The international community had high hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi

Is there still hope for Myanmar?

On November 8th 2015, I witnessed history in the making.

It was a humid day in Yangon and the streets were clogged with people waiting to hear the momentous result of the first democratic election in two and a half decades. The energy in the air was undeniable as citizens anticipated the country’s fate, but beyond the crowd and cheer, I followed the allure of a street side cart. Big mistake. The fried chicken rice I ordered would be responsible for nearly three days of agonizing diarrhoea and vomiting.

The hastily cooked rice tasted flawless at the time; street food can be deceptive like that. In hindsight, this could have been a premonition of the lingering disappointment and despair for the newly elected leader and former Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician, not a peace-maker

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ascended to her election victory after fifteen years in house arrest for her political activism against a brutal military dictatorship.  

The house arrest was an (unsuccessful) attempt to suppress her influence and leadership, but Aung San Suu Kyi continued to demonstrate her dedication to democracy and commitment to the country. The world had high hopes for Myanmar after a landslide victory by the National League for Democracy but unsurprisingly, the military held on to the keys to power, controlling the country’s resources and securing 25 per cent of parliamentary seats under the constitution.

In the early days of The Lady’s leadership, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first mark as the de facto leader of the country by refusing to acknowledge the plight of the Rohingya at the hands of an ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign by the military. This position would be largely unchanging in the coming years but the international community remained hopeful.

Aung San Suu Kyi echoed the claims of her Buddhist-majority supporters, refused to welcome a United Nations Fact Finding Mission and defended the military’s use of violence against the ‘illegal immigrants’. She was flaunting her political prowess domestically but in exchange, Aung San Suu Kyi pivoted from her dedication to human rights.

Today, the Rohingya remain unidentified and stateless, and almost 700,000  have fled to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh. Without any concrete plans to address flagrant human rights abuses and obvious ethnic cleansing, Aung San Suu Kyi was revoked of the Ambassador of Conscience Award for her refusal to speak out against the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslim minorities.

The skeleton is out of the closet

The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded a year-long investigation into allegations of human rights violations in August 2018. Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to welcome the fact-finding committee into the country, but after witness testimonies and verified evidence from neighbouring Bangladesh, the report recommends:

  • The United Nations Security Council should refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to undergo an investigation into allegations of genocide
  • The Security Council is urged to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar and penalize those most responsible for crimes with travel bans and a freeze on assets.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi and her government should pivot governmental policy on the Rohingya immediately, as an act of omission is also considered an atrocity

With growing evidence to depict genocidal intent and ethnic cleansing, the future of democracy in Myanmar is questionable and bleak.

During the historic election in 2015, I wrote about Myanmar’s young voters who were optimistic at the thought of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election. Three years later, the sentiment around the world is drastically different, and as the Washington Post describes, Myanmar’s dreams for democracy are more like a ‘nightmarish reality’.

Recently, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi announced intentions to welcome back its first group of refugees from Bangladesh, but UN agencies are sceptical, stating that Rohingya families should return to what’s left of their former villages when they feel it is safe to do so.

International pressure and coercion through diplomacy and sanctions has incentivised the country towards democracy in the past and may prompt the government to prioritise the human dignity and rights of its ethnic minorities. Recognition of Rohingya citizenship, an end to the nationwide ethnic conflict, and a guarantee of economic, social and cultural rights for all people are long overdue.

In the case of ongoing crime, international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court may be the only hope of attaining justice for the Rohingya and holding Myanmar’s military leaders accountable for the alleged crime of genocide.

 

Back to the streets of Phnom Penh

A few weeks before I was set to travel to Cambodia, Off-White™ opened its first doors to Sydney. I was Christmas shopping when I noticed the line outside, crowds of shoppers waiting for a chance to browse and buy Virgil Abloh’s coveted collection.

Fast forward three weeks. I’m forty minutes from Cambodia’s nascent capital, in the back streets of an underprivileged district. We’re here to visit a community of brick factory workers. They’re happy to see the bags of rice in the back of the van, and while the adults get down to the business of hand to mouth sustenance, it’s the kids that catch my attention.

I’m immediately reminded of the world I’ve come from. A world that consciously writes out a verdict on your past and future by the items on your sleeves. In more ways than one, high-end streetwear labels have come to represent the value of our existence.

On this particular visit, there’s one label that catches me by surprise. A young boy is clothed in signature yellow and white, the stripes on his shirt are sewn together to spell, ‘O-F-F W-H-I-T-E’. I let out a surprised chuckle as I continue to hold the little hands that wrap around my fingers.

Fashion was never intended to be equal – some choose to wait in line for a chance to wear half a paycheck on our shoulders, while others wait here to collect a kilogram of rice.

The proliferation of fake replicas in Cambodia is no surprise

As the hype of the day changes in the west so too does fake fashion in the developing parts of the world. Four years ago when I visited Cambodia, the standard of fake goods was disappointing. Today, the side carts and overcrowded markets proudly boast the freshest streetwear trend of the day: YEEZY knock-offs. Supreme knock-offs, Nike slip-ons, and Off-White™ shirts have made their way into the backstreets of Phnom Penh – the ubiquity of Off-White™ replicas draped on street kids in Cambodia gives ‘streetwear’ a whole new meaning.

Need to know what’s trending in the world? Take a peek at the scraps on the backs of these street kids who are unknowingly caught up in a furious scramble to keep up with the rest of the world.

Myanmar Photo Diary

Yangon and Sittwe, 2015

I’ve always wanted to travel to Myanmar. I finally booked my flight to Yangon in November 2015, coinciding with the country’s momentous elections where I witnessed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi rise to the presidential seat.

My trip began in the vibrant city of Yangon where streets are lined with beautiful buildings left behind by the British.

What did I enjoy the most? Chasing sunsets in Sittwe and exploring Myanmar by train, on the back of a motorbike, by bicycle and bus. Watch the moments here:

If you ever get the chance, soak in the colours of Yangon’s livelihood and taste the streets that tinker on the edge of old and new: