By Dr. J. Scott Younger*
I was attracted by a line from an old Japanese poem “If all the world are brothers, why are wind and waves so restless”. It made me think of all the problems, national repression, skirmishes and wars that we have today in the Middle East, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and several other countries. Peace is a very fragile thing, elusive, and we must still seek to resolve our differences.
I went to Myanmar, or Burma as it was called, some 40 years ago on the backof a UNDP project, and despite catching a bad dose of typhus fever and the plane falling out of the sky some ten days after I flew out for treatment, I went back for a few trips and got to know the country and the politics a little better.
Myanmar has been in the hands of the Burmese military ever since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Even though Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the independence movement leader, Aung San, who was assassinated at the beginning, won a clear mandate in 2010, increasing ten years later, the military maintained an over-riding hand.
Perhaps Burma’s problems started in 1962 when Ne Win exercised a military coup and for the next 20 or so years effectively shut the borders and ran the country into poverty. He tried to monetise the currency only for it to deteriorate further which led to the 1988 strikes and unrest.
Suu Kyi, or the Lady as she is known, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her stand over democratic freedoms while undergoing house arrest. The house arrest was relaxed and when her organisation the National League for Democracy (NLD) was allowed to stand in the election of 2010 it won a clear majority. The military still retained, however, the final say in decision-making. A number of seats in the parliament at the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw, which lies midway between the two main cities of Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay, are held by them. In other words, the NLD could govern subject to military approval.
This has lasted for a few years until the fairly recent Rohingya problem, but we need to go back in history a while to understand the roots of the problem. In the 19th century, the British had to bring in Bengalis from India, much as in Malaya, to help develop the estates, plantations. These people practised Islam which was anathema to the Buddhist Burmese, or so we were told, and in 2017 a move against them by the military in terms of murder, arson and rape, effectively genocide, caused the Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. The Burmese military, which is one of the largest of the region, have carried out decades of atrocities in the northeast of the country in the Shan and Kachin states, which have fought a guerrilla war with the Burmese army for decades. The war is still going on. The general who seized power in the recent coup is 64 year old Min Aung Hlaing. For a decade previously he was in charge of the guerrilla war in the northeast and so one would not expect much sympathy from him.
The trigger of the current situation was the result of the October 2020 election where Suu Kyi’s NLD party won an overwhelming majority over the pro-military USDP (United Socialist Development Party), who said the vote was fraudulent, which ‘justified’ the coup. Many NLD politicians have been taken into custody and the President of the country and the Lady, Suu Kyi, have been taken away to an unknown destination. Charges, undoubtedly trumped up, have been brought against Suu Kyi. Min Aung Hlaing says he will hold a fresh election early next year with the hope that he can ‘arrange’ a better result that would legitimise the coup! The people won’t wait that long.
The recent Armed Forces Day, a tour de force, was celebrated while over 100 people were shot and lost their lives in protests. In attendance at the event were the defence ministers of China and Russia, the main supplier of arms to the Burmese military. Myanmar is strategically very important to China, from access to Myanmar’s rich resources to also providing direct access to the many assets they now hold in several African countries. They view Myanmar as an important client country.
There has been a growing number of protests over the coup and the fall out from it, from the World’s main organisations – the UN, EU, Amnesty International and a number of major countries, including the US. They have written very stiff letters but with China and Russia being on the UN’s Security Council there is little that will be done. China knows that; there are examples of Tibet, islands of the S China sea taken illegally, its actions on the Uighurs and its breaking of the agreement 25 years early negating democratic freedoms for HK. Will the west just permit this creeping takeover? Will they be more forceful over Myanmar? Or will the Myanmar people sort out their big problem themselves? Alas not without outside help.
Eric Blair, or George Orwell as he is better known, as a young man was sent to Burma on joining the Raj police. His experiences he wrote up in Burmese Days. He left to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and his experiences there began to make him think again about communism. Later this led to such influential allegorical works as Animal Farm and 1984, which shows what happens when one loses democratic freedom to a central government with a mission. He wrote 1984 two decades earlier in a rented house on the island of Jura, Scotland which he had taken while recovering from tuberculosis. 1984 has the phrase “Big brother is watching you”!
*About the author: Dr J Scott Younger, OBE, is a professional civil engineer; he spent 42 years in the Far East undertaking assignments in 10 countries for WB, ADB, UNDP. He published many papers; he was a columnist for Forbes Indonesia and Globe Asia. He served on British & European Chamber boards and was a Vice Chair of Int’l Business Chamber for 17 years. His expertise is infrastructure and sustainable development and he takes an interest in international affairs. He is an International Chancellor of the President University, Indonesia. He is a member of IFIMES Advisory Board.Lived and worked in Burma in 1980s.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.