Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Coming Out

Being home over the past few weeks has reminded me just how strong, and potentially dangerous, emotional memories can be. I've always know that I have pretty a strong emotional memory, but being home has put it in overdrive. Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of these are not happy, pleasant memories, but unresolved negative ones, those that I can often hide from in the States. What in the States gets manifest as occasional nightmares, here take on the form of waking panic attacks.

Last night I was hanging out with one my closest friends here - we've known each other since I really don't when, but atleast for almost all our lives - and we started talking about intimate relations from our past. Listening to her talk about her most serious relationship, made me think of my own long, not serious, relationship with someone back home. Incidentally, the person she was dating then was also my "first boyfriend" - although while mine lasted less than 2 months, and I was 13 then, her's was her first adult relationship and lasted almost 3 years.

Unfortunately, for most of the duration of their relationship, I was in the States. I am not particularly good about keeping in touch with folks back home while I’m in the States. (As another friend recently complained to me, how is it that we can talk through the night while you’re here but once you’re gone, I hear 5 words from you once in 6 months? What to do though, I’m like dat only.) So, I just heard snippets from my parents a few times about what was going on with them, and I hung out with them a couple of times while I was back home for a couple of weeks in August 2004. From what I could gather then, the guy wasn't particularly ok with my friend hanging out or communicating with me. When I returned home for the summer a couple of years later, they had just recently been through a bad break-up. Consequently, we had never really spoken much about their relationship while it was still on, or in the immediate aftermath.

When we spoke yesterday, though, she was a bit more open and forthcoming about her experience in that relationship. And that made me re-live aspects of my own long relationship back home. Comparing our experiences, our reactions to them, and where we are each now in relation to them, made me wonder, what does it mean, what does it take to come out, openly, publicly, as a survivor of violence and abuse. I generally do not use the word survivor in reference to myself… and I think that that in itself has a lot to do with how I see myself, how much I have, or have not, come to terms with being, someone who has experienced, lived through an abusive relationship.

I use the phrase "coming out" quite deliberately. Because, as I understand it, the process of coming out involves developing the strength, the confidence, the sense of security... whatever one chooses to call it... to acknowledge one's own experience with, or existence as, something which is perceived as undesirable, unacceptable. When I say that coming out as a survivor of abuse or violence is a difficult, emotionally taxing process, I am not making an ground-breaking statements. But I guess the reason yesterday's conversation affected me a great deal is because it somehow brought to a head what I had been gradually realizing over my time home - that I have not truly resolved my experiences in an abusive relationship, that they still haunt me in extremely problematic and dangerous ways, and that in so many ways, every time I'm back home, I'm reminded very starkly of those experiences, although it's been almost 10 years since that relationship.

What brought all this home yesterday was when I asked my friend if she had ever witnessed my ex being violent towards me. Her response was incredibly hesitant, as if she'd rather not acknowledge that she had - not because of any sense of accountability that I might lay on her, but in order to spare me feelings of embarassment, and perhaps even shame. In order to spare me perhaps, the same feeling of discomfort that she appeared to be feeling in talking to me about her own relationship.

Thankfully, within the context of the States, I am more willing to, and more comfortable in, coming out. But the same is not true with folks back home. And yet it seems to me that it is with and among friends back home that this conversation is so essential. Although I have no actual "proof," just from the point of view of hear-say and, if I might be so bold as to add culture, the problem of abuse in intimate partner relationships seems to be a problem among folks of my generation in my community. And this is precisely a signifier of the intense heteronormativity that is privileged among us. With "boys" and "men" super invested in being "male," in protecting "their women" as their property, as they do their imported bikes and cars. I am not suggesting, obviously, that this is true across the board. But I feel safe in saying that is, as anywhere else, undoubtedly a problem.

