Myanmar: Heroes and Villains

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Feb 23 2021 – Myanmar’s State Counsellor was recently deposed and arrested along with other leaders of her ruling party – National League for Democracy (NLD). The Leader of Tatmadaw, the Military, Min Aung Hlaing, announced that elections in November last year had been fraudulent and in an “effort to save democracy” the military would now rule the nation for at least one year, until new elections could be organised. Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is accused of “importing ten or more walkie-talkies” and of violating the nation’s “Natural Disaster Law”. Some might agree that Suu Kyi deserves to be locked up. As an admired role model and Nobel Peace Prize winner, she was globally depicted as an almost saintlike being, canonized in movies like Luc Bessons’s The Lady. U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, watched the movie before she in 2011 visited Suu Kyi, who by then had spent altogether fifteen years in house imprisonment, deprived of the company of an ailing and eventually dying husband and two sons. In spite of her forced isolation she became an eloquent representative for her compatriots’ resistance and perseverance under almost fifty years of military dictatorship.

Since 25 August 2017, over 742,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh. While Thailand continues to host some 99,000 Burmese refugees in nine temporary camps along the Thai/Myanmar border. The inmates are in their great majority ethnic Karen, who have fled eastern Myanmar due to army persecution. Furthermore, there are approximately 600,000 Burmese migrant workers residing in Thailand. The income gap in Myanmar is among the widest in the world, while a large proportion of the economy remain in the control of supporters of the military.

The 2020 election proved Suu Kyi’s popularity among the majority of Myanmar’s electorate. She is after all the daughter of the nation’s founding father, Aung San, who together with seven council members was murdered in 1947, on the brink of Burma’s liberation from sixty years of British colonial rule. None of the perpetrators were caught, but a former prime minister placed by the British was hanged as instigator of the crime. It was later established that the killers had been provided with arms by “low-ranking British officers”. Upholding her father’s inheritance as a fighter for the rights and well-being of the Burmese people, Suu Kyi suffered intimidation and discrimination from the military regime, as well as being targeted by several murder attempts. Why is such a brave woman now is severely criticised by international governments, UN organisations and human rights groups?

For sure, no role model is exempt from human flaws. As a convinced Buddhist and proud Bamar it might happen that Suu Kyi fears Muslim fundamentalism and ethnic disaggregation, at the same time as she has to safeguard support from her acolytes. Furthermore, being a gifted speaker and author does not automatically make you into a stout politician and economist. After becoming State Counsellor, Suu Kyi has been globally criticised for her failure to effectively address Myanmar’s economic and ethnic problems. The latter has since the end of World War II caused one of the worlds biggest ongoing refugee crises and continuous ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, a slow economic recovery and a weakening of the freedom of the press have led to a mounting criticism of Suu Kyi’s leadership, which by foreign media has been described as “imperious, distracted and out of touch” (The Economist, 26 Oct. 2017).

The government of Myanmar recognizes 135 different ethnic groups, about 70 percent is constituted by the Buddhist Bamar people, who speak Burmese and live on the river plains and in the delta. The country is since 1948 a confederate nation, though a significant number of minority peoples demand increased self-government, and even nationhood, something that in several areas have resulted in endemic armed struggle.

One of these minorities are the Rohingyias, of whom most are Muslims and reside in the western Rakhine state, bordering the sea and Bangladesh. This area has for centuries above all been influenced by “Bengali People”, strengthened by British colonial rule that integrated Burma with its colonial Indian empire, the Raj, causing a strong influx of Bengali workforce and traders, an influence resented by several Burmese. During World War II many Muslims joined the British army, while Burmese, among them Aung San, Suu Kyi’s Father, sided with the Japanese invaders, hoping for liberation from British rule. By the end of the war the Japanese supporting Burmese Army, lead by Aung San, changed sides and ousted the Japanese alongside British troops.

The Myanmar government has until now considered Rohingyas as colonial and postcolonial migrants, while avoiding the term Rohingya by referring to them as Bangali. Under the 1982 Myanmar Sate Nationality Law approximately 1.5 million Rohingyas are denied Burmese citizenship; their freedom of movement is restricted and they are excluded from state education and civil service. In 2012, the Burmese President declared that all Rohingyas should be deported or placed in UNHCR refugee camps, while Suu Kyi recently has stated that a proper investigation is needed to find out which country the Rohingya people should belong to.

After a militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2017 killed 99 Hindus the Myanmar military conducted a violent campaign against the entire Rohingya population and 690,000 Rohingyas fled across the border to Bangladesh, where most of them now remain confined in huge refugee camps. At the same time, ethnic conflicts escalated in the north-eastern federal states of Shan and Kachin causing thousands of refugees to enter China.

On 13 September 2017, Suu Kyi announced that she would not be attending a UN General Assembly debate to discuss the Rohingya humanitarian crisis and in December 2019, she defended in the International Court of Justice at the Hague the Burmese military against allegations of genocide. In her speech of over 3,000 words, Suu Kyi did not use the term Rohingya and stated that the allegations of genocide were “incomplete and misleading”, claiming hat the situation had actually been a legitimate Burmese military response to terrorist attacks. Suu Kyi’s government has apparently taken steps to issue ID cards for residency for Rohingyas, but so far they have not been given any guarantees of citizenship.

