Burma: the history behind the protests

Burma specialist Dr Michael W Charney, author of the History of Modern Burma, gives his ana

Burma (officially named Myanmar) has been under de facto military rule, in one guise or another, since 1962. In 1987, Burma received least developed nation status, inflation was out of control, and demonetization of Burmese bank notes had impoverished the middle class.

A spark was provided by a fight between students and locals at a teashop in 1988, but like the present demonstrations, which were initiated by increases in fuel prices, protests quickly coalesced around the issue of Democracy, whose introduction, it was widely believed, would invite effective government and sound economic policies.

Instead, the military reacted swiftly and harshly. In general appearance, the present demonstrations appear eerily reminiscent of those in July and August 1988.

Nevertheless, there are key differences. Of course, the current demonstrations are on a smaller scale, even given the recent crowd of 100,000 in Rangoon (also known as Yangon), but this may change over the next few days or weeks if they are not quickly suppressed by Burmese riot police and soldiers.

More importantly, while monks did participate in the 1988 demonstrations, they did not lead them, which is a unique feature of the present protests. Monastic garb provides some protection against soldiers who might easily fire on a civilian, but who would suffer a serious loss of merit in harming or even killing a monk.

Moreover, while government propaganda has for two decades portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD) as agents manipulated by the West, hurting their appeal, monks command the respect of most in Burmese society both outside the army and within it.

Although according to the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code, monks are not supposed to involve themselves in mundane politics, in Burmese history monks have played an important role in social activism, especially in the 1920s when they led rural opposition to colonial authorities and urban moneylenders. This is due to colonial heritage.

As the British turned the traditional intermediaries between the throne and the villager, the village headmen, into agents responsible only to the colonial state in the 19th century, Burmese communal identity and cooperation centred on monks. In a society where the two main institutions are the military and the monastic order, it is only natural, when the regime permits no other outlets for dissent, that monks should stand up and play again their historic role in voicing the complaints of Burma’s general population against military rule.

In September 1988, a military coup established the first of two military 'councils' that have ruled the country and whose members and their respective families have pillaged the economy through privatization ever since. At the time, the regime promised to improve the economy, provide peace, and ensure stability to set the right conditions for the transfer of power to an elected government. Although the regime permitted elections in 1990 it refused to recognize the sweeping victory of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to remain under house arrest.

The Western and Japanese response to the failure of the regime to recognize the NLD’s 1990 electoral victory was too slow and fluctuating to be effective. Sanctions imposed on the country in the last two decades have thus appeared to be ineffective in the short term.

A lifeline was also thrown to the regime by members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) who were more interested in gaining an economic stake in the country than supporting Democracy. As Western sanctions have expanded and ASEAN has begun to reconsider the domestic situation in Burma as a threat to stability in the region, the regime has had time to reorient itself economically to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), which was just as anxious to draw Burma into its economic orbit, gain access to its natural gas and oil reserves, and to gain more direct access to Indian Ocean trade.

However, Western sanctions may have been crucial in an indirect way over the long term. The regime’s dependence on the PRC has made it vulnerable to shifts in the PRC’s international relations. Although the PRC has played a key role in stymieing attempts to bring the Burmese situation up before the UN Security Council, it is also concerned about improving its international profile now that it is sponsoring the 2008 Olympics and is eager to counter the negative press resulting from recent problems with Chinese exports to the US and elsewhere.

Moreover, the PRC is most interested in political stability on its frontiers. Although backing the military regime in Burma has appeared to be a safe bet in pursuit of this goal, widespread domestic opposition in Burma and the promise of rallying at the UN against the regime may change this view.

Indeed, recent reports suggest that the PRC is finally pressuring the military regime in Burma to engage in serious negotiations with the Democratic opposition. Unable to turn to anyone else, the regime is increasingly finding itself stuck in a corner and will either have to fold or more completely isolate itself from the international community.

It is well past the time when the kind of increased US sanctions promised by President George Bush would have had any tangible impact on Burma’s domestic political situation. Currently, the only realistic chances for Western states to encourage a peaceful transfer of power in the country is to exert soft pressure on the PRC to persuade Burma’s military leadership to relinquish control of the state to those elected in 1990.

Michael Charney is currently Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS and is a specialist in Burmese history. His research focuses on Burmese intellectual and religious history. He is the author of Powerful Learning: Buddhist Literati and the Throne in Burma’s Last Dynasty, 1752-1885 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 2006) and has recently completed his manuscript for The History of Modern Burma for Cambridge University Press.

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The great escape

Almost a thousand people drowned in the waters between Libya and Italy in May. Yet still more migrants come. Can anything be done, or are we experiencing a crisis without end?

On 14 June 1985, representatives of five out of the ten members of the then European Economic Community (EEC) – Belgium, France, West Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – gathered on the Princess Marie-Astrid, a boat moored on the banks of the Moselle River in Luxembourg. Their pens were poised over a pact that aimed to dissolve the internal borders of Europe. The agreement was named after the nearby ­riverside town: Schengen.

