Sunday, August 23, 2009

Understanding Myanmar

Following Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's trial as a Burmese made me mad, hopeful, happy and sad all at the same time. I regularly follow stories about Myanmar but I've paid special attention to this story since it broke in May. I wanted to see more news analysis, coverage, and understand the issues behind it before the verdict. I couldn't really find proper posts or articles that gives the big picture and puts the story in context. Disappointing -- yes, but not surprising. Coverage surged after the verdict because of the reaction of world leaders.

Myanmar is a country that exists in a glass dome. Isolated from the world, it almost has its own laws of physics. "Burma experts" are an entirely different species even in the academic circles. The country's laws, rules, customs, and culture is not easy to comprehend. Add to that, everyone has their own notions or opinions of Myanmar. I know a lot of you are saddened and angry at the verdict but for those of us who know the country, this is no surprise. Here's a break down of what happened.

The Context
Myanmar is in the midst of government led 'reforms'. Assemblies have been drafting the constitution since I was a kid in the '90s. That constitution was voted in as a referendum in May, 2008. Miraculously, it was approved with 99% votes in the middle of the the biggest natural disaster in the nation's history. Because of this referendum, we now have a constitution, which means the election process can start. The elections are scheduled for 2010. If Suu Kyi runs for the election, or even help the NLD it can mean chaos in the nation. Technically, she can't run because she was married to a foreigner. We've all known about the clause in the referendum since the late 90s.

John Yettaw
There's a lot of people who are angry that some American came out of the blue because of a 'vision'. Most Burmese will not say it out loud because they're polite, diplomatic, or don't want to taint relations with Americans. The timing's so perfect that conspiracy theorists are saying that it might be all planned. He's a perfect instrument for the government to use so that there's a rift between the pro-democracy movement and their American supporters. Most pro-democratic funding does come from America and Europe. Dropping him like a hot potato was no surprise either. We don't want attention, and worse yet, with his fragile health, we don't want him to die in captivity. Besides, we can't treat him for his PTSD, bi-polar, or anything else he might have. Releasing him was the best solution for all parties involved.

The Law
No matter how ridiculous it may be, the law for reporting overnight visitors is very clear, and very serious. You're required to report overnight visitors with proper ID etc. at the ward or township offices because it's a risk. It's a way to deter harboring terrorists or rebels. Besides, anything can be a 'technicality' in a political case. If the government can outlaw an entire constitution, what is a small section of a law going to do?

The Trial
August is a hot political month for Myanmar. BBC reported that there were in-decisions within the leadership, the matter is not as simple as that. The historic 8.8.88 uprisings happened in August, which placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest to begin with. If the verdict was held anywhere near that date, the government had uprisings to worry about. A lot of twitter folks were surprised that she was found guilty. Do you really think they'd let her lose in the middle of a highly anticipated election? Were we surprised that she got it easy. The whole deal about clemency was the government's way of saying to the world: "We hear you, but we're not going to bend our ways just because you want them to. We still run our own country."

The Coverage
I was surprised to see BBC reporting live, having in-depth commentary and making it into their feature story. Folks online really didn't care until UK came online. That's the only reason why "Aung San Suu Kyi" became a trend on Twitter. It wasn't trending when the story initially broke because people were still getting out of their beds. UK is #2 country that use twitter most, with London (where a lot of activist organizations are headquartered) being the top city. I was expecting only a couple minutes on the headlines. I was disappointed however, that the Indian media almost missed it. It came on the headlines only after it became a popular news story, and only for the 15 second headline blip spot. I don't blame the TV producers for it, it was those dissidents who were in cities like Delhi or Kolkata who should've been more prepared. They should rely less on the west and start concentrating on having the message heard in the east and global south more -- especially in ASEAN nations. If any change is going to come, it needs to be with the help of these nations. We have the closest trade and diplomatic ties with them.

If you want to read more of my rants on Myanmar here's another post.

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