Archive for the ‘Burma’ Category
Guest blogger: Raymond Pagnucco
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New York- I’ve known Ray Pagnucco for some twenty years now. Ray is constantly on the move in Asia and Africa, often interested in uncovering the world’s lesser told e stories that strike his imagination.
The following guest post stems from Ray’s most recent trip to what is likely the world’s most perennially troubled nation-state if one goes by sheer decades of political violence (sorry clichés about Somalia since 1991 but Burma has been raging since 1948). Ray recently crossed from the western-most region of southern China’s Yunnan Province into Burma’s northern Kachin State to document the hardscrabble rebels of the Kachin Independence Army. Enjoy!
It is well known to any highly organized ethnic group that the road to greater autonomy is a rough one replete with of hopes, dreams and a considerable amount of uncertainty that come with a national liberation movement. When your an ethnic group in Burma that makes up just 1.5% of the population of a country of 60 million the reality of ever being autonomous in even more challenging.
However the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and their armed wing the Kachin Independence Army ((KIA) have been pushing for greater autonomy since the the early 1960’s with only limited success. After about three decades of fighting the KIO and KIA had reached a ceasefire with the Burmese junta then known as the ominous sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)* in 1994.
*The SLORC was later renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997 and then officially dissolved by the infamous General Than Shwe in early 2011 when Than abdicated the junta’s rule in the transfer of power to President Thein Sein’s civilian government.
The1994 ceasefire gave the KIO and KIA a fair bit of autonomy over a large area of Kachin State and parts of Shan State along the Chinese Border. This Kachin autonomous zone allowed the KIO is able to collects taxes at border crossings with China and engages in various business deals throughout Kachin State. Most of the trade often revolved around the monetization of natural resources such as jade, timber and gold. The KIO-though no angels themselves in this prolonged conflict-also launched a ambitious opium eradication campaign within the territory under its control.
However in June 2011 renewed violence broke out between the KIA and the Burmese military effectively ending the seventeen-year long ceasefire. The fighting was a result of the Burmese regime’s attempt to secure areas around lucrative energy projects in Kachin and Shan state, the majority of which are funded by the Chinese government while in an area traditionally controlled by the KIA.
For the first year and a half the KIA was able to hold its ground and tried on eleven separate occasions to end the fight and work on a new ceasefire. Then in late December 2012 the Burmese escalated the fighting using aerial attacks to push the KIA back toward to their de-facto capital of Laiza hugging the Chinese boorder. Government troops have since stopped their larger advance but sporadic fighting continues and an estimated 100,000 Kachin civilians have since been displaced.
For a number of years I have kept a close eye on Burma and the various ethnic conflicts that have plagued the country since it was granted independence from Britain in the wake of the the Second World War. I have travelled several times with the Karen National Liberation Army in Karen State to wittiness the war they had been waging for 63 years. This past February I felt it was time to make a trek to Laiza and see what they Kachin where going through and to understand why they were fighting following the ceasefire’s collapse.
When you get to the KIO and KIA controlled areas you will see the result of the former 17 year ceasefire. From roads to schools to sending students abroad for higher education, the Kachin upheld the rule of law and where able to transform their area into a functioning civil society that other ethnic groups like the Karen were not able to achieve after the fall of their d-facto capital of Manerplaw fell to the Burmese in early 1995. The Kachin used their natural resources to create something out of nothing and waited for many year to have a real peace deal with the Burmese military government that went beyond a ceasefire agreement that are so often broken by the Burmese military known locally as the Tatmadaw.
Although Laiza is essentially a city under siege, Stalingrad it is not. Upon arriving in Laiza, I noted that many of the businesses were shuttered.. Its is normally possible to get in and out of the city through either the official nearby Chinese border crossing that has now been closed to non-Kachin. It is also possible or to take a jeep and travel five-six hours on a bumpy mountain road (thought this alternate route is impassable during rainy season). On they way I passed open pit mines, a Chinese dam and elephants employed in logging.
The Kachin people differ from other regional ethnic groups in that they are overwhelmingly Protestant or Roman Catholic and cherish democratic societal practices. During my visit the locals appeared be in relatively good spirits, believing that one day they will be victorious even if that means they are forced to withdraw from population centers and retreat into the jungle to fight or a yet another peace deal will be brokered.
The Kachin remain united. Not only those living in Laiza but those living in other parts of Burma, China and India. It is not uncommon to meet Kachin who have come from other parts of Burma or neighboring countries to aid in the effort. This conflict has had the effect of uniting the Kachin transnationally.
When and how this war will end is anyone’s guess. The Kachin and the Burmese authorities have met over a dozen times since the current bout of war and a lasting deal has yet to be reached. President Thein Sein has told the international community that he has ordered the army to stop it’s war against the KIA and KIO but this has not led to lasting change in the region.
This is a clear sign that the army is still in power in Burma and the civilian government of Thein Sein (a former junta member himself) is mostly a veneer in the brutal realities of Burma’s ethnic hinterlands.
Some say that this conflict will only end when the KIA and KIO are completely obliterated. Other say that this battle was only practice for the Tatmadaw for a larger war with the United Wa State Army and they the Kachin will get some kind of deal when fight in Wa State begins.”
TWD Editor’s Note: Despite having publicly shifted from a military junta to weak civilian rule with promises of reforms coupled with the limited return of Western corporate investment, the harsh militarism entrenched since Ne Win’s March 1962 coup d’état followed by the era of SLORC/SPDC-rule after the disastrous student-led People Power Uprising of August 8, 1988, the aggressive stance of Naypyidaw’s troops is as strongly felt as ever before in Burma’s independent-minded minority homelands as ever before. And it appears the rebels of the KIA will not be abandoning the fight any time in the near future.
For more, see Raymond’s short film The Front Lines of Laiza over at CNN’s iReport.
New York-Obama’s impending visit to Burma in the context of America’s “pivot” to Asia in this so-called “Pacific century” (in contrast to the previous Atlantic century epitomized by the formation of NATO etc) raises a lot of grave human rights concerns, many of which in the case of Burma have festered for decades. Obama will attempt to make America’s presence felt in Southeast Asia during the upcoming East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.
In 2008, I traveled to the border town of Teknaf on the border of Burma’s Rakhine State (aka Arakan State) to document the festering Rohingya crisis at the junction of South and Southeast Asia. My visits to the fetid refugee camps south of Teknaf, Bangladesh culminated in From South-to-South: Burma’s Stateless Minority Under the Tip of Globalization’s Spear and my visit to the Rohingya migrant community in Karachi, Pakistan’s squalid Korangi Town area resulted in From South to South: Refugees as Migrants: The Rohingya in Pakistan.
I was covering the Rohingya issue, which began in earnest with ethnic pogroms in 1991, before it became to relatively hotter topic than it is now in 2012. Trying to bring attention to the crisis either here at the UN headquarters or down in DC on Capitol Hill was essentially a fool’s errand. To think that POTUS would be visiting Burma at that time (or any other time in modern history) seemed absurd.
Now everyone from CNN to the International Crisis Group is trying to catch up to speed and sound alarm bells on the world’s most persecuted, stateless people who are enduring a campaign of ethnic cleansing in part to make way for the development of offshore transnational natural gas projectson the Arakan coast. And the fact that international attention is being brought to these pogroms is a good thing, shame that it takes killings and displacements of thousands for it to come to the fore.
A key reason the Rohingya keep being killed and pushed out into the sea is that they are a stateless people. The insidious Burmese regime that tells the world it is gently democratizing continues to insist that these poor unwanted souls are ‘illegal migrants’ while the Sheikha Hasina administration in Dhaka cruelly maintains that the Rohingya are ‘economic migrants‘ that it cannot be responsible for aiding while its own citizenry go without. The Rohingya exist between the guns of the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) and the Bangladesh Rifles (Border Guard Bangladesh). The Rohingya are hemmed in by a difficult geography with their only remaining option to try and reach refuge in Thailand by sea. Many of them then drown in unsound vessels and rough seas.
As China and India, and now the United States, compete for economic and political influence in Burma, there has been no indication that the persecution of the Rohingya will be tamped down. The array of ethnic questions burning on the country’s periphery have been alight since independence from Britain in 1948-less than six months after the dissolution/independence of British India-have not been quelled with the re-introduction of Burma onto the world stage. Just because superficial change such as the return of Coke and Pepsi have taken place in no way beens that the Tatmadaw will not continue their brutal policies of scorched earth pogroms and enslavement. They may end up being emboldened.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
New York- The BBC is reporting yet another round of violence against the stateless Rohingya being perpetrated by the Bangladeshi authorities. One of the most violently persecuted people in the world today, the Rohingya cannot seem to find safe quarter anywhere. Every so often, the Bangladesh Rifles and border police seem to like to go into one of their ad hoc refugee settlements and give them a good thrashing to put them in their place. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and does not feel the need to adhere to people’s most basic human rights. The Rohingya have not feared much better upon landing ashore in Thailand where many of them have been pushed back out to sea by the Thai armed forces to drown. Two years ago I reported on the plight of the Rohingya for the Huffington Post; first on the underground migrant scene in Karachi, Pakistan, and then on the squalid refugee camps of Bangladesh’s deep southeast. Apparently nothing has improved for these immensely desperate people and nothing looks to change in the near term. After coming back to New York from South Asia in the spring of 2008, I just happened to meet Ismat Jahan, who was then the Bangladeshi ambassador to the UN and politely but firmly asked her to assist these people in what I termed a South Asian Darfur. She demurred saying that the UN was sending her on a good governance junket to Sierra Leone while her own country festered. Isn’t the international system just fabulous!
I’ve got a new piece out with the folks at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington on a seemingly obscure insurgent movement in Northeast India that has been active for three decades and shows few signs of dying out anytime soon. Not all militant movements are Islamist nor are they confined to operating in nations outside the G-20 and/or failing states. Take a look at the article here…
Burma’s stateless minority under the tip of globalizations’ spear
A column of frail women and children in brilliant cotton tunics deftly balance aluminum jars atop their heads as they trundle down a steep, eroded jungle hillside. They are spending most of their day in search of the area’s most valuable commodity, clean drinking water. After hours of searching, what they most often find are muddy, stagnant pools. These are the Rohingya, a people you have never heard of, striving to subsist in a place you’ll never visit, inhabiting a violent landscape of crisis completely devoid of human rights.
The most common image of the plight of human migration portrayed in cooperate media these days is what’s known as “South to North”: Guatemalans passing themselves off as Mexicans trying to enter California’s vast produce engine or Cameroonians traversing thousands of miles up the African continent to look for work in a Parisian suburb are but a few odd examples that come to mind. However there is another scenario that is far off the radar of Lou Dobbs and his ilk who appear to advocate blatant xenophobia as part of a Pavlovian response to their own fears and misconceptions about the pace of an increasingly integrated global economy.
Referred to as “South to South” migration in think tank parlance, these massive underground movements are an example of the complex patterns of today’s transnational human exodus across political and cultural boundaries. South to South migration is an economic indicator writ large conveying the severity of poverty (and often state repression) of people struggling to earn $2 a day in the “Global South.” This ambiguous term, which may be new to some, is what we used to refer to as the “Third World” during the Cold War. These human movements and refugee outflows are only likely to increase in the 21st century across this vast region. This Darwinian competition strains the world’s economic and human resources in parity with the ascendancy of these pragmatic Asian market states. With particular reference to the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China, these furiously accelerating economies are further less inclined to institute a faintly moral foreign policy in light of the wishes of their leadership and the needs of their respective billion-plus populations. Rather than promoting liberty and idealism as the triumph of human desire, the search for natural gas fields and connectivity of deep-sea ports are a core strategic component in the rise of these mega states.
