Myanmar’s false dawn

Buddhism is increasingly politicised in Myanmar. Picture credit: Asean Economist

Foreigners dominate Myanmar’s westernmost state of Rakhine, exploiting its natural resources and derailing its ethnic harmony. 

But the foreigners are Chinese and Thais, not Muslims. The international news agenda is clogged with stories of the murder, ethnic cleansing and mass rapes of the Rohingya community in the state, while the domestic media covers the situation very differently.

Myanmar’s Buddhist majority see the Muslim Rohingya as “Bengalis”, who crossed the Bangladeshi border illegally, and dismiss the allegations from almost every international observer on the ground, including the UN.

Meanwhile, too little attention is given to the gas and oil pipelines that run through the state, supplying power-hungry China.

Myanmar started exporting natural gas from the Shwe gas project off the Rakhine coast in 2014, two years after the process of burning the Rohingya from their homes began.

The project produces around 400 million cubic feet of gas per day with 17 million used in domestic consumption and 379 million exported to China.

Around 900 million cubic feet of gas comes from Yadana natural gas project per day with 711 million sent to Thailand and 119 million used domestically.

Rather than battling to regain their ethnic homelands and a fair share of the profit from their fuel, the Buddhist Rakhine have been duped into a game of divide and rule.

As their natural resources are carved up by the generals in Nay Pyi Taw, the Chinese and Thais, the ethnic Rakhine focus on terrorising their former neighbours.

The picture is no more positive in Myanmar’s other border regions.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the last year finding out that it is a lot easier to make election promises than run a country. Other populist politicians who made big promises to their electorates, like the UK’s Brexit champion Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, are currently learning the same lesson.

Suu Kyi wrestles with the added complication that she holds little power.

Despite winning 80 per cent of available seats in the November 2015 election, she remains a fig leaf for a military dictatorship.

Under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, the generals are allocated 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, giving them a veto on any constitutional change and allowing them to choose the more powerful of the two vice presidents.

They retain full control of three of the most important ministries: home affairs, border security and defence.

It means the “Tatmadaw” or military could this month attack ethnic armed groups like the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).

This is significant because the RCSS signed the October 2015 national ceasefire agreement with the government.

But the military is investigating this and other such incidents itself and arrests anyone who questions its actions.

At the same time as Suu Kyi is asking other armed groups to sign the deal, her own military exposes the agreement as worthless.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) MPs talk incessantly about the importance of the “rule of law” but they still live under the rule of the generals.

Prominent human-rights activists like Movement for Democracy Current Force leader Htin Kyaw continue to rot in jail while the military retains a firm grip on the courts and Suu Kyi is largely silent.

After a year in office, the NLD continues to stall attempts to change dictatorial laws that are used to gag the civilian population.

Among the most notorious is Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act.

Any citizen can use Section 66(d) to sue for alleged online abuse, regardless of whether they were the subject of the remarks. It carries a threat of up to three years in prison and suspects are normally refused bail, which is deeply controversial for alleged defamation, meaning it is often used to jail journalists and political activists during prolonged trials.

While campaigning in 2015, Suu Kyi repeatedly promised peace with around 20 well-armed rebel armies which control vast swathes of Myanmar’s border regions.

She pledged to revive the “Panglong spirit” of her father, the independence leader Aung San. The Nobel peace laureate promised a fresh approach and an end to the civil wars that have crushed the country for decades.

But, while joining Suu Kyi in still calling for peace, the generals appear to have little interest in her hopes and are currently engaged in fighting with numerous “ethnic armed groups”.

The Panglong Agreement was reached in Panglong, southern Shan State, between Aung San and the Shan, Kachin, and Chin peoples on February 12, 1947. The agreement accepted “full autonomy in internal administration for the frontier areas” and envisioned a federal union. It is celebrated in Myanmar as Union Day each February 12.

Suu Kyi tried to revive the deal with her so-called “21st-century Panglong conferences”. The first was promised during August 2016 and was eventually hastily cobbled together to start on August 31.

Now the second instalment has been repeatedly delayed and is currently pencilled in for May.

But there seems little point in taking part while the principal protagonist, the military, has no apparent interest in a return to barracks. Numerous unwieldy, cumbersome-sounding bodies have been established under the peace process, like the Union Peace Development Joint Committee, but while ceasefire signatories like the RCSS can be attacked with no apparent consequence, another Panglong conference would appear redundant.

On a positive note, the economy continues to grow, admittedly from a low base, and Myanmar’s strategic location means it should be able to establish itself as a big Asian power. It offers the only land routes between India and China and then connections south towards Singapore. A market exceeding a third of the world’s population is waiting for Myanmar’s border regions to allow efficient road and rail routes to be constructed.

But it seems the 2015 election was a false dawn and we will have to wait a little longer for Myanmar to establish itself on the world stage.