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Migrant worker from Myanmar (Photo: Atti-la / Flickr)

EDITORIAL— Migration is one of humanity’s oldest impulses. The first hunter-gatherers left Africa in the dim recesses of time for reasons we can only guess at but probably had to do with improving their lives. Entire modern nations, such as the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have been built upon successive waves of migration. As in the past, the chance for better lives—whether through a well-founded fear of persecution or a desire to improve one’s economic circumstances—fuels most migration today.

Not all migrants move permanently and not all stories have ended well. Though not well-known, many immigrants to the US during the peak 1880-1920 years did return to their home countries. And migrants, even when they have relocated legally, have been vulnerable to all manner of exploitation. Yet, the perceived benefits outweigh the downsides. How many migrants are there in the world today? A lot, says the International Organization for Migration, which estimates the total at 214 million, or one in every 33 persons alive today.

Myanmar nationals in their millions in recent decades have voted with their feet and moved to neighboring countries or further afield. For many years the country was under military or quasi-military rule, severely economic-mismanaged, and there were few jobs to be had. The choice for many boiled down to stay and starve or leave and get by.

Myanmars have worked in factories, on ships, on farms, as domestic employees and in many other occupations. A case can be made that a significant portion of the economic prosperity achieved in some countries, especially Thailand, has come about as a result of the hard work done by the huge migrant population there, toiling away long hours.

There is something of a shared national experience here linking even the lowliest, most downtrodden day laborer with the likes of Zaw Zaw, one of the country’s wealthiest and most important businessmen. Both are or have been migrants.

Recently though, the negative aspects have come to dominate the news cycle when it come to Myanmar migrants. Twelve Myanmar were found dead floating in the sea near Ranong. They were believed to be migrants seeking work in Thailand and their boat probably capsized.

In Malaysia, which hosts 400,000 Myanmar migrants, one was killed and two others injured when they attacked by a gang or several gangs of youths in Kuala Lumpur. Others, fearing more attacks, have taken sanctuary in a monastery in that city. This provoked concern in Naypyitaw and the Malaysian ambassador to Myanmar was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and asked for a guarantee such attacks would not recur.

There have been many more such incidents over the years. Myanmar’s migrants have faced job insecurity, difficult and sometimes dangerous working conditions and the shifting regulatory frameworks adopted by host countries.

There are reasons to be more optimistic, though. As Myanmar’s own economy improves, fewer people may want to brave the stormy seas and border crossings in search of better livelihoods. Nations currently benefitting from the cheap labor migrants provide may come to recognize it will no longer do to offer extremely low wages and bad conditions if they want to keep the factories humming. And, as ASEAN moves towards its 2015 goal of having an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), certain groups of workers will benefit from freer mobility. There are already calls to expand free labor mobility and migrant protection beyond what is now envisioned with the AEC.

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EDITORIAL—Myanmar has come a long way in a short time. Just a few years ago it was a pariah nation and a failed state. Today we see multinational companies lining up to bid for tenders while the country’s few hotels are bursting at the seams with foreign tourists.

The name of our capital, Naypyitaw, is almost unknown around the world. However, this city built so recently from dust by the former military junta will next week find itself in the spotlight of international media for the first time when it hosts the World Economic Forum. The WEF will stand as the artificial city’s first test ahead of the Southeast Asian Games in December and, the following year, the city will host an array of conferences and summits as Myanmar takes the chair of ASEAN for the first time.

Of the three international events, the SEA Games will prove the largest logistical headache. Naypyitaw is not exactly comparable to London, Tokyo or Paris with regard to excitement. It is a soulless, barren shell of a city, devoid of historical interest, culture, tourist sites, nightlife and nature.

When international economists, diplomats and journalists fly in this week, it will take more than a Welcome to Naypyitaw banner at the airport and an avenue of freshly pruned rosebushes to impress them. Many will expect to go for a walk in a park, take photos of ancient monuments; journos will ask the concierge for directions to the best wine bar in town or a recommended restaurant for fusion cuisine.

Many cities and countries have come undone hosting international events. Colombia suffered the indignity of cancelling the World Cup in 1986 when rebels brought the government to its knees; Montreal had to postpone the opening of the Olympic Games in 1976 after construction workers at the Olympic stadium went on strike. In short, if anything can go wrong, it will.

In saying that, the British Olympic Association announced last Thursday that they had made a profit of £30 million from hosting the games last summer. And that does not include the money that locals made from tourism. Nowadays these events can serve not only as a good excuse to decorate the streets and build infrastructure, but they pay for themselves in TV rights and advertising.

The WEF will be an early warning signal to the authorities that much has yet to be done, not only in terms of infrastructure, but in presenting Naypyitaw to the outside world.

We can rely on our citizens to provide that special Burmese hospitality and a warm welcoming smile to all visitors. But we must also allow them opportunities to provide hotels, transport, entertainment and dining options.

Let’s finally make Naypyitaw a capital we can be proud of!

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A blazing scene from Tuesday's communal violence in Lashio, Shan State. Photo: Ye Htut / Facebook
EDITORIAL—Fundamental rights that everyone should enjoy include freedom of belief and freedom of worship. In so saying, one must therefore respect another’s religion.

What we witness in Lashio in recent days is mob violence. The looting and destruction of mosques was an attack on a particular component of society.

The ability to live in a peaceful and safe society is also a basic right, and is a fundamental necessity of a nation state. Furthermore, a country's economic growth rests mainly on peace, stability and the entitlement of its citizen’s basic rights. While Myanmar has been transforming into a democratic society, the international community watches closely. Many countries have expressed their concerns on the recent outbreak of religious violence in the country. It is key for Myanmar to create a safe and stable environment to attract foreign investors, which will in turn produce economic development.

A civilized society will not accept 'mob violence'. It is obvious there is some link between the recent violence in Lashio and other racial/religious riots in other parts of the country. We observe a pattern of similarities: the outbreak, the spread, the hatred and the destruction.

These violent acts are committed in the presence of security forces. Weapon-wielding mobs and motorcycle-riding gangs have blatantly committed crimes in front of the eyes of law enforcement officials. The state government bears the major responsibility for the horrific violence.

Every citizen has a responsibility to stand tough against such violence and to take action to prevent it. Saying that it does not affect us is not an excuse. For in the future we do not know if a similar fate awaits us as it goes round in cycles.

This is critical time for Myanmar citizens to demand their human rights, particularly those of an ethnic or religious minority. Law enforcement officials must act efficiently to reveal the instigators, the subversive elements behind the events. And we must be tough on them and prosecute them within the terms of the law.
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EDITORIAL—US President Barack Obama’s keenness to embrace Myanmar has less to do with cuddling democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and more to do with money, natural resources and the dragon that lurks on the country’s northern border. The landmark official visit by President Thein Sein last week to Washington to shake hands with the American leader and discuss developments in Myanmar is yet another sign that the embrace is getting tighter.  But there is more to America’s new love affair than meets the eye.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visibly in rapture when she met Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The meeting was the first step in a rekindling of the US-Myanmar relationship. Photo: Mizzima
 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visibly in rapture when she met Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The meeting was the first step in a rekindling of the US-Myanmar relationship. Photo: Mizzima
Leave aside the fact that Obama slipped up at last week’s White House press conference over the name of the Myanmar president, calling him “President Sein,” and again mispronounced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s name. The US president’s sloppiness is cover for the fact that Washington is taking its engagement with the Golden Land very seriously, a country viewed as a crucial piece of Obama’s foreign policy “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region.

On the face of it, Washington stresses support for democratic reform, human rights, improving the economy, and paving the way for American companies to do business in the country. But, largely behind the scenes, America is pursuing a China containment strategy, aware of that country’s growing military and economic clout. Few America policymakers and think-tank experts take China’s self described strategy of “Peaceful Rise” at full face value.

