The Powerless Lady evades the Rohingya Issue in her speech to the World


December 19, 2017

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar, stood before a room of government officials and foreign dignitaries on Tuesday to at last, after weeks of international urging, address the plight of the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority.

But those who expected Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to deliver an eloquent requiem for an oppressed people were disappointed.

In her speech, delivered in crisp English and often directly inviting foreign listeners to “join us” in addressing Myanmar’s problems, she steadfastly refused to criticize the Myanmar military, which has been accused of a vast campaign of killing, rape and village burning.

“The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” she said.

As she spoke, more than 400,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority long repressed by the Buddhists who dominate Myanmar, had fled a military massacre that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” The lucky ones are suffering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh where there is not nearly enough food or medical aid.

A stark satellite analysis by Human Rights Watch shows that at least 210 of their villages have been burned to the ground since the offensive began on August 25. Bangladeshi officials say that land mines had been planted on Myanmar’s side of the border, where the Rohingyas are fleeing.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi tried to mollify her critics by saying she was committed to restoring peace and the rule of law.

“We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” she said. “We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict.”

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Supporters of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, on Tuesday. Credit Lynn Bo Bo/European Pressphoto Agency

But asking why the world did not acknowledge the progress made in her country, she also boasted that Muslims living in the violence-torn area had ample access to health care and radio broadcasts.

It was a remarkable parroting of the language of the generals who locked her up for the better part of two decades, and in the process made a political legend of her: the regal prisoner of conscience who vanquished the military with no weapons but her principles.

Officials in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government have accused the Rohingyas, who have suffered decades of persecution and have been mostly stripped of their citizenship, of faking rape and burning their own houses in a bid to hijack international public opinion. She has done nothing to correct the record.

A Facebook page associated with her office suggested that international aid groups were colluding with Rohingya militants, whose attack on Myanmar police posts and an army base precipitated the fierce military counteroffensive. In a statement, her government labeled the insurgent strikes “brutal acts of terrorism.”

It has been a stunning reversal for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 72, who was once celebrated alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to her for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

During her address, made from a vast convention center in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi tried to evoke a program of grand goals including democratic transition, peace, stability and development. But she also cautioned that the country’s long experience with authoritarian rule and nearly seven decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s frontier lands have frayed national unity.

“People expect us to overcome all these challenges in as short a time as possible,” she said, noting that her civilian government only took office last year. “Eighteen months is a very short time in which to expect us to meet and overcome all the challenges that we are facing.”

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Myanmar police officers at the Bangladesh border near Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State last month. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But there were worrisome signs from the moment she entered a power-sharing agreement with the military after her National League for Democracy won 2015 elections.

Myanmar’s generals — who ruled the country for nearly half a century and turned a resource-rich land also known as Burma into an economic failure — stage-managed every facet of the political transition. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Army is known, made sure to keep the most important levers of power for itself.

It also effectively relegated Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to the post of state counselor by designing a Constitution that kept her from the presidency.

“It’s always a dance with the generals,” said U Win Htein, an N.L.D. party elder. “She needs to be very quick on her feet.”

Mr. Win Htein, a former military officer who served alongside some of the Tatmadaw’s highest-ranking generals, warned that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had to placate an army with a history of pushing aside civilian leaders under the pretext of defending national sovereignty.

“The army, they are watching her every word,” he said. “One misstep on the Muslim issue, and they can make their move.”

Yet even before the compromises that accompanied her ascension to power, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was already distancing herself from the hopes invested in her by the international community.

“Let me be clear that I would like to be seen as a politician, not some human rights icon,” she said in an interview shortly after her release from house arrest in 2010.

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Rohingya refugees resting after crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar last month. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

Such a recasting of her role has disappointed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In an open letter, Desmond Tutu, the South African former archbishop, advised his “dearly beloved younger sister” that “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, was even more pointed.

“She should not have received a Nobel Peace Prize if she says, sorry, I’m a politician, and the norms of democracy don’t suit me,” he said in a telephone interview with The New York Times. “The whole world stood by her for decades, but today she has become the mirror image of Aung San Suu Kyi by destroying human rights and denying citizenship to the Rohingya.”

