Tag Archives: myanmar

Myanmar is an unpopulated country

TW: colonialism, neo-colonialism

I’ve been on something of a kick going through past and present reporting by The Economist as of late. More than finding woefully (and probably willfully) myopic looks at rebels in Syria, it’s been a rather varied treasure trove of distilled nonsense. For instance, their coverage of the 2012 US presidential election was woefully naïve, and had eleven states held up as “toss-ups” on November 2, before uploading an updated report on November 7 where they awkwardly admit that Obama won ten of those “toss-ups” (they complain that the popular vote was much closer, but inaccurately report the results as 51 percent Obama when it was closer to 53 percent). Of course, there were all those voices that pointed out that such results shouldn’t have been terribly surprising.


(The gas and oil pipelines being constructed from Kauk Phyu in Myanmar into China, from here.)

Naturally, none of that can compare to discussing Myanmar as a location and not a, well, populated area. Yes, Myanmar has the potential to be an important location for ports where goods would be shipped to and from urban centers in eastern China, Bangkok in Thailand, and even the rather poor territories in northeastern India. At least there’s assertions that the people living in those areas will see increased economic security or opportunities as a result of this, even if there’s no substance to those claims. The various Burmese peoples aren’t mentioned but implied to be in the way between Chinese and Thai consumers and oil imports. How that might jeopardize the trade surrounding Singapore, Malaysia and even Indonesia goes unmentioned and the precise economic impact (other than “trade”) on one of the poorest parts of India isn’t elaborated on.

Given this pattern of discussion where entire populations are erased from consideration, which was a key part of their coverage (if it can even be called that) of Syria, it seems as though The Economist‘s staff needs to be reminded just that certain groups even exist. I thought we could expect more from an internationally-read paper.

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This is not just in theory

TW: ethnic cleansing, islamophobia, genocide

On Monday, I discussed just how much violent rhetoric the Muslims of the world, particularly anglophone ones, are subject to, on an increasingly frequent scale. It’s become commonplace to discuss mass murder, for instance. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just a matter of thoughts and statements, as in some places, Muslims are being killed or otherwise systemically endangered because of their religious faith. Al Jazeera has been doing some excellent reporting for the past couple of months on the situation in Burma or Myanmar, specifically approaching the “democratization” of the country from that angle.

In the past couple of days, especially, they’ve covered the dangerous potency of islamophobia in the country, starting with a renewed look at the nativist and islamophobic violence against the Rohingya people, who tend to live in the westernmost province of Myanmar. Much of their recent history is quite depressing – from first colonialist exploitation by the British (who “imported” their labor into British Burma) to modern xenophobic otherness by their compatriots of some half century (if not longer). It’s one of the cases where the separate socio-economic classes laid out by Harm de Blij in The Power of Place seems particularly salient. Unfortunately, following the departure of an imperialist “global” class, the “mobile” Rohingya laborers and “local” Burmese peoples have targeted each other, instead of cooperating to repair the colonial era damage to the country.


(From Human Rights Watch’s online report on the killings, an image of civilian forces that drove out or killed Rohingya in western Myanmar in the summer of 2012.)

Today, however, Al Jazeera provided some excellent analysis of the broader regional implications of this conflict, both for Buddhist-majority countries like Sri Lanka and Muslim-majority ones like Indonesia. In a nutshell, while there are ethnic dimensions to this and nearly every ethnic conflict in neighboring countries, many of those tensions between groups are increasingly talked about as religious. The Rohingya might not be exclusively targeted for being Muslims, but like many people in the area and ultimately around the world, their religious identity makes them only even more acceptable as targets. While the Rohingya have born the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, it is not unique to regions where they live and has led to recent killings of Muslims with other ethnic backgrounds.

Of course, there’s a question of acceptable to whom – and the potential answers to that are distressingly broad. With prior reports showing deliberate government inaction and subsequent efforts to restrict Muslims facing communal violence in Myanmar, it seems wrong to excuse the actions of various official and unofficial political leaders. But beyond them, Al Jazeera seems to be asking whether the international community is culpable as well. Today, their official twitter account explained, “We ask if the EU is [sic] liftting sanctions on Myanmar prematurely“. Sanctions are difficult to justify in any situation, but the fact that a wave of violence against Muslims hasn’t phased narratives in the “Western” media that Myanmar has democratized seems to indicate something about the perception of Muslims in not only that country but ours as well.

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The Rohingya World is on fire too

TW: ethnic cleansing, genocide, nativism, class warfare, erasure

Amy Chua’s World on Fire, first published in 2002, quickly captured the imagination of a wide swathe of the media and has continued to be a subtle force in political analysis since then. From the almost establishment liberal press to the moderate and internationalist conservatives, a consensus emerged that for all its faults, the book was quite an insightful examination of the trials many developing countries faced. With economic globalization, the prior decade had seen something of a race to the bottom as markets “reformed” or “opened” around the world. As post-Cold War democratization began to speed up and seemed poised to accelerate given Bush’s lofty language of a plan to democratize the Middle East, ethnic competition within electoral contexts had increased. Her idea that the class war and ethnic electoral competition in many places could collapse into a single, potentially very violent struggle seemed not particularly unreasonable, even if she presumed a certain model of a given less developed country.

The Guardian hailed that conception of the world’s poorer nations, actually, as it noted-

“Her starting point is that in many developing countries a small – often very small – ethnic minority enjoys hugely disproportionate economic power. As she points out, this is not true in the west: on the contrary, we are accustomed to small ethnic minorities occupying exactly the opposite situation, a very disadvantaged economic position.”

If you accustom yourself with those other countries, primarily defined by what they aren’t (in this case, “Western”), you’ll quickly realize the illusion at play here. The assumption is that demographically large ethnic groups are typically impoverished, which is unsurprising given that we’re talking about less wealthy countries. Likewise, small ethnic minorities may install themselves as a type of local elite, which isn’t terribly surprising given many of the examples Chua turns to are either former colonizers (as the Whites of Latin America and much of Southern Africa are) or colonial-era managerial classes who were empowered by colonial rule. Missing from the mental diagram however are those who are both outnumbered and impoverished. That’s apparently a concern exclusive to the “West”.

Al Jazeera for quite some time has been among the few international news outlets to pay much attention to one particular set of events in Myanmar. As others, including this blog, focused on the geopolitical ramifications of Myanmar’s warming relations with the US and complex relationship with China or the possibility of democratization, Al Jazeera has covered the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, mainly isolated in the coastal western districts of Myanmar, along its border with Bangladesh. They have been effectively stripped of their legal rights and branded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many were born in Myanmar, and had ancestors living in Myanmar prior to colonization even. Bangladesh similarly denies them citizenship, leaving them essentially a stateless people. Without a political entity to appeal to, they have been recently subject to campaigns of violence, which left many of them homeless, if not injured or killed. A few experts on the issue have started using the word “genocide” as local authorities have started implementing punitive measures for every birth in the community.


(Remains of Rohingya villages burned down during anti-Rohingya riots in October. From here.)

Apparently the struggles of groups like the Rohingya are invisible to Chua’s analysis. They don’t have the demographic numbers to swing a national election in Myanmar, assuming they were even granted suffrage. But that isn’t compensated for the kind of opulence displayed in the mansions that Chua visits through the course of her book. Instead, they have neither political nor economic power, so they apparently don’t even register for her and her many fans. Yet, for the moment at least, they still exist.

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Ill omens for Suu Kyi?

Just to review, if for the past week you stuck exclusively to American media you’d probably have heard either nothing about President Obama’s recent trip to Myanmar, or saw an awful lot of this image:

Helpfully, Al Jazeera can provide you with a more nuanced look at the talks in which multiple issues are clearly at play. Obama has done a lot of work in opening Myanmar to democratic influences from namely the US but the broader world. But there’s also speculation around the world about what else will happen now that the country with the world’s tenth largest natural gas reserves has been opened up. Aside from potentially exchanging isolated exploitation for a globalizing variation on the same theme, there’s always the possibility of a close bond between the US and a democratized Myanmar to further politically contain China. As we’re still trying to extract resources from the region and contain Chinese political influence, it seems worth asking if this is just a smarter version of the same US policies that brought us the Vietnam War.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the effective leader of the democratizing movement in Myanmar brilliantly said, of the gains made while Obama has been in office, “We have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people.” With brave talk like that, from someone who’s been under house arrest almost continuously for the past twenty years, we should all have hope. But for her to provide the tenacious leadership that won’t settle for exchanging a Myanmar run at the behest of China for a Burma designed for the benefit of the United States, she’ll have to beat the odds.

Suu Kyi will have to avoid the fates of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and former Chilean President Salvador Allende. She’ll also have to overcome the temptation to avoid challenging the powerful that daunted the still lauded Nelson Mandela. There’s actually been another democratizing female politician from a politically dynastic family trying to fight against military rule in a former colony in subtropical Asia – former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who seemed to combine the worst of Mandela’s subverted democratization and Allende’s and Mossadegh’s inability to avoid assassination. That’s not a very positive predictor of either Myanmar’s or Suu Kyi’s futures.

Perhaps a better question than why some Burmese people created a mural of Obama is why didn’t they create one of her? And how does that bode for any emerging democratic government in Myanmar?

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