China sits center-stage in US-Myanmar relations, despite Washington’s denials. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out of her way to stress the US is not opposing China, noting, “... we are not viewing this in light of any competition with China.” This is mere diplomatic obfuscation – a veneer of politeness to thinly hide the 21st century’s replaying of the Great Game, albeit on slightly different turf.

As far as Washington is concerned, Myanmar is a brick in the wall around China’s western, southern and eastern flank. As Jurgen Haacke says in an analysis entitled, “Myanmar: Now a Site for Sino-US Geopolitical Competition?” the United States has for some time generally welcomed China’s growing stature and weight. “However, Washington has also been concerned about China’s growing military capabilities and it has sought to influence China’s foreign policy choices by shaping the latter’s regional environment, not least by revitalizing relations with alliance partners and friendly states.”

What that means for US ties with Myanmar is a tighter engagement on a political and military level, with an increase in military cooperation and training between US forces and the Tatmadaw. This follows a pattern of play seen in such countries as Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, where joint-force military games are held.

Pivoting towards Asia has seen a revitalization of Washington’s relationships in Asia and particularly Southeast Asia. This includes enhanced naval capacity in the region, two thousand marines in Australia and an increased positive involvement with ASEAN nations.

Beijing has at been at pains to limit overt sabre-rattling; however increasingly vehement disputes with fellow Asian nations over numerous small atolls and islands suggest a clear policy of force projection that unsettles other countries in the region. In recent weeks, China’s official newspaper, The People’s Daily, has raised the ante in voicing suggestions that Japan’s Ryukyu Island chain, which includes Okinawa, might well be subject to a renewed Chinese claim of sovereignty.

Thus, Washington fears China’s rise may not be peaceful, and has also been concerned that some of the economic and trade balance problems it has with China are due to the deliberately managed undervaluation of the yuan. The Middle Kingdom has increasingly been troubled by the sense that the US is interfering in the issues of human rights, Taiwan, the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the South China Sea, which it sees as either hypocritical – over human rights – or a sovereign challenge, as with the others.

What this means is that geopolitical competition over Myanmar between China and the United States will increase. Expect to see more officials from Beijing and Washington currying favor in the halls of power in Naypyitaw.

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EDITORIAL—As Myanmar government and Kachin leaders sit down for talks in Myitkyina, hope will be high that progress toward peace will be realized as part of the central government’s continued efforts of reform. Yet, critical voices as to the process are by no means difficult to find. Are we then foolish to hope for a breakthrough this week to one of the country’s most intractable conflicts?

KIA front lines
KIA front lines
In some ways the answer lies in how one defines peace. If it is thought of simply as the absence of hostility between competing armed forces, then there is reason for cautious hope. However, if peace is thought of as more complex—as encompassing basic human rights and security for the entire population—then our reason for hope is diminished.

The government, or China if some reports are to be believed, declined to invite any international observers beyond the United Nations. This was in opposition to Kachin requests for delegations from the United States and United Kingdom to be present. However, it is an omission that makes sense.

Since the 2010 release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the government has been largely successful in delinking—at least officially—the country’s primary democratic opposition from wide ranging ethnic demands. As such, instead of the once envisioned tripartite dialogue incorporating the government, democratic opposition and ethnic interests, we are now witnessing a series of bilateral engagements featuring the government and individual ethnic parties.

This phenomenon, combined with the rapidly growing acceptance of the Naypyitaw government around the world, strengthens the hand of government negotiators—as it becomes more difficult for Kachin and other ethnic leaders to gain substantive international attention and support. And over time, if the current trajectory continues, the scale will tip ever further to the advantage of the central government.

Projected topics up for discussion and possible action also speak to the deferment of any comprehensive agreement. Issues such as force deployments and the convening of political meetings will be well received as part of the country’s ongoing reforms, much as earlier ceasefire arrangements with entities such as the Chin National Front. However, such ceasefire arrangements, while providing hope for a near-term cessation to hot war—no small feat in the context of Myanmar—also defer the most difficult issues. And there is no guarantee how such issues will eventually be resolved.

Nevertheless, an agreement by both sides to hold the first ever Kachin peace talks inside Myanmar is a welcomed achievement. Given history, any hope for trust to grow between competing leaderships—absolutely necessary if any long-term peaceful solution is someday to be realized—must begin from such modest beginnings.

And while a more diverse international presence at future peace talks may be realized, the realization of peace, for both the armies and populations involved, both starts and ends with the people of Myanmar.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the Thilawa Special Economic Zone on May 25, 2013, a day after Myanmar and Japanese firms signed a memorandum of understanding to develop the project. Abe also wrote off the ramainder of Myanmar's debt and offered fresh loans to the country. Photo: Hein Htet / Mizzima
EDITORIAL—Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has concluded a three-day visit to Myanmar during which time he visited the Thilawa port his country is helping to finance, met with President Thein Sein and senior ministers in Naypyitaw, and pledged maximum support for the Myanmar government’s economic reforms.

Though many foreign leaders have come and gone, and such visits—since US President Barack Obama arrived in November last year—command fewer column inches in the domestic press, this one is nonetheless very important.

Japan’s ties with Myanmar are longstanding and have usually been close and have existed on different levels. While the war experience in the 1940s devastated the then British colony, there were those in the independence movement who recognized and benefited from Japan’s help in loosening the bonds of colonial rule.

Japanese of an older generation have long had a special place in their hearts for the country. Biruma no tategoto (The Burmese Harp) was a huge success, first as a book and then a 1956 movie. Despite its war theme, it displayed the inherent beauty and timeless rhythms of the Myanmar countryside. In the end, the main character—a Japanese soldier—becomes a monk and stays in Myanmar. Filmgoers often left the cinemas with tears in their eyes.

More important than any psychological connection has been Japan’s continuing role in supporting the Myanmar economy. In the 1980s, it was Myanmar’s number one source of FDI. Even in the subsequent decades, when many nations in the West considered Myanmar a pariah state, Japan always seemed reluctant to join in both the verbal and economic methods of showing disapproval exercised by many Western nations. It preferred constructive engagement—a soft word here and there—rather than loud hectoring.

In the last few years Japan and Japanese entities have moved smartly to both support and take advantage of the reform process in Myanmar. Last year, Japan agreed to forgive a huge amount of the debt Myanmar had accrued. Tokyo has already started with development projects—focused on helping people and communities—and many more are in the works. Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself once lived and studied in Kyoto, has both welcomed Japanese investment and called for more.

Japanese firms, depending on their circumstances, have come in to invest, to take a look, or expand what business arrangements they already have. There’s everything from small-scale investors teaming up with domestic garment manufacturers to giants of the Japanese business firmament. Prime Minister Abe is bringing 30 top business executives with him to Naypyitaw as part of his efforts to expand trade.

With all such top-level visits there are sub-texts, not often voiced upon at length in the media. These are indeed interesting times for Japan. Abenomics is the word used to describe the Japanese PM’s huge stimulus package—an attempt to shock the world’s third largest economy out of a decades-long pattern of stagnation. It’s too early to tell what the final effect will be, but the early signs are showing increased business confidence. More confidence means more willingness to look at investments at home and abroad.

Tokyo is also, given the potentially dangerous islands dispute with China, not unaware of the political dimensions in engaging closer with Myanmar, and wean it off any imbalanced dependence upon China. This is something that retired Japanese diplomats have certainly expressed in private and something Tokyo has long pressed the United States to do.

Thus, this visit by Prime Minister Abe was timely—it will boost confidence at home and trade benefits for both countries. It will also enhance Abe’s economic goals. For Myanmar, it is another “feather in its cap” on the fast track to economic growth.

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