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Burma/Myanmar – in the eye of the beholder

May 13, 2011


the title of this post is not my own but taken from yesterday’s lunchtime discussion at IDS on Burma/Myanmar, organized by DPhil student Liz Webber. The informal discussion was organized in reference to the Brighton Festival, which is guest directed by Aung San Suu Kyi and has many interesting events around the country, its people and culture. The discussion was led by Liz Webber, who first started working in Burma 10 years ago and is now conducting PhD research there. Gabrielle Koehler, formerly at UNICEF and now a visiting fellow at IDS, also shared her experiences and analysis of the current situation in the country (which can also be read in her article in Himal SouthAsian magazine). All this took place between impressive works of art by Burmese artists that Liz took back from the country after her last visit; a large display is on at the Mezzanine Bar in the Brighton Dome all throughout the festival.

One of the issues that arose clearly from the discussion is the rather exceptional and polarizing position that Burma/Myanmar holds in international politics and beyond, the use of two names to denote the same country being a case in point. Subject to fierce sanctions and considered one of the worst countries to live in, Burma/Myanmar is one of the most closed-off countries in the world. The military regime, lack of political freedom and human rights violations have all contributed to the country’s negative image. Since long this has led to calls upon people not to travel to or trade with Burma to avoid engagement with the regime and further entrenchment of the harsh lives people live. Not in the least have these calls come from the country’s most famous and respected figure, Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the debate around Myanmar seems to be widening up, allowing for discussions about change, however small they might be. Elections have taken place last year, although everyone will agree that they were anything but free, and “The Lady” has been released from house arrest. One participant in the discussion asked whether change in the country should be achieved through regime or policy change. It was widely agreed that policy change would be much preferred, both for it being more feasible and with less adverse consequences for those living in Burma. Both Liz and Gabriele indicated that opportunities for policy change certainly seem more possible after cyclone Nargis in 2008, which resulted in an influx of aid and somewhat more space for openness. The International Crisis Group (ICG) takes a quite extreme position and calls for lifting sanctions and normalising aid relationships (which is heavily criticized by Maung Zarni in the same edition of Himal SouthAsian magazine). Although those present at the discussion expressed their amazement at the double standards that Burma appears to be subject to (there are many other countries with human rights violations and less democratic systems but we are a lot less rigid in our opinions about those), it was also mentioned that those sanctions do provide an important measure for leverage in terms of political change.

The discussion on Burma/Myanmar is a complex one and fortunately there will be many more opportunities during this festival to engage in the debate. Having worked in the country myself, I do not find myself on either side of the argument (therefore the interchangeable use of country names in the text); I think the sanctions do much harm to the country’s people but I also see that they provide one of the only tools in the hands of international politicians and diplomats to fight for more political freedom in the country. There is one thing I don’t agree with: the call not to travel to Burma or Myanmar as a tourist. Yes, you are likely to support the regime with the money you spend but you are equally likely to support local trade and, more importantly, to engage with the Burmese people and culture. The latter will certainly satisfy some of the hunger for outside voices and opinions but even more so, it will expose us to the more complex, vibrant and optimistic reality of the country than known to many of us. This does, however, require us to open our eyes and minds.

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