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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Postcard from Myanmar

This author has just returned from a short trip to Myanmar, a country in the midst of a complex set of civil conflicts and about which he is no expert. His experiences were very different from those he was expecting and from those that others were imagining that he might have. What he learned was that Myanmar is an enormously complicated country with a difficult history about which little is remembered in the contemporary era.

Now this author wishes to set out some of the conclusions he reached from his brief excursion to Myanmar:

  1. Like her neighbour, the Kingdom of Thailand, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is a constitutional democracy. The main difference is, that the Kingdom of Thailand is a monarchy, revered by its people; whereas the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is a republic, whose republicans are revered by their people.

  2. Another difference is, in the experience of this author, that the Republic of the Union of Myanmar has far politer exit and entry procedures having regards to immigration than the Kingdom of Thailand.

  3. A third difference is, that the hotel authorities in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar are politer than the hotel authorities in the Kingdom of Thailand.

  4. Myanmar has a tortuous history, and a very complex relationship with the United Kingdom. The man widely considered the founding father of Myanmar, Aung San, spent his entire life fighting for independence from the British Empire yet also curiously respecting it. He founded multiple political movements devoted to overthrowing British imperial rule over Myanmar, and at one point he even sided with the Japanese during World War II with a view to driving the British out. But then, highly pragmatically, he changed his mind, realising that the Japanese were going to lose World War II in East Asia.

  5. He then secreted himself into a British military base in Myanmar, dressed in Japanese military uniform, and presented himself to the British officer in charge, with a view to initiating discussions with the British. When the British officer in charge suggested to him that this was a pretty audacious thing to do, his response was "but you are a British military officer". He spent his life fighting for independence from the British, but he also respected their independence and impartiality. And indeed the British military officer let him go. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee negotiated the independence of Burma with Aung San shortly afterwards.

  6. Aung San is widely regarded not just as the father of modern Burma but also as the father of the modern Burmese military. Nevertheless he was assassinated by the Burmese military just a few months before Burma, as it was then called, was due to obtain her independence pursuant to the Aung San-Attlee agreement.

  7. Why this happened is not at all clear. However one consequence was that Aung San's daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, a democrat like Volodimir Zelenskiy of Ukraine, became the leader of a national democratic movement within the country now called Myanmar, in perpetual confrontation and negotiation with the country's military leaders, just as had been her father.

  8. The terminology "Burma" versus "Myanmar" is an ethnic issue. There are Burmese people, who are principally Buddhist and who speak a language they call Burmese; and there are other ethnic groups in Myanmar, many of whom are Muslims in Rakhine state and in neighbouring regions, who do not like the labels "Burma" or "Burmese" because they consider these labels exclusionary of their interests.

  9. The current military junta in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, has decided to adopt the country name "the Republic of the Union of Myanmar" as a sort of exercise in papering over the cracks in the ethnic fissures in contemporary Myanmar.

  10. Nevertheless there are two civil conflicts in Myanmar at the current juncture. One is between the Burmese and the other (mostly Muslim) ethnic groups; the other is between the military junta and those who support democracy. The latter is an intra-Burmese conflict, and very much reflects the schizophrenia of Aung San himself over the issue between military rule (something inculcated within him by Japanese associations during World War II) and constitutional rule (something he learned from the British Empire).

  11. What we might call the Aung-San Burmese schizophrenia between absolutist and democratic rule, which was tentatively resolved with movements towards reconciliation between the Burmese military and the Burmese democracy movement in the early part of the second decade of the twentieth century, found itself unwinding when Burmese solidarity ignited conflicts with the Rakhine and Muslim northern parts of the country close to Bangladesh.

  12. The current status of Myanmar is one of profound tension. Yangon, the commercial capital, is calm but palpably tense. Two groups of Burmese people - the military and the democrats - stand at odds with one-another but also together stand at odds with the Islamic minority in the northern and other parts of the country.

  13. Yangon is exceptionally poor. Indeed the poverty one surveys on a day to day basis is heart-breaking. This author saw babies, half-dressed, living in cardboard boxes in a central square in Yangon, the wealthiest area of the country. The buildings in central Yangon are decrepit. The infrastructure is dreadful. No doubt many of these issues are in substantial part related to the long-term imposition of international sanctions. But the cycle of poverty is undoubtedly driving the cycle of violence. A new approach must be found for the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, from the perspective of the international community. This author does not know what it is; but a very different approach is required.

  14. While the Thais are loveable, frivolous and somewhat subversive, the people of Myanmar are respectful, intensely polite and extremely serious. Aung San was a man of both principle and pragmatism, who paid for his principles with his life. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi is transparently much the same sort of person.

  15. This author considers Myanmar a perfectly safe country to visit, but the privations of its population are obvious and it is a deeply sad site to behold that we must, as members of the international community, strive to change. We cannot let the status quo carry on. We owe it to the entire world to ensure that we drive change in this benighted country.

God bless the people of Myanmar, and let us all do everything we can to help them in their tragic plight.


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