Burma's martyrs honoured despite ethnic troubles

The pain of rapid economic liberalisation and inter-communal violence is left aside on the anniversary of the death of Aung San Suu Kyi's father.

At the foot of a broad and ornate iron staircase leading to old apartments in Yangon lie near-identical businesses selling all the perceived daily necessities for those passing by. Both are staffed by longyi-clad, white-vested men who stare out in equal despondency at the monsoon rains. To the left of the staircase there are Buddhists, trading under a Theravada text above the door, and to the right they are Muslims, visibly fatigued by this time of day during the Ramadan fast.

That Buddhists and Muslims live such close and mirrored lives in Yangon defies the news reports of escalating inter-communal violence across Myanmar. Most notable has been the violence against Rohingya Muslims, who have lived within Burma's borders for many generations but are only recognised as Bangladeshi incomers with no rightful place here by many Burman Buddhists, and have been fleeing in great numbers to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to await the grim fate of those without documents in foreign lands.

The mutual hatred in Burma between the two communities seemed to escalate rapidly last year with bouts of deadly violence erupting in Rakhine State. Then in March of this year, in the central lakeside town of Meikhtila - the site of the killing of 20,000 Japanese troops at the end of World War II - a reported dispute between a Muslim gold trader and a Buddhist customer escalated into inter-communal tit-for-tat violence. The result was the brutal killing of 36 people, mostly the teenage pupils of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School, while a reported 200 police looked on – accused in some reports of being complicit in their inertia. A subsequent state of emergency imposed in the Mandalay region has only just been lifted  this weekend.

The political fallout from the bloodshed has been damaging, with Aung San Suu Kyi herself accused of failing to speak out against communal violence in Rakhine State as well as against a separate military siege in Kachin State. But despite the looming troubles between Burma's religious communities, an atmosphere of feverish celebration takes hold in Yangon as the city celebrates Martyrs' Day – a commemoration of the assassination of Burma's key independence leaders in 1947, amongst them Aung San Suu Kyi's revered father General Aung San.

At the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, crisp white-shirted men locked hands in a line, each with a tiny 'NLD' embroidered in red on the back of his Nehru collar. Behind them the crowd gathers fast until it stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. And there is only one reason for such a crowd to amass here in such a short time: The Lady is on her way. The vast crowd is reverential and adoring, quite different from the 100 or so dismayed villagers in Latpadaung who angrily confronted Suu Kyi back in March over land-grabs and the violent repression of protests in their village. At the knife edge of high-speed economic liberalisation in Burma, the villagers had publicly protested over the loss of their lands to make way for a vast China-backed copper mine – only to be gassed with phosphorous, leaving around 100 with burns and other injuries according to reports in the Myanmar press.

Suu Kyi chaired an inquiry into the crackdown and the proposed project which ultimately ruled that the copper mine plans should go ahead, although with some modifications to limit negative socio-economic and environmental effects. The perception is that Suu Kyi's priorities lie on the side of macro-level benefits for the nation as a whole, above the needs and wishes of local villagers who lament losing their land and gaining undesired mining jobs in return. While the march of economic liberalisation leaves its devastation, political liberalisation is also a rocky road. High-profile political meetings, such as the November 2012 Burma visit by Barack Obama and the recent diplomatic dates in Europe with Britain's David Cameron and France's Francois Hollande in July have been used to announce the intended release of political prisoners.

Most recently President Thein Sein promised to release all remaining prisoners of conscience by the end of this year, prompting many to ask "why not now?" - that they must languish for another six months in jail despite the effective recognition of their innocence raises suspicion that the drip-feed release of prisoners is simply used to gain political capital internationally. The NLD itself is troubled, below the level of Suu Kyi the party has drawn criticism for its gerontocratic internal structure, with the dominance of its old 'uncles' difficult to overcome and with only four women among the 130 members of its central executive committee. In spite of all of this, the visible and carnival-like political activity on Yangon's streets for Martyrs' Day is breathtaking considering the repression of the very recent past.

Back at the NLD headquarters no state security forces are to be seen, but on the leafy slopes of the Shwedagon Pagoda plenty of armed police lurk within reach, although it is unclear what sort of eventuality would bring them down among the crowds. The sinister air of Burma's troubled history is still perceptible. Then the car arrives, the Nehru-shirted human chains strain against the crowds and The Lady emerges, pristine and petite, and disappears inside to give a low-key speech to NLD members and gathered diplomats.

Later, she stands tall outside in her open vehicle and changes key, raised above the crowds she delivers a rousing speech, bringing a feverish charge to the atmosphere and to her gathered admirers. She may have to become accustomed to both reverence and resistance from the people now that her position is decidedly more ambiguous than when she was holding out against the military regime, but for today, she will only meet reverence in Yangon. She herself is the last to be swept away with the febrile optimism of the day. When asked how she felt about Burma at this positive moment, her voice took on a subdued tone and she replied: "I think what we need right now is peace".

Shrine commemorating the Martyrs. Source: Getty

Lisa Tilley is a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood