Interview with Dr. Maung Zarni

Dr. Maung Zarni is an exile, commentator, critic and expert on the political affairs of Myanmar. His research interests include the political economy of violence, international development and conflict, as well as democratic transitions in Asia. He is Visiting Fellow (2011-2013) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, London School of Economics and Political Science, and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

 Zarni spoke with PRAXIS on February 28, 2012 while he was attending a World Peace Foundation seminar on advocacy and human rights.

PRAXIS: What do you think are the greatest prospects and greatest challenges facing Myanmar – both socially and economically – as it emerges from the last six decades of direct military rule and global isolationism?

Zarni: On the future of Burma: No one is in a position to figure it out exactly. It’s not crystal ball gazing either. I’m a structuralist and look at interests as structures, such as commercial, strategic, etc. I don’t see a bright future for the country, but that doesn’t mean that I’m completely hopeless or desperate in the situation. The buzz word being used is “opening up” and the way “the new Myanmar/Burma” is framed in the Western discourse and the media, especially in government policy and institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, or the UN, no one has a better framing of Burma than Barack Obama, who framed Burma as his foreign policy success story in the [2013] State of the Union Address. That is outrageous. That’s the hype. The realities are that every single type of human rights violation has been taking place in Burma since the West adopted principles and punitive positions on Burma, which is to say Western sanctions of different strengths and types. Starting with downgrading diplomatic relations in 1988-1989. That was the turning point. Up until then, Burma was supported by the U.S. as a Cold War buffer. Burmese military generals stayed out of the Cold War but quietly were supported by the U.S. and the entire Western world, in terms of CIA involvement. The highest number of military officers are trained in the U.S. through the military exchange program. Returning to the realities, we have the same pervasive human rights abuses for which Burma was ritualistically condemned and diplomatically punished.

Three things are happening: We have the economic displacement and economic disempowerment of rural populations, across the country – not confined to one ethnic area, but across the country, related to mega-development projects, there is a genocide, and there is a full-blown civil war where the full might of the Burmese air force is brought to bear across the Kachin people.

Two parallel things are going on: The same old ugly realities with horrible new dimensions of class struggle, ethnocide, war against the Kachin. And the old pervasive human rights abuses.

PRAXIS: How does ‘human security’ factor into current developments in Myanmar?

Zarni: No one has ever raised the issue of human security. Human security is simple. Each time we academics talk about peace or peace studies, we’re talking about the absence of peace. Each time we use the word human security, we’re talking about the absence of it. The security of individuals and their communities are not a part of this new discourse of Burma opening up and its reforms. The discursive elements that structure the way we conceive of human security in Burma is the Burma of ethnic minority peoples, the Burma of rural people, and the Burma of dissidents and military elites.

That’s the macro picture. That’s the scenario. The interest and well-being of security does not figure and that’s completely absent. Restructuring the country’s finances and debt forgiveness and everything is framed in this language and economic developmentalism.

PRAXIS: The word “genocide” has been used quite a bit regarding the situation facing the Rohingya in Rakhine State. In one of your pieces, you labeled it “ethnocide.” Could you elaborate on your decision to use this term?


If you look at the facts, the physical harm that is being done to the Rohingya, not just now, but over the past 40 or 50 years, or however long, it’s not just the physical harm.  Described as ethnocide, in the attempt to erase a particular ethnic group with a voluntarily defined ethnic identity, with the full backing of a massively propagandized society. Whether the Rohingya was an external label or internally imposed doesn’t matter. The Rohingya were recognized between 1948 to 1962 by the government. There are historical documents on the background of Rohingya and this group existed and it was recognized officially by the modern state.

The timing of the emergence of the Rohingya as a global issue has everything to do with the regime’s political calculations. It has ideological components and anti-Muslim hatred and racism on the part of the ruling military. Secondly, it has a political calculation by the regime. It also has the economic and geostrategic element to it, in addition to the anti-Muslim rhetoric. It’s a logical combination of what the Burmese generals have pursued over the last 50 years, which is an ethnic cleansing of the army. Getting rid of anyone with an ethnic identity in the army. Those that rise to the top happen to be Buddhist majority or thoroughly Burmanized minority. I’d be surprised if you ever saw a Muslim major in an army of say 1,000 brigadier generals.