In ten years of travel and reportage at civilization’s fraying and violent crossroads, I’ve witnessed an array of struggles of people burning in the smoldering embers of post-World War II decolonization and the last great upheavals of the post-Berlin Wall paradigm shift. From meeting depressed Iraqi refugees living in a dark hotel in coastal Syria, to nowhere Palestinians in brick and mortar “camps” in South Lebanon, I have never personally encountered a situation as dire and a people as desperate as I have on a recent expedition to the far south of Bangladesh. There, near the country’s last settled town of Teknaf, I went to meet a stateless minority from western Burma called the Rohingya. With the advice of people from the United Nations’s High Commissioner for Refugees and Doctors Without Borders, I ventured into a squalid, ad hoc settlement along the Naf river. The Naf is not only a political boundary between Bangladesh and Burma (though the name Myanmar is the preferred nom of the country’s military dictatorship), but it is also a civilizational boundary between Muslim and Hindu South Asia and Buddhist Southeast Asia. This miserable aggregation is known locally as the “makeshift camp” indicating that it survives outside the recognized protection of the U.N. The refugees who “live” there remain in permanent legal limbo. The U.N. is severely limited by an understanding with the government of Bangladesh on specifically who and just how many Burmese it is allowed to help. The U.N.’s writ here is tenuous at best since Bangladesh has refused to acquiesce to the 1951 Convention on the Refugee (when it was then Pakistan’s deprived, untenable eastern wing) and its subsequent 1967 protocol. In other words, from Dhaka’s perspective, the world should be satisfied by the fact that a portion of refugees are being helped at all since Bangladesh is under no international or legal mandate to do so.
The Rohnigya are a Muslim people originating in Arakan state on Burma’s west coast. Arakan has since been renamed Rakhine State by the junta in favor of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority. Since Burma’s independence from the British Crown in 1948, the Rohingya have been persecuted by the central government in several violent fits over the last six decades. The essence of the dispute, for lack of a better term, being that the junta does not consider the Rohingya to actually be Burmese citizens in large part because the are Muslim and it is therefore well justified in using ethnic cleansing to force them off of their farms and out of their villages in Rakhine State. This push factor throws the vulnerable Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh and as far west as southern Pakistan (which we will visit in Part Two of this piece). Although Bangladesh is a majority Muslim republic to which the refugees feel a large degree of cultural, linguistic and religious affinity, they are hardly welcome there. The Rohingya refugees surviving in this dreadful camp are considered by the Bangladeshi authorities to be “illegal economic migrants” according to Shannon Lee, a Doctors Without Borders officer operating a therapeutic nursing center for under and malnourished children near the camp’s roadside entrance.
Upon visiting the Teknaf area camp, I was forced to ask myself if this utter wretchedness was even remotely acceptable under international legal and moral norms? The scene was more evocative of a Nicholas Kristof column on alleged genocide in sub-Saharan Africa than of 21st century South Asia. I thought to myself, somewhat cynically, that at least the Darfuris have George Clooney and Samantha Power. The Rohingya have no one, own nothing and have been stripped of everything, even their history. Naked children waddling around with distended bellies and emaciated elders stooping in their fetid huts without even the stamina to beg confound the odd visitor. This scene looked more out of a late night cable Christian infomercial than laying on the periphery of this century’s most highly touted, emerging global powers; China and India. It is therein I believe lay the issue of why there is a devastating dearth of political leverage on this urgent issue. While technocrats in “Incredible India” can attempt to dress up their strategy in Burma as constructive engagement, the Politburo in Beijing cannot be bothered to waste time on such euphemisms. In fact, it is precisely a reaction from within the Asian economic theater that India has abandoned its 60’s era ideologically driven foreign policy in favor of Kissengerian realpolitik to compete with the Chinese in the regional buffer states of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and most disturbingly, Burma.
