Parallel Editing in Burma

Recent and ongoing developments in Burma call for parallel editing—the filmmaking technique of running two scenes concurrently to suggest that they are happening at the same time while ratcheting up suspense.

On the one hand, the tough military regime is seemingly committing itself to talks with its longtime antagonist Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), breaking the deadlock between the ruling regime and the leading opposition party. On the other hand, the governing State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has reportedly increased the number of its troops stationed in areas mainly occupied by members of ethnic minorities such as the Karen and Karenni people. Military activities are increasing along with the number of the troops in the region.

But Burma isn’t a film in the making. It’s a country suffering an unacknowledged civil war, a clandestine conflict, and a sad reality that can’t be hidden away.

Rice Harvest Attack

The increasing numbers of troops in the mainly Karen and Karenni people areas are causing displacement, deaths, and starvation as the regime forcibly relocates minority villages to areas under tighter control. For example, on November 6, the SPDC troops (Military Operations Command 1 and Division 88) repeatedly shelled the rice fields in the Yeh Mu Plaw area in the Northern Karen State.

The Free Burma Rangers, a relief organization, reports that there are over 1,000 internally displaced persons due to these attacks, which were meant to disrupt the rice harvest. The two units began attacking out of camps along the Kyauk Kyi-Hsaw Hta road on October 24. At least nine villagers were wounded and two killed in these attacks against villagers trying to harvest their rice.

The relief organization’s report further notes that 64 rice fields were being blocked and controlled by the SPDC troops. North of the Thay Loh Klo River, a tributary of the Yunzalin River, troops were firing mortar rounds into the surrounding rice fields to keep villagers away. The Free Burma Rangers say these attacks are the most recent phase of an offensive, which began last year and has displaced over 30,000 people and killed over 370 villagers in Northern Karen State.

Sign of Change

None of the activities mentioned are new. But they should dampen any excitement over the developments in and around Rangoon. For those who anticipate fruitful dialogues and therefore positive developments, it’s imperative to keep looking at what’s happening within Burma, not just official and international talks.

Together with the people of Burma, the international community has grown dismayed about a country with such great potential and its silently suffering people. Understandably, any move that takes place in the midst of Burma’s long deadlock serves as a sign of progress, or at least a sign of change.

According to a recent telephone interview with the NLD spokesperson Myint Thein, it looks like Aung San Suu Kyi will soon be released. As widely reported, she was recently permitted to meet with her party’s leaders for the first time in three years. During the meeting, according to another party spokesperson named U Lwin, Aung San Suu Kyi reported to her party leaders that she has agreed to cooperate with the ruling junta to explore a possible dialogue process in consideration of ethnic nationalities, presumably the non-Burmans. So far so good. Aung San Suu Kyi now believes “the ruling authorities have the will for national reconciliation,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. She and her party leaders will have to convince the country that this is indeed true.

Positive Steps

Since the crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators, including monks, the Burmese regime has convincingly demonstrated its commitment for change in the country. First, it welcomed United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari. Not only did Gambari get to meet with General Than Shwe, he also got to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the opposition. He was allowed to make his second visit rather successfully, even at the disbelief of the United States. A liaison, Aung Kyi, was appointed by the regime to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Political prisoners, including members of NLD, have been released almost continuously. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN’s human rights envoy, has been welcomed back to visit Burma. Undoubtedly, the regime should certainly be encouraged and supported for these developments. Nevertheless, there’s another side of the story which still significantly represents Burma, only in parallel actions.

The Other Side

Any attempt either to ignore the other side of the Burma story or to sway away the world’s attention from the killings, displacements, and miseries suffered by the ethnic minorities beyond description in the clandestine war zone would be absolutely counterproductive to every effort for national reconciliation made in Rangoon, Pyinmana, New York, Washington, or London. The current situation in Burma challenges all parties concerned. There seem to be few prospects for a large portion of the population as they flee for their lives even as the regime begins to regain trust from its longtime opponent, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

While the current political activities in and around Rangoon are by all means to be welcome by all hopeful people of Burma, for real progress to take root, the regime must halt all the military attacks against its citizens, particularly those in Karen and Karenni areas. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD also must acknowledge it’s fully aware of the ongoing military activities in the areas of ethnic minorities and their unspeakable suffering. Perhaps her opposition party can explain to the minorities how it will take every step possible with the aim to secure a nationwide ceasefire so that a genuine national reconciliation can also be entertained by the ethnic minorities.

There’s no reason to believe that a nationwide ceasefire is impossible. An alliance of ethnic political parties has issued a statement welcoming Aung San Suu Kyi’s willingness to cooperate with the junta in constructive dialogue. For the groups waging armed struggle against the Burmese regime, 58 years of armed conflict has not brought about the desired results. Therefore, it’s crucial in their view that dialogue with the military is achieved. At the same time, these nationalities are well aware that a dialogue by itself will not bring about change. Many ethnic armies entered into ceasefires with the military starting from 1989 to find a political solution. To be sure, the ethnic armed groups need an alternate way to settle their grievances with a political solution instead of armed struggle.

Cautious and Critical

To be cautious and critical over any political move in Burma is a matter of expediency for the ethnic minorities, a hard-learned lesson from experience, but to support Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD at this point in time is irrefutably prudent for everyone, including ethnic minorities, struggling for peace and peaceful political settlements in Burma.

Of course the international community and the Burmese as well as non-Burmese around the world are challenged to understand the country’s predicament in parallel editing. But it’s both prudent and imperative not to miss the rare chance for genuinely positive change in this war-torn nation.

May Oo is a former Karen refugee from Burma, a graduate of San Francisco State University, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). She is currently a Ph.D student in law and social science at Indiana University School of Law and a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Democracy in Plural Societies.