The international community must come together to help bring the Rohingya Refugees home—wherever that might be, write PhD candidates M Mizanur Rahman and Tasfi Sal-sabil, after fieldwork in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya crisis: one year on
More engagement, not less, with Myanmar
Should we boycott Myanmar?
In tourism brochure clichés, Myanmar is often referred to as the last jewel of Asia. After fifty years of isolation under military rule, the newly open Southeast Asian nation conjures quaint images of the last untouched frontier in a shrinking world. Although we must remind ourselves that such romanticisation can be misplaced, given the authoritarian regime was a harsh reality rather than a luxurious abstinence from modernisation, many foreigners are curiously enthusiastic about visiting the country.
As an undergraduate focusing on Myanmar studies and the Burmese language, across my degree I have had numerous friends approach me to discuss plans to visit the country, famous for its glittering pagodas, ancient temples and rich cultural diversity.
When people learn I study Myanmar, they often gush to me about their own experiences in the country. From backpackers I have chatted with in cheap hostels in Cambodia, to wealthy club-goers smoking cigarettes in Singapore, almost everyone had a positive story to share.
However, recently the tone surrounding this conversation has changed. When hairdressers, university peers, strangers at parties or uber drivers ask me what I study, their first question is now about the Rohingya crisis, or negative feelings stemming from media coverage of the situation.
A lot of this discussion has focused on whether it is ethical to visit Myanmar, given recent widespread attention to the mass exodus of the Rohingya from Rakhine state. People do not want to be seen as financially or ethically condoning this traumatic situation—who wants to look back across history and say they supported what has already been called a genocide?
Therefore, it is worth speculating on two things: how this most recent wave of international outrage could dent Myanmar’s tourism figures, and whether foreigners should boycott the country, for fear of lining an authoritarian pocket.
Tourism growth is important for Myanmar’s government. For some background, it is difficult to accurately gauge tourism statistics in Myanmar. In 2014, Myanmar claimed to receive 3 million international tourists. However, at least two-thirds of this figure were day-trippers from Thailand, China, India, Laos and Bangladesh. The number peaked in 2015 at 4.68 million. Unsurprisingly the following year, total tourist figures dropped dramatically to 2.9 million when conflict in north and north-eastern Myanmar rendered day-tripping more difficult.
A different measurement of tourism in Myanmar has been airport arrivals—this figure rose from 593,000 in 2012 to 1.08 million in 2016. Yet only 48.2 percent of those arriving in Yangon International airport in 2014 did so on a tourist visa, and it is estimated only 50-60 percent of arrivals in 2016 were purely for leisure. Measuring the sale of tickets at Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most famous tourist attraction, revealed 505,351 tickets were sold in 2014—far from the three million tourists statistic—and in 2016, 600,000 tickets were sold, a contrast to the 2.9 million total tourist figures.
The Myanmar Ministry of Tourism plans to accommodate 3.5 million tourists by the end of 2017, and claims to have hosted 2.27 million tourists from January to August 2017. Given the difficult in knowing if tourism is even really booming to begin with, in evaluating the impact of the Rohingya crisis on Myanmar’s nascent tourism industry by the end of 2017, we should be cautious to not make sweeping claims about how exactly figures did or did not drop, and instead carefully examine airport arrivals, ticket sales to sites like Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan, and day-trip percentages to gauge the real impact the crisis will have on Myanmar’s 2017 tourism figures. Currently, some coverage suggests the crisis has taken a toll on hotel bookings, particularly visits to Rakhine-based attractions such as Ngapali beach and Mrauk-U, but only time will reveal the true impact.
So, is it ethical to visit Myanmar? Most people asking me this question are concerned for two key reasons—they do not want to financially assist the regime’s conduct towards the Rohingya, and they do not want to be seen as morally endorsing the Rohingya crisis, or at best, being complacent to it.
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With regard to lining the wrong pockets, opponents of a tourism boycott argue that tourism infrastructure was mainly government-owned in the past and such a case could be made, however today hotels, restaurants, guides, drivers, hawkers and vendors are privately owned and employ ordinary people. Accordingly, a tourism boycott would have little impact on the government while adversely impacting many who have built a livelihood around tourism.
Others may argue that the government still owns substantive cogs in the tourism machine, such as airlines, or that it will benefit from tax revenue raised via tourism. Regardless of what you think, there is lots of literature suggesting economic sanctions in Myanmar never really had an impact in its democratic transition, so it is tough to conclude that a tourism boycott for economic purposes would now suddenly change the government’s attitude.
But what about more generally visiting Myanmar—is chowing down on Shan noodles and taking a selfie outside Shwedagon Pagoda normalising the Rohingya exodus? I think there are numerous factors why this is not necessarily the case.
Reverting back to avoiding the Myanmar people is one of the worst things we can do. Transitioning from a politically oppressive society with little access to information—to most of the country having Facebook within a few years—means the spread of misinformation and mistrust is particularly potent in Myanmar. Even within Myanmar, understanding of the Rakhine situation has been poor due to a history of travel limitations. In a global era of “fake news”, one of the most worthwhile tools we have is human relationships. To the common person in Myanmar, exposure to other norms will not come from catchy think-pieces, it will come from human interaction.
We should also keep visiting Myanmar because even beyond the Rohingya crisis, democracy and rule of law in the country is very fragile. A recent speaker I witnessed described the environment in the country as a collective PTSD. As a young person who has been to Myanmar many times, including with several Australian friends, I think cross-cultural interactions have been very valuable in prompting all of us to be more open to reframing our thoughts, especially if thinking is embedded in historical trauma.
And most of all, I have had people from Myanmar take me more seriously when they know I have bothered to get to know their country. Passionate strangers on Facebook or Twitter with contrarian political beliefs to mine considerably open up when I can blurt out some basic Burmese, reference my time in the country, and express an opinion as someone with a deep fondness for Myanmar, as opposed to looking to win a moral battle for ego points.
Therefore, I hope to keep encouraging those around me to spend time in the country and with its people, now more so than ever.
7 minute readRead more
To choose or not to choose: That is the question for Myanmar
The low sonorous murmurs of Buddhist prayer rising above the sea of twinkling golden stupas becomes distant and distorted, as the startling bright lights of gleaming shopping centres engulfs the crammed streets of downtown Yangon.
Myanmar, like many countries, is a place of contrasts, challenges and complexity. As an undergraduate student taking part in the ‘Political Economy of Myanmar Course’ this year and a first-time traveller to Myanmar, I became increasingly aware of the great importance of the multi-dimensional relationship between Myanmar and China. From lively karaoke in Naypyidaw, to the green mountain tops of the Shan mountains and to the smallest villages in between, the cultural and geographical diversity of this country should not be underestimated.
Despite intensifying Chinese economic and strategic interests and considerable support from the USA for Myanmar’s ongoing political transition, Myanmar has engaged on a higher pragmatic bilateral level with China. Myanmar as an emerging Asia Pacific state cannot afford direct and confrontational great power competition manifesting into a potentially dangerous Sino-USA rivalry in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi has thus sought to navigate the complexities of the increasing Sino-USA competition in the Asia Pacific Region, by continuing her father’s overarching post-Second World War emphasis on an independent, pragmatic and non-aligned foreign policy for Myanmar.
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Since the victory of the National League of Democracy in the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi as foreign minister and state counsellor has pragmatically intensified Myanmar’s paukphaw ‘cousin’ relationship with China amid growing uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific. Prior to the NLD’s landslide victory, relations between the Thein Sein government and Beijing cooled because of the stalling of the billion dollar Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, in what Jürgen Haacke has described as the military’s fear of ‘...undue military, political or economic dependence on China.’ Indeed, Myanmar’s experience of exploitative British colonialism has a created a strong and ‘pervasive’ nationalistic sentiment that sustains much of the Tatmadaw’s hypersensitivity to foreign interests in Myanmar.
Geographically, China is a key and influential actor in Myanmar’s border regions and peace process. In a recent New York Times article Jane Perlez highlighted China’s continued indirect support of ethnic armed organisations such as the United Wa Army, despite China’s extensive investment in infrastructure projects in Myanmar. The United Wa Army is believed to have the military capabilities to rival or at least challenge the Tatmadaw, with an estimated 20,000 active soldiers, as well as an arsenal of helicopters and tank destroyers allegedly supplied by China. The Wa region is virtually a self-administered area that has more cultural ties with China, rather than with Myanmar. Its close proximity to the border and an association with the illegal narcotics trade in China has even resulted in the circulation of Chinese currency instead of the Burmese Kyat.
President Xi Jinping’s extensive Belt and Road initiative, including the Kyaukphyu oil, and gas pipelines originating in Rakhine State are geostrategic and economic projects that Beijing has focused on in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu pipeline is considered as economically and strategically significant because it allows Beijing to transport large amounts of oil and natural gas overland from Rakhine State and transport it into Yunnan Province, where it is processed and sent to power the industrial centres further east. The pipelines are currently in operation, allowing China to source energy from the Bay of Bengal without it having to pass through the highly-contested and geostrategically significant Malacca Straits, currently controlled by Singapore. China has also begun constructing a number of deep-sea ports in Myanmar, as part of the ‘string of pearls strategy’, that has also seen China building ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is attempting to exercise influence on the waters to China’s East and also in the Indian ocean, making China what Steinberg refers to as a ‘two ocean country.’ China’s economic interests in Myanmar have been focused primarily in terms of developmental investment and these have rarely come into conflict with the interests of the USA.
Under the de facto leadership of the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar will continue to attempt to pursue a foreign policy that isn’t solely reliant on a foreign actor. It is very probable however, that Myanmar’s desire for democratic reform, greater state unity and foreign investment in a wider regional context of great power competition is going to be increasingly difficult to pursue. Especially given the present situation in Rakhine state which has seen, according to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, over 300,000 Rohingya refugees escaping violence and fleeing to Bangladesh since the 25th of August 2017.
Particular moments in Myanmar stand out to me as being intensely provocative. Standing at the base of the Shwedagon Pagoda the low hum of afternoon prayers still resonating, I realised the great extent to which the challenges facing Myanmar are inter-connected and intricate. Soaring above thunderous monsoon clouds over the Bay of Bengal, I reflected how wonderful it was to live and breathe research and understand how even the simplest human narratives can create a burning desire to explore and to investigate.
5 minute readRead more
The ‘Humans of’ revolution: what in the world do Sydney and Naypyidaw have in common?
Photos and reflections from the Thai/Myanmar border
An interview with Dr. Nicholas Farrelly
This week we caught up with Dr Nicholas Farrelly, a fellow at the Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, to discuss his academic career and life as a former ANU student. Nicholas is the director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre and convenor of the PhB program in the College of Asia and the Pacific. Nicholas also runs the Asia Pacific Week internship course and supervises various honours, masters and PHD students at ANU.
Nicholas was born in Canberra and retains “close connections” to the city, feeling really privileged” to be working and living in a city which is continuously developing. An ANU alumnus himself, Nich grew up in Canberra and studied a bachelor of Asian Studies at the ANU. After completing graduate study in the UK, he seized the opportunity to return to ANU where he has built an incredible academic career focused around Southeast Asian studies. Speaking fondly of his time as an ANU student, Nicholas felt he would be “always thankful” for the individual attention he received from passionate academics prominent within the Southeast Asian Studies field. It appears that Nich’s ANU experience was instrumentally influential to his future in more ways than one- many are unaware that Nich met his wife when working at Woroni!
When we asked Nicholas how he found himself within his current research area, he detailed a journey that began with a focus on Indonesia and bloomed into a wider interest in Southeast Asia. After studying Indonesian at school, he was unable to spend much time in Indonesia due to the security situation at the time. Instead, he spent a year in Thailand working with a northern Thai rural development organisation. The intensive language and cultural experience threw him into the deep end straight away, and the skills from the experience helped him emerge with an honours thesis on the Shan people. But the question of what next was already playing on Nich’s mind, who sought to challenge himself even further.