It’s a brilliant move on the part of the regime, strategically speaking. It’s thoroughly Machiavellian. The Rakhines among the ethnic minorities are the least liked by the majority. They are the most reviled ethnic minority and also the most nationalistic. They were the last empire and the Burmese made them disappear. At least the Mons enjoyed the respect by the Burmese of being a very advanced civilization. The Mons were very advanced, like the Khmer and Cambodians. Similar cultural background. The Rakhines got the raw end of the deal. If you look at the rise of Burmese nationalism, the Rakhines were the pioneers and were involved in the imperial scheme with the British, because they were the British people. They had the most respect and learned first the English language and went through English schooling, because they were the coastal people. During colonialism, the Rakhine elite and Mon elite forged a new identity and that’s the new modern Burmese identity. The British Raj, when he vacated, everyone returned to their roots and took up their new identities.

They also keep hammering the message of anti-terrorism, of a preemptive anti-terror campaign. However if terrorism were present in the country, Rangoon would be seeing fireworks, and we haven’t seen it. The Rohingya are too broken down, too disunited to organize anything. With the words the regime uses, the language of preemptive anti-terror campaign, the operative word is preemptive, that is a word that the West understands, not prevention, preemptive. You only have to be suspected to be killed. It turns the entire Western concept of innocent until proven guilty – you’re guilty until proven innocent.

So if you put all these together, commercial factors that are contextualized and located along the western coast of Burma, the regime’s need to deal with the rights of economic and strategic nationalism, the waning of USDP with the voters and the rise of ASSK’s popularity, and the sweeping of the parliamentary elections, and the likelihood of a landslide in 2015 – as you put all these factors on the chart – you realize, what do we have to do. So basically, this is like shooting six birds with one stone, not two birds with one stone. It’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant because they calculated that the West is already over-committed to holding the Burmese hand.

Western policy toward Burma, is anything but about Burma. Western policy toward Burma is about Western interests, not about Burmese interests. Human security is not even a serious rhetoric. US Chamber of Commerce was leading delegations, and on the eve of the Rohingya genocide Hillary Clinton was in Phnom Penh for the ASEAN summit with Thein Sein, saying, look, I brought you some blue chip company executives, and I want you to meet with some of our most blue-blooded corporate executives because you are opening up. So it’s about Western strategic and commercial interests, that the regime has figured out, this is a structural equation, which the West is not going to modify in any significant way. Obama will be talking about the Rohingya in a speech, but it’s just a speech.

PRAXIS: Could you comment on the backlash that you’ve experienced as a result of your views on this issue?

Zarni: I’m very comfortable with backlash. I’m okay with condemnation from outside and I am okay with my internal moral compass. It bothers me as a person that has feelings. No one wants to be ostracized, but I am always guided by my own thinking. I am not always right. The chances are that I’m wrong many times. The chances that I may be wrong are possible, but two things enable me to come up with positions that are irreverent and unpopular. In my analysis, I don’t position myself.

1)    I dare to look at the realities and I describe what I see. My description may not always be always accurate but at least I try.

2)     My interest is my conscious. I don’t have material interests. I’m prepared to drive a taxi. I worked as a janitor as a student, so it doesn’t bother me. I can only eat two meals a day. In my analyses, I don’t position myself. I think positioning oneself in one’s analyses, it’s not analysis. That’s like political calculations, strategic calculations. I don’t calculate. Your interests are there. You make the decisions. Am I going to compromise my conscious on what I see? Or, compromise my interests? Or, am I going to call out what I see?

I think that my problem is I have a set of very strong values that basically my parents instilled in me. Love of truth. This is not bragging at all. This is my truth. If you don’t live your values, you don’t have anything. It defines who you are and defines your position.

