Burma. They have started their fights at different times and for different reasons. The Karen are among the oldest and their rebellion was there before Burma was established in 1949. Some other groups have started later, in the 1970s and 1980s. There have been periods when they make a common front against the regime. There was the Burmese Communist Party – until 1989 – that was also fighting the government, so there have been a lot of different types of rebellions and insurgencies.

IAM: Does the Communist Party have any specific ethnic affiliation?

AH: The Communist Party of Burma transcended ethnic boundaries, but they were supported by the Chinese. Later the Chinese withdrew. There was an alliance between the Communist Party, the ethnic minority armies, the democracy movement and the students who went underground and supported the ethnic minorities. In Manerplaw, which was the main military basis for the Karen, they had a kind of buffer state with their own flag and anthem.

But these alliances were also very uneasy. The refugees were on two fronts: the democracy movement, which involved universities, students, intellectuals and politicians, and on the other side – the civic population in the borderlands, the ethnic minorities. When the military came and burned down their villages, they had to run away in order not to get killed. They were forcibly relocated by the military regime that tried to weaken the independence movement because the Karen armies in the area used to tax the civil population and every family was expected to give a son to the Karen National Liberation Army.

IAM: So they do control their area to an extent?

AH: They did. But when Manerplaw fell in 1995, they had to give in.

KD: Manerplaw was the centre of ethnic resistance, the headquarters of the Karen National Liberation Army. Part of the reason for its fall was that one section of that army – the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army – split off. Most of Northern Burma was off limits to the Burmese army during the peak of ethnic resistance in the 1980s. With the fall of Manerplaw, the Burmese started to gain more territory. The territory is still divided – today most of it is controlled by the Burmese government. But there are ethnic organisations that control the territory, some of which agreed to a ceasefire with the Burmese army, while others did not. The Karen are one of the groups that have not accepted the ceasefire. There is still guerrilla warfare going on. The Burmese army tries to make the ethnic armies that have accepted the ceasefire to become a part of the Burmese army, to control the border, but under the leadership of the Burmese authorities.

Today there is some talk about the Buddhist Karen joining the Karen main groups again. The politics is always changing and it is not black and white. The Karen get information from the Buddhist Karen before the Burmese attack them, although they are officially on opposite sides. There are so many other things that come into play, like family relationships, the Karen ethnicity and the same language, so it is quite complicated.

AH: Many of the students were persecuted after the elections. The military did not want to give up power to the democratic opposition, so the students had to run away too. They also had to escape to Manerplaw and they joined the armed resistance. So two groups with totally different motivations came together in the military headquarters and the students who had never used weapons underwent military training with the Karen.

IAM: Do you have any idea what the international community could do to help?

AH: Because of the repressions the US decided to sanction the Burmese junta and international organisations – the World Bank, IMF and many humanitarian organisations – withdrew from Burma. It was increasingly difficult to import goods, so the border trade became very important, illicit markets emerged, and so did drug trade and the exploitation of natural resources. Many people argue that the sanctions did not help the democracy movement, that they even fostered paranoia, contributed to misery and empowered the military regime. Mostly children and old people suffer from the sanctions. They ought to punish the regime and to facilitate regime change, but nobody thought that the military would keep their power for such a long time and now they are stronger than ever.

In my opinion, we have to come into dialogue with the regime. But it is very hard because there are also internal power struggles. It is not a homogenous situation.

IAM: Could anything be achieved in dialogue with the regime?

AH: Something has already been achieved, like the ceasefire. It is very fragile and the military is asking people for all kinds of services for free. But the ceasefire is the only way to development in this region.

KD: The ceasefire was the result of internal negotiations. It had nothing to do with the international community. Ceasefires were brokered by local community leaders and religious leaders. Internal power struggles made the situation favourable to the ceasefire. What the ceasefires have meant for the ethnic armies is that they have become weaker, they have less bargaining power, they have enabled the Burmese government to actually take control of further territories and monopolise trade. So the ceasefire is a gain only insofar as it has stopped the fighting. Some of the ceasefires have been broken, the fights have started again and – especially before the elections – some of the groups who have had ceasefires for 20 years have taken up arms again. The international community has nothing to do with it. Something that can be done is to pressure China to push for a more favourable change because China is a big influence on Burma.

AH: China is a stabiliser of the regime. Most of the goods and weapons come from China.

KD: There have been attempts to start a dialogue, but it has been stopped by the unwillingness of the regime to give in an inch. This comes down to the beliefs of the regime that should be studied more by the international community. The regime believes that it is the only actor that can hold the country together; that if the regime were not authoritarian – or now they talk about ‘disciplined democracy’ – the country would fall apart. This very strong belief is the foundation of the state and the nation-building project.

