Ending Burma's Isolation (Part I)
What does Burma’s international isolation mean for the daily lives of its people?
June 30, 2009
Does one's body ever acclimatize itself to Burma in April or early May, when the sun shines down from the sky like an angry god and your head aches from its glare?
Before the rain from the monsoons turn the paddy fields the color of jade, Burma must be one of the hottest and most humid places on Earth.
Movement in this kind of heat takes gargantuan effort and may help explain why the slightly deranged American John Yettaw suddenly jumped into Yangon's largest lake the night of May 3, dashing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's prospects for obtaining her freedom anytime soon.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years. She was scheduled to be released from house arrest within days of Yettaw's visit and could now spend five years in jail.
Why did he do it? My guess is that Yettaw was driven by the heat to jump in the lake and swim to her house, not knowing it belonged to her. She responded to his unauthorized visit in the middle of the night by telling him to leave, but he was too tired to make the return trip across the lake. She then reluctantly let him stay, and for this is charged with breaking the terms of her house arrest.
While the heat is as good a reason as any to explain why Yettaw did what he did, it does not explain why Burma's military regime responded the way it did.
The prevailing assumption, in and outside of the country, is that hardline leader General Than Shwe saw Yettaw's unauthorized visit as the opportunity he was looking for to keep Suu Kyi off the streets and out of politics until after the 2010 parliamentary election, which is part of the junta's planned "road map to democracy."
While this assumption is probably correct, the government's response has backfired. Nothing it does now can keep Suu Kyi from being the centerpiece of the election, if it is indeed held, since all pretense of fairness has been removed, and any hope that the election could facilitate an end to Burma's isolation has been dashed.
General Than Shwe wanted the election to improve the junta's international image and therefore encourage an end to the U.S.-led sanctions linked to his poor human rights record. Clearly, he underestimated the international reaction to Suu Kyi's plight with everyone from President Obama to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Abhisit Vejjajiva, the current chairman of ASEAN, criticizing the decision to put her on trial.
Democracy leader Suu Kyi goes on trial as the symbol of a nation that has no voice. In the way she has peacefully but persistently resisted the Generals, she is also the conscience of humanity in the fight for common decency.
The Burmese government does things all the time that make no sense unless viewed in the context of its isolation and, therefore, its ignorance. For example, in 2005 it picked up and moved the capital 400 kilometers north of Yangon to a place it calls Naypyidaw, leaving scores of British-style colonial government buildings in Yangon empty and rotting. The move was apparently done for security reasons, but the new capital Naypyidaw is so isolated that if someone wanted to take out the government of Burma, forget the sanctions — all it would have to do is bomb Naypyidaw.
Yangon remains the social, economic and cultural center of the country. There is nobody in Naypyidaw except government officials, many of whom were forced to go there under the threat of arrest or punishment.
Other examples of the government's peculiar behavior include the issuing of two currencies and a travel permit requirement. In addition to the local kyat, there is the FEC, which is tied to the U.S. dollar. But why use the FEC when the U.S. dollar is easier to use and more sought after by the Burmese?
Also, going anywhere as a foreigner in Burma requires a travel permit — and they can be hard to get. You must "know the right people." If and when you get the permit and arrive at your desired destination, however, you wonder why a permit is required when there is so little of any strategic value to see.
Travel in Burma is difficult by any standard. Many places can only be reached by boat, plane or both. Traveling to the villages around Thingangone on Middle Island in the Ayeyarwady Delta, for example, requires a 45-minute ride on a helicopter, a four-hour boat ride entirely dependent on the tides, and a one hour motor bike ride on foot paths linking the paddy fields.
What will you see there? The delta is flat and hot. There are few trees, so there is not much shade. People live in houses with raised teak floors and walls of thatch. They farm or fish with nets for shrimp along the banks of the Ayeyarwady.
Those that are the worst off are working in the salt fields or collecting stones, crushing them with mallets and filling holes in the road with baskets of pebbles to be paved over by road crews.
There is no electricity, and good drinking water is scarce because last year's cyclone filled the wells with salt water. Before the cyclone, most people had never seen a white person in the flesh before. They had only seen people like me in an occasional film, watched on a generator-operated television set for the entire village.
Children go to school if they can afford the associated costs. There are at least 50 kids in a class with two or three teachers.
They learn by rote, screaming their lessons out at the top of their lungs. After primary school, most kids stop going because the walk to the secondary school would take a couple of hours each day and their parents can't afford the time away from work to take them.
Editor’s Note: Read Part II of this feature here.
The Burmese government does things all the time that make no sense unless viewed in the context of its isolation and, therefore, its ignorance.
There is nobody in Naypyidaw except government officials, many of whom were forced to go there under the threat of arrest or punishment.
General Than Shwe wanted the election to improve the junta's international image. Clearly, he underestimated the international reaction to Suu Kyi's plight.
General Than Shwe saw Yettaw's unauthorized visit as the opportunity he was looking for to keep Suu Kyi off the streets and out of politics until after the 2010 parliamentary election.
Senior Policy Advisor, Office of Global Women's Issues, State Department Susan Braden is a senior policy advisor in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. She has over 20 years of experience working for the U.S. government, the NGO community and the private sector on U.S. security issues, the Middle East, Latin America […]