Tag Archives: Conflict

The Diplomat: Myanmar Grapples With Unifying Its Core and Periphery

(The Diplomat 27/7/2016) The challenges of forging federalism in Myanmar will be evident at upcoming talks in August.

Myanmar’s punctuated economic development since gaining independence in 1948 has often been framed through the shackles of ethnic conflict, authoritarianism, and neglectful governance. But as global human rights icon, and now State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi takes control of the country’s democratic transformation, she will find that the nation’s struggles are far more deep-rooted. Peace will remain elusive unless Myanmar can bridge its divisive geography.

The national story is defined by a chasm between core and periphery. The low-lying and fertile Irrawaddy River valley region includes the urban economic centers of Yangon, Mandalay, and the capital, Naypyidaw, and is largely populated by the majority Bamar ethnic group.

Meanwhile, awkward terrain on Myanmar’s fringes has encased minorities from neighboring states within the nation’s modern-day boundaries. A mountain chain to its west, rugged jungles to its northeastern border with China, and the Shan Hills on its eastern side have isolated distinct cultures and manifested separatist sentiments.

As such, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a mosaic of 135 officially recognized ethnicities (excluding the marginalized Rohingya in Rakhine state), all grouped into seven dominant minority border states, with the Bamar predominating in the seven central regions. Nation building has, as a result, been a cumbersome venture.

In 1947, Suu Kyi’s father and then de facto prime minister, General Aung San, penned an agreement granting greater autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities at the Panglong Conference, but his assassination months later meant it never came to fruition. Since then, successive state leaders have failed to forge a delicate balance between political decentralization and the military, border, and resource control requirements of state building.

As disenfranchised ethnic groups took up arms in the world’s longest-running civil war, the most promising attempt to broker peace came in October, when former president Thein Sein signed a ceasefire with eight armed-groups—though seven major insurgencies were absent.

But at a meeting tabled for August dubbed the “21st Century Panglong Conference”—between the ruling National League for Democracy party, the military and, it is hoped, representatives from all armed ethnic groups, Suu Kyi is expected to revive her father’s vision of a unified, yet devolved, nation.

“Through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union aspired to by all our countrymen,” she said during a nationwide address on Myanmar’s New Year holiday in April. “That’s why we need a constitutional amendment.”

The nation’s frontier states want more control over their economic and political affairs. And federalism may be the key to de-escalating tension with ethnic groups who feel underrepresented by the Bamar-dominant parliament and aggrieved by Naypyidaw’s central rule and military meddling.

But that may be easier said than done. Suu Kyi will require cooperation from the still powerful military, who are constitutionally entitled to 25 percent of parliamentary seats. But military leaders are likely to be reticent in ceding control over peripheral states, in order to protect their monopoly on the extraction and trade of jade, teak, and other materials in the resource-rich borderlands.

And then there is the risk that decentralization will help crystalize secessionism. The China-backed United Wa State army in the northeast, for example, already has significant military footing, and greater political powers may catalyze a push for separation. It’s an outcome Suu Kyi will be conscious of, with vocal Buddhist nationalists poised to stir discontent over state-weakening territorial losses.

Avoiding an all out disintegration of a devolved Myanmar would also require signaling considerable commitment to connect peripheral regions to the economic core and spread the nation’s now burgeoning foreign direct investment outward.

According to the UN Development Program, poverty levels are at around 26 percent of the total population, but that rate doubles in the rural areas where 70 percent of the population reside, with remote border areas significantly deprived. Constitutional adaptations may not be sufficient to overcome economic grievances unless ethnic states have a fairer share of resource extraction profits, access to social services, financing opportunities, and clear land rights.

The nation’s rickety roads and colonial era rail network will also require considerable work to radiate into the tougher terrain of the isolated border states. “[O]nly 38.9 percent of the total road network is paved, with the secondary and local road network in generally poor condition,” according to a 2014 Asian Development Bank report entitled “Myanmar: Unlocking the Potential.” Inland waterways and air transport facilities also need attention.

A unified core and periphery promises many national dividends—from enhancing the democratic process and connecting markets, labor, and industries, to stabilizing restive borders for trade. But while Suu Kyi has made peace the NLD’s “first responsibility,” the federalist model will need to be closely and rapidly synchronized with plans to spread economic opportunities if the ethnic frontier is to have a vested interest in an integrated Myanmar.

And so, as Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw get to work, just like leaders before them, they must face the nation’s age-old conundrum—how to create autonomy, whilst also achieving unity.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist, and received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, the Guardian and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.


Beyond Violence: Rising above the rhetoric

(Beyond Violence 27 July 2015) “When did a fence help anyone?” retorts Laszlo, a volunteer at Szeged train station, as a fifty-strong crowd of refugees herd around a new box of donations. The Hungarian government’s public disdain for immigrants intensified in mid-July with construction work commencing on a 175 km long a border wall with Serbia. At this transport hub in Hungary’s Southern Great Plain, civilians like Laszlo are banding together in support for those who have already made the arduous journey into central Europe. They are not just humanitarians – but symbols for coexistence, amid Europe’s growing xenophobic rhetoric.
blog imageA man familiarises himself with the help centre

Pooling the technical and monetary support of non-government organizations (NGO), Szeged’s locals have built an information booth with key facilities for refugees arriving in Hungary. “They come from all over; Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq” says Agnes, a staff member at Hungary’s Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO. According to government figures, so far this year 60,000 migrants had arrived in Hungary – the second highest influx per capita in the European Union (EU).With Hungary’s presence in the Schengen Zone – entering the country is the Holy Grail to progressing, unhindered by border controls, toward the coveted countries of Northern Europe. “Many travel overland up through the Balkans, and then cross from Serbia,” Laszlo explains. “They will end up in Germany, Scandinavia and England.”

The ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government, led by populist president Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, has recently ramped up nationalist strategies amid the inflow of refugees. Anti-immigration billboards written in Hungarian have sprung up around the country proclaiming, ‘if you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians’. The right-wing party also launched a national consultation entitled ‘immigration and terrorism’ – and flouted an EU asylum rule, which requires asylum seekers to be taken back to their first EU country of entry for asylum processing.

The political maneuvering has catalyzed both anti-immigration and humanitarian movements. On July 10, the extremist Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement attacked asylum seekers at Keleti train station in the country’s capital, Budapest – and just five days later a protest against the treatment of refugees began in front of the capital’s towering Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Protesters have faced an uphill battle in a country shifting further right, with activists even being arrested for defacing government propaganda.

Yet, in Szeged, a community has risen above the rhetoric and embraced compassionate values toward the arriving refugees. When asked whether the government offered any support to their voluntary work, Laszlo responded simply, “f**k no.” The plight of refugees arriving via Serbia circulated on Facebook, before volunteer doctors, organizational staff and students coordinated to set up the help station.

A family plans their next steps

‘You are now in Hungary’ reads the first line of the refugee’s information sheet – complete with travel, legal and health advice. Following capture by border police they are brought to Szeged train station – where they rehabilitate and receive free tickets to travel on to refugee camps around Hungary. Many simply use it to refresh and continue deeper into Europe.

“Shavers and shaving cream” yelps a young volunteer, waving the grooming instrument about in her hand. Facilitators come even in the form of 8th grade students. “The community have come together to provide free Wi-Fi, sanitation facilities and also security guards to protect the refugees from skinheads,” she added. Every time a new clothes donation arrives from nearby a charity or individual the crowd swarms in excitement.

A new box of donations arrive

In spite of the Szeged group’s activism, “Hungarian people are generally fearful and impacted by government views,” adds Laszlo. With Europe’s economic fallout right-wing politics has seen a resurgence from the United Kingdom to Germany. Weak growth combined with heightened concerns over extremism has stoked the rise of anti-immigration, anti-EU and even anti-Islam movements.

While issues of sovereign debt and immigration may unravel the EU, the ascendency of xenophobia alongside it attacks the very foundation of the European project – peace. Developments in Hungary including the scapegoating of foreigners, threats against refugees and the rise of a border wall, echo a Europe of yesteryear. The signs from history, where fervent nationalism has subordinated ‘the other’ through discrimination, segregation and violence, appear to be nascent in Europe today.

Those at the Szeged help center have not folded to the prevailing narrative of their government. “These people are fleeing war and conflict; not coming to steal our jobs” says another volunteer. A global vision has enabled them to see beyond the nationalist pictures painted by Hungarian authorities – and to focus on universal human values. Harnessing these mindsets and energies in civil society will be critical in stemming xenophobic movements in Britain, France, and Germany and beyond.

As young Afghan men walk about jovially, Syrian mothers tend to their children. There is a sense of relief and calm about their faces. Within 48 hours most would have left – to be replaced by a new group of exhausted and disoriented refugees.

While fences spring to preserve nationality – the small group of volunteers outside Szeged station are illustrating that there are no barriers to our common sense of humanity.

New hope- en route to Budapest

Painting the town red

As the early afternoon Andean rainfall subsides, a dense mist rises through the cobbled streets of La Candelaria; Bogota’s historic quarter. With the faint rumble of thunder, overcast skies and patter of water droplets shedding from the Colombian capital’s colonial architecture, a distinct sense of revolution flourishes in the air.

Remnants from internal conflict born in La Violencia; the country’s ten-year civil war during the 1950s, continue to be felt today. An ongoing rift between the Colombian government, paramilitary groups and left wing guerillas such as FARC and ELN has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since 1958[i].

While the armed conflict, drug and crime syndicates have largely quieted today; their legacy means that Colombia now has the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons, that is, behind Syria[ii]. Topics of income disparity, education and industrial policy have now spilled onto Colombian streets. With plenty canntoxicomonoed up, some Colombians are finding a new revolutionary voice.

When the Bogotano haze parts, like a stage curtain, it unveils large murals of vibrant, colorful and illuminating street art. With their illustrations unfolding at each junction of the capital’s mazy streets, like new pages of a book, their messages, like Colombia’s history, are deeply etched into the fabric of the South American city. The grafiteros want to tell the story; the spray-can has become their voice.

La calle es tu calle, ‘the street is your street’ reads one stenciled piece. From the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist graphics of the art collective, Toxicomano to the feminist and poverty visuals of Bastadilla, Bogotanos are rebranding the streets with their artistic messages. In February 2013 Bogota’s mayor promoted graffiti as a form of cultural expression, and with the city slowly becoming a hotbed for artistic voice, some authorities are even hiring grafiteros to spray-paint their own buildings.

Upon one Bogotano scaffolding wall, a large black and white fresco of an indigenous Choco region woman dragging a rich man and his material belongings comes into view. Nearby, DJ Lu’s stencil art portrays pinas granadas, ‘pineapple grenades’, alongside an image of a solider clenching grenade balloons. The multidimensionality and detail of the images, in their message and art form, has spurred grenadescuriosity. Graffiti tours offering up interpretation are now commonplace.

Toxicomano’s own front against ignorance and anti-mass media rhetoric strikes through the afternoon mist now rising into Bogota’s enveloping verdant hillsides. Their imaginary film promotions are stenciled throughout the city. One yellow highlighted title translates to, ‘Displacement: A film that should not be seen, let alone lived’, and nearby the phrase La vida real supera la fiction, ‘real life exceeds fiction’, is printed.

Bogotanos are coming to terms with their realities. Where social change still begets violence across the globe, the message of non-violent protest, and struggle for change, may find a new vehicle in the creativity and artistic penchant of humanity.

In the evening damp the doughy scent of sizzling Arepas, a Colombian flatbread, lingers in downtown Bogota. As Bogotanos refuel, spray-canisters reload. With the red-blood spill of history spread across the palette, tomorrow the grafiteros will attempt to recolor and redefine their very own revolution.

[i] Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory

[ii] Internal Monitoring Centre Global Overview report 2014

Related Material:

We need a creativity revolution – RSA, Adam Lent

The Wisdom of Tyler Durden – Tej Parikh

Bogota’s booming graffiti culture – Colombia Reports