Picture borrowed from Statelessrohingya (cc)
by Ole Chavannes, 15 juni 2013
“I don’t like Muslims. There are too many”, states an old activist and video journalist. He was in prison for 15 years, simply for doing his job. He smiles at me with angry eyes: “This is a Buddhist country!”. We drink whiskey with ice and discuss politics and democracy in the new Burma. Maybe for a bit too long already. So I reply: “Shouldn’t the majority protect the minority in a true democracy?”. He looks surprised, as if he hears it for the first time.
Burma is struggling with its minorities for decades. The state army fights rebel groups in the East, North and West. Wars, in the name of religion or ethnicity, actually about land, money and power. The main challenge for the current president is not even boosting economic reforms and democracy, but to reach peace agreements. He wants to be known as a peacemaker, before the next elections in 2015.
Internationally Burma faces a lot of criticism on the way the Rohingya are being treated. This small ethnic group (about 800.000) in the West, at the border with Bangladesh, has been attacked by wild gangs, slaughtering dozens of people, even mothers and children.
Extreme Buddhists are believed to be behind the brutal violence. Human Rights Watch is warning the ethnic hatred could lead to ‘a second Rwanda’.
I asked many Burmese in the last weeks to explain the Rohingya issue. The answer is always the same: “It is very complicated”. There are religious reasons (they are Muslims, like 3% of the nations population, while over 80% is Buddhist), social-economical reasons (they have a higher birth-rate than the Burmese average) and geo-political reasons (Rohingya also live in Bangladesh where they’re also a minority).
What explains the ‘complexity’ best though, in my humble opinion, is the history. The British colonial rulers used mostly Rohingya to suppress Burma: they got key-positions from the British. A classic trick by colonial powers to divide and rule. Just like the Dutch did with the Maluku in the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia), giving this Christian minority most positions in the colonial army.
The discrimination is even formalized by a law in 1982, that effectively denies Burmese citizenship to most Rohingya. Too many other Burmese see the Rohingya still as ‘traitors’ and (secretly) wish they simply cross the border to Bangladesh (although most of them have been living and working in Burma for many generations).
It seems that with the new freedoms, old frustrations are set free too. The same happened in Indonesia soon after dictator Suharto stepped down in 1997: a bloody war started on the Maluku islands, with lots of Jihadists from Java involved, fighting the Christians. It lasted for 3 years, with lots of victims and no victors. Since 2002, it has been relatively peaceful there. It took Indonesia about a decade to become a true democracy.
by Ole Chavannes, 08 juni 2013
Cheap, clean + wifi. Finding such a place isn’t easy in booming Burma. “This three bedroom apartment is 6000$ a month, but it comes with a view on the Shwedagon Pagoda”, tells a slick housing agent with a golden smile. That was our first attempt to rent 2,5 weeks ago. What’s going on?
Foreign investments have grown fivefold compared to a year ago. Due to the new pro-democracy politics, international economic sanctions have been lifted and thus the money pours in. Coca-Cola opened it’s first Burmese plant this week for exampe (listen tip: ‘How to sell Coke to people who have never had a sip’ by NPR).
With these investments, many expats move in and the house prizes skyrocket. A foreign teacher writes on this blog: “Rentals for a 3 bedroomed house have gone up from $600 three years ago (..), to a $1000 now and next year it will be $2,500.”
Well, that is still way better than $6000. We ask around. Actually everybody we meet that seems a bit nice, we tell about our hunt. Many Yangonese promise us to help and assure us it is easy to find an affordable place soon, since they have so many contacts. That is very nice, but things turn out to go a bit slow here.
Last week we find our place, just by searching online all the time. A three bedroom apartment on top of a hill (not a luxury during the rainy season that just started) in an old building with mostly Burmese families, no rich expats. It has ugly carpet and no elevator, but it is clean and cheap ($640 a month). One more 'cultural difference' pops up: we have to pay the 6 month rent in advance at once in cash. No ATM will give us that, but my employer promises to arrange that. If that works out, we'll move in this Monday.
...and the best thing is: it has this incredible view on the Shwedagon!
Typical 'phone table' shop on the sidewalk in Yangon
by Ole Chavannes, 01 juni 2013
One of the first remarkable things to notice, when walking the streets of Yangon, are the ‘phone tables’ on the sidewalk. Every couple of meters, landline phones (for the young reader: really clumsy mobiles with a wire attached to it) on wobbly tables are effectively used as phone booths (young reader, here an image). Why?
We just moved here, to live and work for half a year. So a phone is required for the job and to stay in touch with home. In most countries in Asia we visited, mobiles are everywhere and SIM cards dirt cheap (less than $10). But not in one of the poorest nations in Asia: less than 3% of the Burmese has access to a mobile phone.
It is not only poverty. For a long time the military regime was totally fine with the people hardly being able to communicate. Sharing information with each other about soldiers attacking minorities for example. The first mobile services made available in 2001, costed over an incredible $5000 to set it up.
Last week I’ve been asking around in dozens of phone shops for SIM cards, but none could sell me one. Finally, yesterday a Burmese colleague got me one on the black market for $70. The only thing is: I can only call numbers in Burma and even than, half of the time it won’t connect.
Since two years the government is promoting reform, towards a more democratic and open Burma. Affordable communication is part of that plan. Last month the ministry of Information announced to allow international telecoms to bid on two new mobile licenses.
That is great news for those companies, that can enter such a big uncultivated market (population: 55 million), great news for the Burmese, who will finally be able to make a clear mobile call for a normal price and great news for the government, that will make lots of money selling those licenses. It seems only bad news for all those who now run a ‘phone table’ business.
For the next 6 months, I'll write a 'Burma Impression' like this every week. Stay tuned!