Amidst the rapid changes occurring in Burma, Tibita Kaneene spoke with Burmese activist Tim Aye Hardy to put the recent developments into perspective. Recently, the first session of the new partially democratic parliament commenced, and a delegation of British businesses, including British Petroleum and Shell arrived in Burma for the first British government sponsored trade mission since the mid-1990s. This visit was on the heels of historic visits by Indian Prime Minister Mammohan Singh and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that served to re-open relations between Burma and those two nations after decades of rancor.
Tim Aye Hardy was born and raised in Rangoon, Burma under multiple repressive regimes. Hardy witnessed the disappearance, imprisonment, forced flight, and even murder of multiple friends and family members as punishment for demanding basic human rights. Tim has worked with Amnesty International, the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, the Uganda North American Association and the UNESCO Chair’s Global Intergenerational Human Rights Leadership Forum.
He is currently the Director of Outreach at the Burma Global Action Network (BGAN) and is involved with the US Campaign for Burma. He is also a Carl Wilkens Fellow with Genocide Intervention Network.
Tibita Kaneene: One noteworthy effect of Burma’s opening made headlines recently; Aung San Suu Kyi’s debut in Parliament after her triumphant trip through Europe. How has the transition to democracy translated to the day-to-day lives of ordinary Burmese?
Tim Aye Hardy: Even though all these encouraging changes are taking place in Burma and headlines of Daw Suu leaving Burma for the first time in 24 years and joining parliament highlights the country’s struggles to the international community, the daily lives of ordinary Burmese have not changed much. Recent gradual reforms toward democracy have had very little impact on the ground and have yet to trickle down to create practical benefits for the ordinary folks. Decades of various corrupt, incompetent, and repressive regimes have resulted in severe poverty and a serious lack of basic education, healthcare, and infrastructure throughout the country. It will take some time to re-build everything from the ground-up.
TK: Tell us about the work you do for Burma Global Action Network.
TAH: I’m currently the director of outreach at BGAN, where we’re using various social media tools to advocate peace, human rights and democracy in Burma. BGAN was founded in the wake of the 2007 monk-led anti-government protests by creating the Facebook group “Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma”, and currently maintains close to 500,000 Facebook fans and over 2,500 Twitter followers. I work with various Burmese groups and communities along with human rights organizations throughout the world to organize and coordinate actions designed to raise public awareness about the human rights situation in Burma and put pressure on governments and other stakeholders to take action on Burmese issues.
TK: When were you exiled from Burma? Under which circumstances?
TAH: I left Burma in 1989 after I was expelled from Rangoon University and the military unsuccessfully tried to arrest me multiple times throughout the 8888 uprising. The US Embassy in Rangoon issued me a visa under special circumstances that allowed me to travel to the US a few months after another military coup took control of the country.
TK: Last year you admitted to wondering why Aung San Suu Kyi had not made any clear calls for Burmese resistance, coming to the conclusion that she was toeing the line in her domestic comments because of the threat of house arrest and/or domestic censorship, while being very critical when speaking to international media. Her critical comments included suggestions that violence might have a place in the movement and vivid descriptions of poverty and corruption. How has joining parliament affected her advocacy?
TAH: Even though she has suggested that violence might have a place in the movement, I personally don’t believe that she will ever support violence, especially after having seen the brutal and inhumane crackdowns of the military during both 1988 and 2007 protests during which thousands of innocent protesters were gunned-down by the military. I believe she came to the realization that decades of struggling toward democracy without well organized and coordinated opposition groups and without comprehensive support from the international community was not achieving much progress. As a result, she shifted her strategy to work within the new quasi-civilian government in the hopes of bringing desperately needed change to Burma.
(Chantal de Bruijne / Shutterstock.com)
Daw Suu joining the parliament didn’t change her goals and objectives for the country and people, which are to bring peace, justice, human rights and democracy. But, her strategy clearly shifted when she joined the parliament, and gained more support from the moderate military personnel and regime supporters as well as the international community, particularly from the west.
TK: What should we expect from Aung San Suu Kyi now that she’s been voted into parliament? What specific things should and will be on her (and by extension the National League for Democracy’s) agenda in the next parliamentary session?
TAH: She has repeatedly indicated that one of the major objectives would be to work with all sides of the parliament to amend the 2008 military-drafted constitution in order to move towards a true democratic society. We will first see less controversial constitutional amendments brought to a vote before moving to more contentious components of the constitution.
For example, 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for military personnel directly appointed by the Commander-in-Chief of the military. Meanwhile, it requires a vote of over 75% of the parliament to amend this undemocratic constitution. Furthermore, the military has the ability to stage a coup whenever it presumes that union solidarity is threatened. Finally, the Commander-in-Chief appoints the Ministers for Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs without any recourse to civilian government.
TK: What have been the effects of decades of international sanctions on both the Burmese people and the Burmese government?
TAH: I believe the sanctions have impacted the regime much more than the people because they force the regime to deal with neighboring countries, especially China, in order to export natural resources. Also, due to the sanctions, the regime’s personal and financial activities are limited in the international community, especially in the Western countries, therefore its credibility and visibility are severely damaged and limited.
At the same time, we should all be aware that the economic hardships and severe poverty that the people of Burma are facing is the direct result of the decades of economic mismanagement by the regime, which plunders the country’s natural resources for their own personal benefits, not because of sanctions imposed by the Western countries. Lifting these sanctions would immediately and directly benefit the current quasi-civilian regime and its cronies, especially those who’ve accumulated enormous wealth under the previous military regime. These cronies include all the former generals who currently serve in so-called civilian government.
TK: How do you judge the international reactions to the elections and reforms since 2010? Has the democracy movement been undermined by the administration’s legitimization by a world which had isolated it for so long, or does the engagement of entities such as ASEAN, India, and the US encourage further reforms?
TAH: The reactions by the international community have been quite disappointing, especially because the military was allowed to commit various grave human rights abuses and crimes in Burma, mainly due to lack of outcry from the international community. The international reactions toward Burma since the 2010 sham elections are somewhat positive and encouraging, but at the same time a bit predictable since most countries are much more interested in engaging with the new quasi-civilian government in order to serve their own national interests. However, at the same time the international community needs to be mindful that Burma has made a very small step towards a democratic society, and must be thoughtful and balanced in letting go of the pressure, especially the sanctions, before the new quasi-civilian government has made significant and measurable changes. These required changes include ending military offensives against ethnic minorities, especially in the northern Kachin State, releasing all the political prisoners unconditionally, and revoking unjust law. Blindly legitimizing Burma’s new quasi-civilian government will seriously undermine the democracy movement that has already given so many innocent lives, and will also create long-term instability in the region.
TK: Are you concerned that Burma's transition to democracy exposes it to greater outside influence and exploitation?
TAH: Yes, this is one of my major concerns, especially considering that most of the states and actors that are currently engaging with the government are doing so mainly to obtain profitable deals to extract Burma’s natural resources. But, at the same time it’s up to us and the current government to ensure that Burma’s environment and natural resources are thoughtfully and sustainably utilized. Each new contract signed to extract natural resources should be carefully studied and evaluated in a transparent and accountable process.
TK: What do you think about President Obama lifting the ban on U.S. investment in Burma?
TAH: This is a significant and irresponsible shift by the Obama administration that could cause unwanted interferences throughout the ongoing democratic transition. The ban was intended to end ethnic conflicts, crackdowns on peaceful protests and unlawful detentions while promoting political freedom and a genuine dialogue toward democracy that included all stakeholders. Lifting sanctions before Burma’s new quasi-civilian government fulfills these goals is an immature move and shows desperation by the Obama administration.
The previous military regime and current quasi-civilian government have used cash earned from exploiting Burma’s natural resources, especially oil and gas, to fuel ethnic conflicts and crackdowns on opposition forces. To allow American corporations to invest in Burma is to indirectly support these grave human rights abuses.
The responsible approach to relaxing sanctions would be to lift them sector by sector in order to ensure that crucial social, political and economic reforms are being implemented.
TK: How will the recent ethnic violence in Rakhine affect the progress of reforms and relations between ethnic minorities and the government?
TAH: This is a serious issue that needs to be resolved in a transparent and respectful way while upholding fundamental human rights for everyone in the region. As far as I can tell, the majority of people in Burma believe that the recent violence in Rakhine state has been caused by the following: serious corruption by immigration officers; a wide-open border with Bangladesh; and incompetent handling by the previous oppressive military regimes. Rakhine state is the second poorest state in Burma, which is already one of the poorest countries in the world, and years of strugglesand suffering of oppressed and frustrated Rakhine people have now basically exploded in violent ways.
Despite encouraging changes that are talking place in Burma, relationships between ethnic minorities and quasi-civilian government changed and improved very little. Burmese military continues to attack and commit grave human rights abuses in some ethnic areas, especially in Kachin state.
The regime allows very limited or no access to these crisis regions, especially in Rakhine state, that causing serious mistrust and frustration within the reform community, and also drawing relentless criticism from the international community. Because of this access restriction, the international media is forced to report the violence occurring in Rakhine state without accurate and impartial facts that virtually turning it into ethnic cleansing or religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslims.
Meanwhile, the current quasi-civilian government is gaining momentum and support on this issue inside the country, especially after the president met with the head of the UNHCR on July 11, 2012, and told the UNHCR that Burma will only be responsible and grant citizenships up to the third generation of those who settled in Rakhine state before 194
TK: What do you think is the best way to integrate the various ethnic, religious groups into a unified, peaceful Burma? Is there a risk of balkanization?
TAH: The risk of balkanization was much more substantial and real after Burma received independence from Britain, especially during the parliamentary government.
As far as I can see there are no threats or demands of division from the union by the various ethnic groups. The ethnic groups simply want autonomy and self determination and I believe that their rights and demands need to be considered and implemented in thoughtful way within the union. Since most of Burma’s natural resources are located in various ethnic states and controlled by ethnic armed groups, the battle to control these resources is the root-cause of the ethnic and religious violence in Burma. However, somehow these battles have been described in the international community primarily as various ethnic and religious clashes. The best way to move forward with the reforms in Burma would be to implement a federalist system similar to the one in the U.S., allowing each state the ability to govern itself in order to preserve diversity within the country.
TK: How is Burma represented in mainstream media? Do you seek to change the way it is looked at?
TAH: I believe the mainstream media is eager to report the recent changes and reform process taking place in Burma, especially when it comes to news and updates related to the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, I think that the views and reporting are a bit too optimistic and sometimes fail to understand and reflect the underlying challenges and reality on the ground. Unfortunately, the ordinary people, especially the ethnic nationals, have not benefitted from all of the changes taking place in Burma. I wish that the mainstream media would report more on the significant challenges that the country is facing as we move along the process.
TK: Warscapes is a magazine that looks towards art and literature for ways to get a deeper sense of ongoing crises in countries. What has been the role of art and literature in resistance and dissent in Burma of the the past decades? Has there been a lot of production of art and writing from Burmese diaspora in past decades?
TAH: The role of art and literature throughout the movement has been significant and sometimes was the only way to share and communicate among the dissidents and between generations. This is because all forms of media were severely controlled and censored by the government, leaving it to artists, authors, and performers in Burma to use their creative skills and talents to describe what was going on in the country. While growing up in Burma, I was able to comprehend political and social challenges through various shows and performances I experienced. I’ve seen artists, writers and performers wind up behind bars, some are still there, for expressing the political and social climate through art and literature. Artists were forced to express themselves obliquely with various coded words, moves and images that conveyed the true meanings underneath these images and performances. In order to stay safe, they rarely used direct and obvious images and acts, but we all understood what they were trying to express.
TK: Burma or Myanmar?
TAH: Definitely Burma, at least for now. This is not just a name for me and dissidents throughout the world; it is way for us to demonstrate our opposition and disapproval of the previous military regime and current quasi-civilian government which consists of former generals and cronies from the previous regime.
Tibita Kaneene is a financial journalist. He lives in New York City.