A nation at the crossroads

New book takes a cautiously optimistic view of Myanmar's opening up

If you've been struck dumb by the dramatic changes that have been taking place in Myanmar since last year _ overwhelmed by the positive global responses towards the junta's reforms, and feeling a budding sense of optimism _ you may need a book like Burma: A Nation At The Crossroads, by Benedict Rogers.

Though trying to present a "holistic" introduction, Rogers _ a Christian Solidarity Worldwide human rights observer who specialises in East Asia _ challenges us with the bitter Myanmar.

Those hoping to find travel tips or hints on investment opportunities can skip it and read something else.

The abundant and vivid accounts from dissidents, activists, internally displaced people (IDPs), former political prisoners, defectors, army deserters, Buddhist monks and ethnic resistance leaders _ all those hated and treated badly by the regime _ have been compiled during the writer's 40-plus fact-finding visits to the country and its border outposts, where horrifying tales, some largely unknown to outsiders, have defined the past half-century of the country.

In this sense, the book is no doubt a good reminder of the fragile nature of the ongoing changes.

The military regime that seized power from the faltering civilian government in 1962 soon earned a reputation for its extreme dictatorship, religious and ethnic persecution, and self-isolation from the global community.

Before the nominally civilian government led by former generals came to power through the showcase election in 2010, Myanmar, once known as the "rice bowl" of Asia, had become one of the least developed nations in the world.

Decades of incompetent economic policies impoverished the country. In extreme cases, decisions were casually made only on a whim, sometimes aided by superstitious beliefs. Since 1962, the Myanmar majority has been engaged in continuous struggles for legal rights and justice. However, whenever there was a civilian protest, a bloody crackdown was the official response.

The 1988 movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi was the most organised opposition to the regime, and one which faced the most horrific crackdown.

The brutality of the Tatmadaw _ the Myanmar army _ against the Saffron Revolution ignited by the spike in fuel prices in September 2007, astonished the world when pictures of murdered monks spread through the internet and TV news. As a monk who fled to the Thai-Myanmar border told Rogers: "I did not think the soldiers would beat monks, in Burma, religion is like a parent. The military beat their parents."

Another unsettled tragedy in Myanmar is the conflict between the government and seven major ethnic groups living along the borders. According to Rogers, from 1996 to 2011, over one million people were internally displaced because of wars. Villages were burnt and robbed, women were raped, farmers were killed by exploding landmines, while children were abducted and forcibly conscripted into the army. The situation in the border camps remains bad, even appalling.

The book observes that even in ceasefire areas, attacks and human rights violation committed by the army are still common.

Among non-Myanmar groups, the Muslim Rohingyas have suffered the double sword of ethnic and religious discrimination. As "a stateless people", they face suffocating restrictions in almost every aspect of life. Thousands have fled to Bangladesh, where they are deported back since they are regarded as "Burmese". As a Rohingya refugee told Rogers: "We are trapped between a crocodile and a snake. We are treated as foreigners in Burma, but if we are foreigners, please show us which country we belong to, and we will go there."

The Rohingyas' case is not isolated. Some ethnic groups "have been fighting an armed struggle for basic human rights, for a degree of autonomy, and more recently a battle for existence", while being branded as insurgents, terrorists, rebels and even extremists by the regime.

The closed-door policy prevented the world from knowing the plight of the people. And now that the opening-up is hogging the headlines, will it sound the death knell for extreme dictatorship and ethnic persecution?

In terms of analysis, the book doesn't offer vivid depictions of important figures like former prime minister Ne Win, Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. Rather, as Rogers writes, "it is more an activist's text than an anthropologist's study". And as a documentary work, aside from the wide-ranging, first-hand and reliable information, the author fairs quite well in sticking to a personal moral framework while respecting the complex reality: the democracy and ethnic movements have made mistakes, and there are problems that go beyond the regime.

Unlike his other two works, Burma: A Land Without Evil: Stopping The Genocide Of Burma's Karen People (Kregel Publications, 2004), and Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant (Silkworm Books, 2010), Rogers seems to have chosen a much gentler title for this book. But he got his supporter.

"When I met Aung San Suu Kyi in January 2012," he writes, "I told her about this book. I also told her that I had changed the title. Originally, the book was to be called Burma: A Captive Nation. She responded by commending the new title, saying that Burma truly is at a crossroads and people must shed their status as captives."

A more profound consideration of Suu Kyi _ one ostensibly shared by the author himself _ was that among people who care about Myanmar's future, it is those who are supportive of her decision to engage with the regime but are still sceptical that she values and wants to win over.

The intention is good, but reality forces us to adopt "cautious optimism" _ the focus of this book, as Roger writes, is the fact that "behind the scenes, the military is still in power".

He is not making a fuss. At the same time as US President Barack Obama's recent visit to the country conveyed global praise for the government's effective first steps of reform, Muslim-Buddhist clashes in western Myanmar have spread; as fighting continues in Kachin State, violence against civilians including raping and torture by the army continues.

Rogers also emphasises that without "institutional, legislative and constitutional reform", economic reform and opening up will only benefit those in power, while leading to further exploitation of the oppressed.

The writer, who still shuttles between Yangon and the UK, commented in a recent interview that "President Obama delivered some very clear, very powerful, and very relevant messages during his visit. It was a significant and historic visit which I hope will encourage everyone, the government, military, opposition and ethnic nationalities, to build a free, democratic and peaceful country based on unity in diversity, recognising that diversity is a strength and should be recognised and respected".

About the author

Writer: Zhang Qi