Tuesday, December 30, 2008


This morning a guy was leading a baby elephant through the town selling sugar cane to feed it with. I bought some and gave it to it's rubbery trunk which dexteriously wrapped around it and shoved it in its mouth, bringing its trunk back for more and more, but when I screwed up the empty bag, it knew there was none left. Then it was led away to find more customers, it let out a squeal like screeching tyres. It was so cute. Of course you can't help but feel sorry for a creature so intelligent and family oriented, especially that hook they use to guide them by the ear. Later that night we saw the elephant again at the night markets, it was making its tyre screech sounds as it was led among the people and scooters and cars. We'd been to night markets in other towns, which had lots of fun food and stalls of clothes, gifts etc, but this one was lame and we didn't find anything worthwhile to eat. So we left. We went to a little street food restaurant that made really good roti, they made it right in front of you, stretching a small circle of dough so thin it was almost transparent, before folding it up to make layered puffy roti which he cooked on a hot plate over an open fire. It was so good we decided to get some more stuff. This chicken and potato filled roti was delicious for the first couple of bites before quickly losing its appeal in the indulgent amounts of oil and the chicken tom yam soup we ordered, came in the form of a pile of rice with a chicken drumstick stuffed in the middle of it, which we took away with us and gave to some homeless burmese children further down the street. We needed a pallatte cleanser and the only thing we could think of was getting out of the reality of Mae Sot and into the western refuge of Taste Hazel, a cafe, where we had green tea and chocolate cake. How cultureless.

I'm confused. Though I shouldn't be, knowing how much humans suck. I wrote the other day about people exploiting the burmese in the gem trade in Mae Sot, but the burmese buy them too - that is not to say the trade is any less exploitative - it just means there are some burmese who have escaped that persecution to use it to their advantage, and of course there are examples of this throughout history, the preoccupation of self interest.

I am confused though, by the criteria for arrest of those detained at the detention center. I don't understand why those who come to visit during visiting hours, are not also arrested, not that I want them to be of course. Those who beg all day are completely exposed as being illegal, do they have some skill at evading authorities or are they tollerated for a while before being sent back? I need to investigate.

Monday, December 29, 2008

more stuff

So the internet has been a ee bit temperamental the last couple of days. We moved to our new guest house because a wedding had booked out our last one, an Irish girl is marrying someone in a refugee camp, but its worked out better for us, cheaper rent and bicycles, and the internet - while a bit temperamental isn't down for days on end.

On our second night here we had a mosquito net put up, but apparently there was a mosquito inside it, I could hear it whining passed my ears in the night and then in the morning could see its handy work, and poor abacus - just as her bites were clearing up, now has one on her cheek and one on her chin.

In the morning Abacus was rolling over onto her stomach on her mat, but then she seemed determined to get over onto her back again and she did it! So now she can roll over completely, the circle is complete.

There are goats that roam around the neighbourhood, there's a field opposite the guest house but they also venture across the bridge, maybe to scavenge for rubbish in the town, though there's plenty of rubbish dumped in the field too.

Danielle went to see her friends for a while, they're on holiday at the moment for another week.

There's not a lot happeneing really. The website I was hoping to make has stagnated - i think I'm going to pursue it on my own and just give them the template, I'll make it really easy to update, it'll be a good project for myself and one that should be quite applicable to other causes. The idea is pretty much like a blog, but with a front page template that is like a newspaper - or news website that can be updated using external word files. There are also playground building projects which have been put on hold for a couple of weeks, so my experiences are a little vicariously imbibed through danielle, it's hard to get involved hile caring for abacus - but there is no shortage of interactions and learning to be found in the town itself.

Nights are cold and I think of those detained around the corner from us. The detention center is completely exposed, I can't imagine what it's like for them, though I know they have suffered worse. They huddle on the floor watching the TV over the guards shoulder while babies and children cry in the background.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

catch up

A quick recap of our days without internet.

Abacus has been sleeping better with her new feeding schedule, I think the cereal is key. She certainly isn't sleeping through the night, but is sleeping for at least three hours at a time and sometimes four. I think it'll keep improving and she has settled into the new feed schedule well, cutting her feeds down to 6 a day. But she continues to cry quite a bit, and even her talking can often resemble a piercing scream, though when she's happy, she's really happy.

Our new guest house is nice and a lot cheaper, which is good because we'd underbudgeted the trip by quite a bit. We have our own detached little room which is good for Abacus' loud voice, somehow though, the room looks like its the outside and the door should lead to the inside - it's hard to explain.

It rained hard for a couple of nights, the locals were suspicious and a little supersticious, saying "It never rains in december", with the ominiously grave expressions of the jedi council. I'd forgotten about rain, and it was refreshing to have some, it's cooled everything off a lot.

I may have confused people when I took down my blog, people weren't after us and the order didn't come from any authorityarian rule, they are simply precautions which are made to limit information about certain operations, which could lead authorities to people who really don't want to be found. It is frustrating to leave out half the story - the main story really - on the blog, but I can tell you about it in person one day.

Also, we heard tale of a dunkin donuts in town, so we went to investigate. We found it in a giant supermarket where everyone was only buying shopping baskets full of cooking oil, the checkouts seemed to radiate a golden glow from the sheer quantity of the stuff. We later found out - as we'd suspected, that there was a speacial on oil, it was mainly though, store owners who were buying it to sell. PS the donuts were delicious.
When we left our guest house, we took a photo of the maid who'd been so good with Abacus and then we had it printed and went back and gave it to her, she really loved it, but more so, she loved that we brought the real abacus back with us. She wants to see more photos of Abacus as she grows older. Abacus is equally as loved at our new guest house (A guest house by the way is like a motel but made up of little houses rather than a big concrete block building). There's a ten year old girl , whose mother works here, who is very interested in abacus.

Across  from the guest house is a detention center full of people; men, women and children, who are to be deported back to Burma. They are not hidden from site, it is just a huge concrete room with a wall of bars on the front, on which those captive hang their clothes, while they sit or lay on the concrete floor, waiting for the inevitable. The Thai guards are plain clothed, they watch TV as though it is nothing more than an impound lot, but there's also strong police presence. It's a hard image to walk passed everyday, there are so many angry feelings of helplessness and the hopelessness of humans here. 

Further fueling this hopelessness is the healthy gem trade on the main street. Danielle pointed out how on the streets there's a lot of people buying gems, little rings and things, which they hold up to the sun outside, scrutinising their worth. The jewels though come from Burma, and the conditions in which they're mined are as you'd expect of a country under totalitarian rule. People buy Nike shoes made in sweatshops and diamonds mined in horrifying conditions all around the world, and that too is unforgivable, I know (in fact, ironically,  nike seems to be the shoe of choice for most NGO's), but this crisis is so close, so visible, there are the desperate examples of the means by which their trinkets are got, walking among them, even haunting the very markets which sell the gems, they're collecting rubbish for money, or have one frail hand outstretched while the other holds a malnourished infant. This is the borderline of exploitation, where the two worlds physically impact upon each other, and yet it becomes as invisible a factor to their transactions, as it is when the border is an ocean wide, between the malls of the west and the factory floor of the third world. 

Friday, December 26, 2008

so um. the internet was down for two days or so.

now we have moved guest houses.

more later.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


So it didn't really work so well. She slept for almost four hours, then she woke up every two hours again, so I had to keep her quiet for an hour until it was time to feed her, but she wasn't really all that into eating, so by morning time I was exhausted, while she was of course ready to go. But today she has been really good today, eating every four hours just like we wanted. So we'll just keep at it.

