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Burma – the far neighbour

(published in Slovak translation on the One World Film Festival, Bratislava, 2006)

 

Burma is no doubt a country far away. Situated in Southeast Asia, hidden in the shadow of Thailand, India and China. Carefully camouflaged by one of the world’s most rigid and enduring military juntas. Increasingly refashioned to suit western adherents of “unspoiled Asian culture”.
But Burma is also a country concerning us directly, not only in the past. Diplomatic relations have once enabled strong economic, cultural and academic co-operations. And right now is Burma’s destiny more than ever in the hands of our governments, when the United Nations Security Council will decide about a binding resolution on Burma. Our interest and visible compassion can make a difference.
If it was up to the Burmese government, information about Burma could be acquired merely through travel agencies: Myanmar, the land of golden pagodas and smiling faces. In 1989 the regime decided to change the English names of locations: The recent capital Rangoon became Yangon and the country itself changed from Burma to Myanmar. The government claimed by this step to discontinue the colonial tradition. Instead of favouring a term once derived from the majority group of Burmans, the unity of all minorities would be promoted – indeed a desirable plan in a country of almost 50 million inhabitants forming estimated 100 ethnic groups.
But this allegedly unifying step cannot convince, for the new English name “Myanmar” still has its origin in the Burmese language and thus is not as neutral as claimed, most of all it is no concession to the minorities with their own languages. This negligence of the ethnic variety reveals a well-known fact: The rulers have a bad reputation when it comes to respect the minorities. Seen in this light, the coup rather looked like the mere attempt to start a new, blank chapter, to get rid of the international attention that followed the atrocities committed by the “People’s Army” in 1988. But even a new chapter continues the old problems.Nobel Peace Prize Laureate under arrest
Starting new chapters, detaching from history – in a similar way the regime also practiced depersonalization, replacing on banknotes the face of the national hero and martyr Aung San, the father of Burmese independence from Japanese occupation and British colonialism, by the mythological lion. A strong personality of today and surely not less a painful thorn in the regime’s side is Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the hero Aung San and founding member of the National League of Democracy, NLD. Her decision to enter into politics is a direct reaction on the events of “8888”. This number marks the time around the 8.8.1988, when several peaceful demonstrations were violently suppressed leaving thousands dead and injured. The military government later agreed to free elections, assuming that the newly established “State Law and Order Restoration Council” (SLORC) would attract voters seeking stability. Yet, the contrary was the case: In 1990 the oppositional coalition with the NLD won over 80% of the votes. Unpleasantly surprised by the people’s will, the Generals refused to hand over power.
Since starting her engagement, Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of her time under house arrest. Her and her country’s case was largely unknown to the world, until in 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize upon proposal of the former Czechoslovak President Václav Havel. In 2001 she was released “on trial”, but she immediately continued her political activities. Her fight for democracy provoked an assassination in 2003, when several of her companions were murdered by members of the parastatal “Union Solidarity and Defence Organisation” (USDA). She herself survived and was sent back into arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi advocates non-violent means to achieve democracy and better living conditions for her countrymen, often emphasizing the importance of compassion and “loving-kindness”, a concept openly inspired by Burmese Buddhism. “The Lady”, as she used to be called, dislikes the personality cult around her, but still her destiny is commonly regarded as touchstone: Only her release could make the people trust in the government’s promises to bring changes.

Capitalism yes, Democracy no
When the Generals talk about changes, they think about an improved inflow of hard currency. Burma’s human rights record is persistently one of the worst. A humanitarian crisis, especially in the areas mostly populated by ethnic minorities, seems more and more inevitable. Torture, “disappearances”, systematic rape, and extrajudicial killings are documented by many human rights organizations. But even daily life is affected in several ways. In countless matters you have to bribe to get what we would consider our indisputable rights. To ensure efficient treatment at hospital, motivate the doctor with around US$ 100. Getting a phone line at home will require spending US$ 300 to 500. To let your children go to a better school, count with a baksheesh of US$ 300, while for the normal school US$ 20 are sufficient.
In Burma innovation goes hand in hand with control by the authorities. Internet access is costly and restricted to the major towns. The ordinary citizen can apply for a mail account only in a nationwide computer network. And even if you can afford the connection, you will fail to load many pages that are considered harmful by the censors. Newspapers are under surveillance by the “Press Scrutiny Board”. A printed word too daring can put an editor in jail for years. Foreign media is only available in tourist hotels, and even there you might miss some critical pages about Burma that are carefully torn out. Getting independent news via satellite is a question of money and language skills.
Burma’s move from its selfmade kind of socialism towards capitalism during the last decade follows two main lines: First, opening the market for foreign investors and tourists who bring hard currency and don’t “interfere in the internal affairs”. Profiters are first of all the army and their favorites, high-ranking state employees and business linked to tourism and foreign companies. Second, the increasing black economy. While the official exchange rate is given with less than 7 kyat per US$, you could get for the same dollar on the black market around 100 kyat in 1991, 1000 kyat in 2004 and now up to 1350 kyat. Illegal practices became a necessity for survival.
A highly inventive and enterprising “New Economy” intermingles with Theravada Buddhism and popular forms of superstition, from which even representatives of state power cannot always abstain. The Generals are said to have consulted their astrologists before moving the capital from Rangoon to Pyinmana. Years ago their superstition even led them to issue banknotes with such odd values as 45 or 90 Kyats – believing they were lucky numbers.

Respect and Help
Today, the Burmese opposition seems to be silenced in prisons, intimidated or forced into emigration, only few are still daring spectacular protest rallies or continuous engagement inside the country. The younger generation in the cities is tempted to be increasingly apolitical in order to find material and social security. If we talk about Burma we must be aware of our considerably different cultural and historical context. It is crucial to note at this point that this is not about a Euroamerican idea of democracy opposing “Asian values”, as the Burmese regime tries to question the western right, in fact obligation, to judge and interfere. The people of Burma indeed have made their choice in favour of freedom, peace, self-determination and prosperity.
We should be ready to help one of the most suffering countries in the world, a help that starts as easy as just opening our eyes. But then more, we must be prepared to take lessons about a world with a richness of culture as striking as its strangeness to ours. We surely cannot consider ourselves superior in experience, too diverse are preconditions here and there: Vast regions contaminated by land mines. Diseases spreading in areas where mobile medic teams have to hide between the army posts. Forced and child labour. Rape as means of warfare. Human trafficking. One of the world’s biggest opium production. Inhabitants of uncounted villages forced into lives, that the technical term “Internally Displaced Persons” hardly can give any account of. And the whole scenario takes place in an area of continental strategic importance and under the unimpressed eyes of foreign investors.
In 2005, Su Su Nway, a young Burmese villager, took proceedings against the authorities for the use of forced labor and won the historic trial against the regime. The regime in return sentenced her for “insulting and disrupting a government official on duty”. Following international pressure she was released in June after nine months in prison. In a recent interview she stated: “I took my prison uniform with me because I know that I will have to come back to prison until Burma gains democracy.”

© 2006 by Burma Center Prague