Category Archives: Blog

Myanmar futures

December 10, 2014

Nearly four years into Myanmar’s transition, questions about where the country is heading are on nearly everyone’s mind. Certainly in Yangon, admittedly a very political city, you only have to take a taxi or sit down for a casual chat and the conversation quickly veers in that direction. The fact that the 2015 general election is now less than 12 months away only heightens interest. Against this backdrop, I was struck by the juxtaposition of three stories published in the email version of Monday’s Irrawaddy.

First, San Yamin Aung reported on a suit filed on November 20 by Sagaing Region authorities against prominent columnist and NLD member Htin Lin Oo. He is charged with intent to “outrage” and “wound” religious feelings in a two-hour speech given in Chaung-U Township that criticized the use of Buddhism to promote prejudice and discrimination. The NLD has already relieved Htin Lin Oo of his position as information officer.

Second, Aung Hla Tun filed a story about a two-year jail sentence for disobedience handed down by a military tribunal to Major Kyaw Swar Win. His offence was to sign an NLD-backed petition calling for repeal of clause 436 of the Myanmar constitution, which provides the bedrock for the current oversized military role in national politics.

Third, Ashley South wrote about the peace process, arguing that there will not now be a comprehensive settlement before next year’s election, and more intriguingly that an ever more visible development as elite talks take centre stage is marginalization of ethnic armed groups and even ethnic civil society.

Just three stories published in the same edition of an online newspaper – maybe we shouldn’t make too much of them. But they do point to a future Myanmar in which key democratic values of pluralism and tolerance play no more than a minor role. Three dominant political institutions – the sangha, the military, and the NLD – are becoming more rigid, not less. The country as a whole is looking ever more theocratic, disciplined, and Bamar. None of these trends is welcome.

Education for everyone

December 9, 2014

The University of Hong Kong was privileged last Friday to host Professor Richard C Levin, from 1993 to 2013 president of Yale University, and since the start of April this year CEO of Coursera, the world’s largest MOOC platform. Rick participated in several events on campus, and during the day certainly succeeded in conveying the excitement generated by the MOOC revolution. As he said, there is in recent e-learning advances “an incredible opportunity for universities to do good in the world”. That opportunity resides notably in the change now sweeping universities’ core business of advancing and disseminating knowledge – as possibilities for dissemination become truly universal. Coursera argues that we are now in an age of “education for everyone”, and on its homepage invites people to “Take the world’s best courses, online, for free.” To date, more than 10 million individuals have done that by accessing roughly 1000 Coursera courses provided by 115 university partners. Monthly course completions currently stand at about 100,000. For me, the potential impact came across most vividly in the story of another Yale economist, Robert J Shiller (who became a Nobel Economics Laureate in 2013). In 32 years at Yale, Shiller has taught maybe 8000 students. His Coursera MOOC on financial markets registered 160,000 students in its first session, and 20,000 full course completions. That truly does look like a move in the direction of education for everyone.

Death of a Hero

December 8, 2014

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Rangoon funeral of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. It was by no means an ordinary occasion. Neither was it distinctive in ways that might be expected for the most illustrious Burmese of his generation. Rather, it constituted an act of rebellion led by students and supported by monks – the largest mass dissent in the quarter-century between 1962, the year of Ne Win’s coup, and 1988, the year of the nationwide uprising that brought an end to his catastrophic rule. The story is best told by Andrew Selth in Death of a Hero: The U Thant Disturbances in Burma, December 1974, a brief monograph published by Griffith University in April 1989. At the time of the events he describes, Andrew was working as an Australian diplomat in Rangoon.

The backdrop to the revolt was the generally appalling condition to which the Burmese people had been reduced by more than a decade of bleak dictatorship. The trigger was Ne Win’s refusal to extend even minimal diplomatic respect to the returning remains of his long-standing political rival. No honour guard or Burmese official met the casket flown from New York to Rangoon on December 1 and, although the body was then allowed to lie in state and mourners were able to visit, other diplomatic niceties were also visibly absent. The result was that students began to march in protest on December 5, the scheduled date of Thant’s funeral, and monks quickly joined them. That afternoon, they abducted the casket and drove it through vociferous crowds to a makeshift dais constructed in Convocation Hall, Rangoon Arts and Science University (the renamed Rangoon University). It was from there that a funeral procession set out on Sunday, December 8. Its destination was a brick mausoleum built in great haste on the site of the Rangoon University Student Union building notoriously blown up by Ne Win in July 1962.

Such open defiance meant that this was not the end of the matter. In the early hours of December 11, troops were sent onto the campus and within an hour had established complete control. Nearly 3000 people were arrested. In parallel, Thant’s casket was disinterred and soon after dawn quietly reburied in an official tomb below Shwedagon Pagoda only recently prepared by a government forced to make some concession to a hostile public. Armed guards then secured the site to enable workers to construct a full concrete mausoleum. Riots flared across Rangoon on both December 11 and December 12, and only on December 15 was a tense peace imposed. Markets were allowed to reopen on December 17.

