Category Archives: Politics

Bangkok’s Deadly Inter-College Rivalries

First published in Vice News February 6, 2016

Bangkok has a serious student violence problem.

In Thai media, barely a week passes without some mention of bloody brawls between students from the city’s numerous vocational colleges. In 2015, more than 1,000 cases were reported in Bangkok by mid-year, many of them resulting in serious injury and even death.

As the violence has intensified, the issue is now considered a significant public health issue.

Late last month, just a week ahead of the 83rd anniversary of the founding of Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok Uthentawai (simply known as Uthentawai), Bangkok’s metropolitan police preemptively raided its campus and that of the school’s archrival, the Pathumwan Institute of Technology, located a short walk away. The bust produced two handguns and ammunition, 55 knives, six bulletproof vests, and materials for making nail bombs.

On Monday, the day of the anniversary, an incongruously heavy security presence at Uthentawai testified to this darker side of Thailand’s vocational and technical education system. Police officers and military personnel milled about, sniffer dogs patrolled the periphery, and two explosive ordnance disposal technicians stood by the front gate, which was ringed by metal detectors.

Online videos show students from a number of different colleges either ambushing or facing off with one another. They are usually armed with blunt weapons like clubs, but can also have knives and guns. A common setting is along public transportation routes, where students from opposing colleges are most likely to run into one another.

Students have been killed in drive-by assassinations, shot in cold blood on train stations, as well as routinely beaten and chased through the streets of Bangkok. While such a level of violence might seem crazy to outsiders, for those involved, rational thought plays little part in how rival students view one another.

“For me, it was never a question,” explained a former Uthentawai student who left school nine years ago, who asked to be identified as “Gan.”

“If I see someone from Pathumwan, we must fight. And they feel the same towards me.”

Just how the vocational interschool animosity originally started remains a mystery to students and researchers alike.

Nualnong Wongtongkam, a Thai lecturer and researcher in public health at Charles Sturt University, led a team that interviewed 32 students who had been involved in clashes in order to quantify their motivations. Though vengeance figured prominently, it was rarely clear what the students were trying to avenge.

“They don’t know why they have to engage in fighting with other schools,” said Nualnong. “When I ask them why they do it, considering they know there is a good chance they will be injured or maybe even killed, they say, ‘I know that, but if I don’t fight they will chase me anyway, so better to stand and fight.’ ”

Gan recalled his initiation into Uthentawai in 2005.

“This started on day one for me,” he said. “The seniors teach you how to carry a gun, how to conceal a knife from the police, how to love your brothers and how to hate your rivals — especially for us, Pathumwan.”

Once the student is within the fold, he’s among peers whose philosophy is to do almost anything for each other.

“If someone cannot afford tuition, we will all give a little money to help him pay,” Gan offered as an example. “Of course we would also help to pay [bail] if one of our class enforcers is arrested for doing a hit.”

In this culture, it doesn’t take long for the students to build a strong sense of brotherhood. Nualnong thinks this sense of belonging and self-worth is crucial to understanding why vocational and technical colleges have for so long been plagued with hyper-masculine reactive violence.

The perception of vocational colleges in Thailand has long been held as far inferior to that of established universities. The result, she says, is that some students themselves feel inferior and form a strong bond with their classmates, with whom they can readily identify. The resulting insularity is exacerbated by the fact only an estimated 10 percent of vocational and technical college students are female.

But this school spirit in the Bangkok vocational student scene can have an almost tribal effect, with an unquestioning adoption of animosity against rival institutions. This led Gan to regularly change his route when returning home from college, often taking multiple buses even though a direct option was available.

“They [Pathumwan] will watch you for your routes, to know where you live and how you travel after class in case they want to attack,” he said, adding simply, “We would do the same to them.”

An art graduate of Silpakorn University who asked to be identified as “Por” recalled experiencing this menace years ago.

He was having a late lunch after class at a spot near Victory Monument, one of Bangkok’s busiest traffic intersections and a major public transportation hub, when he was kicked to the floor from behind. A student from Indara Construction School placed a gun on the table, asking, “Do you want to eat your food, or my bullet?”

“I didn’t know him,” Por remarked with a shake of the head. “But it turned out someone from my school put some graffiti on something of theirs. He saw my uniform and so he picked on me.”

Nualnong’s research has emphasized that the wearing of distinctive uniforms in this hostile atmosphere, as vocational students are required to do, precipitates what would otherwise be easily avoidable fights, particularly on public transport. As a result, there’s a prevalence of anxiety among students traveling alone or in uniform.

Several measures have been considered in an attempt to address the bloodshed, from no longer accepting students with tattoos or piercings, to considering universalizing uniforms or abolishing them altogether, sending rival students to army-run boot camps — even introducing a free student auto repair service, launched by police last month, to occupy their time and keep them out of trouble. But no formal studies have assessed the effectiveness of such provisions.

