August 20, 2008 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Can the Burmese people rescue themselves? A powerful piece by George Packer in the New Yorker on the recent history and current conditions in Burma.
posted by homunculus (32 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for this. Burma has been very "out of sight, out of mind" lately. But it many ways, it's a mutual indifference between the leadership of Burma and ... everyone else, really. The only people who think about Burma's relationship to the rest of the world are the every-day Burmese.
But as a Western diplomat in Rangoon told me, “The generals don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about them, because they don’t think about the rest of the world.” ... The courage of Burmese to help a foreign journalist is a sign that they still hold some faith in the decency of the outside world. I doubt the world deserves it.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:39 PM on August 20, 2008

Funny, I was going to quote the same sentence.

Thanks for posting this. I like that it's getting this exposure in the New Yorker, but I despair of the world ever caring enough.

It's also interesting to me that everyone seemed to buy in to the whole Myanmar thing, and then seemingly switched it off and started calling it Burma again. It's a neat little "fuck you" to the gang in charge.
posted by nevercalm at 12:58 PM on August 20, 2008

This appeared in my inbox just half an hour ago.
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 1:48 PM on August 20, 2008

“Burmese military officers say that they have three cards to play in the international community: China, India, and ASEAN”

They'll just keep dying.
posted by aramaic at 2:01 PM on August 20, 2008

The isolation and the sanctions are wrong, and they've been wrong for everywhere we've tried them.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:13 PM on August 20, 2008

Unfortunately the world media has moved on to fretting about the tragedy du jour: Georgia.

The isolation and the sanctions are wrong, and they've been wrong for everywhere we've tried them.

Mostly becuase they have been all the wrong sanctions applied to all the wrong people. Oil and gas companies are basically shoring up the Junta in Burma without them the Junta wouldn't have much power outside of it's current supply of bullets.
posted by tkchrist at 5:43 PM on August 20, 2008

It's also interesting to me that everyone seemed to buy in to the whole Myanmar thing, and then seemingly switched it off and started calling it Burma again. It's a neat little "fuck you" to the gang in charge.

Both names "Burma" and "Myanmar" are derived from ethnic groupings - the Bamar and Myanma people. Myanmar has been used since the 13thC as the name for various regions within what we know and call Burma (or Myanmar) according to Wikipedia. Until recently (mid 19thC), there was no 'country' name used by locals. Instead folk called their place the name of their locality. It's worth remembering that countries are a fairly modern construction. Take the countries of the Middle East for example...

I love this country. Always have since I was a kid. It is an extraordinary place. Terribly fucked over now - socially and environmentally - but still (most of) the people care about their country and each other and go to death-defying (or not defying) lengths to help one another.

I'm reading the article linked to above. I know the street in the picture. It's a few streets down from the cafe I used to frequent. If I sat at a table near the door the owners would serve me and no more. But if I sat at a table in the back where we couldn't be seen from the street they would talk to me.

The quote in the article and listed above - “The generals don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about them, because they don’t think about the rest of the world.” - is so true. It's not that they confer and decide not to think about the rest of the world, or deliberately ignore our opinions, it's more that they can't think about us. Thinking about the outside world in a comprehensive comparative way is near impossible for them. Their comprehension of human rights, peace, benevolent governance is so outside their own perceptions that any thoughts of the outside world are imbued with their own paranoias and aggressions. In so many ways they are still stuck in feudal times with memories of WWII thrown in for good measure. This country has been at war internally and externally since before the colonisation by the British. And if the British had treated Burma like they treated all their colonial outposts after their independences/WWII instead of churlishly ignoring it because they were bitter the Burmese sided, for a while, with the Japanese, then Burma today would be a much healthier, happier and more democratic country. But you know how the Brits are about loyalty... sigh.

George Parker keeps talking about name changes - in referring to Rangoon he says The old name of the city (the regime now calls it Yangon) has an irresistible poetry. Yet Yangon is the older name - Rangoon is a British corruption of Yangon. Of course neither is right because in the local language with it's curly characters and unusual verbal sounds has another name. Rangoon/Yangon are western language constructions - in fact the english language and roman alphabet cannot recreate the original name entirely accurately in any form.

When I was there last I had the good fortune to visit and speak with a number of eastern rebel army leaders and some not-yet-incarcerated leaders of the NLD. They run a complex game of charades in terms of who they support and where their allegiances lie. Many of the rebel armies have become, on the surface, support for the junta - but on the sidelines they continue to support their rebel causes.

The isolation and the sanctions are wrong, and they've been wrong for everywhere we've tried them.

Please don't overestimate the influence of external (read: US) surface political influence of the outside world in Burma. No sanctions would not change things much as the junta and their kids would just get richer. The US is still influencing a lot in Burma today through clandestine operations. But it's not doing it for 'good' only to further it's own aims. The US had a helluva lot to do with the drug trade coming out of Burma in the 70s and early 80s (oooh, the name Afghanistan just floated into my head) and not in a good way.

For those interested in reading more, The Irrawaddy is a good read. It's based in Chang Mai (Thailand) and so is somewhat protected from persecution by the junta. However they have correspondants feeding information across the border from Burma so they can keep up to date.

What the people of Burma need most today is for people to not forget them. We tend to pay attention to those things/issues which are shoved in our faces by the media, but the western media has such a hard time, as George Parker illustrates, getting good intel on Burma, and then getting it out.

It's a hard country to travel in. Not because the people are hard, far from it. But because the services and quality of travel options are so limited for us travelers who do not want to stay in the upmarket (read: junta owned) hotels or travel in comfort in junta controlled transport.

But if you go, please do a few of things.
  • Travel to the farthest places you are allowed to go. Villages that can accept foreigners are protected from being kidnapped for the chain-gangs.
  • Don't ask locals to break the law and take you to places you are not allowed. They will do it if you ask and if caught you will be deported. But they will be jailed.
  • And please, take as much general antibiotics as you can carry and give them to village leaders for distribution to those that need them.

  • Soon Burma will begin starving, if it isn't already, because its agricultural areas are being destroyed by upstream logging. The deforestation in Burma is a global catastrophe, fuelled by the welcoming of Chinese loggers and junta kick-backs.

    It's an extraordinary and beautiful and highly complex country. As you fly in (road entry is limited to one point via China) the glinting you see below are the gold covered stupas. Locals buy small thin sheets of gold to stick onto the stupas as part of their offerings. I don't think they'll let me in again so if you go, please say hello from me.
    posted by Kerasia at 4:14 AM on August 21, 2008 [83 favorites]

    Every time I read about the Burmese monks, they come off more and more interesting. Rough-riding Buddhists who aren't afraid to hand out hearty helpings of haymaker to the Man's unctuous underlings? That's the clergy I want looking out for me when the jackboots are marching down Main Street.

    I also found this very affecting:
    Myat Min decided to pursue his passion for English literature at Rangoon University; he dreamed of a life immersed in ideas, "like walking through the forest in the dead of night."
    Such a marvelous simile, and even more so when you go on to read about the life he has actually led.
    posted by No-sword at 4:16 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

    BTW, it's possible that junta kids who are studying in your western country and mine will be reading these posts. If you want to travel there, don't give away anything in discussions such as these that can identify your real name etc, or you may have your visa request refused.
    posted by Kerasia at 4:21 AM on August 21, 2008

    Oh, can anyone tell I am addicted to this thread?

    No-sword and others interested in Burmese Buddhism, you may like to read this wonderful work - once only available through a junto-owned press, now available free in pdf - Snow in the Summer.
    posted by Kerasia at 4:26 AM on August 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

    Oh, can anyone tell I am addicted to this thread?

    And thankfully so. This is a lot of very helpful information. I'm hoping this post is sidebarred.

    South-east Asia in general has a lush, poetic and at times heartbreaking history. I discovered this myself in reading on the history of the Khmer Empire through modern day Cambodia. The "Indochinese" countries' histories are so intertwined that you cannot study the history of one without learning about the others.

    You are absolutely right that we need to keep paying attention to Burma. Thanks very much for your thoughts on this.
    posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:10 AM on August 21, 2008

    Don't ask locals to break the law and take you to places you are not allowed. They will do it if you ask and if caught you will be deported. But they will be jailed.

    This has to be repeated. That and the bit about drugs. I should have packed in more basic pills but I was afraid of getting nailed. Thus I failed them.
    posted by aramaic at 12:04 PM on August 21, 2008

    I'm taking a class taught by a member of the 88 Generation next winter. What amazes me is his thoughtful and self-critical analytic ability. He doesn't see Burma as a tragedy caused by irresponsible outsiders, but also by the mistaken steps of the Burmese in the 20th century, and even the current pro-democracy movement. He made some harsh criticisms of the NLD-- I'm not sure if anyone is interested in the details on this forum...

