JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I’m Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to wish you all a very happy new year.
We are delighted to begin 2013 by welcoming Barbara Crossette to this afternoon conversation on “A Fragile New Burma.” Barbara is someone who I believe is familiar to many of you, perhaps from her days at the United Nations or from reading her byline elsewhere. But ever since she held the position of New York Times chief correspondent for Southeast Asia, she has, for me as for others, been the go-to person for Asia and all things Asian. She has done much to clearly explain the complexities of the international scene, so it’s no surprise that her reputation as an extremely knowledgeable and interesting journalist precedes her.
Barbara recently returned from Burma, where she was researching an article for the Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decisions 2013 briefing book. I'm confident that her findings on this post-junta phase of Burmese politics will be enlightening and noteworthy.
But before I turn the floor over to Barbara, I just want to give you a little historical background, which should be helpful in providing a context for her remarks.
Burma, as some of you may know, was a colony of Britain for more than 60 years. It won its independence in 1948 and adopted a new constitution, which established a system of government based on a democratically elected parliament. However, almost immediately the government was challenged by multiple ethnic groups who had been promised more autonomy, and an intense civil war ensued.
Successive insurgencies continued, and it wasn't until 1962 that a military junta seized control of the country, suspended the constitution, suppressed almost all dissent, and inflicted various forms of human rights abuses, including but not limited to religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, forced relocations of indigenous communities, arbitrary arrests, slave labor, and gang rapes. As we know, becoming a nation-state has never been easy.
As a result of these abuses, more than 800,000 refugees have been driven out of Burma into neighboring Thailand, Bangladesh, and India. The military junta finally ended its control, but only in 2011. Since taking office, the new president, a former general, has signaled a sharp break from the past. He also made overtures to Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement.
In April 2012, in a landslide victory, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament, and her party, the National League for Democracy, won nearly every seat in the elections. Since then, a series of reforms have led to hope that decades of international isolation could be coming to an end.
But even so, the struggle for freedom is far from over. Difficult tasks of healing deep ethnic divisions, overcoming the legacy of decades of armed conflict, taming the brutality of the armed forces, and fully restoring basic civil liberties and an economy are just a few of the challenges that need to be tackled.
So just how fragile is Burma? For the answer, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a special friend, Barbara Crossette.
BARBARA CROSSETTE: Good afternoon. It’s always nice to be here—I have spent a lot of time in this place over the years—and on this particular occasion, to talk a bit about Burma.
This Great Decisions book is really intended for foreign policy study groups around the country and policymakers and anybody else who wants sort of a briefing book on whatever is going to be facing the administration in the next year. Then it comes out again next year. It’s an annual book.
First, a little bit about why I went back to Burma this time. I was banned for more than a decade. When the Foreign Policy Association asked me if I wanted to do this piece, I thought: I really have to go back and get a sense of the place. It had been such a long time, and the last time I was there, I was writing a book on hill stations, and I had to sign my life away about not trying to do anything political. This was just a historical travel essay.
It was touch-and-go this time. They still had 6,000 people on the banned list. It turned out this banned list—I describe it as, when they pull apart the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, there’s this little guy who really is not much danger to anybody. This list was so pathetic. They had banned whole universities. They had banned people who had been dead for a long time. They had banned all sorts of folks. I went through the first 2,000 to be released.
That’s just one part of a very complicated situation. Once there, I found it very difficult still to do much traveling around. Even following the examples that were offered to me of things I could look at by the ambassador, I was forbidden to do—not forbidden so much as excuse, excuse, excuse, until it was no longer possible. Even the United Nations told me that, for example, that to go and look at a development project in the countryside would take weeks and weeks of paperwork.
It struck me that there’s a layer at the top—and nobody knows how big it is—that's committed to democracy, but the folks down below are still doing their jobs. When people ask, “How can you go and reform the civil service?” it is just an almighty question. There are so many people’s rice bowls dependent on the old military structure.
Anyway, first about the name. The name was changed to Myanmar in 1989 and Rangoon became Yangon. This was a political issue, military versus democrats. This followed decades of wacky things the military did, which sound funny, except that they affected people’s lives—overnight, creating a new currency that was like 15 kyat—was it 45 kyat, 90 kyat? It was an astrologer who said they had to be divided by 5 or 15. One bright day they decided that they were going to change the driving from the British side to the American or French side of the road, because Indochina had the French side of the road.
These things would happen. English was removed from the schools without warning, taking the Burmese out of international intellectual life, and then restored. The anecdote when I was there in the 1980s was that Sandar Win , the dictator Ne Win’s daughter, had tried to get into a university in Europe, and speaking only Burmese didn’t get her in. So now they sort of teach English, or at least it came back.
But I think these names are now acquiring a dual use, Burma and Myanmar. The United States government still calls it Burma. But when President Obama went—he and Hillary Clinton, many people think, have been very skillful at maneuvering through this particular time—he did use the name Myanmar, and he used it when he met the president there, who feels that this is the only name for it. Aung San Suu Kyi says she will never call it anything but Burma.
But then I thought about it. If you have Germany and Deutschland or Austria and Österreich or Muang Thai and Thailand or Krung Thep and Bangkok—sometimes the country’s name from within the country is different from what we call it from outside.
This is what a lot of people are gravitating toward. Let them call it Myanmar. It’s an old name. Or we can call it, outside, Burma, by which it has been mostly known.
It's a poor country. But the one thing I felt all along, and I still do, is that it's not a third world country in the sense that we think of a third world country, whatever negative connotations come to mind in your minds. It’s statistically very poor—the lowest per capita income in Southeast Asia, $1,950 per capita. That’s close to Cambodia, which is higher, even, and half the Philippines and about a quarter that of Thailand, according to the World Population Data Sheet from the Population Reference Bureau. A lot of things are not totally known. Data is not hard and fast. But this is what they assume.
Its standard of living is low. Its life expectancy is lower than the rest of its ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] neighbors, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Its infant mortality rate is very high. Its maternal mortality rate is very high. In the area, it’s well at the bottom of most human development factors in Southeast Asia.
Even Aung San Suu Kyi, when she first went into Bangkok in the spring of last year, was stunned by the lights and the activity, in part because she had been in isolation so long, but also because you can travel around Burma and—from a high room in my hotel, at night, when the sun went down in Rangoon, a lot of the city disappeared. There just is no electricity.
But it’s a country of enormous resources and potential, natural and human. I think high among them are the Burmese people. They have lived a life of immense sadness, most of them, in this generation of middle-aged to older people, but they have great forbearance. As I talked to people or I listened to them, I heard more deep, if fragile, hope. They would say, "It's not for my generation. It's too late for me. But my children, my children." They all knew they all had suffering within their personal lives—people who died too young because the medical care wasn’t there and other kinds of personal loss.
The isolation from the world was very damaging to many people, especially because Burma at one time had a history of great intellectual achievement. Both Mandalay and Rangoon Universities were among the best in Southeast Asia. In fact, Rangoon University was at one time considered the best in the region. This was before the military put a stop to their development and turned back the clock and tried to isolate the country.
They have a high literacy rate, 92 percent, which is very strange because for the poverty, it says a lot—if that’s an accurate figure. All United Nations agencies and the World Bank seem to agree that 92 percent is about it—certainly over 90 percent literacy, which is very high for a very poor country. It's interesting. Just yesterday I saw that they are going to have the first international book festival in Rangoon in February. So the intellectuals are trying to catch up.
An anthropologist who has just been there said that he now sees a lot of what used to be coffee shop life. It’s now tea shops or just informal gatherings, where people are once again feeling free to talk about their own future and about the country.
Its natural riches most people know about—gemstones, a lot of fertile land. It was the biggest rice exporter in Asia, the biggest rice exporter in the world, at points after independence. That is gone. It has rivers for water and hydropower. The gemstones are still considered an exploitive industry, a lot of it, and so there are regulations about the import of those.
But when I talked to someone from the United Nations in Rangoon and I said I had been to the big Aung San market and it was just full of jade—because there are no tourists now, and nobody is selling anything—he said, “Did you buy anything?”
I said, "No, because I don’t know enough about gemstones."
He said, "In Burma jade is everywhere. It’s not worth anyone’s while to fake it."
For those of you who know the Sri Lankan industry or some others, the Burmese are going to establish a national gemstone center in their new capital, which they call Naypyidaw. There they are going to have much more control, they say, over the extraction and sale. We’ll see.
An artistic people—those of you who have been there know about their lacquerware, a lot of their painting and sculpting and so on, and their Theravada Buddhism, which has carried them through a lot, but right now it’s creating problems.
What’s holding Burma back? The riches have been completely exploited by the military. Land rights are nonexistent. Technically speaking, the military owns all the land. Josef Silverstein, the historian, emeritus at Rutgers, who has been going there since he was a student in Mandalay University in the 1950s, says that when this happens, no one individually, no farmer, is going to put his little bits of extra money or anything into developing his land. It’s like the Australians say about lopping the tall poppy. If some farm suddenly looks prosperous, someone will come along and take it away.
There is, in fact, the first big citizen protest that just erupted in northwest Burma because of a Chinese company that has a copper mine that simply wants to take more farmland and expand its operations. The farmers have come out, with monks’ support, against this.
There’s no rule of law. There are useless courts, where they exist at all. These are stories from a lot of UN people trying to work there and also missions and NGOs and others who have tried day by day to maneuver their way through the bureaucracy and the nonexistent systems.
The cronies have all kinds of deals, a lot of them with the Chinese. They are being exploited by the Chinese. There’s a wonderful book by Thant Myint‑U, who is U Thant’s grandson. U Thant was the first Asian secretary-general of the United Nations. Thant Myint‑U is now there. He’s helping the president, apparently, as an advisor. He has written a wonderful book. It’s called Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. It shows to what degree part of Burma is already Chinese, along the Yunnan border. This has fueled another ethnic problem with the Kachin ethnic people and their liberation army.
The resources have been squandered and they haven’t been developed. There’s no reliable electricity. You could trip over generators on all the streets in the business section of Rangoon. That’s the only way people can make sure they are going to have electricity.
They have poor communications and a banking system that really doesn’t exist as we know it. They are trying now to create a banking system. They managed to import, I think, two or three ATMs. But the only place I saw one that worked—and it only worked with a Burmese card—was in one of these new kind of suburban areas, where the rich are building horribly big, monstrously architecturally, awful houses. Those of you who know Bangkok—the number of columns and blue-tinted windows and everything that you can possibly get in one building. There they had an incredible shopping mall, a money exchange, two ATMs. But as I said, you needed a Burmese card.
But for other people it can take half a day—and it does—just to cash a $20 bill.
A lot of this, somebody told me at one bank after I lost my temper, is that there is so much counterfeit money around that they are so careful. They want only brand new bills. Not everybody comes on vacation with brand new bills, and nothing but.
There is also a dearth of industrial development. There’s no what they call downstream development for any of their agricultural products or anything else that they make. They have had a blanket ban on imports in the United States for some time. That has been lifted, with a few possible exceptions.
The question, then: Why now? Some of it is that sanctions were hurting. But that wasn't all of it. Thant Myint-U used to argue a few years ago that, in fact, the sanctions were only driving the Burmese into the arms of China more than anything else and that they were doing just fine, because the Chinese and the Thais, to some degree—and I don't want to offend anybody who is Thai here, but those of us who live there know—are also good at corruption and bribery. They had a situation where there was a genuine debate. There’s always a debate in this country about whether sanctions are a good thing or not, and why they work or don't, just as there is a debate about how high up you put human rights in dealing with a country that has big, big human rights problems.
But as early as 1977, according to a really terrific Thai journalist who has been watching this—he said that as early as that time, the Burmese were saying obliquely in meetings at ASEAN that they were concerned about the other side, meaning China, that they were looking for better ties with the West. They didn’t want to be driven into the other side. His idea was that this just took them a while to figure out how to do.
Several of the people who broke this down—Ban Ki-moon, as secretary-general of the UN, went after Cyclone Nargis, when nobody was allowed to come and give humanitarian aid to the Burmese. They were dying in tens of thousands. I think 180,000, some people say 200,000 people died in this cyclone in the Irrawaddy delta.
The human rights groups said to Ban Ki-moon, "Don't go. Don't reward them." But his feeling was, if you want them to come out of their shell and be sensible, you have to be there. He had to negotiate. He had to promise them he would not see Aung San Suu Kyi.
He went and he found them backed into a corner. He found them paranoid about the outside world. Some of these generals were simply frozen in the sense that even doctors and nurses, to them, or humanitarian food relief was somehow a fifth column. This was 2008. They had seen the Americans in action in other little places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They apparently thought they were in real danger of being invaded. It didn’t help that Bernard Kouchner, who was the foreign minister of France, suggested that they just sail the warships in and take the food and let the chips fall. It didn’t happen.
Anyway, in the end, Ban Ki-moon was able to negotiate a way that they could bring in things through Thailand, through a Thai military base, so that there were generals in charge everywhere. It seemed to have worked. Ban Ki-moon thinks that—he’s not taking credit for this all—it helped to let them see that the outside world was maybe not so dangerous, just across the board.
In that first trip to Rangoon, Ban Ki-Moon met Thein Sein, who is now the president. He was a sidekick to Than Shwe, who was a particularly unpleasant general. He sensed, he said, that this man was more moderate and possibly a little bit of a hope. Thein Sein was then prime minister.
Aung San Suu Kyi was, of course, under house arrest a lot of this time. She wasn’t a major figure until, really, 2011—I mean, in public political life. Her party had won the election in 1990, a national election, and she was simply not allowed to take office. The whole election was simply thrown out.
But I think not to be underestimated ever is the Obama administration’s cautious approach and the kinds of human-to-human contacts that Hillary Clinton and Obama himself tried to build up, starting in the fall of 2010. That’s when they had a sham parliamentary election, but nonetheless an election. So the United States could start having a slight change in its attitude toward the Burmese. They came up with a sort of plan: You move and then we move, you move, we move. Eventually they could get to the point where Obaka felt that Hillary Clinton could go to Burma, which, for them, was enormous. And then, of course, they saw her and Aung San Suu Kyi get along so well. Just leave it to the women, right?
People are uncertain everywhere that this is maybe too good to be true; the whole thing is too good to be true. But the young are incredibly enthusiastic. I even met some people, not so young now, who were arrested in 1988, 1989, 1990, in that period of democracy flourishing in the streets. They were organizing press conferences and seminars and all kinds of things that you would recognize to talk about, “What can we do now that we can take part? What are we going to do that’s positive”
As I said, I never heard people say, "We’re going to arrest all these bastards. We’re going to take them to the ICC [International Criminal Court]." This may come. Maybe space and freedom will make people a little bit harder in their approach to the old regime.
But I always remember a former justice of one of the Burmese high courts saying at the Asia Society once—he was in exile then—when he was asked by an American human rights group—they were pounding on him—"Are you going to put him in the International Criminal Court?"
He said, "No, that’s not the Burmese way. They will be dealt with in the afterlife."
It’s a cliché, but the cultural differences are there. Most of the people that still have hope—as I said, this may not last forever—are trying to be part of things rather than to be sniping from the side. And this extends to Parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s own conduct of herself in Parliament and elsewhere, Thein Sein’s generosity toward her—he invited her to talk to him in the summer of 2011. She went up to Naypyidaw—she wasn’t going to go. She said she didn’t trust him, as she told the UN envoy, Vijay Nambiar.
When she got there, they had a sort of formal meeting. But then he said, “Now we go to lunch,” in the president’s house. His wife was there. She greeted Aung San Suu Kyi very warmly. There’s a picture of them in this article, the president and Aung San Suu Kyi side by side and a big picture of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father hanging over them. He was, after all, the founder of the Burmese army.
So they have worked it out. When they were here in September—when I was there in Burma, unfortunately—Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, they were both very careful. They called each other partners. He praised her in his speech at the United Nations. Some people would say it’s the Burmese way. Whatever it is, the idea was, let’s not go abroad and snipe at each other. They kept talking about the way they could work together.
What could crush their hopes? The ethnic issue, which is front and center. There’s no doubt that this is the most dangerous thing that’s facing Burma. I’ll come to some of the many, many ethnic conflicts, as Joanne said, since 1948, at the time of independence.
In 1947, Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, negotiated the independence of Burma with the British. He went to London, he came back with a document, and he was assassinated in the summer. So he never actually saw Burma become independent formally. But he had already negotiated with some of the ethnic groups to try to arrange some sort of a federal kind of—not formally, but something where everybody could get together and talk out their problems. That fell apart totally under the military, because their solution was to just bomb and go in and commit abuses.
Currently one of the most dangerous ethnic struggles is the one involving the Kachin Independence Army in the northeast on the Yunnan border. There are a lot of reasons for this. One of them is historical. Lately it was the building of an enormous dam on the Irrawaddy, the Myitsone Dam, which was going to produce a lot of electricity, most of which was going to Yunnan and not to the Burmese, who don't have enough electricity to light up anything.
They told Thein Sein two years ago, "You go through with this dam and we’re going to fight again." And they did. There’s a very nasty war going on up there.
But the one ethnic conflict most people know about is the one in Arakan, now called Rakhine State, which is where the Muslims are being beat up by Burmese, including monks. This is where Buddhist nationalists are, unfortunately, a danger.
I know there are people in the United Nations and others who are living there who believe that people are very wary—particularly Aung San Suu Kyi—very wary of upsetting the monks or condemning the monks. Some of them have been involved in attacks on Muslim communities in that state. These are ethnic Bengalis, who came there, many of them, after the British took over in 1824 in that area. They came in sort of with British encouragement. This happened in lots of parts of the world, as you know. The great diaspora from South Asia and Southeast Asia was often the British needing either people to work or something else. But the Burmese never recognized them as Burmese. They even have derogatory words for them. They have always been an irritant.
When Aung San Suu Kyi was in Washington, she said this is an immigration or a citizenship problem. True; but that’s not enough for her to say. She has such moral authority in Burma that she needs, people feel, to be more outspoken.
The Kachin Independence Army is strictly a very successful rebel force. Last week or the week before, the Burmese started to bomb them.
This, I think, is the place where human rights groups and governments have to decide how to proceed. You can say—and in Congress they are talking about—"Let’s cut off all the help to Burma until they sort out these problems." Well, that is just not doable at this particular juncture, not until they get some sort of functioning government that the military can’t step in and take back at any point.
There’s going to be a national election in 2015. Everybody says Aung San Suu Kyi would win, hands-down, the presidency. But at the moment the constitution bars her because her husband was British and her children are British. Thein Sein was asked that here in New York. He said, "Well, we can change the constitution."
Yes and no. That’s not the military. That goes all the way back to Burmese independence, as I understand. There’s a certain chauvinism among the Burman ethnic group, the Burman Buddhists. This is what Aung San Suu Kyi shares. Obviously, she saw monks go out in the street and get beaten to death for her democracy movement. It’s not just that, but there is a lot of disquiet inside Burma about her on some of these issues.
She’s still the princess. Her picture is in all the market stalls, and her father’s. But the fact is that people look for maybe a little bit more leadership.
When some monks got beaten up, up in Sagaing in the northwest, protesting this Chinese mine, she said she would chair a commission. She was outraged at the treatment of the monks. It’s a very different response from the way she has treated the situation among the Muslims, for Americans.
The United States, people will say, is in danger of losing influence to everybody else, because nobody else has these high standards of how you can deal with the Burmese, especially in trade and investment and so on. The Japanese—multimillions of dollars, billions of dollars are coming in for improving the ports, the infrastructure. In some places the roads just disappear. The Indians have interest in opening the northeast of India to the Bay of Bengal.
The interesting thing that someone asked me once was about whether this is all about the Indians and Chinese needing raw materials, energy sources. A lot of it is strategic. The Indians have always been afraid that the Chinese would be able to just come straight up and down from western China through Burma and be dangerous in the Bay of Bengal, instead of having to come all the way around the Straits of Malacca and Singapore and up the other side.
Meanwhile, the Burmese need everything—schools, hospitals, roads, cars that you can drive on the right side of the road. There’s just nothing that isn’t lacking.
There are wonderful architectural buildings from the colonial period, which were built in many cases in Burmese style. It’s like the Kuala Lumpur train station, I always say, or some of the places in India. The British built that whole wonderful Rajpath and the houses of parliament and all that stuff. They tried to do things in the style of the country. A lot of these things are, in the tropical climate of Rangoon, just simply disintegrating.
Lawyers are trying to save the courthouse. A Chinese person bought it from somebody in the military right out from under them. He’s building a hotel. He was going to knock it down. I haven’t heard whether that happened or not.
They look to the United States and to Britain. This first international book festival that they are going to have in February is sponsored by the British Council, oddly enough. The United States came and set up a lot of the education system—Aung San Suu Kyi herself writes about this—in the colonial period and just after. A lot of the schools and so on were set up by some of the American missionary groups and just American educators. So they think that they would welcome back the Americans. They are of two minds about outsiders, and Congress is of two minds about whether they should be getting this kind of help.
I guess I said that it’s very difficult to work there. I had an appointment arranged with a librarian at Rangoon University just to see what a mess it was or how it had been degraded. On the day, she was suddenly called home ill, and I was told I couldn’t possibly go without clearing this with the Ministry of Education. I said, "Can I just walk around the campus?" It’s not used so much. They have set up satellite campuses and so on around. But I wasn’t allowed to do that either.
An NGO that works with the United Nations wanted to take me to a village, as I said, I think, earlier, which the ambassador in Washington had recommended, just to see what they needed in agricultural development, which is mostly everything also. They were told no; you have to apply for this eight weeks, two months, in advance in order to get a permit.
