Sunday, July 15, 2012

Burmese Fairy Tale by Ma Thanegi

(This article originally appeared on now-defunct FEER on 19 February 1998.)

Prominent Burmese Writer Ma Thanegi.
Like many Burmese, I am tired of living in a fairy tale. For years, outsiders portrayed the troubles of my country as a morality play: good against evil, with no shade of grey in between -- a simplistic picture, but one the world believes.

The response of the West has been equally simplistic : It wages a moral crusade against evil, using such "magic wands" as sanctions and boycotts.

But for us, Burma is no fairy-tale land with a simple solution to its problems. We were isolated for 26 years under socialism and we continue to lack a modern economy. We are tired of wasting time. If we are to move forward, to modernize, then we need everyone to face facts.

That may sound like pro-government propaganda, but I haven't changed since I joined the democracy movement in August 1988. I have lived most of my life under the 1962-88 socialist regime -- another fairy tale, this one of isolation.

In 1988 we knew it was time to join the world. Thousands of us took to the streets and I joined the National League for Democracy and worked as an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi.

I worked closely with Ma Suu, as we all called her, for nearly a year. I campaigned with her until July 20, 1989, when she was put under house arrest and I was sent to Insein Prison in Rangoon, where I spent nearly three years.

I have no regrets about going to jail and blame no one for it. It was a price we knew we might have to pay. But my fellow former political prisoners and I are beginning to wonder if our sacrifices have been worthwhile. Almost a decade after it all began, we are concerned that the work we started has been squandered and the momentum wasted.

In my time with Ma Suu, I came to love her deeply. I still do. We had hoped that when she was released from house arrest in 1995 that the country would move forward again. So much was needed--proper housing and food and adequate health care, to begin with. That was what the democracy movement was really about -- helping people.

Ma Suu could have changed our lives dramatically. With her influence and prestige, she could have asked major aid donors such as the United States and Japan for help. She could have encouraged responsible companies to invest here, creating jobs and helping build a stable economy. She could have struck up a constructive dialogue with the government and laid the groundwork for a sustainable democracy.

Instead, she chose the opposite, putting pressure on the government by telling foreign investors to stay away and asking foreign governments to withhold aid. Many of us cautioned her that this was counterproductive.

Why couldn't economic development and political improvement grow side by side? People need jobs to put food on the table, which may not sound grand and noble, but it is a basic truth we face every day.

Ma Suu's approach has been highly moral and uncompromising, catching the imagination of the outside world. Unfortunately, it has come at a real price for the rest of us. Sanctions have increased tensions with the government and cost jobs. But they haven't accomplished anything positive.

I know that human-rights groups think they are helping us, but they are thinking with their hearts and not their heads. They say foreign investment merely props up the government and doesn't help ordinary people. That's not true. The country survived for almost 30 years without any investment.

Moreover, the U.S., Japan and others cut off aid in 1988 and the U.S. imposed sanctions in May last year. Yet, all that has done nothing except send a hollow "moral message."

Two Westerners -- one a prominent academic and the other a diplomat -- once suggested to me that if sanctions and boycotts undermined the economy, people would have less to lose and would be willing to start a revolution. They seemed very pleased with this idea, a revolution to watch from the safety of their own country.

This naive romanticism angers many of us here in Burma. You would deliberately make us poor to force us to fight a revolution? American college students play at being freedom fighters and politicians stand up and proclaim that they are striking a blow for democracy with sanctions.

But it is we Burmese who pay the price for these empty heroics. Many of us now wonder: Is it for this that we went to jail?

Ma Thanegi in Pagan.
Unfortunately, the Burmese fairy tale is so widely accepted it now seems almost impossible to call for pragmatism. Political correctness has grown so fanatical that any public criticism of the National League for Democracy or its leadership is instantly met with accusations of Treachery : To simply call for realism is to be labelled pro-military or worse.

But when realism becomes a dirty word, progress becomes impossible. So put away the magic wand and think about us as a real, poor country. Burma has many problems, largely the result of almost 30 years of isolationism.

More isolation won't fix the problems and sanctions push us backwards, not forward. We need jobs, we need to modernize. We need to be a part of the world. Don't close the door on us in the name of democracy. Surely fairy tales in the West don't end so badly.

(The writer is a pro-democracy activist and former political prisoner. She lives in Rangoon. Once vilified by the exile activists as Burmese Government's mouthpiece Ma Thanegi now is well and truly vindicated as all the US and European sanctions are now being dismantled.)

Related posts at following links:
Aung Moe and Amy: Sanctions' Collateral Damage
Burma's Killer Highways: Sanctions' Silent Assassins!