Sunday, March 24, 2013

Burma, Myanmar in Her Eyes: ‘Freedom From Fear’

by Bill Doughty

During Women’s History Month, in the weeks leading up to the Burmese New Year, and in light of new incidents of ethnic violence in that beautiful but torn country, it is timely to read the words of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a pivotal figure, philosopher and heroic leader in Burma (now also known as Myanmar) who calls for “a genuine respect for freedom, peace and justice.”

Aung San (right) and family in 1947, with Suu Kyi is in front.
She is the daughter of Aung San, a former leader of the country’s independence movement against British colonialism.  Aung San first aligned with the Japanese just prior to WWII until he saw the fascism of Imperial Japan’s military and sided with the Allies.  He was assassinated by a rival in 1947 on the eve of the country’s independence but is remembered today as the father of modern Burma.  

Aung San’s daughter, an Oxford-educated winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, continued her father’s push to democratic rule and freedom but was arrested, separated from her family and kept under house arrest for 15 of 21 years between 1989 and 2010.  Her selfless commitment, backed by the free world, led to elections and the beginning of a transition from military junta control to civilian government rule. Today, Aung San Suu Kyii  chairs Myanmar’s leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy.

“Freedom From Fear” was first published in 1991 and reissued in 1995, edited by Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband, Dr. Michael Aris.  It is presented in three parts.

Part I, “The Inheritance,” focuses on her early writing, including a biography of her father and review of literature in the context of religion and politics.  The chapter “My Country and People” is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the ethnic diversity of Burma.  It provides the geography, history and sociology needed to explain the differences of Mon-Khmers, Tibeto-Burmans and Thai-Shans -- Chins, Kachins, Krens, Kayahs, Mons, Arakanese (Rakhines) and Shans; how these people were impacted by Indian, Chinese, Portuguese and British culture; and how the country has been influenced by religions such as natural spirit worship, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and others.

Although she doesn’t mention the immigrant ethnic Rohingya Muslims in her 1991 book, Aung San Suu Kyi recently called ethnic violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western and central Burma “a huge international tragedy.” She restated her desire to promote reconciliation after 200 people were killed and 100,000 were displaced from their homes in 2012.  This weekend, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the Meikhtila region after ethnic/religious clashes killed at least 20 people.

Aung San Suu Kyi challenges people to rise above their superstitions, prejudices and, most of all, fears.

Part II, “The Struggle,” shows a chronological sequence of the movement toward democracy.

“The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community.  It is part of the unceasing human endeavour to prove that the spirit of man can transcend the flaws of his own nature.”

Aung San Suu Kyi outlines her vision, objectives and strategy. The book’s namesake chapter, “Freedom from Fear,” calls for courage in the face of oppression:

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. Most Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom one bears ill will, and moha-gati is aberration due to ignorance. But perhaps the worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all sense of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds of corruption ... It would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear.”

In a message that continues to resonate for developing free nations, Aung San Suu Kyi discusses how Germany and Japan became strong democratic states after the Second World War.  In the chapter, “The Need for Solidarity Among Ethnic Groups,” she writes, “We must all work together if we are to live together in unity and harmony.

Part III, “Appreciations,” offers reminiscences, observations and assessments by others.  

The 1995 edition, which includes forewards by Václav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, concludes with “The Spirit of Reconciliation,” Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement in 1995 after nearly six years of detention.  She writes, “I have always believed that the future stability and happiness of our nation depends entirely on the readiness of all parties to work towards reconciliation.”

In another book, 1996’s “Letters from Burma,” Aung San Suu Kyi waxes philosophically on life in her homeland.

Many of her letter-essays in “Letters from Burma,” which were published in Japan’s Mainichi Shinbun, culminate in moral reflections, such as this powerful observation:

“Unity in diversity has to be the principle of those who genuinely wish to build our country into a strong nation that allows a variety of races, languages, beliefs and cultures to flourish in peaceful and happy co-existence.  Only a government that tolerates opinions and attitudes different from its own will be able to create an environment where peoples of diverse traditions and aspirations can breathe freely in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has a strong and inspiring voice, in many ways like that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not only for women and men in her country but for people everywhere.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

China and 'Best Case, Nuanced Scenario'

Review by Bill Doughty

“Monsoon” by Robert D. Kaplan provides a panoramic sweep of the Indian Ocean and its relevance to world commerce, with a special discussion of China, the United States Navy, and energy.

