Myanmar’s new era dogged by ghosts of the old regime

Myanmar’s new era dogged by ghosts of the old regime

Aung San Suu Kyi’s election win saw the former political prisoner put in charge of Myanmar’s first civilian government since 1962

Gethin Chamberlain, for The Observer, 17 April 2016

“I want to be a soldier, to fight,” says 11-year-old Khin Soe Win, glancing round at the other children sitting in the gleaming new classroom. Another boy also has his hand in the air; he too wants to be a soldier.

The pair are in the village of Kwin Ka Lay in Myanmar’s Kayin state. We are a good 12 hours’ drive from the main city of Yangon, the last three hours having been traversed on dirt roads.

It is not entirely clear who controls the surrounding area: there are Karen National Liberation Army checkpoints on the road, but also army patrols – white pickups packed with soldiers and machine guns on the cab roof.

The children are answering questions on what they might do when they leave school. One wants to be a nurse, another a builder, another a farmer. Khin Soe Win is unswayed. “It is tiring and hard being a soldier, but I want to sacrifice for my country.”

But he and his friend don’t want to fight for the Tatmadaw, the national army. They want to join the KNLA. When he talks of country, his teacher explains, he means Kayin – what used to be known as Karen state.

The Karen are one of the 135 ethnic groups recognised by the Myanmar constitution, a minority who engaged in a six-decade fight with the central government. They may have signed a ceasefire and backed Aung San Suu Kyi in November’s historic elections, but the desire for self-determination remains undimmed and a natural scepticism in the region is just one of the new leader’s problems.


Five months on from the election that swept the Nobel prizewinning democracy campaigner’s National League for Democracy into power, Aung San Suu Kyi now leads the country’s first civilian government since 1962. Simply winning enough votes to wrest power from Myanmar’s powerful military was seen by many as the greatest triumph of the woman known to everyone as “The Lady”, generating excitement at home and an international wave of goodwill. But if her government is to be judged a success, it faces formidable challenges on its own doorstep.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s first challenge was to entrench her own position. Her hopes of securing the presidency were dashed by the refusal of the military to change the constitution, which bars her from the role because her sons hold British citizenship. It was a setback, but one she sidestepped by taking on the new role of “state counsellor”, effectively placing herself above the president, Htin Kyaw. She also holds the roles of foreign minister and minister in the president’s office. No one has been left in any doubt that she regards herself as being in charge.

But the military has not relinquished its grip on power. The army retains control of three key ministries – defence, home affairs and border affairs – and has 25% of the seats in parliament. Any changes to the constitution require a 75% plus one majority, and last month the commander-in-chief of the army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, made it clear that he saw no need for further liberalisation.

“The Tatmadaw has steadfastly held on to the multiparty system for five years and progress has also been made. During the next, second, five-year phase, deviating from the present situation will not be accepted,” he said. Aung San Suu Kyi may hope that further constitutional change will come sooner rather than later, but in the meantime she has a dysfunctional country to run.

“This is one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” a senior western diplomat said last week, trying to dampen some of the rampant optimism that her victory has generated. “Bad things happen here every day. You will see problems everywhere.”

Myanmar is rich in resources, including oil, timber, gas and gems, but remains one of the world’s poorest countries.It lacks a sense of unity. There has been an exodus of young people seeking work in neighbouring Thailand; people trafficking is endemic; there are myriad civil rights violations; most of the main rebel groups have refused to sign up to the so-called national ceasefire. Then there are the Rohingya, stateless Muslims denied a vote or the chance to stand in November’s elections. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced since 2012 after clashes with Buddhist nationalists. It amounts to the to-do list from hell.


Driving east out of the Yangon, the built-up area quickly gives way to countryside. The traffic, bumper to bumper in the city, thins out. Many people travel in makeshift buses fashioned out of flatbed trucks, with chrome metal frames built over the top. Passengers are crammed in tightly: some hang off the back.

Many men wear the wraparound sarongs known as lungis. Women carry umbrellas unfurled to keep off the sun, their faces painted in a white paste, thanakha, which serves as both a cosmetic and a sun screen.

The landscape is dotted with gilded Buddhist stupas, some of them enormous. Several are under construction, festooned with necklaces of bamboo scaffolding.

The European Journalism Centre has arranged a series of meetings in villages in Kayin state, where the EU is funding development projects with some of the £550m it has pledged to spend in Myanmar by 2020 in the hope of helping the new government tackle some of its most pressing problems.

The first destination is the town of Hpa-An. As the road pushes farther into the countryside and turns south, there are fish farms and rough huts on stilts, water buffalo in the fields, water melon stalls by the roadside. Monks in deep red robes walk along the roadside, soliciting donations.

In the village of Kawt Ka Lway, some of the older residents explain how most families here have at least a couple of children working in Thailand, which is less than 100km away. Daw Lay Phyu is 85 and bent 90 degrees at the waist. She walks with a stick but insists on living alone in a large hardwood house raised on stilts. Two of her daughters are in Thailand working as housemaids, while one son works there selling snacks, another in a plastics factory.

Only one daughter, Daw Ngwe Thin, 55, remains living nearby. She says she only stayed because she was worried about leaving her mother alone. Two of her own daughters have also gone to Thailand to find work. “Incomes here are so low, everyone wants to go to Thailand for work. There has not been fighting here for years but there is just no money here.

“We want our children back and factories to come for the village and the road to be mended, and if we can have electricity we can make profits for our lives and our children.”

There are electricity cables running between posts down the main street of the village, but they are not connected to the houses. The village is clean and tidy, but desperately poor. Aid groups are working with some of the villagers: Ngwe Thin has borrowed money from them to buy a pig, which gave birth to seven piglets that she sold to raise money. The money is important: there is no state pension and the number of people in the country over the age of 60 is predicted to rise from 9% to 19% by 2050.

In the offices of the Pa-O ethnic group in Hpa-An, it is civil rights that vex the workers who have been recruited to tackle corruption and police indifference to crime. Without help from the police, the workers say, they are limited in what they can do, other than plead the cases of those they are trying to help. They rattle off the challenges: land grabs by members of the military, rapes, child labour, trafficking, domestic violence, forced labour.

Khin Than Htwe, a formidable former professor aged 58, describes how two children abandoned by their parents were sold to a tea shop by their neighbour. The children lived on Bilu Kyun island, she says, a place named after the ogres which legend says once inhabited it. The children were looked after by a female neighbour after their parents split up and went away to work. But the neighbour came to hear that the owner of a tea shop in the city of Mayyamline, across the water on the mainland, needed waiters. So she sold the children, who were about seven years old, for 700,000 kyats (about £420).

The tea shop was near the university and a student from the island saw the children working. He informed their grandmother, who lived on the island. She went to the tea shop to demand that the owner release the children, but he refused. He had paid for them and they were his.

“The grandmother came to us and we went to the tea shop and negotiated with the owner,” says Khin Than Htwe. “He said we could buy them back. But we didn’t have the money. Every day, we went to see him, to explain about child labour and how he could go to jail. In the end, he handed them over to make us go away.”

The group informed the parents, who ignored them. They didn’t waste their time with the police. “We don’t believe in the police. If they get money they will do something, but the minimum they demand is 50,000 kyats (£30). They don’t want to do anything if they don’t think they will get money.

“It shouldn’t happen. Children should be in school. If they are in a tea shop or a factory, it is a loss to the country.”

Around a quarter of children go to work in the city, and it is more prevalent in the rural areas, says Khin Than Htwe. They are only given food as payment, no money. And there is trafficking into China too – teenage girls mainly. Their parents let them go to work in Thailand’s prawn and fish industries and they are trafficked from there.

The road out of Hpa-An runs alongside wooded hills before the landscape begins to become flatter. After a couple of hours the vehicles turn on to the dirt track that leads to Kwin Ka Lay, another three hours away. Now there are only occasional villages and river after river to cross. In the monsoon season, the village can only be reached by boat.

Buddhist prayer flags line the road around shrines. There are country-made vehicles with more than a hint of Mad Max about them: a small tractor engine or generator fixed to the end of a long girder, two tractor tyres at the front, a cart bolted to the rear. The rider, masked against the dust, sits on the girder and steers with the aid of two long handles. Behind the driver, men and women sit on straw on the flat bed of the cart.

This area is the territory of the KNLA’s Brigade 6, but since the ceasefire the army is also present. The Karen National Union, the political wing of the KNLA, signed a preliminary ceasefire in 2012 and the KNLA agreed a ceasefire code of conduct with the military last November. It holds, up to a point, but the Karen want the army out of the area entirely. The army has other ideas.

Kwin Ka Lay is a mixed village, Buddhists and Christians living alongside each other. In the Buddhist monastery, three KNU men sit on the wooden floor. Arbram, 42, wears a black beret with a gold KNLA badge. He has a red-and-white striped woven Karen top, as do Nay Gay, 29, and Hai Hku, 43. They all want a federal state. “We want the government to remove the military,” says Arbram. “It is like being in prison. There is no freedom of movement.”

The jury is out on the election results, he says. “There is a saying in Myanmar: you need to believe, but you also need to act. The idea is that 50% [of me] believes in this new government, but 50% [is prepared to] take action in case things go wrong.”

Nam Paw Lay Lay Wah, 35, has lived in the village all her life and vividly remembers the fighting when she was a child. She hopes she has seen the last of it. “We had a bunker in our house. When there was fighting we would run to the bunker. I remember my sister and my dad were in the garden at the farm and the soldiers used to pass by there, so the KNU dropped bombs on the area. There were two big trees and my sister and my dad were trying to shelter under them. My dad grabbed my sister and a moment later a bomb hit the tree she was hiding under. It was like this until I was 18.”

It was not just the military who lost out in November’s elections; many of the ethnic parties found themselves marginalised as voters decided that the only way to ensure change was to back Aung San Suu Kyi. But in their hearts, the people here remain Karen, says Nam Paw Lay Lay Wah.

“With the new elections taking place, I was really happy. But I do not expect that much from this new government because I know that there are so many things to be taken care of in this country.

“In five years, it will be impossible to change a whole nation. But I believe there is a will to change. Maybe if they win yet another election, things will start to really change. Also, I do not have complete faith in this ceasefire agreement because it is just a signature on a paper. The peace process is very fragile, everyone knows that. I want to see it work but whether we have enough patience I don’t know.”

The National League for Democracy manifesto supported a federal union, but back in Yangon there seems little agreement on how that might be achieved, given the army’s grip on constitutional change.

U Aung Shin, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee who was imprisoned from 2000 to 2009 for his involvement with the party, says the international community must exert pressure for change.

“Assistance of international actors is essential. We need a better relationship between the military and civilians,” he says. “Their attitude should be government from a democratic way, to change the mindset of the military to stay away from dictatorship.”

U Tin Maung Oo, a decorated former infantry officer and member of the parliamentary commission for legal affairs and special issues, agrees. “People welcome federalism. But if you can’t get agreement from the military you can’t change the constitution. We need a good military/civilian relationship.” But neither he nor anyone else seems able to suggest how that might be achieved if the military are unwilling to bend.

A couple of days later, an earthquake of magnitude 6.9 struck Myanmar. It was a big quake, but originated far beneath the surface and there was little damage. Earthquakes can send shockwaves around the world, but many other factors determine whether there is any significant impact at the epicentre. Those who voted for The Lady must hope that the same does not apply in politics.


1824 Britain makes its first incursions into the country. Two years later the Treaty of Yandabo cedes the Arakan coast to Britain. By 1886, Britain has completely annexed the country, making it part of British India. In the 1920s, protests begin against British rule.

1937 In response to the protests, led by students, intellectuals and Buddhist monks, Britain declares Burma a crown colony separate from India. But in 1942 the country is occupied by Japan, with assistance from the Japanese-trained Burma Independence Army, later known as the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, led by Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi.

1945 Britain regains control of the country from Japan, also with assistance from the AFPFL, which by now has changed sides after it became clear that Japan had no intention of honouring its promise of granting independence. Two years later, Aung San negotiates an agreement for independence, but is then assassinated by political opponents, along with six members of the interim government.

1948 Burma achieves full independence under U Nu as prime minister, but a decade later he is ousted by the military under General Ne Win. In 1960, U Nu wins a general election but riles the military again by promoting Buddhism as the state religion and tolerating separatism.

1962 Another coup led by Ne Win overthrows the government. The Social Programme party becomes the only political party. Twelve years later, a new constitution transfers power to a people’s assembly under Ne Win and other military officers.

1987 Demonstrations begin against the government, provoking a violent response from the military. Thousands die in anti-government riots. Two years later, the State Law and Order Restoration Council declares martial law and Aung San Suu Kyi is placed under the first of a series of house arrests. The country is renamed Myanmar.

1990 The National League for Democracy (NLD) wins a general election but the military ignores the result. Aung San Suu Kyi wins the Nobel peace prize in 1991.

2003 Khin Nyunt becomes prime minister, promising a new constitution, but is placed under house arrest in 2004. Three years later, anti-government protests by monks end in thousands of arrests, but in 2008 the military offers a new constitution. It does, however, award 25% of seats in parliament to the military and bans Aung San Suu Kyi from office.

2009 Aung San Suu Kyi is jailed for breaching house arrest for three years, later commuted to 18 months’ further house arrest. Her party, the NLD, boycotts the following year’s election, which is won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party.

2011 Thein Sein becomes president. The following year, the NLD makes big gains in byelections, winning 43 out of 45 seats it contests. Aung San Suu Kyi is elected to parliament, becoming leader of the opposition.

2015 A draft ceasefire is signed with 16 rebel militias. The NLD sweeps to victory in the general election, winning an overall majority. Four months later Htin Kyaw is installed as president.

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