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.


Anonymous said...

Whoa bro! that is so interesting. jeez, makes me really appreciate my life. the big issues i thought i had are nothing in comparison!
greg said he met a burmese guy working in thailand for like an absolute pitance, knowing that he could be 'rounded up'any day and sent back to burma. it really is the hell you have outlined. sad and so surreal to me.
Will email you. Love B

atmosphrericks said...

artch! my brain! how did i not know about 8888? hrm.. take that me.

thanks for the background.

i dont getwhy people are such dicks to each other.

seriously, im gonna take a while to process this weirdity.

much peace. do some work.

abacus' parents said...

yep people really go out of their way to be dicks to each other. I remember the date 8.8.88, on the front age of the newspaper it had al thee kids at a school lying on the field spelling it out, I remember thinking how cool 8.8.88 was, how naive and innocent, that people could have been suffering so extremely while i was enjoying the day.