Today the ants got all through her cereal and our peanut butter, so I had to go get more, being sure to choose banana, milk and wheat over the fish, milk and wheat option. They were working on the roads today, there are a lot of female road workers. The truck laying the diesel looked as though it were from 30's america, but it did the job, they had finished half the road in no time at all, a job which would probably have taken a week at home. They also didn't have road signs or stop go signs even though  the the two lane road was reduced to two, but everyone worked it out, they just drove head on towards each other, and like a well rehearsed game of chicken, avoided each other at the last minute. And this too reminded me of something in India, and hopefully I can make this less confusing than yesterdays india reference. In india they don't use signs either when they're doing road works, but they don't even use road cones, they just lay rocks along the middle of the closed lane. We saw the rocks on the road beside us, through the bus window, like a Hansel and Gretel trail, which led to an unfinished bridge over a huge cliff. No signs, nothing but rocks to warn of the danger.

Abacus seems to stay awake longer with her new schedule and I tried a few grabbing exercises with her, she still needs a lot of practice, she does grab her feet, but reaching for stuff is a bit more challenging for her.

The maid cleans out her Abacus' pram too. We saw her beating it down with a duster and then finding her cardigan and hat in the undercarriage took them to be washed, putting them back in the pram in the plastic bags the use for laundry as a present. She loves her so much, it'll be sad to leave here on saturday for our new guest house.

We had a bit of red wine with some friends in the evening, about the only wine you'll find in Thailand, Dave, of Dave's Canadian fame imports it from south africa in huge vats and they sell it by the box. 

a funeral

The freezing morning, which abacus has made us well aquainted with, had transitioned seemlessly  into a stifling heat by the time we heard the distant bell nearing. We first thought it was a procession of monks, though as the parade came closer into view, we could see the first group of people walking behind the police officer, were plain clothed in ragged t-shirts. The first person was  carrying a small clay pot of fire, followed by a man carrying a pole, to which was tied a large paper doll, that danced playfully with the breeze. The next two men carried a bell suspended from a wooden beam between them, which a third man hit rhythmically with a hammer, in time to the monotonous chimes of the music, which radiated from the procession. Following the shaven headed monks in saffron robes, was a woman holding the painting of a young girl, whose body followed in the heartbreakingly small coffin, sat high on top of a small truck, followed by the remaining mourners, though there were no tears amongst them. It reminded me of a similar procession we saw in India. They all stared at us, even the men holding the body wrapped in a shroud above their heads, the funeral seemed to disappear in our presence. But this was Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, it's not like they hadn't seen westerners before, but maybe death was more common.

The night before had been no better than the others. Abacus stirred and squawked every hour or half hour, to sleep drink a few mls of milk, until deeply unconscious again. We had tried to have her sleep in our bed, but it had made no difference, except that her mosquito bites had multiplied by morning, until one arm was red with a heartless cluster of bumps, and her head and legs too had fresh bites. We sreached on line for feeding habits of babys her age and found that she was eating too smaller portions, way to frequently, so we plotted a regime change, and decided to stretch her fast time to four hours. However, abacus had some things to say about that and she had a convincing argument, which had me cede at two and three quarter hours. The next one stretched to three hours and the next three and a half, with her intake increasing each time also. It's probably been the most strict we've been on her, but what ever it takes to get her to sleep through the night, because we're going to age very quickly otherwise. We gave her three meals of cereal too, which is really tasty.

We bought some calamine lotion so that now her face and arms are polka dotted with white blotches. The woman at the store for some reason had to touch her bites, which made abacus cry, to which the lady responded with the familiar "clap to the crying baby" technique, which everyone in Thailand and Burma knows, to which Abacus responds by accelerating her crying, which usually attracts a crowd of people all clapping and laughing and being in her face, which usually accelerates her crying to a throaty scream. Already, at 6 months, the cultural divide is forged. Just as it is with dogs.

Later in the night we sought out the waffle lady, who has a stand amongst the street vendors, they looked delicious and the first bite was, but, was that a raisin? and was that, um, a corn kernel??  It was ok because we went to a bakery to get bread and they sold the best looking donuts there for so cheap and they were so good, the likes of which you could not find in New Zealand. 

Monday, December 22, 2008

dogs of war

There are locals working for NGO's who are being taught english so that they may converse more effectively with their western counterparts. On the surface it would seem more respectful to teach the foreigners the local language, however the transitional nature of the western volunteers and the permenancy of the locals, makes the equation the best fitting. When asked if they enjoy having a job that helps people, they uninhibitedly reply that it is "just a job" and in fact they view the migrants as untrustworthy, or thieves, with fragile states of sanity which they don't want in their country. They charged the NGO's founder as being "too nice" and that, as he lives in europe, is to far removed from the reality of the situation to know what is really going on. And in a sense, the charge is true. He has failed to appreciate the lack of understanding among the very people he has employed, of the very issues they are employed to help overcome. His failure to educate on the facets of the situation could only cause friction at the very point of contact, requiring the greatest freedom of movement.

I have little to say today. We barely slept with abacus waking every 2 hours, sometimes for no apparent reason. We've decided to just let her sleep in the bed with us tonight, even though she gets bitten by mosquitos, who so cruely go for her head and our faces and feet. She's harder to get back to sleep now, constantly trying to turn on to her stomach, and when succeeding crying because she can't get back off it and can't sleep that way. So getting her to sleep is a process of restraining her from turning, while holding a dummy in her mouth while whispering shhhhhh shhhhh shhhhhhh. Which is more exhausting than it sounds.

There's a mini gang of toy dogs which live next door, little fury ewoks who wear little vests, today they were wearing camo vests, but they are so ellusive when ever I take out my camera. I'll upload a blurry photo I have of one. Often when a huge pick up truck comes barreling down the driveway they'll come yapping out to swarm it's tyres, causing the truck to screech to a halt in a cloud of gravel dust. 

Today we bought abacus some banana cereal. She has been eating the bananas we've bought, but not as much as she should. They're a lot sweeter and more pungent than bananas she's used to. Everything is so different here. We wonder how hard it is on her. We've tried to maintain some rituals of routine, but it's her most familiar environment, the bed in which she slept for two months before she left, which is causing the most visible sign of being unsettled.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

an early morning excursion

This morning, like many other mornings, abacus was awake and talking loudly, the way a fire alarm talks, at 6am. So we decided, instead of our usual ritual of trying in vain to shut her up, we that we would take her for another motorcycle ride, to a giant buddha 3kms out of town, as there's no where we can go to keep her penetrating screams from the other guests. The early morning is freezing so we had her bundled up and wedged once more between us as  we rode along the dawn highway. The road was quiet with only trucks transporting workers to where ever they were going. Just out of town, one of the lanes disappeared into gravel, which no one drove on, creating a single lane highway, but so commonplace are such things, that it was approached with the banality of routine, and no sense of risk at all. Abacus began crying again part way along, though we were the ones bearing the brunt of the chilled morning air. The wat complex was huge, with ornate buildings everywhere and some workers chopped at a tree which lost large parts of its body with resounding cracks. As we walked through the quiet morning attendence, we were looking for a giant reclining Buddah and then suddenly you see it, a giant face between a couple of the buildings, which danielle likened to seeing Tane Mahuta for the first time, the giant amongst giants, its presence startling your expectations. Buddhas face looks with that feminine serenity of south east asian design, laying in contentment before the tiny people and their offerings. Across the way were about 20 identical  buddha, all lined up behind a cage, with the look of a carnival sideshow, where someone might try to aim ping pong balls into their mouths. On our way back to our scooter we saw a little monk boy with a friend who had a bb gun shaped like an AK-47 shooting birds, I tried to get a photo but the boy with the gun didn't want to be photographed, I would have thought the buddhist monk would have shied away from being photographed with someone killing creatures more than the guy with the gun. We rode back screaming once more through the early morning chill, our rent had run out on the bike, much to Abacus' relief, she had a much more enjoyable time in the pram on the way to get Pancakes and bacon and a crap huge coffee at Daves Canadian and then a real coffee on the way home, she fell asleep along the way.

As we don't have baby food here, we bought some bananas and mashed them up with a pestle and mortar, but when she tried the banana she started to freak out, shaking her hands with wide eyes before she started crying, then when we tasted it we realised that there must have been some chilli residue left in the mortar from some grining up chillis and so the bananas were spicey. So that was her introduction to spicey food i guess. It wasn't really, really spicey, just a mild tingling.

Abacus slept a lot of the afternoon. Maybe we should just get up with her every morning. I went for a walk to get some supplies and spent a bit extra on my way home, doling out coins to all the starving mothers along the way, it's pretty hard to know someone could go starving for no good reason, i wish i could do more to help them. 

We went to the borderline shop for dinner again, they have such good burmese food for really cheap. We also found out that they no longer issue 30 day visas after visiting Burma, it's now only 15, so we'll have to cross the border three times before we leave. It's a shame we can't see much of Burma on the otherside, I've heard it likened to going to Tiajuana and saying you've been to Mexico, it's just another border town. 

We walked back as the wild dogs were crawling out from their shady hiding places from the afternoon heat, finding now their warm spots in the middle of the road beneath the setting sun, grudgingly moving for scooters sounding their horns with courteous little "excuse me please"es. 

the screaming scooter

There's some tragic looking westerners in thailand, a guy with a hawaiin shirt, unbuttoned to show his chest, tucked into his jeans, with his greying hair slicked back just walked passed.

But anyway. 

We hired a motorcycle today to go visit some friends. Danielle drove with me holding abacus on the back. When abacus had previously riden a motorcycle she seemed to enjoy it, but this time, after about a kilometer, she began screaming uncontrollably, and there was little i could do but hold her squashed between the two of us. The important thing to remember in thailand is, that when you make a right hand turn, you stay on the right side of the road, and then weave your way to the left once you are around the corner - that's the rule not just cutting corners, you'll find it hard to get around on the left as cars turning right are all lined up on the left of the road. 

So our little scooter apparently screamed through Mae Sot village attracting odd looks from the road side.

Abacus cried from all of the attention again so we lay her down on some blankets, where a mother dog watched attentively over her until she calmed - but refused to sleep. Our friends made us lunch, and offered us palm sugar for desert, and for some reason a whole nut and tea leaf salad, even though I couldn't eat another thing. But then Abacus began to scream inconsolably, so we had to leave our half eaten food and scream through the village and get her to bed. Later we went for coffee at this place, which seems to attract hella westerners with laptops giving it the distinct feeling of being a starbucks somewhere, we'd taken the scooter to get there, as it was a long walk away but only a short drive, but Abacus was screaming by the time we got back home again. She just seems to hate motorbikes. 

the unstaffed coffee shop - abridged

I went for coffee today but there was no staff in the store and no bell, so I waited for 20 minutes, but no one came, even though I could have helped myself to anything in the fridge, or if I'd been inclined to investigate - possibly even the till. I got bored and left and came back on my way home, but still no one.

All I'll say is that NGO's will not help their causes by starting conflicts among themselves, especially with those who volunteer and pay to help.

Danielle feels much better today, illness wise.

Abacus has been a bit difficult the last couple of days and it's not helping that to respect the silence of other guests we cannot parent how we normally would, meaning she's getting quite spoilt. Especially being able to sleep in the bed with us. She's taking a lot longer to get to sleep at times and waking up a lot more in the night and talking loudly.

Later in the night, the three new zealand idiots would become so drunk they would let off bottlerockets out of their hands outside the guest house, welcoming the scorn of all of the other guests. the old night watchman, an elderly Burmese asylum seeker would be shaking his head, powerless to stop them, the other old man was a drunk who the boys would coerce, it sounded, into holding a bottle rocket in his hand, then laughing hysterically in disbelief that he would comply, they would call him "sky rocketman", they'd filled the coke fridge with beer and cheap whiskey, but the firdge is locked after 8, so they would be yelling "hey skyrocketman! kinoi 'av th key". They looked the type advertised in drunk driving commercials, and they would drive off drunk, on motorcycles, but unfortunately they would return unscathed after "blowing some shit up", mouthing back at the other guests, all of whom are here on voluntary basis for humanitarian work. It makes no sense for them to even be here. There is nothing here for them to do, it's not a tourist destination and it's so far out of the way I don't know how they ended up here. I don't know why they're not in the islands where they would be inconspicuous with the other tourists, who travel only to indulge in their own culture in another land, a century earlier they would have been the worst of the colonizers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

they hand wash our laundry!

In the early hours of the morning you can hear the buddhist monks chanting in the distance, so faint and organic does it sound it is like an auditory hallucination, the mind forming shapes from the wind. About half an hour later the loud speakers around town broadcast the morning muslim prayer, crackling in the cool dry air, splitting the sky open, as light begins to flow into the predawn and birds begin their voyage through the prayer filled sky. Then Abacus cracks all the ceremony with her loud mouth talking as she wants nothing but to be awake.

I bought a new pair of jeans before I left New Zealand and since my illness, they are too big for me, when I weighed myself in Singapore I was over 70, probably the heaviest I've been in years, who knows what I am now. I should start eating more of the delicious looking cakes around town, they are like 25c each. The other day we had Burmese tea cakes and saved some to take home, wrapped in a napkin. But the next day when I unwrapped the tissue, the cakes were covered in tiny dust sized ants, yet there was no sign of ants anywhere else in the room. It's as though they materialised from within the cakes themselves, as though they were some kind of Trojan Burmese tea cakes. Later that night when I went to microwave a burger, I saw the same type of ants all through the inside of the microwave,I heated the burger expecting all the ants would perish, but when I opened the door they were running around as though nothing had happened. So obviously they must be some form of alien ants, from some sort of alien ant farm perhaps ? What would have been worse is if I'd opened the microwave to find super giant radioactive ants.

So today I had the simple task of buying some new nappies. But there are no quick easy errands in Thailand, at least not as we would know it, not without extreme patience. I can't emphasise enough how much of an obstacle course it is pushing a pram though the town, it's difficult enough on foot, it's hard to know when the footpath is going to just disappear into a shop or a hole or turn into road, or step up to a higher footpath for which there is no ramp. None of the stores have ramps but their doorways are always one or two steps off the ground. And food takes forever, in an empty restaurant it took someone forty minutes to make me a sandwich, it just takes a shift in expectations,to know you can't "just pop out" for a "quick" something.

Some other new zealanders are staying at the guest house. I don't even know why they came to Mae Sot of all places, they just do things like buy fireworks and let them off at night, and walk around in open robes with little else on, offending the female staff. They're just dicks. I was thinking of making up some elaborate plot that they're involved in and telling some informers and having them disappeared.

Danielle is a bit fluey now. One of us is always sick! We got some spicey soup for dinner to help clear her head and a brownie. hehe. After dinner some carollers came around. They were all dressed in santa hats, the girls had fake white braids coming out of theirs. There was a lot of english for them to know to sing the songs. It was so cute.

History deleted.

So I've taken most of the blog down for security reasons, I might get around to putting a severely edited version up if I have time. Ironic that to protect freedom one must self impose the same extreme censorship that was the cause for escape. There are informants everywhere around here and people go missing. They search websites, blog sites, hang out at guest houses, not that we have any worries because we're only here on holiday, but I've heard of westerners being involved in things and so there is suspicion of westerner activities in Mae Sot. (Funny that bloggers spell check doesn't recognise the word blog). So from now on I will be writing differently.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Some people have asked me to explain the situation in Burma. It's difficult to summarise the brutality and oppression of the military dictatorship there and also the eloquent words of those who have written about it, but I'll try. The best book I have read about it, aside the many reports scattered around the guest house, is "Finding George Orwell in a Burmese tea shop". George Orwell worked in Burma as part of the Imperial Police Force when he was just the 17-22 year old Eric Blair. The British ruled Burma after ousting the Burmese king and annexing it into the Indian part of their empire, which stretched from modern day Pakistan to Burma (they never conquered Afghanistan as no one ever has or will). George Orwells first book was Burmese Days, but some say he wrote a trilogy about Burma, including 1984 and Animal Farm, so chillingly similar are these dystopias to present day Burma that he is known to the Burmese as the Prophet, though his books are banned in Burma - I wouldn't be surprised, however, if the books themselves serve as instruction manuals, in the back pockets of the piggish Generals who rule Burma. 

The short lived democratic rule in Burma was founded by a resistance group led by one Aung San. During world war 2, he led his group to Japan where they were trained to oust the British. However, when they returned to Burma they saw the Japanese as a bigger threat to their freedom and culture and instead defected to join the British in driving out the invading Japanese, an operation which was successful and led to the granting of independence from the British. Soon after Aung San began leading a transitional government in 1948, he and his cabinet were assassinated by a rival party. In 1962 democracy was completely destroyed by a military coup, led by General Ne Win, who would rule Burma for the next 26 years with overreaching authority, violently suppressing any protest, no matter how peaceful with overwhelming force under the guise of transitioning the country towards socialism. Over the years Burma would amass an army the size of the current American one, though with no external enemies, their force would be instead turned inwards, to control their own population.

Students and monks have been instrumental in leading opposition protests. A key moment in Burmese history came on the auspicious date, 8.8.88, when students lead a huge protest for democracy. This protest, to the rest of the worlds horror, was met with a live military response in which over 3000 unarmed protestors were shot dead, with many more injured. It was after this 8888 uprising that the country's name was changed to Myanmar and it's capital also moved, cities and street names were renamed, as if in changing these names, they could rid Burma of its memory and history, in chilling similarity to Orwels 1984.   

Aung San Su Kyi, Daughter of the revolutionary founder of democratic Burma returned to Burma at this point with a mission to lead the country towards democracy, in 1990 elections were held for the first time in 30 years, during which Hung San was detained and held under house arrest. Despite her incarceration, her party still won an overwhelming 82% of the vote, this though meant nothing, as Slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council) had no intention of ceding power and instead instated a new general as the new ruler of Burma. Since then Aung San has been held under house arrest on several occasions for periods of years at a time. 

Under the guise of socialism Slorc, which is now renamed SPDC (State peace and development council), uses its civilians in unpaid hard labour to build projects in "the benefit of the state". During the time they work on these projects, they are unable to work to support themselves, which means, many begin working after sometimes 12 hours of forced labour, with little sleep, in order to maintain a livelihood, or at least to eat. There are reports of people being worked to death in these situations. 

Opposition to the government is fiercely monitored by under cover officials who eavesdrop on cafe conversations. They have an eloquent name for these informers, "the handle of the axe" as the axe handle is made of the same wood that it's head is designed to destroy. Those deemed to be talking about questionable topics are carried away to be interrogated in prison, where many are held for years, enduring torture and extreme psychological trauma for which there is no treatment when they are released. Some political prisoners die in custody, however their bodies are cremated and sometimes buried before families are told, to hide any signs of culpability, others just disappear. Publications within Burma are heavily edited to omit every last word which might possibly allude to, or connatate a current event the SPDC might want censored, for what ever reason. Burmese learn to read what isn't there, the sudden absence becoming the headline for the current biggest news story. And in true Animal Farm fashion, the parties three  slogans are written on walls and everyday in the "news"paper. 

None of the governments heavy handed tactics have any benefits for the country, which was once earmarked as the most promising economy in south east asia, it is now economically crippled, with 75% of the population living below the poverty line. However, despite western scorn for the regime, in the mid ninties Burma was welcomed into asean, the Asian economic group, giving access to, not wealth per se, but a strong support, a metal rod in the spine of a dead country - Burma is Bernie, and the rest of Asia are the guys trying to walk the corpse around. Therefore, western sanctions, which have been in place in Burma - have no real effect ( not that sanctions ever have a helpful effect). However the dead country has many organs for harvesting; oil and rubies which, countries such as China, are drilling without conscience (and let me just add for the seemingly popular and sanctioned racism towards China, that before it was held to ransom by the entire western world and forced to continue dealing in opium, which it had wanted to outlaw, was one of the leading thinkers in human rights). The French oil company Total is one of the few western companies remaining, but it is these western companies which Ian proposes could be the saviour of Burma. Western companies are scrutinised by and heed the advice of human rights groups. They bring with them conduits of activism, development and if nothing else a foreign presence, a link for the oppressed to the outside world that they crave and witness to the crimes of the regime, who want nothing more than impunity. Total has constructed schools in the area and is doing good work in Burma. 

Military action is not possible because of the size of the Burmese army and it's alliance with China, sanctions (if they ever work) cannot work because of its inclusion in ASEAN. Therefore, foreign investment is a viable penetrating force, so long as they are held accountable for their actions by their own countries of origin, whether through government, UN, human rights watchdogs or activist groups. Western countries are wary of human rights abuse scandals. 

Foreign investment is not the popular view of most activist groups who push for total exclusion of Burma, a view held by imprisoned democratic leader Aung San Su Kyi. This however is simply not feasible and as she has been under house arrest for so long, her wishes are outdated, so we do not know what views she might now hold. Aung San incidently was awarded the nobel peace prize and is the only laureate to be imprisoned. She will no doubt not live to see democracy in Burma, she is separate from her family in England where she is free to go to and never return from. We discussed this last week and reached the conclusion that she can't leave now, she like Ghandi or Martin Luther King jr is an activist for nonviolent protest, who gave their lives to their cause. She will probably die a symbol of hope for democracy and human rights, which she could not become with her freedom. And while her predecessors were assassinated, her death will be seen as no less of a blot on Burma's history, the wasted life of a political genius, the wasted years of oppression.

Burmese flee and bribe their way into Thailand where they find themselves in a different kind of hell. They are about as wanted here as migrants are wanted anywhere. They are blamed of course for all the countries problems, while fuelling the economy with their low wages. They have no rights here, those who come to work as migrant workers are exploited maltreated and indentured. They work in dangerous, demeaning dirty jobs for a couple of dollars a day. They are extorted by Thai authorities, rounded up and deported whenever the Burmese government asks the Thai government to do so. And those deemed to be fleeing fighting are granted stay in what should be refugee camps, though the Thais do not recognise refugee status, they have supplied land for the camps and tolerate the NGO operations within them, but no one may leave the camps. Those who are migrant workers are allowed to stay so long as they can keep paying the bribes, they have no Thai rights, no right to go to school, they are not protected by Thai laws and some employers push these facts to the extreme. 

There is a book here about female migrant workers, who have it worse than anyone, entitled "Between two hells". Which I think is the most apt assessment of the situation. 

In 2007 further protests took place, instigated by the monks, it was called the saffron revolution indicative of the colour of their robes. Accurate reports are difficult to get out of Burma, however it is pretty widely accepted that this uprising was brutally suppressed. In the same year a devastating cyclone, cyclone Nargis, hit the irawaddy delta, the amount of lives lost was estimated to be about 146,000, what is more tragic though is the amount of these lives that might have been saved, had the regime allowed foreign aid through. What aid was accepted was used to construct a facade. What may as well have been a film set of medical tents in a crude display for foreign cameras.

About the only thing that Thailand offers (not to paint all thais with the same brush of course - most of the population is compassionate) is access to hard working volunteering NGO's, who offer those fleeing destitution and violent oppression with health care, education, compassion and if nothing else, the ability to tell their stories, think critically and be heard. 

I hope I have explained this well enough, if I have got things wrong (and I'm sure the SPDC would think so and would like to send me one of the fact books they send Ian to "help" with his articles), I apologise but my intentions are good.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Disney is watching you

In singapore they are huge on Disney. You see Disney character sculptures everywhere. In the departure lounge they have thiis huge happy display off all the disney characters with a sign in the middle of it saying "this area is under surveilance".