Emma Thompson's Burma / Myanmar Diary: Part twelve

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 - 13:42

Emma discovers that the state of Myanmar has effectively been ruled by the shrewd manipulation of internal ethnic conflict. Without peace-building efforts, the many challenges faced today from democratic governance to dealing with climate change and lands grabs will be next to impossible to sort out.

The morning proceeds into its second stage – someone explains about deforestation while I quietly start to enter the first stages of decomposition.

Since land-grabbing is a huge problem here (and around the globe), the township forestry department comes into play here. With the village committee, they identify the area where they wish to have a community forest – the government grants a 30-year lease and with other villages, they decide what to grow. The Dry zone was the first state to undertake this kind of communal planting and two others have followed.

Now the Fellows are invited to share personal or group experiences. A girl stands and describes the kind of extortions that are made on communities by armed and government groups. No one knows the answer to that one.

Another speaks about water shortages in the Dry zone, where it gets so bad people have to buy water from folk who carry two buckets attached to a pole across their shoulders, like our 19th century milkmaids.

Another speaks of how effective the awards for children were in an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp in Kachin state.

Another tells us he has been networking with armed groups to help maintain medical supplies. Armed groups. Ha. More on that later.

Shihab leans over to me and whispers: “There are so many problems it’s a wonder their brains haven’t dried up.” A wonder indeed. But they flow on.

Now it’s our turn to make recommendations to the Fellows.

Bengt, the Swedish man from SIDA, is wonderfully fluent and expressive. He speaks about using the new environmental law that is about to come in. Climate change has already affected Burma even more than Bangladesh which comes as a surprise to me.

The extraordinary woman from Shalom, Daw Ja Nan, speaks about one of the main obstacles to everything the Fellows are doing and indeed to the development of democracy itself: ethnic conflicts.

She explains that the constitution does not recognize ethnic division. It re-wrote history, omitting all the deals that were made after the British left. General Aung San (the Lady’s father) promised the ethnic groups independent states and was promptly assassinated. The Union was created and ruled over by the majority Burmans.

What’s most interesting is that each armed group is run as a mini-government with its own service delivery system. The dictatorship employed a divide and rule method, signing ceasefires with some and not others, playing them against one another and successfully keeping conflicts going all over the country for decades. Conflicts which, of course, affect the civilian population in all sorts of horrible ways. All these groups want to be recognized and included in national government.

Shalom are helping to state-build – they are a peace-building organization and from what we’ve heard, democracy will be a far-off dream if these internal conflicts are not faced up to and dealt with.

There is a lot of ethnic cleansing and people – especially along the borders with China, Thailand and Bangladesh - fear the return of rape and pillage hugely. The IDP camps have no support. We cannot visit these parts of the country, nor can ActionAid work there for they are deemed too dangerous.

We sit quietly for a while after this. Something bites me on the thigh.

Carry on reading Emma Thompson's diary