Shinichi Asabe Article Collection

The People of Southeast Asia

Burma(Myanmer) Dilemma of Newborn BurmaMarch 2016

At the national election held on November 8 last year, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi gained a crushing victory and dominated about 80% of the seats, namely gaining 390 out of 491. As a party leader Suu Kyi has children with a foreign nationality and therefore is not qualified to be president under the present constitution, the “Myanmar” parliament selected Htin Kyaw (69), Suu Kyi’s close aid, as president on March 15 this year. It was after a half century that non-military person became a president. Is Burma going to be democratized in both name and substance? On the occasion of this milestone event, I interviewed various people in Rangoon.

The video report has no direct relation with this article. I sketched Yangon reveling in country opening and economic liberalization.

Democratization, then what about equality under the law?

Shwedagon Pagoda and pigeons before sunrise

I visited Robert Sann Aung (62) on the second floor of a building looking older than the actual state because of black mold unique to the tropics. His business card says “Hygienic Law Seminar CEO” and I wonder how to translate the word “hygienic” into Japanese. He started talking by chewing betel nut, “I was imprisoned for six times as a political criminal.” Recently, he was arrested once in 2008 when he distributed fliers on the birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi for the suspicion of violation of the Emergency Provision Act enacted 66 years ago, and for another time in 2011 for the suspicion of taking contact with dissident ethnic minority.

“During the era of Thein Sein President, judiciary was under administration, especially for political matters. Although the new government was inaugurated, separation of powers is difficult without revising the constitution.” Amendment needs approval of more than 76% of the parliamentary members but 25% is occupied by the designated military members. Pro-constitution party is only the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Although NLD gained a landslide victory in the national election and occupied about 80% of the seats, it is actually 80% of the 75%, which means 60% of the total. The Rakhine with 22 seats and the Shan with 15 are for revising the constitution and can be monolithic with NLD. What if only one military lawmaker would agree to revise the constitution? Even so, it would not make the majority of more than 76%. That’s because the military is said to take tactics to make a medical certificate that this lawmaker has a mental disease and hospitalize him, making the approval invalid. In 1988 also, the military used the same method for a military member who supported the democratic wing.

While NLD was having a meeting to select a presidential nominee, former Prime Minister and Commander-in Chief Than Shwe appointed Myint Swe (64) who is his relative, former Lieutenant General and Chief Minister of Yangon Region as a candidate fielded by the military lawmakers, and now he has become First Vice President. “He repressed pro-democracy movement by Buddhist monks in 2007 with arms, lent red armbands to gangs to clamp down on pro-democracy activists. He is even riddled with bribes so he is extremely notorious among citizens.”

Lawyer Robert Sann Aung talks by showing his face and name

It is said that pro-democracy parliamentarians and lawyers are still tailed by military intelligence operatives of the Ministry of Home Affairs from entering and leaving their houses to local business trips. Even so, Sann Aung keeps speaking out by showing his name and face. I am not sure if democratization has advanced so far or if he is just taking a defiant attitude.

“It is extremely difficult to revise the constitution in this country peacefully from a historical view. Royal Constitution, British Colonial Constitution, 1947 Constitution by Prime Minister U Nu after the ruling by Japan, 1974 Constitution by General Ne Win who came to power by a military coup, Military Constitution after 1988 and 2008 Constitution which continues until today. In this way, there have existed six constitutions until now and revising the constitution always caused bloodshed, and in 1988 more than 3,000 people were killed. I think revision would be impossible without bloodshed. If Suu Kyi achieved it without bloodshed, she would be the first hero in history.”

By the way, is foreign pressure powerless? With neighboring China, steep mountains prevented traffic but China has constructed roads and now its influence is enormous. The military has better relationships with China than with the Western or Japan. Sann Aung tells about the status quo by showing a feeling of weakness.

“Chinese people can obtain a Myanmar nationality by paying 4,500 dollars. Many new Chinese started living in the China town of Mandalay and those who had lived there for long were ousted to suburbs. Also, in return for bribes, they have people bring back as much as lumber or jewel as they want in hundreds of trucks, and moreover, send Burmese women to China as brides. In this way, China has become a ‘superpower’ in this country.”

In addition, even Suu Kyi who had kept a distance from China visited China for the first time last June, saying Myanmar-China relationships cannot be ignored before the election. The last time she visited Japan was April 2013. With China’s buying over strategy, we cannot help but say Japanese and Western presence has weakened.

Rampant forced displacement

Tin Gyaw says it was quite a different result, holding newspaper which shows a picture of General giving a press conference

I headed for the west from the highway near Not Okrapus, approximately 18 km north of the central Rangoon. People living in tents along the road used to live in a plantation to grow vegetables and flowers 3 km away until two months ago but were forcedly displaced. A red banner stretched between bamboo rods reads “Support the 2015 New Government, Beside Poskle Paint Factory, Land Requisition Victims’ Association”. Tin Gyaw (63) who is a leader of the victims was a member of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) and one of those who barricaded themselves in a jungle on the border with Thailand in August 1988.

He says that on January 26 this year, under the direction of Colonel Tin Aung Htun, about 2,000 policemen and bulldozers ousted more than 1,000 people including children, the elderly and pregnant women of 285 households from the land of approximately 2240,000㎡. At that time, Colonel announced in front of newspaper reporters that he had prepared an alternative land with water and electricity. However, when people moved there, it was just a wasteland with nothing. Tin Gyaw has another reason to express outrage, holding newspaper of those days. “The day when we were ousted by the police was three days before the day of high school entrance exams and about 50 students could not take exams. There were about 200 high school students in this area but most of them moved relying on relatives and others.”

“We told them to wait for a little while because the entrance examination day was drawing near and said that it was totally impossible for us to move within three days. We wanted to discuss with the condition that we would move to a land where a proper environment is prepared. However, they displaced us by the use of force according to the schedule and did not listen to the condition we proposed.” The landowner was the military and closed a loan contract of the land in 2003 as “Myawaddy Plantation”. That contract was abrogated unilaterally. Moreover, they were told that the plantation would not be destroyed but it already became a wasteland. Although the site is planned to be Pyin Ma Bin Industrial Park, no construction work has begun yet.

Until they were ousted from the plantation, most of the residents had been engaged in agriculture and a part of them had worked at factories and construction sites and as cyclo drivers. However now, most of them lost jobs without any income. They live from day to day by consolation payment from an aid organization. When people find jobs, they rent apartments and leave here. On the other hand, when they went to the town office, they were told that the office had already had a meeting to prepare an alternative land. Even so, as the office checks the land and houses the residents lost, the residents do not know how much they would be compensated, he told me.

The first time when the residents heard about the removal was January 17 this year, the second time was on 23, and then on 26, they were told to go. The order was “No.1533”. This kind of forced removal cases are frequently occurring all over the country.

Tin Gyaw argues under the red banner, “I think the military who lost in the election had tried to sell the land in a hurry before the new administration was inaugurated. As we did nothing illegal, we are pure victims. All of the people in the plantation voted for NLD and so we hope the new government will help us.”

Although forced requisition is conducted near industrial parks and planned sites, in Yangon where redevelopment projects are proceeding at a rapid pace, everything is uncontrolled, on the contrary. Whether people occupy streets to sell something or park a car wherever they want, the police don’t clamp down and the city office does not give any directions. Although these look inconsistent at a glance, both share the same idea that they ignore the right of residence and moral if it brings about short-term profits.

Court which does not approve ownership

Tun Tun Min rejoices in front of her house, saying that she has a high hope for the new government.

I headed for Zee Gone Village in Shwe Pyi Thar district, 15 minute-drive from the Myawaddy Plantation, where the residents were pressured to go out two and a half years ago. I was worried what happened after that, but I saw the same row of houses as the last time from the windshield.

Zaw Nay Win (42) whose house is located at the entrance of the village told me the sequence of events. “We appealed to a court that it was an invasion by the military but it was rejected. We kept visiting the court for six or seven months, insisting that we would be plundered of houses, electricity, water and household belongings.” Then on November 5 last year, a ruling that the removal would be postponed was issued. In reality, their right of residence was authorized for a while but not the ownership of the land.” “We cannot sell here and leave but after the ruling no military men have shown up here and we received no harassment till now.” This ruling did not make news probably because such removal cases are occurring everywhere in present Burma. “I think the court did not approve the ownership of the land because they are afraid of the military. The court issued a ruling that the military won, and it was all the citizens could do for victory. ”

Tun Tun Min (62) who also lives in Zee Gone Village and had become purple with rage last time I had interviewed welcomed me with a gentle smile. “It is very important that we can keep living here. Otherwise, I would have to live on the street like a beggar. Every time there was a sound at night, I felt worried whether a bulldozer came and could not sleep. If the military had won in the election, the same situation would have continued.” She still manages an apartment and makes a joke, “Why don’t you live here? I will rent you at a half price.” “I am very happy that NLD won. All the residents in this village voted for NLD and therefore, everyone is having high hopes for the new government.” When the military pressed us to go out, her mother who could not walk had her body supported and went to the border and declared as a wise old women of the village, “This place has been our land since more than 100 years ago.” Unfortunately, her mother could not live until the ruling was issued and died at 88 years old.

Parliamentary Member of NLD

Lawmaker Naing Aung Rin shows his healed wound and says “That was an election obstruction.”

When I applied for an interview to NLD, I was informed that parliamentary members are prohibited from taking an interview individually in accordance with the intention of Party Leader Suu Kyi. However, Naing Aung Rin (39) of NLD met me at the city council in Yangon City. He became a lawmaker in spite of a serious injury. He said that on October 29 last year during his election campaign, while he was taking a break in Manpie, a man in the crowd picked a fight with one of his accompanying campaigners. Naing Aung Rin who was drinking sugarcane juice saw the man taking a sword and starting to hit the shoulder of the nonresistant campaigner with its handle, so he intervened to stop it, when he was cut by him with the sword. He was hospitalized and stayed for a week there with an injury on his left arm with 19 stitches and another on his head with 14 stitches. The incident made sensational news and voters sympathized with him, which gave him a big spur in the election.

Although he was elected from the Thar Kay Ta electrical district where many poor people live, he said about the forced land requisition, “There are many cases landowners resell and it is a complex and sensible issue.” And about revising the constitution, “Because the military is sensitive to this issue, it would be a big trouble if we changed it all at once. We have to revise it patiently and little by little.” He answered in line with the party stance cautiously and innocuously. His answer tells us how tight the NLD’s unity is.


Myo Aung Toe says he wants to be a think tank instead of staging a demonstration.

Myo Aung Toe (42) who has been involved in political activities since he was 16 years old, such as handing out fliers on campus and participating in protest marches felt strong anger at the military when he witnessed may elder students or classmates were killed at 8888 Uprising. When he tried to get into contact with ABSDF which had barricaded themselves on the border in order to get weapons to Rangoon, he was betrayed by a spy and arrested before receiving the weapons. After that for 18 years till February 2000, he lived in a jail as a political criminal. He recalls that he was repeatedly beaten by the military who tried to brainwash him in a hot jail without being given enough food.

At the beginning of the year 2010 after his release, he formed a group called “Yangon Self-Help Relief Organization” with his fellows inside American Center in Rangoon. Although he didn’t have a job and could do nothing financially, he supported many political criminals mentally. In August 2011, he established “Yangon Political School” and it has continued till now. There are 50 undergraduate students and 20 graduate students aged 15 to 50 who study theories and knowledge on politics. The school conducts analysis on status quo and offers seminars by foreign lecturers. Last year the school opened a research division and he wants the school to be a think tank in future.

He says, “We cannot say that our country becomes a democratic country because we had a democratic election. Only the election is not enough.” NLD is making efforts but the military occupies 25% seats of the national houses and local assemblies. In such a situation, revising the constitution is impossible without the approval of the military. “Moreover, with the ministers of Defense, Border and Home Affairs being dispatched from the military, how can we say we have democracy? If Suu Kyi says she will free political criminals or even when people plan a peaceful demonstration, they cannot be freed and a leader of a demonstration will be imprisoned, if the Minister of Home Affairs says NO.” Whether a civil war dragging on and on in Shan State will be terminated or not depends on the Minister of Border Affairs.

During the five years of Thein Sein, the military did not let go the “25%”. “The new government is mostly comprised of the NLD members so it is an extremely sensitive state. NLD pays attention to investments from foreign countries and is fighting against forced requisition of lands and corruption but has not unveiled any strategies about revising the constitution. Only the national assemblies are not enough. Now that I could come to the position to give pressure, I have to conduct a demonstration arguing that we should revise a certain article of the 2008 constitution.” Nevertheless, NLD hopes a stabilized state under the law. “If we start a demonstration, it means that the new government cannot stabilize the country, which will fall into the military’s trap. Therefore, our strategy for the time being is that we will research what the citizens want and become an advisory body for the new government, not staging a demonstration.”

Myo Aung Toe also said, “For democracy in developing countries, it is a challenge to keep stability and peace and to further developing democracy.” Having said so, he sees four big challenges in this country; (1) how to balance military businesses and emerging businesses, (2) corruptions and grafts hampering democratization, (3) conflicts with ethnic minority groups which involves religion and cannot be solved by the law and refugee problems and (4) places to accept top officials of the military. “Ironically, it is an advantageous situation for the military. If the citizens speak out too much, NLD cannot do their jobs and their handling of the military will be loose.” Myo Aung Toe, having devoted a half of his life to democratization, is struggling with the dilemma, of “being stuck”.

Garden Party

Garden Party for emerging company executives attended by Miss International Myanmar (second from the left) to boost the mood

One trading company employee told me, “Business went more flexibly with the military as a client thanks to payment under the table.” At a restaurant adjacent to a deep green park in a twilight gloom when it became easier to beat the intense heat, men and women mainly in their 40s in casual but proper fashion gathered.

I exchanged business cards with about a dozen people and started a small talk with one of them drinking a glass of alcohol. “It is going to be interesting here, but as the opposition party won and most of the parliament members are young. I am worried if I can continue my business.”

These people live in a totally different world from the people I met during this report trip. It was a garden party for corporate executives in tourism, architecture, publication and Internet industries. Many of them are children of the military men and returnees. “Uneducated farmers occupying 80% would think that when the government is changed, everything will change all at once, which frightens me.” He says “frighten” meaning that if a legal structure or human right awareness of the society do not catch up with people’s expectations, uprising will occur. “For the five years under Sein Win, the country accepted opinions from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and changes started to occur. As for me, it took many years for my business to come so far, so I do not expect such a rapid change.”

On the table, gorgeous Chinese course dinner started to be served. Miss International Myanmar who attends the party to boost the mood smiles, saying that traveling around the world to attract tourists is a harder job than expected. At a karaoke party attended by her, I remembered the Christmas evening in 1993. When Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, I slipped into a dance party to interview people concerned. The place where people of the democratic wing could contact foreign journalists safely, even anonymous, was a garden of a western diplomatic establishment. 23 years have passed rapidly since then. It is democratization like an ox walk.

Generation who doesn’t know 8888 Uprising・・・

Young people gather at the “only” punk house in Myanmar. Are they going to make a new movement?

Even so, I encountered a completely new movement in this country during this trip. Sule Pagoda in Rangoon is equivalent to Nihonbashi in Tokyo. Around this area, construction of new buildings and repair works of roads are proceeding. Although most of the people still wear longyi (wasutcloth) and rubber flip-flops in Burma, there is a street stall which displays sneakers for young people. At eight o’clock in the evening, young people with hair dyed in gold, and tattoo or earrings gather at this shop. One of them has his hair formed like a cockscomb of a tropical bird.

They chip in from 1,000 to 5,000 kyat (approx. 100-500 Japanese yen) to buy sweets, fruits and drinking water and divide them into plastic bags. These young punk rock lovers distribute food to homeless people and street children every Monday. “We have no leader,” says Kyaw Kyaw (28) who plays a role of a leader for other members. He was a sales clerk at an apparel shop and now he has his own business to sell printed T-shirts. “Burma is poor and some people do not have food to eat, let alone a house. As only singing does not change anything, I started this activity three years ago.”

Scene which is no different from before
Boy monks who go around town for religious mendicancy
Temples traditionally compensate where welfare administration cannot reach

While a social welfare system has not been operating yet, free economy becomes prevalent rapidly. There are many people who are left behind from dramatic development. Their incomes do not increase even if the commodity prices increase and cannot find jobs even if foreign capital pours into the economy. The unemployment rate has strangely kept standing at 4% since it was first announced in 1997. However, it cannot be true.

He formed his band “Rebel Riot” in 2007. They have about 20 original songs and the most famous one is “No Place to Live!” Once in three month they play under an overpass or other places and about 100 to 150 people gather to listen to them who get information from Facebook or fliers. At their concert, they also solicit contributions for their volunteer activities.

The day when the military fired against citizens who rose up for democracy and more than 3,000 young people were killed was August 8, 1988, namely 8888 Uprising. It was the year Kyaw Kyaw was born. While it is said that examining the number of the victims which was not clarified should be done by the new government, a new generation who does not know 8888 Uprising sympathizes with the activities of a punk band “Rebel Riot” and is engaged in quiet democratization activity, not a protest march.

(Story & Photo by Shinichi ASABE)

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