Burma conservatives overthrow reform rivals in military party

Here at Arsenal For Democracy, beyond my general interest in government transitions, we’ve recently been keeping an eye on the rickety Burmese political transition to democracy ➚, on the not-so-off-chance ➚ that the Myanmar military would eventually decided to overthrow its own party and scrap the transition (or water it down ➚ to pointlessness). Some version of that appears to have begun this week. At the very least, an internal coup of some kind occurred, with coercive shakeups in the ruling party and cabinet.

It’s still unclear whether the active-duty military brass or rival ex-military politicians ordered the action by security forces, but the military-aligned USD Party found its top leaders removed from party positions at gunpoint on Wednesday:

Sources within the headquarters of the USDP – which is effectively a political extension of the military – said Shwe Mann, party chairman and speaker of the parliament, had been deposed and was under police guard.
“Police entered the party compound last night. Since then no one was allowed in or out,” Toe Naing Mann, Shwe Mann’s son, told Agence France-Presse. “So-called guards” were also outside his father’s residence in the capital, Naypyidaw, he said.

Several trucks of soldiers and police officers arrived at the compound at about 10pm on Wednesday, sources said. “We have not been allowed to move around since late yesterday,” said one party member.

The USDP general secretary, Maung Maung Thein, was also forced from his post. “They called me and told me I don’t need to come to the office anymore,” he told Reuters.
Christian Lewis, a political risk analyst for Eurasia Group, said a faction in the party loyal to [President] Thein Sein appeared to have finally moved decisively against Shwe Mann after a long-running power struggle.
“I think primarily that is the ruling party’s internal affair, but the internal struggle of the ruling party can threaten the democratisation process of [Burma],” [local political commentator Yan Myo Thein] said. “Because of the power struggle and incidents inside the ruling party, the upcoming general election can be postponed. If the election is postponed the process of democratisation in Myanmar will be delayed.”

The ruling party issued a statement saying that the removal was strictly limited to party postings (such as the chairmanship and general secretariat) and nobody had been deposed from governmental offices — which seems like a delicate way of splitting hairs to apply a veneer of legality to what is essentially a low-key coup by party conservatives. (One partisan claimed that 200 security people were on site when the party held a meeting on the firings.) The USDP did not clarify why its politicians had been fired from the party leadership.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut did offer this veiled commentary to Voice of America:

“Any party will have to go about changes when its leadership deviates from the party’s policies, ignores the party members’ will, prioritizes personal profit over the country’s interests and creates factionalism within the party.”

One interesting angle is that Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann (one of the people removed from his party post in this week’s purge by soldiers and police) had — in the eyes of conservative military brass and ex-military figures — reportedly become too politically close with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the official parliamentary opposition since 2012 (and a longtime, globally-recognized pro-democracy activist). New York Times:

Mr. Shwe Mann, like many politicians in Myanmar today, is a complex and somewhat compromised figure. As a leading member of the former junta, he was complicit in the persecution and economic mismanagement that left millions in poverty and kept thousands in prison for their political beliefs.

But as speaker, he sought to bolster the power of Parliament and pushed legislation opposed by the military that would have decentralized the country’s hierarchical administration, a legacy of military rule. His partnership with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was tenuous, but some saw hope for a grand bargain between the military and democratic forces.

The candidacy filing deadline for the key November elections is today, and Speaker Shwe Mann may struggle to gain ballot access without his party role. The question I posed in January, when it made my list of 15 elections to watch in 2015, remains:

Burma: Is the country really transitioning to democracy or is the transition all a façade by the new military-derived leaders to end the country’s devastating isolation?


Without words for concepts, do they still exist?

burma-mapI’m always fascinated by the way language and available terminology shapes our worldview — literally causing us to view the world fundamentally differently from our fellow people if they grew up with a very different language. In international politics, these differences crop up from time to time in the news.

In recent years, after many decades of broad cultural-political integration, the differences and resulting gaps in mutual understanding have generally become smaller, even borderline mere curiosities.

Examples: German using the same word for debt and guilt. Or, the Greek translation for the Wikipedia page for “Roman Republic” is just “Roman Democracy” because Greek lacks a word for Republic — and Greek government documents can’t use the word “republic” except when translated. Or, ISIS terrorists bitterly disputing the translations of its own various and oft-changed names, and the global media struggling to choose one.

But then there are the truly isolated holdouts, the places that have sealed themselves off from the outside world and kept their language from cross-pollinating.

According to a great new article in the New York Times, the dictatorship of Myanmar — still struggling under new management with a transition into democracy — has been one such place. The consequences of that linguistic-political isolation are now catching up as “Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them”.

The Burmese language doesn’t yet have a native word for democracy, only the borrowed English word with an accented pronunciation. However, it turns out the problem is much larger than one missing word: The country lacks Burmese words for most of the new political and policy concepts of the past four decades (like “computer privacy”)…or even many old concepts like “institution” or “federalism.” The Myanmar military regime attempted to ban even English words for political ideas — and then corrupted the understood meaning of any that remained, such as “rule of law.” An estimated 10-50% of the meaning of any given conversation between Western diplomats and Myanmarese leadership is hopelessly lost in translation.

And it may not just be a failure to understand the literal words. It’s hard to adopt and promote the ideas in a substantive way when the conceptual meaning behind them doesn’t carry over into the worldview-informing culture and language.

This, to my mind, should then pose a much bigger question, affecting many more countries in Asia as well as Africa — and one vastly beyond my pay grade:

Has the West been too quick to fault democratic shortcomings and state failures in post-colonial developing nations as a whole, if we accept that these Western Enlightenment-derived concepts from philosophers and leaders speaking inter-entangled European languages might have to some degree been imposed onto existing cultures with poorly compatible linguistic-cultural frameworks?

Obviously there would still be the usual factors sharing the blame. But it might play a role.

The Burmese political translation challenges now playing out in public should also, once again, raise legitimate questions about the very premise of “universal” values.

Myanmar military will retain “veto” on constitutional reform

Another big stumble for the purported transition to democracy in Burma under the military’s “transitional” leadership.

“Myanmar parliament votes to keep military veto” – BBC News:

MPs in Myanmar vote to keep the army veto over constitutional change, in a blow to Aung San Suu Kyi and hopes for fuller democracy.

This isn’t terribly surprising. I don’t think there was ever any particularly compelling (legitimate) reason for the military to remain in charge during the “transition” to democratic rule. Myanmar was already a failed state, so there wasn’t much downside or risk to making a rapid handoff to independent and technocratic civilians to finish the changeover.

Unless, of course, you were the military and never planned to give up power in the first place because “reforms” were onlya smokescreen meant to end global isolation.

No Myanmar constitution revisions until after 2015 vote

Reuters: “Myanmar won’t amend constitution until after 2015 election: parliament speaker”

A referendum on amending the military-drafted 2008 constitution could be held in May, but no changes would be introduced until after a new parliament was elected, lower house speaker Shwe Mann said.
Suu Kyi’s party compiled a petition with nearly five million signatures in July calling for changes in a constitutional clause that would essentially weaken the military’s legislative powers and allow amendments to be made easier.

Among the controversial clauses is one that bars Suu Kyi from the presidency because her children hold British citizenship, which U.S. President Barack Obama last week said “doesn’t make much sense”.

This development — along with recent speculation that Myanmar’s military may be planning to stage a coup against its own pseudo-civilian transitional government entirely staffed by ex-military officers — makes it difficult to give the transition team the benefit of the doubt and extra time they claim to need.

Thailand’s food-robot army is nearly ready

Pre-coup and post-coup, Thailand’s leadership can agree to remain committed to one thing: Shaming overseas restaurants for insufficiently authentic Thai food. And now their food-tasting (killer?) robot is doing well in testing and may soon be sold to high-end restaurants in southeast Asia and beyond:

The government-financed Thai Delicious Committee, which oversaw the development of the machine, describes it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”

In a country of 67 million people, there are somewhere near the same number of strongly held opinions about Thai cooking. […] But there does seem to be some agreement on one point at least: Bad Thai food is a more acute problem overseas.

