Sunday, April 19, 2009

Myanmar - US - China Relations and my two cents

@nabejero sent me a link via Twitter about the new US-Myanmar relations and how China sees it. I've been wanting to put my two cents out there, so here goes...

The story was about Stephen Blake, the Director of the State Department's Mainland Southeast Asia Office vising Myanmar, in order for the Obama Administration to start talks and rekindle better diplomatic relations between the two countries and how China is feeling threatened. Blake visiting Myanmar is a BIG DEAL because this is the first in almost seven years an envoy is sent. This would've never taken shape under the Bush Administration (might be because they didn't know where to point to on a map). It might also be because we were on the "Axis of Evil" list, for all we know, we might've been invaded right after Iran. I know a few folks were hoping for it but I still like our independence and wouldn't want a cowboy leader ruining my beautiful people and country.

Dr. Junbo, the author of the article goes on to say that China and India's influence on Myanmar is going to be reduced or even end. I don't think that will be the case. We have very good relations with both India and China. I've seen it behind the scenes. This relationship is going to continue to grow in terms of trade, travel, transport, and even in sharing/trading energy resources like gas and electricity etc. There's a lot of things that happen, we're co-dependent nations here in South Asia. Our people's histories are intertwined and we need each other's support.

I've been following what the new administration has been doing, and I like their style. I think they're headed to the right direction when it comes to Burma. Why would I want better ties with the US? First off, if you really think we're a "rogue nation", you should be talking to us. If you don't, you'll just alienate and compromise more on security.

Second, we're rich in natural resources. We got natural gas! We've produced our own food and export rice until Cyclone Nargis hit last year. That's when the world's food prices shot up, too. So you know we impact the world in some way. Within a year or so we'll be producing our own rice again and probably export. We export other stuff like fish to China, pulses and beetle nuts to India etc.

Third, we need each other. Right after Cyclone Nargis the Burmese government didn't let any aid in from the US for the first two, three days. I was at home when USS Essex was a couple of miles away. The the US and Myanmar government had a big stand off and a lot of people suffered for no reason. I was proud that we stood up and gave the diplomatic middle finger to the world's largest super power, but I felt sad that our people are being hurt because of an ego problem. I couldn't believe my eyes when I was leaving the country to see a US air craft land on Burmese soil. That must've been the first time since World War II.

Fourth, I have a lot of American friends, I want them to be able to visit Burma without having to be a diplomat or hold a UN passport. You guys don't know what you've been missing.

Here's a brief guide to the Burmese if you're not familiar with the country:
Myanmar is not North Korea!
North Korea doesn't have much of diplomatic relations with the US. We've never cut off relations with the US. We've always had embassies and consulates, the US never closed its embassy in Rangoon either. (They're not moving to the new capital, Naypyidaw, but that's another issue. They're not the only ones not moving.) This means that at least there's some grounds for officials to come and go and the Myanmar government at least will talk to certain people about certain issues/concerns.

Burmese are proud, egoistic, and we don't like interference.
Whatever we do inside our country is our business. It's like the Burmese captain in the last Rambo movie said, "This is our land, we have the right to shoot you." Of course, it was said in Burmese and was lost in translation. But he was right. Go to any ranch in the south of the US and you'd probably get shot, too. We've always been a proud member of the non-aligned movement (NAM). We're also in ASEAN, UN etc. Those member countries need relations with us and we need it too. We're also very stubborn and have a zeal to stick it through rough times.

Sanctions against Burma won't work.
It didn't work in Iraq, it's not going to work in Myanmar. No matter what people say, sanctions hurt the people. The powers that be will still be there no matter what. Even Hilliary Clinton realized this by calling the sanctions "ineffective". We've been under sanctions since the Clinton Administration and nothing really changed, except the fact that the poor became poorer and people are pushed below poverty lines. (EDIT: Don't just take my word for it, check out this Washington Post article.)

Myanmar is a unique country.
Some folks have said that Burma is the 'Southeast Asia's Darfur', some even advocated for invasion right after Iraq was invaded. That's not going to get what people want. It needs a unique solution. The government and the opposition needs to talk things out in order to improve things. The Burmese people are tired of the economic hardships they've faced. They want things to improve but the food prices just keep on sky rocketing. They want some form of stability.

Burmese are peaceful, peace loving people.
When the media portrays us or the popular stuff you see on YouTube, the snippets you see are either monks getting beaten up, students shot, or refugees in border areas. 80% of the Burmese population are Buddhists. They're the most peaceful people on earth. They co-exist with others who are Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. We're also very diverse, having 150 different ethnic groups and as many languages and dialects. We don't have guns on the streets or violent fights and stuff.

I'm interested to know what Obama-Clinton led foreign policy would be in the next coming months. I can tell you from this side that great diplomats are working on this, whatever the deal is going to be. No, Burma won't get democracy overnight, but there might be some form of dialogue. We'll probably move ahead with the referundum/new consitution a little bit faster than before. Provided there's the dangling carrot of some form of opening in trade relations.

Solar Panels to Burma via Renewable Spirit - Short update

I love twitter, and I miss it. There's a lot of people who think I'm in Bangladesh or Myanmar or somewhere else because I've been quiet online. I got your messages, and thank you for looking out for me. I appreciate your attention. The reason why I've been off grid is that I've been pretty busy with training on solar panels and getting that off the ground so haven't been online much. I also don't have Internet at home. Somehow the ISP didn't work with my new Ubuntu netbook, oh well, I'm dropping their service.

Plus I've decided to move to Gurgaon after all. It's a quiet technopolis near New Delhi. There's nothing but malls there but I think I'll like it. I'll still have Kolkata as a base though, because the main operations is here, that I'm totally convinced of. I've just finished drafting out the Memorandum of Association -- which is what you need in India to form an NGO. This is going to be the sister organization to the project on the ground in Burma. A normal person would've had a lawyer do it, but this is my baby, so I'm doing it myself with the help of my advocate friend, Eliza. (She kicks bad guy ass!) The organization in India is going to support in terms of the grassroots fund raising that we do like getting funds out of Amazon, Cafe Press, PayPal etc. Those facilities are not available inside Myanmar. They will directly pay for the solar panels, and some of the equipment that needs to be sourced from West Bengal, plus the transportation from factory to the port of Yangon. I'm researching on EC (European Commission) funding and other funding sources but I want to get an umbrella NGO to sponsor the project before I start writing proposals. These funds will be used inside Burma.

We also have a name: Renewable Spirit, plus a logo, and a domain. :-) That couldn't happen without Jeanne and IDG backing my behind.

My solar panel training was awesome. Half of the lectures were in Bengali but I seemed to have acquired some sort of heightened understanding for the language. I still claim I don't know Bengali. It takes a lot of brain power to decipher it, especially when folks are talking in pure science lingo. The whole training deserve a couple of posts so stay tuned!

Overall, the pieces of the puzzle are falling in place. A month ago, I didn't know anything except the fact that I want to get solar panels to Myanmar and that it is possible. All I had was my support network of friends who had connections and some willing to contribute to the project anyway they can. Resources, specifically for renewable energy is something that the Burmese people, especially the victims of Cyclone Nargis need. Now, I know where to get solar panels, how to install them, what equipment I need, and what the renewable energy industry is like in India. I even know that it won't end with getting solar panels to Burma, it's just the beginning. Getting people educated and aware of the rewards of renewable energy is going to be really fun.

I'm really psyched about all this. I can't wait to get to Burma and survey the villages there!