Farewell to a Democratic Opening in Myanmar

This trip report, written February 2020, reflects the challenges and the aspirations for a democratic Myanmar. There was no forewarning of the military takeover that would come within months of our visit. I remain committed to supporting the courageous civil society leaders with whom I met.

Myanmar January 15-26, 2020

Background

My wife Cynthia and I took an Abercrombie and Kent tour of Myanmar which started in Yangon then on to Bagan, a 2 day trip up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and finally 2 glorious days on Inle Lake. There, we visited villages and met with local artisans working on silver, weaving, cigar making. Earlier we visited a lacquerware workshop. In Yangon, we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. In Bagan, we took a balloon ride to see the 2,500 Buddhist pagodas and temples the first of which was built by King Anawrahta in 1044. A special treat was seeing a novitiation ceremony, “a coming of age ritual celebrating an aspiring young monk’s first entry to the monastery.” The trip up the Irrawaddy exposed us to rural villages and the lifeline the river plays in transporting timber and minerals, two keys to the Myanmar economy. Mandalay was the last royal capital of the Burma Kingdom and the cultural center of the country. We visited the ancient Teak Monastery, Shwenandaw, which survived World War II bombings. Our two days on Inle Lake were beautiful and peaceful. We saw real life close up. The floating farms and villages on stilts are amazing. 

On either side of the tour, I arranged visits with civil society groups including Free Expression Myanmar, Equality Myanmar, Athan, Smile, the Institute for Strategy and Policy, and the local HRW representative. Of special interest was our conversation with Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary General U-Thant. Thant’s recent book The Hidden History of Burma, is a widely read analysis of the way forward for Myanmar given its complicated history. He has led the restoration of his grandfather’s house into a museum and is a leader in preserving historical buildings in downtown Yangon.  

Myanmar is a country of 51.4 million people, twice the size of Germany but smaller than Texas. It has over 100 ethnic groups, the largest of which are Shan, Karin, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Mon, and Rakhine. Burmese are 68% of the population. The country is divided in 7 states and 7 regions. Yangon is the largest city with 5 million; Mandalay has 700,000. The capital is a new city Naypyitaw, which feels deserted. 90% of the population are Buddhists, 5% Christian, 4% Islamic. The economy is fueled by timber, tin, copper, jade, ruby, rice and other agricultural products. Most foreign trade is with China (38%), Thailand (25%), India (8%), and Japan (6%). 

The British were in control 1824-1948 followed by a challenging period of independence (1948-62) and then military rule (1962-2011).  

Observations

Myanmar is more open than I had expected. Civil society leaders spoke their minds freely. Their organizations are monitoring elections and free expression, have reform agendas on the economy, ethnic relations, social services. Although there is sharp inequality across the country, Myanmar is more modern than I expected: a new airport, construction of new high-rise apartments in Yangon, car dealerships for Volvo, Mercedes, Toyota, technology stores across Yangon. The streets in the places we visited were well paved, electricity widespread, modern hotels and tourist amenities available. 

I felt safe in Myanmar. People of all walks of life are warm and friendly. I think of our boat ride through villages in Inle Lake and the young children sitting in the windows of the stilted houses smiling and waving as we passed by. I am not naive about the poverty, inequality, and still controlled society. But the people impressed me with their resilience, hard work, and openness. I have an instinct of affection for Myanmar that I have not felt so strongly in most places around the world I have visited for the first time. 

With that said, the intellectuals and activists with whom we spoke are to a person disappointed with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. They recognize she faces a daunting challenge of leading a new era when the military is still all-powerful. A constitutional provision prevents someone married to a foreigner from holding the Presidency thus she has de facto leadership though this special position. 

Yet people who supported her in her period of house arrest report she is not accessible to them. And she did not continue staffing key agencies with experts brought in by the last military leader, Thein Sein. Instead, she has turned to old guard bureaucrats who do not challenge her. She is criticized for being narcissistic, even dictatorial, in her interactions with people around her. According to people with whom we spoke, she has not articulated a positive vision for the country and has not reached out to ethnic minorities. The peace process with the key groups in the North has stalled. Nor has she taken a progressive stand on the Rohingya issue. That was clear in her defense of the military in the ICJ at the Hague. As one person told us, “she is not building a cohesive nation. She needs to connect to non-privileged groups like the Shan, Muslims, and other ethnic groups”. 

With that said, most everyone expects her party, NLD, to win the 2020 election. And most of her critics will vote for her. Some observers predict the NLD will lose seats in Parliament as the ethnic parties gain traction. Some think it possible the NLD will not have a majority and will need a coalition. Still most with whom we spoke think her continued leadership is the best alternative and real change will happen only after she retires, perhaps 5 years hence. No one could name a list of possible successors except to express the hope it would be a member of the younger generation.  

Among the people with whom we spoke, there is a mature understanding that it takes time to build a healthy and sustainable democracy. Intellectuals and activists are thinking in at least a 10 year horizon focusing on incremental improvements. Not surprising, the younger generation is more optimistic about the future than their elders who suffer from unfilled rising expectations. The growth of civil society organizations is an encouraging sign. 

Athan (voice in Burmese) was founded in January 2018 to promote free expression through research, advocacy and education. It issues periodic reports on the status of Freedom of Expression. It advocates a revision of the Telecommunications Law which criminalizes defamation which is the key tool the government uses to punish journalists it believes too critical. It has issued reports on how Parliament violated freedom of expression, compiled an inventory of 2019 protests (constitutional reform and labor rights are the top 2 issues), and monitors hate speech on Facebook which is the widely used social media platform in Myanmar. Athan has 17 staff (all under 30) and support from the National Endowment for Democracy and the Netherlands. It is central to a network of 30 civil society organization working on freedom of expression throughout Myanmar. 