Andrew’s closing assessment includes these two points (on pages 21-22): first, the U Thant disturbances “demonstrated that, outside the armed forces, the regime could not claim the allegiance of any significant social group”; second, they “revealed, however, that there was no viable alternative leadership able to replace Ne Win and his supporters”. Both parts of this evaluation remained essentially true in the far greater revolt launched more than a decade later, in 1988.

Private-sector investment in Myanmar’s higher education

December 5, 2014

The British Council has just published an e-book entitled Grand Challenges in Asia-Pacific Education. In it, chapter 7 by Roger Chao takes the title “Private sector investment: enhancing capacity and quality in Myanmar’s higher education sector”. It’s a brief analysis, but it contains some good points. The basic argument is this: “Increasing private sector investment in HE in Myanmar is the key to improving access, equity and relevance, and developing a sustainable and modern higher education sector.”

Chao notes that tertiary education is in very poor shape following decades of neglect, under-investment, fragmentation, and so on. Today, 169 institutions are distributed across 13 line ministries on a “Soviet” model of small, mono-disciplinary units. Each year, just 10% of candidates (roughly 100,000 individuals) pass the high-school matriculation exam at the first attempt, thereby gaining access to a public institution. About twice that number flow into an unregulated private sector of variable quality (tending mostly towards mediocre provision). The need for reform is “dire”.

The way forward, Chao argues, lies in creating an “official private sector” – one that is regulated and recognized. Alongside actual private institutions, there can also be privatization and commercialization of public institutions, public-private partnerships, and heightened private involvement in curriculum development, governance and funding. A recently concluded Microsoft partnership with Myanmar Computer Company to provide IT training could be one harbinger of the future.

This is all food for thought in a system that must be receptive to all sorts of new ideas and ventures if it is to overcome the deep problems and challenges it faces.

Banned in Burma in the New York Times

December 4, 2014

My apology for this puff post – but it’s not every day you get a mention in the New York Times. Banned in Burma has done just that. In the hard copy of the international edition, Philip Heijmans’ “New freedom for Myanmar’s artists” appeared last Friday, and was a very welcome trailer for our three-day Central residency. By contrast, the online edition was only uploaded after the show had closed, making a nonsense of Phil’s reference to “An exhibition opening on Saturday in Hong Kong”. Why would that happen when there are no space constraints online? Anyway, the article is a very good (and quite long) overview, opening with Sandar Khine, moving to Kin Maung Yin, and from there bringing in several different artists including Maung Theid Dhi, who joined us in Hong Kong for a performance piece.

Jade, heroin and HIV in Kachin State

December 3, 2014

Dan Levin has an excellent long article in the New York Times – “Searching for Burmese jade, and finding misery”. As a bonus feature, Jonah M Kessel has a superb accompanying 11-minute documentary video – “Jade’s deadly journey”. Both focus on jade mining in Hpakant, Kachin State, and on pervasive heroin addiction and very high rates of HIV infection in mining and linked communities, including state capital Myitkyina. The chief culprits? Myanmar military elites, Chinese financiers and, to a lesser degree, Kachin rebel leaders. The major victims? Young males and, by extension, families throughout the state. It’s sobering material, and the argument made by a local aid worker that opium war is part of an ethnic cleansing strategy cannot be wholly dismissed.

Pillay on R2P

December 2, 2014

I only recently came across the text of the Fourth Annual Gareth Evans Lecture delivered by Navi Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on October 29, 2014 at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. Her title was “Stopping Mass Atrocities and Promoting Human Rights: My Work as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights”. The lecture addresses three major issues: sovereignty, international intervention, and assistance to states.

For me, the best passage appears on page 2 when Pillay talks about the thorny issue of R2P and state sovereignty. These are her words: “State sovereignty is often invoked to deflect UN action to prevent serious human rights violations. But as I have often said to representatives of governments, ‘You made the law; now you must observe it.’ … Sovereign states established the UN, and built the international human rights framework, precisely because they knew that human rights violations cause conflict and undermine sovereignty.” To generate robust human rights protections, she emphasizes three mechanisms found globally to constitute best practice: “strengthening civil society actors, increasing participation by women in decision-making and dialogue and addressing institutional and individual accountability for past crimes and serious violations of human rights”.