    In any case, for his part of my Buddhism class I read an interview with Aung San Suu Kyi. She thought the best route to democracy would be by educating wives of junta leaders. Women in Burma have authority within the family and aren't so power hungry. She recalled reading one of these wives saying something to a state newspaper like, "They keep demanding democracy, they'll be asking for public nudity next." It seems the junta are the only part of the country entirely sealed off from political understanding.
    posted by shii at 7:00 PM on August 21, 2008

    Kerasia, that's an incredibly insightful comment. A perfect compliment to Packer's essay.
    posted by felix betachat at 10:31 PM on August 21, 2008

    junta kids who are studying in your western country

    Are junta kids the only ones who would be allowed out? Are there powerful families who aren't part of the junta?
    I've had a Burmese student and wondered about how on earth he was able to get out. His family is quite well-off, I gather, but I haven't wanted to get into their relationship to the power stucture. He is critical of the junta but has been able to study abroad and doesn't seem concerned about his ability to continue getting permission to.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 9:55 AM on August 23, 2008

    It's pretty hard for a Burmese person to get a passport and permission to leave. Yes, there are powerful business families who are not directly part of the junta but they hold their power by supporting the junta, at least where business is concerned.
    posted by Kerasia at 6:01 PM on August 23, 2008

    thanks. I'm interested to hear anything else you can share about your travels and observations there.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 11:03 PM on August 23, 2008

    The junta held a referendum in May on a new constitution that mandates elections in 2010 and a central role for the military in future governments. (The referendum passed; open criticism of the plan was punishable by twenty years in prison.)

    Not only that, but my student reported to me that he and relatives received ballots in the mail, already marked. And of course, each ballot includes the name of the person whose vote it is. So the only question is whether you want to send the ballot back in.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 11:56 PM on August 23, 2008

    Worthy Groups Helping Burma
    posted by homunculus at 10:40 AM on August 24, 2008

    Wow, what an awesome, intelligent, moving, thoughtful and beautifully written comment Kerasia.
    posted by nickyskye at 5:01 AM on August 25, 2008

    Suu Kyi 'on hunger strike'
    posted by homunculus at 2:26 PM on August 27, 2008

    Thanks for your interest in Burma. I've been re-reading my notes and seeking out links to back up and elucidate my observations . There is a dearth of modern reportage available on the internet on Burma.

    I attended the cremation of a Shan army colonel - a hero's cremation with all the trimmings. The Colonel was in his forties, a father of three and a poet. He died from Hepatitis C induced liver failure caught while in Insein Prison, infamous among Burma's correctional institutions. It is a sad irony that Insein is pronounced 'insane'.

    According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners there are 2052 political prisoners in Burma. The AAPP records most of their names, crimes and sentences.

    Posted each day on the door of the Insein prison infirmary so it is visible to the dozens if not hundreds of sick and beaten who line up for treatment, is a note detailing how many clean syringes are available for use - 3, maybe 5 that day. It’s medical care Russian roulette style. Many political prisoners die often before their trials are heard from Hep C and other diseases transmitted by unsanitary health services.

    Burma is governed by farce and fear. Part of the front page title of the English language New Light of Myanmar contains three sets of boxed instructions on every edition:(as seen here - thanks imagethief)

    Four Political Objectives
    *Stability of the State, community, peace and tranquillity, prevalence of law and order
    *National reconsolidation
    *Emergence of a new enduring State Constitution
    *Building of a new modern developed nation in accord with the new State Constitution

    Four Economic Objectives
    *Development of agriculture as the base and all round development of other sectors of the economy as well
    *Proper evolution of the market-orientated economic system
    *Development of the economy inviting participation in terms of technical know-how and investment from sources inside the country and abroad
    *The initiative to shape the national economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples

    Four Social Objectives
    *Uplift social moral and the morality of the entire nation
    *Uplift of national prestige and integrity and preservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage and national character
    *Uplift of dynamism of patriotic spirit
    *Uplift of health fitness and education standard of the entire nation

    … and overleaf…
    People’s Desire
    *Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
    *Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
    *Oppose foreign nations interfering in the internal affairs of the state
    *Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy (emphasis mine)

    The stone wings at the gate to the officers' military academy near Mandalay are emblazoned with the words: "The triumphant elite of the future". It makes my skin crawl.
    posted by Kerasia at 6:25 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

    I didn't see this post until it was featured on the front page because I've spent most of the last three weeks (when not otherwise at work) reading several thousand pages from books and magazines to research a feature article, for this magazine, about Burma during World War II. Despite its title, much of Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 takes place in Burma, and is a remarkable story for those interested in learning more about the country's 20th-century history.

    p.s. [off-topic] I just noticed that my most recent cover story for the magazine, about Bob Hope, has been added to their online archives.
    posted by LeLiLo at 8:14 PM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

    Just found this as well from Outside magazine: “Mark Jenkins vowed to do what no one had done for nearly 60 years—travel the entire Burma Road—and discovered the madness of present-day Myanmar.”
    posted by LeLiLo at 9:01 AM on September 3, 2008

    This is as a good a time as any to mention the Dirty List; you shouldn't deal with anyone on that list.
    posted by aramaic at 1:10 PM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

    « Older Yorktown Improved   |   Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Newer »

    This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments