Karen-Burmese author/activist Zoya Phan worries that an ascendant Aung San Suu Kyi might get assassinated, chides nostalgia for pre-colonial Burma, where minorities were oppressed, and calls sanctions busters naive or stupid. This interview was conducted in late November and early December by email.
In December, I interviewed Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, who argued that sanctions on Burma were a mistake, since they hurt ordinary people and fostered Burma’s partnership with China. Zoya Phan, a member of Burma’s battered and abused Karen ethnic group, begs to differ. Phan is the author of a stirring 2010 memoir, Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma, in which she recounts her early years on the run from the Burmese army, in refugee camps in Thailand, and finally her education and escape to London, where she works with the Burma Campaign UK. As Undaunted and our discussion below both make clear, what trade with Burma’s generals fosters is a larger Burmese army. It doubled the last time the world dealt freely with Burma, and chased her from her village. If you read Undaunted you’ll discover how that army killed her dad.
She begins our discussion, and her critique of Thant Myint-U’s argument to lift sanctions, thus: “Thant Myint-U is right in identifying ethnic issues as key to solving the political problems in Burma, but does not appear to support giving rights, protection and autonomy to ethnic people as a solution to these problems. In many of his writings, he has even implied that ethnic identity is a British colonial invention to divide and rule Burma, which shows a worrying lack of understanding about ethnic people and our history. He seems to be nostalgic for the pre-colonial period in Burma. This may have been a good time for some wealthy Burmans in the royal court in Mandalay, but it was a time of oppression and fear for ethnic people.”
—Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: Weren’t Burma’s November elections a total sham?
Zoya Phan: The November elections were a complete sham, as the main intention was to legalize the rule of the dictatorship. Repressive laws and media censorship remain in place. For ethnic people, there is no guarantee for rights needed to protect their culture and traditions. Remember that these elections were announced in 2003, following international outrage at the Depayin massacre, and re-arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. The so-called roadmap to democracy, which included these elections, was announced to head off the threat of sanctions. This shows the generals really do care about international pressure and sanctions, or action from the UN Security Council.
These elections have strengthened [the generals’] rule, and now everything they do is within Burmese law. [After these elections] we have the same people in charge, the same policies, the same control over wealth and power, and a constitution designed for this. For example, through the new state and regional parliaments, and the threatened abandonment of ceasefire agreements, the dictatorship will be expanding its control over ethnic areas, in a way they haven’t before, and in ways even Burmese kings before colonialism didn’t have. There are also similarities to the current situation in more recent Burmese history. In 1974 General Ne Win also brought in a new constitution aimed at legalizing his rule, and giving it a civilian front. He remained in power for more than a decade, before a new and even more brutal dictatorship assumed control.
Guernica: And what of the politics more generally?
Zoya Phan: For more than 40 years under military dictatorship, people have been living in constant fear and extreme poverty. We now have five main political powerbases in Burma. The first is the military/ex-military elite, who run the government through the President and the National Defense and Security Council. Parliament is sidelined to a rubber stamp role. The second, the Parliament, is separate from, but connected to the government. The military has ensured it controls the Parliament. The regime-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party dominates, thanks to rigged elections. The party is packed with ex-soldiers and business cronies and ensures old power remains in place. For ethnic people in regional Parliaments, MPs will raise and promote ethnic issues, but MPs won’t be able to change the Constitution, without agreement from the military, as it requires 75 percent of the vote. In regional governments it is the military-backed national president who appoints ministers. So central government has strong control over local governments and parliaments.
bq. What people in Burma need is a democratic federal Burma that guarantees autonomy, rights and protection for all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion or race.
Now we are being told by so-called experts and some governments that we must be patient and that there can be incremental change through Parliament. The UN did this, and failed spectacularly, and while they did, the human rights situation got worse. The dictatorship ignored the UN and international community, making not a single concession. Now we are being told again these Parliaments are new, we should engage with them and if improved they can bring positive change. I don’t place any hope in that.
Returning to our list, the third political grouping is the non-ceasefire groups. On one purely practical level, [generals and the international community] will have to deal with them, because they are armed groups, and there will not be peace without their agreement. But also, their main goal is no different from the official position of the United Nations. They want respect for human rights, and are working for a federal Burma. The UN cannot continue to sideline them from political dialogue if it genuinely wants dialogue and a political settlement.
The fourth political grouping is the mainstream opposition, spearheaded by the National League for Democracy. This also includes the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, other ethnic parties, the 88 Generation Students, and others. You also have Buddhist monks who have taken up leadership roles since the 2007 uprising, and who continue to operate underground. Their movement continues even though they are banned. Led by Aung San Suu Kyi, there is no doubt that their political significance is undiminished. Clearly the dictatorship shares this view, which is why more than 2,000 of their leaders are in jail.
You also have armed ceasefire groups, which are under a lot more pressure now, as they refuse to become Border Guard Forces, as required by the new constitution. There is a real danger here with the continued attacks against them, leading to a human rights crisis. They have formed an alliance, and are also moving closer to non-ceasefire armed ethnic groups. In the past these groups were mostly ready to cooperate with the regime. But now they have lost hope for achieving their dream of federal Burma through the military dictatorship, and are reaching out to non-ceasefire groups. This is very significant; the dictatorship is losing control it previously had with ethnic ceasefire groups and so ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups are moving closer together. There is potential for a stronger, more united ethnic opposition.
It is a bizarre situation where the Parliament, which is where there is so much international attention at the moment, is in fact the least politically significant and powerful of the groupings. If there is to be dialogue leading to a transition to democracy, then the military, the mainstream democracy movement, and ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups will have to be at the negotiating table. The same cannot be said for the Parliament.
Guernica: Tell me a little more about the armed conflicts.
Zoya Phan: The ruling regime’s failure to address the rights, security and aspirations of Burma’s ethnic people, who make up an estimated 40 percent of the population, has resulted in armed conflicts. Such failures have been at the root of instability in Burma since independence in 1948. As a result of military pressure on these groups to join the Border Guard Force, with the dictatorship breaking ceasefire agreements, armed conflicts are increasing. Unlike most ethnic armies, the regime’s Army targets civilians, in breach of international law.
bq. Likely tactics will be divide and rule, military force, arrests, torture, restrictions on activists, closing offices, the arrest or even assassination of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite all of this happening in ethnic areas, the international community hasn’t paid enough attention. The United Nations and governments around the world, including China and ASEAN, have repeatedly called on the dictatorship to enter into dialogue with the democracy movement and ethnic leaders. But there hasn’t been much effort to engage ethnic groups in the political process or the negotiations. What people in Burma need is a democratic federal Burma that guarantees autonomy, rights and protection for all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion or race.
Guernica: Will Aung San Suu Kyi’s release lead to change?
Zoya Phan: It is very important to understand that the dictatorship’s intention to release Aung San Suu Kyi is about public relations, not democratic reform. It is the third time Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest. The last time, in 2002, it was part of a UN-led initiative to try to persuade Burma’s dictatorship to enter into dialogue leading to a transition to democracy. However, when the time came for substantive discussions, the generals would not talk.
There is potential for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release to contribute to significant change, if the opportunity is seized quickly. Already you can see how the NLD is re-energized. This is very important because people look to the NLD for leadership, and also, the NLD have a mandate from the people. They are now working on a second Panglong conference, which means they will discuss properly the establishment of a federal Burma. This unites three of the five main political constituencies in the country.
If the mainstream democracy movement does come together with ethnic forces, the regime will see this as a serious threat. They have used the excuse of ethnic armed groups to justify their rule, claiming these groups want to divide the country. They are also very opposed to federalism, and have rejected groups’ proposals for federalism at the National Convention. The dictatorship will oppose this in every way they think necessary. Tactics likely to be used will be to try to divide and rule, use of military force, arrests, torture, increasing repression with more restrictions on activists, closing offices, and the arrest or even assassination of Aung San Suu Kyi. There is a danger we’ll just see a repeat of the vicious circle where, with a revitalized movement, thanks to Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the movement grows, and then meets with a crackdown when the generals consider it could become a real threat. This has happened three times already. This is why the international community must unite behind high-level UN effort for dialogue.
Guernica: Won’t economic engagement or development or trade lead to enriching a patently murderous regime?
Zoya Phan: Economic engagement enriches the regime, as the economy is controlled by the regime. Economic engagement benefits this elite, not ordinary people. The money is spent on the military, stolen by the elite. This sector isn’t labor-intensive. So people don’t get jobs. Even possible jobs from construction of these projects don’t benefit people, and is even directly responsible for human rights abuses, such as land seizures and forced labor. Look at one of the dams being built in Kachin State. They forced local people off their land, and are now importing 10,000 Chinese workers.
Guernica: That’s easy to say from outside Burma, but don’t sanctions stifle the economic freedoms of ordinary Burmese?
Zoya Phan: People arguing for lifting sanctions saying it will help ordinary people are either very naive or very stupid. We had [no sanctions] for almost ten years up till 1997. During that time, despite billions of dollars of investment, there was no political progress, spending on services did not increase. But the size of the army did—it doubled—securing the regime’s grip on power. That army was used against the population, for example, on the attack against my own village when I was fourteen years old.
Targeted sanctions are one of several ways to apply pressure on the regime. Unfortunately, we haven’t got the kind of sanctions Burma’s democracy movement has been asking for. Most of the sanctions in place at the moment are not strong enough and do not cover gas and oil sectors that provide main revenue sources to the regime. No one is asking for the isolation of Burma. In fact, it is the dictatorship’s policy that isolates the people of Burma while it reaches out to different countries every year and opens new embassies around the world. It is the dictatorship’s policy that kills civilians and makes people poor. As long as the dictatorship is in power, foreign trade and investment in Burma will not benefit people. Instead, it will end up fueling the oppression in Burma.
Copyright 2011 Guernica Magazine
Joel Whitney is an editor of Guernica. Read his interview with Deeyah on banned musicians here. Joel’s writing and commentary have appeared in World Policy Journal, The New Republic, The Village Voice, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Paris Review, The Nation, Agni, New York magazine—and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn. He’s on Twitter.