Myanmar’s Last Chance Saloon: An Interview With Ian Holliday

Myanmar’s Last Chance Saloon: An Interview with Ian Holliday

Is Myanmar at a crossroad? Is the crisis she’s facing right now her last chance saloon? These are difficult questions by any measure. And, to be brutally honest, I don’t know what the answer to any of them is! But this much I do know: It’s not too late for the generals to call a halt, for the alternative is a full blown civil war, which neither Myanmar nor the world can afford.

Since we are in Asia, where age and experience are highly revered; for they give a man great advantage in judging things, both as they furnish a man with so much the more matter for his thoughts to work upon and as they ripen and improve the facilities he is working with. It is a good reason why learned elders in our midst should take pains both to learn themselves and to teach others, and why young people in particular, should attend on their instructions. And speaking of one such learned elder in our midst: It is hard to think of a better candidate than Professor Ian Holliday. I first heard him speak when he gave an insightful talk on Myanmar, one beautiful November evening in 2018, in Taipei, Taiwan. The lecture was entitled: Liberalism and Democracy in Myanmar – which was hosted by Lung Yingtai Cultural Foundation. A Vice-President and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning) of the Hong Kong University, he is the author of a book, Burma Redux: Global Justice and the Quest for Political Reform in Myanmar. It gives me great pleasure to share with you an impromptu interview he and I recently had:

Teaching and Learning

1.0 TKC: A teacher, according to Chinese culture, is accorded the highest public respect of all professions. You have been a teacher for 31 years as of 2021. You started your teaching career at the University of Kent and the University of Manchester (1990-99); you later took up teaching positions at New York University and City University of Hong Kong (from 1999); but it is at the University of Hong Kong you subsequently settled, making the university your academic home. You officially joined the University of Hong Kong in 2006 and have since risen to the office of Vice-President in 2014; where you now superintend over direction and policy of the university’s curriculum, teaching and learning, and quality assurance.

1.1 TKC: Your published biography says you are passionate about teaching and learning. Can you please tell us how you would define the purpose of education?

Professor Ian Holliday: To help people excel.

1.2 TKC: As a follow on to the above, please tell us about the biggest education challenge you see in our rapidly changing world of today?

Professor Ian Holliday:  Ensuring that the huge potential of education is spread as widely as possible.

2.0 TKC: As Dean of Social Sciences, you spearheaded the introduction of a graduation requirement that undergraduates students complete off-campus credits in twin areas of social innovation global citizenship. You also created and for many years directed the Faculty’s MOEI programme to enable undergraduate students deliver intensive-mode English classes to children and young adults in impoverished and marginalised communities in Southeast Asia. In the seven cycles starting from 2008 to 2014, more than 300 MOEI students have taught English to thousands of young people in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.

2.1 TKC: Can you please describe ‘MOEI’ as if we knew nothing about it? And how do you measure its impact on Southeast Asia?

Professor Ian Holliday: In 2008, the programme was launched as the Migrant Outreach Education Initiative. Several years later it expanded beyond that to work also with students who were not migrants. But the initial aim was simple: to meet the need for English-language education among Myanmar migrants living in Thailand by recruiting HKU students to live and work within that community.

2.2 TKC: Your commitment to innovation and global citizenship is highly commendable. Please tell us more about what you mean by global citizenship? And what are the biggest challenges facing anyone aspiring to be a global citizen?

Professor Ian Holliday: Global citizenship encompasses an informed awareness of the many challenges facing people throughout the world, ideally through direct experience of the circumstances in which diverse populations live, partnered with an ability to devise solutions to some of those challenges. I think anyone can make progress in becoming a global citizen. It’s just a matter of taking the first step.

2.3 TKC: The global Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly changed the world. There is now a before, and the after the pandemic. The emerging the new world order is a divided house. Dividing between two great powers – the USA and China – each projecting their own image upon those who fall under their respective spheres of influence. Against this backdrop, is the concept of global citizenship compromised?

Professor Ian Holliday: I don’t see any reason why it should be.


3.0 TKC: You have a considerable body of published work, focusing mainly on the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Space does not permit us to list them all, but among your published papers are titles such as: Institutional building in Myanmar: The Establishment of Regional and State Assemblies (2015); Thinking About Transitional Justice in Myanmar (2014); Myanmar in 2012 Towards a Normal State (2013); International Sanctions or International Justice? Shaping Political Development in Myanmar (2012); Precarity and Political Immobilisation: Migrants from Burma in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2011); and the list goes on. But you are better known for a book you published in 2011, Burma Redux: Global Justice and the Quest for Political Reform in Myanmar (Columbia University Press, 2011). You have other books to your credit, namely, Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Myanmar (Routledge, 2018), which you co-edited with Adam Simpson; and Liberalism and Democracy in Myanmar (Oxford University Press, 2018), which you co-authored with Roman David. You are clearly a man who understands Myanmar and her chequered history very well.

3.1 TKC: Now given your extensive knowledge of Myanmar, and in light of the 1st February 2021 military coup d’etat, would you please tell us what you think is the genesis of her current political travails?

Professor Ian Holliday: The coup was the direct result of a powerful and in many respects unaccountable national army seeking once again to impose its will on the people of Myanmar.

3.2 TKC: What specific action do you want democracy-loving people around the world to take?

Professor Ian Holliday: The Myanmar people ask the rest of the world to remain focused on their plight, not to do anything that would provide support to the national army, and to take any opportunity to support the forces of democracy inside the country. We should try to do as much of this as possible.

4.0 TKC: Turning to your book, Burma Redux: Global Justice and the Quest for Political Reform in Myanmar, whose recurring theme is: “How principles of global justice might inform a quest to create the multi-ethnic democratic order that the notion of Burma has come to symbolize in the hearts and minds of both insiders and outsiders.” Accepting that the book is now overtaken by events, what in you opinion went wrong in Myanmar, following her 10-year democracy experiment?

Professor Ian Holliday: I would say the central theme remains just as important today as it was 10 years ago. The people of Myanmar, supported by the wider world, still have the same aspirations. This time around, however, they have far less incentive to view the national army as acting in good faith in the political realm. Their core aim is to ensure the army is placed under civilian control in all future iterations of national politics. This would make for a very different transitional dynamic.

4.1 KTC: I suspect that you were among many Britons who vociferously campaigned for the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi. I was. And I do remember with delight, her delivering a rousing address to both Houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall; following an invitation by the then House of Commons Speaker, Mr John Bercow. She was even invited to join Prince Charles to plant a magnolia. Given her strong base, both at home and aboard, do you think she compromised too easily to the generals in Myanmar?

Professor Ian Holliday: We simply don’t have enough information about this critical relationship to answer this question.

4.2 TKC: Given the longevity of the military in power, was it inevitable that Aung San Suu Kyi would get roped in by the generals, to play the internationally respected fig-leaf to legitimise the Rohingya genocide? In other words, was Aung San Suu Kyi the generals’ useful idiot?

Professor Ian Holliday: I wouldn’t want to use those words.

Myanmar’s Last Chance Saloon: Yes or No.

5.0 TKC: I remember how the world was stunned into silence following the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The was much talk of “Never Again” will such atrocity ever be allowed to take place in the modern world. Then hot on the heels of Rwanda came the 1995 Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian wars – the first European genocide since the Second World War. Again the world cried: “Never Again!” And in the not too distant past, we’ve been treated to an appalling tragedy of human suffering, including massive loss of life and property in Syria, in which the world seems utterly powerless. On 31st March 2021, the UN Special envoy to Myanmar, Ms Christine Schraner Burgener, in a closed door appeal  is reported to have said: “Consider all available tools to take collective action and do what is right, what the people of Myanmar deserve, and prevent a multi-dimensional catastrophe in the heart of Asia…” By the sound of this desperate appeal, the world appears to be yet again powerless.

5.1 TKC: With 500,000 or more Syrians dead, 13.3 million displaced both within the Syria or abroad, and the country in ruins. Indeed, there are many portents and parallels, which are disturbing; foretelling yet another avoidable human tragedy, probably surpassing that in Syria. Given your in-depth knowledge of Myanmar, is Myanmar the new Syria?

Professor Ian Holliday: There are disturbing parallels that should make the wider world deeply concerned.

5.2 TKC: Among the 13.3 million displaced Syrians, a considerable number have found refuge in neighbouring countries, some travelling as far as Europe. Now based on my personal short sojourn in East Asia, I know for a fact that many Asian countries do not have a refugee policy, how do you suppose Myanmar’s neighbours will handle the refugee crisis that is almost certain to result from the continuing chaos in Myanmar?

Professor Ian Holliday: Thailand and Bangladesh have considerable experience of working with refugees from Myanmar, so there’s plenty of regional knowledge to draw on. This will generate a solid base for future policy.

6.0 TKC: Myanmar is an exceedingly rich country in natural resources. Chief of these resources are oil and gas – Total and Chevron are two international companies in the lead in the extraction of these resources – contributing in excess of 1 Billions US dollars to the Myanmar government treasury. Now it is true that the US, UK and the EU have all slapped sanctions on the generals, but the general are proudly boasting that these sanctions do not impact them in any meaningful way.

6.1 TKC: Is the lure of trade and investments drowning out the voices of the suffering people Myanmar?

Professor Ian Holliday: Myanmar is once again a pariah state. So long as that remains the case, the problem will be attracting high-quality, ethical global investment.

6.2 TKC: What practical steps would you recommend to the great powers to cut off the supply of money to the generals?

Professor Ian Holliday: The Myanmar people ask for targeted sanctions.

6.3 TKC: You have written persuasively about the role of civil society. The astonishing stand taken by ordinary citizens in Myanmar is a wonder to behold, an example to citizens in other countries the world over. To date, hundreds of civilians have been killed, with thousands more detained or forcibly disappeared. Night raids, mass arrests and killing are now daily meat and drink for many in Myanmar.  The toll on ordinary citizens is incalculable.

6.3(a)  TKC: What role, if any, do you see ordinary citizens play in the future of Myanmar?

Professor Ian Holliday: Ordinary people have already established the parameters for national politics in Myanmar in the years ahead.

6.3(b) TKC: When and how can civil society complement efforts geared to see representative democracy return and take root in Myanmar?

Professor Ian Holliday: Civil society is an essential component of any viable political future for Myanmar.

A Personal Recommendation

It is now 9 years since Professor Ian Holliday’s book first came out. But ‘Burma Redux: Global Justice and the Quest for Political Reform in Myanmar’ is just as relevant now as the day it was first published. The meat of this book is the focus Professor Holliday gives to the opinions of ordinary people – the citizens of Myanmar – giving us a powerful prism through which to better understand the challenges facing Myanmar. Based on what I have read and heard so far, I don’t think there’s anyone who would not benefit from reading this book.

Kindly share this