Last year, India’s activist Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee indicated that India would be willing to supply fresh arms and military-related spare parts to the Burmese regime in order to help its military flush out ethnic Naga and Assamese rebels from its territory back into India’s insurgency-wracked states of Nagaland and Assam along the Indo-Burmese frontier. India has a multitude of festering rebellions in its isolated Northeast that date back to the country’s painful birth in 1947. The calculatingly severe junta in Burma, forever playing the victim, says it is perfectly willing to coordinate on defense with the Indians so long as India agrees to assist them in updating their aging Cold War arsenal. The fact that China has been Burma’s principal military supplier over the years does not sit well with New Delhi as India looks to assert itself and increase cooperation in the region.
Part of India’s realpolitik outlook, known domestically as its “Look East” policy, is to have totally dropped the public support it once maintained for Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta’s Nobel Prize winning hostage. Sitting in the heat and pain of the makeshift camp, a Rohingya elder employed by a British NGO named Abdul Jabbar explained to me that his people had made an alliance with prime minister-elect Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the ill fated elections of 1990. Following the junta’s decision to nullify the democratic process in the country, the generals began to systematically crackdown on those who had supported the League. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was meant to be a multi-religious and multi-ethnic umbrella organization (at least in theory) where the Rohingya would have been participants. For the cruel, late General Saw Maung and his successor Than Shwe, a massive, vengeful collective punishment was the order of the day for Burma’s Muslims. In the early 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of them fled to riverine environments in Bangladesh’s deep south.
The junta, in the then capital of Rangoon, insisted that the Rohingya minority were not historically Burmese nationals and had no right to dare assert their political or sub-national identity. Bangladesh, a perpetually poor and deeply corrupt state, claimed it had neither the means nor the goodwill to house and assist the Rohingya refugees seeking shelter. The generals in Burma insist that the Rohingya are in fact historically Bangladeshis who migrated to what is now Burma beginning in the early 1800’s at the onset of British colonial rule in Rangoon. The general’s solution to the Rohingya “problem” is blunt state repression interspersed with occasional ethnic cleansing. As for the refugees status in Bangladesh, authorities in Dhaka insists that the refugees are Burmese nationals who must eventually be repatriated to Burma lest their bothersome presence encourage further migration. The great irony of all this, as anyone familiar with the region might surmise, is that no one seems to be pushing out more migrants than Bangladesh itself. Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populous nation of any size and pushes untold numbers of genuine economic migrants north and west into neighboring India (as well as across the entire rest of the world). For the central government in Dhaka to label the Rohingya, who are legitimate refugees, as illegal economic migrants is the quintessence of hypocrisy in this age of hyper politicized globalization.
Trudging through the overwhelming stench of human waste and the eyes of hunger, I came upon a significant light of hope. While the camp is in the process of being taken over by a British NGO, a new, and in relative terms, state of the art refugee camp is being constructed up the road with humanitarian aid funding from the European Union. After a few days of wading through this squalor, it was incredibly heartening to see the new camp being constructed at breakneck pace with many of the laborers being refugees themselves. According to Engineer Bashar, who is in charge of the camp’s day-to-day construction operation for Islamic Relief UK, he is able to employ between 60-75% refugees of the approximately 1,000 workers under his charge. This not only brings in desperately needed income for refugee families, but also adds a sense of self worth for people who have lost everything to a regime that heeds not even the most fundamental cries of human dignity. It is not a circumstance devoid of hope, however much, much more progress is needed to shore up the Rohingya’s most basic human rights and long term food security.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves the following: television host Charlie Rose has referred to this period in which we are now living as the dawn of an “Asian Century” while interviewing leading global economists and politicos from these aspiring superpowers. Here on the frontier of Bangladesh and Burma, two of Asia’s poorest nations, the Rohingya, an obscure and stateless people, suffer in silence at the hands of the military government in Burma’s Orwellian new capital of Naypyidaw, , while the leaders of Bangladesh’s feeble caretaker regime have themselves been less than sympathetic. As India and China are interested in resuscitating decrepit colonial era ports and WWII era transport routes in these weak states in the name of securing resources for their respective domestic economic progress, the Rohingya are literally being crushed to death. In the darkest shadows of dawn in this Asian century, there are children starving.