How watching the Rugby World Cup got me thinking about if I should visit Burma or not?
20.10.2007 - 20.10.2007 20 °C
Bad weekend to be English.
I just finished watching the Brazilian Grand Prix, where F1 rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton suffered both a wide corner and motor trouble, and couldn’t close out his campaign to be the first black driver to win the F1 series, and the first English driver to win the F1 title since Nigel Mansell back in 1992.
Yesterday the final for the Rugby World Cup was held in Paris, France. The South African Springboks ended up beating the English side 15 points to 6. I don’t know much about Rugby, having my only exposure to it during a week long lesson during grade 12 gym class back in high school. Despite that, I paid $20 to watch the game at Scallywag’s, a bar down the street from my apartment and renowned in Toronto for showing “European” sports, especially on Saturday mornings when the premiership soccer is being played.
The bar was packed. I arrived at 12:20 for a game that wasn’t going to start until 3:00, and couldn’t get a seat. About 20 minutes after I arrived the bar locked the doors, already at capacity. The crowd was a good mix of English and South African fans. I couldn’t help but notice that the South African fans were much younger and more rambunctious than the older, staid English fans, but that probably says a lot more about immigration patterns in Canada than any knock against the English for being overly reserved.
Interestingly, watching South Africa during the game yesterday got me thinking about Burma. Obviously Burma has been in the news a lot recently, and I have recently been reading a book called The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire by Andrew Marshall. It details Mr. Marshall’s tour through the country, and while I’m not done it yet, it is a very interesting read.
The question that it raises is what to do about Burma, of course. Since 1962 the country of Burma has been under undemocratic military rule. In 1989 the military junta ruling the country “changed” the name of the country to Mynamar, though many international governments have refused to recognize this name as being official. In 1990, the country held democratic elections which led to the overwhelming election of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi. The SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) annulled the results and maintained power.
The international community is against the military rule in Burma, and the recent protests and resulting crack-down by the junta has been widely condemned. The USA has had sanctions in place against the junta since 2003, and those coupled with European sanctions have resulted in the withdrawal from Burma of most U.S. and many European companies. However, trade is limited between Europe, the USA and Burma, and the two largest trading partners of Burma are China and India, who at present still have close relations and no economic embargos against the country.
Embargos, of course, were a large measure of the actions that the rest of the world took against South Africa back when apartheid was in force. Even the sporting community didn’t participate with South Africa. The National Rugby team of South Africa was banned for playing International Rugby from 1981 until the end of apartheid. Reinstated in 1992, the Springboks were defeated 27-24 by New Zealand on 15th August of that year in their first game back after their readmission.
The question faced to those who travel, of course, is should I travel to Burma? Reaction has been mixed, with some saying that we should boycott the country while others have said travel will be a good thing for those who live in the country.
I am not sure how to feel about calls for sanctions and embargos. I'm not sure how to feel about sanctions. Certainly it seems that we shouldn't do things that support abusive governments, however sanctions against countries like Cuba or South Africa apparently did little to stem remove the governments there. In addition, the question remains whether my buying $2 worth of street food while in a country is the same as French oil company Total S.A. operating the Yadana natural gas pipeline from Burma.
In fact, Sanctions may have the opposite effect, in slowing down change. In a 2004 speech delivered by Dave Steward on behalf of former South African President FW de Klerk to the Institut Choiseul in Paris, it is stated that, "Economic growth and international cultural influences are often powerful forces for change. It accordingly makes little sense to try to cripple the economies of targeted states or to isolate their citizens from positive cultural influences. To the extent that economic sanctions retarded economic growth and development in South Africa they also served to slow down powerful underlying forces that were in fact already changing the country. The cultural and academic sanctions that were imposed against South Africa also served only to inhibit one of the most powerful forces for change in the country."
The speech concludes that while "sanctions were certainly a factor that the South African government had to consider very carefully when considering its options," that they were ultimately "not by any means the main factor in our decision to embark on fundamental reform and often undermined the real forces for change." "few governments are likely to bow to sanctions that they believe will lead to their destruction," the report says, stating that it is "essential to identify the reasonable interests of targeted governments and to devise approaches to reassure them that such interests will not be jeopardised," i.e. working with the government to elict change, rather than just using sanctions as a "blunt weapon."
I'm certainly against supporting the Junta, but I'm not certain that sanctions are the right route. Certainly any sort of sanctions without China or India on board seem pointless, as the amount of trade other countries have with Burma is so small.
And as was stated in the de Klerk speech, there may be benefit to exposing citizens to "positive cultural influences," which could come with increased international traffic in the country.
I recently read the book Brandenburg Gate by Henry Porter, which is a spy thriller set during the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany. While a fiction novel, Mr. Porter took pains to ensure that the conditions inside East Germany were portrayed accurately during the time. While pressure from the west and Russia to be more open were certainly part of what brought down the East German government, and led eventually to even mother Russia giving up communism, much of the pressure to bring down the wall came from inside the country. The people of East Germany had had enough, and they protested in increasing numbers until the government couldn’t resist any longer.
It got me thinking whether any change comes from outside of the country, or if revolution has to start from within. Does revolution demand that a critical mass of people rise up and demand change that the government can no longer ignore it. It appears that it was internal pressures that brought down the Berlin Wall and that ended apartheid in South Africa. Cuba has resisted change for years because there is little internal pressure for change, though that could change once Castro dies.
As Peter Gabriel sings in the song Biko, “you can blow out a candle but you can’t blow out a fire, once the flame begins to catch the winds only take it higher.”
If change needs to come from within, then what is the best way for us on the outside to effect that change? Should we stay away from Burma, or are we better off to go there and experience it for ourselves, and in the visit perhaps influence those inside the country to rise up?
What is the best way for those of us here to make change?