It is unreasonable to put all the blame of the wrongdoing of an entire government on one specific woman, just as well as it is wrong to canonize a living person, particularly within such an extremely complicated situation as the one prevailing in Myanmar. However, it might be viable to accuse the military leadership from profiting from endemic ethnic tensions and use them as a means to increase their power and enrichment.

In 1962, the Burmese military overthrew a corrupt government and instituted military rule. The state ideology came to be known as The Burmese Way to Socialism and aimed at centralizing the economy, as well as limiting foreign influence on businesses. The emphasis on socialism and nationalism projected an image of the army as a revolutionary institution able to ensure the population’s “social demands”. The military government nationalized the economy while pursuing a policy of autokraty, self-sufficiency, involving economic isolation from the world. However, the implementation of autokraty eventually led to the growth of the black market and rampant smuggling, while the central government slid into bankruptcy.

The constant struggle with separatist armed groups in federal states bordering China, Laos and Thailand toughened the army and turned it into an effective war machine, as well as the constant fighting became an excuse to militarise vast areas, providing the army with control of lucrative natural resources, like timber, petrol, natural gas and the mining of gems, zinc, copper and lead. During the decades leading up to 2011 two military-owned conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd (MEHL) made it possible for military leaders and associates to grab licenses, land and economic concessions. At the same time Government bureaucracy was dominated by retired military personnel. Suu Kyi’s government eventually became bolder and in 2019 gradually began to de-militarise the country, a major achievement was ending the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs’ right to appoint government officials across the country.

If Besson’s The Lady focused on Ms. Suu Kyi as a human rights’ icon, Ridley Scott’s 2007 movie American Gangster paid attention to Khun Saa, a war lord in the federal state of Shan. Saa’s opium founded empire may serve as an illustration of the fatal symbiosis between Myanmar military regimes, illegal drug trade and ethnic guerillas. Khun Saa originally received equipment and training from both the remnants of the Chinese Kuomintang army and the Burmese army. Between 1976 and 1996 he commanded a private army, alternately fighting and co-operating with the Burmese military, as well as Laotian and Thai generals. During the Vietnam War he co-operated with corrupt U.S. officers. During the 1980s the share of heroin sold in New York originating from the so called Golden Triangle rose from 5 to 80 percent. Khun Sa was responsible for almost 50 percent of the U.S. heroin trade.

In return for fighting local Shan rebels the Burmese army allowed Khun Saa to use their land and roads to grow, process and trade heroin and several Burmese military leaders profited from this co-operation. In 1996, Khun Saa disbanded his army and moved to Yangon. After his retirement some of Khun Saa’s forces joined the Burmese military, others fought the Government, while Khun Saa engaged in “legitimate” business, especially mining and construction. After his death in 2007 Khun Saa’s children have remained as prominent business people in Myanmar.

Myanmar is after Afghanistan the world’s largest producer of opium and the greatest manufacturer of synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin. Its production is rising and it is known that militias from the northern Shan State are allied with government troops, which are engaged in resource extraction, logging, money laundering and, of course, illicit narcotics. A constantly unruly and militarised countryside benefits from illicit activities, enriching both sides of a conflict, a reality which combined with the self-interest and economic power of a military regime do not bode well for Myanmar’s future.

Nevertheless, let us hope that the latest unfortunate development will be a wake-up call for Myanmar’s young people, whom a taste of democracy has made aware of how power abuse has infested military leaders, who consciously have used ethnic strife to benefit their politics and economy. Maybe peace, solidarity and prosperity now are coming to the forefront in the minds of young people who for so long have been poisoned by political narratives about ethnic minorities.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.


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Natural Enemies: How Mango Farmers are Tackling an Invasive Fruit Fly Pest

Mango farmers Susan and Batsirai Zinoro from Mutoko District, Zimbabwe are using Integrated Pest Management methods to control a fruit fly pest. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Busani Bafana
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Feb 23 2021 – Every harvest season, Susan Zinoro, a mango farmer from Mutoko, Zimbabwe, buries half the mangoes she’s grown that season. They have already started rotting either on the tree or have fallen to the ground before harvest. It’s a difficult task for Zinoro because she knows she is throwing away food and income meant for her family.

But this has been happening for the last seven years, when she first began to notice that more and more fruit would rot and litter the ground.

Zinoro from Zinoro village in Mutoko, 143km north-east of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, has earned an average $400 per season from selling mangoes over the last five years. This is a shift from many years ago when she would earn more than $1,000 a season.

Another farmer, Pelegrina Msingwini, from Mhondiwa village in Murehwa, which neighbours Mutoko, remembers just two years ago when she harvested and sold 150 (20-litre) buckets of fruit from her plot. Half were rejected at the market because they were damaged. In 2020, she harvested even less mangoes, only 30 buckets.

Warming climate brings destructive pest

As the climate warms, a destructive pest is spreading its wings and damaging the livelihoods of fruit growers in southern Africa. The invasive fruit fly, Bactrocera dorsalis, is so small it’s often mistaken for a mosquito.

It has become is a serious impediment to mango farmers as it can cause total fruit loss, the ruin livelihoods and export prospects for the tropical fruit, Shepard Ndlela, an entomologist with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), based in Nairobi, Kenya, tells IPS.

Mutoko, Murehwa and Zvimba are Zimbabwe’s top mango-producing areas.

“In Mutoko [Zimbabwe] only, about 55 percent of households produce and sell mangoes together with other fruits such as bananas, guava and citrus,” Ndlela tells IPS, adding that, “They call mango “the golden fruit” thus depicting the true value of the fruit for food, nutrition and source of income.”

But approximately half of the 400,000 metric tonnes of mangoes produced each year are lost as a result of the fruit fly, says Ndlela. Uncontrolled, the pest can inflict 100 percent yield loss.

Scientists at ICIPE, supported by various donors, have developed an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) package.

It’s an approach to crop production and protection which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes as combining different strategies and practises to grow healthy crops, minimising the use of pesticides. The environment-friendly methods, which include use of natural enemies of crop pests and bio-pesticides, discourage the development of pest populations by encouraging the natural pest controls.

According to the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, best practice in sustainable food production also involves efforts to eradicate worst practices which include the overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

In 2020, in Zimbabwe’s top mango producing areas, the farmer have started doing just that when a natural enemy to the fruit fly was introduced.

A farmer’s friend for a nasty fly

Parasitoids are small insects that are natural enemies of the fruit fly, which lay their eggs in the body of the insect pest, completing their development inside the host and killing it. They are naturally found in Asia where the fruit fly pest is indigenous.

Scientists from ICIPE imported parasitoids for the fruit fly from Hawaii in 2006 for multiplication. Since then parasitoids have been multiplied in Kenya and have been distributed in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Parasitoids have been successfully used in East and West Africa where the fruit fly has been controlled with an up to 33 percent success rate, Ndlela says.

“What we have done is to unite the pest (fruit fly) and its natural enemies (parasitoids),” Ndlela tells IPS.

“Once released into the environment in good numbers, they multiply themselves in the field and move around. This is a biological control programme where we release parasitoids and nature takes its course,” Ndlela says.

Ndlela explains that farmers do not have to buy the parasitoids because ICIPE is training its partners in Southern Africa to mass produce the parasitoids for release to farmers.

Wide-scale adoption of other IPM interventions such as baiting techniques, killing of male flies to reduce their population, using bio pesticides and orchard sanitation, are being promoted in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe under a four-year pilot project targeting 4,000 farmers across the region.

The project seeks to improve food security and nutrition, provide income-generation opportunities, and reduce the poverty of small- and medium-scale mango growers, particularly women and youth.

Zinoro and her husband, Batsirai, are part of 1,000 Zimbabwean farmers trained on IPM methods.

More than 1,500 parasitoids were released at Zinoro’s mango orchard during the launch of the project. Once established on the farm the parasitoids do not need farmer intervention and will populate and prey on the pest.

“We have learnt that these insects (parasitoids) are friends of the farmer but an enemy of the fruit fly which is the enemy of our mangoes,” Zinoro says.

“The programme is helping improve our livelihoods because we are eliminating a pest that has affected mangoes from which we get income,” Zinoro, tells IPS from outside her homestead overlooking a field of towering mango trees. Some of the fruit trees have bright yellow plastic buckets dangling under fruit-laden branches — fly traps.

Research by ICIPE has found that in East Africa, farmers using the IPM package spent 46 percent less on synthetic insecticides per acre, reducing rejection of their fruit by half. As a result, farmers earned 22 percent more income than those not implementing IPM.

“We want to get to a point where the fruit fly is not causing any economic damage,” says Ndlela, explaining that the project was inviting agro-dealers to supply traps, lures and bio-pesticides at affordable prices to farmers to promote the wide use of IPM methods.

Adding value

The use of IPM strategies will enable fruit growers from Zimbabwe to meet the phytosanitary requirements for both domestic and export markets like the European Union, said John Bhasera, Zimbabwe’s Permanent Secretary of Agriculture, at the project launch in Mutoko last December.

Bhasera commented that increased mango productivity and quality will support horticulture farmers and open opportunities for value addition of the fruit.

The European Union, a key market for fruit, including mangoes from Africa, requires a phytosanitary certificate from exporting countries to indicate the fruit is free from pests.

Horticulture farmer, Phineas Chinomora, from Chinomona village in Mutoko, grows tomatoes and green mealies and has 56 mango trees on his farm. He is excited about IPM and sees an opportunity to improve his mango production while doing away with commercial pesticides.

“Over the years, I have lost a lot of mangoes to pests and was not sure about the cause. This programme will help me improve my production as I have introduced a lot of grafted mango trees under the programme and reducing pesticides will cut costs,” Chinomora tells IPS.

“We have to send our mangoes to Harare, incurring huge transport costs and we get low prices, so improving production and the quality of my mangoes will help us make more money,” Chinomora says. “We can now look at adding value to our mangoes by making juice and jam.”


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