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.

Getty
Show Hide image

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt