Fake Burmese reforms

From the January-February 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Fake Burmese reforms

When highly lauded Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi doubted whether the Rohingya Muslims really belong in Burma, the incipient racism and ethnic chauvinism echoed personally. I consider myself, my family and many other ethnic minorities to be exiles, having fled persecution in Burma during the post-colonial era of national independence movements. In Burma, we were declared a marginal Other, who did not belong, “foreigners” in our own birthplace.

In Burma, General Ne Win had declared his junta in 1962 to be a “caretaker” government. But they never left. The generals are still in charge.

PRETENDERS OF DEMOCRATIC REFORM

It is these pretenders who are now supposedly spearheading “democratic reforms,” sadly with validations from pro-democracy activists and incipient narrow nationalists like San Suu Kyi, as well as the U.S. administration. They give the junta legitimacy.

Burmese junta butchers changed their policies in the face of ongoing revolts from their own masses. Dictators don’t embrace “reform” and “democracy” because they love those ideas. They are attempting to appropriate political trends, and preserve themselves.

On Nov. 19 President Obama spent about 24 hours in Burma. It was the first time a U.S. President has visited Burma. He did so in the throes of racial apartheid and political persecutions. It is significant that the first U.S. president to visit Burma is Black. Millions of Burmese came out to greet Obama. That would not have happened if, say, the British Prime Minister paid a visit. We have too many bad memories of the Brits.

I think Obama himself recognized the simultaneously historic and contradictory nature of his trip. He took pains to almost apologize, saying it wasn’t to validate the regime but to help move forward the beginnings of reforms.

As soon as he left Suu Kyi’s side, the junta resumed their repression of Burmese villagers. At the Letpadaung copper mine in central Burma, 70 Buddhist monks and five lay persons were arrested and injured at a peaceful protest. The mine is a joint venture between China’s Wanbao Copper Mining Ltd. and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, Ltd.

VILLAGERS FIGHT CONTAMINATION

For years villagers have had health problems from air, soil and water contamination they believe are the results of mining. Many at the old mine sites allege their land was confiscated without compensation.

More than 7,800 acres of land have been seized from 26 villages under the shadow of the Letpadaung mountain range since last year to make way for the Chinese-backed project. Villagers demand its closure, citing environmental destruction and illegal land confiscation. A pre-dawn raid left dozens of unarmed demonstrators seriously injured. Security forces used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to clear protesters from another copper mine in northwestern Burma.

The crackdown showed that the government, which claims to have turned over a new leaf, is only protecting its own interests and those of foreign investors. In Kachin State in northern Burma, an estimated 75,000 people have been displaced by the Taping River dam projects. A minister attached to the Burmese President’s Office publicly admitted, “We’re afraid of China….If China asks for compensation, the Myitsone Dam shutdown would cost us $3 billion dollars.”

In the 1970s, fear of China, the Communist imperialist behemoth in the north, triggered irrational fear of the ethnic Chinese within Burma and a rampage of ethnic cleansing. Fear-mongering and ethnic chauvinism are being stoked again, now against the Rohingya Muslim minorities along the southern coast in an effort to displace them.

Since Obama’s visit, the military has intensified its war against the oppressed Kachin minority and their demand for autonomy. There is heavy fighting, with reports of grave human rights abuses. Though activists in Rangoon have urged the government to stop its war on the Kachins, Aung Sung Suu Kyi has been silent.

National movements for democracy cannot stop at any halfway houses if the aspirations of the masses are to be achieved.

—Htun Lin

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