There were only five signatories because the other EEC members – including Britain – were dragging their feet. But the bureaucrats had only to glance at the vineyards outside to remember why they were here. To the east of the river lay Germany; a short distance upstream was France. Belgium was only a bike ride away and the Netherlands a cursory drive. The people who lived in this corner of Europe criss-crossed national borders all the time. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if they didn’t have to be scrutinised as if they were spies when they were only nipping over the river to buy a sausage or deliver a letter?

It was also an evocative place in another way. This terrain of hills and forests was haunted by centuries of bloodshed. It was where France, Germany and Britain had fought many of their wars: Waterloo was an hour or so to the west by car; Verdun was even closer; the Battle of the Bulge had raged just north of here in 1944 and early 1945. The Schengen Agreement was an attempt to lay such awful ghosts to rest. From now on, people would not have to show passports but could simply “drive slowly” across the frontiers.

David Cameron has received much flak for reminding voters of this detail but it would be shallow to ignore it. The agreement had a significant effect not just on daily life but on tourism, trade and commerce. In the 1990s, many of the old and new members of the European Union signed up and the expansion continued in the 2000s with the joining of non-members such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Today, the Schengen Area is made up of 26 European countries. All the while, Britain and Ireland, anxious behind their sea walls, shook their heads.

Schengen was an optimistic idea and anyone who has worked or holidayed in ­Europe since 1985 has felt the ease that it has brought to the crossing of borders. But as it celebrates its coming of age, 21 years since its inception, Schengen is in the dock. Those who designed it to liberate movement in Europe did not imagine international migration on today’s scale. Partly as a result of the speed of modern travel and communications, more than 240 million people now live outside the country of their birth. This is one of the most important facts of modern life and, because Europe is among the nicest places in the world to live, it is forcing politicians and electorates to ask awkward questions about the way they conduct themselves.

Migration makes people twitchy, for understandable reasons. It would be a mistake to think of the present commotion as a topical issue that can easily be fixed. Last year, a million people fled Africa and the Middle East for Europe. This month, as footballers gather in France and the Mediterranean warms up, it is happening all over again.

Almost every week there is news of a fresh disaster. The EU deal with Turkey – in which the country will be paid €3bn in aid and granted other concessions in return for policing and processing its three million refugees more rigorously – has calmed traffic in the Aegean. Yet the people smugglers have shifted their attention back to the perilous sea crossing between Libya and Italy. Almost a thousand people drowned there in the last week of May, bringing the total to 2,500 so far this year, and there are aquatic graveyards for 4,000 Syrians who have died in Greek waters in recent years.

We cannot be sanguine about the prospect of the English Channel becoming the stage for similar scenes as the summer advances. It could hardly be on the same scale as what is happening in the Mediterranean, but there are already sporadic attempts to make the crossing and there will almost certainly be more. This is no passing cloud. It may even be a permanent shift in the wind.

***

uman beings have always migrated, moving from place to place in search of kinder skies, better food or nicer neighbours. Mobile phones and the internet have made it much easier for migrants to communicate and gather information. Nonetheless, today’s Mediterranean exodus involves people walking from Syria to Sweden – far from a hi-tech manoeuvre. Some politicians want to depict the migrants as trespassing, heavily armed intruders but most people can see that they are both ordinary and desperate: brothers-in-alms.

This may be one of those historic population shifts that mark the story of Europe. One thinks of the swirl of German and Scandinavian peoples in the first millennium – the Franks, Angles, Saxons, Goths and Norsemen who created early Christendom; the flight from Europe between 1850 and 1910, when people emigrated to the New World at a rate of almost a million a year; or those who were displaced after the Second World War. Is it possible that today’s turbulence is the first sign of something along those lines? The EU border force, Frontex, estimates that there were 1.8 million illegal border crossings in 2015, six times as many as in 2014, and the true figure is probably higher. It is no wonder that no one knows what to do.

Until now, this migration has been viewed as a response to urgent pressures such as war, poverty, religious violence and famine. Yet what it most resembles is an ­alteration in the prevailing weather: people are swirling between areas of wealth and poverty, just as air is squeezed between high- and low-pressure zones. The disparities between Europe, Africa and the Middle East are profound. This is not about foreign chancers wanting to try their luck in Swindon. It is demographic climate change.

It may be beyond the ability of governments to resist this. They don’t like to admit it but they find controlling the movement of peoples as hard as nailing down their currencies. David Cameron vowed to reduce the number of immigrants to the “tens of thousands” in 2010 but he hasn’t come close. While his enemies enjoy depicting this as a broken promise, it is a sign that politicians have only so much power.

There are other reasons to be fearful. Quarrels over water will shape the next century just as oil shaped the last one. In 1950 there were 500 large dams in the world; now, there are more than 45,000. On any map of future water shortages, the warning signs flash over North Africa and the Middle East – and when the wells dry up, people will move.

The nations involved in today’s ­exodus are relatively small. The populations of Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria together amount to 60 million. If war or disaster were ever to engulf larger countries such as Egypt or Pakistan, Europe would have an even bigger headache. These two nations have a combined population of 264 million.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Hard though it is to believe in the current atmosphere, migration is a force for good. The noisy claim that it presents a threat to our crumbling infrastructure and cultural blood pressure may sound like common sense but it is a myth. Migrants do not drive down wages, steal jobs, overwhelm social services and displace “true-born” Brits. The opposite is true: in the long run, at least, they expand the economy and promote innovation.

