Category Archives: Perspective

The K-Pop Fans Who Have Become Anti-Authoritarian Activists in Myanmar

Anti-coup protesters march before a crackdown by riot police on Feb. 27 in Yangon, Myanmar. Hkun Lat/Getty Images

“No, I can’t get much time for my idols. … I have to invest my life in the revolution,” said Kelvin, a 19-year-old democratic activist in Myanmar. (Like others in this piece, he is being referred to here by a pseudonym for his safety.) The erstwhile K-pop superfan first learned strategies for social media organizing and amplification via tireless campaigns to get his idols to trend on Twitter.

Now, he devotes all of his time—and digital coordination and influence skills—to fighting online for free speech and democracy in his home country. He and fellow activists live in constant fear of being kidnapped in the middle of the night by the military junta, but they continue to organize tens of thousands of people to spread awareness about ongoing injustices across Myanmar.

This article is part of the Free Speech Project, a collaboration between Future Tense and the Tech, Law, & Security Program at American University Washington College of Law that examines the ways technology is influencing how we think about speech.

“No, I can’t get much time for my idols. … I have to invest my life in the revolution,” said Kelvin, a 19-year-old democratic activist in Myanmar. (Like others in this piece, he is being referred to here by a pseudonym for his safety.) The erstwhile K-pop superfan first learned strategies for social media organizing and amplification via tireless campaigns to get his idols to trend on Twitter.

Now, he devotes all of his time—and digital coordination and influence skills—to fighting online for free speech and democracy in his home country. He and fellow activists live in constant fear of being kidnapped in the middle of the night by the military junta, but they continue to organize tens of thousands of people to spread awareness about ongoing injustices across Myanmar.

Three characteristics define Kelvin and his fellows. First, they are young. Kelvin and the other administrators of their widely popular social media group, which has a significant presence across Telegram, Twitter, and Facebook, range in age from 17 to 21. Second, they heavily rely on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram for coordination purposes because they consider them more secure—free from the prying eyes of the junta. Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, they are all K-pop stans who have temporarily hung up their fan hats to fight for democratic revolution.

Encrypted messaging apps, particularly Telegram, are currently top of mind for researchers and journalists concerned about disinformation. Telegram had already made a reputation for providing an alternative for extremists chased off more mainstream platforms such as Twitter over the course of 2016–17. Since 2018, Europol has been cracking down massively on ISIS on Telegram. But however, law enforcement officials admit that new groups of various extreme ideologies pop up regularly on the platform. For instance, it captured headlines following the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. Mis- and disinformation on encrypted messaging apps have become particularly dangerous in the global COVID-19 pandemic. In response, WhatsApp, for example, has intervened by limiting message forwarding and notifying users when they’ve received viral messages, though it’s unclear whether this truly limits the spread of disinformation, even if it slows it down. Research does suggest, however, that flagging content as potentially misleading or wrong can deter people from spreading the content further.

But activists in authoritarian countries utilize these platforms to organize in a clandestine manner. Many well-intentioned proposals to limit these apps’ usefulness to extremists and disinformation merchants could also hurt this activism. In our ongoing research, we found that formerly (self-described) apolitical influencers in Myanmar have turned activists and are now leveraging encrypted messaging apps to organize opponents of the military junta but also to find and share legitimate news. Crucially, they bring the tech knowledge they built as fans to bear on a whole new set of issues—and the influence strategies often involve actions a company like Facebook might flag as inauthentic coordinated behavior. In the fight against the global spread of propaganda and disinformation, it is critical to remember there are many places in the world where social media—and particularly encrypted messaging apps and other closed communication services—continue to allow democratic activists and others to organize more safely and securely. The strategies of Myanmar K-pop activists mirror digital information manipulation efforts, which reveals something important: The people who are using these tools, and the ends toward which they use them, matter very much.

This article is part of the Free Speech Project, a collaboration between Future Tense and the Tech, Law, & Security Program at American University Washington College of Law that examines the ways technology is influencing how we think about speech.

“No, I can’t get much time for my idols. … I have to invest my life in the revolution,” said Kelvin, a 19-year-old democratic activist in Myanmar. (Like others in this piece, he is being referred to here by a pseudonym for his safety.) The erstwhile K-pop superfan first learned strategies for social media organizing and amplification via tireless campaigns to get his idols to trend on Twitter.

Now, he devotes all of his time—and digital coordination and influence skills—to fighting online for free speech and democracy in his home country. He and fellow activists live in constant fear of being kidnapped in the middle of the night by the military junta, but they continue to organize tens of thousands of people to spread awareness about ongoing injustices across Myanmar.

Three characteristics define Kelvin and his fellows. First, they are young. Kelvin and the other administrators of their widely popular social media group, which has a significant presence across Telegram, Twitter, and Facebook, range in age from 17 to 21. Second, they heavily rely on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram for coordination purposes because they consider them more secure—free from the prying eyes of the junta. Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, they are all K-pop stans who have temporarily hung up their fan hats to fight for democratic revolution.

Encrypted messaging apps, particularly Telegram, are currently top of mind for researchers and journalists concerned about disinformation. Telegram had already made a reputation for providing an alternative for extremists chased off more mainstream platforms such as Twitter over the course of 2016–17. Since 2018, Europol has been cracking down massively on ISIS on Telegram. But however, law enforcement officials admit that new groups of various extreme ideologies pop up regularly on the platform. For instance, it captured headlines following the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. Mis- and disinformation on encrypted messaging apps have become particularly dangerous in the global COVID-19 pandemic. In response, WhatsApp, for example, has intervened by limiting message forwarding and notifying users when they’ve received viral messages, though it’s unclear whether this truly limits the spread of disinformation, even if it slows it down. Research does suggest, however, that flagging content as potentially misleading or wrong can deter people from spreading the content further. Encrypted spaces like Telegram and Signal can provide a home for those on the margins.

But activists in authoritarian countries utilize these platforms to organize in a clandestine manner. Many well-intentioned proposals to limit these apps’ usefulness to extremists and disinformation merchants could also hurt this activism. In our ongoing research, we found that formerly (self-described) apolitical influencers in Myanmar have turned activists and are now leveraging encrypted messaging apps to organize opponents of the military junta but also to find and share legitimate news. Crucially, they bring the tech knowledge they built as fans to bear on a whole new set of issues—and the influence strategies often involve actions a company like Facebook might flag as inauthentic coordinated behavior. In the fight against the global spread of propaganda and disinformation, it is critical to remember there are many places in the world where social media—and particularly encrypted messaging apps and other closed communication services—continue to allow democratic activists and others to organize more safely and securely. The strategies of Myanmar K-pop activists mirror digital information manipulation efforts, which reveals something important: The people who are using these tools, and the ends toward which they use them, matter very much.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been ruled almost exclusively by the military since British colonizers left the Southeast Asian country in the late 1930s. From 2015–2021, it had a civilian government, headed by internationally renowned figure Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet this interim period of fledgling democracy failed to last. Free speech in the country continues to be basically inexistent. The online information environment is highly polluted with disinformation and trolling from the suppressive military regime. Meanwhile, sporadic internet shutdowns further corrode the already limited amounts of information.

Because of these things, skilled digital organizers like Kelvin—with their knowledge of anonymity as well as their cross-platform information gathering and amplification abilities—are instrumental in fighting for democracy in the country.

Due to the legacy of Free Basics in Myanmar, an internet initiative that provided users with free (limited) internet in exchange for creating a Facebook account, Facebook still dominates internet use in Myanmar—but that doesn’t make it safe. Moreover, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are now all blocked in Myanmar, so citizens have to hide their IP addresses using virtual private networks in order to use them. “Our administrators organize on Facebook and Telegram,” Kelvin told us. “Telegram is safer for us, so most of the time we always discuss hashtags and taglines on Telegram.” Telegram, meanwhile, does not require a VPN. Bethany said, “I don’t bring my phone when I go out. ’Cause if they check Facebook Messenger, I would be sentenced for life.”

For Kelvin’s group, organizing is multifaceted and multiplatform. He and his collaborators share clear guidelines for their followers on how to use Twitter effectively (including changing location and using a VPN). They create specific hashtags to use in “mass trending parties,” in which they all message at once to make important information trend, and coordinate times for these events. Some Burmese activists do not feel safe using Facebook at all. Bethany said she uses Telegram because she is able to delete messages on her end and the recipient’s end as well, and only uses Facebook with a fake name. Telegram features afford her more safety and security than anything available on Facebook.


The coup united the people of Myanmar against oppression

Demonstrators protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 17, 2021 [Stringer/Reuters]

The Burman majority is finally understanding the abuse ethnic minorities have long been experiencing at the hands of the military.

The Myanmar people’s struggle against dictatorship has undergone a long journey since the February 1 military coup in the country. As an activist who has been fighting against fascism and standing for peace and the rights of oppressed minorities for 10 years, I believe we are now in a better place than ever before to come together as a nation to resist ethnic nationalism, destructive political polarisation and the military’s attempts to scare us into submission.

My own views on what an anti-fascist revolution in Myanmar could and should look like have also changed in the eight months since the coup.

During the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy’s (NLD) five-year rule between 2015-20, I devoted much of my activism to speaking out against their abandonment of democratic and human rights standards and failure to promote peace in areas of the country populated by ethnic nationalities, where conflict between ethnic armed organisations and the military has been ongoing for more than seven decades. I even boycotted the November 2020 general election, which delivered the NLD a second sweeping victory.

So when the coup happened, I initially was not sure where I should stand. While I was disturbed and angered by the military’s power grab, I did not want to put my support behind the NLD, ignoring its past treatment of minority communities, political opponents and activists. But I ultimately decided that the coup is more than a political dispute between the NLD and the military – it represents the forceful suppression of the people’s will, and should be resisted.

I demonstrated from February 6, the day anti-coup protests began in Yangon, through the second week of March, when the junta added my name to its arrest warrant list for “sedition”  and raided my house and office. My family and I narrowly escaped. Knowing that our lives were in danger, my wife and children fled the country, and I took shelter in the territory of an ethnic armed organisation.

Having been sued twice during the NLD’s term in power for supporting ethnic struggles for self-determination and rights, I believed that I understood the perspectives of oppressed minorities in my country.

But staying in their villages, where I listened to people’s stories and learned about their daily realities and struggles, I realised how superficial my understanding of ethnic issues in Myanmar had been.

Although I had a conceptual awareness of what it is like to live as a small-scale farmer in an area affected by civil war – where children commonly walk for hours to get to school, and it can take days to walk to the nearest clinic – it was very different to witness first-hand the toll of war on communities.

Since the coup, fighting between the military and armed resistance groups across the country has displaced at least 230,000 civilians, many of whom fled military air strikes and heavy-weapon attacks. I have passed close to clashes and seen the remnants of landmine explosions. I have also visited displacement camps where people are struggling to meet their basic needs.

But none of this is new for ethnic minority communities in Myanmar. Indeed, Burmese soldiers have been tormenting these communities for decades – looting and burning their villages, conducting arbitrary arrests and committing acts of sexual violence against them. My hosts told me that they rarely build strong houses, because they know that they may need to flee at any time.

Despite standing with oppressed ethnic minorities in my country for over a decade, I only realised the depth of their suffering, and more clearly understood why so many of them see armed resistance as their only option, after this experience.

As my own perspective has shifted, so, too, has the direction of the national protest movement.

In mainland cities where most people are from the ethnic Burman majority, protesters had initially focused on freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and elected officials, pressuring the military into accepting the results of the election, and convening parliament.

But as the military began terrorising people in urban areas, it opened people’s eyes to the rights abuses other ethnic groups have long been facing. As a result, protesters started broadening their ambitions.

Many from the Burman majority began apologising for their prior ignorance or denial of the military’s atrocities against non-Burman ethnic people, including the Rohingya, and calling for justice.

As ethnic armed organisations took a leading role in protecting fleeing dissidents and fighting against the regime, urban youth began trying to learn about ethnic political struggles too.

By the end of March, the leading protest groups were demanding an overhaul of the military-drafted constitution and the establishment of a federal democracy, in line with the calls ethnic nationalities have been making since long before the coup.

With few alternatives, the people have also started to increasingly see armed resistance as the only way to overthrow the junta, and have joined forces with ethnic armed organisations and formed new civilian defence forces and urban guerrilla movements.

On May 5, the National Unity Government (NUG), a body of elected lawmakers, activists and members of civil society in exile who are operating a government in opposition to the junta, announced that it had established a People’s Defence Force (PDF) as a precursor to a federal army, bringing armed resistance groups under a central command.

And on September 7, the NUG declared a nationwide “people’s defensive war” against the military junta, calling on all citizens across the country to join in a “necessary revolution for building a peaceful country and establishing a federal union.”

Now, we face a critical juncture in our revolutionary journey, and I worry that the people’s strength and unity may diminish if we cannot continue to build trust and maintain communication between the predominantly Burman resistance groups and ethnic nationalities.

For the revolution to succeed, we must continue our efforts to come together over a shared vision that benefits not only the Burman majority, but also promotes the self-determination and rights of other ethnic people within the country.

The NUG must do its utmost to engage with the country’s diverse ethnic communities and place non-Burmans in leading roles, and its PDF must join forces with ethnic armed organisations and sincerely commit to their political objectives.

It is also imperative that the NUG initiate a national apology process for the atrocities and inhumane treatment committed by successive governments towards minorities, including the Rohingya.

The majority must create an inclusive platform and collaborate with all ethnic people to build together a new federal democracy based on freedom, justice and equality.

By: Thet Swe Win

Former UN Under-Secretary-General Tipped as Next Special Envoy to Myanmar

Noeleen Heyzer, in her capacity as special adviser to the UN secretary-general for Timor-Leste (left), and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2014. / UN Photo / Eskinder Debeb

A former under-secretary-general of the United Nations who had warm relations with Myanmar’s previous regime and their proxy government is tipped to be the next UN special envoy for the country after the incumbent’s term expires next month.

Though her appointment has yet to be officially confirmed by the UN, diplomatic sources close to the matter said Noeleen Heyzer would be the new envoy for the country, which she became familiar with as head of the UN’s regional economic commission in the early 2000s. Trained as a social scientist, Heyzer has also served as the UN secretary-general’s adviser for Timor-Leste to support peace-building and sustainable development.

The post of UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar was first created in 2018, mainly to tackle the Rohingya Muslim issue in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, in partnership with the country’s government.

If appointed, the 73-year-old Singaporean would not only take over duties from current envoy Christine Schraner Burgener but would also be likely to inherit her predecessor’s failed mission of persuading Myanmar junta leaders to engage in dialogue to settle the ongoing political and social turmoil caused by the coup in February.

As a former head of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Heyzer is no stranger to Myanmar. She visited the country several times under the previous military regime that ruled the country until March 2011 and knows well the poverty endured by many in the Southeast Asian country. She was also a supporter of the country’s transition to democracy, which was halted by the coup.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (seventh from right) meets with President of Myanmar, Thein Sein (right of Mr. Ban), and key ministers in Mr. Sein’s Government. With Mr. Ban are Vijay Nambiar (sixth from right), and Noeleen Heyzer (fifth from right) Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

When the then regime was reluctant to allow international relief assistance in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which wreaked havoc in the country’s Irrawaddy Delta area in 2008, killing more than 130,000 people, the then head of  ESCAP was also involved in getting aid delivered to those in need by organizing a post-Nargis recovery conference in Bangkok. The junta’s Deputy Foreign Minister U Kyaw Thu, who was coordinating international assistance at the time, was a main speaker there. Finally, ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, was able to fly the aid in.

“Noeleen Heyzer thought that the key was to see things from the Burmese (Myanmar) junta’s perspective, to talk in a language they understood, and thereby break the impasse,” writes Thant Myint-U in his latest book The Hidden History of Burma.

After the then junta released Myanmar’s popular democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in late 2010, the UN official stepped up her dialogue with the generals for the sake of the country’s development, telling them, “We can bring the best minds here to work with you,” according to the book.

Then she invited Nobel Prize-winning US economist Joseph Stiglitz to Myanmar. In Naypyitaw’s Myanmar Convention Center, before an audience packed with civil society representatives and government officials, including then Prime Minister U Thein Sein, who would become the country’s president a few months later in the regime’s proxy government, Stiglitz stressed the need to increase spending on health and education, invest in rural development and use revenues from oil and gas wisely.

When community strife between Rakhine and Rohingya people deteriorated in Rakhine State in 2012, the Thein Sein government asked Heyzer to help devise an economic development strategy that would be good for both communities.

“Heyzer passed this request on to the UN headquarters in New York. Nothing happened,” Thant Myint-U writes.

She also has good relations with Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). When the news of her would-be appointment as the special envoy circulated, some elected lawmakers—since ousted by the coup—welcomed it, hoping that she would break the political impasse.

The current military regime leaders in Naypyitaw would likely feel more comfortable talking to Heyzer than some other international diplomats, as she is one of the few to have earned the trust of their predecessors. But Heyzer shouldn’t take the significance of her old friendship with the former regime for granted, as current junta leader Min Aung Hlaing is unpredictable. Basically, like its predecessor, the current regime is interested only in maintaining power, not in compromising with its adversaries. It will show up at the table only when it has no choice or sees potential benefits in talking.


How to Support Myanmar’s Activists and Civil Disobedience Movement

Popularized by Thai protesters in 2014, the three-finger salute has become a prominent symbol against the coup in Myanmar. Photo by Gayatri Malhotra.

Khin Mai Aung shares how Buddhists and other allies can support Myanmar’s activists and Civil Disobedience Movement in the aftermath of the February 2021 military coup.

As Myanmar spiraled into chaos after a February 2021 military coup, the international Buddhist flock and other friends of the country who had been heartened by its transition to semi-democracy watched with mounting concern. To be sure, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been backsliding on civil liberties for a few years – with an exodus of over 700,000 persecuted Rohingya Muslims, an alarming rise in religious nationalism, surging discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and targeting of political opponents with arrest.

But in the months since the coup, a widespread and rapid erosion of order and security has engulfed Myanmar, with scores of peaceful protestors gunned down, internet shutdowns, large scale targeting of journalists and media institutions, and a looming threat of all out civil war. The people of Myanmar – Buddhists and religious minorities, Bamar as well as ethnic minorities – collectively face a singular threat, the barbaric junta which has ruthlessly taken power despite a resounding loss in last year’s elections.

As international observers reflect on how to support Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement of boycotting government workers and brave protesters taking to the streets, Burmese community groups within the country’s diaspora and international Buddhist organizations have sprung into action. Partnering with vetted intermediaries in Thailand and Myanmar, these groups are dispersing aid in grants and in kind support on the ground within Myanmar.

The Clear View Project, a Buddhist nonprofit that funds social change and relief efforts from a socially engaged Buddhist perspective, is one such organization. In partnership with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), Clear View has conducted fundraising for relief projects, including for telecommunications equipment like SIM cards, personal protective equipment for protestors, medical and funeral expenses, and financial support for government workers boycotting the junta.

Clear View and INEB are also launching a new initiative specifically to support monks and nuns in the Civil Disobedience Movement. While these religious figures have not been categorically targeted, this initiative is directed at assisting those who participated in protests, some of whom are in hiding to avoid arrest. Clearview is also working with partners to organize a “Burma Spring” virtual film festival benefit in June 2021 to raise additional funds to support Myanmar activists. As of late April, Clear View and INEB had raised about $24,000 for their collective efforts, and donors can designate their preference for use of funds.

Hozan Alan Senauke of the Clear View Project recommends that American allies can also make a difference by lobbying the United States “to apply pressure on Thailand [to advocate] for humanitarian treatment of displaced people, for opening its borders, and for not repatriating them – that’s a place that via the State Department we have some agency.”

Clear View’s sister program, the Buddhist Humanitarian Project, provides targeted support to Rohingya refugees. Over the past few years, it has raised over $50,000 to support Rohingya in refugee camps and local communities. It has continued these efforts since the coup, especially as fires ravaged several camps in Bangladesh this year. Such support is critical as Rohingya refugees remain in squalid camps and are at risk of COVID without sufficient personal protective equipment, as the world’s attention has turned to the coup and conditions inside Myanmar. One bright point, Hozan Senauke points out, is that after the coup “the whole nation of Myanmar is a tuning itself into the Rohingya issue [and broader concerns about] the government and military’s brutal discrimination toward various ethnic groups.”

Buddhist temples and secular community organizations affiliated with the Myanmar diaspora and its allies have also stepped up efforts to support the people of Myanmar. Mutual Aid Myanmar is a non-partisan volunteer organization consisting of activists and academics that is raising money to disperse humanitarian aid in Myanmar via trusted civil society groups. Like Clear View and INEB, their support covers funds for food, healthcare and shelter for now unemployed Myanmar government workers in the general strike against the junta. Mutual Aid Myanmar’s vetted local partners remain anonymous for their protection. Mutual Aid Myanmar has raised and distributed an impressive $275,000 for these purposes since the coup.

Other community-based efforts have focused on non-material supports, community education, and relationship building. The Baydar Collective is a network of youth activists from the Myanmar diaspora based in North America, named after the baydar (hyacinth) flower, which is associated with resilience and resistance. According to Ashley “Aye Aye” Dun, a graduate student at Brown University and a member of Baydar’s steering committee, Baydar’s goal is to “unite people in the Myanmar diaspora to talk about the ways that ongoing events in Myanmar affect our diasporic communities, because it directly affects us too through our families, relatives, and friends in the country struggling in the resistance.”

Baydar is hosting a virtual reading series focused on topics ranging from analyzing implications of the Myanmar opposition’s new constitution (the Federal Democracy Charter), discussing ethnic and religious divides in Myanmar and its diaspora, and examining parallels between anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar with the recent surge of anti-Asian violence in the United States. To celebrate Asian Pacific American heritage month in May, Baydar is launching a virtual art circle where members of the Myanmar diaspora will come together to discuss current events, socialize, and participate in drawing and art activities. Baydar has also supported activists in Myanmar though social media campaigns and public information dispersal, and plans to build coalitions with other Asian American activists and communities of color in the United States.

Aye Aye Dun reports that one critical way for Buddhists abroad and other supporters to support Myanmar’s resistance is to attend local anti-military protests, which Burmese Buddhist monks often attend. She believes “these events are a valuable opportunity for interfaith unity.” She also pointed to strategic boycott efforts – for example recent efforts to target Chevron, an American corporate investor in Myanmar which has actively lobbied against more aggressive sanctions on the country’s military.

More abstractly, and directed at the longer term, Aye Aye Dun suggests that allies can also focus on simply educating themselves more generally about the heterogeneity of resistance in Myanmar and its diaspora. In addition to providing direct support, allies can gain a more nuanced understanding of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious diversity and the country’s historical and sociopolitical context. They can also learn about how supporters of democracy within and outside Myanmar deploy their resistance in myriad ways, taking into account safety concerns within the country for themselves or relatives left behind. “A more sustained relationship to support Myanmar’s prodemocracy efforts requires us to always keep learning” about the situation and dynamics on the ground, says Aye Aye Dun, and “this is something we are trying to do at Baydar.”

While the situation in Myanmar is dire and likely to be protracted, these fundraising, support, and education efforts can foster a modicum of hope regarding the spirit of the people of Myanmar and its diaspora, and the diligent efforts of its diverse allies working to lift up and champion those on the frontlines of Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement.

More information about the efforts described above – which are not affiliated with Lion’s Roar – is listed below in alphabetical order.

Baydar Collective is a group of young people in North America from the Myanmar diaspora that conducts community education on the heterogeneity of anti-military resistance (and how it is shaped by intersecting differences in ethnicity, religion, class, gender, and sexuality), promotes the work of vetted United States nonprofits to support the people of Myanmar, highlights issues affecting the diaspora of Myanmar, and builds affinities and coalitions with other Asian American activists and activists of color.

Buddhist Humanitarian Project provides aid and support for Rohingya communities in Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. It is an initiative organized by the Clearview Project, in order to call upon the global Buddhist community to take a stand against violence inflicted upon the Rohingya and to support Rohingya refugees.

Clear View Project provides Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change, promotes dialogue on issues of socially engaged Buddhism, and supports communities in need, both internationally and within the United States. A successor of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Burma Project, the Clear View Project has worked in Myanmar for many years including supporting activism leading up to the 2007 Saffron Revolution and throughout the country’s political and economic reforms since 2011, supporting political reforms and community development.

International Network of Engaged Buddhists is an autonomous organization under the Bangkok-based Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation, and includes both organizational and individual members from more than 25 countries across Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. From this diversity, INEB promotes an understanding of socially engaged Buddhism which integrates the practice of Buddhism with social action for a healthy, just, and peaceful world.

Mutual Aid Myanmar provides humanitarian support via resources to unemployed general strike workers in Myanmar in the form of food, healthcare and shelter. Mutual Aid Myanmar and verified partner organizations provide this aid in kind and via small cash stipends. Partner organizations are vetted by their Board of Directors and are part of local civil society networks.


Myanmar shadow government’s militia gains popular support to fight military junta

This handout photo taken on May 7, 2021 shows protesters holding up signs supporting the “People’s Defence Force” during a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei. (AFP)

People’s Defense Force is precursor to planned Federal Union Army aimed at bringing together armed anti-junta groups

Self-defense groups set up across country in wake of attacks, arrests, night raids by military

YANGON: A newly formed armed militia under Myanmar’s shadow government is gaining the support of community self-defense groups and ethnic armies against the military junta that seized control of the country more than three months ago.

Since the coup on Feb. 1, the junta has killed at least 772 civilians during nationwide protests against the army takeover and violence.

The National Unity Government (NUG), the shadow government of former lawmakers of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) who were ousted by the junta, announced on Wednesday the formation of the People’s Defense Force (PDF), a precursor to the planned Federal Union Army that would bring together all groups involved in armed resistance.

The move has already been welcomed by community self-defense groups which have emerged throughout the country in the wake of constant attacks, arrests, and night raids by the military.

Zayar Win, from one of the self-defense groups in Yangon, told Arab News that in Myanmar’s largest city alone, there would be many hundreds or even thousands of people ready to take up arms.

“They are linked with each other but require leadership. With PDF leadership, I think a strong force would quickly emerge. As long as the regime is in power, there will be endless suffering of people. So, taking the military dictatorship to an end is the first priority,” he said.

Working as a construction engineer in Yangon, he used to operate a philanthropic organization that helped vulnerable groups when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit the country. In April, the organization stopped its charity work and focused on supporting and fundraising for the anti-junta resistance, including those that produced explosives to attack the military.

“Sadly, we have postponed helping poor people, and shifted our focus to supporting those who are fighting the military,” he added.

Many of the civilians engaged in self-defense groups have been trained by militants from the country’s ethnic groups which also oppose the junta regime.

The Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest insurgent group fighting for the greater autonomy of the eastern Karen State that borders Thailand, and the Kachin Independence Army in the northern Kachin State and northeastern Shan State that border China, have been active supporters of anti-junta resistance.

The KNU provides military training and shelter to hundreds of dissidents and protesters who have fled army persecution.

“There are many hundreds of people receiving combat training here,” a spokesperson for the KNU’s Brigade 5 told Arab News on Thursday. “There were also many people who finished training here and returned to their places of origin waiting for this moment. The PDF would be growing very fast.”

While ethnic groups support the formation of the PDF, it is not yet clear if all of them would be willing to fight under one banner, as although opposed to the current regime, ethnic minorities do not entirely trust the shadow government whose members had alienated them when they were in power.

The KNU, however, might be willing to join the fight against the common enemy, the Tatmadaw — the armed forces of Myanmar. Since late March, the group has killed more than 200 government troops in a series of clashes.

The spokesperson said: “I personally view the PDF as the armed group representing the country’s majority Bamar ethnic people. And I personally see no hurdle in unifying the armed groups of different ethnic people to fight against our common enemy, the Tatmadaw.”

But KNU secretary-general, Saw Kwe Htoo Win, on Friday told Arab News: “There are still many issues we have to make clear before making the decision.”

In one ethnic state the decision has already been taken.

Members of the Chinland Defense Force (CDF), who with home-made rifles recently killed dozens of military personnel in the mountainous Chin State bordering India, said they would join the PDF.

“We welcome the formation of the PDF, and we would cooperate with them in fighting against the regime’s forces,” a CDF spokesman told Arab News.

He said that they would also engage with the Federal Union Army when it was formed.

“We, Chin people, just want a peaceful life. Once the revolution is over, we will return to our farmland,” he added.


Philippines’ Ayala takes ‘long-term’ view on Myanmar amid crisis

Ayala CEO Fernando Zobel de Ayala says the Philippine conglomerate is preparing for a post-coronavirus economic recovery. (Source photos by EPA/Jiji and screenshot from Ayala’s website) 

Subsidiaries eye bid for Citi’s local business, healthcare and logistics investments

MANILA — The Philippines’ oldest conglomerate Ayala is taking a “long-term” view and a “wait-and-see” approach on Myanmar, executives said on Friday, even as a coup has forced other foreign businesses to exit or halt investments there.

Ayala, whose key interests are in real estate, banking and telecommunications, in 2019 announced a $237.5 million bet on Myanmar through a strategic partnership with Yoma Group, a local conglomerate controlled by tycoon Serge Pun. The Philippine company had eyed opportunities in various sectors from power to financial services.

Ayala managing director and head of its power unit Eric Francia said the group is looking at its Myanmar investments “from a long-term perspective.”

“While there is obviously a concern on a lot of issues, we remain steadfast in our long-term outlook,” Francia said during an online media briefing following the company’s shareholders meeting.

“We will just continue to work with our partners to make sure that our investments are prudently managed, and then we will take appropriate actions as the developments evolve.”

Francia’s remarks come as Southeast Asian leaders prepare for a summit in Jakarta on Saturday to tackle the Myanmar crisis, which was triggered by a military coup in February and has led to the detention of de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and bloody street protests.

“The situation on the ground is extremely sensitive,” Ayala head of corporate strategy Paolo Borromeo said. “Obviously, projects and businesses stopped. But at this stage … I think the most prudent thing to do is to wait and see and ensure the safety of our partners’ employees.”

Other companies have taken drastic steps as turmoil engulfed what was previously regarded as Southeast Asia’s “last frontier market,” with investors lauding reforms taken following its transition to democracy a decade ago. Japanese brewer Kirin Holdings said it would pull out from a joint venture with a company linked to the junta, while Thai developer Amata has suspended a $1 billion industrial estate project in the country.

Myanmar was the latest destination in a regional expansion by Ayala that has also taken the company to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

At home, Ayala, the country’s second most valuable listed conglomerate, is gearing up to resume expansion after pandemic-induced business disruptions halved the company’s net income to 17.1 billion pesos ($351 million) in 2020.

Ayala has earmarked 196 billion pesos for capital expenditure this year, largely for its real estate and telecommunications businesses. The company also plans to boost investments in newer ventures such as health care and logistics, which saw greater demand amid the pandemic.

“I think we will see a period here where we will be mainly focusing on our current businesses. There are no imminent plans to enter new sectors right now,” said Fernando Zobel de Ayala, who on Friday officially took over as the chief executive, replacing his brother Jaime Augusto, who occupied the position for 26 years. Jaime Augusto remains the Ayala chairman.

On health care, the company plans to open the country’s first cancer hospital by 2023. In February, Ayala’s AC Health unit acquired a majority stake in Qualimed Health Network, expanding its portfolio to four general hospitals, 85 outpatient clinics and 80 corporate clinics.

Logistics arm Entrego, meanwhile, is in talks with several family-owned logistics companies “to partner with some of them” amid a boom in e-commerce, said Jose Rene Almendras, who heads Ayala’s infrastructure and logistics businesses.

Meanwhile, Ayala-led Bank of the Philippine Islands has expressed interests in bidding for the local retail banking business of Citigroup, which the U.S. company plans to divest as part of a regional restructuring.

“Citibank runs excellent operations in the Philippines, which we believe are complementary to BPI’s operations and therefore we would be interested,” said bank president Jose Teodoro Limcaoco during the shareholders’ meeting.

Ayala is pinning its hopes on the Philippines’ vaccine rollout to pave the way for an economic recovery, even as the country wrestles with its worst COVID outbreak, which has overwhelmed hospitals and prompted stricter lockdown measures.

“We are cautiously optimistic about the business environment and will continue to prepare for a postpandemic economic recovery,” CEO Zobel said.


Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

Ideas and Action for a Better India

OBOR - Mr. Ranjit Barthakur

India’s perspectives on China’s ambitious plan for infrastructural connectivity in Asia, Africa and Europe

Opening remarks by Ranjit Barthakur – 21st April 2017 – Regional Dynamics of Belt & Road Initiative: BCIM – Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation, CPEC – China–Pakistan Economic Corridor BIMSTEC – Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, IORA – Indian-Ocean Rim Association.

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, I am indeed grateful to Observer Research Foundation and Mr. Sudheendra Kulkarni for giving me the opportunity to speak at the plenary session on Regional Dynamics of Belt & Road Initiative.

I would also like to welcome my co-speakers Dr. Ren Jia from China, Dr. Abid Q Suleri from Pakistan, Dr. Sreeradha Datta from India and my friend, Ambassador Tariq Karim from Bangladesh.

Executive Summary
China’s Belt and Road Initiative also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), is one of President Xi’s most ambitious foreign and economic policies. It aims to strengthen Beijing’s economic leadership through a vast program of building infrastructure throughout China’s neighbouring regions. Many foreign policy analysts view this initiative largely through a geopolitical lens, seeing it as Beijing’s attempt to gain political leverage over its neighbours. There is no doubt that this is part of Beijing’s strategic calculation. However, this analysis argues that some of the key drivers behind OBOR are largely motivated by China’s pressing economic concerns.

All levels of the Chinese Government, from the national economic planning agency to provincial universities, are scrambling to get involved in OBOR. Nearly every province in China has developed its own plan to complement the national blueprint. Major state-owned policy and commercial banks have announced generous funding plans to fulfill President Xi’s ambitious vision.

Xi launched this at a time when Chinese foreign policy has become more assertive. This plan seems to have geopolitical undercurrents to it than a purely economic interest.

Admittedly, analysists are of the view that China’s industrial policy shall be impacted by obscuring economic means to geopolitical concerns.

  • This will encourage and aid in the process of regional economic integration, speed up the process of building up infrastructure and connectivity.
  • China will assert its regional leadership through a holistic program of economic integration.
  • It is likely that Chinese domestic components in projects will be built before any overseas components for the simple reason that Beijing can enforce its plans much more effectively within its own jurisdiction.
  • Beijing is keen on engaging with different ways to reinvigorate under-performing provinces and OBOR has been touted as one of the key solutions to achieve this.
  • China is not just trying to export high end goods through OBOR but is interested in elevating the acceptance of Chinese standards.
  • Apart from the high speed rail sector, the Chinese Government is also using OBOR to advance Chinese standards in other sectors such as energy and telecommunications.
  • We want companies to move excess production capacity through direct foreign investment to ASEAN countries which require infrastructural support.
  • We need to get some model projects done and show some early signs of success and let these countries feel the positive benefits of our initiative.


OBOR Benefits

OBOR - Route Map vis-a-vis Indian interests
OBOR – Route Map vis-a-vis Indian interests

Before the 18th Party Congress in 2013, there were heated debates among Chinese policymakers and scholars about the strategic direction of the country’s foreign policy, especially in its neighbourhood. In October 2013 Beijing convened an important work conference on ‘peripheral diplomacy’. It was reportedly the first major foreign policy meeting since 2006 and the first-ever meeting on policy towards neighbouring countries since the founding of the People’s Republic. It was attended by most of the important players in the Chinese foreign policymaking process, including the entire Standing Committee of the politburo.

OBOR and its relationship with BCIM – Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation, CPEC – China–Pakistan Economic Corridor BIMSTEC – Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation and IORA – Indian-Ocean Rim Association are linked: Three coordinating government agencies – The National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce issued the first official blueprint, ‘Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’, just two years later in March 2015. However, there has been slow progress in terms of implementation of projects outside China.

The well-known geopolitical theorist, Halford Mackinder, postulated drainage and impenetrable by sea power was destined to be the “Pivot Area” of world politics. It was his view that the rule over the heart of the world’s greatest landmass would become the basis for world domination, owing to the superiority of rail over ships in terms of time and reach. Russia and China, if they came together, he predicted, could outflank the maritime world. Of course, the course of the First World War led him in later years to modify his initial perspective. In looking at the shape of the post-World War II order, he foresaw a world geopolitically balanced between a combination of the North Atlantic, or what he termed as Midland Ocean and the Asian heartland powers. In effect, he conceded that geopolitical dominance required both a continental as well as a maritime dimension. The later geopolitical theorist, Alfred Mahan, too had a Eurasian centred global perspective, but his emphasis was on maritime power, mediating between a twofold global framework, a Western and an Oriental system.

Both the Road and the Belt include regional loops and branches which extend the reach of the emerging transportation networks but also serve to tie the Road to the Belt at critical points. Thus the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is significant precisely because the port of Gwadar is one of the points where the Road and the Belt intersect. Of interest to India is the branch constituted by the BCIM corridor, which proposes to connect Yunnan in southern China with Myanmar, Bangladesh and eastern India.

OBOR-The Route, Region and the countries involved
OBOR-The Route, Region and the countries involved

The problem with narrow geostrategic interpretations of OBOR is not that they are wrong but that they are incomplete. Many analysts tend to overstate geostrategic dimensions of the project, while under appreciating the economic agenda of OBOR. The two goals are not, in fact, contradictory. China is using OBOR to assert its regional leadership through a vast program of economic integration. Its aim is to create a regional production chain, within which China would be a centre of advanced manufacturing and innovation, and the standard setter.

“A systematic project which should be jointly built through consultation to meet the interests of all and effort should be made to integrate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and the Road.”

  • Enhancing policy coordination across the Asian continent
  • Trade liberalization
  • Financial integration, and
  • Connectivity including people to people links.

OBOR - Mr. Ranjit Barthakur

China has taken advantage of the Greek economic crisis to establish itself at the strategic port of Piraeus. The Chinese Shipping Company, COSCO, has a 35-year concession to expand the port by adding 2 modern container terminals. It is likely to bid for the 67% Greek government stake in the port when it is fully privatized. Greek shipping tonnage is one of the largest in the world and most ships for Greek Shipping lines are built in China, which has the world’s largest ship building industry. Piraeus will thus serve as a major logistics hub for Chinese trade with Europe. China is planning a Land Sea Express which will link Piraeus with points on the European mainland. A US $2.5 billion project is envisaged to build a key high speed rail link from Piraeus to Western Europe.

This aspect is important because it could and it probably already has weakened the trans-Atlantic alliance which has been a stable and predictable feature of geopolitics since the end of the Cold War. The U.K. rush to join the AIIB followed by several other European powers, against U.S. opposition, was a clear indication of this emerging trend. The longer it takes for the T-TIP to be actualized, the greater the chances of China’s Eurasian project succeeding. Interestingly, Cohen foresaw a time when India, like China, could carve out a fourth geostrategic realm also continental and maritime in nature. This it would do by dominating the eastern and western reaches of the Indian Ocean and the sub-continental landmass, south of Eurasia but linked to it. If this were indeed possible then India would have an opportunity to deal with the challenge of the Chinese geo-strategic realm on its doorstep with greater room for manoeuvre. I have argued before and wish to restate again: If there is one country which has the potential to catch up with China and even overtake it, it is only India. The current asymmetry is not written in stone. What will it take India to achieve this long-term goal is well-known and I will not repeat it.

OBOR - Map

Currently, India has neither the resources nor the political and economic weight to put in place competitive and alternative connectivity networks on a global scale. Therefore, for the time being it may be worthwhile to carefully evaluate those components which may, in fact, improve India’s own connectivity to major markets and resource supplies and become participants in them just as we have chosen to do with the AIIB and the NDB. For example, building a road or rail link to Central Asia through Iran using the port of Chahbahar could then use Chinese built routes to access Central Asian and Russian destinations as well as Europe. It may be more important to deploy our limited resources to build the Indian Ocean network of ports, with connecting highways and rail routes such as exemplified by the planned Mekong-Ganga corridor and the Sittwe- Mizoram multi-modal transport corridor. There have been longstanding plans to develop the deep water port on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, Trincomalee, as a major energy and transport hub and yet despite the warning message in the shape of Chinese building the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka, and expanding the Colombo port, virtually no work has been undertaken since Indian Oil acquired the tank farm located at the port. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie at the very centre of the Bay of Bengal and could be developed to serve as a regional shipping hub for the littoral states and beyond. And yet, these islands continue to be treated as a distant outpost rather leveraging their unique location at the very centre of one of the most strategic stretches of ocean space.

It is fair to say that China, in deploying the OBOR initiative, has demonstrated a level of ambition and imagination, which is mostly absent in India’s national discourse. It is my earnest hope that the presentations that are made today will help both scholars and practitioners to think and act strategically on issues such as OBOR which will have a significant impact on India’s vital interests.

OBOR is President Xi’s most ambitious foreign and economic policy initiative. Much of the recent discussion has concerned the geopolitical aspects of the initiative. There is little doubt that the overarching objective of the initiative is helping China to achieve geopolitical goals by economically binding China’s neighbouring countries more closely to Beijing. But there are many more concrete and economic objectives behind OBOR that should not be obscured
by a focus on strategy.

The most achievable of OBOR’s goals and social influence will be its contribution to upgrading China’s manufacturing capabilities. Given Beijing’s ability to finance projects and its leverage over recipients of these loans, China’s high-end industrial goods such as high-speed rail, power generation equipment, and telecommunications equipment are likely to be used widely in OBOR countries. More questionable, however, is whether China’s neighbours will be willing to absorb its excess industrial capacity. The lack of political trust between China and some of our countries, as well as instability and security threats in others, are considerable obstacles.

Chinese bankers are likely to play a key role in determining the success of OBOR. Though they have expressed their public support for President Xi’s grand vision, some have urged caution both publicly and in private.

Their appetite to fund projects and ability to handle the complex investment environment beyond China’s border will shape the speed and the scale of OBOR. There is a general recognition that this initiative will be a decade-long undertaking and many are treading carefully.

The distinguished speakers of my panel from China, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, I am sure, will highlight the plenary session with detailed up scaling and possible down scaling even more specifically.

This speech has been delivered by Mr. Ranjit Barthakur – Founder and Trustee, Balipara Foundation, Chairman – Amalgamated Plantation and Advisor – Tata Consultancy Services.This speech includes references to the document and article written by Mr. Shyam Saran, Former Foreign Secretary,Government of India and Mr. Peter Cai, Fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia.

OBOR - Mr. Ranjit Barthakur

Assam • India

Registered Office: Balipara Tract & Frontier Foundation, House No. 5, B.P. Baruah Road, 1st Bye Lane, Narikalbari, Guwahati – 781024, Assam, India. • Society Registration No. KAM/240/A8/473 (Kamrup, Assam, India) Field Office: Balipara Tract & Frontier Foundation, c\o Wild Mahseer, Addabarie Tea Estate, P.O. Lokra, Sonitpur – 784 102, Assam, India. Mumbai Office: 201/202 Windfall, Sahar Plaza Complex, MathuradasVasanji Road, Near Hotel Kohinoor continental, J. B. Nagar, Andheri (E), Mumbai 400059. India.
Page 11 of 11

Ranjit Barthakur
Founding Chairman
Myanmar Matters

Myanmar Homes


There are few large towns or cities in Myanmar with the exception of Yangon, the largest city and port and former capital. The next largest cities are Mandalay and Moulmein. Towns and cities are usually found in or along rivers, which indicates they began as both irrigation and transport centers.

There are over 65,000 villages in Myanmar. The fall into three main types: 1) villages surrounded by palisades and fences with a village gate and sometimes guards; 2) villages without fences and no regular plan and with no public buildings in the village itself; and 3) villages strung out along a road or waterway. The second kind of villages usually often has a monastery outside the villages, fields within walking distance of the village and houses set among trees and fruit crops. Most villages have a monastery and cemetery, and sometimes a school. Clinics and hospitals are usually in the nearest town.

Homes in Myanmar

The traditional Burmese urban home is raised on four posts and has a concrete base. There are two or three rooms partitioned with plywood sheets that have curtains instead of doors. The main room is reached by the front door which sits at the top of a small flight of stairs. There are many rooms in the Bamar traditional house. Firstly. you will get to the living room at the entrance of the house. There, traditional Bamar food and drink, betel boxes, pickled tea leaves, cheroot and green tea pot are displayed. There is sometimes a well, granary and bullock cart in the courtyard.

According to the Joshua Project: Various types of houses can be found in the Burmese villages. The wealthier people often live in sturdy, mahogany homes that are raised off the ground and have plank floors and tile roofs. Those with lower incomes may live in thatched roof, bamboo houses that have dirt floors. All activities take place on the dirt floors, including eating and sleeping. Therefore, it is extremely impolite to enter a Burmese house wearing shoes.

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “The traditional house is made largely of bamboo. Flattened pieces of bamboo made into large plaited sections are used to make the walls. The floors are made of bamboo planks or wood. The frame of the house is made of wood, with hard and durable wood being used for the house posts. Roof coverings are made of a variety of materials, including thatch made from broad-leafed grass or palm fronds. Roofs may be covered with tiles, wooden shingles, or zinc sheets. Some old houses use whole tree trunks for pillars and have splendid teak paneling. The front of the house usually has a veranda that is raised a few feet off the ground. This is the public area where guests are entertained. The center of the house is the living area for the family. Behind it is a covered cooking area where rice is stored. Especially in urban areas, these houses are being replaced by more generic ones made from cement. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures ]

In the Irrawaddy Delta area natural materials such as thatch from the palm trees and shrubs that grow across the delta provided cheap, rainproof, and relatively cool roofing. In the old days houses in rural areas were mostly built of bamboo, thatch or palm leaves and rattan was used instead of iron nail for tying the structure together. Rattan is a wild creeper which grows profusely in many forests of Myanmar. It is a very resilient fiberous gift of nature which Myanmar people have been using for various purposes since time immemorial.

Some ethnic minorities have distinctive styles of houses.Many Palaung traditionally lived in multiple-family houses. Today, these structures are very rare, and most Palaung live in single-family houses. See Individual Ethnic Groups

Describing the inside of a Kachin house, Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “Their house was a modest structure of concrete and wood but the sitting room was decorated with an impressive collection of posters. Among them was a concert shot of the Scorpions and, next to that, a classic of Bruce Lee that I hadn’t seen since my youth: the scene from Enter the Dragon in which Bruce is sporting two dramatic claw marks across his chest, his mouth wide open mid-caterwaul. High up on the opposite wall was a shelflike shrine supporting the images of Jesus, Mary and the Buddha. Though I have spent the better part of two decades in Southeast Asia, this was the first time I had seen Christ and the Buddha share the same household altar. I was admiring the shrine when Myo Aung entered the room. “My father was Burman and my mother was Kachin. Burmans are always Buddhist but many Kachin are Christians.” [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]

Possessions in Myanmar

In main room of the house is the family alter with a Buddha image surrounded by flowers and offerings, there is often a coffee-style table and set of wooden or plastic chairs. The walls and shelves tend be decorated with calendars, pictures of deceased relatives and plastic flowers. The kitchens tend to be small or separated from the house. The refrigerator is kept in the dining room. Traditional musical instruments include harps and xylophones. The kitchen is in separate part of the house. Household utensils are placed in the kitchen. Traditionally a loom was kept under the house where traditional clothes were weaved.

Homes of the poor often have woven bamboo and thatch wall which are relatively cool in hot weather. Woven mats are also placed on the ground. Bucket baths are raised above the ground on timbers.

Many Burmese thatch homes are decorated with family photographs and movie posters from India, Japan and the United States. Windows have fire-hardened bamboo bars and if there is electricity it comes from an exposed bulb. Most people sit on the floor and if there are seats they are usually offered to old people. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

In villages many music players, home karaoke machines and televisions are operated by car batteries. You often see people walking around with car batteries. Candles are often on hand in case the electricity goes out.

People tend to sleep on the sheets of a bed rather than under them. If people are chilly they use a blanket. Many people wash their feet before going to bed.

Myanmar Mats

Mats are essential items in a Myanmar household. They are woven from thin strips of the thin reed, which grows in swampy areas of the Irrawaddy Delta region and Taninthayi Division of Lower Myanmar. The traditional mat weaving industry flourishes in Pantanaw, Danubyu, Laymyetnha, Hinthada and Maubin Townships in Ayeyawady Division. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

It takes at least about twelve days to weave a mat. The reeds are systematically processed after being cut by being sunned, soaked in water and peeled into strips before being woven into a mat. The thin straps are often dyed and used to make colorful patterns. Most mats have two layers. A mat which only has the upper layer woven in decorative designs is called “one smooth side” mat. When both of the two layers are woven in patterns the mat is called “two smooth sides”.

Mat weaving is a lucrative home industry. The mat goes in suits Myanmar’s culture as well as its hot weather. A traditional mat in a Myanmar house adds auspiciousness to its interior.

