Where next for Burma?

Six months ago the world watched a courageous attempt led by Buddhist monks to replace military dic

In recent days much of the world's attention has been firmly fixed on Tibet and the plight of the Burmese people seems to have been all but forgotten.

And yet things are not improving in that country. Far from it. According to one renowned Buddhist leader, the situation is deteriorating six months on from the bloody military crackdown against the pro-democracy movement.

Many monks have been forced to cross into Thailand and Malaysia because of political persecution. There are widespread allegations of disappearances, murder and torture by the dictatorship.

All this seems to be continuing despite an announcement by the military junta that next month a national referendum will be held on a new constitution with elections following in 2010.

The state media reported that "the time has now come to change from military rule to democratic civilian rule". Considering the junta’s numerous broken promises, the announcement to restore democratic civilian rule has been at best received with scepticism.

The constitution drafting process has been carefully engineered since 1993 and unsurprisingly contains no input from the public instead being drawn up by a handpicked assembly, without the participation of the country's main democratic opposition and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In fact draft constitution will bar her from holding government office because she was married to a foreigner. It is already clear that the constitution will ensure the military retains a stronghold on power in Burma and 25 per cent of the seats in the new parliament will be reserved for the armed forces.

Civilians will be permitted to enter parliament, but only if they show due deference to the military leaders. It furthermore allows stringent restrictions on any activities deemed "inimical to national unity" which covers a wide range of criticism and dissent.

Indeed, criticism of the draft constitution is punishable with up to 20 years behind bars, and criticising the referendum with up to three.

The question of how a free vote will take place in such a climate remains something of a riddle, and - unsurprisingly - the draft constitution has been denounced by critics as a ruse to consolidate the junta’s power. The rejection of an UN offer to send international monitors has only heightened these suspicions.

Than Shwe, Burma’s 75 year old leader, declared before an audience of diplomats that the military regime that has ruled Burma for 45 years had now "a sincere aim for developing the country without any cravings for power".

He however, made no reference to the bloody oppression his regime is still perpetrating and one wonders who he can fool with this statement.

The world still remembers when thousands of Burmese took to the streets making a variety of demands reflecting the widespread dissatisfaction with the continued military rule and the policies of the ruling State Peace and Development Council.

At least 227 distinct protests in 66 towns were staged which resulted in the deaths of officially 15 people (independent estimates state at least twice this number). Approximately 6,000 people were arrested, including as many as 1,400 monks. It is estimated that at least 700 protesters and monks remain in detention.

The ruling 'State Peace and Development Council' has denied any knowledge of the majority of those it killed during the protests. No attempts have been made to identify the dead, return the bodies to the families or even give the dead the minimum Buddhist funerary rites.

Instead, numerous testimonies have revealed a strategy in which bodies were removed systematically to cover up the extent of the violence. The Human Rights Documentation Unit of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma refers in Bullets in the Alms Bowl to persistent reports testifying to the fact that Ye Way Crematorium in North Okkalapa Township was operated from the 27th to the 30th of September by security forces to dispose most probably of the bodies of those killed.

By cracking down on monks, the junta took a calculated risk when violence against the country’s spiritual leaders was bound to inflame popular sentiments. Burmese monks are highly revered in Burmese society.

Considered to be ‘Sons of Buddha’ they represent the strongest institution in Burma after the military. Although according to the Buddhist monastic code, monks are not supposed to involve themselves in mundane politics, they have played an important social and political role in history.

Throughout British rule for instance, the so called ‘political monks’ played an important role in mobilising opposition to colonial excesses. After independence, monastic organisations pushed the new leaders to make Buddhism the state religion.

Attempts in the 1960s and 70s to bring Buddhism under tighter control was met with fierce resistance and Burma’s young and active Buddhist community of about 300,000 has had an uneasy relationship with the ruling generals.

During the 1988 democracy marches, the independent monks union emerged to support the students. The regime responded by issuing decrees to keep the monks in line and banning all independent Buddhist organizations.

Over the last two decades, the monks have observed a religious boycott of the regime and have refused alms from the military regime or simply overturned their bowls instead of collecting food and donations. By ruthlessly keeping monastic involvement in politics to a minimum since 1988, the role of the monks at the head of the recent protests took many, including the Government, by surprise.

Burma specialist Michael Charney points out that although it may appear that the State has successfully cowed the monks into submission, they have in the past survived more serious episodes of persecution.

“Given their importance in Burmese society and their resilience in past periods of political turmoil, it would be foolish to assume that they will not rebound from current setbacks,” he argues.

The authorities have resolutely tried to snuff out dissent and intelligence officers have systematically detained thousands of people believed to have participated in the protests.

Anger is still floating beneath the surface, and this is even the case for many people who were previously apolitical.

The crackdown has altered dynamics inside Burma and the country’s future is still unknown. The level of fear, but also anger is unprecedented.

More importantly, following international outrage over the brutal behaviour of the military regime, there were indications that differences have grown within the military itself.

Every government in Burma, going back to monarchical times has sought legitimacy through the Buddhist Sangha. Many within the military feel guilt-ridden and ashamed of their role in beating and killing monks.

There are no open splits yet, but there have been rumblings of mismanagement and corruption. The younger generation of generals is slowly beginning to realise change is inevitable.

When that change will actually come is harder to gauge.

Carole Reckinger specialises in south east Asian politics. She drafted the 2007 Forced Labor Chapter for the Burma Human Rights Yearbook. Click here for more of her articles
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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.