Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Burma - no time for silence

Updated I've been trying for days to write about events in Burma but haven't been able to get started because what do I say? Describing events seemed a waste: Not only did they run far ahead of me but there was enough coverage not only (of course) internationally - where it was a major story - but even in the US that anyone who cared could easily already know anything I could tell them.

As for offering any personal response, over the time I felt surges of hope and despair, anticipation and resignation. With every change of events, my mood changed so the approach I would take changed so what I had tried to write earlier seemed beside the point. Or pointless. Or just wrong.

On the other hand, I simply couldn't be cooly dispassionate or distantly analytical, and I certainly couldn't adopt the self-satisfied snark of Atrios (for who I have less and less use as his site continues to evolve toward open threads interrupted by links to a handful of pet sites), who, apparently (but, no, not definitely) in response to being among those skewered by Jon Swift for their silence on the issue, said on Friday
News Flash

Right this very moment there's bad stuff happening all over the world.

I don't always get around to mentioning it all.

So, stymied by conflicting feelings in the rush of events and being distracted by my own fluttering demons, I couldn't figure out what to say and so said nothing.

As the marches of dozens quickly swelled to thousands to tens of thousands, I said nothing.

As the streets filled with red-robed monks, I said nothing.

As the junta began to tremble, with reports of some army units disobeying orders to fire on demonstrators and some of those units actually fighting other army units, with reports of some army officials, in a remarkable act of defiance, issuing a letter supporting the opposition in the streets, I said nothing.

And as the dictators struck back, shooting no one seems to know just how many, cutting off information to and from the outside world, beating, arresting, again no one seems to know how just many but at least hundreds if not thousands, as reports circulated of thousands killed and their bodies dumped in the jungle and that the murderers were having bodies cremated to conceal the numbers of the dead, I said nothing.

I should have. Even pointlessly, I should have. Even if just to honor the protesters, to recognize their courage and salute their hopes, I should have. When Jon Swift noted how the Big Name Bloggers had been silent on Burma, I said this in comments:
Even though snark and satire are the usual fare here, this is serious:

As another of those liberal bloggers who hasn't posted on Burma ... I acknowledge my fault and my shame at my silence in the face of a nonviolent uprising strong enough to threaten the existence of a years-long military dictatorship.

I have various excuses and reasons - one being that I actually started to write something but events ran ahead of me and it didn't get finished, another being that my lifelong companion, the black cloud, has been hovering over me lately and it's been a struggle to post anything at all - but the silence remains and I regret it.

It may be true, as some others who have been silent say in their own defense, that there is little we bloggers can do and our words will matter very little. But that's irrelevant and an evasion. Because, dammit, some things should be said even if they fall on deaf ears.

Some things should be said, even if it makes no difference, just so the events they describe are recorded, remembered.

Some things should be said, even if only in the hope that maybe someday someone affected by those events will learn that their efforts did not pass unnoticed.

Some things should be said, even if the individual voice is so small that few can even hear it, to celebrate and embrace a common humanity, a common dream of justice.

Ultimately, some things should be said just because they should be said. And recognizing the struggle in Burma is among them.

So while I can excuse my silence, I can't justify it. But I can express gratitude for those, small and if not "large" at least less small, who did say something.
So I'm trying now, even if belatedly, to say something.

The first sprout of the resistance appeared back on February 22, with
a small group of around 25 people [who] attracted little attention at first in the crowded Rangoon market. Then they brought out home-made posters, and began shouting.

Their complaints seemed innocuous enough. "Down with consumer prices," read one poster. "We want 24-hour electricity," read another. They pointedly avoided saying anything critical about Burma's military government.

That did not spare them. Nine were rounded up and jailed, accused of acting "totally against the law". They were later released, but they had touched a very raw nerve.
That raw nerve was the Burmese economy and the deep poverty that grips the nation. According to the 2007 CIA World Factbook, the poverty rate is 25%, unemployment is over 10%, and the inflation rate was over 20% even before the price shocks of August.

The result is an on-going humanitarian crisis. Nearly one-third of children under five are chronically malnourished. Life expectancy at birth is just 62. Infant mortality is about 51 per 1,000 live births - ranking Burma 161st among nations of the world. The World Bank says infant mortality is 50% higher than that: 76 per 1,000 live births. Average income is below $300 a year. And government spending on health and education as a portion of the economy is among the lowest in the world even as
[d]iseases like tuberculosis and HIV/Aids are increasing at frightening rates
and more than 1 in 7 children have no school.
"The World Food Programme [WFP] provides food aid to 500,000 people across Myanmar [Burma] but that really only represents the poorest of the poor," said Paul Risley at the WFP in Bangkok.

"What we've found is that over the last decade, opposite to virtually every other country in Asia where slowly poverty is being gnawed away at and food security is becoming more commonplace, in Myanmar there are more people living below the poverty line and more people facing food insecurity," he said. [Brackets in original.]
Then came August 15, when gasoline prices were quintupled and diesel fuel prices were doubled.
Within days activists were out on the streets in protest. When they were arrested, the monks - who can accurately measure economic distress by the food put into their begging bowls every morning - took their place.
And for a few days, during that interregnum when a dictatorship, suddenly faced with resistance, freezes, wondering if relenting or repression is the course that will just spark more resistance, when the cracks appeared in the facade of the ruling forces, it was possible to believe that this might be Burma's moment.

It wasn't. And after days of guns, clubs, and mass arrests in the dead of night, the repression has taken its toll. Protests continued through the weekend - for example, on Sunday, more than 800 marched in the town of Taunggok, in western Burma, shouting "Release all political prisoners!" before being forced to disperse by police and army forces - but the numbers were way down as hope gave way to fear.
Witnesses reported slightly fewer troops on Yangon's streets on Tuesday, but raids on homes by pro-junta gangs looking for dissident monks and civilians suggested [UN envoy Ibrahim] Gambari's nascent "shuttle diplomacy" and international calls for restraint had made little difference.

"They are going from apartment to apartment, shaking things inside, threatening the people. You have a climate of terror all over the city," a Bangkok-based Myanmar expert with many friends in Yangon said. ...

In another sign the army is confident it has squashed its most serious threat since a 1988 uprising, it cut two hours off a curfew imposed last week during monk-led protests against decades of military rule and deepening economic hardship.

The barbed-wire barricades have also gone from Yangon's Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, the focal points of demonstrations which filled at least five city blocks at their height.
(Yangon is another name for Rangoon.) Still, despite it all, there is hope amid the ruins. And resistance, even if tiny, among the ravages.
Where once there were tens of thousands, now there are just a few dozen young rebels daring to venture briefly on to the streets of Rangoon. Unarmed and with 20,000 soldiers combing the city for them, the last few say they will not let the dream of a democratic Burma be killed off by the army's brutality. But, with gun-toting soldiers on almost every street corner, they must use their imagination to find refuge.

Five youths have climbed on to a roof near the Asia Plaza hotel, not far from Sule Pagoda, in the city centre. From this viewpoint they try to locate the soldiers' positions so they can quickly take to the streets to challenge them and call on others to support them.

"There's a lot of them," says one of the youths, pointing to six lorries full of soldiers. "Yes, too many," replies another. They dash downstairs to position themselves in a small street free of soldiers. There they join up with another group and when they number 20, start to shout: "Free our monks!" "Down with the murderers of our people!"
Shopkeepers applaud them but do not join them. When soldiers appear, the group scatters.
Tin, one of the last Rangoon rebels, refuses to accept defeat. "This has been the first assault. We have the most stupid government in the world. Sooner or later the people will rise up again."

But asked whether he and his friends would try again tomorrow, he shrugs and says: "I don't know."
Will they rise up again? Will "again" be, as it was before, 20 years of darkness in the future? That certainly is what the conventional wisdom, secure in the false knowledge that guns always win over flesh, says and maybe it will be so. But maybe, just maybe, not.
The people of Rangoon - and no doubt throughout the country - are frightened. ...

However many people here fear that the worst is yet to come.

And that is because, despite the fear that pervades every part of this city, there remains an equal amount of defiance.

Those with the courage to speak out say the Burmese are not just afraid but intensely angry, and that this is definitely not the end of the protests.

"It's unbelievable what the military has done," one woman said. "In 1998 they attacked civilians, and now they have attacked monks. It's the worst thing they could do."

"We cannot stop our fight now. We just have to think of other ways to go on protesting," she added.

Behind closed doors, anti-government campaigners are almost certainly planning their next move.

One man said he thought that while the majority of protesters were currently lying low, because their leaders had been detained, they would soon be back.

And it appears that the monks have not given up either. Monasteries around the country are still refusing to accept alms from the military - a hugely symbolic act in such a devoutly Buddhist nation.

Sources have also told us that the detained monks are refusing to change out of their traditional robes, and many are on hunger strike.

In several pockets of Rangoon, people are even reportedly guarding monasteries against night-time government raids.

One man described how locals took it in turn to wait outside the monastery gates, to flash warning lights on to any military trucks coming near. Some are even said to be armed with handmade weapons, such as slingshots and arrows made from the spokes of bicycles.

Even now, there continue to be reports of small-scale demonstrations around the country.

It is obvious that despite their best efforts to stifle any opposition, the question Burma's ruling generals need to ask themselves is not if the anti-government protests will return, but when.
One aspect mentioned there which initially went almost unnoticed in the Western press is that refusal to accept alms. It is, indeed, "hugely symbolic" and if continued could have a devastating impact. Burma
has roughly as many monks as soldiers. The military rules by force, but the monks retain ultimate moral authority. The lowliest soldier depends on them for spiritual approval, and even the highest generals have felt a need to honor the clerical establishment. They claim to rule in its name.

Begging is a ritual that expresses a profound bond between the ordinary Buddhist and the monk. “The people are feeding the monks and the monks are helping the people make merit,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University.
And the monks have broken that bond.
As they marched through the streets of Myanmar’s cities last week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.

It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their families - effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the core of Burmese culture.
Indeed, not just passively refusing to accept alms from the military but actively declaring a rejection of them. There is a very real and very significant difference between a society dominated by an oppressive government and one dominated by an oppressive government viewed by its people as illegitimate: The former tends to generate acquiescence except where resistance just can't be avoided; the latter tends to generate constant quiet resistance everywhere acquiescence can be avoided. And the monks have now stripped the Burmese thugs of that legitimacy in the minds of many in Burma, perhaps most.
After the military clampdown on the monasteries last week, the streets of Yangon were mostly empty of monks. But their gesture of rejection of the junta, and the junta’s violent response, had changed the dynamics of Burmese society in ways that had only begun to play out.

The junta’s action “shows how desperate they are,” [Ingrid] Jordt[, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and an expert on Burmese Buddhism,] said. “It shows that they are willing to do anything at this point in terms of violence. Once you’ve thrown your lot in against the monks, I think it will be impossible for the regime to go back to normal daily legitimacy.”
There are other differences between now and times past that provide sources of hope, even if limited. One is that ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member and which has pretty much ignored the cruelties in Burma to date, last week declared its "revulsion" over the junta's crackdown. After in earlier years taking a more or less neutral stance, ASEAN has become more aggressive in criticizing the junta. In 2006 Burma was blocked from taking its turn as president of the group and it's been reported that in April of this year that ASEAN declared it would not defend Burma at any international forum.

Another, quite possibly more import, consideration is that, contrary to the casual dismissal of the prospect of outside pressures, the "we can't do anything" chorus, there are points of effective even if indirect attack. One is China, which has a close business relationship with the Burma junta and is Burma's biggest trading partner. Some claim China has little influence over the junta, but it appears to be more a matter of not caring to exercise such influence rather than not having any. And right now, China is very sensitive to its international image with the approach of the 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing - enough so that at a hastily-called press conference held on a national holiday, a government representative griped that it's "totally irresponsible" to link participation in the games with China's attitude about Burma while insisting that China is working to reduce the violence in Burma. And in fact China has officially called for "restraint," which seems like a platitude and may well be, but it's far more than it has done before.

Another is Japan, which is Burma's main source of international aid but now
is mulling sanctions or other actions to protest the junta's crackdown, which left a Japanese journalist dead, chief Cabinet spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said Monday.
A third is France, where oil giant Total SA is headquartered. Total has investments in Burma and pressure has been mounting for it to pull out of Burma over human rights concerns, including a reopened investigation into its possible involvement in crimes against humanity for its connections to the regime.

A fourth, perhaps most significant for folks in the US, is Chevron, which also has investments in Burma; indeed it is the only large US company still there and recent events have lead to renewed calls for a boycott of the company. There are plans for a phone/fax protest from 1-3 pm Pacific Time on October 9; details are at this link.

On a more limited front, Chevron has been repeatedly urged to speak out, to use its influence on behalf of democracy, including by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who wrote in a letter to Chevron CEO David O'Reilly on September 28 that
Chevron's silence in this situation makes it difficult to take seriously Chevron's position that Chevron should remain in Burma because Chevron is a more responsible corporate actor than alternative possible corporate partners for the Burmese regime.
And yes, that has been the excuse, the standard bs, the expected whine: "If we don't do it, somebody else will - someone worse!" Well, to be both fair and complete, it's true that there are others looking to exploit the oil and gas reserves of Burma. Those reserves are small, no more than about 0.3% of the worldwide total, but that doesn't mean they aren't profitable. Besides China, Total, and Chevron, companies from Russia, India, South Korea, Thailand, and elsewhere are displaying greater interest in profit margins than in humanity.

Which of course is nothing new and yes, dammit, it's probably true that even if we boycotted Chevron right out of Burma, that doesn't mean the regime would fall. But it would be a blow based on a stand for principle. And frankly, either of those - blow or stand - would be sufficient cause on its own. Because some things should be said.

Perhaps the biggest fear among democracy activists in Burma now is that they will again be forgotten, that they will again become invisible.
After the last rebellion, the generals closed the universities, imprisoned thousands and isolated the country.

"Who's to say the same thing won't happen this time? We are talking about the future of a whole generation being thrown away. The lives of thousands of people will be destroyed," says one western diplomat.
Two ways we can try to prevent that from happening: One is a boycott of Chevron. The other, admittedly symbolic but still worth doing, is to join the call by to forego blogging for one day - tomorrow, October 4 - and instead simply display a banner calling for a free Burma. Information on adding your name plus graphics that can be used as a banner are available at the website with more at the group's Flickr page. (Thanks to Kevin Haydn at The American Street for that link plus one to the US Campaign for Burma.)

Carry it on. And don't be silent.

Footnote: Just in case you read the Wikipedia article on Total and react as I did, you should know that the Fina brand of gasoline and lubricants was bought from Total in 1999 and is now owned by Alon USA and has no significant connections to Burma of which I'm aware.

Another Footnote: The Burma Campaign UK maintains a "Dirty List" of companies doing business in Burma. They also maintain a "Clean List" of companies that either have pulled out of or refused to invest in Burma due to human rights concerns.

Updated by adding a few additional links, the comment about China's influence, and the observation about Japan being Burma's biggest source of foreign aid.

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