Tag: burma

A little bit of Burma in Blacktown

Published in the February 2017 edition of The Point Magazine.

Sunny Myint Aung and his wife Lyn at Sun's Burmese Kitchen
Sunny Myint Aung and his wife Lyn at Sun’s Burmese Kitchen

Sun’s Burmese Kitchen is a homely, understated affair that sits within a line of shops in Blacktown, western Sydney. Its red and yellow walls are dotted with huge photographs of Yangon’s glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the ancient temples of Bagan and, like any proper Burmese establishment, a portrait of its iconic democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The restaurant owner Sunny Myint Aungis a quiet man of few words, but the pride he takes in serving up authentic Burmese cuisine five thousand miles away from Myanmar is evident.

“In Burma, there is a very famous dish called dan bauk [the Burmese version of biryani]. I met a Burmese chef in Bangkok who gave me his dan bauk recipe and taught me how to make it. So our dan bauk here is really special.”

Sunny is able to source all the ingredients he needs from a warehouse that supplies products of Myanmar origin, such as lapet thoke, a delicious tea leaf salad that’s used to relieve fatigue.

Sunny was already well-known in western Sydney’s Burmese community before he opened his restaurant in 2012. He was a regular fixture at community events, and cooked for large crowds at the local church.

“The Burmese community comes to the restaurant for meals and sometimes they bring their new friends, so that they can try Burmese food. And they like it, so they come again.”

Sunny opened his first restaurant in 1998, but was ultimately forced to close the business due to being unable to make a decent profit margin in the face of high overheads.

“Rents are so high – there’s a lot of hardships for small businesses,” he said.

He spent a decade working at a bakery before trying his hand at the restaurant business once again. He has set up a team comprising his Filipina wife Lyn, and their 23-year-old son.

Sunny at Sun's Burmese Kitchen
Sunny at Sun’s Burmese Kitchen

“This is a family business – my, wife, son and I are hard-working and we started slowly, slowly,” he explained.

Sunny’s story of leaving Myanmar is unusual for its lack of drama. He left at the age of 30 to work as a sea merchant, rather than fleeing political unrest or persecution as many of his compatriots did during the eighties and following decades. He spent a decade sailing around the world and lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Papua New Guinea before settling in Australia with his parents and his wife.

Sunny’s preoccupations are the same as any small business owner in Australia: keeping his business healthy. When asked if he follows events in Myanmar, including the historic general elections of 2015 he said, “I’m really out of touch. I’ve only been back twice and I have no family left in my home town of Mawlamyine. My son’s been once and he doesn’t want to go again.”

When I told Sunny that I lived in Myanmar for four-and-a-half years, he didn’t seem particularly curious to hear about it. In that respect, he also struck me as unusual, as most Burmese will fire a volley of questions, wanting to know the parts of the country outside Yangon I’d visited, whether I could speak Burmese and what I made of the country’s politics. It wasn’t until at least 30 minutes into our meeting, when I was busy taking photos of the restaurant, that he turned to me and said, “How is Myanmar these days?”

“Not much different,” I replied.

He paused for a second and said, “It is different. It’s better than before.”

Sunny was right. Myanmar has undoubtedly entered a new era, one where students and monks are no longer shot dead in the streets and people can speak freely about their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – rather than speaking in whispers due to fear of arrest by military intelligence. I arrived in Myanmar in 2012, two years after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, where she’d spent a total of 16 years. Its government in 2012 was quasi-civilian, but many people still lived in fear. When I joined The Myanmar Times, its co-founder Sonny Swe was still serving what would be an eight-year sentence for breaching harsh censorship laws. These same laws were abolished later that year and Sonny was released, along with hundreds of other political prisoners, in a government amnesty in April 2013. I went with a large group of newspaper staff to meet him at Yangon Airport, where he’d been flown from a remote prison in Shan State. It was a joyous, tearful reunion.

Other noticeable changes included making SIM cards affordable, giving people access to mobile phones and the internet for the first time. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, took part in by-elections (and won their seats by a landslide). However the real test for Myanmar came in November 2015, when general elections were scheduled to take place. If held successfully, they would end half a century of military rule.

At the time I was working as senior consultant editor for the state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. The opportunity arose when a two-year partnership between it and Japan’s Kyodo News came to an end and they were seeking to keep a couple of foreign editors on the news desk. After a 20-minute explanation of the newspaper’s desire to become more “people focused” and being quizzed about my background for less than 10 minutes, I was asked if I could start work that same evening.

The former offices of the Global New Light of Myanmar in Yangon
The former offices of the Global New Light of Myanmar in Yangon

The newspaper had recently become a joint venture between the Ministry of Information and a little-known investor and was trying hard to improve its image. During the decades of junta rule it was a truly nasty rag. Aung San Suu Kyi was never mentioned by name, but crude sexual cartoons of her appeared regularly – she was depicted as being a whorish puppet of the West. The newspaper had drastically toned down its propaganda while maintaining something of a stranglehold on breaking news, because it received military and government announcements first via the state-run Myanmar News Agency. In the lead up to the election, Aung San Suu Kyi had said she would privatize Myanmar’s state-owned media – a promise she failed to keep.

I got a lot of flak from my fellow journalists when I started working for a newspaper that was nicknamed ‘The Dim Light of Myanmar’ and ‘The New Lies of Myanmar’. Some were a little more encouraging – as the editor of Democratic Voice of Burma wryly remarked on my Facebook wall, “Maybe they’ll publish today’s weather instead of yesterday’s.”

One of my colleagues was a highly intelligent, politically-minded, father-of-one, who’d worked there for more than a decade. When I asked him how he felt about having to translate the really nasty editorials and propaganda, he said, “I also teach English and I know that most teachers used the New Light as supplementary materials. There were other books and things in the market but they were expensive. I’d say to them, ‘Don’t listen to the content – just take the language.”

In the lead up to the election, the whisperings of my colleagues started to worry me. Some were adamant that a coup was looming while others had theories about the government trying to provoke the public to take to the streets so as to be able to indefinitely postpone the elections. They were justifiably untrusting; the most recent multiparty elections were held back in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory had been overturned by the military.

When I entered the newsroom that historic Sunday after the vote had taken place, colleagues proudly showed me their ink-stained pinkies and told me they’d lined up to cast their votes as early as 4am – just to ensure that they wouldn’t miss the chance to vote if lines were long. For many it was the first time in their lives they’d ever voted.

We rushed over to the newsroom’s TV to watch vote cards being counted, with cheers emerging onscreen and off when a vote went to the new government. It was clear that a landslide was taking place. We cracked open a bottle of Mandalay Rum and toasted the NLD’s emblem. “To the peacock!” we cheered. It seemed as though Myanmar had finally begun a brighter chapter as I penned the next day’s headline, ‘Dawn of a new era.’

In March, it will be a year since the NLD took office. However, progress in making reforms has been slow. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally barred from being president but is the nation’s de facto leader, has kept the media at arm’s length and according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017, the human rights situation in Myanmar hasn’t seen significant improvement, and in some ways is even worse.

With a colleague at the Global New Light of Myanmar
With a colleague at the Global New Light of Myanmar

The NLD released 200 political prisoners when it first entered office, however issues of concern to HRW include the lack of protection of free speech and the worsening situation for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. There has also been heightened conflict between the Burma Army and several ethnic armed groups, despite the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015.

 The printing press at The Global New Light of Myanmar

The printing press at The Global New Light of Myanmar

However while the government’s performance has been weaker than expected, Sunny was right in appreciating the changes that have taken place, and that people, including myself, may be too quick to forget how far Myanmar has come. It’s also difficult not to be optimistic about the future when one thinks about the people of Myanmar. Before leaving Sun’s Burmese Kitchen, I ordered dan bauk for my husband and my absolute favourite Burmese dish, Shan tomato salad, as take-away for that evening’s dinner. When Sunny smilingly gave me the food parcels and insisted they were a gift, I was again reminded how kind, warm and generous the Burmese are. Virtually every day that I lived in Myanmar, I was touched by an act of kindness, whether by a taxi driver or someone I knew. It came as no surprise to me when the 2016 Giving Index again ranked Myanmar the world’s most generous country (with Australia coming in at third). It’s hard not to feel optimistic about a nation of people so inclined to kindness, despite the many obstacles that remain.

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From ambassador to author

The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, which was the capital of the British Indian empire - including Burma - until 1911. Photo - Jessica Mudditt

Published in The Global New Light of Myanmar on 7 October 2015

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Mr Rajib Bhatia served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2002 to 2005

Mr Rajib Bhatia’s career as a top level diplomat spanned more than three decades and nine different countries, including Myanmar, where he served as India’s ambassador between 2002 and 2005. Since retiring from the Indian Foreign Service in 2009, Mr Bhatia has written more than 150 articles on foreign affairs. On Monday his new book, India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours, was released in Yangon. He talks to The Global New Light of Myanmar about what his research unearthed and some of his career highlights – such as taking Senior General Than Shwe to the Taj Mahal.

Your book covers a topic of vast proportions – how did you go about it and how would you describe the finished product?

Indeed, I’ve covered the whole period of India and Myanmar’s relations, from ancient times to the present. It took me four years to research, with my research beginning in 2011 when Myanmar’s reform period began. And I did of course draw on my four years of experiences as an ambassador.
One aspect of my book that I’m very candid about talking about is one of the most talked-about dimensions of the relationship: China. I devoted a separate chapter to what I call the ‘India-China-Myanmar triangle.’ The other feature is that my book presents an Indian perspective on Myanmar polity, society, culture, foreign policy and economy. Although my book’s title is India-Myanmar: Changing Contours, it’s about much more than that: it’s about the surrounding region as well. I can also say that while I have tried to be objective, I did have an agenda. That agenda was to try to contribute to strengthening of relations between India and Myanmar.

As India already has so many trade partners, is the benefit you refer to Myanmar’s alone?