This should soon change, as the increasing severity of attacks forces officials to respond to the issue more thoroughly and preemptively, beyond the conducting of police raids for weapons. Innocent bystanders and commuters find themselves caught in the fray and risking injury, and the belligerence can also target teachers. “It takes courage and determination to be in our shoes,” remarked a hairstylist instructor at Samut Prakan Vocational College not long ago.

“Now anyone on the streets can be injured from their fighting,” said Nualnong. “It’s not just the students anymore.”

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A Challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi: Resolving Myanmar’s Ethnic Conflicts

First published in Newsweek 12 December, 2015

More than a week after Myanmar went to the polls in a historic general election in early November, ballots were still trickling in from the Himalayan foothills in the country’s northern Kachin state—areas so secluded the trip could be made only by foot.

The fact these votes were cast and counted was a sign of progress in Myanmar, but it does not mean that all is well in parts of the country that have endured warlike conditions for much of the last six decades. Fierce fighting between the country’s military and an array of ethnic armed groups, determined to retain arms, territory and a degree of autonomy, has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced and disenfranchised. (These conflicts are one reason why Myanmar, also known as Burma, is among the largest sources of refugees to the United States.)

Living amidst the towering mountains of Myanmar’s eastern Shan State, Father Mario Mardu, a local Catholic priest who works near the border with China, has little patience for talk of elections and peace. “I don’t think the elections will change things here,” he said a few months before the poll. “The [outgoing] government will surely lose, so they will create a problem, one way or another.”

The resounding election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party surprised many observers. The NLD defeated not only the incumbent military-backed party but also parties that represent various ethnic minorities. Now those ethnic political groups worry they will have little say in future peace negotiations.

“Unless we end this civil war, there is no way to have a smooth and real democratization process,” says Dr Lian Sakhong, a leading member of the ethnic Chin National Front.

One month before the election, Myanmar authorities announced with much fanfare they had reached a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). But it was only a partial success. After nearly two years of discussions between the military-backed government and a coalition of ethnic armed organizations, just eight of more than two dozen active groups signed.

“Peace Starts Now” was the headline emblazoned across one state-backed newspaper, but skeptics point out the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is a misnomer. “I think it’s a symbolic victory at best, a PR stunt,” says David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch. “The fact that there are so many groups still in active conflict reveals the weakness in both the agreement and the signing itself.”

With so many groups involved, the acronyms alone can be confusing, let alone the politics. Among those that did sign was the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the oldest revolutionary groups in Myanmar. But among the holdouts were the powerful and influential Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

The U.N.  estimates that in the past four years over 100,000 people have been internally displaced in the regions where those groups operate, adding to the hundreds of thousands before them who have fled across the borders to Thailand, Laos and China.

In 1994 the military government wrangled a bilateral ceasefire with the KIA. Composed of mainly ethnic Kachin, they had been fighting for decades against the military. Following the ceasefire, the KIA complained that the military was making creeping gains in the region, and in 2011 the government issued an ultimatum to KIA soldiers to assimilate with the national army, known as the Tatmadaw. The KIA refused and fighting resumed.

The violence in Kachin is not just about ethnic tensions. A recent Global Witness investigation examined the multibillion-dollar jade trade in Kachin state, saying it was “tightly controlled by the same military elites, U.S.-sanctioned drug lords and crony companies that the government says it is consigning to the past.” The report highlighted the role played by former military general and dictator Than Shwe, whose companies operate extensively in the region, making millions while next to nothing reaches the people of Kachin state.

“I am convinced that the Tatmadaw’s continuing attacks on Kachin state and northern Shan, where there are a lot of Kachin, has to do with the economic interests and protecting the interests of Than Shwe,” said Priscilla Clap, senior advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace and former charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002.

In northern Shan state, the United Wa State Army commands an estimated 20,000 troops. Having formed after the collapse of the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Burma, they are widely believed in Myanmar to be supplied and tacitly backed by interests across the border in Yunnan Province.

Shortly after the peace talks began, the United Wa State Army withdrew, instead forming a so-called Northern Alliance and wielding its influence to persuade several other groups to withdraw, according to Sakhong. “Their interests are linked, and everyone knows the Wa are the main provider of the arms and everything else, directly or indirectly for those groups,” he says.

The Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army both said they refused to sign the peace deal because of the exclusion of other small groups from negotiations.

The overarching problem is the lack of trust felt by the various ethnic minorities for the generals. As Father Mardu, the Catholic priest, put it: “The Tatmadaw say one thing and always do another thing.”

Sakhong’s answer to that: “The reason we signed was not because we trust them, but because we do not trust them.”

The new government, which takes office in March, will have a key role in pushing forward some kind of dialogue. “The NLD should ensure the ethnic political parties who lost in the election will have some political space by reaching out to them outside parliament politics,” said Sai Leik, spokesman for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, one of only two ethnic parties to enjoy moderate success in the election. “This way, democratic forces can counterbalance the Tatmadaw.”

Several groups excluded from the agreement have already voiced a willingness to engage with Suu Kyi’s government. The military will remain critical too, especially since they hold 25 percent of the seats in parliament under Myanmar’s constitution. Since the election, Suu Kyi has held private talks with several big players in the military, including former dictator Than Shwe, but details of their talks remain unknown.

“They’re going to have to work out some kind of modus vivendi and we have no idea yet what that’s going to be,” says Clap, of the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Sakhong hopes the issue will be part of backroom negotiations between the NLD and the outgoing military-backed government before March. “If we don’t give [the Tatmadaw and outgoing government] space and a way out so that they can withdraw themselves with dignity, there can be problems,” he said.

“If they do that well then [the ethnic armed groups] can work on this political dialogue with the NLD, the current government, the armed forces and the ethnic parties,” Sakhong said. “And if we are all working for peace, then I think the country has a bright future.”

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For a Triumphant Aung San Suu Kyi, the Hard Work Is Just Beginning

First published Vice News, 13 November 2015

The Aung San Suu Kyi landslide in Myanmar is even bigger than forecast. As more results come in following historic general elections last Sunday, her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) has 80.5 percent of elected parliament seats, just two seats shy of the 329 needed to form a majority government, and is likely to get them since only 82 percent of the vote has been counted.

At the state and regional levels, the party led by the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner fared almost as well, winning more than 77 percent of seats announced thus far. But the challenges ahead for a triumphant NLD will be tough. The party will now have to adjust quickly and carefully from its long-held opposition to government – a position in which it will still have to deal with a military faction keen to protect its privilege after decades of ruling through a junta.

The incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s political proxy, is facing humiliating losses nationwide, mostly to NLD candidates. From commanding three quarters of the elected seats in the current parliament, it has just 10 percent now. The rout is so bad that, in one particularly surreal case, an NLD regional parliament candidate managed to defeat his USDP counterpart despite the severe disadvantage of having died two days before the vote.

But the country’s first openly contested nationwide poll in 25 years has been anything but a dead-man-winning sham. In fact, the world is congratulating Myanmar for pulling off a remarkably free and fair election, compared to Myanmar’s past.

“This was a hell of a step forward for the democratic process”

The European Union’s chief observer in the country, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, told reporters in Yangon that “the process went better than many of us expected beforehand.” Daniel Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was blunter: “This was a hell of a step forward for the democratic process,” he told reporters.

But, he added, “now comes the hard part.”

For the NLD members involved in negotiation talks with outgoing parliamentarians and the military, the euphoria of election success is quickly fading as the problems of a budding democracy take center stage, particularly over nominations for the next president.

“We can’t shout “Yeah, we win!” because then the loser may get angry and the situation could become a lot harder for us,” Kyi Pyar, 36, an NLD candidate who just won election to the regional parliament, said in her office in downtown Yangon. “I knew during the campaigning that we would win in this constituency. I’m now focused on what is next,” she said.

After decades in opposition, there are worries within the party that the public’s high expectations for an NLD government may lead to impatience when it comes to the capacity for quick and real change.

“I have heard some people say ‘OK, Daw Suu [Kyi] won. I will give [the NLD] one year to see what she can do.’ But our country has been destroyed over the past 50 years!” Kyi Pyar said.

The military that’s been in charge until now still has 25 percent of seats in parliament, an unelected quota mandated by the 2008 constitution drafted under the junta’s regime, and Kyi Pyar fears it may use that influence to “disrupt” the work of the incoming government.

“I think this collision of interests is going to shape the landscape after the election. And through that, the next five years,” David Mathieson, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Myanmar, said.

“We have to build bridges between the civilian [representatives] and the military,” Kyi Pyar said.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s first political move after the election has been a conciliatory one. On Wednesday, she published a call for “national reconciliation” talks with Myanmar’s army chief, the president and the parliamentary speaker.

“For the sake of the country’s dignity and the well-being of the people, it is paramount that their will, expressed through the November 8 general elections, be fulfilled in a stable, peaceful and correct way. With regards to this, I would like to request a meeting next week that is aimed at national reconciliation,” she wrote on the NLD’s Facebook page.

Shwe Mann, the parliamentary speaker and another high-profile loser in the elections, quickly responded on his Facebook page, saying he’d help facilitate that meeting. Later that day, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s Office released a statement congratulating Suu Kyi’s success in the polls and agreeing to “do what is best in cooperation with the new government during the post-election period.”

The Obama administration, which holds Myanmar’s opening up to democracy as a major diplomatic coup, wants a peaceful transfer of power. It hopes to have strong ties in the future with this resource-rich country of 53 million, with a booming economy and a growing appetite for imported goods.

In a statement after the election, US Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that a “credible” transition was now needed, hinting to reform of the 2008 constitution and the ongoing human rights violations, particularly towards the Rohingya Muslim minority by extremistBuddhist factions.

For newly-minted democratic lawmakers like Kyi Pyar, the next few months will be vital in picking the next president and cabinet, even though the next government will take office only in April next year.