I’ve also been criticized for my views on Aung San Suu Kyi. She wears her Buddhism on her sleeves and she wears her liberalism on her sleeves. But she fails on both grounds as a liberal as a Buddhist. And for me, ASSK is not a great icon, she’s a complete failure. She is a complete failure on both counts. If you see the ugly realities that involve genocide in front of your eyes, are you going to wait until the next Boddhistava/Buddha to retroactively rectify the situation or are you going to do something about it? Speaking out is doing. It’s very French. For the French, talking is speech is action.

I am a small potato compared to people like herself. But I get airtime, and there will be a small number of people who will pay attention to what I have to say. She has a great global audience and moral authority and what people think she stands for. She’s no different than Machiavelli or Clinton.

PRAXIS: What are your views on the local and global economic, political and strategic implications of the war and peacebuilding efforts taking place in Kachin State?

Zarni: The Kachins are a small minority, without ties to the West anymore, but there is no serious discussion about how to deal with Kachin State. I think the Kachin areas are extremely strategic for the Chinese, for the Burmese, and maybe I think to a lesser extent the West as well. When we look at Kachin mega-development projects like Myitsone Dam project, we only see the Chinese. Actually the Chinese get the bad press. When you look at the whole Greater Mekong Sub-Region area the whole idea of marketizing Greater Mekong, marketizing energy, or creating a free market for energy, trans-border energy sales and purchases – this was written up in Washington. If you look at the entire Indo-China area, before the Vietnam War there was something called the Mekong Commission, and that was to use economic development as a way to draw poor peasants from Indo-China from the Communists. Their entire discourse of development had a very strong ideological and strategic dimension in the sense that poverty alleviation was virtuous only to the extent that it advanced the core containment goals of the West. Poverty alleviation was never a goal in and of itself. It’s like peace – peace is good as long as it allows the free market to come in and put a store there.

The US, Canada, UN, EU are involved to do this peacebuilding. I think the only thing that’s missing in addressing these ethnic differences and conflicts is that they’re putting the cart before the horse. They’re talking about development, when in fact it’s about Kachins and the Karens and the others, they’re not fighting to establish a free-market, they’re fighting to establish their own identities, to gain full recognition as political communities. When the West comes in and says that economic development will help de-escalate the conflict, actually the total opposite is what is happening. Maybe 20 years from today, anyone who does the history of development in Burma will write about the war in Kachin as the world’s first war driven by developmental calculations. It’s a war for development. It’s a war about development. And this development is not about people, this development is about capital interest.

Burma was at one time the world’s biggest rice-growing agricultural economy, so they see the potential for reviving this economy. The FAO came up with a paper in 2006 looking at the commercially expandable agricultural lands in Burma. The Burma delta is no longer commercially expandable – it’s saturated and all the land that remains fertile and virgin are in the corporate areas. Kachins may be in the mountains, but they also have valleys. It’s not just minerals, but if you look at the terraced agricultural methods like in Bali, Kachin State is at 4000m above sea level, but still with technology you can develop that. Economics is there. The Myitsone Dam project is a strategic plan by the regime.

PRAXIS: What is your take on the current political climate and discourse in Myanmar?

Zarni: People say, the process in Burma is not perfect, but everyone who uses that phrase – This isn’t perfect but it’s better than what we had before – No no, this is not better. Before we did not have genocide, we did not have a full-blown war against the Kachin. We did not have thousands of Burmese people displaced by mega-development projects. Now you have Burmese dissidents who enjoy support. The public in Burma knew who to side with. That’s why all the backers against me came from the perception that I had crossed the line, was holding the generals’ hands. That’s a hand that you must not touch with a long hand. They are not speaking truth to power.

