February 11, 2010

in featured,Photography

I wrestled with the idea of going to Burma up to the moment I managed to get a visa in Bangkok. The rules of traveling to Burma are always changing, but when I was there in 2005, getting a visa to Burma required getting to the Burmese consulate in Bangkok at 5 in the morning, standing in line for 2 hours, dropping off your passport and in return, getting a number (they hand out 50 a day), and then returning the next day when your number is called. If you miss your number being called, you are out of luck, start over.

The reason I was wrestling with going at all is that I keep getting opposing opinions about the morality of traveling to Burma: “Don’t go! You will be supporting the horrible military junta if you go!” or “You should go, it’s an incredible country and democracy in Burma isn’t helped by censorship or isolation!”. Ultimately, I decided to go with the idea that once there, I would document Burma for the world to see, and try my best to avoid giving the government any of my dollars. The people of Burma want tourists not only to support their businesses and families, but also, I learned, because they really want contact with the outside world. The military junta is superstitious and deeply paranoid so the Burmese media is simply the voice of the government, the internet is closely censored, and cell phone usage is strictly controlled.

After a few hours in Yangon, two students who are learning English greeted me. They wanted me to go to their class and meet their teacher. I reluctantly agreed. An hour later, I was standing in front of 50 students, answering questions about US pop stars and George Bush. Somehow, some of the students thought the Bush administration was out to liberate countries from brutal oppressive governments, and were hoping the United States would swoop in and rescue the people of Burma next. I had to politely correct them.

I was surprised to see that even in Yangon, the nation’s capital and economic center, there were frequent power outages, deep holes in the roads, and crumbling buildings everywhere. This once wealthy country will likely soon overtake Cambodia for having the most impoverished citizens in SE Asia. This shouldn’t be so: It’s got natural resources that its neighboring countries covet: timber, natural gas, rich mineral deposits and famous gems. And unlike Cambodia, it didn’t go through anything like devastation caused by the Khmer Rouge. The source for Burma’s misery can be easily pinpointed: The ruling junta, led by Senior General Than Shwe, governs Burma by decree, controls all branches of power, commits widespread human rights abuses against its population with impunity, and reaps the rewards from Burma’s natural resources while giving very little back to it’s people through investments in infrastructure, schools, hospitals, or social services.

If there is any plus side to Burma’s lack of economic growth, perhaps it’s the fact that, unlike most of SE Asia, it is still in possession of large forests and unspoiled ecosystems. Burma is still nearly 50% forests and jungles. It’s in some ways Asia’s last frontier. However, this only makes Burma’s more prosperous neighbors, China, India, and Thailand, much more willing to ignore Burma’s human rights abuses in order to do business with the junta.
As long as China, India, and Thailand continue to do business with Burma, the junta will have few problems staying solvent and in power, despite international cries for boycotts. Yes, U.S. energy companies should boycott Burma, but unless everyone is on board, especially Burma’s neighbors, the government will have little reason to change. It is these lucrative revenues from natural gas and oil sales that help allow the regime to ignore demands to return to civilian rule and improve the country’s human rights record. Chevron continues to operate in Burma, despite our official boycott.

The legitimate, democratically elected leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide victory in last time elections were held in Burma, has been kept under house arrest for most of the last 20 years. She is now 65 years old. This year is a major one for Burma: Due to intense international pressure (perhaps even some from China) for Burma’s junta to proceed towards a more democratic government, Burma is holding it’s first elections in two decades. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, Aung San Suu Kyi will not be allowed to participate. Suu Kyi’s party has not yet committed itself to taking part in the polls because it claims the new constitution, created by the junta in 2008, contains clauses that would ensure that the military remains the controlling power in government. The general consensus is that the election will likely be a sham. If this turns out to be the case, it will impel the international community to continue to shun Burma for years to come, leaving the Burmese people again isolated and without outside assistance.

Peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks were again brutally suppressed in the fall of 2007, leading to international condemnation. It’s hard for the US to stand up and point our fingers at Burma’s bad behavior with impunity. Our own government has condoned the use of torture and, historically, will do business with any government that keeps the money and oil freely flowing for our corporations, no matter what their human rights record. It’s when those governments stand up for themselves and threaten to stop the oil and money flowing that we make them our enemies. Besides, condemnations from governments do little to change things without concrete actions to back them up. Obama, like his predecessors, has decried Burma’s human rights violations and has called for the liberation of it’s political prisoners, but so far, no actions have followed the rhetoric. The truth is, we can’t do this alone, and there will never be an international consensus for any action against the Burmese junta without a Chinese endorsement. The Junta knows this, and so China is their closest ally. If you want change in Burma, you’ll have to convince China it’s in their best interest.

After a month of traveling through this beautiful and troubled country, I found myself overwhelmed with awe at the deep strength and courage of the Burmese people who remain so resilient and determined to have a free society. Despite brutal crackdowns on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations with imprisonment, forced labor, torture, and killings, the people refuse to give in. Ultimately, the will of the people will be heard. When that time comes, the international community will have to look back at their dealings with Burma and see if they were on the right side of history.

Everyone who speaks up can help make a difference, and I urge you do something to make your voice heard, it’s a freedom we so often take for granted. I ask that you find out more about Burma, keep your eye on the news, join an action network, see the new academy award-nominated documentary “Burma VJ”, write you your representatives, and donate to the cause.

“Please use your liberty
to promote ours.”
– Aung San Suu Kyi

Here are a few links to get you started:
More Burma Organizations
Chevron and Total Pipeline in Burma
Here are some of my Burma-related blog entries.

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