“Forty percent of seaborne crude oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz at one end of the ocean,” he writes, “and 50 percent of the world’s merchant fleet capacity is hosted at the Strait of Malacca, at the other end, making the Indian Ocean the globe’s busiest and most important interstate.”

Citing the International Energy Agency’s “World Energy Outlook 2007,” presented in Paris, Kaplan writes, “The world’s energy needs will rise by 50 percent by 2030, and almost half of the consumption will come from India and China.”  What are the political realities of growing economic stakes, finite energy resources and heightened nationalism in the face of globalization?

Kaplan’s observations conclude in a pivotal chapter, “China’s Two-Ocean Strategy?”

“[As] China rises economically and politically, taking advantage, in effect, of America’s military quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new and more complex order is gradually emerging in the maritime rimland of Eurasia, which includes not only the Indian Ocean but [also] the western Pacific.  What follows is an analysis of a U.S. Navy that has already reached the zenith of its dominance, faced with a rising Chinese maritime presence that, along with the rise of India, could over time herald the end of Western control over these waters.”

Kaplan evaluates the shrinking U.S. Navy -- from 6,700 ships at the end of World War II, 600 ships during the Cold War, to fewer than 280 ships today.

At the same time, “China yearns for an authentic blue water, or oceanic, navy...” in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Kaplan posits.  Add Japan, India and other Pacific nations to the mix and this will lead, he concludes, to an increasingly complex global power arrangement, one that is not bipolar or suicidal.  In fact, China already cooperates with other nations, including the United States in combatting a mutual enemy -- piracy.

Ship's Serviceman Seaman Qing Su, right, from New York, translates for a U.S-China combined visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team comprised of Sailors from the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81) and the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) frigate Yi Yang (FF 548) during a bilateral counterpiracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden, Sept. 17, 2012. The focus of the exercise was American and Chinese naval cooperation in detecting, boarding, and searching suspected pirated vessels. (Photo by MC2 Aaron Chase)
Kaplan cites the cooperative strategies espoused by (now retired) Adm. Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Chief of Naval Operations who, in 2007, said, “the economic tide of all nations rises not when the seas are controlled by one [nation] but rather when they are made safe and free for all.”

“Monsoon” is a key read on current CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s Professional Reading Program list in the “Operate Forward” category.  

These past two blogposts only begin to scratch the surface of this great book.  “Monsoon” demanded two posts to showcase both its science and art.  This book is essential to understanding the sweeping history, present reality and potential future of the region.

As for the future, Kaplan writes, “Strong American-Chinese bilateral relations going forward is not only plausible, but might be the best-case scenario for the global system in the twenty-first century...”

“Therefore, the most likely scenario in my mind for relations with China is something quite nuanced: the United States will both compete and cooperate with China.  The American-Chinese rivalry of the future could give new meaning tot he word ‘subtlety,’ especially in its economic and diplomatic arrangements.  Yet, if this relationship has its hard edges, I expect one of those will be where the two countries’ navies interact: in the Greater Indian Ocean and western Pacific.”

Mutually Assured Destruction, with it’s apt acronym, created an uneasy and dangerous peace during the Cold War.  Today, the intertwined economic and energy dependency of the largest economies of the East and West may achieve a mutually assured peace.  Kaplan shows that readers and leaders on all sides need to understand how the winds are blowing across the Indian Ocean in order to fully see the big picture.

Chinese sailors render honors to Secretary of the Navy the Honorable Ray Mabus during a visit to the People's Liberation Army (Navy) hospital ship Peace Ark (866) Nov. 29, 2012. Mabus visited Ningbo, China to discuss the United States' new defense strategy, deepening military-to-military engagements, rebalancing toward the Pacific and fostering a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China. (U.S. Navy photo by MCC Sam Shavers)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kaplan Paints in a Monsoon

by Bill Doughty

Robert Kaplan paints words from a palatte of nearly forgotten colors and memories.

In “Monsoon” -- a top pick on the CNO’s Professional Reading Program, Kaplan literally (and littorally) travels the breadth of the Indian Ocean and, like an artist, reveals the people, places and history of the dynamic and vital IO Rim.

His words evoke sights, smells, tastes, dimensions and sensations for the reader.

Case in point:

“A few minutes from the Shah Jahan Mosque is the necropolis on Makli Hill: tombs from the Samma, Arghun, Tarkhan, and Mughal periods, made of sandstone and glazed bricks.  These, too, were dynasties with both Turkic and Mongol blood.  And yet the tombs remind one of so many similar buildings in India, demonstrating that what we think of as Indian is itself a mélange of Near Eastern cultures.  Everywhere there are brick plinths, rectangular pillars, imposing ramparts, and cracked bulbous domes.  The buckling, glazed brick is peeled away in layers, like old mascara, with faint touches of milky blue.  These lonely monuments appear to soar into the clouds, each occupying its own little hill.  Some, with their intricate fretwork, have an almost Byzantine stateliness.  Others bear the proportions and complexity of the pharaonic buildings at Karnak.  All stand in majestic separation from one another amid a destitute wasteland, with garbage everywhere, like at so many historical and cultural sites in Pakistan. It is as though in the last sixty years -- unlike during the dynastic centuries recounted by these tombs -- there has been no state here; nothing but marauders.”

This is beautifully constructed prose, and there is a lot of it.  Kaplan’s words frame the abstract into the tangible and help us understand people and situations in Oman, Baluchistan, Bangladesh, several regions of India, Burma, Sri Lanka and Zanzibar and along the Indus River. 

Several diverse and sometimes unexpected themes link his narrative.  These include the voyages of Zheng He and Vasco de Gama; the poem “The Lusiads”  (“Os Lusíadas”) by Luís Vaz de Camões; environmental and seismic issues, including climate change, tsunami; the influence of world religions; and, of course, the drift of monsoon seasons and winds.

“The southwest monsoon that arrives in the Bay of Bengal in early summer provides a new dimension to rain.  This is the time of tropical cyclones, and it is as though the ocean was continually emptying itself upon you.  For days at a time, the sky is a low, claustrophobic vault of angry clouds.  Absent sunlight, the landscape -- however intrinsically rich in color, with mountains of hibiscus and bright orange mangoes, and the flowing saris of women -- becomes scrubbed over in a grainy mist.  Mud is the primary color, but it is not depressing.  It is the coolness that you notice first, not the leaden darkness.  You are filled with energy.  No longer are your clothes dissolving in sweat or your knees hollow from the heat.  No longer is the air something thick and oppressive that your body needs to push against.”

Kaplan notes that a million ships pass through the Indian Ocean straits each year.  Countries like India and China are building more ships, competing for resources and influence as they develop various cooperative relationships.

Kaplan’s canvas is wide.  He combines long and deep descriptions with sudden flashes of pinpoint insights expressed in just one or two sentences.  Some examples:

  • “The Indian Ocean is small in a cultural sense but too vast even in the jet age for one power to gain real sway over it.”
  • “History is as much a series of accidents and ruined schemes as of great plans.”
  • “The Indus signals the western edge of the Subcontinent, from where its political unity was frequently breached by invaders coming out of the plateau and deserts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Baluchistan.  It is thus a lesson in the feebleness of borders.”
  • Regarding India’s democratic spirit: “A spirit that is truly breathtaking in terms of what it can overcome. That is india’s ultimate strength.”
  • “Strategic, romantic, and a moral catastrophe, Burma is a place that tends to consume people.”
  • “The future of American power is related directly to how it communicates its concern about issues like climate change to Bangladeshis and others.”
Jakarta, Indonesia
As a book of thoughtful influence and reflection, “Monsoon” is an important read on the two-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami March 11 and U.S. Navy’s humanitarian response.  Next year will be the ten-year anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami which slammed Indonesia at the end of 2004.  The U.S. Navy’s humanitarian response was a milestone cultural and historical event that, according to Kaplan, made a difference for the littoral nations throughout the region.

“Monsoon: the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” is presented in three parts, with the third predominantly focused on China and filled with naval power insights -- from Alfred Thayer Mahan in the late 1800s to current scholars from the U.S. Naval War College today, including James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara.

Robert D. Kaplan
Kaplan’s analysis in Chapter 15 -- “China’s Two-Ocean Strategy?” -- is especially important to the U.S. Navy especially since Kaplan presciently touches on budgetary challenges, which he wrote two years before the threat of the Sequester, starting to bite this month. 

Respected thinkers Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Pankaj Mishra of India and Great Britain (author of the insightful “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia”), both referenced in Monsoon, warn Americans about seeing Asia (and China, in particular) through an American prism that assumes people in the region want to be just like us.  Many people in and around the Indian Ocean hunger for freedom and democracy, but we would be best served if we see their region through their eyes.  Kaplan helps make that happen.  He helps us see the big picture.