Burma’s by-elections are overhyped

First off, it’s really breathtaking to see so many enthused Burmese, so many people anticipating a future of opportunity. It fills me with emotion, too. This sense of yearning, reconstruction of a totally damaged country. Maybe I could be a part of this recovery? But these are just far-off dreams. My dad would return to Burma in a heartbeat, if the country allowed dual citizenship. My family has spent hours gathered around the television, watching Youtube clips and news programs about the by-elections.

This interview of Kawhmu Township residents gives a pretty interesting and sincere look at voters’ aspirations. I found the 70-year-old voter who calls herself “daughter” (သမီး) charming.

But this is all just hype. The elections didn’t change the scheme or the pace of reforms. Perhaps the most important outcome was that the NLD and Suu Kyi were specifically accommodated so they would contest the elections (laws were amended so they would participate). I also thought the speed with which the Union Election Commission announced results was surprisingly fast. Results for most constituencies were available within a day.

Than Shwe and his brothers-in-arm must all be pleased at how well the so-called reforms have been humming along. There’s a Burmese proverb: asa kaung hma, ahnaung thaycha (အစကောင်းမှ အနှောင်းသေချာ), that the certainty of the future is contingent on a good start. They have laid out a sophisticated plan to ensure their survival. Simple as that.

As my mom put it, Thein Sein appears to be a puppet worked by shadowy figures, maneuvering these plays to gain credibility in the international arena. Thein Sein has already said he plans to retire in 2015, and even his indirect election (by other MPs) was planned from the start. He was deliberately chosen because he had the cleanest record of the bunch. “A king among lepers” or anu taw lu chaw (အနူတော လူချော).

There’s no doubt the roadmap to a disciplined democracy, emphasis on disciplined, is well underway. The country’s new commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Min Aung Hlaing, recently said that the military was prepared to defend the Constitution, to ensure the military’s role in politics. I don’t foresee the NLD’s ambitions to dismantle the present Constitution’s clauses on guaranteed military presence in parliament, to go away anytime soon.

It’s difficult to read the exact behind-the-scenes mechanisms driving the exact decisions being made. Like the Burmese proverb goes, politics is as hard to read as a parrot in a tree (ပြည်ထဲအရေး ပေါက်နဲ့ကျေး). But this has been cleverly orchestrated for years, not just the result of a sudden epiphany by Thein Sein or his advisers. And everything is falling into place as the planners predicted. Make no mistake, there isn’t a Burmese Spring or a glasnost happening here. Hah, the Economist called this opening “Yangon spring.”

State TV broadcasts announcements of all the seats NLD won.

Suu Kyi’s party won 43 out of 45 seats, including 4 in the Upper House and 37 in the Lower House. But these numbers are just a drop in the water. The fact that by-elections went to smoothly was simply because so much rides on this particular election, especially the coveted prize of abolished sanctions from the West. If the NLD had won any less, it would have cried foul and unleashed a storm of criticism. It is obviously in the government’s best interests to ensure NLD’s victory.

Campaign movie for the NLD, starring Burmese celebrities like Htun Eindra Bo and Lu Min. It’s fascinating to see how many celebrities have publicly endorsed this party.

The feeling of many in the overseas Burmese community is that Suu Kyi is being used as a pawn to legitimize the authority of the current government, plain and simple. No wonder Suu Kyi has been very careful in saying that NLD participated in these elections because it was the people’s will, and has practically praised nobody in the government except for Thein Sein.

Burma’s government has clearly shown signals to have sanctions lifted (since the 90s), so they are eager get business up and running without any impediments stat. Burmese officials seem to have studied Western sanctions well, including those of America and move away from their alliance with China. There’s an interview with a government adviser, where he remarks that US sanctions will be hard to lift quickly, because most require legislative approval.

I thought this article was really informative, in how other military-run countries like Brazil have transitioned to democracy. But Burma’s circumstances are very unusual–the military occupation of 50 years has wiped out the last class of decent civil servants and Western-educated professionals (think Hla Myint, father of modern development economics), so there’s not much know-how left in the country. Think of all those substandard roads being constructed by Lo Hsing Han’s Asia World and the like. Ever wonder why car accidents on long-distance roads are so common in the country? They lack construction know-how.

Investors expecting Myanmar to be another Vietnam are likely to be disappointed. Instead, they are likely to find a market more akin to Angola: a shattered nation with minimal human capital. Myanmar has a large labour force, but unlike Asian exporting powerhouses which focused government resources on education, the quality of its labour is extremely low. […] Today there are only a handful of well-educated younger Burmese skilled in information technology, communications, or management, which would make it hard for multinationals to build an office of any size in Myanmar.
Financial Times‘ “Beware talk of business-friendly Myanmar”

And all the talk of censorship reform seems over-exaggerated. I’ve read articles calling them the “most liberal press laws in Asia.” Laws in Burma are meaningless when “rule of law” is nothing but a phrase. Even politicians seem confused by the byzantine rules they’re supposed to abide by.

But I earnestly hope that I’m proven wrong. That in 10 years, that the Burma  the world has known for the past half century will be history.

Image from source.

Aung San Suu Kyi 2012 by-election campaign speech

English translation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s official campaign speech

I took the liberty of adding English subtitles (and Burmese, for the curious) to Aung San Suu Kyi’s 15 minute official campaign speech for the 2012 by-elections, run on Burmese state television and radio. It’s now uploaded onto my Youtube channel.

(The English translations are adapted from the English edition of the New Light of Myanmar, although modified for clarity and conciseness. There was some awkward language and word choice that I changed.)

Aung San Suu Kyi 2012 by-election campaign speech

Burmese subtitles of the speech

To get the Burmese language subtitles working, you MUST have a Burmese Unicode-compliant font (e.g. Myanmar3, Parabaik, WinUniInwwaPadauk) installed on your computer, not Zawgyi (which is not Unicode). More info here. First, select the Burmese captions on Youtube’s captions on the bottom right hand corner:

CC > Burmese

Then, change the Burmese language font settings :

CC > Settings… > Font > Select a [Burmese Unicode font]

Enjoy! I’m all for increasing accessibility of knowledge and information.

Please do not re-upload without proper attribution/credit.

State of the Union Thein Sein

Word choice in Thein Sein’s 2012 State of the Union

Thein Sein made his annual address to the Union Parliament on Peasants’ Day, March 1 (official English translation here), a speech that has been praised by many. The Irrawaddy points out a change in language, as Burmese citizens were referred to as the the parents (မိဘပြည်သူ,miba pyithu) to which the government is accountable to. Thein Sein also made extensive use of the opposition’s language, incorporating English words like “all-inclusive political process” and “rule of law.” This, coming from the same man who was close to drug lords in Shan State during his tenure at the Golden Triangle’s military command.

Another interesting highlight pointed out by the Irrawaddy:

We are all working together for our minority children who wielded guns, ought to wield laptops instead and stand proud.*
သေနတ်ကိုင်ခဲ့တဲ့ကျနော်တို့တိုင်းရင်းသားလူငယ်တွေ လက်တော့ကိုင်ပြီး ထည်ထည်ဝါဝါ ရပ်တည်နေနိုင်ဖို့ကျနော်တို့အားလုံး ဝိုင်းဝန်းကြိုးပမ်းသွားကြရမှာဖြစ်ပါတယ်။
I am really saddened by this. I have pledged a vow with all my heart. During the term of my administration, we will work to make these kinds of unbelievably dreadful incidents disappear. This is also a resolution of our government.
ကျနော်တကယ့်ကိုပဲ စိတ်မကောင်းဖြစ်ရပါတယ်။ ကျနော်အခိုင်အမာ အဓိဌာန်ချထားပါတယ်။ ကျနော်တို့အစိုးရ လက်ထက်မှာ ဒီလိုမယုံမရဲဖြစ်နေတဲ့စိုးရွံ့မှုတွေ ပပျောက်ပျောက်အောင် ဖျောက်ပစ်ရပါမယ်။ ဒါ ကျနော်တို့အစိုးရရဲ့ ခံယူချက်လည်း ဖြစ်ပါတယ်။

A la New York Times, I decided to do my own word analysis of his speech, using a transcript provided by Mizzima News. It’s a fairly rudimentary way of analyzing the whole speech, but it’s a a good way to understand his word choice.

I used WordCloud to generate the data I had compiled on Excel. I compiled the counts by searching keywords in the Burmese transcript of the speech. I tried to omit monosyllables like aung (အောင်), which means ‘succeed’ and is also a grammar particle, and instead used the bisyllable forms, like aung-myin (အောင်မြင်), also ‘succeed’. I also combined similar keywords, like နိုင်ငံတကာ/နိုင်ငံခြား (foreign) or ရပ်စဲ/တိုက်ခိုက် (ceasefire/attack).

Here’s what I found.

နိုင်ငံ - nation (75), ဆောင်ရွက် - carry out (71), အစိုးရ - government (64), ပြည်သူ - citizens (62), ပြောင်း - change (54), စီးပွားရေး - economy (35), ခိုင်မာ - strong (34), လုပ်ငန်း - work (30), တိုင်းရင်းသား - minorities (29), ဖွံ့ဖြိုး/တိုးတက် - development (29), တိုးတက် - develop (28), စနစ် - system (28), ကြိုးပမ်း/ကြိုးစား - work hard (27), မိဘ - parents (26), ဒီမိုကရေစီ - democracy (25), လမ်း - road (24), သစ် - new (24), ဥပဒေ - law (23), မြန်မာ - Burma (23), အခြေခံ - situation (23), စိတ် - mind (23), နိုင်ငံတကာ/နိုင်ငံခြား - foreign (22), ပြောင်းလဲ - change (21), ကူးပြောင်း - transform (21), နိုင်ငံရေး - politics (20), တာဝန် - responsibility (19), တရား - justice (17), ပညာ - education (16), ဆက်လက် - continue (16), အမျိုးသား - national (15), ပြုပြင် - reform (15), လွှတ်တော် - parliament (15), အချိန် - time (15), ကူညီ - help (15), ဆက်ဆံ - relations (15), ရပ်စဲ/တိုက်ခိုက် - ceasefire/attack (13), ငြိမ်းချမ်း - peace (12), ဆန္ဒ - desire (12), အခြေအနေ - situation (12), ငွေ - money (12), ရင်းနှီး - close (12), ဖွင့် ပွင့် - open (12), rule of law - rule of law (11), ပူးပေါင်း - join together (11), ထာဝရ - eternal (10), ပုဂ္ဂလိက - private (10), မဏ္ဍိုင် - pillar (10), ညီညွတ် - equal (10), သမိုင်း - history (9), ယန္တရား - machine (9), ဆွေးနွေး - dialogue (9), ထူထောင် - establish (9), တက္ကသိုလ်/ကောလိပ် - university (9), ကိုယ်စားလှယ် - MP (8), ခံစား - experience (8), နာယက - patron (8), အခွင့်အရေး - rights (8), ကျန်းမာ - health (8), ကျောင်း - school (8), တပ်မတော် - military (8), ထောက်ပံ့ - support (8), တန်ဖိုး - value (7), အောင်မြင် - succeed (7), ခေတ်သစ် - new era (7), အာဏာ - power (7), လုပ်ကိုင် - making a living (7), လိုအပ် - need (7), ကတိ/အာမခံ - promise/pledge (7), ကမ္ဘာ - world (6), ဆင်းရဲ - poor (6), ဝန်ထမ်း - civil servant (6), မျှော်မှန်း - hope (6), လွတ်လပ် - free (6), လူထု - the people (6).

I did a similar one with the official English translation provided by the New Light of Myanmar:

2012 State of the Union English translation word cloud

I’m still not convinced by his speech. “Actions speak louder than words.” I’ve been following ALTSEAN’s Parliament Watch, which is a nice way of sorting through what’s actually being done in Parliament (without going through the messy PDF newspapers and articles on Myanmar.com). ALTSEAN’s November 2011 report concluded that not much of substance had been done, especially at the state/region level:

On the legislative front, [among all regional 14 parliaments] only four bills (two in the Irrawaddy Division Parliament and two in the Rangoon Division Parliament) were introduced.

Simply astonishing. A newly published article titled “Burma’s Constitution: Straitjacket or red-herring?” says the following, words that I couldn’t have put better myself:

By contrast, Burma’s military remains powerful enough to demand a veto over any reforms. Thus, the 2008 Constitution does not create the underlying power imbalance, but merely ratifies it.

But the author does note the following:

Moreover, the 2008 Constitution lacks the ingredients for a long-lived constitutional recipe – an inclusive drafting process, detailed provisions, and a flexible amendment procedure. The question is not if Burma’s democratic opposition will be able to change the constitution, but rather when.

Some food for thought.

*Official translation: We all must try our hardest to see national races youths, who had brandished guns, using laptops.

Burma's celebrating the 2600th anniversary of Shwedagon Pagoda at its annual pagoda festival.

News Roundup

Just a compilation of some interesting articles I’ve come across this past weekend.

Interesting campaign going on in Yangon’s streets to combat sexual harassment on public transportation. I know from firsthand accounts that there are plenty of pervs on public buses in Yangon, with guys indiscriminately groping women in jam-packed buses. The campaign convinced the Parami and Adipati bus lines to offer female-only services during rush hours.

Under the “whistle for help” campaign, about 150 volunteers have been distributing whistles and pamphlets to women at eight busy bus stops in Yangon each Tuesday morning in February. The group plans to continue the weekly program for another nine months.

The pamphlet instructs women to blow the whistle when they experience sexual harassment on the bus.

Little surprise that the Burmese government has been pretty unresponsive to migrant worker abuses. But Burmese migrant workers make up upwards of 7% of Thailand’s labor force, numbering between 1-2 million, so it’s definitely not a light issue to brush over.

Exactly how many workers are trapped in bondage inside shrimp factories or lured and forced to work on deep-sea fishing trawlers is unknown. But, Sompong, who worked in this area for eight years, estimates about 30 per cent of the 400,000-plus Burmese workers in the province are exploited beyond Thai laws.

Bosses confiscate work permits, temporary passports and identity cards so that Burmese in fish-processing factories cannot seek employment elsewhere. Worse still, some are held in small factories and not allowed to leave the compound and forced to work like slaves.

Burma’s government said in January that it planned to offer eight-year tax exemptions to foreign investors…

A recent report by the British risk analysis group Maplecroft said Burma has the world’s worst legal system for doing business, retaining a position it has held for the past five years despite recent reforms.

The 2012 Maplecroft report in question lists 5 primary risks to doing business in the country:

  1. Lack of democracy and continuing human rights abuse
  2. Lack of regulatory and legal protections
  3. Child labor
  4. Forced labor
  5. Environmental risks

Just last week, as Maplecroft released its global risks report, Burma was ranked as the 9th most vulnerable country to global risks, wedged in between Iraq and Yemen.

Apparently the Pyidaungzu Hluttaw took a sudden recess today, while waiting for Shwe Mann, speaker of the Lower House, to return on a visit to China. Seems to me like a clever power play, alternating between China and the West. The New Light of Myanmar had articles espousing China’s commitment to Burma’s sovereignty. One of the headlines literally says: “There are many differences among nations so that there will be external interference if the country adopts democratic system of other countries.” Yes, like China has Burma’s best interests in mind.

Even though MPs were told that the session would continue as usual on Feb. 24, they were given a sudden notice by phone call on Feb. 26 that Parliament would be in recess for the 27th.

“Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann is coming back (from China) today. (We’ll) work on submitting a rough draft budget legislation when he comes back, with regard to the issue of civil servant salary increases, if the Union Parliament agrees. Parliament only has the mandate to lower the budget, not increase it,” said a member of the Union Parliament’s Rough Draft Legislation Committee.

” ပြည်သူ့လွှတ်တော် ဥက္ကဋ္ဌ သူရဦးရွှေမန်းက (တရုတ်နိုင်ငံကနေ) ဒီနေ့မှ ပြန်ရောက်လာမှာပါ။ သူရောက်ပြီးတော့မှပဲ လစာတိုးရေးနဲ့ ဆိုင်တဲ့အဆိုကို မူအဖြစ် ပြည်ထောင်စုလွှတ်တော်က သဘောတူရင် ဘတ်ဂျက်ဥပဒေကြမ်းကို ပြန်ဆွဲတင်ရတော့မှာပါ။ လွှတ်တော်ရဲ့ လုပ်ပိုင်ခွင့်က ဘတ်ဂျတ်ကို တိုးပေးလို့မရဘူး လျှော့ချလို့ပဲ ရပါတယ် ” ဟု ပြည်ထောင်စုလွှတ်တော် ဥပဒေကြမ်း ပူးပေါင်း ကော်မတီဝင် တစ်ဦးက ပြောကြားသည်။

Thailand’s The Nation published an interview with Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday. Her reply to what was said in her private meeting with Thein Sein was fascinating, for what she chose not to say:

Q: What were the promises or pledges that you got from them that made you think …?
A: There were no promises and pledges but I believe that the president genuinely wants reform, and he said very simply that he wanted to support and help along the process of democratisation, and we discussed the matter and took certain steps that made it possible for us to take part in the election.
Q: But certainly you must have asked the president: Does the military really support this reform?
A: No, I didn’t ask him. I’m not going to discuss my private conversation.
Q: But at least I’d like to know whether…?
A: As I said, I’m not going to discuss my private conversation, either what we talked about or what we didn’t talk about.

Honest credentials?

President Thein Sein’s advisory board has a curious mix of people, civilians and military men, ranging from U Myint, a well-regarded economist to the DSA-educated Ko Ko Hlaing. Among the political advisors, I found Dr. Nay Zin Latt (emphasis on Dr.) to be the most interesting. I watched him struggle through an English language interview with the Wall Street Journal and wondered how he could have possibly gotten a doctorate in the United States, if he struggled to express even the simplest ideas. Throughout the interview, he was simply repeating boilerplate sentences. Transcript here.

According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, Nay Zin Latt apparently holds an MBA from “Adam University” in the United States.

The only Adam University I could find was in Denver, Colorado. I know fake diploma scandals make headlines in Asia, from Korean celebrities to Buddhist monks. It’s interesting to see the relationship between educational status and society, in places like Burma. Burmese wedding invitations commonly print out the educational qualifications of the bride and groom and their parents (if worth noting). I know certainly, for my own aunts’ and uncles’ weddings, a “M.B.,B.S.” degree was worth plastering in huge lettering on the reception hall’s stage. But I could find no other information (location, degrees offered, etc.) about “Adam University”, aside from reports and government documents regarding its accreditation status. That school had failed to meet Colorado state accreditation in 2009, after given 2 extensions to get accredited:

This item recommends that the Commission revoke of probationary authorization for Adam University to operate in Colorado because the University has failed to fulfill accreditation requirements.

The Commission granted Adams University probationary authorization on January 10, 2005, on the condition that it to pursue accreditation with a U.S. Department of Education recognized accreditation body within 24 months. The Department of Higher Education granted Adams University two extensions since the initial authorization, but it is not yet accredited.

– Colorado Commission on Higher Education (report)

Looking for similarly-named universities, I found one called “Adam Smith University,” which is another unaccredited diploma mill that offers doctorate degrees.

Mr. Weisman’s former boss at Mercy wouldn’t be bothered in the least by his extracurricular activities. That’s because Donald Grunewald, a onetime president of Mercy who is now a business professor at Iona College, runs his own unaccredited institution, called Adam Smith University.

Adam Smith’s degrees are a bargain compared with International University’s. Mr. Grunewald charges $2,500 for a bachelor’s and $3,000 for a Ph.D. He declines to say how many students Adam Smith enrolls, only that the number is “very small.” The university has no full-time professors, although some faculty members from other institutions sometimes read papers and help students, he says.

– “Psst. Wanna Buy a Ph.D.?”, The Chronicle of Higher Education (link)

As I searched more and more, I came across a blog called “Hall of Shame for Burmese Fake PhDs”, where I found an post dedicated to Nay Zin Latt, which concludes this: “While I will give benefits of doubts to the presidential advisor, I think he is also a fake doctor who has purchased papers from diploma mills.” I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this site, but it did link me to a slideshow presentation that Nay Zin Latt purportedly held in India in 2010. There, he’s listed as having the following degrees:

B.Arch, H.G.P, DA, Dip. Eng, MBA, EMBA, DBA (UK), DBA (US), Ph.D

I tried in vain to find any citation or dissertation of Nay Zin Latt’s, even though he’s listed as holding a Doctorate of Business Administration. I wish I could give him benefit of the doubt, but until he releases his thesis or provides substantial evidence to the contrary, I can’t help but have second thoughts about his expertise and integrity.

Odd. Fishy fishy..

Burma in 2012

It’s almost been 3 years since I last posted. I’m so grateful and amazed that my humble blog has remained a forum for many folks interested in Burma. I truly appreciate every comment I receive, every piece of feedback. That said, a lot has happened since then, both in my personal life and in Burma. Only a few years ago, all the New Light of Myanmar frontpages featured men dressed in military outfits. Nowadays, the same men grabbing headlines are donning Mandarin-collared taikon eingyi, Burmese turbans and silk paso.

It’s amazing to see the pace of change in the country. But I honestly believe much of it has been rhetoric. But these changes are reversible, no doubt. Laws are meaningless if there’s no body capable of enforcing them. Officials still lack accountability, important in any democracy. The country is still weak and many of the Socialist-era and SPDC-era institutions (such as the country’s censorship body, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board along with a smorgasbord of restrictive laws) remain in place. And I’ve seen little news about the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), which was formed the day after SPDC was dissolved. According to the Constitution, the NSDC will supposedly step in during periods of martial law, but it’s a vaguely defined institution.

Yes, the country has opened up in some ways. The US and EU are have begun engaging with the Burmese government, soon after denouncing the deeply flawed elections. Aung San Suu Kyi is free and campaigning nationwide to become a member of parliament in by-elections this April. Many high profile political prisoners have been released.

Thein Sein gained international credibility by postponing, not permanently stopping, construction on a dam. The Myanmar Times reports:

The dam will be postponed until at least the end of the government’s five-year term, President U Thein Sein announced..

Similarly, the government halted plans to build a 4,000 MW coal plant in Dawei (which has been designated a Special Economic Zone), after protests by an environmental group. (But the Italian-Thai Development firm is still continuing with plans to build a 250 sq. km, $50-billion-plus site in Dawei, including a deep sea port, infrastructure links to Kanchanaburi province in Thailand, and a tourism resort.)

On the ground, the same old business seems to be in place, worryingly. And these are big problems to resolve. For instance, why did the Karen National Union deny signing a ceasefire deal with the government, 3 weeks after officials from both sides had signed one? The ethnic conflicts, like the one in Kachin State, are far from over. I sense that there’s a deep disconnect between the civilian government and the military (highlighted by an evening raid to capture and interrogate the monk-activist U Gambira) and a deep disconnect between the national and local levels (local restrictions on NLD campaigning). Or perhaps as some Burma watchers have asked, is this all part of a bad cop, good cop routine?

Burma is a broken state. No amount of investment, foreign aid, diplomacy or outside incentives will fix the myriad problems the country still faces. As optimistic as I am about Burma’s future, I predict that it will be decades before any substantial reforms are undertaken to improve the lives of ordinary people. The IMF had a rather optimistic assessment:

“The new government is facing a historic opportunity to jump-start the development process and lift living standards. Myanmar has a high growth potential and could become the next economic frontier in Asia, if it can turn its rich natural resources, young labor force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies in the world, into its advantage.

But, as this commentary highlights:

But investors expecting Myanmar to be another Vietnam are likely to be disappointed. Instead, they are likely to find a market more akin to Angola: a shattered nation with minimal human capital. Myanmar has a large labour force, but unlike Asian exporting powerhouses which focused government resources on education, the quality of its labour is extremely low. For nearly two decades, the former military regime shuttered the finest secondary schools, to prevent students from gathering for protests. Today there are only a handful of well-educated younger Burmese skilled in information technology, communications, or management, which would make it hard for multinationals to build an office of any size in Myanmar.

– “Beware talk of business-friendly Myanmar,” Financial Times (Feb 20, 2012)

I think these two paragraphs pretty much sum up what the country needs to juggle:

Most of Asia’s authoritarian regimes have done the economic reforms before they embark on or are thrust by protest into political opening, notes Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political adviser to B.J. Habibie, who, as president, started Indonesia’s transition to democracy. Anwar was in Rangoon last week. Burma’s generals in new suits are trying to do both at once, as well as seeking peace with no fewer than 11 ethnic insurgent groups on its borders.

“This is a very special and uniquely challenging multiple transition,” said Thant Myint-U, author of two widely read books on Burma and grandson of a Burmese foreign minister and United Nations secretary-general, U Thant. “It could get it wrong, with the wrong sequencing of reform, the lifting of sanctions and the kind of aid that is received.”

–  “Tractors may have replaced horses, but country is still decades behind” (February 10, 2012)

Will Burma be able to tackle both economic AND political reform at once? The new year has just begun and I’m very excited to return to this blog and continue to explore the dynamics operating in the Burma of the past, present and future.

Postscript: I apologize for these erratic trains of thought.

Effort to add “Burmese” to the U.S. Census

I recently learned about an interesting effort by the Burmese American community to have “Burmese” added to the U.S. census’ list of races, for a more accurate population count of the Burmese community in the States. According to the Burmese Complete Count Committee,

Burmese in general means everyone who is a descendent from current Burma or Myanmar. According to this definition, all ethnic groups and tribes who originated from the country Burma or Myanmar are included. Definition of Burmese is different from Bama. Burmese is inclusive of Mon, Karen, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Lisu, Bama, Kayah, Palaung, Padaung, Pa-O, etc.

In the 2000 Census, only Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese were included as choices. It will be interesting to see whether the 2010 Census does include an option for “Burmese,” when larger communities like Thai Americans are not yet included. I don’t know how effective adding Burmese will be to the U.S. Census, because many Burmese Americans are either mixed Chinese or Indian (and would naturally gravitate  to the more visible groupings), or refugees from ethnic minorities that generally do not associate themselves with being “Burmese.”

Nevertheless, I think it’s a step in the right direction in making the Burmese American community more visible.

The idiotic “Drill, baby, drill” and Palin’s ABC interview

I don’t think many people realize this, because I certainly didn’t: Offshore drilling and Arctic drilling would not impact gas prices in the near future. It’s 100% populist, used by McCain and the Republicans to pander to what voters want. I think we all remember the GOP National Convention, when Republicans kept screaming “Drill, baby, drill.” Oh, boy. What McCain conveniently left out is this, that the US Government’s Energy Information Administration says the exact opposite:

“The projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030,” the report said.
–“‘Drill here, drill now’ is drilled in to Americans” (link)

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UCLA professor on a potential one-party America

I may sound alarmist but this campaign makes me fear for American Democracy. My thesis: We are on the edge of becoming a one party state. Many one party states have some token opposition but there is no real serious challenge to the power of the dominant party and that is where we may be going.
If the Democrats do not soundly defeat the Republicans at all levels including the Presidency the US will have become a defacto one party state. That means that no matter how poorly the Republican Party performs in economic, social and foreign policy they will not face any serious challenge and thus there will be no real check on their power or sanction for corruption. Given the growing power of the imperial presidency and a Supreme Court that McCain/Palin will tilt rightward, the Republican Party will be able to use the levers of government to consolidate their power and to insure that while the Democratic Party will survive, it will never represent a serious challenge to their dominance. Others have argued this but few are talking about how critical the 2008 election is in stopping Rove’s plan for a one party state.

–“Fear for American democracy,” Mark Sawyer (link)

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10 problems Obama faces

  1. Barack Obama is black. Even in this day and age, there are still many people who are uncomfortable with voting for a Black man. It’s a sad reality of this country.
  2. Barack approaches America’s problems philosophically and intellectually. This is what we need, but many Americans are turned off by intellectuals. He’s been derided for being part of the educated elite and for going to Ivy League schools.
  3. Americans are scared of European-style government regulation, health care and taxes (Huckabee said it best) Even though most of the developed world has universal health care, once Obama starts outlining his plan on health care reform, it will only take seconds for Republicans to slap on the label “Socialist” to scare Americans. Everyone already knows that profit-based health care does not work. But nobody knows that Obama’s tax plans are more effective at distributing wealth and reducing inequity than McCain’s.
  4. Barack’s campaign has run on being above the dirty and divisive politics. It’s hard for him to hit back on the lies and misrepresentations aired every minute. He needs to use Biden more effectively to clean up the mess and hit back hard.
  5. Sarah Palin has stolen Obama’s thunder. While Americans don’t know about her political ideology, they sure know about her entire family. Obama needs to pretend like she doesn’t exist, focus his attacks on McCain’s record and plans while leaving the dirty work to Joe Biden.
  6. Obama is not populist enough. Sure, he’s made irrational proposals to pander to Americans on offshore drilling (much of the results wouldn’t appear until 30 years later). But Americans are dumb and lazy. Most voters won’t look up Obama’s plans–they want it handfed to them by the media, which is too busy with Palin.
  7. The media is going too easy on the McCain ticket and their platform. Obama’s campaign needs to press the media to start telling the truth, rather than focusing on irrelevant problems like the pig in lipstick issue and this neverending debate about sexism.
  8. Obama needs a message that can resonate with the rural and working class folks. His chief strategist, David Axelrod, specializes in urban politics, but Obama’s outreach needs to be far more than the big cities. He needs to shatter his image as a cultivated man without understanding of the working class.
  9. Americans are too stupid. They’ll eat anything up. Many Americans can’t even point out Iraq on the map and some don’t even know what the three branches of government are. The more Obama relies on the American people’s so-called “intelligence” to figure out the truth when it comes to political slander, the more he will suffer in the polls. The people who really matter in this election are the ones who know least about the candidates (I already know my vote for Obama won’t really matter, since I can guarantee that Obama will win California’s electoral votes)
  10. Obama needs to show Americans that he is running against McCain, not Palin. Obama v. McCain, Biden v. Palin. Every minute he spends talking about something Palin, he only makes it easier for the media to compare him to Palin, instead of McCain.

The morality double standard in American politics

The McCain campaign’s insistence on imposing a double standard for Palin is nowhere clearer than in the demand, voiced by many of the candidate’s surrogates, that her religious affiliations and their implications be placed off-limits. The GOP was on firmer ground when it made a similar demand with regard to her children, though it’s safe to say that if Sen. Barack Obama had appeared in Denver with his unmarried pregnant daughter and the father of her child, the religious right’s outraged screams still would be echoing in the nation’s ear.

— “A Palin double standard,” LA Times op-ed piece (link)

Obama’s tax cuts would be greater than McCain’s

I’m not updating on Burma-relating topics for the time being because I’ve been mostly following the American presidential race. Just less than 2 months left.

The more informed I am, the more I despise McCain. I remember during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he blatantly lied to the American public about him lowering taxes and Obama raising taxes and the crowds just ate it up. Most Americans probably ate it up too, being just as uninformed as the delegates in the convention. But in fact, Obama would lower taxes for more people. And the sad thing is, the people who support McCain probably have no idea.

[Obama] is proposing tax cuts for most families that are significantly larger than those McCain is offering, along with major tax increases for families making more than $250,000 a year.

For the bottom 80 percent of the population — those households making $118,000 or less — McCain’s various tax cuts would mean a net savings of about $200 a year on average. Obama’s proposals would bring $900 a year in savings. So for most people, Obama is the tax cutter in this campaign.

All told, Obama would not only cut taxes for most people more than McCain would. He would cut them more than Bill Clinton did and more than Hillary Clinton proposed doing.

— “How Obama Reconciles Dueling Views on Economy,” New York Times Magazine (link)

In my family, most of us are independents who lean Democratic. The few who are Republicans are Republicans solely for fear of income taxes and other taxes. It’s sad to see how their party affiliation rests solely on taxation and how easily they’re swayed by what comes out of McCain’s mouth.