Study after study confirms this simple point. Periods of high migration correlate with economic growth – which is no surprise, given that migration allocates people to places where they can be most productive. This is why the UN estimates that 1 per cent of migration translates into a boost in GDP of 1.5 per cent. And this is why J K Galbraith wrote:

Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?

This is not to say that there are not bottlenecks. There are. But although it seems to be an ingrained human assumption to believe that more for you means less for me, the fear that migrants overwhelm services and create social deprivation has a flimsy basis. The Merseyside borough of Knowsley is the second most deprived area in Britain, yet one of the least affected by immigration. Governments should do more to relieve deprivation but this could involve building hospitals or schools, rather than electrifying borders or watching people drown.

The second item of good news is that even the most alarming statistics in this area are soft-centred. Anti-immigrant campaigners enjoy gasping at the idea that some 300,000 people, roughly the population of Plymouth or Newcastle, are arriving in the UK each year; they imply that these people are swelling the queues for health care, housing and schools. But more than half this number (167,000 in 2015) is composed of students, who pay high fees to attend British institutions; tertiary education is an important export. And migration today is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime decision but a fluid and intricate process. Migrants drift this way in search of jobs; some stay, while others drift out again. Many even go home for the weekend, or the summer.

It is almost impossible in the present maelstrom to think of migration as a boon. Loud voices insist that migrants are a nuisance, a burden and a threat. It almost defies logic to see them as an energetic itinerant workforce of ordinary people. But the larger truth is that it hardly matters what we think. The question now is not whether or not we wish migration was happening, but how to make the best of the reality that it is.

***

he migrant crisis has commercial implications. This summer’s holidaymakers are likely to shun Greece and Turkey in favour of Spain, which is looking forward to a record-breaking year.

The most striking consequence, however, is the surge of nationalist politics across Europe, from Golden Dawn in Greece and the Freedom Party of Austria to the UK Independence Party. The nationalist wrecking ball is swinging.

In Britain’s case, this has taken the form of an assault on the European project, which, though not racist, encourages the expression of some ancient prejudices. As the day of the referendum approaches, the leaders of the Brexit campaign are playing what we might call the Donald Trump card by attacking immigration. The weightier cultural issues are drowned out in the urge to warn Daddy that there are strangers coming up the drive.

This urge is strong and, in the EU debate, creates odd bedfellows – George Galloway and David Owen on one side; Jeremy Corbyn and George Osborne on the other. It also persuades men such as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith to abandon their lifelong sympathy for the pro-business argument and pose as soulmates of the working man. But the biggest irony is of a different order. It would be perverse if the reflex hostility to migration leads us to take to our little coracle just when the real storm is beginning.

This brings us back to the fragility of Europe’s supposedly porous borders. In truth, they have never been set in stone. Various time-lapse videos on the internet (such as the one on viralforest.com) race through a millennium in mere minutes. The Holy Roman Empire spreads from Sicily to Germany and Muslims press into Spain. The ­Mongols advance and recede; central Europe explodes into a galaxy of tiny princedoms and France’s eastern border wriggles like an angry snake. The Ottoman, ­Austro-Hungarian, German and Soviet empires bulge and fall back. Nations come and go in a flash.

It is a salutary reminder that the nation states of Europe have long been elastic and that if the nation state is not yet dead – declarations of its demise are premature – it can at least be said that nations and states are not the same thing. When people yell that we have “lost control” of our borders, they are imagining a past that never was: in the great rough and tumble of Victorian England not a soul was turned away. Britain has been secure on its island but Europe has never been a fortress. If we instal the apparatus of a police state at our ports and harbours – watchtowers, searchlights, paramilitary officials – we may be able to deter some paperless hotel workers and scare off a few students. But this would come at a heavy price.

If stable borders are a modern idea, so, too, are passports. The first identity papers for “safe conduct” were issued in the England of Henry V but the modern passport is a child of the French Revolution. An uprising that dreamed of liberating the citoyens wasted no time in introducing state surveillance: it feared the enemies of the revolution. Britain followed suit in 1794. It wasn’t until the First World War that photographic identification became mandatory. Before then, as A J P Taylor once wrote, “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state”.

It is hard to imagine such a time now. There are few more emotive reminders of it than the refugee encampment at Calais known as “the Jungle”. A new exhibition on the quiet resilience of the people stuck in that Anglo-French limbo – “Call Me By My Name”, which recently opened at the Londonewcastle Project Space in Shoreditch, east London – highlights again the way in which inflammatory abstractions (“Immigration chaos!”; “Take back control!”) can trounce ordinary human responses. After all, when the von Trapp family, the illegal migrants in The Sound of Music, finally make it over the border, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

In medieval times Calais was a major English town, a bustling centre of its wool trade. Dick Whittington was its mayor; there was a royal mint. The inhabitants of the Jungle may not know it, but their footsteps have led them to a resonant spot. l

Robert Winder is the author of Bloody Foreigners: the Story of Immigration to Britain (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink