Daniel Combs on Truth, Money, and Power Before and After the Myanmar Coup

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Daniel Combs on Truth, Money, and Power Before and After the Myanmar Coup

History may seem to be repeating, but the Myanmar of 2021 is crucially different from the country’s past experiences with military rule.

Daniel Combs on Truth, Money, and Power Before and After the Myanmar Coup
Credit: VOA/ Aung Naing Soe

The February 1 coup in Myanmar caught the country and the world by surprise, abruptly ending a decade-long relaxing of military rule. But placed in historical context, the latest backsliding is all-too-familiar for many in Myanmar – and particularly those within its peripheral ethnic regions.

To better understand the impact of the coup in ethnic regions, and how the latest events fit into the long history of Myanmar peoples’ struggles for survival, self-governance, and personal truth, The Diplomat interviewed Daniel Combs, the author of Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar.” Combs is also a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (the views expressed in this interview are his own and may not reflect the positions of the United States government).

Your book is centered around the narratives of two men: businessman Bum Tsit and photojournalist Phoe Wa. Have you been in contact with them – or other major characters in the book – since the coup? How is the military takeover impacting life for your contacts?

I’ve been able to stay in touch with most of the people I wrote about in this book. Phoe Wa, whom I followed during his rise as a photojournalist at the Myanmar Times, has spent the last month on the streets every day photographing the events in Yangon. He was part of a group of 20 journalists who quit the Times over what they described as its poor coverage of the recent events. He and a few other reporters have founded a new Myanmar wire service called Burma Associated Press.

Bum Tsit, who is the Kachin business owner and sometimes rebel I spent time with in Myanmar’s far north, has mostly withdrawn from politics to focus on his business. He used the money he made in the illegal jade trade to move out of Myitkyina, the largest city in northern Myanmar, to start a farm in a part of the countryside that is contested land between the central government and the Kachin Independence Army. Basically, he has become even more part of the Kachin independence movement, and is trying to live a more traditional Kachin lifestyle and has not taken part in the recent protests.

While Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts are well-known, you explore an often underappreciated dynamic: money. More specifically, the desire to control resources in ethnic areas, like Kachin State’s rich jade deposits. Did this underlying economic motivation factor into the military’s decision to seize power again?

I think money – specifically underground, untraceable revenue – has always been closely linked to power in Myanmar. Some of these areas have been well documented, like the methamphetamine and opium trades. I think the jade industry has been an often overlooked area in this regard. As I describe in this book, the jade trade, which is almost entirely an undocumented black market, is estimated to be worth between $8 and $40 billion per year. That’s a very wide variance, but the point is that in Myanmar, which is a poor country, it makes up a disproportionate amount of the economy. Those are resources that could easily be used to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, improve the healthcare system, or fund some kind of social safety net. However, as I and others have documented, most of that money is funneled into the hands of a small group of elite businessmen and military and armed group leaders. Unfortunately, instability and poor governance, whether due to armed conflict or civil unrest, helps the elites who control access to these resources evade oversight and continue this plunder, which I’ve described as one of the largest natural resource heists in the world.

The book examines the idea that current events in Myanmar are part of a decades-old struggle over who will govern, who will speak, and who will profit. Putting the coup in that historical context, what actual changes will this bring for the life of, for example, an average Kachin living in Myitkyina or working in the jade mines?

My impression from talking with many people who work and live in the remotest corners of Myanmar, especially in areas like the Kachin jade mines, is that very little of what other people call day-to-day politics affects life there. Even serious political upheavals do little to change the economics of these underground industries. With the jade mines, it’s really a story of market forces. The demand for the gemstone, primarily from China, has remained at a constant, very high level, for centuries. If anything, it’s been increasing over the last decade as more and more Chinese become part of the middle class. That means that in the mines, operations continue 24/7, despite the serious risks involved. Landslides and other mining accidents are common. And many jade miners die in their search for what they call the “green vein.”

It has been difficult to stay in touch with some of the miners there, so I can’t say for certain how their lives may have changed in the last month, but I know that during the time I lived in Myanmar, when most of the country felt consumed by the upheavals around the Rohingya crisis, miners I spoke to were almost oblivious to many current events. That’s not because they don’t care, or they are ignorant, or anything like that. It’s because on a day-to-day level, almost everyone in Myanmar – and especially those who engage in the physically destructive manual labor in the extractive industries – is struggling mightily to make their lives just a little bit better every day. And in the jade world, the stakes feel even higher. Everyone in the mines is consumed by the same perspective: a single-minded search for a “life changing” piece of jade that will take them out of poverty.

As the story of Phoe Wa makes clear, Myanmar’s transition to democracy was partial at best, even before the coup. With that in mind, is there any sense among the protest movement that a return to the Aung San Suu Kyi government doesn’t go far enough? Or has the current crisis subsumed criticisms of the NLD in the face of a military dictatorship?

I think it’s important to put current events into a historical perspective. The military has been more or less in control of Myanmar for 60 years, and in different generations, citizen movements have risen up to challenge that authority. In 1988 and 2007 and now in 2021 people in the street have been met with bullets and blood. This is a test for the new generation. But I think the difference between now and the past is the current appetite for progress and the desire to be in control of their narrative and destiny. What’s driving the people in the street? I think it’s in part a desire to tell the truth and make themselves heard. To not accept a given narrative from their rulers.

The key theme of your book is an examination of truth, secrets, and lies in Myanmar. As you write in the introduction, “Information means power in Myanmar.” How is the long-standing battle over who gets to define “the truth” playing out between the protesters, the military junta, and others?

I think the biggest change now is the appetite for the truth and the near total rejection of forced narratives. The last 10 years of opening up had a remarkable change on how people perceive the idea of truth.

In Myanmar, like everywhere else in the world, nothing has had a bigger effect on how information is consumed and interpreted than the proliferation of social media. What sets Myanmar apart is what came before. Remember that for 50 years, the country was essentially shut off from the rest of the world, sealed in by secrecy and pummeled with propaganda. Government informants were omnipresent, so people learned to tell lies, speak in code, and basically sleep with one eye open. I always remember that on the billboards around Yangon, the junta printed the “People’s Desires,” one of which was to “Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.” It wasn’t a place where you could speak truth to power. For many people I interviewed, it created what they described as a national paranoia that they felt the country was still struggling to overcome.

Contrast that perspective to that of a 25-year-old today: someone who came of age in a country that was more or less opening up to the world. This is a generation that is more connected, both to each other and to the outside world, than anyone before. Technology has given them the ability to organize, fact check, and question their leaders in a way that most of their parents couldn’t have imagined. Of course, social media has also created a host of problems around fake news and disinformation, which I describe at length in this book.

But for the moment, I think Phoe Wa’s resignation from the Myanmar Times is a good example of where things stand. People are trying to take responsibility for the narrative, and not let the truth be defined for them, and I think that’s a good thing.