I read today ( April 10, 2015) about free political elections that may come to Myanmar,, formerly Burma. Throughout its long winter of repression, Aung San Suu Kyi has stood fast, and much like a Gandhi sit-in, she has refused to depart her country, eschewing her children and even her dying husband, to remain a landmark of refusing to be moved, and therefore a living monument to a cause, most often fraught in the midst of the military government’s desire to oust her physically. Open elections are supposed to occur this fall and hopefully Ms. Kyi’s lifelong struggle, a Nobel winner, will continue her father’s legacy.
Yet, even winning will be a tough struggle in face of the narcotics, poverty, ethnic struggles and tight rein of the military.
Years ago I was sent a book to review when I wrote for Multicultural Review. The author posing as a travel writer was in Myanmar in fact noting the abuses of power. From tea boys who slept beneath the tables at night to the weeping ex-patriots abandoned in the country to discrimination of mixed blood people to the banning of books and the spies who followed foreigners, the author decried of the one of the most literate countries ever that had been destroyed and forced back into the dark ages. Although I cannot remember the name or author of the book, I have never forgotten the images, that unfortunately-even now- cause me to doubt the possibility that the government is changing its attitude: towards opening up the country to the brightness of a democracy.
Added to this, when we traveled to Thailand and purchased silk, as most tourists do, our delivery person, a young 23man from Myanmar related a sad tale. He told us that as his military time was approaching, his father begged him to leave the country. The man confided,” I walked for three days, without food, without water, through the woods. … trying to avoid the police who would send me back.” Without providing too many details, only the emotion quietly caught in his voice, he explained how difficult it had been for him and many others to illegally leave family and home.
In the Golden Triangle that connects Thailand, Laos and Burma ,as well, we were admonished by stories of tourists who were trumped by the military police and spies from Myanmar, of roadblocks, double dealing agents; and encouraged not to purchase any goods should we decide to cross the border and enter Burma.
I confess that all of these events have biased my attitude towards Myanmar. I see Aung Suu Kyi’s now withered once beautiful face in the newspaper and ponder her ability to withstand her confinement, her love of country that has taken so much from her. With the military generals unwilling to bend on constitutional change and their past unsavoury practices, I am cynical. Although journalists now proclaim that the country is “ open”, tourists welcome, I fear this is merely icing on the cake. I ardently hope for free speech and a change, but perhaps I worry that even San Suu Kyi is being set up for failure in an impossible situation.
When we visited Southeast Asia less than 5 years ago, we sat in the Saigon Bar overlooking the central square; we observed a landscape of Louis Vuitton, Gap, Juicy Couture and its ilk, in an area where streets were barely passable for all the one, two, three and four- wheeled vehicles overloaded with humans and cargo, and we wondered at the political trajectory of the Viet Nam War where its underlying raison d’être had been to keep western culture at bay. What was the point of the gassing, mutilating and destroying the lives of people and the landscape so that the West’s “best” in terms of buyable goods could eventually filter through to these teeming streets?
How does a country maintain its independence from the seepage of the commercial to their shores, rejected for its symbolism that connotes a greater Evil , and how does the presence of goods sit with policies that once were set out as battle cries for all out destruction? Are tourism and the acceptance of the vacuous and worst of Western culture embraced as mantra now able to erase years of turmoil and pain for the killing fields and its misguided leaders?
Kim Echlin’s novel, The Disappeared, although told between the cities of Montreal and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, connotes for me narratives of suffering. The vicious despot Pol Pot finally retreated to the jungles of southwest Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed after the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. Even so from 1979 to 1997, he and some of the remaining militants of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they attempted to cling to power. We visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum that describes through photographs of the country’s Disappeared and the actual maintained rooms of torture a testament beyond words of the valiant courage of a population decimated by a tyrannical reign.
This vote for Myanmar’s independence on November 8 proclaims the country’s first national vote since a nominally civilian government was introduced in 2011, ending nearly 50 years of military rule. Likely I am naive about these matters, but as a foreigner sitting in the Saigon Bar, it is a troubling thought: that so many have died for a cause that appears to have been rubbed off the chalkboard. So I must query, what was it all for?
Precious indigenous culture is just that: precious and historical, reminding one of its beginnings and growth, but should not be preserved not as an artifact- but as a living fact, a bud that unfurls in many ways when fed and tended properly.
With Myanmar, even if San Suu Kyi wins and champions democracy, will it only be the lip service that brings Coach bags and casinos to their country , or will it be something more, as Suu Kyi, herself says, “[ hers is]… a very clean party. Poor, but clean. That people do understand that. That’s a first step towards good government” ( The Globe and Mail, Friday, April 10, 2015, p1.) Of course, that is the hope: for individual and collective freedoms.
Presently as I edit this, it is December, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has won a huge and impressive victory. However, she cannot become president because of Article 59F of their constitution that states that if one of your “legitimate children… owes allegiance to a foreign power” you are disqualified. Both of her sons hold British passports.
In an interview with the BBC, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that although there were “ areas of intimidation’, the elections were “largely free”. But maintaining its hold, the military-drafted constitution provides for guarantees 25% of the seats of unelected military representatives with a veto over constitutional change. This is what the generals call “disciplined democracy”. ( http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34774469).
It will likely take until March 2016 for us to see what the composition of the government will actually looks like.
Last week, the second week in December, 2015, I read of “&Beyond in Benguerra Mozambique” that has managed to combine tourism with respect for unspoiled tropical life in Africa, and so I speculate on the marine park kept pristine- for the moment. And I reflect on the future of Southeast Asia already overcome with materialism. The author of the “&Beyond” piece, Chris Johns, also ruminates on his concerns that ’’a developer has been granted rights to explore the building of a newer, larger facility that would undoubtedly change the character of the island” (Sleepover, The Globe and Mail, Saturday ,December 12, 1215, T4).
So I ponder those jarring shops in Saigon’s square, the clatter of coins, the museum’s haunting eyes of the disappeared, the bleeding feet of the silk salesmen escaping from Myanmar’s militia training, the mixture of spicy food smells, the markets- and the rush of the West that overturns the sanctity of a country that will may likely pander to a system where the underpinnings have little to do with freedom, but much to do with money.