Sunday, January 13, 2008

15 Minutes in Burma

Barbed Wired I just got back from the border. Not a special trip. I left late and missed the morning bus, so I got there right before the border was going to close. Literally, I was in Burma for only about 15 minutes. It has been 2 years since I've been in Burma, but that was when I barely knew anything about the country. Now, working on the side of the opposition, it felt strange to be in Burma, which seemed on one hand a lot more familiar now in terms of my increased knowledge of its socio-political context, but on the other, a lot more foreign in how most of the tourists passing through probably don't give much thought to the true state of affairs in this military run nation.

Trapped Originally, I had wanted to just sit and people-watch for a couple of hours, and try to get a sense of what everyday life for Burmese (Burman and ethnic nationalities alike) is like. I had also briefly considered going a couple of hours deep into the country, but security concerns had me rethink that idea. This trip wasn't well-planned. Next time, I'll definitely try to get more out of it, whenever that will be.

Market Day One thing that hit me pretty powerfully is that while I was at the immigration booth, it suddenly hit me that these officials weren't evil. They were human just like you and me. I just finished reading Aung San Suu Kyi's Letter's from Burma and now I'm finishing up an interview with U Kyi Maung. At first, I was surprised at how persistently compassionate they were towards their tormentors, the SPDC.

Making a Living I suppose it is precisely this genuine goodwill that the NLD shows towards the junta that will make future national reconciliation possible. One of Daw Suu's entries wrote about the pressing difficulties civil servants face. They are woefully underpaid, which leads them to extort bribes. It's probably not out of ill-will, just the general will to survive. The immigration officials weren't mean, rather, I was surprised to see how friendly they were to me.

Bargaining Actually, on the subject of surviving, I was speaking to one Burmese activist today at lunch. In his opinion, the average Burmese can pay the average costs of living. When one considers that all the wealth in Burma is accumulated at the top to SPDC generals and their goons, and that the country's human capital is attracted to more promising opportunities in other countries, one can't help but think how the junta has survived for so long.

Barricades Are barbed wire barricades really necessary to have out in the open in a relatively peaceful market area? It was easy to see how apparent Burma is a police state ruled by terror and the barrel of the gun. What threats does the SPDC see here?