Myanmar Fans

Although a fan or umbrella are not included in the prescribed articles of donation for use of Buddhist monks, they are necessities in a tropical country like Myanmar. They are therefore always added to the list of articles donated to monks during Buddhist religious holidays. A large fan or umbrella helps to shade the bare-shaved head of the monk who goes barefooted when he goes round village or town under the hot morning sun to accept offerings of food. They are also protects him if there is a drizzle. The fans made for monks are large and are usually made of palm leaves. Nowadays they are covered with velvet fabric and have the donors’ names printed on it. When the monks preach sermons they generally screen their faces with the fans, close their eyes and concentrate on their sermons. This traditional method of giving sermons is called “Yet-htaung taya” (“preaching with the fan put right in front of the preaching monk”). But there are times when the monks do not screen their faces and preach sermons face to face with the audience in sonorous voice. This style of preaching is called “Yat-hle.” [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Included in the paraphernalia of the Myanmar royalty was a fan called “Daung-taung yat”. made of peacock tail feathers with a long handle. Palace pages gently fanned the royals with this fan during the hot season. When the British conquered Myanmar and ruled the country, they introduced ceiling fans which they brought from India. These were originally large fans made from cloth fastened to a long rod and attached to the ceiling. The rod tied to a rope was pulled by an office boy. This contraption was called a”punkha” (fan) and boy that operated it was “a punkha wallah.” When electricity punkhas in the rooms in office buildings were connected together with pulleys and ropes and run by a single big electric motor. Such a network of ceiling fans was used in Yangon Gereral Hospital until the outbreak of World War II.

Paper fans are widely used in Myanmar. Traditional Burmese ones are made of small thin slats of bamboo pasted on both sides with paper and usually trimmed to form a circular or oval shape. The paper fans were a must in the old days when electric fans were not yet imported. At weddings and religious ceremonies, where attendees were crowded and when the atmosphere was very close, these “portable air conditioners” were in great demand. Distributed at the marriage ceremonies they carried the names of the brides and bridegrooms. Those given away at religious ceremonies such as novitiation ceremonies had the names of the noviatiates and their parents and the date of the ceremony printed on them. With the introduction of electric ceiling fans and air conditioners, the custom of distributing fans on these occasions faded away.

However, paper fans are still distributed at funerals. The name of the deceased. his or her parents names are printed on one side of the fan and the other side carries extracts from Buddhist teachings. The fan also doubles as an invitation card because it invites the members of the cortege to a morning reception where monks are fed in memory of the dead and then the invitees are treated to a breakfast.

Parasol from Pathein

The umbrella industry of Pathein, the capital of the Ayeyarwady Division of Myanmar’s delta region, is well known and was established in Pathein over a hundred years ago. The first umbrellas were made of paper, but through experience the makers became innovative and began to produce umbrellas with canopies of cotton, silk and satin with attractive floral designs. These newly fashioned umbrellas gained popularity with the ladies and sales expanded across the country. They also caught the attention of visiting foreigners who purchased them as souvenirs, interior decoration on walls and for use as unique lampshades. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The production of the Pathein umbrella is more or less a family industry, with several divisions of labour used in the making of a single umbrella. Each worker is assigned a different task: with one responsible for making the framework of ribs and another the shaft, and others still making the canopy, the grip, the hub which holds the ribs together, and even the wedge or switch for opening and closing the umbrella. Each person works separately and is a specialist so to speak in his own line of work.

The shaft and ribs of the umbrella are made of bamboo and the hub and grip from a softwood known locally as “Ma-U Thit”. The raw materials of bamboo and wood are obtained from the lower hill slopes of the Rakhine Yoma Mountain Range near Chaungthar, which is close to Pathein.

When all the different parts made by different craftsmen are ready they are put together to make an umbrella. The canopy—dyed in pastel shades of mauve, pink, green and blue to deflect the sunlight—are attached to the frame. Sometimes a few darker shades too, such as black, dark blue and bottle green, are added. When the canopy has been fixed to the rib frame, small flowers of varying shapes and colors are painted on the background.

It is a wonder that so many different parts made by different hands all fit so snugly together, and one is able to open and close the umbrella smoothly without a hitch. Once the umbrella is folded then a small bamboo ring—wrapped in colored wool thread and attached with the same thread to an indentation on the grip— is slipped on to the folded umbrella to keep it tightly closed.

Everyday Life in Myanmar

In many ways the Myanmar of today is little changed from the Burma that emerged after World War II. Some visitors say traveling to the country is like going back in history. You can still find wind up cars and trucks. Much of the farming is still done by hand and animals without machines. In villages television and even electricity can be a rare sight. Many people favor traditional clothes. But now that Myanmar is finally reforming things are changing—and they are changing very fast, in the words of the World Bank: at “warp speed.”

Problems in everyday life include water shortages, cut off electricity, insects in the toilets, flooding and termite damage.

According to the Joshua Project: “The thickly forested mountains provide valuable lumber, while the fertile valleys support intense rice cultivation. Rice cultivation is their main occupation and basic means of economic support; it is grown for both personal consumption and trade. Although the Burmese ideally grow rice in irrigated fields, they also resort to slash and burn cultivation. With this process, the fields are cut and burned before any new crops are planted. To help in the fields, cattle and buffalo are raised to draw heavy wooden plows. It is a daily task for a whole Burmese family to go out into the fields to work. Mothers work with their babies, while the older children accompany their grandparents. [Source: Joshua Project]

Many tools used in everyday life are made of bamboo and wood and to a lesser degree of metal. Modern technology is represented most prominently in the form of sewing machines, loudspeakers, battery-run transistor radios, some guns, and occasional vehicles. A surprising number of machines and vehicles date back to the World War II era.

The traditional Burmese units of measurement are still in everyday use in Burma. According to the CIA Factbook, Burma is one of three countries that have not adopted the International System of Units (SI) metric system as their official system of weights and measures. However, in June 2011, the Burmese government’s Ministry of Commerce began discussing proposals to reform the measurement system in Burma and adopt the metric system used by most of its trading partners.

Citizens and permanent residents are required to carry government-issued National Registration Cards (NRCs), also known as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards, which permit holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards often indicate religious affiliation and ethnicity. There appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion was indicated on the card. Citizens also are required to indicate their religion on certain official application forms for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of many ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining NRCs. [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011]

Economic Daily Life in Myanmar

In August 2008, the Washington Post reported: “Today, the average household spends up to 70 percent of its budget on food. At tea shops or grocery stalls, people pull out bricks of local bills to pay for basics in an economy that the International Monetary Fund estimates suffered inflation of 40 percent in 2007. Fuel rationing and price controls have insulated the country from much of the recent shocks to the world economy. Nonetheless, black market prices for gasoline and diesel fuel have continued to spiral upward in recent months, residents say. [Source: Washington Post, August 16, 2008]

Analysts and Burmese residents say unemployment — and underemployment — is on the rise. Salaries that were already inadequate have failed to keep pace with inflation. To make up the shortfall, professionals such as government geologists double as taxi drivers, professors sell exam scores, civil servants demand bribes to process paperwork and prison guards run elaborate operations allowing the smuggling of money to inmates, in return for a 20 percent cut, local residents and former detainees said. Teachers sometimes sell lunch to their students. “Can you imagine asking your students for money? I couldn’t do it,” said a 26-year-old former elementary school teacher who switched to being a tour guide. So many people engage in corruption that the Berlin-based watchdog group Transparency International rated Burma in 2007 as tied with Somalia as the most corrupt country in the world.

For a long time purchased articles and food were placed in leaves, sometimes wrapped in string, rather than plastic bags or paper, in part because of a shortage of plastic. The effect on the environment was positive as people in Myanmar tend to litter a long and leaves quickly decompose while plastic does not.

Myanmar’s Backwardness

Myanmar missed many technological advances during 50 years of being shut off from the world by the military junta and has been struggling to catch up since an elected government came to power in 2011. Few people in Myanmar know, for example, that a man walked on the moon.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Even by the standards of authoritarian regimes, Burma lives in an epoch unto itself, a relic of the prosperous country that was once the world’s largest exporter of rice. Rangoon—or Yangon, as it is now known—which was so alive with diversity and immigration that it had a Jewish mayor in the nineteen-thirties, is today a place of deprivation and haunting beauty. The banyan trees reach out from the moldering remains of villas and colonial offices. Ancient buses, cast off by Japan, and now absurdly overloaded, wheeze through canyons on the broken macadam. Outside the law courts, men in crisp white shirts and longyis, Burma’s traditional ankle-length sarong, hunch over ancient typewriters, feeding the maw of the bureaucracy. Gaping sinkholes in the sidewalk reveal the sewer beneath, exhaling into the tropical air. Book venders, not far from where Pablo Neruda lived in the nineteen-twenties, display on their blankets books with such titles as “Essentials of Selling,” “Radio and Line Transmission,” and the I.M.F.’s “Seventh Annual Report: Exchange Restrictions, 1956.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

“In the countryside, Burma lives by candlelight. Three-quarters of the population get no electricity, though the nation has abundant oil, gas, and hydropower resources. The number of cell phones per capita is the lowest in the world, behind North Korea. Less than one per cent of the population is connected to the Web. In eastern Shan state, where I chatted with a woman who had never heard the name of the sitting President, cars are vastly outnumbered by horse-drawn carts.

Cost of Living in Myanmar

Takashi Shiraishi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Myanmar’s per capita income is far below that of Laos and Cambodia in terms of market-based foreign exchange rates to the dollar. However, the quality of people’s diets in Myanmar is no different from that in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as far as consumption of oils and fats, seafood, fruit, eggs and drinks are concerned. The only difference seems to be that people in Myanmar eat a little less meat than Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese. [Source: Takashi Shiraishi, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 10, 2008 +]

“Consumer spending by the upper 20 per cent of Myanmar’s households is about four times the comparable amount spent by the lowest 20 per cent. Despite such a big disparity, there is almost no difference between the two groups in terms of the ratio of food expenses, thereby challenging Engel’s Law, which states that as income rises, the proportion of income spent on food tends to go down. In other words, the income gap mostly translates into differences in the choice of foods and the fact that the rich are eating better. +

“These findings reflect the insufficient state of the country’s infrastructure, such as electricity, tap water and housing. People are not buying TVs, refrigerators and other household electrical appliances because electricity is supplied to less than 20 per cent of the country’s farming villages. In sum, everyone is eating every day even though they are poor, and the rich-poor divide has not resulted in major visible differences in lifestyles. Under such circumstances, a popular uprising may have difficulty catching fire.”

Myanmar, Tradition, Repression and Modernity

Describing Myanmar in 2005, Richard Paddock wrote in Los Angeles Times, Myanmar “is mostly isolated from the outside world. There are none of the McDonald’s, Starbucks or KFC outlets here that have become ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cities. Instead, workers crowd into dilapidated buses carrying shiny, metal cylinder lunch boxes with separate trays for their rice, curry and vegetables. Women commonly walk down the streets of central Yangon carrying goods on their heads. [Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2005 *]

“Secret police and a network of informers watch over the populace. Listening to overseas radio broadcasts or watching foreign shows on satellite television can result in seven years in prison. Foreign journalists are rarely allowed to visit. Dissidents are arrested in the middle of the night and vanish into the prison system. There are more than 1,300 political detainees, rights groups say, including other leaders of Suu Kyi’s party. Members of the public interviewed for this article asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety. *

“Myanmar’s isolation from the West has kept the country in a kind of time warp where many traditions remain intact. Most men wear a longyi, a sarong-like garment that reaches nearly to the ankles. Women and children wear a striking yellow sunscreen that is made from the bark of the thanaka tree. Women spread thanaka on their cheeks in circles, rectangles or swirls, sometimes to stunning effect. In central Yangon, life spills onto the streets. Families set up little kitchens in the roadway. Women sit in busy avenues selling vegetables. On the sidewalks, craftsmen make signs and mend clothes or umbrellas. Some shopkeepers run generators on the sidewalk to cope with power outages. Others set up small tables with telephones, charging 10 cents a call. Children claiming to be orphans beg for money.*

Corruption has reportedly invaded nearly every aspect of commerce. At the post office, people mailing a letter tip the clerk so she will mark the stamp instead of peeling it off and selling it. At hospitals, patients pay orderlies so they can see a doctor. “Even if blood is pumping from your artery, unless you tip the gurney operator, you will die on the stretcher,” a diplomat said. *

More overtly, the regime maintains control through countless restrictions. Anyone who allows guests to stay overnight must report their names to the police.Access to Internet sites is limited and e-mail is delayed so government minders have time to read it. There are few cellphones, and foreign publications are censored. Some people get around it, including Internet users who have become expert at accessing restricted websites. Others listen to the BBC and Voice of America on radio despite the ban. Illegal satellite dishes have sprouted from rooftops, allowing millions to watch overseas broadcasts. Security in Yangon has been tighter than ever since May 7, when bombs exploded minutes apart at two shopping malls and a trade show. By official count, 23 people were killed and more than 160 were injured. The government has blamed the blasts on pro-democracy activists, the CIA and the Thai government. No suspects have been arrested. *

Perhaps because of the Buddhist tradition of patience, or perhaps because resistance seems futile, the people of Myanmar wait quietly, work to feed their families and wish for the regime to collapse. Some hope reincarnation will free them from their hardships. “In my next life,” said a 47-year-old worker, “I want to come back in another country.”

Life Under Myanmar’s Military Regime

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “Today, despite Suu Kyi’s release and the influx of foreign investment that has brought the occasional Hummer and day spa to Rangoon, Burma is still a country preserved in amber. Tropical totalitarianism is deceptive. In North Korea, the broad, desolate avenues and drably dressed citizens make for a perfect tableau of authoritarianism. Burma’s sprays of bougainvillea, its gilded pagodas and the sway of schoolgirls dressed in the sarongs called longyis all create a false sense of contentment. But life in Burma is not easy. Roughly 40 percent of the national budget is spent on the army, while just around 1 percent each is reserved for health and education. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, December 29, 2010 =]

“The new capital in Naypyidaw, which means “abode of the kings,” was built with billions of dollars, even as nearly a third of Burmese live below the poverty line. For farmers, a hand-to-mouth existence is made worse by routine land seizures and orders to work without pay for the military. Even in Rangoon, power outages are as common as junta informants; both leave the populace in the dark. In a sign of just how removed the generals are from their subjects, confidential U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks refer to the junta lavishing money on a nuclear program with alleged help from North Korea, while junta supremo Than Shwe pondered spending $1 billion on Manchester United at the behest of his soccer-loving grandson. =

Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker, “I asked Aung San Suu Kyi whether the country had changed during her last period of house arrest. The first thing she noticed after getting out, she said, was “the hand phones and the cameras” of the supporters who gathered in front of her villa and in front of N.L.D. headquarters. Internet cafés and satellite dishes—purchased on the black market and tolerated by the regime—were everywhere. “I’m the only one without a satellite dish, precisely because they’re illegal,” she told me, with a laugh. The dictatorship understands that keeping its citizens in the dark is no longer possible, she believes, and this gives her hope. “Journals and magazines have come up in the last seven years that carry articles on politics, economics, history, the struggle for independence. Some of these articles are censored, and prevented from appearing, but even the fact that they submit these articles for publication means there’s been a change. The self-censorship is decreasing.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]

Being Followed in Myanmar

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker that Myanmar used to be a place “where you never uttered a name on a phone line and, in some cases, carried a wig to help shake off the intelligence officers in a crowd.”

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “The special branch had chased us across the city for hours, through the haunted, betel-nut-stained streets of old Rangoon, past street-side tailors hunched over ancient sewing machines and open-air bookstalls selling worm-eaten copies of Orwell and Kipling. Unable to shake the latest batch of state security men following us by foot, we jumped into a wheezing taxi of mid-20th century vintage. The young driver’s eyes widened at the foreigners who hurled themselves in the back and ordered the car to move — fast. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, December 29, 2010 =]

“And the public’s desire for freedom, of course, is why security agents were hunting us, snapping pictures with telephoto lenses fit for Hollywood paparazzi. Earlier that day, a total of at least a dozen special-branch officers trailed us, calling in our movements on their cell phones. It took the taxi driver only a couple of minutes to figure out we had a tail. Pointing back at a car practically on our bumper, he grinned and gunned the engine. For more than half an hour, our high-speed chase wound through the streets of Burma’s moldering former capital, past the carcasses of Victorian-era government buildings abandoned when the junta mysteriously moved the seat of power to a remote redoubt five years ago. We circumnavigated the massive golden spire of Shwedagon pagoda, Burma’s holiest site, and careened by the hulk of Insein prison, where Suu Kyi was once jailed and where some of the country’s 2,200 political prisoners still languish. =

“Dusk was falling. Screeching through an open-air market, the taxi finally shook our pursuers. Gratefully, we bid our driver goodbye. He reached into his pocket again, offering me Suu Kyi’s picture as a gift. I was touched, but it was his talisman to cherish. I could leave Burma. He needed the Lady to keep him safe.”

Myanmar Joins the Modern World

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I first visited Myanmar during a post-college backpacking trip through Asia in 1980. On a hot and humid night, I took a taxi from the airport through total darkness to downtown Yangon, a slum of decaying British-colonial buildings and vintage automobiles rumbling down potholed roads. Even limited television broadcasts in Myanmar were still a year away. The country felt like a vast time warp, entirely shut off from Western influence. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, March 2011 <>]

“Thirty years later, when I returned to the country—traveling on a tourist visa—I found that Myanmar has joined the modern world. Chinese businessmen and other Asian investors have poured money into hotels, restaurants and other real estate. Down the road from my faux-colonial hotel, the Savoy, I passed sushi bars, trattorias and a Starbucks knockoff where young Burmese fire text messages to one another over bran muffins and latte macchiatos. Despite efforts by the regime to restrict Internet use (and shut it down completely in times of crisis), young people crowd the city’s many cybercafés, trading information over Facebook, watching YouTube and reading about their country on a host of political Web sites. Satellite dishes have sprouted like mushrooms from the rooftop of nearly every apartment building; for customers unable or unwilling to pay fees, the dishes can be bought in the markets of Yangon and Mandalay and installed with a small bribe. “As long as you watch in your own home, nobody bothers you,” I was told by my translator, a 40-year-old former student activist I’ll call Win Win, an avid watcher of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a satellite TV channel produced by Burmese exiles in Norway, as well as the BBC and Voice of America. Win Win and his friends pass around pirated DVDs of documentaries such as Burma VJ, an Academy Award-nominated account of the 2007 protests, and CDs of subversive rock music recorded in secret studios in Myanmar. <>

“After a few days in Yangon, I flew to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, to see a live performance by J-Me, one of the country’s most popular rap musicians and the star attraction at a promotional event for Now, a fashion and culture magazine. Five hundred young Burmese, many wearing “I Love Now” T-shirts, packed a Mandalay hotel ballroom festooned with yellow bunting and illuminated by strobe lights. Hotel employees were handing out copies of the Myanmar Times, a largely apolitical English-language weekly filled with bland headlines: “Prominent Monk Helps Upgrade Toilets at Monasteries,” “Election Turnout Higher Than in 1990.”

Street Life in the Land of Shadows

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Welcome to the Hotel California,” calls out a voice from the shadows in perfect English. Three young men sit on plastic stools in the street, laughing at the greeting. The DVD vendor, a skinny 29-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and a pink button-down shirt, leaps up with a smile. Though his schooling ended in fourth grade, he speaks English in an eruption of phrases gleaned from Hollywood movies and 1950s grammar books. Meeting an American, he says, makes him feel “over the moon, on cloud nine, pleased as punch.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011 <>]

“The three “bosom buddies”—Tom, Dick, and Harry, as they call themselves—meet almost every evening to practice their English idioms. Tonight, over cups of milky tea, they will banter for hours, showing off new expressions like nuggets of gold. Now, in the dark, the three friends hesitate for a minute, puzzling over the lyrics of an old Eagles hit. “Hey, maybe you can help,” Tom says. “What do they mean when they say, ‘We are all just prisoners here of our own device?'” <>

“Myanmar is a land of shadows, a place where even the most innocent question can seem loaded with hidden intent. For most of the past half century this largely Buddhist nation of some 50 million has been shaped by the power—and paranoia—of its military leaders. The tatmadaw, as the national military is known, was the only institution capable of imposing its authority on a fractured country in the wake of independence from Britain. It did so, in part, by pulling Myanmar into a fearful isolation, from which it is only starting to emerge. <>

“This isolation, deepened by two decades of Western economic sanctions, may have preserved the nostalgic image of Myanmar as a country frozen in time, with its mist-shrouded lakes, ancient temples, and blend of traditional cultures largely unspoiled by the modern world. But it also helped accelerate the decline of what was once referred to as “the jewel of Asia.” Myanmar’s health and education systems have been gutted, while the military—with some 400,000 soldiers—drains nearly a quarter of the national budget. Most notoriously, the tatmadaw’s brutal suppression of ethnic insurgencies and civil opposition has made Myanmar a pariah nation, a distinction it now seems eager to shed

Urban Life in Myanmar

The cities in Myanmar are somewhat like the ones in India.

There has been something of a construction boom in downtown Rangoon as investors from Hong Kong and Singapore have financed new hotels and office buildings. Otherwise relatively few buildings have been built since colonial times. Paint and plaster is peeling, despite cosmetic whitewashing.

Urban population: 34 percent of total population (2010). Rate of urbanization: 2.9 percent annual rate of change (2010-15 est.), Major cities – population: Yangon (capital) 4.259 million; Mandalay 1.009 million; Nay Pyi Taw 992,000 (2009). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Largest Cities in Myanmar, with population over 100,000 (all figures are estimates for 2002): 1) Yangon, 4,016,000; 2) Mandalay, 1,057,600; 3) Mawlamyine, 367,500; 3) Bago, 228,100; 4) Pathein, 219700; 5) Monywa, 165500; 6 ) Akyab, 164400; 7 Taunggyi, 157100; 8) Meiktila, 154,900; 9) Mergui, 146,500; 10) Lashio, 128,500; 11) Pyay, 126,300; 12) Henzada, 125,000; 13) Myingyan, 123,700; 14) Dawei, 115,600; 15 ) Pakokku, 113,200; 16) Thaton, 103,200; 17) Maymyo, 102400.

According to Countries and Their Cultures: The ethnic composition of Rangoon and Mandalay is over-whelmingly Burmese, although these cities are also where most of the Indian population lives. Architecture reflects the country’s Buddhist and colonial heritage. Buddhist temples are the most important architectural features throughout the country. The Buddhist temple serves as a religious school, a community center, a guest house, a place where the government and other agencies post information, a site for sports activities, a center for welfare services for those who are poor and ill, a morgue, and a center for music and dance. It also carries out economic services such as providing loans and renting lands and homes. Temples are also important in urban areas. While most temples in central Burma are Burmese in style, the temples of Shan State tend to have a distinctive look that is referred to as the Shan style. Temples tend to be surrounded by small shops that sell sacred and secular items. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures ]

Urban Life in Yangon

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “It’s the magic hour in Yangon, when the last rays of sunlight, softer, cooler now, bathe the crumbling downtown in a golden glow, beckoning residents out into the streets. Giggling children race to buy fresh sugarcane juice. Women with cheeks daubed with a paste made of bark—the alluring Burmese sunblock—haggle with a fishmonger. In the street, bare-chested teenage boys in a circle play a rowdy game of chinlon, a sort of acrobatic Hacky Sack, while potbellied men in T-shirts and longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, sit on the sidewalk chewing red wads of betel nut.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011 <>]

“The carnival-like atmosphere doesn’t last. Night falls fast in the tropics, and the power shortages that plague Myanmar give the sudden transition a spooky edge. A decaying colonial-era government building goes black. The alleyway next door emits the bluish glow of television sets powered by portable generators. Under the trees the vendors are invisible, but candles illuminate their wares: circles of silvery fish, clusters of purple banana flowers, stacks of betel leaves. And lined up in a blue wooden case, pirated DVDs of American movies and music.”

Rural Life in Myanmar

Rural population: 66 percent of total population (2010) live mostly in 46,000 small villages scattered across the country. In the 1970s, Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar” that the highlands of Burma can be surprisingly cold, yet people still go barefoot, and wear thin clothes.

Women carry machetes balanced on their head. The main meal is often a plate of rice. Slingshots are now banned in Burma because students used them in 1988 demonstrations to shoot jingles , darts made from nails or sharpened bicycle spokes. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

Describing his stop in an Irrawaddy river town, Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic: “The children look skinny…I take out a bag of candy from my backpack and hold it out to the children. “I come in peace,” I say. An adult approaches and encourages them to snatch a piece of candy. Before long, my bag is empty. Myitkangyi is a primitive village. It has no electricity or running water, no motorized vehicles, no telephones or paved roads. Everyone lives in thatch huts on stilts, and the only ground transportation is by oxcart. Like most villages along the river, it is self-sufficient, with its own blacksmith, carpenter, and wheelwright. I pitch my tent on a sandbank across from the village, and adults wander over to sit on their haunches and study me for hours. When I eat dinner in the boat, word goes out. Soon a large crowd has gathered, sighing in unison as I open a can of Coke, exclaiming if I drop something.” [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006]

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Landless in Myanmar


Land is often the most significant asset of most rural families. Approximately 70 percent of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas and is engaged with agriculture and related activities. Many farmers use land communally under a customary land tenure system, especially in upland areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. Customary use and ownership of land is a widespread and longstanding practice.

The field assessments confirmed what is evident from secondary research that for the vast majority of the Myanmar population dependent on access to land for livelihoods, where land is taken, even with monetary compensation, the impacts on an adequate standard of living can be significant. The compensatory system is often not keeping up with rapidly escalating land prices, meaning displaced farmers being unable to acquire new land in nearby areas.

Another revealing aspect at hand was the challenges of landlessness and food insecurity faced by the rural population in Myanmar. They continue to remain at risk of land confiscation surmounting to an estimated 25 percent of farmers becoming landless agricultural labourers in Myanmar, making them food insecure, in particular when food prices increase.

The Government of Myanmar itself recognizes landlessness as a major problem in its Framework for Economic and Social Reforms (FESR) and states that landlessness in the country was at 26% in 2005, with even higher levels in Yangon (39%), Ayeyarwady (33%), and Bago (41%) Regions, the so-called “rice bowl” of Myanmar.

The need of the hour therefore is reform of land policy and law in Myanmar, which to this day remains incomplete. There is a recognized need in Myanmar for a written comprehensive land use policy.


In July 2012, a cabinet level committee was established known as the Land Allotment and Utilization Scrutiny Committee, with a remit to focus on national land-use policy, land use planning, and allocation of land for investment that will allow it to better balance competing demands for land-use that will inevitably increase with further economic development and investment. The land regime in Myanmar is characterized by a patchwork of new and old laws that leads to overlap, contradiction and confusion. Aworking group of the Committee, which includes civil society representation and external experts, is currently formulating a draft land policy. The final policy is not expected to reach Parliament until mid-2015 or early 2016. Once adopted, the policy will presumably guide the drafting of an overarching land law.

Insecurity of tenure is another major problem. Moreover, the land registration system is considered inefficient, with complex requirements and lack of benefits for registering land. UN Habitat recently announced new cooperation with the Government of Myanmar on the implementation of a land administration and management programme. The land mapping system is weak, which further exacerbates the problem of land disputes, as land classifications and mapping may overlap or not reflect true land use patterns. For example, one map may classify a plot of land as forest land, whereas another map may classify the same plot as farmland, leading to confusion about land use rights and possible disputes about whether the land can be sold or not, depending on the classification. Participatory land use planning is needed that balances the needs of all land users.

The current government’s handling of land disputes will set a precedent for how future Myanmar administrations are likely to address the legacies of cronyism, abuse, and lawlessness dating back to the former military regime. Besides devising a working legal framework for the future, the government needs to address issues of land claims predating the Thein Sein government in a manner deemed fair by the public. The extent to which legislators and officials are able to address land reforms and tackle land disputes will be one of the most important tests for the reformist government and President Thein Sein.



Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talks with President Thein Sein reiterated the importance of building on the natural geographic, cultural and historic cultural links between the two countries.

Modi, however, has his task cut out in bridging the growing gap between the potential and reality of India’s partnership with Myanmar. The problem in Delhi is not in the lack of a vision for the future of the relationship, but India’s problems in translating that into practical outcomes over the last two decades.

The hosting of the East Asia Summit in the capital of Myanmar marks an end to the prolonged international isolation of the nation that was once among the richest nations of the region and was at the forefront of imagining post-colonial Asia.In an effort to breakout of the Western pressure, Myanmar joined the Association of South East Asian Nations and began tentative economic reforms.

Over the last two decades, India’s relationship with Myanmar has steadily expanded. The focus was on restoring high level political exchanges, renewing economic ties, and reviving trans-border links between India’s North East and northern Myanmar.

The two sides also launched cooperation between their security forces to counter insurgencies operating on both sides of the restive land frontier that is 1600 km long. India also stepped up military exchanges with the armed forces of Myanmar. As India unveiled its Look East policy in the early 1990s, Myanmar became quite central to Delhi’s engagement with South East Asia. After all Myanmar is the natural land bridge between India and East Asia.

Given the vast and shared maritime frontier in the Bay of Bengal and southern Myanmar’s location at the nexus between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the eastern neighbour has also become an important element of India’s new maritime calculus.


Despite the recognition of these massive stakes in Myanmar, there is no denying that Delhi’s performance there has been less than impressive. Bilateral trade remains at a paltry 2 billion dollars. Trans-border connectivity projects have been slow to get off the ground. Indian companies, private and public, have been reluctant to take up projects in the country. For one, India no longer has a privileged access to the markets in Myanmar. It has to compete with global businesses in the country. At the same time, as Thein Sein told the PM, Myanmar wants to take full advantage of India’s prospects for rapid economic growth under Modi. As it diversifies its international relations, India remains an important political partner for Myanmar. The PM’s emphasis on expanding of infrastructure in the North East, promoting connectivity to South East Asia, developing the  huge tourism potential in the region,


especially the Buddhist circuit, and timely implementation of projects do indeed set the stage for a new phase in bilateral relations. Modi has promised President Thein Sein to return to Myanmar on bilateral visit next year. By that time, the PM should have a concrete action plan for a vigorous and sustainable framework for the transformation of the partnership with Nay Pyi Taw.