Monday, February 9, 2009

The Weekly N&C for February 9th, 2009

Allow me to direct your attention to…

…the extraordinarily competent reporting and analysis on the current situation for refugees from Myanmar (Burma) by Jeff Kingston of Temple University Japan.

His recent work has received a wide spread in the most recent Sunday edition of The Japan Times. If one can imagine a major metropolitan newspaper in North America or Europe using almost two full pages of layout space to speak of a matter little known and even less understood, one likely has a sense of how large a commitment to getting the story out was made by The Japan Times editorial staff.

Here’s a bit of background on the situation before you follow the linkage to Professor Kingston’s work:

Burma (so-called as the Union of Myanmar by the current military junta) is one of the last territorial relics of British imperialism in Southeast Asia. Once acquired by conquest spanning the years 1824~1886, the territories were placed under attachment to British India. Come the process of the “beginning of the end” in India during the 1930’s, the British held a referendum in these territories as to whether they should remain under the came colonial government as India or be separated into a stand-alone colony to be called “Burma”. On April 1st, 1937, Burma became a separately administered territory, composed of a wide diversity of cultural groups and tribes, and in addition heavily colonized by colonial subjects who were of Indian and Chinese origin.

Come World War II in the Pacific, what little cohesion was present in colonial Burma was shattered by the successful Imperial Japanese conquest of most of the territory in the drive to invade India and knock the British out of the war. The problem was, they never got all of it, nor lost all of it until the end of the war. The front line of the war moved back and forth across the territories first one way and then the next, repeatedly. Various tribes and factions within Burma sided openly with the Imperial Japanese, others simply claimed to do so, and many more never abandoned support for the British or the Americans when they came into the theater of operations.

Come the last year of the war, the nationalist Burma Independence Army that had fought beside the Imperial Japanese turned against them. It may well have been opportunism, or just the realization that Japan was going to lose, but General Aung San had enough command influence to order a full-force turning-of-the-coat and the Allied armies had a new member… One that was counting on American anti-imperialism to do what supporting the Japanese had not; run the British out of Burma.

Aung San would not live to see it (assassinated by rivals in 1947), but come January 4th, 1948, the Union of Burma became an independent republic. They were *so* independent-minded that they did not even accept the offer of Commonwealth membership. This placed the territories previously classified as “Lower Burma”, “Upper Burma” and “Frontier Territories” under a single Nation. There are one hundred and thirty five distinct ethnic groups; four major linguistic families including more than a dozen major languages. The largest fraction is estimated to be the Myanmar (Bamar) ethnicity, at roughly 2/3 of the total population. About the only unifying things in the nation were the Buddhist traditions (over 80% of the population today follows those) and the desire for independence from the British Empire… or any foreign Empire…

What was overlooked was the possibility of a self-generated overlordship.

The republic stood for a scant 14 years.

In 1962, a military junta assumed complete control of the nation, led by General Ne Win. They have never let go, although since 1974 they have ruled through a mechanism then-called the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). Opposition to military rule flared from the start, and never was completely suppressed, but in late 1988 after massive demonstrations against the BSPP government were brutally put down with the death of “thousands” (the exact number is not known), a coup within the coup turned over the regime to State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), run by General Saw Maung. One of their first actions (besides shooting people) was to change the official name of the nation to the Union of Myanmar, but the junta also offered the first democratic elections (for a People’s Assembly) in May of 1990.

The SLORC was astounded when their slate of picked candidates lost.

They lost badly, too. The National League for Democracy (NLD) took 392 of the 489 seats contested. It seems that the daughter of the revered Aung San had come to lead the NLD. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a veteran of the days of republican Burma and former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, proved to be a unifying force throughout the country, beyond all expectations.

Never ones to let a little thing like losing an election slow them down, the SLORC refused to accept the results, dropped Aung San Suu Kyi into detention, and went on ruling by fiat.

Under new management by General Than Shwe since 1992, the now-renamed SLORC State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has reissued a national constitution (1993) that brushes the whole democracy idea under the rug and puts Than Shwe in undisputed control.

In control, that is, of a nation in utter ruins.

If not by the hands of the Generals of the junta, if not by the climate of thuggery that puts 800,000 people into forced labor camps, if not by the absolute madness of relocating the entire capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to a new site inland “to prevent foreign invasion from seizing the government”…

…then by the biggest cyclone to hit the eastern Indian Ocean area in decades. Cyclone Nargis came ashore on the Irrawaddy coast in May of 2008, leaving over a hundred thousand people dead or missing, and devastating the coastal growing region.

The SPDC refused available foreign aid.

This is the Burma people are trying to run away from: an unforgiving ethnically-charged dictatorship so paranoid that it compares closely to North Korea in leadership-by-psychotics. It is a regime that is actively trying to kill its citizens… and any foreign reporters who get in the way, too.

That is why the issue of Burmese refugees is so important.

That is why Japan needs to allow recognition and refuge to *more* than the 30 people *each year* promised in the most recent government allowance.

We can do better than that; other countries can do better than that; and we should do better than that.

Now one is ready to read Professor Kingston’s work.

Main article on Japan’s refugee policy and Burma

Related article on the SPDC role in causing the crisis

Related article on one Burmese refugee seeking legal status in Japan

End Notes:

Just in case one thinks the accusations of atrocities by the SPDC are unfounded, here is a 2005 Asia Times article on the International Labor Organization effort to justify placing sanctions on the SPDC regime for its Forced Labor policy and here is the CIA Factbook entry on Burma; scroll down to the section on Transnational Issues to get to the matters of Human Trafficking, Narcotics Sourcing and Trafficking, and the Displacement of Persons by Conflict.

The following Wiki-p links are for convenience and general reference only.

General Information on Myanmar (Burma); Map references included there.

The SPDC; the junta

Personal Profile: General Than Shwe

The National League for Democracy

Personal Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi

Historical Information: Cyclone Nargis

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