Friday, November 04, 2005

The Myanmar Dilemma

Question asked by Chris at breakfast this morning:

“Do you remember that time we had lunch in Singapore?”

The answer, of course, was yesterday. We pulled over for a pit stop in Singapore for gas, a Slurpy, some twinkies and beef jerky, and a bathroom break. Well, we just stopped for refueling, but were right off the Singapore skyline and got our passport stamped even though we weren’t allowed off the ship. Which really sucks, by the way. What a tease.

Otherwise, god, I love this. One of the most surreal elements of SAS is the fact that as vast as the ocean appears to be from the seventh floor deck, the world feels as small as the big map posted in the hallway denoting where we have been. There’s a feeling of, “Hey, wanna go to New Zealand?”, and we can do that. I “just” happens.

Another reason I love being on the ship. Here’s an announcement taken verbatim from our Dean’s Memo.

“Pirates still do exist, although they probably do not look like the one we see in Hollywood movies. There are reports of pirating on the seas throughout the world, oftentimes when a ship is traveling close to land like in the Malacca Strait, which we are about to enter. Although the risk is low the ship does take precautions, like increasing our speed through the area of risk. Pirates are much more interested in cargo ships, not passenger ships.”

Any job that warns you about the danger of pirates can’t be all that bad. Can it?

I reread my final India entry, and reread my journal, and I still don’t think I’ve quite conveyed my experience there quite accurately. I had a long discussion with Janet Eastman, who is teaching journalism on board and writes for the LA Times, about our thoughts and experiences there, and neither of us have quite nailed it yet. India is a difficult country. My journal makes it seem that I jumped out of an airplane, with sensory overload, but yet I feel somewhat removed from that ten days later. But I thought about it a little further, and I’m not sure if simplifying the experience to an intellectual exercise is accurate. I also wanted to emphasize that I loved my five days there. I just wish I could have come up with a better understanding in those five days.

I have lots of pictures to upload, but as Internet is quite slow again, so I’ve only uploaded the Rinspirator picture:

(Speaking of pictures, I guess the link I put up to Chris’s Mauritius pictures didn’t work, so just go directly to his main site and click on “Mauritius” ( and Myanmar because I hung out with him the first full day there.)

But India takes us to Myanmar. Semester at Sea had sent trips to Myanmar from other port stops, but this was the first time that the ship would “birth” (cool maritime lingo) in the country. But this would not be without controversy. Myanmar has one of the worst records of human rights violation by the government, second only perhaps to North Korea, and culminating with the house arrest of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still in custody to this day. Desmond Tutu called her his hero and said there is a poster of her up in his office.

The country has the worst possible diplomatic relationship with the United States and still be recognized as a country, and in defiance of the Myanmar government, the U.S. will refer to the country as Burma in its official documents.

(This leads us to our first dilemma – how do we refer to the country when we’re there? I decided that the US government should indeed call it Burma as a symbolic gesture against the government, but when talking to the locals, “Burma” is a vestige of British colonialism and only encompasses the Burmese people, which is only about two-thirds of the population. Myanmar means “Strong People” so the locals seemed to prefer that. Alas).

There is a US diplomatic staff in Myanmar, but, in a move filled with symbolism, there is no U.S. Ambassador there. We have been told that the embargo against the country is the foreign relations issue with the largest bipartisan support of any issue in the US Congress. My OMHML, Archbishop Tutu, is the world’s most ardent opponent of the Myanmar regime and a huge supporter of sanctions in the country.

A very serious dialogue started on the ship. Should we be going to Myanmar? The answer from the Institute of Shipboard Education’s side seemed pretty straightforward – this is an educational trip, and ISE will not put itself in the position to making a political statement by choosing not to go to a country. They’d been to Communist China before they opened their doors to the west, to Vietnam, Cuba, and apartheid South Africa, all in the name of education.

But that still wasn’t reason enough for me to exit the ship. Would our visit be perceived as some sort of endorsement of the government, and would our money end up in the hands of government to be used for more human-rights violations? Should we stay on the ship as some sort of protest? If I decide to not stay on the ship, would that be perceived as some sort of ignorance or indifference to these issues. Coming from India and South Africa, where there was a history of systematic injustices, these were questions that were laying quite heavily with a lot of people.

(By the way, I think this opportunity to compare so many countries in a short amount of time is the most important aspect of SAS, and have a lot to say about it, so I’m sure I’ll come back to this at the end of the voyage).

The answer, for many of us, came when the Kevin McGrath and his wife Olga, our Myanmar Interport Lecturers, boarded the ship in Chennai. He was an UN officials in Burma (and many other countries) for many years, and he built a very convincing case that the sanctions are not working at that they are the wrong approach to dealing with the country (actually, he made the case that sanctions are generally a bad way to deal with international issues, South Africa being a notable exception). Some of the main points, as I understood it:

1. In a country where the ruler believes in Karma, suffering is caused by some greater cosmic force - if my people suffer because of the economic sanctions, then it was meant to be. There’s little motivation to do anything about it. But the government can continue to splurge whatever is left on itself, which means Myanmar has the world’s most disproportionate ratio between military spending to social spending (something like 9 to 1). The ruler isn’t afraid to make insane rulings on the basis of astrology: in the early nineties, the government decided that the money needed to be based on the number 9, and the financial system lost its credibility and collapsed when certain bill denominations were deemed illegal overnight.

2. The sanctions only bring Myanmar closer to China, who fills in the void left by the sanctioning countries. It seemed like all of the major businesses, such as hotels, were owned by Chinese (and Thai) companies. This very close relationship with China is very much against the interest of the United States.

3. The government somewhat fills in the void of services that were missing before by becoming a middleman, taking in the profit, and making services too expensive for the little guy to afford.

4. Keeping Myanmar isolated keeps it away from our consciouness, since there is absolutely little motivation to learn about the human-rights violations in the country if we don’t foster some sort of business or tourist interest there. Sad but true.

5. The conditions in South Africa, under which sanctions worked, was very different from Myanmar. South Africa had a large white middle class, without a despot, which was heavily hurt by the sanctions. South Africa was also surrounded by countries that disapproved of the government, whereas Myanmar is surrounded by friends who can fill a lot of the holes created by the sanctions.

The conclusion: the country has declined tremendously in the last 10+ years, with severe poverty and on the brink of an AIDS epidemic, yet the government has not changed its human-rights record. So the sanctions aren’t working.

What can we do about it, then? Kevin and Olga have a lot of suggestions, and I hope I get a chance to talk to them about it before they leave us in Vietnam.

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything remotely academic! (Not that this counts, but, woohoo!) I just realized I vented all this on Myanmar without a word about what happened off the ship… I guess it’s been on my mind a lot. Or I just like venting. Hope you enjoyed it – I’ll post this entry, then start write about fun stuff.

1 comment:

mizzle said...

Ric - thanks for the awesome entries! And the fantastic photos!
FYI... if you google 'Rinspirator', Cobosce somes up second, right after our initial FDA approval. YAY!