And what is more problematic in this context is that the issue of domestic violence and abuse is, as far as I am aware, not really spoken of, even among a community that is supposed to be relatively "modern" and "progressive," like mine. It wasn't until I came to the States that I came to recognize that what I had lived through was not normal, and that there was a term for it - domestic, or intimate partner, abuse. The more I began to read, and think, and talk about it, the more angry and frustrated I became with my high school teachers who were more invested in protecting us "girls" - I went to an "all-girls" school - from "boys" by preventing us from talking to and interacting with them - I was reprimanded a few times for "talking to boys while in school uniform," and warned to think about "the school's reputation." They might have been able to "protect" us much better if they had engaged us in conversations about taking care of ourselves in relationships, in recognizing abuse, in encouraging us to talk to parents, friends, mentors about the nature of our relationships, in emphasizing to us that abuse is not normal, is not normalizable, regardless of which communities one belongs to, or which circles we socialize in.

If we can have sex-ed classes, which we did have some weird form of, I'm sure it requires no stretch of the imagination to include instruction on what a healthy relationship should look like. I know that I could have definitely benefited from that... and I know at least a few of my friends back home could have too.

I know that my teenage relationship has definitely haunted my adult ones too. I have not yet stopped having unpleasant dreams about my teenage ex, and I have most certainly projected my fears, anxieities with reference to him onto those who came later. I think much of my inability to excorcise this ghost is related to an uncertainity about what I went through and whether it was really significant. For instance, does the fact that I was between 13-17/18 when I had this experience make it more or less significant? Ironically (or is it?), while it is here, at home, that I have the most discomfort in dealing with what transpired, what the conversation yesterday made me realize, or reminded me, is that is was definitely real, made more so by the fact that little has changed over time, or as teenagers have grown into adults.

published 4.17.09

In India there is a crime against women in every three minutes, one rape every twenty nine minutes and one recorded case of dowry death in every seventy seven minutes. Cases of cruelty meted out by husbands and in laws are seen in every nine minutes. Patriarchal terrorism where one partner uses economic and social power to maintain control over another human is very common in India and other Asian countries due to the subservient status of women.

The world statistics of domestic violence translates into 960,000 reported incidences of violence, against current or former partners every year. Three million women are abused every year by their husbands or boy friends. Around one out of three women in the world has been coerced into sex, beaten or otherwise abused by their boy friends. Women are seen to be more vulnerable to intimate partner violence then men world over.

D.V. & Other Resources for Women in India

India Together

Monday, July 27, 2009

"Curry Bashing"

Since I've been back home, I've been hearing a lot about violence against Indian students in Australia. Last year, there were a few incidents of the murder of desi students in the States that I'd read about. No doubt, the incidence of violence against desis, as with all immigrants of color, and pople of color, in general, is higher than reported and known. However, the official statistics out of Australia are pretty appalling. Per a Time Magazine article, Spate of Attacks Leave Indian Students on Edge in Australia, "1,083 cases of robbery and assault were reported against Indians in 2007-08, and that the attacks increased to 1,447 over the same period last year, with many of the attacks directed against students.

In the case of the U.S. attacks I read about, I was a little wary of accusations that they were racially motivated because the attacks were allegedly committed by black men and I figured that a certain degree of racism was manifesting itself in how the attacks (i.e. the attackers themselves) were being positioned. In the case of the attacks in Australia though, it seems a quite unlikely that at least a significant number of the crimes were not racially motived. If it is true that a large number of the attacks are on students, and given that, as of 2009, there are only about 90,000, the occurence of violence against desi students is not insignificant. Admittedly, in comparison to the total population of Indian descent in Australia, the numbers don't seem quite that horrendous. (I don't have very good data on the demographics of Australia. But if one takes into consideration the 2006 census numbers which has the self-identified population of Indian descent at 243,722 plus 12,300 immigrants per year in 2007-2008 & 2008-2009 plus in 2009 there are 90,000 Indian students in Australia, that rounds off to about 360,000. Obviously, there's a lot of over- and under-counting... but this is just a very rough estimate.)

Yet given that Indian students took to the streets this past May and June, in Melbourne and Sydney, at least, after a particularly heinous attack implies that these attacks are pretty pervasive.

Moreover, soon after the protest, a delegation of police and government officials visited various Indian cities to deliver "safety assurances" to the families of current and prospective students; which was followed by a visit from the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans. His visit was to aimed at reassuring "parents and authorities that the country is not racist and remains a safe place to study."

To quote Evans himself, "There's been a lot of concern inside India and I think there's been some fairly hysterical reporting of what's occurred. ... So part of what I intend to do on this visit is to try and reassure Indians that we're a safe place to study, that we're a multicultural society and we don't have racist attitudes to people." Further, "I wouldn't say there is no racism in Australia. Of course, there is, but majority of the incidents don't have any racial basis..."

I am not exactly sure where Mr. Evans gets his assured-ness from, given especially that there is actually a term for going out to attack Indians - curry bashing.

Mr. Evans' lack of understanding (or at least his apparent lack of understanding) about the situation is apparent here:
Evans said police were working on the problem but educating Indian students about safety in Australia could also help. "We've had a number of students attacked in areas at say four o'clock in the morning where quite frankly most people would stay clear of," he said.

Evans is either unaware of, indifferent to, eliding, or too dumb to make the connection between this issue of violence and another issue that is creating an embarrasement for his country - that of education scams. The reporting that I've heard and read about this issue details how students are lured into both, high-tuition programs that fail to provide the training promised, as well as illegal schemes wherein they are promised eduction and migration documentation on the downlow. In the former situation especially, students are forced to take-up lowing paying jobs to keep themselves going while they complete their long-drawn out training and degrees. Most often, they work as cab drivers and attendants at grocery stores and gas stations. I doubt that in many cases these students have an option of not traveling at odd, "dangerous" hours of the day. Thus Evans' statement is a fantastic cop-out, one of the caliber of some of the rabid comments about the attacks, prevalent on YouTube and various blogs/discussion boards.

The first type of comment on these sites is one that simply and neatly says "fuck off to where you came from, you dirty, stinking, lazy, ignorant fuck!" No surprises there really. They are the Brian Kilmeades of society. In a certain way, though, these comments as just as bad as the more enlightened responses they elicit, where somebody comes back with a "shaddup, you son of a convict." For the ignorance of the former type fits with their overall racist ignorance - no point in asking them, "umm... where exactly do you think you came from?" They're the ones who believe that, never mind the carnage and enslavement of the indigenous, the white man is responsible for the creation of the nation, it's material and discursive edifices, it's modern civilization. Just ask Pat Buchanan...

The problem, though, lies with the latter group of folks who appear to have some historical knowledge, but not enough. Who are unable, or unwillingly, to recognize that the racism apparent among some Australians is tied not to their convict history, but their patently and violently racist foundations.

The second type of comment suggests the Indians should quit complaining about racism because they are the most racist peoples of all. Here references are made to the popularity of Fair and Lovely cream, and the fact that darker-skinned peoples face much prejudice. Agreed, skin color is an immensely problematic issue in India, and I too am irked by the incessant commercials for fairness creams. But that is not racism, that is prejudice based on skin color which, though undoubtedly violent, is only one signifier of racism. I'd refer here to an earlier post where I elaborated on the meaning of racial violence. Here is a relevant excerpt from that post:

Racial violence is a mode of power exercised – most often by a state, but often by other organized, militarized groups – in order to control, subjugate or exterminate a people due to the idea that the latter always already pose a threat to the civilization of the former. Thus, racial violence always follows the logic of self-defense and self-preservation against the always already threatening other.
Racial logic functions so that an entire people are made to signify deviance, irrationality, violence, etc. – in short, everything that runs counter to the presumed ideals of modernity, and the interests of “civilization” and “humanity.”
... Racial violence is not about “race” as is commonly understood – i.e. black, white, native, asian, latino, arab or whatever new racial groups the state decides to create – but about the process of racialization. Of casting an entire people as a deviant, threatening other. ... [It is about] how power operates in the production and execution of subjugation, violence, and death.

In terms of defining racism, I would amend and add that when specific peoples become targeted as individual signifiers of the deviance or threat referred to above, and are singled out for violence, by individuals or institutionalized and other groups, as representatives of the larger racialized group, that act of targeting, of singling out, is racist in nature. Undoubtedly skin color and other phenotypical characteristics play a significant role in the enactment of racism, but I am not convinced that prejudice based on skin color is necessarily racist.

Besides, explain to me again how does racism here make racism there ok?

The third type of comment argues that these students are there not really for an education, but as means to migrate, to take precious Australian jobs, and that they are signifiers of the failure of the Indian economy, indeed of the failure of independent India. The rhetoric here is almost identical to that used in debates about "illegal" immigration in the U.S. Once again, the debate is willfully ignorant of the economic contributions made by the skilled and unskilled, "legal" and "illegal" immigrant workforce... it is all about the theft of jobs and the drain on resources. Never mind the overall damage done to Third World economies by the First World. (Admittedly, an argument that is truer in the case of U.S.-Mexico relations, and not so much in the case of Australia-India relations. But still...) Moreover, the Indian students who pay $40,000 in tuition, and work as cab drivers while they are trained to become professionals, provide way more economic benefit to the "Australian nation" than they get in return.

I'm never sure why people think that the life of an undocumented migrant or an un/underpaid student is something that they aspire to. Even if they do use some resources meant for the documented, over-paid and well-fed, does that really change the quality of life of the latter group. My frustration here is the same that I feel when some people argue that you must not "encourage" those who beg for money on the streets of Bombay, because it is their "profession." Even if it is, I'm sure it's not something they do as a choice, but rather because of a lack of it. The few rupees one gives a beggar, professional or not, are more substantially more likely to benefit them than the disadvantage that the loss of those rupees are going to cause you. It's all about diminishing marginal utility... the one good thing economics teaches us, but we choose to forget.

And finally, what frustrated me the most was a comment by the Consul-General (I think) of India in Australia who in an interview stated that what one needed to focus on, in terms of curbing the violence and exploitation, is the social nature of the students coming to Australia. Most of these students come from rural areas and thus, according to her, are "not sophisticated in urban ways." Really? The problem is not the parochial and violent mentality of the attackers, but the "backward," unsophisticated nature of the victim-/survivers? Talk about a blame-the-victim mentality! I just heard a snippet from the interview, and maybe she clarifies herself at some other point during it, but, as is, her comment is pretty shameful.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thinking American Exceptionalism in India

Almost तन वीक थई गया. There's a hundred thoughts/ideas floating through my head. Much that I could write about, पन एतली patience ने ताकत नथी. पन आजे कई थयू, that sort of brought together much of what I've been thinking/observing during my while back home.

हूँ जोर्थी आवीच, तोर्थी मोरू computer नथी चाली र्हेइयू. So आजे finally I could go pick it up. Incidentally, it's still under warranty until September, which wouldn't have meant much had there not been authorized Apple dealers and servicers around. Almost आखू नवू computer free मा मली गयू. Yay for globalization and free-markets?! Damn.

In any case, on my way back home, we drove past Arthur Road Jail today. The Jail is Bombay's largest, and "houses" many members of Bombay's various gangs. The Jail is located right in the city, off a very busy road (as if any road in the city isn't busy). As a kid, I used to recognize the Jail by the smell of what I thought was कोपरा पाक. Following the 1992 Bombay riots, Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt has been in and out of Arthur Road Jail for his alleged involvement in the riots.

As we drove past today, one side of the street had been blocked off to allow for the numerous T.V. cameras covering the trial of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only surviving member of the group of 10 who attacked Bombay on November 26, 2008. (He is also only one of two attackers to be caught on camera during the course of the attacks.) He has been in the news the past few days because he confessed, and plead guilty, to various acts of violence committed during the attacks. Apparently, this confession caught most by surprise, especially since he had thus far plead not guilty to the various charge brought him. It wasn't until today though that I realized, at least consciously, that Kasab was being held right here, in the heart of the city.

Which made me think about the absurd हल्ला-गुल्ला being created in the U.S. over the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the mainland. Just one more way in which U.S. exceptionalism comes into play. The idea that the security of Americans is so precious, so sacred, that they cannot even share the same landmass as a hodge-podge of "evildoers." I am willing to bet that security at the several maximum-security prisons in the U.S. is way better than that at Arthur Road. And that the U.S. has the resources and the "expertise" to imprison the several thousand detainees at Guantanamo. The difference though is that the U.S. has "options." If enough people say "not in my backyard," so long as they're not black and brown folks, the U.S. can borrow, lease, buy, annex some one else's backyard. And it's not like any precious, sacred lives will be at stake elsewhere!

In any case, if anything, it is the lives of those imprisoned that are perhaps truly in danger. As in the case of Kasab, the high security provided him is not to prevent him from escaping, but to protect him from getting killed by prison gangs. And in the case of most of detainees - those who aren't particularly high profile opertives, their flight risk is in fact minimal. Even if they are members of, or trained by, various militant groups, most of them are expendable resources. I doubt anyone's going to be trying to break them out of prison, or provide them the means/ability to escape, any time soon.

Most of the recruits are targeted because they already exist in desperate, highly vulnerable conditions. They are mere tools deployed for the execution of a larger mission, a mission who's gains they (i.e. the recruits) are very unlikely to experience themselves. Once their task is done, dead or alive, I doubt that the "system" really gives a damn about them. Just one of the many ways in which militant groups function like the military. (oooh heresy!)

Talking about the military and American exceptionalism, Hillary Clinton was in town this past weekend. She did the usual stuff... meet with corporate big shots (she asked specifically that women be part of the group... how we have advanced!), pledged to help India in its fight against terrorism, pledge co-operation in implimenting the Indio-US Nuclear deal, met with membres of SEWA (an NGO for "poor, self-employed women workers") and sat for a televised interview with Aamir Khan, who is the ambassador of the Teach India program... the latter two events I am not making light of, they are significant and worthwhile.

Here are a couple clips from the interview. More available on Youtube.

(I knew there was a reason I am an Aamir Khan fan!!)

The reason I mention Clinton's visit is not because I have much to say about it, at least beyond my person reaction to it. I have to admit that being here during her visit felt a little weird. Ever since I've been back home, I've been struggling a lot with how disconnected my two worlds, my two lives, are. I've felt this for a few years now, but each time I visit, the disconnect feels more intense, more disconcerting. The first week back I realized that anytime I spoke about "my life," "what I'd been upto," it was like I was talking about someone else. None of things that were so important, so central to my existence, in the States, felt real anymore - not intellectually or emotionally. Those who have experienced this would know how emotionally raw and drained you feel when trying to find someway to connect your existence, to translate one world in terms of another when the means, the symbols that allow for translation really do not exist. I think that is why I am always so eager for my friends from the States to visit me here, and vice-versa... for they'd be my means of translantion, my connection. My first week here, each time I came back from a visit with friends, I'd burst into tears. That degree of emotional turmoil has now dissapated... although the disconnect still very much exists, is very palpable... but I'm settled more comfortably into my life here.

So, in any case, given that Clinton signifies my life over there, the idea of her being present over here, was a little jarring.

That said, it was funny the ways in which traffic jams were suddenly spoken of - where's Clinton supposed to be at this hour? Ah, no wonder we're stuck... although we're 20 miles away from wherever she may be. It reminded me of her visit to India in 1998, or 1999, with Bill and Chelsea Clinton. All the roads along which they were to ply were re-tarred... something they couldn't do for Hillary's recent visit since she gave us Mumbaikers such sort notice. For shame!

Back then, I was in my first year of engineering school. I recall my friends and I wondering whether our private tuitions for mechanics would be canceled because the Clintons' were to arrive that evening. I remember joking that if they were, we should line the streets, waving our little paper Indian flags. (Un)fortunately, we still had our class... but I like mechanics, it is still one of the things I miss from my past-life, so no complaints. And finally, I remember a huge deal being made about them dining at a restaurant called Cafe Royale. It really isn't that fancy a place... but, if I recall correctly, it was a friend-of-a-friend kind of deal, for which a part of the city had to come to temporary standstill.

