Ladies and Generals in Burma and Thailand: Forward and Backward Progress in Human Rights

In 1988, after three further decades of isolation, repression, and simmering civil conflict had turned Burma into an economic basket case, unrest became protest which became a defiance that demanded change after the resignation of the brutal and peculiar dictator Ne Win in late July.

At independence in 1949, Burma’s fortunes seemed the brightest in the region. With a full slate of buildings old and new, good transport infrastructure, very high levels of literacy and education at-large, a well-trained civil service, a prolific publishing industry, and agricultural potential that had it set a 1934 world record for rice exports that stood for many decades, Burma was a showcase of geographic and cultural diversity. To be sure, deep tensions brewing with many ethnic nationalities who feared Burman domination, with the Karen already prepared for open rebellion before the British departure. But after the tumult of displacement and distress caused by World War II, eyes were on Burma at independence with the expectation that it would resolve internal tensions and go on to regional and global greatness. Alas, after founding the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) and being the most well-known hero of independence for all the country’s peoples, Bogyoke Aung San, father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated six months before the country was born. A decade later, the country entered its first period of military rule in 1958 and stayed there until 2010 except for one two-year return to civilian rule.

In 1988, after three further decades of isolation, repression, and simmering civil conflict had turned Burma into an economic basket case, unrest became protest which became a defiance that demanded change after the resignation of the brutal and peculiar dictator Ne Win in late July. Protests continued to grow larger and larger, growing from a student base to include all sections of society and getting more and more organized and clustering in huge numbers with the approach of 8888.. In September of that year, the Tatmadaw responded with unrestrained fury with the slaughter of thousands of its own citizens. In the aftermath, the new junta decided to call itself by the oddly Orwellian name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. In the spring of 1989, the regime announced that they would permit multiparty elections in 1990. Aung San’s daughter, the remarkably charismatic Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to overwhelming victory. The SLORC promptly refused to recognize the results and The Lady spent fifteen of the next twenty years under house arrest, unable to have visitors, information, or even to communicate with the world without the junta’s approval.

I went to Burma in 1999 and visited Aung San Suu Kyi at the NLD headquarters in Rangoon during a trip to produce a concert in Bangkok for 9/9/99 to raise awareness about Burma. This was before I co-founded the US Campaign for Burma and was one of the reasons I have ended up so attached to the country. I visited Mae La, a sprawling and enormous refugee camp near Mae Sot, Thailand that holds around fifty thousand Burmese who’d fled across the border. I’d read about people who fled terrors inside to cross minefields and free-fire zones while hiding from the Tatmadaw to escape, but seeing and speaking with them was something else entirely. I met refugees from camp leaders to small children and listened to stories shared of struggles for healthcare, food, shelter, and education in the camp. I listened to them debate solutions to Burma’s conflicts and deficits of all kinds. Living in thatched bamboo huts and confined to camps in the tropical seasonal cycles of scorching heat, drenching monsoon, and the year-round threat of cross-border attacks by the Tatmadaw, the refugees still found it preferable to the level of fear living under the Burmese regime.

Comparing Burma and Thailand was a stark contrast. Inside Burma, the regime’s rules could be dependent on the whim of individual military officers and whether or not they were in a nasty mood that day, but some laws seemed to indicate that there was nastiness for civilians every day . They banned freedom of speech with media censorship, denied freedom of association with bans on even small gatherings, shut off education by closing virtually all universities for years, attacked and defamed ethnic and religious differences, used forced labor for the regime and its cronies, and committed horrific human rights abuses including the use of rape as a weapon of war and forcibly recruited child soldiers. For what? The rulers in the junta held power over a country that was slowly rotting with the failure of its most basic infrastructure and had utterly abandoned the vast majority of its people. The Burmese regime seemed to fail at moving forward, but in total denial of even the present. Rangoon isolation by both choice and sanction used to mean seeing a lot of old cars from the 1950s everywhere and very few more modern ones, but it also meant grappling with frequent power cuts or longer outages, watching most of the city shut down a bit after sunset, and having military curfews. The impression was that virtually every single thing in the country was somewhere in the process of failing or fading away.

In contrast, Thailand had a breakneck economic pace that seemed to sprout new building every morning, spawned new nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) constantly, and the country’s diverse peoples and regions seemed largely harmonious diversity. Thailand had a spirited free media that saw loud and daily debates, education and healthcare sectors that were the region’s envy, and seemed to be continually investing in itself. The region’s only country to avoid colonization by the West, Thailand still had hurdles to jump, but it was working on things openly, and the whole country was in conversation about moving forward. The Kingdom of Thailand had been the country that dissidents and refugees ran to when fleeing not only Burma, but Laos and Cambodia as well, and it had been that way for decades. Thailand seemed to be racing ahead and quickly leaving behind its own shadowy past and focusing on a future that would keep the military in the barracks, the press free, and human rights and civil liberties protected for all. The capital was already a 24hr city with lights, sounds, sights and smells both modern and traditional and walking a few blocks made you feel time past and future joining for the present.