Thais, who can establish an immediate bond discussing where they will get their next meal or the merits of particular food stalls, complain that Thai restaurants overseas cater to non-Thai palates by pulling punches on spice and not respecting the delicate balance between sweet, sour, salty and four-alarm spicy.

For designing and building a robot from scratch, the project has a very low price-tag overall and will supposedly be earned back by sales of the robot.

Anyway, the way it works is that it performs a rapid chemical analysis of a food sample, teasing out both the constituent ingredients used and the ratios used, and then it compares it to a database of ingredients and ratios used in a sample “ideal” recipe for that meal — with the ideal as determined by the ratings of a small research study with a hundred or so ordinary Thai people (not food critics).

But I’m pretty sure we all know it’s going to end up chemically analyzing mankind and find us insufficiently spicy to remain alive. And just as Thailand was one of the few countries in the world to resist Western colonialism (more or less), Thailand’s robots will no doubt be the first to take on humanity successfully.


Why Brunei? How a tiny, anti-gay monarchy became a U.S. ally.

brunei-map-ciaSecretary of State John Kerry and the Obama Administration are now (justifiably, I’d say, at this point) taking huge heat for trying to cement a major alliance with the podunk Southeast Asian absolute monarchy of Brunei.

President Obama himself had been scheduled to travel to Brunei last fall during the trip to Indonesia, which the government shutdown canceled. Last year, he called the Sultan “a key leader in the Southeast Asia region and also widely respected around the world.”

Outrage has been stirred up with the long-planned launch in April by the government of a phased rollout for an elaborate new penal code with extreme religious conservatism based in hardline Sharia Law interpretations. In particular, U.S. LGBT activists in California are furious over the draconian anti-gay provisions and have been organizing boycotts against local Brunei state investments.

But the anti-gay problem is just the tip of the horrible, no good, very bad legal iceberg for the monarchy with fewer residents than Boston. At least a fifth of the country’s population is non-Muslim, which is now punishable with death by flogging. Interfaith marriages are now adultery, punishable with death by stoning. Breaking the laws of Brunei while outside the country (i.e. in neighboring Malaysia, also located on the island of Borneo) is also to be punishable under Brunei rules.

So why has the U.S. State Department been trying so enthusiastically to secure a partnership with the Sultanate of Brunei and its ironically named Abode of Peace?

Because it’s got a ton of natural gas and oil relative to its size (35th biggest oil exporter and 26th biggest gas exporter in the world), it’s an original member of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, it’s strategically located on the South China Sea coast, it’s been a counterterrorism partner since 2001 … and I guess they weren’t expecting it to go way off the deep end suddenly like this.

But really, I think the warning signs should have been there. Generous oil-funded social welfare policies aside, Brunei has not been cool people for quite some time now. Their human rights abuses, near total lack of civil rights, and obvious authoritarianism were pretty well known before now. The former British protectorate and past regional sea empire has been ruled by one dynasty with a pretty ironclad fist for six centuries.

Some of the pretend constitution’s provisions have been ignored for so long by the monarchy that the country hadn’t even gained independence (1984) at the time they were suspended formally, in the 1960s. The safe money would have been on further regression, not a dramatic improvement, for all the signs the world has been picking up from Brunei in the past decade.

One of those signs? According to the Boston Globe, it should have been the 2013 global human rights report from… drumroll please… the U.S. State Department:

…the State Department’s 2013 global human rights report criticized Brunei for its restrictions on religious freedom; exploitation of foreign workers; and limitations of the freedom of the press, assembly, and association as “the most prevalent human rights problems.”

It went on to mention the adoption of the new legal code based on religious Sharia law but noted that “the effect of the law will not be clear until it is implemented, which was scheduled to begin in phases starting in April 2014.”

Nobody could have predicted…

But it seems that finishing a free trade deal with such a pivotal player was too much to pass up. It’s interesting that nearly 600 years after Brunei rose to power by controlling water trade and coastal ports in the dense commercial shipping zone not far from the Spice Islands, it’s leveraging the exact same strategic economic power to do whatever it wants. I guess it’s true what they say!