A Political Essay
Trip Start May 30, 2005
129Trip End Sep 30, 2006
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First of all a little history lesson. Burma was first colonised and united under British rule during the 1800's. Following a general trend in the mid 1900's amongst many of the British colonies Burma gained independance and a democratic government was installed under Bogyoke Aung San. The administration didn't have an easy time of it, many accusing it of giving preferance to the majority Bamar group, Burma has a wide variety of ethnic groups. Due to the problems the military decided it was necessary to intervene in 1962 under General Ne Win. This 'intervention' continues to this day, in 1990 Free Democratic elections were held in Burma after the ruling military did all they could to weaken the National League for Democracy (NLD)led by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Bogyoke Aung San. Despite the NLD gaining 80% of the popular vote they were simply denied power and Aung San was confined to house arrest. Just after this Aung San received many international awards including the Nobel Peace Prize. During the times that Aung San was not under house arrest she feared to leave Burma as it'd have been unlikely that the military would have let her back in again. It was generally thought that there would only be a change in the country's situation after Ne Win's death, however this occurred in December 2002, nothing changed. As an asside, the military changed the name of the country to Myanmar and the names of various cities and towns (i.e. Rangoon to Yangon) not long after the 1990 elections to 'remove ties to their colonial past', this is a name change not recognised by the NLD and numerous other international agencies.
The international community have tried to exert its influence over the military junta by imposing a trade embargo with Burma. A fair attempt but an attempt that's been undermined by other countries, none less than China. China's influence in Burma is huge, there are large numbers of Chinese nationals living and working in Burma trading in legal and illegal goods. This is particularly sad since these chinese nationals pay money to the government in order to be allowed to stay in Burma, the have nice big houses and drive modern luxury cars. It appears that this kind of entreprenuerism is not available to the ordinary Burmese citizen who continue to live in near poverty.
China of course gain a great deal in the status quo, firstly they are able to transport goods through Burma and use their ports as a western sea board that China doesn't physically have. China also of course makes money from this trade with one of their border countries. When you consider that China also has an appauling human why do we allow them to be the 'big brother' to Burma? The Chinese are certainally not going to do anything to help remove the military junta. A big question remains unanswered in my mind, how can the EU, US and other democratic countries exert more influence on Burma while we continue with the trade embargo?
The military junta are very careful where they let tourists visit, barely one third of the country is open to foreigners, many areas are only available with the issuing of special permits. There are good reasons for this. The main tourist areas are generally free from the persecution of the common man, in fact the sheer presence of western tourists in these areas keep the people safer from their own rulers. By talking to the locals however you can get a very different picture of what really happens. There is a real threat of hard labour camps to anybody profering political opposition. This is what happened to two of the Moustache brothers. For a standup routine that poked fun at the ruling power they eventually faced seven years hard labour, only being released due to international pressure. How many others face a similiar fate in this country without the same support?
The infrastruce of the country has been built by these means, roads, airports, buildings. They have been built by the blood and sweat of unwilling locals that were not renumerated for their efforts, they were not built by professionals being paid deserved amounts of money using modern, safe building techniques. I passed a road crew repairing the road on my way to Kalaw. They were using simple hammers, wearing flip-flops, in fact no safty equipment at all, working on the edge of a mountain road, in the dark, with a sheer drop behind them. I can't believe that they were working in those conditions voluntarily. Other locals that talked, many are too afraid to say anything bad about the military, shared experiances of forced labour, injuries and death.
The Junta are doing a good job in one way, keeping tabs on their civilians. Along a number of roads there are check points where locals had to get off the bus and file through showing their ID cards to the military. Tourists were generally exempt from this requirement, but I'd get off the bus anyway and make them work for their money. It's also very hard to leave Burma as a citizan, passports are not cheap or very easy to come by. It's the same situation that happened in the Soviet Union and continues in Cuba, if communism and military dictatorships are so good then why would you need to impose this ridiculous situation. Another local I talked to told me of the problems he had at university, he was an excellent student but got into a little bit of politics resulting in him being expelled from his university. It took many years, many letters, many further investigations into his activities before he was allowed to continue and complete his studies. Even now he doesn't have a job or salary worthy of his abilities.
How can Burma change? in short, I don't know. The military hold the country by the throat, and they are brutal in their use of force. Their biggest external influence is China, no hope there. Their government doesn't threaten other soveriegn states so military intervension by the UN or others won't happen, and anyway it would likely end in much in fighting as in Iraq. The UN doesn't know the answer, ASEAN doesn't know, nor the EU, nor The Economist (see link below).
What I do know is that Burma could be on an economic par with Thailand and Malaysia under the right circumstances. It's got amazing tourism potential, natural resourses and a strong workforce available. The people are incredibily friendly and on the surface happy, at least as happy as they can be under the circumstances.