Another decade into the present and the picture has changed in both countries. Burma’s regime called elections and again proceeded to actually hold them. The NLD chose to boycott the 2010 polls since Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t to be released until afterwards and to protest the flawed constitution and its pointed requirement to disallow her ability to run for the presidency. However, the party did contest forty four seats in the 2012 by-elections and ended up one shy of a full sweep, and that included a win for new MP Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Many political prisoners were released; censorship laws were relaxed or repealed; and the government shifted from openly military to at least nominally civilian. Western governments began to remove or suspend sanctions, allowing a flood of foreign investment to enter. Foreign journalists, many who had never been permitted to enter openly as journalists or who ended up banned from visiting, began to visit openly and people were unbanned. There was real hope that Burma was making at least some incremental reforms, though events look less convincing than they did a couple of years ago.

Severe problems need to be addressed if the reforms are to continue to merit belief in them as more than a public relations exercise, including the returning and increasing harassment of journalists, the 25 percent of parliament seats guaranteed for the military, the unreleased political prisoners, the complete failure of health/education systems for citizens, and — most disturbing — the oppression of minority religions and nationalities, including the Rohingya, who are pursued with a fervor and extremism that points at genocidal intent. It is not enough to say there is concern over the “roadmap to democracy.” Without real and continuing steps towards resolving problems and the will to stay the course for human rights and civil liberties, the country will become darker than ever. It is not enough to take half-measures for political freedom or for anything less than the full embrace of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Transitions are difficult, and transplanting a rights culture to grow and live in a land long rife with oppression isn’t easy or instant. It will take effort, actions, and time to become resilient and durable.

Now witness Thailand in 2014. Burma currently has a government that is at least nominally civilian and there are opposition parties at least present in parliament. Thailand had such things too, but has been governed by a military junta since a May coup dismissed the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Surreal to ponder, Burmese journalists have written to express concern over the Thai junta’s treatment of journalists and called for press freedom to be restored. This is a different Thailand. Gatherings of more than four people are forbidden. An unknown number of academics, activists, journalists, and other citizens have been “invited” to report to the junta and have been taken to undisclosed locations. Virtually every day there is another call to display patriotism in particular ways and to not dissent or protest the coup publicly, with consequences for dissent ranging from being asked to stop criticism to being disappeared. Elections will not be called for “at least” a year. While the coup leaders claim to be neutral between the two primary factions in Thai politics, there is widespread belief that the hammer is falling much harder on Red Shirts, from poorer North and Northeast. The recipe being followed is unfamiliar, but it will not be human rights-flavored. After a dozen coups in modern Thai history, where each military leader claimed it as the last but that troops were needed this one final time to rescue the Thai future, this coup isn’t demoting the impression people have of the nation’s commitment to human rights. It has devastated it. Thailand had made considered and long-debated changes to its political system, including a new constitution, after the horrors of Black May in 1992. Civil society had grown tremendously since and the world found Thailand as a model for political transition to democracy. But without changes at all levels of society, and with a restive military always standing too-ready to step in to rule after pushing civilians out, those changes were not enough to hold back a coup in 2006 and then again, with greater restrictions on civil liberties and freedoms, this year.

What will it take to change these trajectories, and not just for now but for good? How can human rights begin to really succeed in Burma or to return to stay in Thailand? The world must hold the line of the UDHR, that human rights are not subject to government approval or the absurdities once put on by Malaysia’s Mahathir. Human rights are universal. We must support human rights after Indonesia’s elections tomorrow, no matter the result. We must press Laos to help locate Sombath Somphone and to return him to safety. We must press Cambodia to move forward with real reconciliation and transitional justice for the Khmer Rouge to stand accountable for their crimes and to cease allowing them. We must refuse complicity in Brunei’s proposal to use stoning for capital punishment. These would be but beginnings in addressing the rights of the peoples in the region, but we must not delay any longer. The hopes for Burma are falling and the once-presumed progress of Thailand has shown itself to be built on sand. There is a growing call to evaluate Burma now and not two years ago and reconsider sanctions and more direct pressure instead of merely rewarding and encouraging. There have been some very strong calls to action on the question of responding to the coup in Thailand, and things there have only gotten (considerably) worse while the American response has been tepid.

Ask your Representatives and Senators to support human rights as a foundation of relations with ASEAN nations and globally (see for help). Contact the embassies of the countries you are concerned about to ask them to remember the UDHR and their obligation to protect the full range of articles it contains and those it implies. This is not about Burma and Thailand, but of the global responsibility to defend human rights everywhere and to stay vigilant. Burma and Thailand’s behaviors might shock Americans, but recall that many are shocked by America’s behaviors. The rebranding of torture as “enhanced interrogation,” the despicable practice of rendition, the unprecedented surveillance of people inside and outside the country, and the apparent drive to use drone for extrajudicial killing of citizens and other designated enemies would be ways to begin the long list of what is shocking.

The need to defend rights everywhere should persuade you to act today. Demand human rights for all the peoples of Burma, of Thailand, of ASEAN, of the United States, of the world. Universal human rights are just that, they belong to all the planet’s people and governments should stop pretending that it is in their authority to create exceptions to them. Human rights are not an add-on, or something to do after every other problem is solved; they are the ground from which to grow and measure our treatment of each other and our own selves.