This Now, That Then

Trying to mandate patriotic behavior is not new. It happened a few days after independence, at the constitution hall, during the framing of the Republic. How it was handled makes all the difference. 

The Supreme Court ruling from the bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Amitava Roy have made it mandatory for cinema halls in the country to play the national anthem before a movie begins during which the national flag is to be shown on the screen. They also ruled that everyone present in the cinema hall should rise up and pay respect to the anthem when it is played.

This is not the first time that a group of singularly sensitive scandalmongers have brought to the attention of the public and the court, the many ways in which unpatriotic citizens of the country insult the flag or the anthem. The court, and the justices have also, given petitions like these time, money and attention that are sorely needed elsewhere. Enabling court ordered patriotism has become a national vocation in this country.

The justices in addition to the many rules and regulations, seemingly criticized “the ideas of individual liberty“. By doing so, they have not only revealed the casualness with which they regard the constitution and its contents, but also a worrying ignorance of the central tenets around which this republic was built.

Trying to mandate patriotic behavior is not new though. This petitioner can be forgiven, for even in the hallowed halls of the constituent assembly, even as the republic was being shaped, a member made the following complaint.

On 26th August, 1947 just as the assembly was getting ready for the the day’s agenda, H. V Kamath from C & P Berar had the following to say

“Mr. H. V. Kamath (C. P. & Berar: General) : Mr. President Permit me, Sir,  to invite your attention to an incident which took place on the historic midsummer night of August 14-15. I must apologise to you, Sir, and to the House for harking back on old times, but in view of the intrinsic importance of the matter, I will request you to condone the delay in bringing it to your notice. You will be pleased to recollect, Sir, that on the night of the Assumption of Power Ceremony, the first item of the agenda was the singing of the Vande Mataram. Some of us in this House noticed that a number of our Honourable friends entered the Assembly Chamber-I would almost say trooped into this Hall-after the song had been sung. I would request you, Sir, to look into this matter, because there are certain considerations which arise from this action of theirs. They entered the Hall simultaneously, so simultaneously that it gave the appearance of the act having been performed not so much by accident as by design. You will be pleased to remember that the Assembly had resolved to leave this matter of programme entirely in your hands and they were in duty bound as members of this House to participate in the programme. My friends all very well know that this song, though it has not been adopted by this House as our National Anthem, yet it is a song, Sir, which has been hallowed, which has been consecrated, sanctified by the suffering and sacrifice, blood and tears, and the martyrdom of thousands of our countrymen and women. I shall be happy to hear from those members who came after the National Song had been sung that they did so not by design, but only by accident. Thank you.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the president of the assembly in all his wisdom, post a few members who rose to make additional points, asked them to respectfully drop the subject and moved on.


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The One With the Pivot

The prospect of a Donald Trump presidency has predictably enough, created a climate of uncertainty in the Asia Pacific region. Pranay Kotasthane in his post on Asian realignment sketches an idea of how countries in East Asia might recalibrate in the coming years. Already, countries like Australia, Philippines and Japan have started realigning themselves post US election, and reassessing their position in the face of US indifference and overweighted Chinese influence in Asia. Trump’s rallying cry for an America first policy, alongside what Robert Kagan calls a US withdrawal from the ‘reassurance business” will pose a bigger dilemma for smaller, emerging democracies like Myanmar.

The initial years of the Obama administration, with Clinton as secretary of state focussed on pivoting US towards Asia, and in creating stronger relationships with smaller nations in an effort to counter balance China’s influence in the region. The US had just prior to the election lifted a 20 year old sanction on Myanmar. There had been hints of more support to bolster state institutions in Myanmar, and help with trade and development in the country. There have also been rumours that the Asia pivot had come at a time when Myanmar was looking at North Korea as an ally for modernizing its military and as a supplier of nuclear technology.

The NLD’s rise to power at this juncture, was with full fledged support from the US government, both for the party and for the democratic movement in Myanmar. Clinton and Obama’s visit to Myanmar, and with Suu Kyi were seen favorably & greatly improved Myanmar’s image in the west. The 2015 election was predicated on the belief that Suu Kyi’s vision for a democratic Myanmar and her ability to engage with the world at large would bring economic development and better relations with countries other than China. Suu Kyi since her elevation to state councillor position post elections, has been meeting with world leaders trying to encourage investment in the country. Her meetings have resulted in multiple treaties, and promises of investments in various sectors, and in critical infrastructure in Myanmar.

A Clinton presidency might have extended this relationship.

President elect Trump’s Asia policy, on the other hand has focussed almost exclusively on the nature of trade relations with China, and stepping away from Japan, South Korea militarily. He has also more importantly sparked worries that he might disengage to a greater degree from Asia.

While a limited US role in the region doesn’t necessarily translate into disaster for Myanmar, it does limit the options that the country has in its grand scheme to pivot west.

For starters, Myanmar will continue to look towards India, Japan, and Singapore to ensure a balance in investments within the country. Japan and India have been looking at making joint investments in Myanmar which could significantly boost their impact in the region. India has also  tried to push forward with its act east policy, independently, and via groups like BIMSTEC. Myanmar has in the past year has also stepped up to engage more with regional actors and groups. Closer relations with more smaller countries means better connectivity in the region and perhaps strategic alliances that could help.