Equality Myanmar involves 65 people (not all full time) and works on human rights training throughout Myanmar and helps build a network of local community based organizations. Among the issues it is focused on are forced relocations, domestic violence, forced labor and child soldiers. It aims to mitigate conflict among ethnic communities. It also advocates policy positions, for example, pushing Myanmar to sign the International Covenant on Human Rights. It will participate in monitoring of the 2020 elections. It has support from NED, Norway, Netherlands, and Open Society. 

Another group, SMILE, promotes freedom of religion and ethnic minorities; it monitors hate speech, including rating 2020 campaigns on hate speech. It has support from USAID and the Polish government and a fund of $500,000 a year for 28 staff. 

Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) has a staff of 10-15, a budget of $110,000 which comes from Sweden, UK, US governments. FEM prioritizes gender. It monitors the fate of journalists posting on Facebook with 50% of journalists saying some content has been taken down. Facebook is a key source of information for people living outside of Yangon and Mandalay where there are few print papers and radio is controlled by the government. 

I was particularly interested in learning about a CSO, Yone Kyi Yai (Belief), which aims to train people to be active citizens in a democracy. It works to bring local community leaders together with local government officials to talk about issues like the conditions of roads and access to safe water. At first, it is a shouting match but eventually both sides learn to talk in a civil fashion. This promising institution needs to expand. 

The Institute for Strategy and Policy has 20 researchers and a budget of $400,000 a year provided by NED, USAID, and Sweden. It has a quarterly journal and a quarterly TV show with 13 million viewers and a project “Myanmar 2050: What is the Vision”. Topics for its journal include: the development of civil society, social justice, electoral system reform, the growing influence of China and the future of federalism, all key issues. 

I have introduced the Institute and several other CSO’s to the New School’s Democracy 2.0 project. During the 1980’s the New School had a network of underground seminars in East and Central Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other locations. When the revolutions of 1989/90 opened a path to democracy for the region, our members were hopeful about the future. Now there is backsliding in most of the countries which raises the question of what went wrong? A new project, Democracy 2.0, will be a network of scholars in these countries plus Turkey and India. I think Myanmar would benefit from participation in the project, which seeks to understand the complex and uneven process of building a healthy and sustainable democracy. The naive notion that an election equals democracy needs to be replaced by a more nuanced understanding of how to build the cultural and political prerequisites of a democracy over time.  

Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma ends with an epilogue that calls on Aung San Suu Kyi to articulate a comprehensive vision for the future of Myanmar during the 2020 election campaign. Among the key points is the need to find a middle ground between crony capitalism and the neo-liberal faith in free markets. He makes a powerful case that the future of a sustainable democracy in Myanmar depends on reducing inequality. And reinvigorating the peace process with ethnic minorities. In conversation, Thant mentioned other key issues like the direction of relations with China, the need to repair relations with the West, give Muslims greater access to education and public health, repatriate refugees, and resolve the Rohingya issue. 

I asked all with whom we spoke about their advice to the United States in helping Myanmar to a better future. People recalled with great affection Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in 2012 and the support that came from the US government. Most people feel the current US administration is at best indifferent, perhaps hostile to Myanmar. People believe that general sanctions over the years have been counterproductive. One thoughtful scholar urged US help to strengthen the education system, expand student exchange programs, support the development of civil society, increase private investment, and limit sanctions. Several advocated targeted sanctions targeting perhaps 100 individuals by freezing their assets and boycotting companies they control like Myanmar beer. Also, they urge requiring US companies active in Myanmar to adhere to high standards in labor rights and protecting the environment. 

The ruling by the International Court of Justice came out while we were in Myanmar. It requires Myanmar “to take all measures within its power” to prevent any further acts of violence against the Rohingya. Myanmar is required to submit regular reports to the Court within four months and thereafter every 6 months. Myanmar’s own Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) found that crimes against humanity were committed in Rakhine “but did not find” genocidal intent. 

Aung San Suu Kyi responded to the ICJ ruling in a letter to the Financial Times basically saying Myanmar’s own investigation had found evidence of “killing of civilians, disproportionate use of force, looting of property and destruction of abandoned houses of Muslims.” The right course now, she argues, is to give the Myanmar justice system time to bring those responsible to account. “An informed assessment of Myanmar’s ability to address the issue of violations in Rakhine can only be made if adequate time is given for democratic justice to run its course. Justice can help us overcome distrust, fear, prejudice and hate, and end the longstanding cycle of intercommunal violence. This has always been my goal.”

There was little discussion of the ICJ’s ruling among the people we talked to and her statement seemed to have strong support in the country.

Our 10 days in Myanmar were certainly eventful. Chinese President, Xi Jinping also made his first visit to Myanmar while we were in country to inaugurate 2020 the year of Tourism and Culture between China and Myanmar. It is also expected that China will increase its infrastructure investment in Myanmar as part of its belt and road initiative. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner with exports to China worth $5.5. billion and imports worth $6.2 billion. The withdrawal of Western support and interest has forced Myanmar to be more dependent on China which is not the surest path to the kind of democracy we hope for. I believe this is a critical moment in Myanmar’s history with the possibility, but not certainty, of a positive evolution towards a more democratic future. There is an appetite among many civil society leaders and intellectuals, especially younger people, for interaction with the West. So I will be advocating that universities, foundations, businesses, civil society groups become more active in Myanmar. I say this with a sense of modesty and realism. The US and other Western nations are not the answer, but rather play a supporting role as the drama of Myanmar’s future unfolds. I think of the young man whose novitation we witnessed. At age nine or so he has a long future ahead and I hope it will be in a more democratic, peaceful, and prosperous Myanmar. I care about Myanmar and its people and I want to help them realize their enormous potential.

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