No, it’s a shared interest. First of all we are immediate neighbours. We’ve become close through history and we also share common challenges: both Myanmar and India want this region to be one of peace and harmony. Neither wants a single country to dominate the region. Both want to see a strong ASEAN. When I say ‘strengthen,’ it means a shared interest between India and Myanmar, and also for the region’s interests.

The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, which was the capital of the British Indian empire - including Burma - until 1911. Photo - Jessica Mudditt
The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, which was the capital of the British Indian empire – including Burma – until 1911. Photo – Jessica Mudditt

How would you describe the dynamics between India, Myanmar and China?

China has a legitimate reason to have good relations with Myanmar – after all they share borders and history. And similarly, the fact that India wants to have good relations with Myanmar also makes sense. One of my central questions was to find out what Myanmar wants, because it’s a country in the middle of two big giants and it’s being wooed by both. My own reading is that Myanmar does not want to choose one country over the other. Myanmar wants to have a cooperative relationship with both. It does not want either country to compete, much less confront one another over it. If we understand that, it becomes clear that all three countries should work for the harmonisation of interests in such a fashion that the stability and progress of Myanmar is assured.

One of my central questions was to find out what Myanmar wants, because it’s a country in the middle of two big giants and it’s being wooed by both.

Would you agree that in comparison with China, India has been less actively engaged with Myanmar?

I must first say that China’s economy is about five times bigger than India’s. So if you were to just calculate the dollars and cents, then the answer is yes – China’s economic stakes are much bigger in Myanmar. But if you take a larger and deeper view, the bond between India and Myanmar is very, very close. Buddhism came from India, which defines Myanmar. There are cultural influences that came from India that remain today. During the British Raj, for five or six decades, Myanmar was ruled as part of British India. These are historical facts that cannot be denied. And in recent years, India has put in very substantial sums of money in various cooperation programmes – somewhere in the range of 1.5 to 2 billion dollars. That is not a small sum of money. So while China may have much bigger stakes, India’s are not small. I also believe that India is willing to do more, and that if Myanmar were to look a little bit more towards India, it will find India looking back towards it.

You mentioned that your book is written from an Indian perspective – please could you elaborate on that?

There are two things I’d like to mention in terms of the ‘Indian perspective.’ The first is that I have used a lot of Indian sources and views of Indian scholars to illustrate my points. I feel that – with due respect – if Australian, French and Norwegian scholars etcetera can hold forth on Myanmar – well, we are next door and would like to do so also. My idea was to put across Indian voices and views onto the international stage, which I believe I will succeed in doing because my book is published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

The second thing is that there is vast knowledge in India about Myanmar – it’s scattered, but it’s definitely there. From the northeast we have Myanmar next door, as we do from West Bengal and from the Bay of Bengal. So the knowledge is there and what I wam arguing is that we must recreate the sense of proximity between Myanmar and India.

Mr Rajiv Bhatia with Mr Shri Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India's 21st Ambassador to Myanmar at India House in Yangon.
Mr Rajiv Bhatia with Mr Shri Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India’s 21st Ambassador to Myanmar at India House in Yangon.

What was it like being an ambassador in Myanmar, back when it was truly a different place than it is today?

I had a very rich and varied experience. Of the nine countries I served around the world, which included Africa, Central America, North America and other parts of Asia, it was Myanmar that had the deepest impact on me. It’s very close to my heart.

The high point of my career in Myanmar was accompanying Senior General Than Shwe, who was then the head of state, to India on a four-day state visit. I acted as his personal guide to some of India’s highlights and we had an excellent relationship. I took he and his wife to the Taj Majal, as well as to Kolkta, Bangalore and Delhi. He was mesmorised by India’s diversity.

What do you think Myanmar can learn from India in terms of celebrating diversity?

India certainly learned the hard way since the time it was partitioned with Pakistan, that religion and politics have to be separated. Religion is between an individual and their god but politics is about the peoples’ wishes. So the two must be separated.

While Myanmar and India are close, how does your book address the waves of anti-Indian sentiment that have arisen from time to time?

History is history: it cannot be changed. It is a fact that large numbers of Indians left when World War II began, when U Nu made legal changes and when Ne Win was in power. All those periods are there. But we should learn from history. Indian people are not against Myanmar – they are very friendly towards them. And those of Indian origin living in Myanmar have contributed in important ways to the country. I would strongly recommend, as I argue in the book, that two things are very important. The first is to expand economic cooperation and the second is to develop a close and more diversified relationship between the people of India and Myanmar.

In a practical sense, how can this be achieved?

One idea I have is to set up an India-Myanmar cultural foundation, which could be funded through the business communities and governments of both countries. The funds could be placed at the disposal of the ambassadors in Yangon ad Delhi. This would free up the ambassadors from bureaucratic interference and would allow them to truly contribute to small programmes bringing in tourists, media, university students and so forth. Bringing these types of people together more often could prove enormously beneficial.

In the last chapter of my book, I also suggest that a strategic partnership should be set up to hold annual meetings and such things. It’s among a specific list of recommendations I make in the final chapter of my book.

India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours is published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.