“All we can do,” he said, “is pray for the return of the old Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Beyond her personal legacy, the direction of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership carries global consequence.

“People are invested in her because we need her to succeed. This is a democratic moment, and she represents Burma’s democratic promise,” said Derek Mitchell, the former American ambassador to Myanmar. “The country sits at the crossroads of Asia in a region where democracy is in retreat, which makes Burma’s success even more important.”

In Tuesday’s speech, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledged the state of democracy in her country.

“We are a young and fragile democracy facing many problems,” she said, “but we have to cope with them all at the same time.”

But she also stressed that “more than 50 percent” of Rohingya villages in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine remained “intact.” And she seemed to borrow vocabulary from a self-help manual when she described the need to research why certain villages had not been touched by the violence.

“We have to remove the negative and increase the positive,” she said.

As the daughter of the assassinated independence hero Gen. Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese Army, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been unapologetic about her fondness for the military, even as it has driven out the Rohingyas and stepped up military offensives against other ethnic armed groups.

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Fires in Myanmar as seen from the Bangladesh side of the border this month. The Myanmar military has been accused of a vast campaign of killing, rape and village burning. Credit Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

“We do not have any trust in Aung San Suu Kyi because she was born into the military,” said Hkapra Hkun Awng, a leader of the Kachin ethnicity from northern Myanmar, one of more than a dozen minorities whose rebel armies have fought the Tatmadaw over the decades. “She is more loyal to her own people than to the ethnics. Her blood is thicker than a promise of national reconciliation.”

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi belongs to the country’s Bamar ethnic majority.

Even before the mudslinging of the 2015 election campaign, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was sidestepping questions about the sectarian violence in Rakhine that disproportionately affected the Rohingya. Rather than condemning pogroms against the persecuted Muslim minority, she has dismissed accusations of ethnic cleansing and called, instead, for rule of law to solve any problem.

Because most Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship by the military, it has not been clear how any laws might apply to them. Indeed, even though Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday that Myanmar was prepared to repatriate refugees who can establish that they are residents of Myanmar, that may be a formidable task for people who are unlikely to have documents proving they lived in Myanmar before fleeing across the border.

“I can confirm now that we are ready to start the verification process at any time, and those who have been verified as refugees from this country will be accepted without any problems and with full assurances of their security and their access to humanitarian aid,” she said.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has largely shielded herself from the media and has holed up in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s bunkered capital, which was unveiled more than a decade ago by a junta paranoid that the former capital, Yangon, might be vulnerable to foreign invasion.

Earlier this month, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi chose not to attend the United Nations General Assembly, where her stance on the Rohingya would surely have met with criticism. Just a year ago, as the nation’s new civilian leader, she attended the annual assembly and was celebrated by world leaders.

Still, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is attuned enough to public sentiment to understand the deep reservoir of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. Even though a Muslim bloc had been a loyal patron of the N.L.D. for decades, the party did not choose to stand a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 polls.

If anything, her equivocations on the Rohingya have given currency to the widely held assumption in Myanmar that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who have occupied land that rightfully belongs to the Burmese.

Since Myanmar’s political transition began, a virulent strain of Buddhist extremism has pushed such attitudes further into the mainstream. Influential monks have preached anti-Muslim rhetoric and pushed successfully for a law that circumscribes interfaith marriage. N.L.D. elders have prayed at the feet of one of the movement’s spiritual godfathers.

“Buddhist nationalist radicalism has been allowed to spread basically unchecked,” said Min Zin, the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar. “The government is doing very little to stop it.”

Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion


September 18, 2017

Book Review:

Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion

Nick Cheesman and Nicholas Farrelly (editors) (ISEAS Publishing)

by Jonathan Liljeblad*

Jonathan Liljeblad is a senior lecturer at the Swinburne Law School, Swinburn University of Technology.