Secondly, Myanmar has to because of its position in the region look to China to assist in keeping peace on its borders. The increasing civil war along Myanmar’s borders means ethnic tensions spilling across the border to China, and also more refugees flooding into China. China will have a bigger stake in trying to keep peace in the region. It will also want to safe guard its interests in the region, and as the biggest investor in the country, it will ensure that internal conflicts don’t continue to impact its regional growth and connectivity.

The US through soft, and hard power projections ensured some semblance of security and balance for countries in the SE Asian region. A strong, developing relationship with the US could have perhaps given greater legitimacy and support to the NLD in trying to solve ethnic conflicts and chart peace agreements. However, the possibility of a policy shift makes it far more difficult for countries like Myanmar to depend on the US as a reliable ally, even as they make their transition from a dictatorship to a democratic country in a strategic region.

This uncertainty in the region is bound to last for some time. As critical as it is to see how larger countries realign themselves, it will now be equally important to keep an eye on how smaller countries pivot in the coming months.

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Peace, Rebel, Repeat

The reshaping of Myanmar’s landscape requires more than the image of Suu Kyi as a peace icon or her grand speeches. It needs real policies and politicking.

Aung San Suu Kyi remarks on the January 12th, 2016, the opening day of the 5 day Union Peace Conference in Naypyitaw (Myanmar’s capital) were both a critique of the current peace framework & an indication of how she sees her party steering the peace process within the country. The conference was an extension of the peace deal between the current USDP party and 8 ethnic nations in Myanmar. As surprising as her presence was given her negative remarks on the peace deal, her appearance was less of a nod to the current peace process, and more of a declaration of how she look to reshape Myanmar. She has made it clear, during the conference and in speeches preceding the event that Myanmar needs to craft a deal that will bring all ethnic nations on board. She has made all the right sounds in her approach to the peace deal. The problem however is that everything that has been said so far, has been sorely lacking in real policies. The reshaping of Myanmar’s landscape consists of several hurdles, and none of it can be surmounted through the sheer power of her image or the weight of her legacy as Aung San’s daughter.

First, the constitution does not give her (or the presidency) much room to maneuver a peace deal singlehandedly. The military as per the country’s constitution controls the national security and defense department. They also hold control of internal security and border control. Any deal reached must be approved by them. The military also as per the current constitution has the power to legally stage a coup if there are indications of unrest or even loss of confidence with the coming NLD government. Whatever policy that she crafts needs to ensure that the military does not feel marginalized or minimized.

Two, the military and a large section of the armed rebels have a direct interest in keeping the rebellion going. It gives them easy access to arms and money from foreign interests, by way of underground industries like drug smuggling, resource smuggling and human trafficking. Any peace process would require bringing these groups into the political and economic structure. Peace will be entirely dependent on how efficiently these structures can be dismantled. A policy that places greater emphasis on strengthening local governance and building institutions has been pegged as the best to succeed.

Three, One of the cornerstones of the problem between the ethnic nations and the centre has been the ‘Burmanization’ of education, culture and society in the country. It effectively meant imposing, often through force Burmese language, buddhism and buddhist culture on ethnic groups. It meant for the groups loss of language, culture and alienation from their way of life and religion. The rise of the Ma Ba Tha movement and other similar buddhist religious movements have succeeded creating a tyranny of majority that threatens the ethnic nations. Suu Kyi has so far remained silent on this issue. She will be forced to take a stance if she is looking to steer a peace process

Suu Kyi is in many ways still straddling the world of peace idol and pragmatic politician. She needs to pick a side soon.

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Building a New Myanmar

The biggest challenge in Myanmar for Daw Suu Kyi will be in handling the long drawn peace process between the various ethnic nations and the union government. Political and cultural rights need to be restored to overcome the deep seated antagonism between the union government and the ethnic nations.

Myanmar voters have given Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party an overwhelming victory in the first multi-party elections the country has had in 25 years. The mandate gives Suu Kyi 390 seats in the 664-member legislature in a near-final tally. The remaining seats are distributed between the military which is constitutionally authorized to hold 25% of the seats, the USDP (current ruling party), and other ethnic parties. The vote for president will take place in March of 2016 and the new government will start its term on April 1st, provided all goes well in the handover process. Suu Kyi has emphasized that regardless of who is voted in as the president, she will remain the power behind the seat. If she does so, she will have to contend, negotiate and come to terms with ruling the country alongside the military industrial complex. It also means helming a complicated peace process between the union government and the ethnic groups in the country.

Suu Kyi in interviews, post victory has mentioned negotiating peace agreements with the many ethnic nations spread across the borders of Myanmar as her highest priority. She has called for ceasefire agreements and an effort for a stronger federal system of governance. As important as ceasefire agreements are for the ethnic nations, it would have a lot more impact if peace also came in the form of restoring equal rights, freedom to practice their religion, and use their language. The current peace process has not offered much in this regard and Suu Kyi’s insistence on charting her own peace process might signify a far more comprehensive agreement.

The current USDP government has signed a national ceasefire agreement with 8 ethnic groups in October of 2015. According to the terms of the agreement, a framework for peace would be put in place by December 14th and formal dialogue will begin before January 14th. Suu Kyi and the NLD party have so far not taken part in any of the negotiations. Suu Kyi has in fact criticized the deal for not covering enough ground and has encouraged ethnic parties to not sign the deal.

