‘Burma/Myanmar in Transition: Connectivity, Changes and Challenges’


Very happy to have delivered a paper at the recent International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies at Chiang Mai University ‘Burma/Myanmar in Transition: Connectivity, Changes and Challenges’.

My paper, “Holding Back the Tide: Can Myanmar’s Democratic Political Leaders Prevent a de facto Religious Test for Full Citizenship Rights?” addressed the rise of Buddhist nationalism, discriminatory government policies and how I believe this is changing the nature of Myanmar citizenship. It was part of the Ethnic Politics and Minorities panel, chaired by Dr Jacques Leider, with Dr Matthew Walton acting as discussant.

Discussants Derina Johnson and Dr Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi at the International Conference of Burma/Myanmar Studies, Chiang Mai

Discussants Derina Johnson and Dr Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi at the International Conference of Burma/Myanmar Studies, Chiang Mai

Dr Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi and Derina Johnson @Derina_Johnson were discussants in the panel Crossing Frontiers: Multiplication of Burmese Migration in Asia.

More details about the conference including links to draft conference papers can be found here.

‘A Politician, Not an Icon: Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya’

Islam and Christian Muslim RelationsHere is a link to my latest article. Published in the journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/AIExfyxdwswI6nJRRBAc/full#.U3yq8CyKCP8

ABSTRACT: In Myanmar (also known as Burma), the Rohingya are a persecuted Muslim minority living mainly in northern Rakhine State. Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of Myanmar’s opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD), is championed as the voice of the people. However, on the matter of the Rohingya’s persecution she has been notably silent. This article examines the possible reasons for Suu Kyi’s silence and argues that Buddhist–Muslim political relations in Myanmar are central to understanding the reasons behind Suu Kyi’s position on the Rohingya. It is suggested that various factors, including the history of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the NLD’s attitude towards the Rohingya, Suu Kyi’s sense of obligation to her father’s political legacy, and Suu Kyi’s views on ethnicity, are creating a political environment in which Suu Kyi is presented with pragmatic political reasons for staying silent. Given Suu Kyi has the potential to become a future national leader, an understanding of her behaviours towards a sizeable persecuted Muslim minority is important. This is particularly the case when consideration is given to the contemporary pressures on Muslims to embrace radical politics and the implications this could have for Myanmar and the region.

Tragic situation continues in western Burma

Yangon, Burma

Tensions in western Burma appear to have cooled a little over the last week but this link to a story from Myanmar Times highlights the difficulties faced by moderates in the debate about the situation facing the Rohingya. Ko Nay Phone Latt is a brave young blogger who raised concerns about the the treatment of the Rohingya and since then has been the subject of some pretty nasty social media attacks.

Hanna Hindstrom also reports on Democratic Voice of Burma about three aid workers being handed jail sentences accused of inciting violence in the Arakan State. Naturally, since it is Burma stories do conflict but many are finding it increasingly difficult to believe anything the Burmese government says about the situation in the region. This point is highlighted by Human Rights Watch’s report ‘The Government Could Have Stopped This’ which you can read here.

‘Burma and Bipartisanism’ Online Opinion article

Suu Kyi home on University Avenue

Here is the link to my article ‘Burma and Bipartisanism’ available on the Online Opinion site from today: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13436

“It is time the west made some efforts to demonstrate at least something like the domestic bipartnership they are demanding of the Burmese”

Burma’s changes must go beyond the political

Yangon street near the Strand, the architecture speaks of prosperity. Sadly, that's the last mention I heard of prosperity in Yangon. Photo taken election day 2010.

Article from National Times, December 9, 2011.

Burma holds the record for the world’s oldest military regime and governments don’t break records for longevity without knowing a thing or two about effective ways to hold on to power. In this field the regime’s skills are impressive. A wrecked economy, health-care funding at medieval levels, rampant corruption, an overwhelming opposition election victory and a popular uprising led by Burma’s revered monks and still the military retain effective control. It’s through this lens Australia should consider recent decisions by Burma’s notionally civilian government and take this opportunity to encourage it towards domestic policy change going well beyond the release of political prisoners.

Let’s consider some recent decisions by the new government that have so convinced many including governments such as Singapore’s, organisations such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) and many commentators that Burma is on an un-turning road to positive change: recently scores of people who should never have been jailed in the first place were released from Burmese prisons; the Myitsone dam, regarded as a serious threat to the downstream health of the country’s most important river and the livelihoods of millions of citizens, was canned; the government is engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose party overwhelmingly won the country’s last free election; and there is apparently less direct government censorship of the media.

Of course it is good news when unfairly jailed people are released from prison, but releasing 200 of Burma’s around 2000 political prisoners cannot be considered a great leap forwards. This figure is especially galling considering the reasons for many of the jailings include “crimes” such as “speaking with the International Labour Organisation” or simply actively supporting democracy.

Likewise, the decision to halt construction of the Myitsone dam is positive. But surely no national government expects international praise for stopping a project that would cause such catastrophic consequences for its own citizens downstream. The regime’s positions on so many matters have been so bad for so long that any reasonable step is now seen as disproportionately positive and praiseworthy.

In any country aside from Burma these actions would be seen as well overdue, not worthy of praise let alone reward. But Burma has been rewarded with closer ties with western nations and a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While hardliners might find recent decisions somewhat distasteful there’s really nothing happening to fundamentally undermine the military’s pre-eminence. There’s a wiliness too in the way the government drip-feeds announcements of each successive decision.

In practical terms the regime’s desires are simple: they want the removal of sanctions for economic reasons and they want the chair of ASEAN in 2014 for prestige and political reasons in the short-term and economic reasons in the longer-term. So far, western governments such as the US and Australia sensibly haven’t indicated an immediate desire to budge on sanctions, but there does seem to be an increasing likelihood Burma will assume the ASEAN chair and host the 2014 ASEAN summit.

All of this poses a significant dilemma for western nations who are reluctant to remove sanctions too soon but want positive changes, both small and big, to continue. Australia, like the US, believes the release of Burma’s remaining political prisoners is a pre-condition for the removal of sanctions but a focus on political prisoners exclusively risks wasting an opportunity to achieve further important changes within Burma.

Australia should take the opportunity afforded by the Burmese government’s new openness to put on the table a desire to see other practical changes within the country before sanctions are lifted. Obviously the prisoner release is a given but Australia should also include a desire to see a significant increase in government spending on health care for ordinary Burmese citizens.

Burma’s health-care spending consistently ranks near the bottom of global statistical tables and, not surprisingly, health outcomes do too. According to the World Health Organisation, the life expectancy of Burmese citizens is well below the global average and poor when compared to other countries in the region. This has rightfully been a cause for significant criticism from NGOs but so far, improvements in health for Burma’s citizens is not a pre-condition for western nations removing economic sanctions. This should change.

There is an opportunity for Australia to take the international lead and make the provision of better health care for Burma’s citizens a key issue, alongside the release of political prisoners, that could lead to the removal of sanctions. This would provide genuine encouragement for Burma’s new government to re-order budget priorities dedicating more funds to health while giving western nations an important domestic goal. It would also significantly improve the lot of ordinary Burmese citizens and be a further measure against which the country’s progress can be judged.

Unlike political change within Burma, which experience shows, can be all too easily reversed at the whim of the country’s leaders, spending on health care would be more difficult to quickly reverse and would deliver positive results for Burma’s citizens in the meantime.

The Burmese government might be open to a better dialogue with western nations but the question now for Australia is whether we are open to a smarter engagement with Burma aimed squarely at delivering better results for ordinary Burmese whose welfare has for too long been invisible to the international community and, most tragically, also to their rulers.

Here is a link to the same article on the National Times website: