As promised, I’m getting on my soap box (or high horse maybe).
When you read this remember I’m no politics or economic expert, it’s just Burma as seen through the eyes of a traveller.
Let’s start with the Burma vs Myanmar thing. I’m still undecided as to what to call the country. Burmese people doesn’t really refer to everyone who lives in the country, just the majority (really Bamar). There are thousands of people from other ethnic groups (eg Shan, Chin, Karen/Kayin, Wa etc) who don’t fall under the Burmese banner. Everyone we met who lives there calls it Myanmar, Myanmar people, Myanmar food, Myanmar temples. But then you meet anyone outside and it’s Burma, Burmese people, Burmese refugees. So still don’t know what to call it, I tend to swap back and forth from one to the other. According to UN convention it’s Myanmar (Burma) and is written that way on maps, in books and so on.
One of the biggest concerns I’ve developed is the idea of Freedom of Speech. Not a new idea I know but something I’ve not really had the need (I suppose) to think about much before.
In Australia I can say what I want without fear of retribution. I can say John Howard and his government have no compassion for refugees. I can say they make no effort to support students. I can say they think only of money and never of people. I can say they are America’s lackeys, and I know that I won’t be arrested upon my arrival back in Australia. I know I won’t get beaten into a pulp and thrown into jail for an indefinite period of time, I know that my family won’t suffer or go hungry because I had a less than favourable opinion of the people in charge.
My entire life I’ve taken Freedom of Speech for granted, didn’t think about it, wondered why American’s jump up and down about it, I think a lot of Australians are the same. So when you ask a sensitive question (that you may not have realized was sensitive, eg me and the FECs) and you see that shadow pass over the person’s eyes, and see the pause, the moment before they change the subject, the moment when they wonder who is listening in, who will say what to who, it comes as a bit of a shock to this fortunate Australian who is accustomed to saying what she thinks. Just something to think about.
Speaking of ‘caring for students’; what are your thoughts on a government who closed the universities for four years – from 1996-2000 – for fear of students starting riots? Students have access to outside information you see, international newspapers, international opinions…
What do you think when you hear of a government building a new capital city, and hear the rumours that to get the labour to do so, soldiers walk into villages, point their guns and force everyone out into the construction site at gun point and get nothing but enough food to not starve each day for months and months on end? It’s rumour like I said, but who knows how much is rumour and embellishment and how much is rooted in truth?
The Boxing Day Tsunami? Didn’t really happen here. Never mind that India is on the Western side and Thailand is in the east and both countries suffered severe loss of life and property, Burma must have been in some mysterious Tsunami shadow and left unaffected, only ‘minor damage’ (I think it’s called an information black-out).
Remind me again how many people live on the coast of Burma? Oh that’s right, don’t really know, population numbers are estimates only.
Bird flu in Burma? Never heard of it.
Minimal information in, zero information out is practically policy. Keep your people in the dark and they won’t know what they’re missing, right? Only, they know what’s out there. They’re not stupid, they know what is right and what is wrong but are too scared most of the time to do or say anything about it (and would you if it put your family and your life in danger?).
Oh, the paper! ‘The New Light of Myanmar', the local rag, what an appropriate euphemism. Never in my life have I read such drivel, such propaganda nonsense. Pictures of generals shaking hands, cutting ribbons, opening buildings. ‘General Such-n-such sends his condolences to the leader of country X on the death of the leader’s brother’. Some international news, most coverage given to the latest casualty numbers of Americans and other countries in Iraq (Australia didn’t get a mention).
Want some gems?
Courtesy of The New Light of Myanmar, Wednesday, 11 January 2006, mostly reports on the ‘new’ constitution which made it a great paper to keep!:
“Country needs to have strong and modern Tatmadaw to ensure its defense and security” (p. 16)
“To prevent, through national solidarity, the danger of internal and external destructive elements undermining peace and stability of the State and national development” (p.16)
“The role of the Tatmadaw is very important in order to ward off threats and dangers from inside and outside the nation“. (p 16)
“The Tatmadaw is strong, modern and must be the sole existing brilliant and patriotic Tatmadaw” (p 14) (Read between the lines).
“The state shall, in appointing or assigning duties, not discriminate against or in favour of any citizens with qualifications set for posts or duties based on race, birth, region and sex. However, nothing in this section shall prevent appointment of men to the positions that are naturally suitable for men only” (p 11) (LOL! Ahahaha, just had to laugh at this one, although interestingly in Burmese culture woman have more rights than you would expect to property, finances and so on).
“The State prohibits any form of forced labour except hard labour as a punishment for crime duly convicted and duties assigned thereupon by the state in accord with the law for public interests” (p. 11) (Again, read carefully, remember what I said I’d heard about the new Capital City?).
“Every citizen shall, in accord with the law, have the right to freely develop literature, culture, arts, customs and traditions they cherish. In the process they shall avoid any act which is to the detriment of national solidarity. Any particular action in this respect which may adversely affect the interests of one or several other national races shall be taken only after consultation and amicable settlement with those affected” (p 11).
I could go on. There’s so much more. Over and over ‘citizens shall do what they like in accordance with existing state law'.The paper is 16 pages long, and it’s like this every day.
And then there’s the drugs, the whole amphetamine issue, the Wa army and battles and skirmishes with Thailand (right where I am now actually, a hotbed of illegal activity!), and what is condoned and what is not. All interesting stuff, I can hunt out some net info if anyone’s interested.
The economy is a shambles. A 'blue taxi' could be bought for $40US 5 years ago, now it takes $3000US to get an outdated rust bucket. Totally out of the reach of almost everyone.
It's difficult for travellers to spend money which is absurd.
Have you heard that Aung San Suu Kyi has been put back under house arrest for another 6 months? For doing nothing but having the guts to say ‘This is not the way’ and to promote democracy as a better option than military dictatorship (her party won the election years ago and she was promptly arrested).
There’s so much more I could say, so much more to think about. But I’ll leave you with these ‘People’s Desires’, printed on signs all over the country, on government publications, on the cover of the phone book. Oppose, oppose, oppose and crush. Personally if I were to come up with a list of People’s Desires, I’d consider actually asking the people what it was that they desired, and maybe they’d come up with things like ‘keep my children in school into their teenaged years’, ‘bring more of our people above the poverty line’, ‘give us some decent hospitals and health care’, ‘slow the spread of HIV/AIDs’, ‘slow the rampant inflation so our currency is actually worth something’.
1) Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.
2) Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation.
3) Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State.
4) Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.
Would you desire any of that?
BUT (and there's always a but) are we glad we went or not?
Yes, we're glad we went. We may not have been to many countries in the world, so we can only speak out of the experiance of half a dozen other places mostly Asian. But in all the places we've ever been we've never encountered a group of people whilst all being so different from one another, are so lovely. ALWAYS friendly, always polite, they have no money but never once did we feel people were trying to rip us off. They're simple, they're charming, completely honest, completely trustworthy, totally faithful to their religions and will go out of their way to help the traveller.
People WILL talk to you in private, they WILL listen to what you think and we can pass on what we saw and did to other people outside to raise some awareness. We go, spend our money with the right people (ie the actual 'people'), god knows they need it.
Call me an optimist, but the situation cannot last forever. They want admission to ASEAN and ASEAN is not happy with things as they are.
Right now it's just words, another 'roadmap to reform' but one day it might be more than words.