January 14, 2020

The Myanmar Crisis is More Than the Rohingya

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK — In January of 1863, as the civil war in the United States neared its half-way point, southern Confederate soldiers in Madison County, North Carolina seeking to root out support for the northern campaign to save the union whipped two elderly women, shot a thirteen-year-old boy and twelve others, and then buried the men in a shallow grave.

The Shelton Laurel Massacre, as it became known, was one of the most appalling episodes of the American Civil War, but far from the only one. Today, the massacre is a little-remembered episode in a larger war that was defined less by its worst atrocities and more for the lasting legacy of division, distrust, and devastation that it wreaked on the entire country.

Continue Reading

March 15, 2016

Myanmar’s 40 to 72 Percent Problem

by Stanley A. Weiss

If you walk the streets of this city at the end of the work day, you’ll hear a distinctive sound: the clicks and taps synonymous with Myanmar’s traditional sport, known as chinlone. Sharing certain roots with soccer, chinlone dates back 1,500 years, when it was played for the country’s royalty. While the objective is simple—kick the small woven ball around a six-player circle without letting it touch the ground—the game is difficult. Players leap and dive, executing complex footwork with a combination of dance and martial arts moves. Their athleticism is all the more remarkable given the competition: there is none. The groups of men and women who play nightly do so without any incentive to “win.” Victory comes in the artistry of the moves and the cohesion of the players. In chinlone, collaboration is the name of the game – which is deeply ironic when you consider the source.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

November 12, 2014

The Ethnic Apartheid in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

Given the five decades it spent as one of the most repressive countries in recent history, it’s hard to imagine that Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was once considered an empire. But 190 years ago this past March, after the Burmese Empire conquered two large Bengali territories across its western border and undertook a series of raids into British-held lands, the British Empire had had enough. British India launched a counter-insurgency that would drag on for two years and take thousands of lives. With some of the heaviest fighting concentrated in Islamic border communities, thousands of Muslims were forced to flee, eventually settling along frontier areas in India and Myanmar.

The Muslim families driven into Burma as a result of Burmese aggression — known as Rohingya Muslims — never left, despite being persecuted ever since. A grisly modern chapter began in 2012, when the alleged rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in western Rakhine State led to mob violence that took the lives of hundreds of Rohingya over the next two years and saw 135,000 Rohingya held in squalid camps for their own “safety.” Seemingly oblivious to global concerns sparked by the persecution of this Muslim ethnic minority, the Myanmar government last week announced a repulsive new policy: All Rohingya must prove that their families have lived in Myanmar for at least six decades. For those we cannot, the penalty is either a refugee camp or deportation. For those we can, the prize is second-class citizenship, but with a catch: They must first renounce the term “Rohingya” and agree to be classified as a “Bengali.” It’s little wonder that more than 100,000 Rohingya have reportedly escaped Myanmar the past two years.

Continue Reading

March 17, 2014

Rekindling Military-to-Military Ties Between the U.S. and Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

Less than a month after this nation won its independence from Great Britain in 1948, the Communist Party of Burma declared war against the Burmese government. Fighting between the two sides raged for more than four decades. The beginning of the end came 25 years ago this month, when Communist troops grew sick of the fighting and mutinied against their own leaders. By mid-April, the rebellion reached party headquarters, where insurgents smashed portraits of Lenin, Marx and Engels before seizing arms and ammunition. Aging party leaders fled to China. After 41 years of fighting, the Burmese Communist Party disintegrated , “defeated not by shrewd Burmese tactics,” as historian Thant Myint-U has written, “but by the weariness of the local people.”

There is another actor who helped bring about Communism’s end in Burma, now known as Myanmar: the United States. From the moment Burma’s Communists first declared war against its government, America supported the Burmese army. In the early days , it provided emergency aid and easy-to-land planes flown in by U.S. war veterans. When Chinese-backed troops crossed the border and attacked the Burmese army in 1968, American military support grew to include shipments of weapons and military trainers for the Burmese Air Force. In the 1980s, the U.S. financed $4.7 million in military sales to Myanmar while paying for 167 Burmese soldiers to learn about democracy while attending U.S. military schools under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) security assistance program.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

January 17, 2014

How to Invest in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss and Tim Heinemann

Doing Well by Doing Right

MYANMAR-For a nation that was frozen in place for half a century by a repressive military junta, it is ironic that the government of Myanmar (also called Burma) is charging that change is not happening fast enough. But that was the scene in November, when government officials seized a multibillion-dollar industrial project in the southern port town of Dawei for its owners’ failure to attract foreign investors in a timely fashion. To restart the project, which had previously been run by a Thai company, Myanmar appealed to government officials and private investors in Japan. The first to bite was the Mitsubishi Corporation, which agreed to build a large, coal-fired plant to generate electricity and kick-start operations.

In the middle of the Dawei drama, a local human rights group, known as the Dawei Development Association, warned Japanese investors that they risked becoming complicit in harming half a million minority residents in the area. The group charged that Myanmar’s government had forced thousands of poor farmers off their land “without fair or equal compensation” or “access to adequate housing or livelihoods after being displaced.”

Continue Reading

September 2, 2013

What Myanmar Must Do To Free Itself of China

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON-Once a closed society, Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has emerged since 2010 as one of the world’s democratic hopes. But amidst the euphoria surrounding a seemingly miraculous transformation, American policy makers have missed one essential fact: Myanmar functions as at least five countries struggling to escape overlordship of a sixth. National reconciliation is Myanmar’s greatest need and should be, with an eye toward China, America’s Myanmar policy’s highest priority.

Ethnic Baman or Burmans make up the majority of the country’s 60 million people. Buddhists of the central lowlands, Burmans dominate the government, economy and army. Other significant ethnic groups include the Kachin (who are Christians) bordering China; the Shan (Buddhists) bordering China, Laos and Thailand; the Karen (Christians and Buddhists) bordering Thailand; the Chin (Christians and Buddhists) bordering India; and Muslims bordering the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh.

The struggle of non-Burmans for an equal place in the country and the opposition of ethnic Burmans is the story of modern Myanmar. Here is the chronology.

Continue Reading

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.”

Continue Reading

November 15, 2012

Myanmar: No Ethnics; No Nation

by Stanley A. Weiss & Tim Heinemann

WASHINGTON – President Obama’s upcoming Saturday trip to Myanmar, the nation previously known as Burma, is intended to encourage the continuing democratic transition of what was once pariah state. But the way it is now structured may guarantee a lost opportunity instead.

Continue Reading