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Author gives insight into modern-day Myanmar

March 21, 2016

Richard Cockett, a historian and journalist who’s been travelling Myanmar to promote his new book Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma, sat down with The Myanmar Times’ RJ Vogt to discuss his years of research and travel in Myanmar.

Working in Myanmar has enabled Richard Cockett to develop a deep understanding of the country. Photo - Nyan Zay Htet

The book, which is touted as an overview of contemporary Myanmar, is based on hundreds of interviews Cockett conducted around the country during his work covering Southeast Asia for The Economist. He recently gave talks to the Yangon School of Political Science, the British Council and other groups based on his studies of Myanmar.

What kind of people have you been speaking to at these events?

What I wanted to do is communicate to Burmese people. At the British Council we had hundreds of people there, I reckon over 200. They were kind of swamped. And also at the Yangon School of Political Science. But the other events have been mostly foreigners. So it’s been a mix.

How did the book come together?

For The Economist, I was coming here many times a year: four, five, six times a year, and often for many weeks. So I got to see a lot of people.

Are there some interviews that stick out in your memory?

I had some long interviews with some of the older, senior leaders of the NLD. Win Tin, probably about a year before he died. He gave me an interview for several hours – U Tin Oo as well. They were fascinating, set-piece ones. But I was also travelling around the country, so there were long interviews with survivors of the Kachin Forces during the Second World War who were attached to the American Special Forces.

You first started visiting and interviewing people here in 2010, when the country was still under a military regime. How do you see the effects of opening up – things such as mobile technology – in modern Myanmar?

Mobile telephony has been hugely improved, but again – only in the Bamar heartland. If you go up into Kachin State or Chin State, the internet barely works. It has very slow speed, people can hardly use it and mobile reception is still very bad. I’m sure that will improve, spreading the masts [telephone lines] … that’s very impressive. But they were deprived of all that by the military regimes. They’ve got a long way to catch up. When people say Burma is now super-connected … there’s some big caveats there: Parts of central Burma, particularly in the cities, now have greater access. But the rest of the country doesn’t.

Which raises the question of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party and the new proxy president, U Htin Kyaw – what are they going to do first in this new age of change? Where’s the priority?

It’s extremely obscure. Nobody really knows, which I think is mainly because they themselves don’t really know. The key word here [in Myanmar] is patience. The people here have been patient for 60 years and they eventually got peaceful change, so they’re not in any hurry to move it on. The NLD knows they still have huge forces opposed to them. It’s a balancing act now between democratically elected parliament and the military, which still has control over several key ministries. The room to manoeuvre is there, the space is there, but they’re very hemmed in. Do you confront this now? Or do you play a long game and wait for people to come over to you? I don’t think they know yet.

Many Western nations have clamoured for action on the ongoing Rohingya crisis. Based on your research, what do you think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will do about the Rohingya – who are officially referred to as Bengalis – in Rakhine State?

Well the Rohingya issue is very big in the West. But the Rohingya issue is symptomatic of a wider issue in the whole of Burma. It’s: how do you treat the existing diversity of the country? Whether the Burman authorities like it or not, this is a very diverse country with lots of different ethnic groups in it. And the treatment meted out to the Rohingya in the past three to four years is very little different to the treatment that was handed to the Karen, the Kachin, the Shan, the Chin, et cetera since the early 1960s. And they are citizens! They are … citizens, but this “paper” definition of citizenship has done them no good at all. They have been subjected to exactly the same persecution, and some of them have called it genocide too. It’s part of a wider problem in Burma – indeed; it is the essential problem of Myanmar today. As Aung San Suu Kyi takes over, she says her priority is the peace process. Well, how you reconcile the Burmans with the ethnic minorities of this country is the central issue of the peace process. And that’s got to include the Rohingya.

And yet, in your book, you note that Yangon is “unequalled in its atmosphere of religious tolerance”. How can a country so rife with ethnic and religious conflict have such a peacefully cosmopolitan population centre?

This is the crux of what can save the new Myanmar. The most vivid example for me is … the synagogue on 26th Street. I spent a couple of pages on this: When I first went in there I met the caretaker of the synagogue. And the caretaker is a Sunni Muslim. So I asked him, if he had a problem as a Muslim, being a caretaker for the Jewish synagogue. And he, he didn’t understand the question. He didn’t understand why I would ask that.

But why? What about Yangon makes that kind of peaceful coexistence possible?

It works here because originally they all came here with the same aim: to make money, to trade. And that’s what bound them together. It’s the same plural society that remains in Mawlamyine. J.S. Furnivall, when he used the term “plural society”, he used it as a criticism. He was against the forces of globalisation. He saw these immigrants destroying Burman national life. Which, to a degree, they did. But amongst themselves, they were remarkably tolerant because they were all working toward the same end. And I would argue that it’s even better now, after 60 years, because they’ve all intermarried. They look after each other because it’s in their interest to do so, and the reason they haven’t been driven apart is because they’ve been isolated from the rest of the world. So I would actually invert it – I think downtown Yangon is a model of what a real plural society should be. It’s one of the very, very rare places in the world where all these different ethnic groups really do look after and mutually support each other.

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