Sometimes, though, international intervention will need to take place, and hanging over that is the March 2011 Libya action authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1973. With a charge of mission creep frequently leveled at the western states that took control of implementation, the entire R2P agenda is now widely thought to be endangered. About that, Pillay has this to say (p.4): “Lest the R2P concept loses support, it is important to address the concerns raised. It is clear that the concept itself cannot be faulted. As far as I can see, no objection has been raised to the concept itself but to its application and implementation. R2P, like human rights, must never become politicized, employed selectively or be the weapon for double standards and regime change.” Indeed, as High Commissioner, she condemned the unlawful killing of Gaddafi, and called for a full and independent investigation.

Finally, there is a long-term global commitment to assist states to implement R2P. Here, Pillay’s major focus is on the importance of early detection systems. Through Rights Up Front, the UN Secretary-General can be more proactive than ever in signaling potential crises. The Human Rights Council can also bring states together in a representative international forum. Commissions of inquiry and other fact-finding mechanisms are critical. Pillay rightly underlines the importance of all this (p.5): “Let me stress that having to react to past or ongoing atrocities implies that we have already failed to protect. The most effective way to implement R2P lies in the prevention of relevant violations and crimes before they occur. It is at this stage that the international community can and should be most effective.”

This is an excellent lecture – just five pages long, but full of good insights and solid arguments.

The Saya San rebellion

December 1, 2014

One week ago, Maitrii Aung-Thwin visited City University of Hong Kong to give a terrific presentation on the Saya San revolt. His actual title was “In the shadow of the king: rural resistance and special rebellion law in colonial Burma”. It was fascinating to learn more about an uprising fomented in Tharrawaddy District (three and a half hours northwest of Rangoon) in the closing days of 1930, quickly focused on the person of “Galon King” Saya San, and rapidly infecting many parts of lowland Burma. Still more interesting, though, was Maitrii’s argument about the historiography of this important episode. Not wanting to declare martial law and thereby cede control to military forces, British colonial officials issued special rebellion ordinances (and eventually acts) on the basis of which special rebellion tribunals were created. Saya San’s trial proceeded in this manner, and resulted in his execution at the end of October 1931. Significantly, this trial then became the template for all subsequent judicial action, imposing a perhaps spurious coherence on the revolt. Moreover, the story was ultimately written up in Britain’s official (Blue Book) report of 1934, “The Origin and Causes of the Burma Rebellion (1930-32)”. Effectively, it was set in stone at this point, generating, as Maitrii argued, a possibly too neat historical narrative. What may in fact have been a rather disparate and atomized set of peasant outbursts thereby came down to history as a unified revolt.

Banned in Burma redux

November 28, 2014

Banned in Burma reopens this weekend at Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre, 7A Kennedy Road, Central for a brief, three-day residence spanning Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The star of our opening ceremony (18:00 – 21:00 on Saturday evening) will be Maung Theid Dhi, who at both 18:30 and 20:00 will recreate a censored performance piece from 1976. Please do join us for the opening, or simply come along at another time to see the paintings in the show. On all three days we’ll be open from early to late. Alongside many censored works dating back to the early 1970s, we’ll also display a number of contemporary works for sale. All are by artists with direct experience of censorship.

The Stilwell Road

November 27, 2014

Sticking with the subject of World War II in the Southeast Asian theatre, we’re getting close to the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Stilwell Road. Until the very end of the two-year construction period this was the Ledo Road, built to connect Ledo in India to Bhamo in Burma, and from there join a spur linking to the Burma Road and crossing to Kunming in China. In January 1945, though, as the new piece of infrastructure was about to become operational, Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek suggested it be named for US General Joseph (“Vinegar Joe”) Stilwell. The first convoy of 113 vehicles drove out of Ledo on January 12, 1945 and into Kunming on February 4 – a three-week journey of 1079 miles, of which 478 miles were actually on the Stilwell Road. For the remainder of World War II, this was a critical supply route into China.

There are many sources of information about the fabulous engineering feats undertaken by a total of 63,000 men. By far the best, to my mind, is a 51-minute propaganda film produced in 1945 by the US Army Pictorial Service. The Stilwell Road is freely available on YouTube (view count: 146,000), and is a superb documentary about the road and, indeed, the campaign to regain Burma from the Japanese. This is Stilwell speaking about that task: “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma, and it’s humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake the place.”

One of the great pleasures of watching the movie is seeing so many legendary figures from the Burma campaign pop up in contemporary footage: Alexander, Auchinleck, Chennault, Merrill (and his Marauders), Mountbatten, Stilwell himself, Wavell and, most poignant of all, Wingate (of Chindits fame), shown boarding the flight that would crash and kill him in Manipur in March 1944. The narrator is Ronald Reagan. It’s amazing how much they all get through in a good deal less than one hour of screen time.

Soon after the fighting ceased, the Stilwell Road fell into disrepair and today is impassable in places. In India there is considerable resistance to reopening it. As it approaches its 70th birthday, it nevertheless merits full recognition.