Burma ≠ North Korea

News about Burma is almost exclusively negative.  But, Burma is not North Korea. I think that opposition groups tend to avoid talking about the positive developments in the country because they are worried that any positive news will take focus off the fact that the county continues to be ruled by a repressive dictatorship with little regard for human rights.  I actually think that this strategy has the opposite effect.  It distances westerners from the Burmese people, who get portrayed strictly as victims.

The truth is that many Burmese have access to the internet.  Many have satellite dishes.  Bootleg DVDs are sold on the streets of Yangon and movie theaters even play American movies.  As a former British colony, many Burmese speak English.  They also are huge Premier League football fans, with an unnatural affinity for Manchester United.

Culture can thrive in Myanmar, often carefully walking a line that keeps it out of the crosshairs of the regime.  Moreover, Yangon has a healthy hip-hop scene, both mainstream and underground, in addition to a thriving hardcore scene.  While much of the country lives in extreme poverty, it is important to understand that there is a sector of the country that not only has a strong cultural scene, but is also quite knowledgeable about western culture.

There is a small, but active, civil society in the country.  There is space for discussion and learning.  There are hundreds of classes in Yangon and Mandalay, often held in monasteries.  Conversation about the democracy, human rights, and community development happens every day.  During my short time in the country, I spoke with a group of Yangon locals who were volunteer English teachers for disabled children.  I met a woman from a minority ethnic group who set up a boarding school for orphan children where they are provided food, shelter, clothing, and basic education, including English.  I watched a group of young people get a lecture about the new constitution.  I met a 19 year old Burmese woman who travels around the delta area, teaching monastery teachers how to be more effective in the classroom.  I met with a large number of people who are studying so they can do more to go back and help their communities.

My point in this post is not to suggest that this is not a country in need.  It very much is.  It needs a new government and it needs to escape from its repressive economic situation.  But, Burma is not North Korea.  It is open to the west and is home to many who are not so different from us – people who have their own culture and their own civil society.  They could just use a little of our help.

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One Response to “Burma ≠ North Korea”

  1. I very much identified with your Why Burma statement. The Burmese people are some of the most decent people I have ever come across and I have been a few places. The political isolation seems to have resulted in the people still living in a more innocent time as ironic as that statement seems.

    My immediate thoughts were:

    1. Tourism, Tourism, Tourism!!! I recently read the NLD changed its official position and is now encouraging tourism. Burma is not North Korea where 100% of the tourist dollars go to Kim III and his cronies. I will gladly give the banana dictator $30 every time I go to spend $1000 with the locals. The US government including the the State Department travel advisory needs to encourage travel to Burma….maybe just not to the ethnic areas in the north and south. Travel to Burma is certainly less dangerous than a vacation to Miami or Los Angeles. The US Government needs to help undo the propaganda black cloud it has put over Burma for several decades. Even 1% of the tourists from Thailand shifting to Burma is huge.

    2. The 2014 ASEAN Games. The US government needs to encourage American companies to engage this event similar to the olympics. GE, Coca-Cola, AT&T, etc. need to show up and participate in force with advertising and sponsorships. I am willing to bet a steak dinner that Samsung will advertise like crazy during this event.

    A few after thoughts:

    As best I can tell the Burmese government is going to let the Chinese pillage the natural resources and the junta is going to profit handsomely. IMO this is a done deal. Nothing is likely to stop it.

    On a side note what little media, that actually cover the ethnic areas, are saying the ethnic forces are bracing for attacks from government troops post election. I’m not sure how it will play out but my instinct is it might end up looking like the Tamil defeat in Sri Lanka. Though a better analogy might be some of the guerrillas in Columbia that are funded with drug money. Looking at the map of the ethnic controlled areas feels a little bit like looking at who controls the west bank. The situation is complex and very dyanmic.

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