“We have a lot of priorities,” she said. “This [next] government will have a lot of burdens and many are linked together. National reconciliation is important, but so is the next president, so is economic development, so is educational reform, so is reaching peace” in the country’s ongoing civil war.

With so many tricky issues, and despite her awareness of the delicate task of implementing reform while resolving civil-military mistrust, Suu Kyi has remained unequivocal when it comes to the topic of leadership and the next president: She may not reign, but she will rule. Barred from the presidency by the 2008 constitution, she has said before the election that she would be “above the president” in the new Myanmar.

Such rhetoric may prove inflammatory to the military, but Suu Kyi remains the symbol of the struggle against the dictatorship, and the international face of Myanmar, despite recent controversy over her refusal to get involved in the plight of the persecuted Rohingya Muslims. Whatever her role in the country’s new democracy will be, there’s no denying that her party’s stunning victory and the smooth running of the election have been a resounding success for the 70-year old Suu Kyi.

Leafing through a number of newspapers littering her office desk, Kyi Piar let herself smile as she held one with Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on the front page. “Maybe”, she said, “I’m just a pessimist.”

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Myanmar’s First Free Election In Decades All Depends On The Military’s Mood

First published on Buzzfeed News, November 7

YANGON, Myanmar — Daw Kyi Pyar was just 9 years old, but she had followed her father to downtown Yangon, where tens of thousands of students, ochre-robed monks, doctors, street vendors, and others were gathered for a rally.

Not far away, 34-year-old Ko Ba Myo Thein, who worked as a clerk in the agriculture ministry, stood under the shade of the 2,500-year-old Sule Pagoda and shouted slogans against the very government that employed him.

It was August 1988, and those six-week-long protests later became known as the “8888 Uprisings,” the conclusion of which would mark the bloody end to a bloody dictatorship which had ruled the country for 26 years. A new military government would take over just as a new pro-democracy party was formed — the National League for Democracy (NLD) — headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had herself emerged from the uprising as an icon of democratic change in the country.

Kyi Pyar says she remembers the uprising. “I was just a primary school student, how much could I know about democracy and human rights?” she said. “But still, I supported my father and all the people around me in the rally.”

Nearly 27 years later, both Daw Kyi Pyar and Ko Ba Myo Thein now find themselves working side by side in a cramped office, still just a few blocks from Sule Pagoda, but in slightly different capacities — today they stand as NLD candidates in the historic general election that will take place on Sunday.

Nearly 25 years after the last freely contested multiparty elections, the weight of expectations for the Nov. 8 poll has brought international attention to Myanmar and a giddy energy to the small NLD office in downtown Yangon. On the floor, a group of young volunteers sit patiently, waiting to see how they can help. All around them the room is plastered with either the red and gold of the NLD flag or the smiling face of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“She inspired me in 1988 and she inspired me today,” says Ko Ba Myo.

Daw Kyi Pyar is running for a seat in the region’s local parliament, while Ko Ba Myo Thein looks to represent their constituency in the Burmese parliament’s Upper House. Both have strong chances of winning, but they recognize that historical precedence makes no guarantees for a peaceful transfer of power post-election.

Myanmar’s last “free” multi-party election was held in 1990, two years after 1988 uprisings. The results were overwhelming, with then newly formed NLD claiming 392 of the 492 seats. The fallout, however, was just as extreme, as the military government annulled the results, arrested hundreds, and sent thousands more underground.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself would spend 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest — and her peaceful, pro-democratic rhetoric earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Daw Kyi Pyar remembers that her father, an outspoken and well-recognized activist, was detained on several occasions. “But he was never imprisoned,” she said, hinting at multiple escapes from authorities. “Maybe because he was a very good runner.”

Ko Ba Myo Thein was less lucky. After the uprisings, he found himself becoming more politically active. While continuing his job as a clerk, he befriended a number of student activists, including NLD members. “I thought if I could help the activists from my position, then why not help them?” he said.

In October 1990, and like so many others, the military government discovered his activities and arrested him along with his new activist contacts. Four months later, he was sentenced to seven years in the notorious Insein prison, just north of Yangon.

Now 61, his almost sleepy demeanor and hushed voice belie his history as a political agitator. While in prison, he managed to create so much trouble that his sentencing was extended by another 12 years.

“When I was in prison, I knew I would be politically active,” he says. “I had a lot of time to think and read.”

Not long after his release in 2010, Ko Ba Myo Thein would see his country suddenly open itself to the world after decades under a policy of isolation.

An election that same year was boycotted by the NLD, which led to a quasi-civilian government under the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), mostly made up of old military hands now in civilian garb. But the new government began enacting hard reforms and liberalizing policies that caught the eyes of their regional neighbors and the wider international community.

The government granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, allowed some — though not many — journalistic freedoms, and laid the groundwork for the multi-party election that will take place on Sunday.

“This [constitution] is there to guarantee [the military’s] place in our political future”

More than 6,000 candidates from a staggering 92 political parties will be vying for seats in the next government, yet the focus still falls heavily on the two main parties: the military-backed incumbent, the USDP and the longstanding opposition, the NLD.

The sheer numbers involved in these elections have tested the capacity of the country’s Union Election Commission — there have been some chatters about foul play — but for many, the elections carry a promise for the first smooth transfer of power by the ballot box since 1960.

In October, Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, acknowledged the importance of the historic election, but also highlighted its shortcomings.

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Lee urged the international community to support further reforms in Myanmar. In particular, Lee called attention to 760,000 people with temporary registration cards who were disenfranchised, most of them members of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority.

The disenfranchisement of the Rohingyas comes amid a rising wave of caustic Buddhist nationalism stoked by influential groups like Ma Ba Tha, which proposed and pushed “protection of race and religion laws” that the Amnesty International says are “grossly discriminatory,” particularly to the Rohingyas.

But for both Daw Kyi Pyar and Ko Ba Myo Thein, the most critical issues of the election will come immediately after the election.

“The incoming government would find itself in constant conflict with the military,” says Daw Kyi Pyar, who like many others expects a majority for the NLD. Kyi Pyar believes separating the old military figures from the new political arena will be the most important, and dangerous, hurdle for incoming government.

At the core of the issue is the 2008 constitution. The controversial document guarantees a quarter of the seats to the military, effectively giving unelected military figures a veto on any constitutional amendments, while also barring Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.

“This [constitution] is there to guarantee their place in our political future,” says Kyi Pyar. “It’s one of the reasons why I think [the military] are happy to hold these elections, because even if the NLD get a majority, they still have so much power.”

Yet like her idol, Aung San Suu Kyi, Daw Kyi Pyar says that to avoid any dramatic events after the election, conciliatory discussions have to take place between the civilian government and the military contingent, especially once the backroom political intrigue over the nominations for the president takes place.

“It will get very, very interesting those few months after we know the results,” Daw Kyi Pyar says. “Who knows what the military will do?”

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Hundreds of Thousands of Citizens Won’t Be Allowed to Vote in Myanmar’s Historic Election

First published on Vice News, November 7 2015

Kyaw Min Tun was just a 15-year-old kid in 1997, but he still took to the streets of Myanmar’s capital Yangon to protest the lack of freedoms in the country, which was ruled by a military junta. The demonstration was inspired and encouraged by a leader who, 18 years later, stands poised to lead the nation that used to be known as Burma.

“We were young and upset. We felt completely ignored,” Kyaw said, recalling the protest he staged all those years ago under the golden shade of the iconic 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. “Only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi understood what we, the students and the youth in general, wanted.”

Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s democratic icon and the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. As many as 1,171 races are being contested by more than 6,000 candidates spread among 92 parties in the country’s first openly-contested general election in 25 years on Sunday. The spotlight is on just two parties with the most at stake at the national level: Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and the incumbent military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Assuming the election’s aftermath goes smoothly, it will be the first democratic transfer of power in Myanmar since 1960. For regional neighbors and the international community, the vote is a harbinger of the country’s future.

With so much at stake for Myanmar’s 53 million people, the voting itself will be closely monitored, both locally and internationally. In a written statement, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on rights in Myanmar highlighted issues that called into question the “free and fair” nature of the elections, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens will not be able to vote.

There is also the sudden disenfranchisement of some 760,000 people whose temporary voter registration cards have been scrapped. Most of them are members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, who have also found themselves targeted by four “protection of race and religion laws” recently pushed through parliament on a rising wave of rancorous Buddhist nationalism.

Still, after more than five decades of military dictatorship and decades of stagnation under an isolationist, paranoid policy called “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” dramatic reforms have taken place in the last five years. Press freedom has been greatly extended, thousands of political prisoners have been granted amnesty, and foreign investment has started flowing into the country.

‘Everyone talks about the changes that have happened, but I only see positive changes for the rich.’

In the eyes of the US administration, the recent opening of Myanmar is considered a major diplomatic coup, a success of a carrot-and-stick policy of dropping and imposing sanctions. The country’s importance to the US was cemented in 2012 when President Barack Obama became the first-ever American leader to visit the resource-rich country, praising the early reforms but warning, “The flickers of progress must not be extinguished.”

In the quiet grandeur of Yangon’s Mahabandoola Park, Thant Zin Zaw sits under the shade of a small tree. With two electrical engineering textbooks open, his eyes dart across his notes, and with a pen he adds and strikes out sections of text. His demeanor is immediately recognizable as that of a student with an important exam coming up.

“I feel optimistic for my future and that of my country. Maybe 10 years ago [my studying] would all be for nothing, but I feel confident the jobs will come now,” he said. “As we continue to open up, I feel other countries will begin to truly see us as a partner in the international community, and that would help us all so much. Things are changing fast.”

He laughs when he looks down at his phone. “You know how much things have changed? My SIM card would have cost me over $1,000 just 5 years ago, now it’s $1.”

Along with the expanding telecommunications sector, increased construction, imports and tourism have produced visible changes in Myanmar, whose economy grew almost 9 percent a year on average in the 10 years to 2014. Yet disparities between urban and rural areas grow ever larger. The International Monetary Fund recently said “imbalances have increased significantly over the past year.”

It’s a contrast that has not gone unnoticed by Win Shwe Sin. At 50, she calls herself “too old to be important” but she still yearns to feel something positive from her country’s growing wealth.

“Everyone talks about the changes that have happened, but I only see positive changes for the rich,” she said, reclining on the back of a truck by the Five Religions Temple. For 20 years, she has acted as guard for cars, rickshaws, or bicycles parked on her stretch of road, rarely taking a day off.

“If I don’t work, I don’t eat. I still struggle to buy basic food like rice. I only make 4,000 kyat ($3.10) a day. I need to work to feed myself that day,” she said.

She sees the upcoming elections as a way to greater economic opportunities for all. “Not for me, but for my boys,” she said. “It’s about who is best for the poor and the next generation. My vote is NLD and I have high expectations for Daw [Aung San] Suu Kyi.”

The country’s controversial 2008 constitution has managed to survive modification by opposition parties, still guaranteeing the military a quarter of the seats in parliament, and a place in the heart of the governing body for years to come. And because the next president will be chosen by parliament, the armed forces will maintain a say on who leads the country.

The constitution also contains an article barring from the presidency people whose children are citizens of a foreign nation, which includes Suu Kyi, whose sons hold British passports. That would be the case even if the NLD wins, as is widely expected. It’s a blow for many NLD supporters and an argument for those who say the election won’t be completely free and fair, but Suu Kyi herself has remained defiant, striking an almost combative tone at her final press conference Thursday.

When a journalist asked how she would lead the government considering Myanmar has no prime minister, she answered curtly.

“Who said I’m going to be prime minister? The prime minister is below the president,” she said. “I said I’m going to be above the president.”

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Myanmar’s General Election Will Put Its New Order to the Test

First published in Newsweek US, 20 October 2015 – print edition Oct 30

Kyaw Wanna Soe, a 40-something newspaper distributor in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, was twitching anxiously. While speaking, he wiped his brow and shifted in his chair. It was summer in Yangon, and that unholy union of heat and moisture was reaching a suffocating climax.

It was unclear whether his obvious discomfort was a result of the soaring temperatures or provoked by contemplation of his country’s immediate future. Asked what ambitions he harbored for Myanmar’s upcoming general elections, he meekly responded, “I just hope they happen without any problems.

“There are a lot of tensions right now,” he continued, pointing to front-page images of protesting students. “So if something goes wrong…” His voice trailed off while he surveyed the maze of newspapers littering his shop floor. “I’m worried for my business.”
While many are optimistic about the November 8 election, others are skeptical, worrying that if there are problems with the election, it could undermine the progress made by Myanmar thus far. Such skepticism was fueled by contradictory reports this month from the Union Election Commission—first that the vote would be postponed, then, 12 hours later, that it would go ahead.

For people like Kyaw Wanna Soe, incidents like these are reminiscent of the ruling elite’s capricious past, particularly the 1990 general election. It was considered the country’s last relatively free and fair one, when the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 80 percent of the seats in the parliament. In response, the ruling military regime annulled the results, and many of the opposition candidates went into hiding. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and the military retained its grip on society for many more years.

For half a century after the military coup in 1962, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, stagnated under a dictatorial and antagonistic policy called “the Burmese Way to Socialism.” It has been only five years since the country began making serious changes, easing up on the hermetic seal that kept it isolated and embracing both regional neighbors and the international community.

President Barack Obama hailed the gradual opening as a diplomatic coup, the result of a “carrot and stick” U.S. policy of dropping or imposing sanctions as Myanmar’s internal situation evolved. In November 2012, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, applauding the start of its “dramatic transition.”
Now Myanmar has reached another milestone, in the form of what the government promises will be a free and fair general election. In reality, this will be a test of whether the country moves closer to democracy or remains a military kleptocracy characterized by cronyism.

This time, there are several parties running for the parliament’s upper and lower houses, but most of the attention is focused on the two major ones: the NLD, headed by Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, and the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by President Thein Sein.

“It’s certainly important, and it’s shaping up to be the fairest and most inclusive [general election] since 1990,” says David Mathieson, the senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Yangon. “But,” he adds, “there are still major caveats that need to be factored in.”

For Mathieson, the lack of reform of the heavily criticized constitution of 2008 is one such failure. It was drafted by the old military junta and passed in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Cyclone Nargis. One of the most contentious points lies in Article 436, which requires a supermajority of more than 75 percent of parliamentary votes to amend the constitution. This point, combined with the fact that a quarter of the total seats are guaranteed to the military, means that the generals enjoy a de facto veto over any constitutional changes.

“I would call this is a 75 percent election, because 25 percent of the seats are guaranteed to the military,” Mathieson says. “They have stated they are the guardian of the constitution…. They have made it very clear they won’t countenance any changes.”

