Monday, January 31, 2005

A great Burmese essay, "The Burmese Fairy Tale"

I discovered this essay in Lonely Planet's 2000 edition guidebook of Myanmar(Burma). It was written by Ma Thanegi, a pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner who lives in Yangon. I think it is a great essay that needs to be read by those interested in Myanmar. Even if it doesn't relate to Thailand's history, I felt it needed to be posted on the internet. These are her(?) words:

"The Burmese Fairy Tale"

Like many Burmese, I am tired of living in a fairy tale. For years, outsiders protrayed the troubles of my country as a morality play: good against evil, with no shade of grey in between - a simplistic picture, but one the world believes. The response of the west has been equally simplistic: It wages a moral crusade against evil, using such magic wands as sanctions and boycotts.

But for us, Myanmar is no fairy-tale land with a simple solution to its problems. We were isolated for 26 years under socialism and we continue to lack a modern economy. We are tired of wasting time. If we are to move forward, to modernise, then we need everyone to face facts.

That may sound like pro-government propoganda, but I haven't changed since I joined the democracy movement in August 1988. I have lived most of my life under the 1962-88 socialist regime - another fairy tale, this one of isolation. In 1988 we knew it was time to join the world. Thousands of us took to the streets, and I joined the National League for Democracy (NLD) and worked as an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi.

I worked closely with Ma Suu, as we all called her, for nearly a year. I campaigned with her until 20 July 1989, when she was put under house arrest and I was sent to Insein Prison in Rangoon, where I spent nearly three years.

I have no regrets about going to jail and blame no one for it. It was a price we knew we might have to pay. But my fellow former political prisoners and I are beginning to wonder if our sacrifices have been worthwhile. Almost a decade after it all began, we are concerned that the work we started has been squandered and the momentum wasted.

In my time with Ma Suu, I came to love her deeply. I still do. We had hoped that when she was released from house arrest in 1995 that the country would move forward again. So much was needed - proper housing and food and adequate health care, to begin with. That was what the democracy movement was really about - helping people.

Ma Suu could have changed our lives dramatically. With her influence and prestige, she could have asked major aid donors such as the USA and Japan for help. She could have encouraged responsible companies to invest here, creating jobs and helping build a stable economy. She could have struck up a constructive dialogue with the government and laid the groundwork for a sustainable democracy.

Instead, she chose the opposite, putting pressure on the government by telling foreign investors to stay away and asking foreign governments to withhold aid. Many of us cautioned her that this was counterproductive. Why couldn't economic development and political improvement grow side by side? People need jobs to put food on the table, which may not sound grand and noble, but it is a basic truth we face every day.

Ma Suu's approach has been highly moral and uncompromising catching the imagination of the outside world. Unfortunately, it has come at a real price for the rest of us. Sanctions have increased tensions with the government and cost jobs. But they haven't accomplished anything positive.

I know that human-rights groups think they are helping us, but they are thinking with their hearts and not their heads. They say forighn investment merely props up the government and doesn't help ordinary people. That's not true. The country survived for almost 30 years without any investment. Moreover, the USA, Japan and others cut off aid in 1988, and the USA imposed sanctions in May 1997. Yet all that has done nothing except send a hollow 'moral message'.

Two westerners -one a prominent academic and the other a diplomat - once suggested to me that if sanctions and boycotts undermined the economy, people have less to lose and would be willing to start a revolution. They seemed very pleased with this idea - a revolution to watch from the safety of their own country.

This naive romanticism angers many of us here in Myanmar. You would deliberately make us poor to force us to fight a revolution? American college students play at being freedom fighters and politicians stand up and proclaim that they are striking a blow for democracy with sanctions. But it is we Burmese who pay the price for these empty heroics. Many of us now wonder: is it for this that we went to jail?

Unfortunately, the Burmese fairy tale is so widely accepted it now seems almost impossible to call for pragmatism. Political correctness has grown so fanatical that any public criticism of the NLD or its leadership is instantly met with accusations of treachery: to simply call for realism is to be labelled pro-military or worse.

But when realism becomes a dirty word, progress becomes impossible. So put away the magic wand and think about us as a real, poor country. Myanmar has many problems, largely the result of almost 30 years of isolationism. More isolation won't fix the problems and sanctions push us backward, not forward. We need jobs. We need to modernise. We need to be a part of the world. Don't close the door on us in the name of democracy. Surely fairy tales in the west don't end so badly."

Canadian Philantrophy

On January 11, Mr. and Mrs. Pindoff gave in a single private donation of $5 million to the Canadian Red Cross. Their story captured the imagination of many and did much to help in relief efforts of the Boxing Day South Asian Tsunami. Aside from the traditional concerts and media fund-raising events, Canadians have been pretty innovative in finding ways to raise funds. There was the very Canadian hockey events. A most admirable event were the children's joint effort in the Toronto School District that raised $1.32 million in response to a challenge put forward by a nine-year old. According to FM Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's estimated financial donations for tsunami relief as of Jan 3 was about $80 million, out of which $38 million were individual's donations. I think that is much more than US has been able to raise. Considering the population size of Canada (32 million), this has much to say about Canadian's philantrophic tradition.

The participatory edge of meaning making

Yesterday, (Sun, Jan 30) I went to a session of UofT 's Sunday Philosophy Cafe. This session was titled "Mythological Representation of the Person", the speaker was Dr. Jordan Peterson who wrote the book "Maps of Meaning". He told the story of how he got interested in myths as a process to understand his recurring nightmare during his 20s of a nuclear holocaust. In our currently secure environment of post cold war era, it was odd to hear someone's personal experience of a time when we weren't so sure of the future. Dr. Peterson posed some very strong questions about human nature. What is it in us that doesn't stop us from tearing ourselves and each other apart? He recounted a Mesopotamian myth of their God Murdoch who won a battle over Chaos. What was most enlightening was his conclusion that Chaos could not be overcome by primordial archetypal forces such as anger, but could be overcome by voluntarily engaging in its chaotic nature thus transforming it into new "worlds". Participation is the process in which we personally come about making sense or meaning out of that encounter.

Saturday, January 8, 2005

Ocean's Sorrow

The tsunami of Dec. 26 leaves virtually no life untouched. In mourning for those affected, I offer an echo of Thai poet, Naowarat Pongpaiboon's lament, "The Ocean's Sorrow":

"Over the face of the earth swept weeping waters

And all the Three Worlds were flooded with tears"

Friday, January 7, 2005

Paradise Lost

Cushioned as I am by distance, and comforted by news from home that none of my immediate family were affected, I remain, one week after, still shell-shocked by the magnitude of the Tsunami's destruction on December 26. So many lives lost, so many homes destroyed, villages wiped out, so many families inconsolable. For the Thais, who have rarely suffered calamities, their confidence in their secure environment has been dented. For humanity as a whole, we are humbled by Nature's power over the fragility of life. That, I guess, is why people from all over the world have responded so immediately, so overwhelmingly. December 26, 2004 will be marked in many people's memories as the day Paradise was lost. I pray for all those who have died, and I pray as well for those left behind who suffer. May all be delivered from suffering.