Hi, everybody, welcome Tony Snow's history here. Whenever a big news story breaks, we like to try and bring you some context on history here. We've got Alex Baska be back on the podcast now. He spent much of his professional career in Myanma. He has made numerous award winning TV shows about mine, mine. He's written about mine. My you heard him on this podcast before. You've watched him on history hit TV in 2013. His debut documentary was the fascinating story of Bermas Lost Royal Family.
He became very close to senior politicians and members of that exiled royal family in southern India. It's an extraordinary story. As I say, he's been on the broadcast many times before, but it felt like it was good to get him back on. Remind us all exactly what's going on in Myanma, how this is related to its history, the partition of the country in 1947 and subsequent coups, revolutions, and in the case of the Rohingya of Rakhine state, recent genocides as well.
If you listen to Alex's previous podcast or check out some of his documentaries, please get a history hit, doctor. It's the digital history channel that we've launched. You get all of the old podcasts on there without the ads. You also get access to hundreds and hundreds documentaries on. They're all about history. You can love it. Had a bit of history hit TV.
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Alex, thank you very much for coming back on the podcast. Thank you for having me back. How much time have you spent in my mouth, what we ask Obama over the last few years?
Yeah, it's been the main focus of my adult life. I mean, most of the last 10 years, it's been home for me and for anyone who's heard his childhood before about my work in Burma. In the past, I've had the most privileged fly on the wall position over the last 10 years, making historical films in Burma and watching this country go through the most transforming three decades of its modern history. More liberal, more open, more free than it ever has been.
A long time course has been big problems along with the energy crisis. And a lot of people still struggle to understand what is going on. But now we see Burma back in the news again with some really terrible news. When we spoke before, I've always been quite upbeat and this time it's really heartbreaking what's going on. I mean, just today, on to friends who are taking part in protests right now, facing down riot police in Yangon, facing stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets.
It feels like the clocks go back 20 years overnight. And I'm glad that we can sit here and talk a bit about why. It's looking like this. Let's dig into the background, everyone talks about a partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947, but actually there were many partitions of the role of Britain's Indian Empire. And Burma was part of the Raj and it was part of Britain's Indian Empire.
Yeah, as I've often said. And so you do this I mean, to understand what's going on in Burma today with the caveat that I'm not there right now and I'd be locked out since it began. So anything I'm giving you in the current situation is thanks to friends who are feeding me information from the ground. But I've always been passionate about history. And I think to understand that, you've got to go way back into the British Empire. Days in Southeast Asia, Burma have been annexed in pieces through the 19th century, starting in 1824, all the way up to 1895, and the last chunk of Burma that was swallowed up into the Raj was done.
So against the advice of everyone in Westminster, it was done a bit of a not an accident, but it was imperial overreach and Burma was sort of swallowed up as an afterthought and tacked on to India. And there's been a lot of sort of historical resentment and historical trauma that has come from Burma's experience, some of the British Empire. And I think you to understand why Burma is the way it is, you have to understand how it exited the British Empire.
How did it exit with so much focus, obviously, on the partition of Pakistan, the extraordinary bloodshed and humanitarian disaster that accompanied that, what was bombings like and how was Burma defined, built, created as a state after that?
Yeah, a really good question. So Burma happy an independent kingdom before it was annexed into the British Empire. And it was one that was quite militaristic, quite proud, and carving out its own space between India, China and Thailand. But the colonial by 1947 48, when independence was finally on the table, it was a country that had largely been finally built by the British Imperial Project. So there were lots of parts of it that might not have been part of the original kingdom of Burma.
But what we now see is Myanmar was essentially what the British cobbled together from a lot of disparate feudal kingdoms, the major kingdom of Burma, into what we now know as Burma. And that sort of state making project was still very much ongoing when Burma was up for independence. So all focus was on India. Britain have been there for more than 200 years. It's been a major focus in the heart of the empire, Burma, very much an afterthought and tactile.
And so when independence is being discussed in the mid 1940s after the war, there was a central question of what is Burma and how she got it. And I think that for me is the central question of Burma today. And I think what we're seeing on the streets in Yangon right now is the question still playing out now to understand the exit game of Burmese politics from the Raj, from the British Empire, you have to understand one figure, and that guy is General Aung San.
He becomes the sort of father of the Burmese independence movement. He's only around the time he's in his early 30s and through the 1930s, you've been agitating as a student protester. And then during World War Two, when Japan and Britain are fighting over Burma and Burma is being torn to pieces, he emerges as a soldier and as a leader of troops. And he becomes one of the founders of the Myanmar military, which is called the Tatmadaw. And first of all, they're trained by imperial Japan to fight against the British and then Aung San switch sides.
And he fights with the British, against the Japanese. And so by the time of independence, so 1947, 1948, he's the man he's talking to and he's the man that is credited as being one of the fathers of the Myanmar military. But he's also the father of the idea of Burma that is democratic, federal, multi-ethnic, multifaith. And there's a lot of hope vested in this young man's shoulders. Now, suddenly, in nineteen forty seven, he's assassinated in quite mysterious circumstances.
And the way that I read on Myanmar history is that at that point you have this great division between two visions of Myanmar or two worlds within the country of Myanmar. And that, again, is what we're seeing playing out right now. These two worlds are this one is the army, the Tatmadaw, the military. They are the ones that secured independence for Burma in that whole mythology. They are the ones that fought against the Japanese and fought against the British, carved up in space and brought Myanmar's independence.
At the same time, you have this other world within Myanmar, which are those that believe in a democratic federal civilian Burma that can be ruled by the will of the people and in which the army are just a sort of tool of the civilian government.
Now, the problem we've had since 1948, sing-song sans assassination, is that those two worlds, those two visions of the have become separated and incompatible. And if we see what's happening right now, the big thing to say about what's happening right now until it's twenty one is this is not the first time this has happened. We're seeing these mass street protests. We're seeing the army stepping in and seizing civilian power from an elected government. This all happened back in nineteen sixty two.
So after independence, we have a brief period of a democratic experiment and there are some successes. And then by 1960 through the country, which is, as I said, sort of this hodgepodge of different ethnic groups who've been stitched together under the British Empire starts to fragment. We've got communists, we've got ethnic minorities who want independence, autonomy, the country, countries falling to pieces. The civilian government actually asks the army to come in and save the day.
But then the army gets a bit of a taste of power. By nineteen sixty two, they step in uninvited and they take over the country until nineteen eighty eight. And so for a long period of modern Burmese history, the army have been in control.
Now, in 1988, again, we have a massive uprising where we see these two visions of Burma being pitted against each other. So the country has been run into the ground by Nawin, the army. They stepped in thinking they were the same as the country and they totally run the place into the ground. Now, by Nastasya, people are so fed up with this that they have a. A massive uprising, and they demand elections at last to return to civilian rule after all this time and the vision Aung San had promised of a democratic federal Burma, nay, when the dictator does step up, he resigns.
He was mad. He's completely ruling the country but does step back onto the stage. We have this figure called Aung San Suu Kyi emerges, who we now know is the lady of Burma. The sort of heroine figure here in more recent years, obviously has become a bit of a villain in the community. Very complex story. We'll come onto that. But in 1998, she returned to the country to look after her ailing mother and the democratic opposition.
That's out on the streets of the hour right now, protesting for change. They coalesce around Aung San Suu Kyi as the daughter of Aung San Suu Kyi. The little flame around which the opposition can build the find that they're going to take down the military at last. And she comes out of relative obscurity to lead this opposition movement in 1990. We have the statewide elections, the first since the 1950s, and she wins by a landslide. Again, we're just seeing this happen in 2012 and 2013.
And the military, again, they don't like this idea that another person or another force it in the country can take their first among equals status and they lock up Aung San Suu Kyi. They arrest all the newly elected MVP's and they lock up the country again for another almost 20 years. And again, we have two different worlds inside Myanmar. We have the military who think that they know what's best. They know how to run this country in terms of territorial integrity and to keep the place together.
But they run essentially as a dictatorship and they take over the economy and they try and squash any.
It is no secret we're talking about the history of Burma and how they got into this present state with Alex, could be more coming up after this. I'm very happy this episode Dance Knows History is brought to you by Hello Fresh with Hello Fresh, you get fresh, obviously pre measured ingredients and mouthwatering seasonal recipes delivered right to your door. This is what we've all been waiting for, folks. My kids are about to turn into a piece of pasta. It's all I can cook.
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Don't miss this out people. This is a special offer. Get involved. Hello Fresh America's number one meal kit. It's so interesting, isn't it? Maybe it's just the fact that we love history and we see history at the root of everything, but if you look at Syria, if you look at Burma, so much of the problems of those countries derives from just a fundamental lack of legitimacy of Buy-In from the people that found themselves living in those places after they were all partitioned and set up and created by the Western allies after the Second World War.
It's so true. And I think that's the fundamental question that I think is at the heart of Burmese politics, how to govern this country, who to govern for is the central question of any state, really. It's just that in a post-colonial state, I think that the stakes are the question just so much higher. And there's been so much trauma and so much damage done by the colonial experience, particularly in Burma. That is very hard for everyone just to come together in a moment of peace and understanding and go, OK, this is the vision for our country that we want.
Yes, there are one hundred and thirty five different ethnic groups in Burma. Yes. So every religion you can imagine, yes, there are hundreds of different language groups. It's territorial, fragmented, it's incredibly complicated. But we can sit down and we can think of a vision where we all buy into it. And I think with all sons, death and forty seven, that was the chance they had ever since that we've seen this conflict play out.
And what we're seeing now is just the latest chapter. So also saying she was eventually released from house arrest after almost 20 years in prison. She does finally say, I can work with the military, I can work under this constitution they've drawn up, which is unbelievably rigged, in which the military has twenty five percent of all the seats in parliament. It has the home office. It has the police, it has the border control. The military basically runs the country.
Yet they carved out the space in which they're happy. From San Suu Kyi to politics now, what's baffled a lot of people in the last month, last six weeks, is why the most senior general in online or those around him have decided to seize power. We've had an election in 2015 which Aung San Suu Kyi, 14, she won by a landslide. And we've had five years of relatively comfortable coexistence between the military and the Democratic leadership. She's come back and she's done it again in 20, 20 November, and I think partly in thanks to Donald Trump, the military leadership in Myanmar has called fraud on an election which has been won by thumping landslide.
I mean, more than 60 percent of the seats have been taken as opposed to the military ballots. He's getting about seven percent. So there's some sort of regularity. It's got to be an enormous irregularity for fraud to have lost the military this election.
And now what we're seeing here is, again, even the most experienced Myanmar watchers in the country were baffled by this move. We've got some theories about why it might be. But the seizure, after all, that, even though they've rigged the game and they control the country, they've decided that that second election win was too much and they seized control. And the really spurious nonsensical concept they've rested on since you again and they're promising elections in a year's time.
But the question is, will she compete with should be allowed to compete? Will she be arrested? How to dismantle the opposition party? Will those elections mean anything to anybody? What we're seeing in Myanmar is people are furious, absolutely furious. There's a whole generation of grown up knowing nothing else almost than the Internet, mobile phones, voting free press freedom to buy freedoms of party, freedom to travel. And they've had it taken away overnight. And these are all my friends who I've grown up with in Burma.
And they are livid that the military could be so stupid to try and win back the clock. Now, one of the big questions in the West is our confusion, our sadness about Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Prize winner, a great hero of democracy. And yet she appeared to support the genocide of a minority in western Myanmar. The Rohingya you've been on the path talking about. But just give me a quick rundown of what happened there.
So the Rohingya crisis, which I know the Muslim minority in the northwest of Burma and Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh, they have been subject to decades of persecution and a slow ramping up with spox violence, which goes back to the Second World War.
And before about the imperial days, it's been going on for a long time and it's one of many conflicts within Burma where an ethnic minority, whether it's the Koran, the kitchen mom, they are a distinctive linguistic religious group that live on the periphery of the bermann Hala.
The difference with the Ranger was the severity which which they were eventually treated. I remember you saying that's another little British imperial hangover as well. Didn't a lot of them move to that part of what is now under the Raj?
Yeah. So the story of the Rohingya, again, just to put it in context, we just see Myanmar burst onto the headlines every now and then. And we think there's often our history around us, things. But the whole world was appalled by what happened in Rakhine with the Rohingya. There's a sense that it just exploded overnight and all of a sudden the military in the majority population started to persecute this Muslim minority. But there's a long story. But to try to make it short, when Burma was annexed into the rush into India, freedom of movement was encouraged between different parts of the Indian rush.
So there was large migration from what's now India into particularly down south in Yangon, but also particularly into the corner, which borders Bangladesh. And the British understood the sort of Indian labor market and still Indian laborers. They were happy to see more Indians coming into Burma, into this new colony to help them build it and its farmers. And there was a massive population influx during the rush or in the 19th century and early 20th century. And that did cause a lot of resentment in what had been the kingdom of Africa.
Again, they don't like the Burmese. I mean, they're very independent. The Arakan is the Rakhine. And they saw a real demographic change under the Raj, which they didn't like. And that builds up resentment over decades of landownership and about religious tension that was building up. And then what we saw in the 70s, in the 90s, was friction between the Buddhist community in Rakhine and the Muslim community.
And McCain are not really exploded in sort of 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, where there was increasing ratcheting pressure on the Muslim minority group up there and eventually a terrorist organization, a militant movement, however you want to designate it as they came and started attacking police stations, killing people. And the military use that as their final excuse, I think, to just push up to three quarters million people across the border back into Bangladesh.
And the whole world says.
And Aung San Suu Kyi was supportive or was just insufficiently critical of this action and lost a lot of friends in the West.
This comes back to my sort of point at the beginning about Aung San Suu Kyi and about her father. So Aung San Suu Kyi relationship, the military is complicated and people have to understand that you understand her. She was locked up by these guys for 20 years. She didn't see her husband die. My class amazing, colorful academics didn't see your children grow up. And still, when she came out of house arrest, she said that she would work with these guys and she didn't hold resentment towards them, which is quite astonishing.
And the reason for that, she always says that we have a great thing in common. My father my father was the founding fathers commodore. He's my father. You are not my enemy. You are a part of our civil body. And she was, in that sense, incredibly magnanimous towards her enemies. And I think what we saw in the range of crisis is a certain streak of Burmese nationalism to Aung San Suu Kyi. She is in many ways a Burmese nationalist, the majority group on inside Myanmar.
The perception of the Rohingya and the Muslim minority is not a good one. There is a lot of hostility towards the Rohingya within the majority population. She is the democratically elected leader of the Burma majority and some of the ethnic minority for her to take the side of the rest of the world community in favor, the Rohingya. There was a political calculation there that she would have had to go against probably the bellwether of opinion in her own country and amongst her own electorate.
So the sense that she probably kept quiet and people expected it to because of that astute political move. The other thing, and this is where I think you can say she's callous, ruthless to have done this, but to understand the game she was playing, I think she was willing to let that issue go or to let them sacrificed on the altar. But I think it was an element of her vision was to make the Army buy into a vision of a civilian federal democratic Burma.
And to do that, she needs to get the Army to willingly relinquish some of the power they had built into the Constitution that they had written and all the way through the last 10 years, she's been agitating and saying that she wants to change these provisions in the Constitution that essentially give the military a stranglehold over political life in Burma. And so I think she was willing to sacrifice everything for her international reputation, all the goodwill to achieve that goal, and you can call Coulson movies and what happens to the range of what the Army have done is awful.
But I think if you want to understand why she acted like she did that, certainly my interpretation of what's going on.
But if she did, it's a gamble that has not paid off because of what's going on now, which is the most heartbreaking thing. As I said, you know, I'm a natural optimist and I think I'll be looking to dedicate my academic life, my working life to this country, which has only been on the up and up. It's been an amazing story of human goodness. And apart from that, obviously, we just talked about a country in a region which is full of dictatorships and military dictatorships and crackpot theocracy next door was doing OK.
And we've seen the most dramatic reversals in what happened. Again, the most experienced no is inside the country. I am not right now. The military is a world unto itself. What is going on in Naypyidaw, in the capital, inside the barracks is still pretty opaque. One theory is that the gentlemen online was so shut off from the world that he genuinely thought the NLD slightly faltering experience in the last five years in running the country, they become a fair bit of criticism about him or the country.
He thought that with his twenty five percent of military seats, plus the military party putting in a good showing, the USB key might actually get to become president. He's retiring this year. Sixty five from his job is the most powerful man in Burma and he wants to secure his next job. This is the theory. And the world did not work out like that because obviously you do not realize how unpopular the military are in the country. It goes right back to what I've been hearing about the military is a world in a world in Myanmar.
They have the sense that they are the defenders of the nation, that they rule in the best interest of the country. And unfortunately, when an election comes around and they lose by stonking landslide, they cannot take it. They didn't take it in 1990. And it looks like now in 2020, 2021, they're not going to take it again. But the real question is what's going to happen next? Because it feels like a massive miscalculation on behalf of the military.
I don't think they realize just how unpopular this move would be. I'm friends I was talking to just this morning. They were there in Anoxia, which up until now I'd be the biggest surprise in the country to see this thing. What we see now is 20 times bigger than that. It's more groundswell. It's all across the country, all sections of society. And what's different now and I can sit here in London watching the whole thing is playing on social media is absolutely astonishing.
People are using social media to mobilize, to communicate, to make means and gifts, to spread hashtags around the country, to coordinate. And I feel often powerless. I'd love to come and see what we can do about this sharing stuff online. It does help because every day my friends are going out and putting their lives at risk against being shot in the street, tear gas, bullets. And I'm getting messages. And please, can you share on Twitter, please?
Can you share an Instagram? Can people just see what is going on here? And that's astonishing. We did not get in 88. We got photos. It came out in two thousand seven. We have the Saffron Revolution. I'm using air quotes, the monks being shot in the street. We only got snippets of insulting the country. We shut down. The key difference of what's happening now is while the Internet stays on, we are seeing this play out in real time.
I'm so deeply proud and amazed and humbled by the response all across the country. I'm really scared about what's going to happen next. We've had more than twenty people shot every time the military have come up against their own people. They've always used excessive force. All I hope is that this time it's different. That's all I can say, because the protest and the opposition is so overwhelming. Speaker for months now, people are exhausted, but every day they're going out there and they're protesting.
It's incredible. It's heartbreaking.
Alex, thank you for coming in, bringing us up to speed. You're about to see more of history. It will tell you about that later. But on how they can learn more about Burma, follow you and check out your work.
Yeah, well, first of all, you want to do something that's a great site called I Support Myanmar dot com, where you can donate to the grassroots movement. There's a wonderful magazine called Frontier Myanmar, which is a fantastic local journalism, which is giving us the story so we can follow on what's going on. I'll be tweeting incessantly about this. I'm ASOL, especially on Twitter. I'm on Facebook. I thought especially about Abess could be on Instagram, but all I would say is please share and please support the grassroots movement, because frankly, Aung San Suu Kyi, the generals, we've got a new player in town.
It's generations that is the generation around the streets now risking their lives. They're the real heroes of this chapter of the story.
Thanks so much, buddy. Thanks to.
It's is part of the history of our country. Oh, my God.
And just a quick message at the end of this podcast, I'm currently sheltering in a small, windswept building on a piece of rock in the Bristol Channel called Lundie. I'm here to make a podcast. I'm here in during weather that frankly is apocalyptic because I want to get some great podcast material. You guys, in return, a little tiny favor to ask if you could go to get your podcasts, if you could give it a five star rating, if you could share it, if you could give it a review of really appreciate that.
From the comfort of your own homes, you'll be doing me a massive favor. Then more people listen to the podcast. We can do more and more ambitious things. I can spend more of my time getting pummeled. Thank you.