Even while the national ceasefire agreement was being put into place, the military had started offensives in Shan, and Kachin states in the east and north east of the country. The intensifying of armed conflict was seen by many as a measure to push rebellious states that had refused the deals of the agreement to concede and fall in line. The offensive only served to magnify the reasons why many of the ethnic nations on Myanmar’s borders continue to remain on the periphery of the union.

The political, economic and cultural exclusion of the tribes from the union and from the midlands forms the backbone of the many ills that plague the country. The war between Yangon (Rangoon) and the ethnic nations predates independence from Britain, and has the dubious distinction of serving as the backdrop for two of the longest running insurgencies in the world. Myanmar’s self exclusion and continued alienation has only served to aggravate issues.

The political alienation resulted from overthrowing the Panglong agreement that was part of the original 1948 constitution. The agreement was signed between general Aung San and the Kachin, Shan and Chin people. It promised full autonomy in internal administration, envisioned the creation of Kachin state and promised to look at secession for Shan state in ten years. More importantly it accorded all of the ethnic nations all the fundamental rights and privileges enjoyed by people of democratic countries. The agreement was historical for it signified the coming together of men who had often fought on opposing sides of the battlefield, often with each other during WWII. The Kachin, Karen tribes had sided with the British, and Aung San’s Burmese Army backed the Japanese just before it invaded Burma in 1942.

Deep seated suspicion over the loyalties of tribes like Kachin, & Karen boiled into full fledged animosity on both sides. Failed promises from the time of Independence to persistent insurgent movements escalated to a brutal crackdown in the region during the coup. The military’s objective was to regain control of the country from the various interlopers of varied ethnicities who strayed in during the British era, and restoring the control of the country to the Bamar people, the largest ethnic group in the country.

The military viewed the Bamar people as the original inhabitants of the country. They therefore represented true ‘Burman nationalism’. ‘Burman nationalism’ meant establishing Burmese language, Buddhism and Buddhist culture over all others. It also meant sidelining minorities of other religions, and ethnicities, denying equal opportunity, rights or citizenship for them. The antagonism between the ethnic nations and the Bamar majority, union government has been exacerbated by the intolerance and coercive majoritarianism exhibited by the center through various means. Cultural exclusion included pushing Burmese language, culture, religion on them in schools and colleges. The result has been a a group of people marooned from their own culture, and left raft less by a system that demands homogeneity without reason.

For Suu Kyi to effectively govern the country, it will be critical to strike a balance between the military industrial complex that controls vital departments including security, and the ethnic nations. There has been enough antagonism from both sides and the almost 6 decades of conflict has taken its toll. The country struggles with an extremely large number of internally displaced people, and a porous border that has resulted in a major drug and human smuggling networks. Military commanders also moonlight as businessmen dealing in farming everything from poultry to poppy, mining and selling everything from rubies to rare jade. There has been very little indication that they are willing to give away their riches and their position just because a non military backed, democratic government has come into power.

Suu Kyi will have to navigate deftly and diplomatically between the military and the people who voted for her. Part of her diplomatic heft has to also be wielded with Myanmar’s neighbors, specifically India and China, to ensure their support for stability at the borders and non interference for her policies inside the country. Suu Kyi’s victory at the elections came without the voters asking much of her in terms of policies, alliances or detailed mandates on how she would govern. There have been fewer questions raised about the shades of authoritarianism involved in her emphatic assurance of being higher than the president. She has been handed the pulpit on a platter. How she uses her position will determine the future of her country.

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Reflections on the 69th Year of Independence

We need a Lutheran approach to understanding our democracy and our republic. We need to get back to the basics, learn and understand for ourselves what our freedoms are, and demand that state see us as individuals capable of deciding our own lives

On the 28th of April 1947, just before the start of the third session of the constituent assembly of India, the president of the assembly, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, brought to the attention of its members that Burma had elected its own constituent assembly, quite similar to India’s with the objective of a free, independent Burmese Republic. General Aung San would be the prime mover behind Burma’s transition to Independence. Two months later on the 21st of July 1947, the Indian constituent assembly began its session with condolences on the assassination of General Aung San and his colleagues.

The constituent assembly would go on to meet for another 2 years, its numbers fluctuating with partition, deaths, and elections. In August 1947, it would meet to debate its own status as a constituent assembly and a legislative body. It would meet in November 1948, to offer silent tributes for Gandhi, 10 months after his assassination, and a silent tribute to Jinnah 20 days after his death. The assembly would meet through the most tumultuous times in the Indian subcontinent, fully aware that the institutions that were being created, the republic that was being constructed by the 299 representatives, will have to weather the saints and the scalawags of an Independent India.

68 years after Independence, the union still stands; free, democratic, secular and a republic. It stands in the midst of a subcontinent beset by wars, dictators, military rules, constitutional crises and unstable governments. The neighbourhood is evidence enough to realize the enormity of sustaining an independent republic, and the extraordinary nature of our political system that has shown to be capable of navigating the excesses of meaningless diatribes, alongside the dearth of consequential deliberations. The cracks are however starting to show.

