(Book Review) - In early 2008, I was in Kengtung in eastern Shan State, talking about the continued hardship of the Shan population with an elderly Shan political leader. At one point a young boy came to the open window, smiled, and ran away. He returned some minutes later, notifying my company that he was expected to report to the local police station as soon as I departed. Such was, and in many respects continues, life for those residing among Burma’s many ethnic communities.
Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads (Random House UK, 2013), the third Burma-focused work offered by Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, is in many respects a tour de force of recent rights violations occurring throughout Burma, with a strong focus on ethnic communities and the periphery of the country.
As with his previous book, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant (Silkworm Books, 2010), Rogers is upfront with his readership regarding his allegiances as a non-neutral observer with strong ties to both Burma’s political and ethnic opposition as well as the Christian community. Throughout the text, the underlying current of his activist heart is not difficult to discern.
However, unlike Rogers’ previous volume, which at times suffered from an over reliance on hard to verify and competing claims (largely owing to the opaque nature of his subject matter), A Nation at the Crossroads is a thoroughly documented and supported text.
And while lengthy tracts can read as sequences of mini-biographies of those having suffered rights abuses at the hands of the government or involved in the struggle for human rights, Rogers’ prose is engaging and readily accessible to those without a detailed background into the recent history of the Burmese state.
The strength of A Nation at the Crossroads undoubtedly lies in the detailed cataloguing of specific rights violations in Burma’s ethnic regions. This is a timely message of emphasis to get out to the international community during this period of reform euphoria in Burma, for very few benefits – or even conceivable benefits – have filtered down to many of the communities in question. It is also a message that, despite recent changes, speaks to the fragility of the current state.
“Without institutional, legislative and constitutional reform Burma will not be truly free and, crucially, without a political process that results in a political settlement for the country’s ethnic groups, Burma will never be at peace,” warns Rogers.
With a focus on ethnic communities, it is unsurprising that identity is a recurring element throughout the text, though by no means a subject limited to ethnicity.
In the chapter on the Saffron Revolution, Rogers sites a major who defected. Justifying his decision, he said: “Because I am a Buddhist, I did not want to kill the monks.” But what if it were not monks in the line of fire in Rangoon, but an ethnic protest in a remote outpost far away from Burma’s urban hub? Would the major still have defected? Because of the nature of the identity specific language used in the rationalization, we simply cannot know.
This episode speaks volumes to the need to tackle security sector reforms if the mentality of Burma’s men in uniform is to reform along with other strategic considerations. No doubt many would find it more comforting if the major had spoken in terms of professionalism and citizenry, as opposed to limiting himself to that of a religion.
A related sentiment, speaking to the subject of how identity is defined within Burma’s armed services, came from a conversation I had with a defected Burmese army soldier. He said, “After we become a soldier, we think we must protect our mother army.” Significantly, delineation between the concepts of state and army become severely obscured.
At another point in the text, moving away from identity and speaking to the “crossroads” theme, Rogers asks if President Thein Sein can be the Burmese equivalent of South Africa’s de Klerk, the Soviet Union’s Gorbachev or Indonesia’s Habibie? It is a fair question, and Rogers is certainly not alone in having considered the analogies.
Yet, only de Klerk remained firmly at the helm of a controlled transitional process; a process that largely confirmed the elite position of those having financially benefited under apartheid and a process that analysts such as John Pilger regard as having left a majority of the South African population still awaiting their chance at freedom. Is this really what the majority of Burmese want, or should hope for, from President Thein Sein?
One point of caution in A Nation at the Crossroads concerns occasional reflex analytical assessments in the latter chapters of the text, partially understandable as both reflections of the author’s politics and his wrestling to identify cause for hope. Regarding the plight of the Kachin, Rogers points to Aung San Suu Kyi’s February 2012 visit to Kachin State as a signal of the potential gains and improvements awaiting its people.
Yes, the words Aung San Suu Kyi spoke in Kachin State in February were to many reassuring. But, offered as evidence of opportunity at the crossroads, in balance to the litany of rights violations documented by Rogers and the current state of affairs in Kachin State, the opposition leader’s words seem an overwhelmingly wanting counterweight.
Moreover, the importance of having institutional support beyond the guarantees of a solitary political figure should be a lesson Burma’s ethnic communities are well familiar with.
All in all, Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads is a well-formulated introduction to several important issues at the center of the country’s continued struggles.
There is a chapter on the Rohingya in western Burma, a sensitive topic that has received considerable media attention in recent months. And certainly many of the issues focused on, from ethnic communities to the security sector, are due to receive more public attention if Burma commits to a holistic process of reform and reorientation of the state.
In the introduction, Rogers relates how the original title of the volume was to be Burma: A Captive Nation. But Burma is not what it was two years ago. That said, a vast majority of the book is dedicated to documenting the plight of ethnic communities and the abusive behavior of the tatmadaw. In this sense, the working title for the text is much more appropriate.
So, what is Burma – a captive nation or a nation at the crossroads? The truth is, it is both. Some are now beginning to cross over to greater opportunities and freedom, but many estranged ethnic groups are still trapped in a cycle of human rights abuses and military violence.
Joseph Ball is a professor at a university in the United States.