Focusing on “politics, social change, and potential for conflict,” Nicholas was soon drawn to Myanmar, which he described as “a mess” under its heavy constraints at the time. A process of gradually working his way into the “Myanmar realm” began as he built up the confidence to research in the fringes such as the Shan and Kachin states. It wasn't until 2013 that he was able to conduct research in a Bamar majority, Burmese speaking area. Nicholas labels these as “early difficult years of trying to understand what my own research activities would look like.” He believes these areas of Asia are “so important to Australia’s future” but have been drastically unacknowledged, something he wishes to change.
Nicholas feels that the rewards from “effective academic work” are “endlessly fulfilling” as being able to explain a complex matter in a way that encourages people to appreciate its “subtleties” is a challenge, but is incredibly rewarding when successful. However, he notes that the “academic business is a tough one” due to its intensely critical nature. Nich credits his website New Mandala, which provides commentary on Southeast Asian political affairs, as a learning tool for his resilience. Growing accustomed to “strongly worded” criticism forces him to continuously evaluate and improve upon his writing, and he expressed that criticism, when done well, “improves all of our works”.
For current students Nicholas outlined four main pieces of advice for university. Firstly, he stresses the need to take risks in order for students to “stretch their wings”. Secondly, for those interested in the world around them Nicholas emphasised learning foreign languages as a vital skill which offers exposure to different ways of thinking. Thirdly, this is best accomplished by students spending “a lot of time outside Australia,” and lastly, by taking advantage of their youth and flexibility, students should travel to all types of challenging places. This allows students to develop their adaptation skills and ultimately, be comfortable in any type of environment.
Nicholas is a great academic to have a chat with about Southeast Asia, and enjoys talking with passionate students. You can read his website New Mandala at asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/ if you want an interesting and easy way to stay up to date on what’s happening around the region.
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State, society, and the language of jade in Southeast Asia
Peruse the internet for Myanmar-China news and the space is awash with insights about the two states’ participation in the trade of jade. The best contribution is probably the New York Times’ handsomely shot video feature from earlier this year. It’s no surprise that there’s an interest in the topic; the nature of it is compelling and evocative, much like the stone itself. What other narrative of a tradeable commodity brings together the shared history of two of the most transformed states in Asia, illicit drugs, wealthy investors, ethnic militia, and guerilla fighting? It’s a sexy storyline that would be at home in a Hong Kong action movie.
However in the haste to tell the story of the stone, and the jaded trail it leaves between these two countries, many commentators are skipping the meta-picture. Devotees of James Scott will nod their heads in agreement that a discrete-states approach to understanding spaces like Southeast Asia is fraught with folly. The jade industry is not just a state and non-state actor narrative between wealthy Chinese buyers, impoverished Kachin miners, and oscillating Burmese decision makers. It is the core of an extensive overland network between Myanmar, China, Thailand, and Laos, an organised community where disparate ethnicities share the common language and culture of jade. It is perhaps the most illustrative example of the way economic incentive and the porous borders of upland Southeast Asia interact with one another.
Firstly – the stone itself warrants a focus. There are two geological varieties of jade primarily traded throughout Asia. Both have slightly different aesthetic qualities. The first, nephrite, is the most common, found in areas such as Xinjiang in China. It was nephrite that the Chinese buyers originally sought, arguably beginning with the Qing Court developing a taste for jade, perhaps as a way of differentiating themselves from the preceding Ming Court’s attachment to rubies and sapphires. As the interest in jade developed, the Xinjiang nephrite jade was eventually eschewed in favour of the second variety. Jadeite has a brighter appearance, and is typically perceived as being more valuable. The best quality and largest quantity of jadeite in the world is found in the Kachin State, and it was there that the Chinese overland caravan route chose to divert to, after some decades of sourcing their jade from Xinjiang.