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Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion (Nick Cheesman and Nicholas Farrelly, eds.) is the most recent output of the continuing Myanmar Update (formerly Burma Update) conference series run by Australian National University. The volume offers seventeen chapters written by native Myanmar and non-Myanmar scholars selected from the participants at Myanmar Update 2015. Centered around the nature of conflict in Myanmar, the book organizes its chapters into three themes of “War and Order” dealing with ethnic tensions in the country, “Elections and After” highlighting institutional politics, and “Us and Them” centering around communal and religious divisions.

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Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion joins a array of edited volumes that have appeared in the past few years. Within the Myanmar Update series, it is preceded by Debating Democratisation in Myanmar (Nick Cheeseman, Nicholas Farrelly, and Trevor Wilson, eds.) tied to Myanmar Update 2013 and the earlier Ruling Myanmar: From Cyclone Nargis to National Elections (Nick Cheesman, Monica Skidmore, and Trevor Wilson, eds.) resulting from the Myanmar Update 2011. Beyond the Myanmar Update series, however, there are also other recent edited volumes, including titles such as Constitutionalism and Legal Change in Myanmar (Andrew Harding and Khin Khin Oo, eds.) from 2017; Islam and the State in Myanmar (Melissa Crouch, ed.) from 2016; Metamorphosis: Studies in Social and Political Change in Myanmar (Renee Egreteau and Francois Robinne, eds.) from 2015; and Myanmar: The Dynamics of an Evolving Polity (David Steinberg, ed.) and Burma/Myanmar: Where Now? (Mikaela Gravers and Flemming Ytzen, eds.), both from 2014. Such a supply of edited works reflects a burgeoning academic literature on Myanmar that has grown in the wake of the country’s re-engagement with the larger international community that arguably began with the country’s democratic general election in 2010 and accelerated with the lifting of economic sanctions in 2012-2013.

Edited volumes are useful in terms of providing readers a survey of perspectives on a topic that exemplify the state of scholarship at a particular moment in time. In addition, they allow audiences to note issues deemed to be significant by experts in the field. Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion fulfils both these functions, with the chapters serving as a representation of empirical research on major Myanmar conflicts. As a result, it offers appeal to Myanmar scholars intent on staying abreast of events in the country as well as broader audiences seeking to learn more about the forces affecting Myanmar government and society.

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Edited volumes are not without challenges. Projects involving multiple authors are vulnerable to two major issues: 1) in hosting multiple perspectives they risk presenting an array of views that can appear incoherent, and 2) in recruiting multiple contributions they are dependent upon authors to write with scholarly quality. In responding to the issue of incoherence, Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion follows the approach of other edited volumes by applying a thematic focus that ties its chapters to a common concern. This provides a framework that places the chapters as differing perspectives on the topic of conflict in Myanmar.

It is with respect to the issue of quality, however, that Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion is perhaps distinguished from other edited works covering Myanmar. As an outcome of Myanmar Update, the book ties to an ongoing series of conferences that follow an underlying strategy of nurturing scholarship, both for Myanmar as an academic field of inquiry and for Myanmar academics as scholars of standing in global academia. As a consequence, since its origin in 1999 Myanmar Update has accumulated a body of work spanning scholars inside and outside the country able to conduct research of increasing rigor and insight. Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion carries the Myanmar Update tradition, with its assembly of contributions constituting a body of empirical studies informed by field work, such that the chapters display an in-depth understanding arising from the immersive experiences of their authors in Myanmar. Most notable in this regard are Ricky Yue’s chapter on the Pa’O Self-Administered Zone and Gerard McCarthy’s chapter on provincial politics in Taungoo, both of which denote immersion into areas not generally frequented or understood by foreigners.

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There are possible areas of improvement that should be observed for similar compilations on Myanmar in the future. First, there is a question of internal consistency, in that Myanmar Update ostensibly has a goal of encouraging native Myanmar scholars as a means of capacity-building for an endemic scholarly community seeking to connect to international academia. Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion contains four chapters that were authored or co-authored by native Myanmar scholars. This compares with six chapters involving Myanmar scholars in the 2014 Myanmar Update volume, Debating Democratisation in Myanmar, and two in the 2012 Ruling Myanmar: From Cyclone Nargis to National Elections. While author numbers are perhaps only partial indicators of capacity-building, they do provide a continuing reminder of the need to maintain diligence for Myanmar Update’s ulterior goal of promoting native Myanmar research. The insights, for example, by Su Mon Thazin Aung on the ethnic peace process, Chaw Chaw Sein on the 2015 general elections, Than Tun on Buddhist nationalism in Rakhine’s 2015 election results, and Chit Win on the Hluttaw all indicate an intimate knowledge that is made possible by their positions as Myanmar natives residing in the country. These degrees of familiarity offer a nuanced understanding that deserve to be publicized, and signal the value of Myanmar Update’s efforts to support native Myanmar scholarship.

Second, empirical studies by their nature are tied to observations and interpretations of real-world phenomenon. This is useful for identifying and understanding what is happening in a place like Myanmar, but it risks placement of Myanmar scholarship within the confines of descriptive studies. The growth of research on Myanmar into a dedicated field of Myanmar Studies calls for an enrichment in perspectives that can be facilitated by greater engagement with theory. More connection with theory would provide greater integration for Myanmar scholarship into concurrent work in international and comparative studies being done in the law and social sciences, both in terms of potentially deepening analysis of the country as well as offering opportunities for interventions into existing theoretical literature in law and social sciences. The integration of empirical and theoretical approaches require lengthier exposition than possible within the confines of a chapter in Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion, but there are chapters—most notably Jenny Hedström’s feminist political economy study of Kachin State and Tamas Wells’ exploration of narratives in communal violence—that present ways to further this in the future.

In sum, Conflict in Myanmar: War, Politics, Religion is a useful ensemble of works that can inform readers and enrich other studies of Myanmar. It serves as a model for other edited volumes on Myanmar in terms of empirical research, thematic organization, and scholarly quality. As such, it should be seen as a necessary addition in any library seeking to promote Myanmar Studies as a field, and as a valuable addition to anyone seeking to improve their understanding of a country still in the process of re-engaging with the world.

 

A Bit of History for The Donald


September 18, 2017

Notes and Comment–A Bit of History for The Donald

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Ignoble Laureate


September 17, 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Ignoble Laureate

“I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa, either.”–Aung San Suu  Kyi

During her fifteen years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi—now the de-facto leader of Myanmar—found solace in the poetry and novels of authors such as George Eliot, Victor Hugo, John le Carré, and Anna Akhmatova. Another favorite, she has said, was Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” an epic travelogue about Yugoslavia written on the eve of the Second World War. West described a country that Aung San Suu Kyi would have recognized as being much like her own: a fragile mosaic of ethnicities, languages, historical backgrounds, and cultural traditions.

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In a short essay called “Let’s Visit Burma,” published in 1985, Aung San Suu Kyi described the “colourful and diverse origins and customs” of her compatriots. Rakhine state, in the west of Myanmar, was something of a “mystery” in this respect, she wrote. Its population had originated from “Mongolian and Aryan peoples who had come over from India.” Owing to its geographical position, Bengal had also “played a major part” in its history and culture. Among the state’s numerous ethnic groups —Arakanese, Thek, Dainet, Myo, Mramagyi, and Kaman—others displayed “the influence of Bengali.” But she assured readers that while there are “more people of the Islamic faith to be found in [Rakhine] than anywhere else in Burma,” it had been “predominately Buddhist” for centuries.

By groups that “displayed the influence of Bengali”, Aung San Suu Kyi certainly meant the Rohingya, a stateless minority in northern Rakhine that most Myanmar people consider to be Bangladeshi immigrants. Since August 25, when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police posts and an Army base, as many as a thousand Rohingya have been killed and over three hundred and seventy thousand (more than third of the Rohingya population) have been forced into neighboring Bangladesh, human-rights groups estimate. Aung San Suu Kyi’s champions are now contemplating her fall from grace, appalled that the Nobel Peace Prize winner remains silent about and unmoved by a crisis described this week by the U.N.’s human-rights chief as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” There have been widespread calls for the Nobel Committee to strip her of the prize. But there is no statutory procedure for doing so, nor is it clear how this would end the murder, rape, and mass exodus of the Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar’s Army.

The most urgent and powerful appeals to Aung San Suu Kyi have come from her fellow Nobel laureates. The Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the prize for her advocacy of girls’ education, condemned the “tragic and shameful treatment” of the Rohingya. “I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same.” Addressing a letter to his “dear sister,” the anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu wrote of his “profound sadness” and called on Aung San Suu Kyi to end the military-led operations. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” he wrote. The Dalai Lama subsequently urged her to find a peaceful solution to the humanitarian crisis, saying that Buddha would have “definitely helped those poor Muslims.”

This is not the first time that laureates have spoken of their displeasure with Aung San Suu Kyi. In December last year, when the military conducted another brutal offensive against the Rohingya, thirteen Nobel winners, including Muhammad Yunus, Shirin Ebadi, and Leymah Gbowee, signed an open letter deploring the Army’s use of helicopter gunships, arbitrary arrests, and the rape of women. “Despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” they concluded, using her honorific, “we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas. Daw Suu Kyi is the leader and is the one with primary responsibility to lead, and lead with courage, humanity and compassion.”

When Aung San Suu Kyi accepted her own prize, in Oslo, in June, 2012, she said that, under house arrest, “it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. . . . What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me. . . . I began to understand the significance of the Nobel Prize.” Since becoming State Counsellor, in 2016, however, she has retreated into the solitude of her former life. Her husband, Michael Aris, died, of cancer, in 1999—she was prevented by the military regime from saying goodbye to him—and she rarely sees her sons. People close to her describe a life of morbid isolation, living alone in the administrative capital, Naypyidaw—arguably the dreariest city on earth—pouring over state documents late into the night. She rarely gives interviews, and is reluctant to delegate responsibilities (there is no obvious successor to lead her party when she’s gone).

There’s no evidence that the laureates’ chorus of indignation has any bearing on Aung San Suu Kyi, or whether their declarations can break the spell of isolation and bring her back to the outside world. The only response she has made to the present crisis in Rakhine was a Facebook post, detailing a phone conversation she had with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In it, she criticized the “huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.” While Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent, the offices and ministries under her charge have not, describing the Rohingya as Bengalis and publicly advocating the use of force in certain situations. “If they are going to harm you, you can shoot them,” Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, U Zaw Htay, said. The most egregious case of the recklessness of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came last month, when it accused international aid workers of supporting terrorists, prompting fears for the safety of thousands of people in Myanmar employed by charities and N.G.O.s. There have been demands that the U.S. government stop using the name “Rohingya”, and when a Rohingya women gave details of an alleged gang rape, Aung San Suu Kyi’s office dismissed it as “fake rape.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer, Peter Popham, writes in “The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy” that she “has become an object lesson in the slipperiness of the concept of heroism, and the folly of hero-worship.” Indeed, the tenor of the denunciations suggests that Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics are angered as much by a sense of personal betrayal as they are by her silence. She has exposed the artlessness with which many in the West reduced a complex personality into a Rapunzel of the East, emptied of her more illiberal traits, such as an authoritarian leadership style, and some potentially unsavory views on Muslims. The BBC correspondent, Fergal Keane, who probably knows Aung San Suu Kyi better than any other foreign journalist, has admitted that “we knew too little of Myanmar and its complex narratives of ethnic rivalries. . . . And we knew too little of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.” In a rare interview with Keane in April, she denied ethnic cleansing was taking place in Rakhine, and resisted the cruder perceptions of her persona: “I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa, either.”

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Unlike Thatcher, a consummate political operator, many have commented upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s weakness as a politician. Her failure to act against the military operation in Rakhine, so the argument goes, is not a result of her bigotry but because she is unable to outmaneuver the generals in Myanmar’s very own game of thrones.

Few can blame Aung San Suu Kyi for her political impotence. The constitutional arrangements of Myanmar would foil the shrewdest operative. Designed by the military, in 2008, the constitution gives the armed forces control of three ministries—the interior, borders, and defense—that are beyond the oversight of the civilian government. It bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President, and allows the Army to veto any attempt at constitutional reform. The irony, then, is that if Aung San Suu Kyi once represented the power of the powerless, she is now powerless in power, taking the flak for the Army’s unrelenting inhumanity in its fight against ethnic rebels on the borderlands, and the Rohingya.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s powerlessness hardly matters on this issue, anyway: hatred of the Rohingya is one thing that unites Myanmar. Despite their political differences, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, and the military are in lockstep when it comes to the problem of northern Rakhine. Years of xenophobic, anti-Rohingya propaganda, pushed from the late nineteen-seventies by the military government, endures in the nation’s collective memory, and is stoked by the hate sermons of Buddhist monks like Ashin Wirathu. By speaking up for the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi imperils her standing in the eyes of her fellow-citizens.

When she was thrust into the public eye, in 1988, it was her lineage, rather than her politics, that was the driving force. As the daughter of General Aung San, the nationally revered founder of modern Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi was at the mercy of activists who recognized the dynastic force that her name, and looks (she is the spitting image of her father), lent to their struggle against the generals. Responsible for negotiating Burma’s independence from the British Empire, Aung San was assassinated by paramilitary forces of the former Prime Minister U Saw, in 1947, six months before its official declaration. Aung San Suu Kyi was just two years old at the time, but there’s no doubting her love and admiration for him. In a 2013 radio interview with the BBC, she described her father as “my first love and my best love.” This filial piety is perhaps the key to understanding Aung San Suu Kyi as saint and sinner.

Her father was an extraordinarily tenacious, even ruthless, man who navigated between the British and Japanese empires in order to achieve his objective—a unified, independent Burma. He was also a Burmese nationalist who cared little for the nation’s ethnic minorities. Today, he is universally venerated in Myanmar, while few outside the country know who he is. This has almost certainly influenced Aung San Suu Kyi, who mimics his leadership style, moral code, and political priorities. The Rohingya are a distraction from her overriding ambition: to complete her father’s dream of unifying the country and ending a civil war that has raged between ethnic rebel forces and the Myanmar government since 1948. As Rebecca West wrote in “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” in a passage that Aung San Suu Kyi likely associated with her father when reading the book under house arrest, “it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!’ ”

 

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick


September 16, 2017

The Guardian Book Review

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick

State of desperation: a hunger march in 1935 before the creation of the welfare state.
State of desperation: a hunger march in 1935 before the creation of the welfare state. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
A new account shows how Attlee’s reforms built on foundations laid down decades earlier – and that was the key to their success

Contrary to what some may believe, the welfare state did not come into existence solely as a result of some sort of post-second world war big bang caused by the election of the Attlee government. To be sure it was the Attlee government that supplied the political will, but many of the principles and some of the measures evolved over the preceding half-century. One or two were of even earlier origin.

Chris Renwick, who lectures in modern history at the University of York, has produced an account of the origins of the welfare state, from the Elizabethan poor law to the Beveridge report, which is at once both learned and highly readable. Until the mid-19th century, most politicians and political philosophers were instinctively against the notion that the welfare of its citizens was any business of the state except maybe in the direst circumstances, and perhaps not even then. The late-18th-century philosopher Malthus argued that the poor law was an interference with the natural checks and balances on a growing population.

There were also arguments that will be familiar today about escalating cost, fecklessness and the undermining of the market, with the result that early social reformers sometimes found it easier to focus, not so much on the moral arguments, but on the suggestion that it was simply not efficient to have perhaps one-third of the population unable to make any meaningful contribution to the wealth of the nation if they were laid low by disease, malnutrition and lack of education.

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The first stirrings of ruling-class interest in the welfare of the masses began in the 1830s with the appointment of a royal commission into the workings of the poor law. Remarkably, however, it concluded that the existing patchwork of local provision was too generous and needed to be replaced by a centrally imposed system of workhouses where living conditions were sufficiently unpleasant that no one save the destitute would want to live there.

Gradually, though, the grim realities of working-class life in 19th-century Britain began to impinge on the comfortable world of the Victorian middle classes. A combination of the rise of trade unions, the founding of the Labour party and the extension of the franchise, along with a handful of enlightened employers and social reformers, forced social welfare on to the political agenda. The revelation, during the Boer war, that up to two-thirds of the recruits from industrial cities such as Manchester were physically unfit to fight came as a particular shock to the political classes.

Only with the election of the 1906 Liberal government did the state start to take a serious interest in the welfare of its people. One of the new government’s first measures was to introduce legislation permitting local authorities, should they choose, to introduce free school meals. Predictably, however, many declined to do so with the result that, after five years, only a relative handful of children benefited. The first old age pensions were introduced in 1908 (£13 a year for the over 70s), but once again provision was far from universal. Only those with incomes of less than £31 a year qualified. David Lloyd George’s attempt to introduce a national insurance scheme to cover the sick and unemployed, funded by increased taxes, was famously blocked by the Tories in the House of Lords and needed two further general elections to force through.

It took two world wars and the extension of the franchise to women before the welfare state as we know it today, universal and comprehensive, became politically possible. Although the greatest credit lies with the Attlee government, Labour did not pluck ideas and legislation out of thin air. During the first four decades of the 20th century, governments of all persuasions had begun to turn their attention to improving the education, housing and welfare of all citizens. As the author says, “The fact that there were Labour, Tory and Liberal fingerprints on the welfare state was an important reason why it was not instantly dismantled by the Tories when they regained power in 1951.”

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick is published by Allen Lane (£20).

Think For Yourself


August 31, 2017

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COMMENT: Normally, I will join fellow Malaysians to watch television with my wife, Dr. Kamsiah Haider to celebrate  Merdeka Day.  However, this milestone year, the 60th Anniversary of Independence, we choose to spend our time together in stead of witnessing a farce at Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur. Kamsiah and I feel there is nothing to rejoice.

Our Malaysia today is not what I had expected when my teenage friends and I–I was 18 years old– welcome Merdeka on August 31, 1957. My generation listened to Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj’s Independence Proclamation in a newly built Merdeka Stadium amidst pomp  and ceremony with excitement and hope.

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Today we are divided, unequal in terms of rights, opportunities, and widening income disparity. We are identified by race and religion; and we are being governed by a corrupt and inept Najib’s UMNO regime which disregards the rule of law. Tunku, Tun Razak and Tun Hussein Onn would be disappointed to see what we have become.

Dr. Kamisah and I would like to advise millennial Malaysians  to “Think for Yourself”. The future of a wonderful country is in your hands. You can make a difference. You can work to achieve Tunku Abdul Rahman’s dream that “We are all Malaysians. This is the bond that unites us” come true. That bond is broken  by the present generation of political leaders.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican

Ivy League Scholars Urge Students: ‘Think for Yourself’

by Conor Friedersforf

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/08/ivy-league-scholars-urge-students-think-for-yourself/538317/

As the fall semester begins, 15 professors from Yale, Princeton, and Harvard have published a letter of advice for the class of 2021.

 

Fifteen highly accomplished scholars who teach at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard published a letter Monday with advice for young people who are headed off to college: Though it will require self-discipline and perhaps even courage, “Think for yourself.”

The “vice of conformism” is a temptation for all faculty and students, they argue, due to a climate rife with group think, where it is “all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion” on a campus or in academia generally.

They warn that on many campuses, what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion” doesn’t merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views:

It leads them to suppose dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them. Since no one wants to be, or be thought of, as a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies. Don’t do that. Think for yourself.

They go on to explain what that means: “questioning dominant ideas,” and “deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions,” even arguments “for positions others revile and want to stigmatize” and “against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.”

They go on to explain what that means: “questioning dominant ideas,” and “deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions,” even arguments “for positions others revile and want to stigmatize” and “against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.”:

Monday’s letter argues that “open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate” are “our best antidotes to bigotry;” that a bigot is a person “who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices;” and that the only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate “are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.”

The letter’s signatories are Paul Boom, Nicholas Christakis, Carlos Eire, and Noël Valis at Yale; Maria E. Garlock, Robert P. George, Joshua Katz, Thomas P. Kelly, John B. Londregan, and Michael A. Reynolds at Princeton; and Mary Ann Glendon, Jon Levenson, Jacqueline C. Rivers, Tyler VanderWeele, and Adrian Vermeule at Harvard.