I think when John McCain jokingly said that the rich were those making over $5 million a year, he just didn’t understand that class does matter in this country. It’s a living, breathing force that plays a huge role in the way people live. How else can the government and aid organizations target certain demographics for assistance? It was unbelievably crude that he thinks he can create some utopian paradise where everyone is equal. The best the government can do is to redistribute wealth while sustaining the economy, and Obama’s plan, if you take the time to read that long article in the NY Times, actually makes sense, even for an average person like myself.

I think the problem is that Obama doesn’t hit hard enough. Americans aren’t clear what he’ll do for them still, because he can’t convey all of these good ideas amidst the politics… If the American voters fail to see through the mist and vote for biography rather than real substantial plans, I can easily say that my own people, the people of the country have failed themselves.

Economic inequality and Democrats

Some things I didn’t know about politics in America until reading “The Vanishing Republican Voter” from the NY Times Magazine.

“As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican.”

This may explain why when I picture a Republican, I think small-town farmer in the Midwest and when I picture a Democrat, I think university professor in New England.

“But something else is true, too: As America becomes more unequal, it also becomes less Republican. The trends we have dismissed are ending by devouring us.”

In the end, what my main concern in politics is, economy, is what Americans care about most. Forget the social issues and morality issues, when those are rarely a large part of your life. It’s the economy and how you’re doing compared to others in American society that truly hits home every day, not whether gays are allowed to marry, not whether stem cells are harvested from embryos, not whether a woman is allowed to abort.

“The family revolution coincided with another: a great shift from a national to a planetary division of labor. Inequality within nations is rising in large part because inequality is declining among nations. A generation ago, even a poor American was still better off than most people in China. Today the lifestyles of middle-class Chinese increasingly approximate those of middle-class Americans, while the lifestyles of upper and lower America increasingly diverge. Less-skilled Americans now face hundreds of millions of new wage competitors, while highly skilled Americans can sell their services in a worldwide market.”

The one thing that neither McCain nor Obama has tackled is the issue of the growing worldwide middle class (from China to India), which has placed increasing strains on worldwide food supply and other resources. As more and more people are lifted from poverty and educated, they diminish America’s competitiveness on the global scale. The U.S. already has one of the highest corporate tax rates, which has drawn companies to do business elsewhere. The country’s educational state is abysmal and other countries, whose educational systems are better, are taking advantage of our colleges and universities. At UCLA, I’m just as likely to run into a Korean or Taiwanese citizen as I am an American. This country’s institutions are stuck in the 1950s when the rest of the world has moved to the new millenium. Saddening.

My two cents on Sarah Palin and the GOP

Obama better win. There’s no way he can lose an election when Republicans are at their all-time low. There’s no use in looking at poll numbers, when it’s the Electoral College that elects the President anyway.

“Lots of ideas from Europe [Obama]’d like to see imported here.”
–Mike Huckabee at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday, September 3, 2008 (link)

I read this in a New York Times article and it frankly bugged me. Mike Huckabee is so parochial and narrow-minded. I think the U.S. has a lot to learn from Europe, which has been far more successful in integrating sovereign countries’ economies and interlinking the European Union than has the states in America, which cannot even cooperate and agree on in the most basic of things. And their far-reaching advancements in health care, a human rights issue. But I digress.

I hope that Barack Obama will win the presidency. McCain’s not so bad, with his reasonable stances on abortion, gay rights and immigration (that is, before he flipflopped to morph into a more mainstream Republican). But the nuthouse Bible-eating Alaska governor he’s picked as his vice-presidential nominee has got to be the worst political move in recent years. She’s governed a state that’s smaller in population than the Los Angeles Unified School District, for less than two years. (The way some people put it, as “Palin governing the largest state in the Union” is like saying “Canadians govern the largest country in North America,” essentially bullshit.) And her state’s an exception to the problems the rest of the country faces. For her state government, it’s about deciding what to spend the annual surpluses on. For other states like California, it’s about trimming and budgeting, firing employees and slashing programs. Her experience is not suited for the vice-presidency, when the state she’s from is an exception and not the rule. And Palin would know little about the American economy. Alaska’s economy is basically 1/3 oil and 1/3 federal money, while America’s as a whole is far more diversified and complex.

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A recommended read on Burma

The New Yorker has a very interesting and captivating article on Burma, entitled “Drowning: Can the Burmese people rescue themselves?”. It’s 13 pages but worth the time.

A snippet:

Myat Min was freed from prison on July 6, 2005. He spoke of his seven years in a cell with unsettling equanimity. “The years I spent in prison were, by far, the most efficient and productive time of my life,” he said. “Outside, we waste so many hours, so many days, yet we are not satisfied with how we spend our time. In prison, I feel I have complete control of my life.”

On another note, I’ll be away visiting Canada until September 1.