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It is from this point, the jade trading route began to take on a truly transnational flavour. From here, we see the origins of my first observation; that the jade narrative is not a story of two states, but rather the coming together of many more communities.
With the closure of mainland China’s borders to outside trade in 1949, the route diverted south to Rangoon along the railway line, and then by ship to Hong Kong. In 1962, on the advent of Ne Win’s Way to Socialism, the route changed again. The caravan route, distinctly Yunnanese in its character, added some extra turns and detours around known military areas, and the entire route became peppered with bribes and shifting personal alliances, to allow the passage of some of the goods to eager markets in Thailand. It is worth noting that during the period of Burma’s ‘closure’ to outside trading between 1962-1988, black market trading thrived, and some argue even sustained the Burmese economy.
These historical quirks, where the tide of national politics caused kinks and curves in the route, sought to entrench the route into its current form, spanning Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Laos. The current route has been identified as originating from the mines surrounding Hpakant, Kachin State, transported to the nearest train station (Mogaunt, Sarhmaw, or Hopin), and then on to Mandalay. From Mandalay, it crosses over to Taunggyi, in the Shan State. From Taunggyi, the jade is conveyed through the rebel zones to either Kengtung or Tachilek. At these points the caravans will either turn north towards markets in southern China, or south, to Thailand and Laos.
The jade trade has played a fundamental role in defining the various ethnographic identities along its primary route. It is well established that ethnic groups typically converge around points of shared financial interest, and indeed jade has served as a meeting point for expressions of a diverse web of ethno-nationalisms. Wen-Chin Chang’s work has shown how ethnic groups have been defined by their particular roles in the jade route as it developed from the socialist era in Burma (1962-88) when jade was primarily traded on the black market. For instance, the Kachin became characterised as the stone suppliers, an expression which came to stand for an industrious attitude, an extensive knowledge of terrain, and resilience for handling the dangers of mining jade. The Yunnanese, the caravan traders, became eponymous for the accompanying risk-taking behavior, economic acumen, and aptitude to navigate a complex web of language and culture.
Flowing on from my first point is a second observation, that of the interplay between regional armies, and the operation of the jade trade that they seek to protect. Because the zone of jade trading has been marketed by a connection of otherwise discretely administered ethno-cultural centres; Kachins in Hpakant, Burmans in Mandalay, Shans in Taunggyi, Kengtung, and Tachilek, Sino-Thais and Thais in Chiang Mai, and Yunnanese in Kunming, the role of an army has been a practical means to demarcate landscapes of power as the jade shifts along different stages of the regional production line. These cause considerable problems for the tatmadaw, a so-called umbrella force of authority, existing in a zone were micro-community and personal relationships influence how the society functions.
Owing to the overlapping nature of interests and claims in the area, local armies have been instrumental to the flow of jade from the early days of the Kachin mines. The mines themselves have been traditionally guarded by Kachin armies since the colonial era. When the jade trade went underground in the socialist era, the four main jade companies each had their own private army. Notably, the Lijia Company, established in 1973 in Chiang Mai, was founded by the leader of the KMT Third Army, General Li, and pursued connections with local militias in the border trade. The Zhangjia Company, established in 1974 by the Shan warlord Khun Sa, served as a lucrative source of funds for the Shan independence army at the time and a strategic institutional support for Khun Sa’s involvement in the heroin trade. These examples support the theoretical work of Kerkvliet and Scott, who argue that economic opportunity drives the persistence of individuals to engage in commerce despite technical illegality. Further, it illustrates Tagliacozzo’s thesis that enhanced forces of state regulation tends to merely encourage expressions of active trade in contraband.
So what does all this tell us? The jade story is older, and richer than it appears at first glance. Is it merely a tale of Beijing and Naypyitaw? Certainly not. Will the illegal shades of activity continue to thrive? Unquestionably yes. Does the state have any control over this long-established community of individuals? We will have to wait and see.
These ideas pay homage to a far more elegantly constructed work which I heartily recommend a thorough read of.
8 minute readRead more