One of the more dramatic signs of that came in August when the USDP ousted party chairman and presidential hopeful Shwe Mann in a surprise overnight move. He had disagreed with other party members over a number of issues, including his willingness for constitutional change.

Another controversial article of the constitution bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the highest office. Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British citizen, as are her children, and critics interpreted that article as tailored to exclude her.

In spite of the constitutional barrier, Suu Kyi sounds confident. At a campaign rally just north of Yangon, she told the crowd, “Make no mistake: Whoever the president is, I will be the leader of the NLD government.”

There is another big factor weighing against a free and fair election: the many citizens who cannot vote.

There are bureaucratic problems, and the Union Election Commission—which oversees registration, campaigning and polling—is badly stretched, says Myat Thu, director of the Yangon School of Political Science. “I’ve been told by people that names are being repeated [on voting rosters], while others are missing. Sometimes a single name appears five times,” he says.

Meanwhile, several pockets along Myanmar’s border regions are still subject to violence that is part of a conflict between the military and a plethora of ethnic armed groups, now in its 67th year. The result has been the displacement of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of the country’s citizenry, either into camps or as refugees. Some estimate at least 110,000 refugees have fled the country in the past 20 years.

A much-touted two-year-long attempt to reach a nationwide cease-fire has just ended in disappointment, with only eight of the 15 invited groups willing to sign with the government. The various conflicts mean that nearly 600 village districts nationwide will have their voting canceled. “There are far more active conflict areas and displaced people now than in 2010. That should be a sobering assessment,” Mathieson says.

Meanwhile, in western Myanmar, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, has raised doubts over the sincerity of the government’s transition. Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya citizens, referring to them as Bangladeshis and revoking many of their rights. This has left some 140,000 people displaced and wholly disenfranchised. Earlier this year, there was a surge in the numbers of Rohingya fleeing to neighboring countries, many of them risking their lives on rickety boats run by smugglers. Obama, while praising the country’s “courageous process” of political reform, warned that “Myanmar won’t succeed if the Muslim population is oppressed.”

Myanmar’s political elites, including Suu Kyi, were noticeably silent about the crisis, a sign that sympathy with the Rohingya is not politically expedient in Myanmar. Now the Rohingya face more discrimination than ever, partly as a reflexive response to condemnation from abroad, and partly thanks to the rise of Buddhist nationalist groups like the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, known locally by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.

The Ma Ba Tha, led by hard-line monks, has stoked sectarian tensions, particularly toward the Muslim minorities in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country. Last year, it proposed four so-called “protection of race and religion laws” condemning Muslims that were swiftly pushed through the parliament. They garnered huge support across the electorate.

“My view is that [the government has] simply just stood back, allowed [the Ma Ba Tha’s rise] to happen and are now utilizing that sentiment for themselves,” says Mathieson.

In recent months, state media have carried numerous reports of senior government officials making offerings to senior monks. Ma Ba Tha figures have praised government officials for the speedy enactment of the new race and religion laws, while explicitly calling on the movement’s supporters not to vote for the NLD.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, has rejected such rhetoric mixing religion and politics as unconstitutional. She told supporters she was focused on reconciliation and building a bright future based on democracy. “The past should be something from which to take lessons,” she said, “not something that ties us to anger and grudges.”

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Saudi-Thai Relations and the Blue Diamond Affair

First published with Vice News October 2, 2015

Some 25 years ago, a lowly Thai gardener found himself working in a grand palace in Saudi Arabia, half way across the world from his home village. Kriangkrai Techamong mainly tended the lush palace grounds, but every now and again he found himself employed in janitorial duties. It wasn’t flashy, but he was earning more than he would at home and was even able to send a little money back to his family. At the time, his predicament was fairly common. Over 200,000 Thai nationals were working in Saudi in 1989, and millions of dollars a year were being sent home in remittances.

But Kriangkrai himself wasn’t earning that much. So he decided, in either a moment of madness or a poorly planned plot, to make the most of his situation. One night he crawled up through a second story window and into a palace bedroom, busted open a safe, and stole around 200 pounds of jewelry worth approximately $20 million, allegedly among them a highly prized 50-carat blue diamond.

What followed was a twisted tale of heist, assassinations, corruption, and diplomatic acrimony that continues to this day; now referred to simply as the “Blue Diamond Affair.” Last week, Abdalelah Mohammed A. Alsheaiby quietly resumed his post as chargé d’affaires in Bangkok after a year-long protest at what Saudi had considered just the latest injustice stemming from that original heist. Nearly 26 years after Krungkrai’s moment of madness, it’s clear the affair is far from over.

Back at the palace, Kriangkrai stuffed his newly acquired possessions into a vacuum cleaner bag and sent the goods back to Northern Thailand via DHL. Not long after he too left.

Unsurprisingly it didn’t take long for the prince to notice that something was amiss, and after putting two and two together, the Thai authorities were notified of the theft. By this time Kriangkrai was back in his home province of Lampang, and struggling to sell his stolen wares. A local jeweler, Santhi Sithanakan, had caught wind of the incredible collection, contacted Kriangkrai and bought the bulk of the illicit goods at a fraction of their true value.

Kriangkrai was soon after caught by the police, and through him, Santhi the jeweler. Lieutenant-General Chalor Kerdthes, who had led the investigation, headed a delegation to Saudi to return the stolen goods. It seemed the story of a bold and ill-planned heist had come to a swift, but expected conclusion.

Yet upon inspection of the returned jewels, the Saudis noticed two things: most of the gems were fakes, and more importantly, the 50-carat blue diamond was missing altogether.

Meanwhile in Thailand, rumors were spreading in the local press that photos at a charity gala showed a number of bureaucrat wives with new diamond necklaces: necklaces bearing a striking resemblance to those stolen from the palace. This was the start of Saudi’s assertion that Thai police and the elites had siphoned off the jewels for themselves.

Riyadh acted quickly, dispatching three diplomats and a businessman with close ties to the Saudi royal family, Mohammad al-Ruwaili, to investigate. On February 1, 1990, the three diplomats were assassinated in Bangkok. Just a few days later, al-Ruwaili went missing, presumed murdered.

While links are often drawn between the jewelery theft investigation and the four murders, a classified 2010 US cable sent from Bangkok stated that the Saudi diplomat murders were “almost certainly… part of a Saudi feud with Hezbollah.”

Yet the Saudis, while acknowledging the possible Hezbollah link, nonetheless suspected that Thai police were involved with the murders. Riyadh quickly reduced the number of Thai workers in the country. From over 200,000 Thai nationals in 1989, mass deportation meant there were just 10,000 by 1991. At the same time, Saudi all but stopped trade between the two countries, and they downgraded their diplomatic relations and recalled their ambassador, instead sending over the straight-talking and tenacious chargé d’affaires, Mohammed Said Khoja, to continue investigating.

Khoja was an incredible character of a man, determined to solve both the mystery of the missing jewels and the murders of his fellow countrymen in the most provocative and outspoken manner. He claimed that whosoever illegally handled the blue diamond would be cursed, a claim which resonated with a lot of Thais, many of whom wear protective amulets and prescribe to similar views of hexes and curses.

He was also unashamedly quick to call out Thailand’s national police. In a 1994 interviewwith the New York Times, he explained that his gun, a chrome-plated .38-caliber Smith and Wesson which never left his side, was for protection not from Hezbollah or ” international terrorists,” but from the Thai police, who were “bigger than the government itself.”

Earlier that year, the wife and 14-year-old son of Santhi the jeweler, were suddenly found dead in a car. The Thai police stated the two had died in a car crash, but Khoja was having none of it. “This was not an accident,” he told the Washington Post. Santhi had earlier reported he had received a phone call telling him his wife and child were abducted, and he had paid a 2.5 million Thai baht ($68,000) ransom demanded for their safety.

Under pressure from the Saudis, the Thai police continued their investigation of the accident and a few months after the deaths, Lieutenant General Chalor, who had led the initial heist investigation, was charged with orchestrating the abduction and pre-meditated murder of the wife and child. With the ransom collected, it appeared that it was easier to just kill them off and stage an accident than risk being identified later on.

Nonetheless, while in prison Chalor maintained his innocence while playing in a band and recording songs, including a Thai cover to Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. His death sentence was upheld in October 2009 but four years later, he was freed to little fanfare.

As time stretched on and Thailand’s 20-year statute of limitations began looming over the heads of the investigators, pressure mounted. In one final push, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations reopened the case of al-Ruwaili’s disappearance in early 2010, just one month before the 20-year limit and with news of an apparent breakthrough. Five policemen were indicted with al-Ruwaili’s abduction and murder.

So when, in March last year, all five were acquitted due to a lack of evidence, the tension was palpable. “Thai-Saudi relations likely to worsen after murder acquittals” read oneheadline. A member of the Riyadh monitoring committee who was present for the verdicttold reporters, “Saudi Arabia has never even been given clarification on the death of our four diplomats killed in Bangkok, let alone seeing justice served.”

After contacting the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok, VICE News was asked to have its questions vetted, and after multiple phone calls no one was made available for comment. Meanwhile, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VICE News that no comment could be made on “even a broad approach” to the two countries’ relations, as the situation remains “really quite sensitive.”

Such precautions and worry do not suggest the most amiable and open of relations, yet the reinstatement of Alsheaiby does signify that they have at least thawed a little. With Thailand’s economy continuing to flounder, every extra trade deal is a boost, and Saudi, who were the first of the GCC member states to establish full diplomatic relations with Thailand in 1957, would be a major target for Bangkok. Yet without knowing what Saudi’s plans are in the near future, the degree of “sensitivity” needed in speaking on the topic suggests that the 25-year-old saga continues to force a tightrope walk of bilateral diplomacy.

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