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To many, it's still Burma

Myanmar's ethnic chaos and long, cruel past must temper enthusiasm over its speedy reforms.

Publication Date : 26-11-2012


Perhaps the most jarring thing about Benedict Rogers' appraisal of our ostensibly rehabilitated next-door neighbour is its title. Use of the name diminishing, "Burma" already sounds anachronistic, and we already know Myanmar is at a crossroads and why. Is this book in imminent danger of obsolescence?

The content makes amends for the cover's redundancy, however, a smart collage of observations by Rogers and other Westerners who've been in the country at crucial moments. In terms of history and what's at stake right now in all corners of Myanmar, this goes well beyond being an "introduction" to the situation, as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace laureate, calls the book in a brief endorsement.

Rogers explains that he uses the name Burma because that's what the "democracy movement" and "ethnic resistance organisations" continue to call Myanmar, arguing that the military regime was never mandated to change the country's name. Readers might wonder if Aung San Suu Kyi isn't compelled by law to call it Myanmar when addressing the legislature.

This is fundamentally yet another treatise restating the case for "cautious optimism" about the military junta's reforms, as if there had ever been a valid argument for any other attitude. But Rogers shares Suu Kyi's concern that some citizens and outsiders are "unquestioningly euphoric and enthusiastic about the process of change".

There is, of course, the euphoria of getting high on money. There's now a traffic jam on the road to Mandalay as Westerners scamper to join the Chinese, Japanese, Singaporeans, Indians and Thai Shinawatra types who've been there for decades hoovering up the timber, gems, oil and natural gas. (For its part, Nation Multimedia has set up a consulate in Yangon, presumably to show the locals how to get to Democracy Street using an iPad and Google Maps.)

Can Myanmar endure another colonial era, this one more blatantly commercial than the British Raj? Suu Kyi and other leaders have already raised Western hackles by saying they, not foreigners, would decide which business sectors require investment from outside. (Ah, but that's not how capitalism works.)

Also working to Suu Kyi's detriment in many observers' eyes is her delay in reacting to the plight of the Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State. Her credibility is a casualty of this unexpected accident on the highway to reform. Finally she called for government troops to re-establish peace there, hardly the vision one might expect of Myanmar's own Nobel Peace laureate.

It appears that the Rohingya predicament has ballooned beyond Rogers' expectations, but it would be wrong to fault him, given the compassion with which he reports the situation among the ethnic minorities across the land. It is in these chapters that he comes into his own, having spent much time among them, and he's honest about his empathy and emotions. "We run until our legs break," one minority member told him regarding the military's incessant persecution.

Thailand does not come off well in these pages, of course, despite accommodating tens of thousands of refugees. It's often been a cruel host in the name of political gamesmanship, and just plain murderous to any Rohingya boat people who drift too close.

On other aspects of Myanmar's rise and tumble and resurrection, Rogers relies perhaps too heavily on other outsiders' accounts, and yet still falls short of providing the "comprehensive" study he wanted. The atrocities, ceasefires, unholy alliances, internal ruptures, the uneven dabbling of foreign aid, the prison horror stories, the child soldiers and Cyclone Nargis are all here in grim detail, and yet questions linger over them.

Rogers sets out to be fair to all parties and succeeds for the most part, describing, for example, how vicious the students became during the 1988 uprising in their bloodlust for vengeance. Suu Kyi is the predictably the book's superhero, but Rogers' homage to her father Aung San is far too glowing.

Understandably desperate to evict the British, Aung San fought alongside the Japanese and played a bloody role in ethnic suppression until it served his needs to calm them. He maintained a healthy mistrust of the West, only to pass it on to his fellow generals in the form of paranoiac xenophobia. That too is part of Burman culture.

Rogers raises several interesting points, such as the major insurrections, including "8-8-88", beginning not over the lack of freedom but the cost of living, and this unsettlingly familiar scene from the "eccentric and Orwellian" dictatorship of Ne Win:

"In 1972 Ne Win sought to solidify and legitimise his rule by resigning from the military, along with 19 other senior officers, and establishing a civilian administration. This was, however, a superficial change. Most of the same people were in power, and the only difference was that they wore suits rather than military uniforms."

This is obviously why Rogers is ultra-cautious about trusting Thein Sein. The "next test", he notes, is the 2015 elections. While they could conceivably elevate Suu Kyi to head of state, Rogers wisely warns of likely future upheavals, as have occurred in the wake of reform triumphs in Maldives, East Timor and the countries of the Arab Spring.

"Building an open society after decades of repression," he writes, "is not easy."

"Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads" is published by Rider, 2012.


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