They provided a cover for everyone. They have all adopted the language of sovereignty and national security. They adopted these legal concepts of human rights, freedom, etc. Even recently Suu Kyi said, it’s up to the Burmese people and up to the Burmese State to grant whether the Rohingya are citizens or not. That’s the language of non-interference. That’s the language of state sovereignty. There is nothing humanistic or compassionate about it. It’s like look, we throw up a line and say don’t say anything about the Rohingya and whether we should grant citizenship to them or not. It’s our business. That’s no different from the generals in the past saying, these are our internal affairs, so stay out. The ‘88 Generation leaders like Ko Ko Gyi said we have to match these national security threats and concerns with human rights and humanitarian concerns – well that is if you think that human rights and humanitarian concerns are conditional, and to me human rights are non-negotiable, whether you’re a gay, or a cripple or a bisexual, so that is actually why I think morally the new scenario that is emerging is mixed. On the one hand there is a space where people can fight back, on the other hand structurally there are those against the people. It is harder to find allies and harder to know who are your enemies.

PRAXIS: It seems there might also be a generation gap between those who were present for 1988, and those born after 1990 who only know Myanmar, who don’t know Burma, and pin all their aspirations on Aung San Suu Kyi. How do you see that tension moving forward?

Zarni: The younger generation’s not stupid. The ones inside the country they are more critical, those who are in a position to contribute. They know that they can’t solely rely on Aung San Suu Kyi anymore. No Burmese is going directly to her with the exception of cronies and generals for blessings. The interesting thing is that in the past a human rights dissident and Burmese intellectuals would approach her to seek her advice and blessings. And now, the cronies are approaching her, the generals are approaching her, while we are abstaining from her.

The whole notion and idea of leadership becomes much more amorphous and much more horizontal. The only problem is that the intellectual capacity of community organizations, leaders, is very, very low. It’s not their fault. They’re like third-degree products of the system. They are products of a system that doesn’t want people to think. That’s why it’s extremely challenging. There are so many different transitions, but this transition is going to be the most excruciatingly difficult. We have a problem both with the regime and with the people. So who’s going to lead the transition. In some places people are good, and they can take over, or they can run things. But in most situations I would be worried if NLD takes over the government today. I’m extremely angry that the generals are still ruling the country after 50 years. I wouldn’t be angry if NLD takes over, I would be worried if NLD takes over. It’s been hollowed out. Who are Suu Kyi’s advisors? She doesn’t want any talented Burmese to be around her because talented Burmese are ambitious and have self-interest. That’s why on Rohingya and Kachin issues she isn’t taking any purist position. She’s taking calculated positions.

On the question of surrounding herself with talented Burmese she does take a purist position. She says all you have self-interest, you’re all young ambitious people, and I don’t want you around me. She wants good people around her, but not telling her what to do. Good people can be trained to talk. If we want a change for the people, I’ve come full-circle now. I started out as a grass-roots guy saying that we don’t need to work with the elite and speak their language and hold their hands.

PRAXIS: If you were to chose one area to support in Myanmar that would breed the most positive change for the country and its people, what would you focus on?

Zarni: The change in Burma today is a product, almost of strictly a pact between the elites and Western strategic interests in Washington, the European Union, and the corporate interests that they represent, and Aung San Suu Kyi and her own parties intersts and the ruling military’s interests. All these changes happened, or would not have happened, without this sustained push for change from the ground up, like the Arab Spring. We can’t name a single Arab leader who is Mandela like, or Suu Kyi like, or Ghandi like, but you can’t deny the fact that the Arabs on the street have been able to put popular pressure on regimes. Even against the house of Saud. What’s really clear is that when elites make pacts, usually they sell the people’s interests down the river. So if you really want change your number one focus will have to be the people.  You have to find ways to educate people, to move people, to spread radical ideas. Without the people being involved in any change process it’s just elite power deals. So there are two processes going on, one is the elite pact and the elite deals that is portrayed as the opening up of Burma with commercial and strategic interests, and then you have ethnic and religious minorities fighting back for their survival. They are fighting out of liberal principles, 99% of these people don’t know what the word liberal means, but they fight back. When your land is taken away, the next thing you know you don’t have any plot of land to grow rice or vegetables or for your chickens to go, so this isn’t over. This is never over.

PRAXIS would like to thank Maung Zarni for his insights into the complex political, social and economic situation in Myanmar today. 

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