The combined power of an passionless populace, petty politicians, and pestilential politicking have considerable weakened the republic. Murmurs of authoritarianism being preferred over democracy or an oligarchy being favored over popular politics have begun. What drives these movements forward, more than the dream of an utopian state, is an ignorance fed by decades of closing education inside ‘narrow domestic walls’ and ‘dreary desert sand of dead habit’.

Part of the reason for our indifference lies in the way we are taught about our history and in the failure to encourage critical reasoning, rational thinking and learning through questioning. Our education like Gradgrinds school in Dickens’ Hard Times teaches us about facts and nothing but cold hard facts. We do not learn completely about the many ideas that shaped our Independence and our republic. We do not learn about why the men and women who travelled the world to muster support for an Independent India settled on this idea for our country. The insufficiency in our education also means we dampen creativity, ignore argumentative analysis , and refuse to engage in exercises that would help us gain a better understanding of our history and our republic.

Every democracy goes through periods of introspection and fine tuning. It requires the citizenry to look at what has gone right and what can be set right. To lazily entrust the responsibility completely to one individual and willingly forego freedoms in exchange for imagined security & prosperity is not the answer. What we need instead is a Lutheran approach to understanding our democracy and our republic. We need to get back to the basics, learn and understand for ourselves what our freedoms are, and demand that state see us as individuals capable of deciding our own lives. We need to introspect, understand and argue for better rights. We need to teach the next generation to seek refuge in reason and not drown in dogma. We need to overhaul our systems and our institutions, part by part, and push them to create a new generation of citizenry, who can judge for themselves and raise questions that can take them to places where the ‘mind is without fear’

For 2014, I elaborated on Ambedkar’s idea that Social Conscience is the only safeguard for all rights, fundamental and non-fundamental

For 2013 I wrote how Independant thinking, Informed criticism and introspective analysis should be the way forward

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When Look West meets Look East: India-Myanmar Relationship

A primer on the several hurdles that plague the balance and counterbalance walk between India and Myanmar. 

On November 8th, Myanmar will hold its first open, multi-party elections since 1990. The election comes on the heels of a protracted reform movement that was put into place by the military backed USDP party that has been running the country since 2010. Western governments who have encouraged Myanmar’s reforms and praised the paltry civil liberties that have been granted, see this election as a crucial step in Myanmar’s sluggish path to democracy. The November election will also be the first general election for Suu Kyi’s NLD party in 25 years. Their last victory in 1990 ended with her house arrest, crackdown on student protests, a ruthless military dictatorship headed by the SLORC and the introduction of a contentious constitution. There is a small hope, that this election will push the country forward, on a path to a sustainable democratic union. 

The five years since the Thein Sein government came into power, has seen a dramatic shift in the world’s perception of Myanmar. The US and the UK have been trying to balance critical engagement and investment in the country with rightful indignation about its abysmal human rights record. Investments in Myanmar from countries including Thailand, Hong Kong have increased manifold. China and India, meanwhile have pushed ahead fully realizing the strategic importance of a country that sits at the crossroads. Myanmar’s reaction to this increased attention has been one of quite deliberation, and astute pragmatism.

The new crop of Burmese leaders realize that while China has the economic clout to enable it realize its streams of development, overly depending on China would at some point in time create a situation where Myanmar would be subsumed by China. The increased border tensions between the two countries and signs of Chinese interference in funding and training ethnic rebels has been a serious point of contention. The suspension, by  Myanmar of various Chinese projects, including the gas line, the copper mine project and Myistone Dam project were meant to send a strong signal to China. China, meanwhile is going all out in an effort to increase its presence in the region. It has in the last few years invited various ethnic Burmese parties for talks. It also invited Aung San Suu Kyi, a political activist whose arrest and silencing it fully supported till a few years back. Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China in early June this year is a sign of the triumph of realism on both sides, and an indication of how the election can potentially change Myanmar’s relationship with its neighbors.

Myanmar’s look west policy, on the other hand gives it an opportunity in investing in a good relationship with India which also has a meeting point in its look east policy. There are, however, several hurdles in this balance and counterbalance tightrope walk.

The first and primary issue is the inability of the Indian government to project a coherent, and sustainable policy towards Myanmar. The relationship goes in short bursts of optimism followed by benign neglect of interest. Every opportunity to increase India’s investment in building a long term relationship with Myanmar has been hampered by bureaucratic incompetence, inefficiency and more importantly an inability to voice a proper policy with regard to its engagement. While there is something to be said about quiet strategic engagements without bringing too much attention to a well defined policy, India’s engagement often looks like something it stumbled into, without clarity or deliberations.

The second factor affecting India-Myanmar relationship is the hangover from the past, when Indians dominated the Burmese landscape. It carries with it a history of exploitation of the Burmese people by Indian employers under the active encouragement and prodding of the British overlords. Burmese nationalism is a direct result of that, and incorporates a kind of xenophobia against every ethnic group that came in settled in Myanmar and exploited the resources and people of Myanmar over the last 300 years.  Our inability to understand that and work around that issue has resulted in some very awkward, and inelegant handling of the relationship. Myanmar’s assertion of its strong position in the Indian Ocean region and its awareness of what it can bring to a relationship should be seen as a sign of the country coming into its own. India needs to work out what it can do in terms of investing in that relationship.