Just a final comment on Aung San Suu Kyi. She’s a national icon. She’s Aung San’s daughter. But she is not very successful at building up her political party, from anecdotal things that you hear from people inside the country and the United Nations, and outside. Partly, she has been isolated for so long—I had a conversation earlier today with someone who is a friend of her family. She was in isolation so long that, this woman said, she began to think only of herself. I don't mean this in a—not thinking in the sense of being a public figure, having to build a public coalition of democrats. It was all the people who came to her house, the people she was allowed to talk to when she was finally out of prison—her house arrest and prison earlier.
But she has traveled a lot now. As I said, her performance here in the United States was considered by a lot of people—certainly in the administration, with a sigh of relief. The worst could have happened, and it didn’t. There was no showdown between them. The fear was that she would so outshine Thein Sein. This president, for whatever his failures, had allowed this to happen. She wouldn’t have been in Washington had it not been for Thein Sein.
But she played that very carefully. She, as I said, made a point of calling him her partner. He was in the military that was killing her followers and so on.
Now she needs to translate this political education into creating a national coalition, making her National League for Democracy more effective.
For the moment, though, she is Aung San’s daughter. That’s both bad and good. She, as I said, is an ethnic Burman Buddhist. She has shown no sympathy for a lot of the other groups.
She is doing a lot of work. She has been put in charge of a commission to look into what happened up in the northwest at the Chinese mine. She has made a visit out to Arakan, to Rakhine State. She is doing some work for the United Nations on HIV/AIDS and trying to break down the stigma. You figure they are decades behind in most everything, including thinking about these problems. And she is co-chair of the literary festival.
So she’s more and more in public. What might be the big test is between now and 2015, when the next presidential election is held.
QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.
Barbara, that was terrific—
BARBARA CROSSETTE: Thank you. He was my boss at one time.
QUESTIONER: I can remember times when Barbara would tell me what was going on in the country she was covering, and it was thorough, just like that was.
You talked about the outside people—the Americans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians. I want to ask you a bit more about the United Nations. Do any Burmese know that they once had a Burmese secretary-general? What is the UN’s image there? And is the UN being skillful, as you said that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have been?
BARBARA CROSSETTE: To start from the bottom of that question, I think the novelty of an American president coming and a sudden recognition—to them, overnight—from the United States and all of Hillary Clinton’s work and everything is so astonishing that that’s what they are kind of glommed on at the moment.
The United Nations was severely hampered in Burma by American sanctions. There were a lot of things they couldn’t do in development. Humanitarian work was possible. There was always a presence there. But now they are hoping they can do much more. I think UNFPA, the Population Fund, is going to conduct a national census.
The United Nations—I think, on the whole, the people who are out in the places that are difficult are often very, very skilled and also very careful. Maybe to the members of Congress who are worried about whatever the Burmese generals are doing behind the scenes, this sounds like not being forthright enough. But I think there’s no doubt. Thein Sein, the president, has said they know they need the United Nations.
It was Ban Ki-moon who went there in 2008. From that time on, he has been in touch with the leadership about what the United Nations can do here and there, and not overpowering it.
There’s a big concern—Vijay Nambiar talks about this—about the capacity to absorb outside aid, because the system is so broken. It has disintegrated. Haiti, in some sad ways, has been an example, with a different set of circumstances, where the local government has been unable to use what aid is promised.
Then the blame game starts: It’s the fault of the donors. It’s the fault of the government. It’s the fault of everybody. Meanwhile, stuff is not getting to people.
In Burma, if now they have all this hope, if it doesn’t get to people, then what? They need so much. A lot of people have grossly overestimated things. They get very ambitious ideas about how the United States can come in. Today I found out that 10 American universities are going over in a group in February to try to talk to the universities—Rangoon University for sure and Mandalay and maybe some others—about how they can help restart the higher education system, which Burma lost. Fulbright is starting to have exchanges.
There are various things going on. The State Department is promoting a public policy program where they can, I think, either bring Burmese here or send people there to help them with things like how an office should work.
I wrote in here that one of the odd things is that someone has made the statement that his reform in his ministry is that you are going to have to be qualified for jobs. You know how they were getting jobs before. It was whom you knew.
QUESTIONER: Do they know who U Thant was?
BARBARA CROSSETTE: Oh, yes, they know who U Thant was. In fact, it was U Thant’s funeral, wasn’t it, that caused the huge riots? Thant Myint-U has also written a book, The River of Lost Footsteps, about his own family and his grandfather. It was his burial that the government wanted to take over, and I think students took his body to the student union. There was street fighting and all kinds of things.
I have never seen where his grave is, if it is open to the public.
(By the way, they had stopped celebrating the anniversary of Aung San's death, which took place in July of 1947. After Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein and his wife had lunch in 2011, the following July they broadcast her going and putting flowers on her father’s grave. Thein Sein sent a couple of generals, or whoever they were, along to this, and it was all on television.)
I think I have the story about U Thant correct.
Anyway, Thant Myint-U has written about this. He was just a small child. He was told to go home and stay there until things settled down.
QUESTION: Catherine Dumait-Harper, former representative for Doctors Without Borders at the United Nations. Were you able to go to the Rakhine State and Sittwe and in the region when you were there?
My second question is regarding broadcast information when someone was asking about the reaction of Obama being there and so on. I suppose that many people don't have access to information, right? You were talking about the lack of electricity and so on. Besides the military, who has the information, and how does the broadcasting of information go about?
BARBARA CROSSETTE: The first part is easy. No. They had closed down that whole area, Rakhine. That was when things were starting to get really ugly. They allowed some diplomats to go. They have allowed a team from the Islamic Conference Organization to go, and they have allowed Malaysians to go. They have allowed outside Muslim delegations to go and see it. But it’s apparently not any better.
They lifted censorship entirely. Yesterday they banned a magazine; but they said it was sexually explicit. The editor said, no, this was sex education for children. I don't know. I didn’t see the magazine. I saw the cover, but it’s all Burmese, so I couldn’t read it.
I taught some Burmese in a workshop in Phnom Penh [Cambodia], where we had a workshop in 2003 and 2004 for several months, for the people who came from nondemocratic countries—Lao, Cambodian, Burmese, and Vietnamese journalists, young journalists. The Burmese people's English was excellent. They were really good. Everybody had to work in English because all the languages were different. About two or three weeks ago, I got an email from someone saying, "You know, starting in April, we’re going to be able to start newspapers. I’m going to start a newspaper."
Again, it’s this enormous ambition that they have. He has no idea what it would be to start a newspaper.
I was asked to come, actually, and help someone start a newspaper in 2008. Of course, I didn’t get a visa.
I think right now they test things. They took out a procession, a pro-democracy or some kind of procession—or they asked for a permit. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get it because they didn’t get it. It wasn’t that they got the answer, “You can’t do this.” So they said, “Well, we’ll do it anyway.” So they marched up one of the main streets. This was in October or November. And nothing happened. So you can go home and think about that for a bit and then see what you can do next.
I think this is the way—a group of former prisoners was going out to Rakhine when I was there to see the situation for themselves and see what they could do as Buddhists to help these Muslims. They have a sense of civic engagement. It’s amazing for people who were locked up and treated so horribly in a terrible prison.
There is Internet. It’s not banned entirely. I don't know how widespread, because people are poor and don’t have electricity in a lot of places. But in Rangoon, in the hotel I stayed in, it had some UN offices in it. The wi-fi was fine. It was better than in some places that are in the first world.
They have had these exiled papers, The Irrawaddy Magazine and newspaper. It’s now online, and they have opened an office in Rangoon. They were the exiled press and they were the pro-democracy people.
People nowadays know a lot. Also I went to the American Center—I had no idea this had been open through all this—which is by the American embassy. There, college and high school students were coming in to look at videos. They had a bank of computers that worked. They were taking out books. They were taking out books about Burmese history, which they said a lot of them didn’t really know.
I think it’s much easier now, because there’s a limit—unless you blank out the whole country. They also know that this is the way people make network connections, the way they learn about other places. I met a student there who was surfing the web for scholarships. She wanted to come to the United States to a university.
Education, everyone said, is the top priority. If you can start with giving them education—the danger is that this whole American entry into Burma will be oil and gas. This is extractive. It doesn’t benefit the local people. People say, "We need books. We need schools."—because if you have already 92 percent literacy, you have a very capable population for learning languages, particularly English, because many of their parents and grandparents still speak English from their school days. They could take off, with some of these same human development factors. It’s what made the ASEAN Tigers what they were.
But the question is—in fact, an editor for this publication said to me, "Why are you putting in education? Get the big stuff."
But everywhere I went, people said, "Please fix the schools."
QUESTION: James Starkman.
As you were talking, Barbara, a few points occurred to me.
Number two, even though you mentioned that extractive opportunities were the main thing, it seems to me this is an enormous opportunity, particularly for China, which is so nearby.
Thirdly, for tourism, in the north, there's a great city, Bagan, where there are 2,000 ruined temples. That also would seem to be a great opportunity for opening up.
BARBARA CROSSETTE: People are coming back. The tourists are coming back.
But then again, the question always becomes, when tourism becomes a major area, how do you make sure that it isn’t too much of a weight on the economy?
But even when I was there in 1997, in that hill station called Maymyo up in the Shan area—it’s on the road to Lashio—there are people who are running private hotels, and they were saying to me, "Where are the Americans?" And you have to give them the human rights lecture. But they are very much in favor.
However, some of these things like the electricity problems, transportation problems—a plane crashed the other day. Everybody who has enough money now can buy an airline. That’s sarcastic, but you know what I mean. It has to be controlled, because a sudden boom in tourism—what has happened is that hotel rates have gone up. Apartment rates are out of the stratosphere for people who want to come and spend time. There's one beach resort where overnight the prices keep going up, and the flights.
There is, again, no regulation. You take the lid off and, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, stuff happens.
In South Asia and Southeast Asia there have been too many bad stories. Benazir Bhutto—and some of the same problems, where there was a heroine, a person who was a hero of the Pakistani people, daughter of the East and all that stuff. At home, she was married to an absolute thief. She had no sense of governing. She didn’t even know anything about the nuclear—I mean, she had supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—for those of you who don’t know, he was one of the most vicious of warlords—because her father had. On her election posters, she used to have this sort of ghost of her father behind her.
There were two women in Bangladesh, Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi, the only leader of India who ever completely abrogated civil rights and did other things that, unfortunately, led to her death, including undermining the government of Sri Lanka in a very bad way. And they have all been dynastic.
If I were to say this, people would say, "Don't ever put Aung San Suu Kyi in that category." And it's true. She has shown her political skills and her finesse and all this other stuff. The others haven't, mostly. Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka was a politician also, but in the end she made the Tamil situation worse—or that's what some people say.
It's unfortunate. A lot of people outside will say, "Look at South Asia. They have all these women in charge." But what did they do? And often because there were no brothers. Benazir’s two brothers died in mysterious circumstances. Once when she was here, we were down someplace having lunch, and she said, "I think I know who may have killed Murtaza."
Two of us looked at her and said, "Who?"
She said, "I think you know."
The assumption was that it was her husband. Once they had wiped out her two brothers, she then was the heir. There’s no evidence, and she never said that again before she died. Now her son is going to take over.
It's the dynastic aspect of it and the fact that these women just happen to not have brothers or husbands who survived or whatever, that they have become leaders of government, because the parties needed this dynastic figure.
I don’t think that’s true in Burma.I think they will make decisions that are—they are not going to be dynastic political decisions. She will always be, as I said, a princess. She’s not Benazir Bhutto, by a long shot.
QUESTION: Matthew Olson.
I have known a number of Burmese Catholic priests. I have delicately asked how it was going for them there. They have delicately declined to say how things were going there.
Now we're reading about what appears to be some horrific stuff with the Muslims in the northwestern part of the country.
BARBARA CROSSETTE: In the case of the Rakhinese, the Rakhine Muslims in the west and northwest, I think it's ethnicity and maybe racism on the part of the Burmese Buddhists, to some degree.
That's a bad word to throw around. In other words, some people try to drag religion into it. They say, "If we let them stay here like this, they’re going to set up a place for al-Qaeda," and all that other stuff. That's why some of the Muslim nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, and others—have tried very much to get involved. I don't think it's a totally Muslim thing. I think, as I said, it's a Bengali ethnic thing.
Otherwise, I really don’t think—and I never encountered, even among the Karen, a lot of whom are Baptists, along the border with Thailand—we used to go to their camps a lot. They saw the Burmese as horrendous abusers of rights, making children into sex slaves, all kinds of horrible things. But they never said, "They're after us because we're Baptists or Christians."
The Christian population is small in Burma, but—now, I don't know, if you had an activist priest, whether this would be a problem. But I don't think it has been strictly religion. I think most of it has been ethnicity.
That’s just my opinion, and that goes back a bit. But I haven’t seen anything to change it.
JOANNE MYERS: Barbara, I just want to thank you for a wonderful discussion.