Why Burma matters

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 9, 2021 - 12:00am

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people are gathered and marching in towns across Burma/Myanmar as they did in 1988 and then in 2007. They did not succeed in their protests then, and they may not succeed this time, but they are here, now.

Perhaps, by the time this is published, the situation will have been resolved in some way. What began with a coup by the head of the military has rapidly developed from a few demonstrations calling for a civil disobedience campaign into a nationwide uprising, spreading wider with more and more people joining the crowds that are bringing together people of all backgrounds and professions.

They demand the release of all those detained; they reject the military coup; to achieve true democracy they demand the establishment of a federal democratic union and the abolition of the 2008 constitution that was supervised by the military as a step towards the so called “roadmap to democracy.”

And so in war-torn Kachin state which borders with China’s Yunnan province, young people are marching, dressed in black to signal that the movement isn’t only about the ouster of the National League for Democracy (the party of ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi), but also the need for a radical change to the political system itself.

Images, films and stories from Burma are storming social media showing Buddhist monks, Christian bishops and priests, Muslims, health care workers, civil servants, school teachers, garment workers, forestry officials, punk rockers and students taking to the streets chanting, singing, holding and waving banners all over the country, outnumbering the ranks of police and military who have been sent to confront them.

There have been scenes that echo the Philippines’ 1986 uprising with unarmed, face-masked and sandalled protesters giving bottles of water to riot police. There have been a couple of images of police showing the three-finger salute that’s been used by protesters in neighboring Thailand.

Protesters faced gunfire in Myawaddy, but they reassembled, went to the police station to demand the release of people who’d been detained, and the protests grew so big the police complied.

In Mon State on the Andaman coast, thousands of people led by students and youths held their own peaceful demonstration, most were young women.

Even in the military-designed and purpose-built administrative capital, Naypyidaw, where massive government buildings are separated by wide empty avenues making demonstrations easy to quell, people gathered their courage and outrage to protest and were blasted with water cannon.

What’s happening in Burma matters to everyone and particularly to those of us in Southeast Asia, because the situation has grown out of years of incompetent, autocratic, ruthless and dishonest military rule that has been enabled by its neighbors and the so-called international community.

During my first visit there in 2006 with a crew from Al Jazeera English and at the invitation of the last military government, we went to the port area of Rangoon to film. Workers gathered around us and one asked where I was from. “Family!” he said, “we are brothers!” During the same visit we went to Naypyidaw and provided the world’s first glimpse of the place. A few weeks previously, two Burmese journalists who had tried to film the place secretly were jailed for years for doing the same thing.

It is an extraordinary place of enormous diversity with unique natural beauty and wealth that has been deliberately held back because of government policies shabbily conceived and conducted by a military motivated by greed and drunk on power, that pitches itself as the sole rightful guardian of the place and is incapable of sharing power, let alone passing it on. Like so many places in the world, it is not a poor country – it is poorly governed.

This coup is simply another iteration of this norm. The military (I speak generally here, though it is not necessarily monolithic) does not care about using violence on its own people, or sanctions by the rest of the world. That it continues its violent reign at will is something that everyone in the world must consider and weigh up whether to ignore, condone or act.

In 2009, a year after Cyclone Nargis destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes across the country, Al Jazeera English sent me there with Simon Harrison and Ben Emery to report on recovery and reconstruction. We managed to get a lift from an aid agency to an area that had seen very little aid. People gathered to tell us their stories. I was surprised when they said they had only ever seen white people on DVDs before. In one shelter that was little more than a few sticks hung with tarpaulin without water or sanitation, a mother wept loudly, her infant had just died. The baby’s name meant “White Flower” and she was swaddled tightly in the 40º heat and blue in the face. I unwrapped her and tried CPR as I had been trained. It became clear that no one in the village knew this skill. A midwife came once in a while to visit the place, but there was no other health care.

Soon the child’s lips turned pink, and her skin color improved; mucus poured from her mouth and nose. Her family and the villagers gasped and whispered, but my colleague said: “Veronica, don’t give them too much hope.” She didn’t make it and was buried in her swaddling clothes in a hurriedly-dug shallow grave. My military minders were furious that we had filmed and reported the incident.

This is all too often the reality for people living there, but once the military allowed a nominally civilian government, the infant mortality rate (deaths under-5 per 1000 live births) improved dramatically: 56.4 in 2008 to 35.8 in 2018 (it’s 27.3 in the Philippines and 9 in Thailand).

Now that the military wants to bring its iron fist down on the country again, I remember that baby, and the people there that just want to have a proper chance at life. That’s why Burma matters.

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