April 13, 2015

Myanmar is More than Aung San Suu Kyi

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON–Of all the great films about American politics, one that has stood the test of time is a 1972 classic about the triumph of symbolism over substance called The Candidate. Starring Robert Redford, it tells the story of an inexperienced son of a beloved political leader who is pulled into politics on the strength of his family name. Turning the general election into a popularity contest, Redford’s character encourages the media to play up the father/son angle, delivers a series of pleasant but empty speeches, and ultimately wins election to the United States Senate. In the film’s iconic closing scene, as screaming fans chase him on the way to his victory speech, the Senator-elect dodges the crowd, pulls his political consultant into a room and asks blankly, ” What do we donow?”

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March 26, 2015

Will Myanmar’s Military Reform?

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON–It was, in a sense, a reverse Pearl Harbor on the Irrawaddy River. After welcoming the Japanese army into Burma in 1942, a young Burmese general named Aung San and his ragtag national army had become disillusioned with Japanese promises to support Burma in throwing off nearly 125 years of British imperial control.

And so on March 27, 1945–70 years ago today–the khaki-clad troops departed the city of Rangoon. Telling their Japanese commanders they were mustering out to fight the British, they paraded through the city–and then turned around and attacked the Japanese all throughout Burma. With Burmese help, the British retook the country in just a few short months.

Every year since, Burma–now known as Myanmar–has celebrated March 27 as Resistance Day, now known as Armed Forces Day. Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, marched in 1947, the year Aung San was assassinated by rivals–and they marched the following year, when Myanmar finally gained its hard-fought independence. They marched in 1962, when one of Aung San’s fellow freedom fighters, Ne Win, took power in a military coup that would rule for decades. They marched in 1990, after student uprisings forced the military junta to call elections, only to nullify the results and place the winner–democratic icon and daughter of Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi–under house arrest for the better part of two decades. And they marched in 2011, when the ruling regime held elections and declared that one of the most isolated countries on earth would finally liberalize.

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March 28, 2014

Cutting Off Our Nose to Spite Our Face in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON–One of them has helped reforest environmentally threatened regions and donated money to assist children with Down syndrome. A portion of every ticket his airline sells goes to social welfare organizations. And when Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar in 2008, his foundation contributed more than $8 million to rebuild schools, hospitals, and monasteries.

The other has footed the bill for school fees and medical expenses for the families of Myanmar’s political prisoners. He is actively recruiting doctors from other nations to improve the health care system here, and oversees the only national institution — the Myanmar football league — in which ethnic minorities participate on an equal footing with ethnic Burmans. And at a time when corruption threatens to derail this country’s nascent democracy, he is the highest-profile business leader to have opened his books to an internationally-respected accounting firm and then personally presented the full audit to United States Ambassador Derek Mitchell.

Which is not to say that Tay Za and Zaw Zaw, two of the most successful businessmen in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), are Boy Scouts. Over the past two decades, the head of the Htoo Group and the 46-year-old chairman of the Max Myanmar Group built their vast conglomerates of companies — stretching from banking to hotels to construction — by thriving on connections they developed with a regime notorious for human rights abuses. Those contacts landed the two on the U.S. government’s Myanmar sanctions list, which bans American individuals and companies from doing business with any friends of the old regime.

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March 8, 2014

What Myanmar Could Learn From Indonesia

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON, Myanmar–Indonesians of a certain age still speak about Seulawah, their country’s first airplane, a Douglas DC-3 Dakota purchased from an American airman in Hong Kong during Indonesia’s bitter war for independence from the Dutch after World War II. They can recall how the Dutch blockaded Indonesia while the plane was being refitted in India, forcing the aircraft to seek safe harbor here in Yangon, then known as Rangoon, the former capital of Burma. They can tell you how Seulawah was used to smuggle arms and ammunition from Burma to the Indonesian island of Aceh–and how, when the blockade was broken and Indonesia’s revolutionary war was won, it was Seulawah that fetched Indonesia’s founding fathers and ferried them home to a hero’s welcome.

Sixty-five years later, Myanmar–as Burma is now known–is the country haltingly coming to terms with a future of its own making. And this time, it is Indonesia’s turn to lend its Southeast Asian neighbor a hand–not through the power of its jet engines but through the power of its example as a strong yet decentralized political system.

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February 20, 2013

Myanmar: A Nation at War With Itself

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON — Towering high above the center of this ancient city, the Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the great wonders of the religious world. Said to be encased in more than sixty tons of gold, the Shwedagon is older than the city itself. Its earliest legend goes back 2,500 years, when two brothers from lower Burma are said to have met the Buddha shortly after his enlightenment. As proof of their friendship, the Buddha plucked eight strands of hair from his head, which they brought back and enshrined within the Shwedagon. There it remains, alongside the Buddha’s famous precepts, the first of which reads: “Avoid killing, or harming any living thing.”

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March 7, 2012

Getting Past the Symbolism of Aung San Suu Kyi

YANGON, MYAMAR—Few of us like to be reminded of mistakes made by heroes, particularly heroes of conscience.  Who among us remembers that Martin Luther King Jr. failed miserably when he tried to take the nonviolent strategies that worked so well in the segregated south of the United States to the industrialized north?  Who likes to remember that Nelson Mandela all but ignored the HIV/AIDS crisis raging across South Africa during his presidency, which eventually took the lives of millions, including his own son?

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February 23, 2012

The First Thing the U.S. Should Do In Myanmar

YANGON, Myanmar— During the years he lived as a child in Indonesia, President Barack Obama learned the culture of Jakarta, spoke the language, survived chicken pox, and recalls frequently feeling “the sting of [his] teachers’ bamboo switches.” As a young military officer training in the United States, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, parachuted out of planes with Fort Benning’s storied 82nd Airborne Division and attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. It is an interesting parallel between presidents that each spent formative years in the other’s country.

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March 17, 2011

Counterpoint on Myanmar’s Transition

YANGON—As demonstrators from Tunis to Cairo to Tripoli wonder if their revolutions will succeed, Myanmar remains an unfortunate poster child for what happens when revolutions go wrong. With a population equal in size to the United Kingdom, and a per capita income of less than two US dollars per day, Myanmar has suffered under military rule since 1962.

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February 23, 2010

A First Step Toward Democracy?

YANGON — When British forces first floated up the Irrawaddy River in 1885 to depose King Thibaw of Burma, locals were startled to see a Burmese prince, in full regalia, sitting on the deck of one of the steamers. His presence reassured locals that the British planned to seat a new king, not overthrow the kingdom. As Thant Myint-U recalls in his book, “The River of Lost Footsteps,” it was only when a young student talked his way onto the ship and came face-to-face with the royal prince that the truth was discovered: The “prince” was an imposter, a former classmate of the student’s. By then, it was too late — the telegraph line to the palace in Mandalay had been cut.

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