There are various ways in which this relationship can move ahead. Critical of this would be to extend invitations to not just the assumed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but also to various ethnic parties which will have a stake in the future of the Burmese Union. The Thein Sein government has been under negotiations with various ethnic parties over a ceasefire agreement which is likely to have long term impact not just within Myanmar, but also along the border with Nagaland, and Manipur. It would be in India’s interest to indicate a willingness to work with recognized ethnic parties to settle border disputes. India also needs to formulate a strategic policy of including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to create a maritime and land route on the lines that China is proposing of the belt highway. India also needs to seriously plug the gaps in the many proposed and incomplete projects that it has with Myanmar. Cross-border trade, energy investments, river-networks, infrastructure developments have all been left unfinished and neglected by various governments. The projects needs to be completed and the last mile problems solved.

The NDA’s focus on diaspora engagement and using Indians settled abroad to build relationships should extend eastward too. Myanmar has a large group of politically neglected Indians who have struggled to establish themselves in the country and are at the receiving end of various policies that have enfeebled them. India needs to work on a policy that will ensure that these Indians settled in Myanmar can lead a life without their rights being violated in any form or measure.

The Thein Sein government has been astute in managing the transition from a military backed government to one that proclaims to be democratic. The opening up of the country to visiting journalists and diplomats, granting small slivers of civil liberties, allowing protests and opposition have been chalked up as achievements. On the other hand, there have also been commentators who have expressed doubts about the pace and nature of reforms taking place in the country. Suu Kyi herself, has encouraged US, UK and the rest to have a healthy skepticism about the transition.

Burmese news agencies have reported that a total of 83 parties have signed up to compete in the elections. These include ethnic parties like the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, the Arakan National Party, the Mon democracy party and smaller ethnic coalition parties. The lack of a ceasefire deal means ethnic parties will be able to build on it to secure votes in return for greater control in deciding their fates. The waning popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi also means that the NLD cannot rest assured of a majority in the houses. The military remains an overarching figure, controlling veto power, and the ability to legally stage an overthrow of a government in case of instability. The voting system also ensures that even non elected members, including military personnel can be voted by a council of ministers to the presidency. Barring Aung San Suu Kyi who cannot become president under the current constitution, the three most likely candidates all come from military backgrounds. Both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann, who is the current speaker of the house have shown themselves to be open to a regimented democracy and have exhibited a degree of flexibility to accommodate reform movements. The current commander-in-chief of the armed forces Min Aung Hlaing will be retiring soon and is widely expected to be the third candidate.

India has a real opportunity here to invest in a stronger, more strategically informed relationship with a neighbor with whom we share more than just a border. Any relationship requires adaptability, trust and an appreciation of what the other side requires from the relationship. How we use this moment to our advantage needs to be seen.


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The UNHRC – A Satirical Play

The irony of countries that systematically violate human rights laws, forwarding a resolution at the UNHRC condemning human rights violations in Burma, is the reason why the UN and its rights bodies need urgent overhauling

In a move completely devoid of irony, but fully befitting the ineffective stage on which it was passed, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) proposed a resolution condemning the systemic mass atrocities on Rohingya muslims in Burma. The draft resolution titled “Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar” was adopted without a vote on July 3rd, 2015.

The draft resolution points out that states have primary responsibility for promotion and protection of human rights, condemns violation of human rights and among other things, acknowledges the denial of citizenship status and other related rights to Rohingya Muslims as a concern. It then proceeds to call the government of Myanmar to protect the rights and freedom of the minorities, ensure accountability, to protect places of worship and to end the violence, exploitation and discrimination of minorities, specifically Rohingya Muslims.

The resolutions, by themselves are completely legitimate and within the powers of the countries advancing it. The OIC as an organization has kept itself busy in trying to establish itself as a mediator between acceptable true muslims and the rest of the world. The resolution was a part of their mission to ensure Muslim rights remain unviolated. The absurdity of the exercise, however is in the way the UNHRC meekly adopted the resolution without a single country calling out the OIC or Pakistan for their own human rights violations. 

The OIC is a 57 state organization established in the 1960’s. Members of the organization include almost every muslim majority country in the Middle East, Northern Africa, Pakistan, and South East Asia. The organization’s website calls itself “the second largest inter-governmental organization after the United Nations”, and “the collective voice of the Muslim world, ensuring to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world” With permanent delegations to both the United Nations and the European Union, the organization has managed to push its agenda on various issues that remain vital to the greater Islamic Ummah. These have included condemnation of Israel, highlighting discrimination of muslim minorities in non-Islamic countries and more importantly pushed for an annual resolution condemning religious defamation. The push for what essentially would be an international blasphemy law was one of the landmark resolutions proposed by Pakistan to the UNHRC in 2006.  It ensured that censuring freedom of expression in countries with blasphemy laws would not be seen as a crime. Instead, condemning a religion, would be considered a violation of human rights. The resolution was passed multiple times, before being reworded in 2011.

The OIC as an organization has the strength and the clout on the international stage to redefine various freedoms, rights and human life in an extremely narrow ways. Barring one or two countries, the entire OIC is made of countries that have very little respect for internationally defined human right laws, are belligerent towards suggestions of violations of these laws in their countries and have some of the worst oppressive, regimented rulers in the world. And they sit and push the United Nations to pass resolutions on a state’s responsibility to protect human rights.

The biggest perpetrator of crimes against humanity here is Pakistan. Marginalization of minorities through laws such as ordinance XX which defines who is a muslim and effectively sidelining Ahmadi’s, Christians and Hindus is norm. Pakistan has mastered the art of using blasphemy laws to imprison and push the death penalty on minorities repeatedly. The use of Sharia laws and adoption of Sunni Islam directives to conduct affairs of the state has also sidelined other Islamic sects and have made them foreigners in their own lands. The state is also a full participant in the perpetuation of a genocide against Shia muslims. As Christine Fair points out

 “In 2013 nearly 700 Shia were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in more than 200 sectarian terrorist attacks. Over 90 percent of those attacks occurred in Quetta, Karachi, Kangu, Parachinar, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Since the beginning of 2000, nearly 4,000 persons have been killed and 6,800 injured”

Various human rights violations including abductions, kill and dump policies and extreme torture have been recorded against Balochs in the country. With more than 20,000 missing and or found dead and mass graves discovered, Balochistan continues to be severely oppressed by the Military Jihadi complex that runs the country and by state sponsored terrorist outfits.

There is however nothing that the United Nations’ human rights body or the OIC or the western powers can or will do to bring Pakistan to task.

The issue of gross human rights violations against the Rohingyas needs to be addressed and steps have to be taken to stop the mass detention and issue of statelessness for these people. Resolutions from international organizations however, have little impact at the ground level. The issue can only be dealt with effectively by Burma itself, in conjunction with the states bordering it, including Thailand and Malaysia. These are the countries directly affected by Burma’s inhumane treatment of the Rohingya Muslims and their migration. The UNHRC has been useful in ensuring that the Rohingya muslim migrants procure safe passage to other countries and in ensuring they have some level of basic necessities to sustain themselves. It has however failed spectacularly in enforcing countries to adopt international human rights standards. To quietly pass resolutions on human rights violations, proposed by a country and an organization where none of the proposals hold any value, is not just a mockery of the institution but also the values that the UN purports to uphold.

The UNHRC has long ceased to be useful in enforcing universal human right norms. Individual countries who hold veto powers have taken it upon themselves to redefine human rights to suit their purpose, and the smaller countries who have traditionally looked to the UNHRC for various protections are learning to align with the powers that would benefit them the most. The role of human rights organization then needs to be redefined. An organization that has dropped so low in relevance needs to realign itself or risk obliteration.

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Creating A National League for Democracy

The challenge of changing the constitution was monumental and futile from the beginning. Suu Kyi needs to turn her focus on creating the next generation of democratic leaders. To paraphrase from Batman, it no longer matters who she is, but what she does in her current position, that will go on to define her.

On June 25th, 2015 the Burmese parliament struck down five of six proposed amendments in the 2008 constitution. The amendments were struck down after three days of debates, during which the military argued passionately and with power point presentations, on why it needed to a central role in governance. The overturning of the amendments eliminated the remote possibility of full-fledged democracy in the country as it prepares for the November 2015 election.

One of the amendments targeted Article 436(a) and (b) of the constitution. It would have reduced the majority required in the parliament to pass amendments from 75 percent to 70 percent. The reduction was crucial, since the military currently occupies 25% of the seats and could effectively block any measure that would undermine their hold on power. In spite of two-thirds of the MP’s voting for the amendment, the veto held by the military managed to strike it down.

The second of the five failed amendments was to strike down one portion of the article Article 59(f). The amendment proposed lifting one section of a ban on presidential candidates whose relatives are foreign citizens. The proposed amendment was misunderstood by many to mean that it would directly impact Aung San Suu Kyi’s chances in the upcoming election. The amendment wouldn’t have made any difference to her status. As a wife of a foreign citizen and having sons with foreign citizenship, she has very little chance of becoming president under the current constitution.

The third amendment that was passed over was Article 60 that would have enabled a President and Vice President to be chosen from people-elected parliamentary representatives and not from non-elected members or directly elected military personnel.

The blocking of all vital amendments were made under the premise of protecting the stability of the country. Representatives from the military argued that the presence of the “Myanmar military in the legislative and administrative sectors, was necessary to protect and stand for the country in its time of need,” They also concluded that stability and reconciliation was needed more than democratic processes.

Suu Kyi, since her release in 2010, and since the announcement of the elections has maintained that the west was being overly optimistic about the speed and nature of reforms. She has also maintained a healthy skepticism about the promise of an election under a more inclusive constitution. Given her degree of mistrust in the system and her incredulity at the possibility of holding an executive position in the government, it is very surprising that she has done very little on the ground to prepare the party to move quickly without being bogged down by the constitutional amendment game.

The party has yet to announce decisively on whether it will compete in the November elections. There is also the glaring absence of any kind of policy debate both within the party and outside. The NLD has raised issues of voter list problems and has conducted registration drives, but little else seems to have happened. It can be argued that in a country where politics and political process remain extremely unreliable and where military leaders are used to conducting whimsical governance, there is little point in direct engagement. The other side of the argument is that Suu Kyi has very little to lose in pushing for democratic processes at the ground level. Her pragmatism, while necessary needs to also be tempered by the fact that there has been a history of people movements supporting strong military leaders who promise stability in exchange for rights. Breaking that chain in the next few months, then becomes critical.

The NLD urgently needs to mentor a second tier of leaders who can bring a degree of stability to the party and ensure smoother transition towards democracy. Suu Kyi has written extensively about the necessity of civil servants who understand the system and can ensure continuity in a democracy. She has the opportunity to do that now regardless of the elections in November. They need to be trained to address critical gaps in policy based issues and prepare the party for a devolvement from the 88 generation leaders and Suu Kyi. This aspect of party politics is critical for a sustained battle against an unrelenting military government in the country.

The NLD should also prepare itself to face a parliament where it will not be in the majority. The change from first past the post voting system to proportional representation will mean more diversity within the parliament. The diversity is also assured by the fact that a record number of political parties, mostly ethnic parties will be taking part in this election. Collective decision making will push the party towards taking stance on critical issues including human rights, economic growth, and foreign investments. The NLD can assert itself only if it knows its own mind.

The next three months will be critical for both the party and the country. The challenge of changing the constitution was monumental from the beginning, and Suu Kyi’s chance of becoming the president was close to nil. Given the impracticable circumstances, and the mercurial nature of the Burmese politics, Suu Kyi cannot afford to step back now.


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Rohingya’s and the Citizenship Crisis

The issue of political recognition of the “stateless” people is not just a function of the virulent kind of religious nationalism that has taken over the state. It is also an extension of the refusal, by the government, and the constitution, to acknowledge the validity of Rohingya claim to Burmese history. 

The Rohingya who had fled economic and physical persecution in Burma have been returning to Rakhine after a 2 month ordeal on the seas. The inability to reach land, the crackdown on smugglers, middlemen and traffickers and the intensity of international scrutiny have forced them to return to Burma. The coming monsoon will prevent any more departures for at least 3 months. The conditions on ground hasn’t shown any signs of improvement either. Despite international condemnation and appeals to ensure that the Rohingya don’t remain persecuted, the current government has not shown any inclination towards making their lives easier. In fact none of the leading parties in Burma have shown a desire to ensure that the Rohingya get formally and politically inducted into the Burmese society.

One of the cornerstones that plague the full assimilation of the Rohingya Muslims into Burmese society is the calculated refusal by governments to grant them full citizenship. The extent to which the community is abhorred and sidelined can be seen in the final report of the census that was conducted last year. In the first census since 1983, in parts of Rakhine state “members of some communities were not counted because they were not allowed to self-identify using a name that is not recognized by the Government.”  The issue of political recognition of the “stateless” people is not just a function of the virulent kind of religious nationalism that has taken over the state. It is also an extension of the refusal, by the government, and the constitution, to acknowledge the validity of Rohingya claim to Burmese history.

Under the original constitution of 1948, written when Burma gained Independence from the British, Rohingya’s were considered as one of the indigenous communities and were given citizenship rights including voting and standing for elections. Citizens under the 1948 act were any person born within one of the indigenous races of Burma or had settled in Burma for two generations earlier. Naturalization was also allowed after 5 years of residency. The 1948 constitution was soon replaced after the ousting of the democratic government by a coup orchestrated by General Ne Win in 1962. The 1974 constitution declared Burma to be a socialist republic with a unicameral body.

Following the coup, and the ascendency of the military in the center, attempts were made to purge the country of immigrants, both legal and illegal. These migrants who had come post the British occupation, were not considered to belong to Burma, and military led operations were launched at many points in the country to systematically remove them from the country. Part of the ‘Burmanization’ of the country included violent operations in northern Rakhine state which led to mass displacement of Rohingya in 1978. Following international condemnation, most the 250,000 estimated refugees were taken back into the country. Three years later, the 1982 citizenship law was put into place as a way to ensure that the Rohingya would never be able to claim complete rights in a land that didn’t want them.

The iniquitous nature of the citizenship law was evident in the fact that it sought to highlight those who did not belong, rather than prove who were citizens of the country. The high cost of proving citizenship and the prohibitive climate that discouraged foreigners, meant that most of the Rohingya’s never went ahead with the program. The citizenship issue was also greatly complicated by the nature of citizenships that were permitted in the new military dictatorship. Persons claiming to be citizens of Burma were divided into three categories – The full citizens (pink card) who were descendants of residents living in Burma prior to 1823, the associate citizens (blue card) who had acquired citizenship through the 1948 citizenship law and the naturalized citizens (green card) who had lived in Burma prior to ’48, but had applied for citizenship only after 1982.

The Rohingya were considered both non-national and foreign residents. The law recognized about 135 distinct ethnic groups, grouped into eight major ethnic nationalities in Burma. The Rohingya as a people, and their language were excluded from national recognition, forcing on them the burden to provide proof of their belonging to Burma. The complexity of having to prove their validity as citizenship meant recognizing themselves as foreigners or ‘Bengalis’, and providing proof of their residence in Rakhine prior to the first Anglo-Burman war.  The few thousands who did have a citizenship under the 1948 law held a National Registration Card which was replaced with a Temporary Registration Card or White card, that would enable them to vote but not enjoy the full privileges of citizenship until the state had fully scrutinized their claims.

Controversy erupted over the white cards after many of the Rohingya voted in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 elections. The pandering of the Rohingya votes for the 2008 constitutional referendum that assured the military a quarter of the votes in the assembly and rejected presidential bid by anyone married to a non burmese and the 2010 parliamentary elections, resulted in wide spread violence in the state. Buddhist majority parties, including the Rakhine National Party called for nationwide protests, challenging legally, the constitutionality of the decision to allow ‘foreigners’ to vote. Several members of the National League for Democracy too supported the legal challenge against the referendum. The 2012 riots that made more than 140,000 or so Rohingya homeless and confined them to squalid camps was a result of this suffrage.

President Thein Sein in early February 2015 sought to pass a law that would allow the almost 700,000 Rohingya white card holders to vote in a constitutional referendum before the 2015 elections. While the move was politically inspired, it also gave a degree of support for the Rohingya muslims. The law, when passed was met with severe protests and complains by Buddhist monks, and other national parties. The rattled president quickly withdrew the bill and declared that on 31st March, 2015 all white cards would become defunct. The move in a single day disenfranchised thousands of Muslims removing hope of immediate change.

The 2012 riots and the 2015 refugee crisis have brought the status of the Rohingya to international attention. Citizenship for all its political baggage, brings to the table one critical element that becomes vital, it provides an identity and a connection to a person, to a place and to a country. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the NLD is perhaps being pragmatic in refusing to talk about the issue now. There are a few more, who swear that her faith and need for stability over secularism will prevail. There is still a small hope that a victory for her party in November will push the issue of citizenship in Burma to the forefront.

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Suu Kyi in China

Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China needs to be seen within the framework of a politician engaging with a neighbour who might hold the future for economic growth in her country. 

The National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi along with a few members from her party are in the middle of a 5 day trip to China. She met with the Chinese President Xi Jinping a day after she landed in China, and is scheduled to meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. While details of her discussions will not be made public, there has been considerable interest in what is a historic visit. China has hosted leaders from opposition parties of other countries in an effort to expand its reach internationally. This however is the first time the country will play host to a person whose incarceration it backed, for a military regime that held Burma’s development back by several decades.

China is keen to appeal to a broader base within Burma. This is to ensure the safety and continuity of its investments in the region and to maintain its dominance in an area that has suddenly become attractive for other investors. The 2010 elections that brought the reformist government of Thein Sein into power, pushed China to the back-burner as a potential investor and ally. The Myistone Dam and Letpadaung copper mine, along with the Kyaukphyu gas line that runs from the northwestern state of Rakhine in Burma to Yunan province in southern China, were meant to be part of a bigger strategy to ensure China’s dominance in the region. The former two have since run into trouble with ethnic groups protesting against the Chinese for unfair practices and environmental degradation. Meanwhile, Burma, as a part of its economic reform, has shown a keen interest in encouraging western firms and governments to invest more in the country. This move has effectively pushed China to engage at a deeper level with other political parties in Burma to ensure its relevance in the region.

The Burmese government late last year announced an election tentatively scheduled for early November 2015. The election, the first one that will be open to external monitors, will see Suu Kyi’s NLD party possibly coming into power. The invitation to Suu Kyi, is an attempt by China to set right its relationship with an eye to the future. The statement released by the official press agency Xinhua took efforts to point out that the Chinese Communist Party was

“ready to engage with any political parties as long as they are willing to promote the sound development of relations with China.”

It was also hopeful that Suu Kyi would China welcomes anyone with friendly intentions and it bears no grudge for past unpleasantness.

Aung San Suu Kyi has bigger fish to fry in Burma. The country’s constitution, drafted and strong-armed into approval by the army in 2008, bars Suu Kyi from becoming president. It also gives one-fourth representation to the army, and critical powers that would enable it to block any amendments. There has been a lot of speculation about striking down these laws, but very little by way of actual action. Her party, which still has not put forth a strong second in command, will be going head to head against 70 other parties that have registered for the election. Her tremendous appeal will ensure a strong show for the party, but how much and how strong remains an unknown. Her support for the Letpadaung mine and her staunch refusal to engage into any conversation about the abject treatment of the Rohingya’s have chipped away at her support at some level. Her support for the China backed projects, along with her visit to the country will be questioned by many and could possibly affect her standing with the ethnic minorities.

Her willingness to compromise, and work with Thein Sein, in bringing Burma into the 21st century has shown her to be a pragmatic politician and an astute leader of her party. Her acceptance of the invitation to China is perhaps a signal that she recognizes the importance of Chinese investments for her country and a hope that she might be able to assure China of her support if they were willing to engage in responsible investments in Burma. Co-operation with China would also mean an ability to bargain for peace on the borders, without any uncomfortable questions about her silence on human rights issues within Burma. The recent escalation of conflict on the borders between Kokang rebels and the Burmese military was a sign of the growing tensions between the two neighbours. A ceasefire agreement has since been signed, but it remains contingent upon the 2015 elections.

There is very little that is guaranteed about the near future of Burma. The election dates have not yet been finalized. The Nationwide Ceasefire Accords that was to be signed between the government and the ethnic groups have been teetering, and the extremely porous borders make law and order a nightmare. Aung San Suu Kyi however, is guaranteed a place in the future of modern Burmese politics. Her visit to China, along with members from her NLD party needs to be seen as a chance to cement her place in the power corridors of Burma. The world, more specifically Burma’s neighbours, needs to remove its grimy rose-tinted, nobel peace prize aviators and see, and engage, with her as the pragmatic, tactical politician she has grown into. And that might not be a bad thing for Burma.

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