He is a young man whose name or exactly where he lives in the Burmese countryside cannot be published because he fears retribution when he returns to Myanmar from a visit to the United Nations headquarters. Speaking in English, learned from books and private tutors, he details the harsh treatment people away from major urban areas are receiving from quasi-military local militias in the state where he lives and tries to foster a democracy movement among local citizens.
His story is replicated widely. In a report titled “Democracy by Militia in Burma,” the English-language Burma Times summed up the situation this way in an article on Sept. 27:
“The democratization process in Burma remains very much a work-in-progress, with parliamentary elections slated for next year and the country continuing to adjust to the growing pains associated with opening its economy to the rest of the world. . . . According to the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies, the militias are notorious for taxing local populations, engaging in drug trafficking, illegal gambling, and a wide variety of human rights abuses. This has occurred with the blessing of local military commanders who have personally earned large sums of money from these activities.”
In August, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime signed an agreement with the national government to introduce a program for strengthening the rule of law and combating narcotics crimes in the country, which is the largest producer of synthetic drugs in Southeast Asia and the world’s second-largest opium producer, after Afghanistan. International attention is more likely to be focused on the global drug trade, however, and not on extending the rule of law across the Burmese hinterlands.
The use of loosely controlled local militias that act with impunity — intimidating citizens and seizing their land — has been a hallmark for decades of military rule in Burma, now called Myanmar by the government. Moves toward electoral democracy have apparently not had an effect on their actions. Worse, said the young man in New York, militias are joining militant Buddhists of the nationalist anti-Muslim 969 Movement led by a radical monk named Wirathu. The numbers relate to the attributes of Buddha and the Buddhist community.
The people of the region where the young democracy activist lives is near the border with China, far off in the northeast from the attacks on Muslims in western regions where an ethnic group, the Rohingyas, have been targets of lethal attacks. Still, he said, local people are under orders from militias operating in his area and others to boycott Muslim businesses and keep Muslim people more or less confined to their own neighborhoods.
People can be too easily intimidated, he said, adding that “969 is very effective in our communities. We are very, very obedient people; we listen to our elders.” The Buddhist message resonates in an overwhelming Buddhist country. Aung San Suu Kyi, an ethnic Burman Buddhist who leads the National League for Democracy, has been unwilling to condemn the nationalist movement.
The young democracy advocate, whose local movement acts as an unofficial chapter of the National League for Democracy, said of its leader, who has met with the local group to encourage them: “She knows this is not good; she wants to stand up for the Muslim minority but this would be a trap for her. It was a hard decision to make. The government knows how to handle her.”
Aung San Suu Kyi recently said that she would not fight for a change in the constitution that would allow her to be a candidate for president in 2015, making it likely that a military-backed candidate will win the race. She is barred from the highest office because she has two British sons; her late husband, Michael Aris, was a scholar in Asian history and Buddhism at Oxford University.
The young leader of the democracy movement, who sometimes adopts a pseudonym, Khun Sai, a common name, receives assistance from the American Jewish World Service, which helps make it possible for him to publish a monthly journal and provide democracy training for ethnic minorities. He belongs to one relatively small ethnic group in the Burmese northeast, and his small organization also produces cartoon books about democracy for people who cannot read.
Democracy activists have to be careful about what they can do in publicly participating in the crucial coming elections for the national parliament and president. “It is dangerous with the militias around,” the advocate said.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.