Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Talking Politics

Welcome to Politics Hour- with your host, Delilah Withers.

On today's show, we'll be taking a look at the socio-political situation of the Republic of Myanmar, or as I still prefer to call it, Burma. To do so, we'll take a closer look at the internal dynamics of Mae Sot, an ethnically diverse town that strattles the Thailand/Burma border.
Before I begin, I'd like to note my Mother's advice, who always warned me not to talk politics with family. With careful defiance, I'd like to disobey her request and proceed with today's story, which I argue is one that needs to be heard.
My mentor in college often made the claim that "politics is personal." As I sit in my new office in Mae Sot, Thailand, this statement rings more true than ever. I arrived in Mae Sot just days ago to undertake my new position as "advocacy and multimedia intern." I'm working for a non-governmental organization here, whose name needs to remain anonymous due to security concerns. With respect to their anonymity, during this program I will refer to them as "ABC." In order to understand the motivations for my being here, and the objective of ABC's work, it's necessary to understand the history of Burma to better grasp today's conflict.
For the last 19 years, Burma has been run by a military dictatorship. The military rulers refer to themselves as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC- quite the perky name for such a brutal force. They have a track record of creating numerous human rights abuses, and violating the welfare of their people by denying them access to quality education, health care services, and decent infrastructure. The government is notoriously oppressive, with countless incidences of violence towards ethnic minorities in particular.
1988 is a year which lives on in the memories of many Burmese; it's the year the largest protests in Burma's history took place. Led by robed Buddhist monks, students, teachers, and professionals filled the streets of Burma's capital and marched for freedom and democracy- ideals that have long since been ingrained in the U.S. constitution and which, in my opinion, have largely been taken for granted. The SPDC has never been sympathetic to such Western systems of government and responded to the protests with armed military force. Thousands of people were gunned down, and thousands more imprisoned.
The SPDC maintains its iron fist throughout Burma, silencing any attempt at a free and democratic country. From an economical standpoint, things remain equally grim. Although rich in natural resources (there's an abundance of rubies, natural gas, coal, petroleum), the SPDC has excluded all types of foreign investment, leaving the once prosperous Burma to become one of the most impoverished countries in the world.
Human rights abuses continue to occur today as the regime tries to dominate the entire country. Thousands of people are fleeing violence and persecution- it's estimated that there are over 600,000 internally displaced persons (people who have fled their homes and are living in camps within Burma), and over a million refugees worldwide, many of whom are ethnic minorities.
So, where do those who manage to escape end up? Well, a first stop for many is the Friendship Bridge. With a name equally as deceiving as the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), the Friendship Bridge is the bridge that connects Burma and Thailand at the border town guessed it, Mae Sot. Mae Sot is home to the largest border crossing between the two countries and sees as many as hundreds of Burmese crossing into Thailand everyday- some of whom are making the legal day-long entry, others whom cross for good in search for work and housing.
I haven't made it to the bridge just yet myself (I plan on going for the festive Saturday market), but from what I've heard, it's notorious for all kinds of smuggling. Drugs, arms, and gems to name a few. Arms are smuggled into Burma to support the military regime and illegal gems are brought from Burma to sell on the black market here in Mae Sot.
Although Mae Sot is technically on the Thai side of the border, the population of the town if overwhelmingly Burmese. It's estimated that 95% of the Burmese here are employed as migrant workers, in factories located in between my office and the central part of town. The doors of the factories are carefully guarded by Thai policemen who are well aware of the situation inside: hundreds of ethnic minorities living, sleeping and working in a cramped space, earning salaries far below the minimum wage. Corruption is rampant here, as policemen are paid off in money or whiskey to look the other way.

A short break...

What do you think so far? I find this place fascinating and am still trying to discover all the intricacies embedded within the diverse cultures here. A glimpse at Mae Sot can leave one puzzled as on the one hand, it feels suffocated by illegal activity, political exiles, refugee camps, and police corruption. A closer look, however, reveals an inspiring movement in the works. There are dozens of small, Burmese-run organizations here, comprised of ethnic minorities who have fled Burma, that are working in the shadows of non-governmental organizations, health care clinics, and schools to establish a free and autonomous Burma. These community based organizations are spurring a pro-democracy movement, and while many such groups are forced to remain anonymous due to security purposes, their work is being heard by others around the globe, making their support network stronger.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because for the next few months, I will be working for "ABC," an organization whose goals are to assist these pro-democratic groups in whatever way possible, in hopes that their voices and story will be heard.

For anyone who is interested in learning more about the situation here, please feel free to email me. Also, take a look at this youtube video, taken by a British journalist who was in Burma during a protest crackdown two years ago:

Thanks for listening everybody. I'm Delilah Withers, signing out.


Sandy said...

Be safe!
Aunt Sandy

Smaps said...

I will! Stay in touch :)

Callum said...

Thanks for the Smapipedia info on Burma, must say I didn't really know anything at all about the country and its politics. How is it that a country can end up for so long with a corrupt dictatorship, especially a country rich in natural resources- usually the promise of money changes things. Anyway look forward to your next post
Chennai Trini

Jens said...

Great blog post, Katelyn! As you know, Burma is one of the issues closest to my heart.

And Callum: This is allowed to happen because China wants it that way. China's government is allowed to exploit Burma economically in trade for guarding the junta (the military leadership), supplying them with weapons. One word from Beijing, and this would all end...