AH: Even when the natural disaster struck Burma and many people died, they would not allow the humanitarian organisations, like the International Red Cross, to come in and help.

IAM: Was that also caused by the fear of foreign influences, of ‘imperialism’?

AH: Yes, exactly. The deeply ingrained sentiment of the military that they have to protect the country against Western imperialism. But they also want to keep their power.

IAM: Is there any chance of making a deal, like the lifting of sanctions in response to greater respect for human rights?

AH: It is hard, as the regime is involved in illicit trade and exploitation of natural resources. International companies are also involved, like Total, which used forced labour to construct gas pipelines. Because of the trade isolation, it is a lifeline for the regime.

KD: It is hard to define human rights. The Burmese government is arguing that it is part of their tradition that they do communal work, that historically villagers have worked together to build something for the village.

AH: That is very cynical – of course it is forced labour and people actually died during the construction of the pipeline. There are also court proceedings already in progress against Total.

KD: UNHCR, the UN agency that deals with human rights violations, writes reports about human rights every year, but the Burmese government has its own arguments against it.

You can see satellite photos from the war zones in real time – people being shot, children being wounded by landmines. It is all there. It is still going on, especially in the Shan area and the Karen area in Eastern Burma. According to some definitions, you could say there is a genocide going on and there are people collecting evidence. But this has been going on for years.

IAM: What about the upcoming elections? Is there any hope that they are going to be democratic?

KD: Absolutely not. The government has made a call for parties to register, but many parties were not allowed to register – only neutral or pro-government parties can register. The government declared that in certain ethnic ceasefire areas there would be no voting. Voting will only take place in government-controlled areas. These are not going to be fair elections; the international community already have called them sham.

AH: On the other hand, the National League of Democracy (NLD) is very much weaker because many of the politicians have been weakened and intimidated.

IAM: Does the NLD consist mainly of Buddhist Burmese?

KD: It is the mainstream opposition party, so it is overwhelmingly Buddhist and Burmese because that is the majority in the country. But it is urban-based and there are also many urban Karen and Christian Karen involved. They have promised to boycott the elections.

The government made a rule that the NLD could only join if Aung San Suu Kyi stepped down as leader, but she is so revered. They can use it against her that she has been married to a foreigner – they made a rule that no national who has been married to a foreigner can lead a party. The choice was for the NLD to join the elections and to expel Aung San Suu Kyi from the party or not to participate. They decided to boycott.

AH: There was a debate, as Aung San Suu Kyi supported the sanctions. She does not represent the whole opposition. She is a hero – everybody knows her – but we should notice more voices. Burmese activists in exile also boycotted the elections, but some of them said that they needed the elections: “We know they’re bad, but it’s our only chance. If we boycott the elections, we have no chance of moving in a better direction anyway.”

KD: Splitting the opposition has been a tactic of the military. They have caused disagreements and weakened the opposition through that. Also with the ceasefire tactics, they have caused disagreements within the ethnic armies – some agree to it, some do not and then they are split. Within the ethnic opposition, they have offered deals to some of them. They have always managed to split and divide. This is happening again. There are those who see the elections as a chance and there are others who strongly disagree. And the strongest is the government.

IAM: In your Studia Generalia lecture at Tallinn University, you talked about the refugees in the border areas. Some of them have stayed on the Thai side. How many people are there?

AH: 2 million refugees, 150,000 in camps.

IAM: They are mostly ethnic Karen?

AH: The majority of the refugees are actually Shan, but they are not recognised as refugees in Thailand because it is difficult to distinguish who is a political refugee and who is escaping the fighting. A lot of the Thai-speaking Shan escape due to the economic situation – they just go there to work.

IAM: Where do the international organisations that help the refugees come from?

AH: For example, Christian Aid UK, the World Service USA, International Rescue Committee USA, Caritas Switzerland, ZOA Netherlands, Jesuit Services, many Scandinavian organisations. They are all Christian. They have established themselves from the beginning. The church networks built the refugee camps with the Karen Baptists. They have a strong cultural and political influence in the area.

KD: There are hundreds of organisations working there, supporting women, the environment, indigenous groups, etc. It is a good place for NGOs to be – it is nice to be in Thailand and to do something for the Burmese. The aid industry is also a business.

IAM: How would you describe the relationship between Thailand and Burma?

AH: Since Thaksin (Shinawatra, Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006 – ed.) there are a lot of Thai investors in Burma. They are doing good business. The government protects the investors, but not the civil population. It harasses the refugees and activists. There are a lot of refugees in Mae Sot – sometimes people are harassed, sometimes they are left alone. The activists run homepages; they are supported by Western volunteers; they do very professional reporting. But that does not improve the situation unless the violence ends.

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