वाह रे वाह! Bombay, at a standstill for Americans...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Burma II

Here's the second installment of articles on Burma. The novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, that I refered to in my previous post, is set "among" a small group of the Karen people who reside in the jungles, hiding from the junta who accuse them of being/harboring insurrectionists. The novel appears to mirror pretty exactly the situation of the Karen as represented in recent news articles. Below are a couple of articles/reports about the issue, including the implications of the Karen as refugees and stateless peoples.

The last piece, provocatively titled "Burma's Gaza," is about the conflict surrounding the status of the Rohingya, a Muslims ethnic minority in Burma.

(Photo: Getty Images)

New Delhi (mizzima) - Over 500 villagers from eastern Burma’s Karen state have fled their homes and are hiding in the jungles as military offensives by the joint Burmese Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a break-away Karen ethnic armed group, increases, a new report said.

The Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a group helping Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in its latest report on Friday said, at least 500 villagers from Mone Township of Nyaunglebin District in Karen State have fled their homes and three men have died while hiding in the jungle.

“The 500 villagers, who were now in hiding, have not been able to carry enough food and are facing shortages,” said the FB report.

Tha Do Moe, a member of the FBR told Mizzima on Monday that the military operation by the Burmese Army and the DKBA has not stopped in the region causing the number of IDPs hiding in the jungles to go up.

“The military campaign has never stopped. It is either a big or a small offensive. So there are increasing numbers of IDPs,” said Tha Do Moe.

He said it is impossible for the IDPs to return to their homes because, “If they [Burmese soldiers] catch them, they will be killed. So they are still hiding in the forest.”

He said, villagers who live in the regions under the control of the Burmese Army and DKBA, though they escape being killed, are faced with several rights abuses including forced labour and are used as porters. Most of their time is spent on working for the troops.

“They have marked conflict zones, and if they see anyone they are free to kill on sight. They often fire mortars into the forest where they suspect the IDPs to be hiding,” he added.

While the conflicts have caused villagers to continue fleeing, he said the fighting has got worse and more villagers are fleeing to the jungle than between 2005-2006 as the Burma’s ruling junta increases military operations in the area.

The FBR in its report said with the onset of monsoon, the IDPs are facing food shortage and are in need of proper medical care, especially the children, as the rainfall continues in the forest.

Iris, coordinator of the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP) said “The most important thing for the IDPs at the moment is medicines and food supplies.”

She said the Thai authorities have been negotiating with humanitarian groups including the International Organization for Migrants (IOM) over the future of more than 2000 Karen refugees, who have fled in June following fresh clashes between the Karen National Union’s armed wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the joint force of the Burmese Army and DKBA.

At a recent meeting held at the KNU’s 5th Brigade, the group decided that the KLNA in Mutraw District of Karen state would retaliate to the ongoing military offensives by the Burmese troops and its ally.

The KNU, which has waged over 60 years of armed struggle for self-determination, said it has decided to defend its people after reviewing that the junta “has no plans to end such attacks anytime soon.”

“The combined KNLA 5th Brigade and civilian leadership declared that it is prepared to defend the integrity and interests of Karen people at all costs, including militarily,” the KNU said in a press release on Monday.

Earlier, the KNU lost control over its 7th Brigade to the advancing Burmese Army and DKBA forces. They were forced to retreat into the jungle and can only launch guerrilla attacks. (Photo above: Dai Kurokawa)

Mutraw District’s Chairperson Saw Tender called on all Karen people to join hands with them in their fight against the enemy’s offensive.

“We hope that our people will understand our determination to fight against the SPDC’s destructive plans and that they will join hands with us in the fight against such evil,” he said, referring to the junta by its official name – State Peace and Development Council.

Calling the Shots
JULY, 2009
The Irrawaddy - VOLUME 17 NO.4

Photo: Larry Jagan/The Irrawaddy

For Karen refugees, the decision to stay or flee through the jungle to avoid clashing armies rests on the shoulders of their village leaders.

MAE SOT, Thailand — Intense fighting along Burma’s border with Thailand forced more than 4,000 Karen villagers to flee their homes and livelihood for the safety of refugee camps in Thailand in May and June.

The decision to flee rested with the village leaders—and it wasn’t an easy one.

“We are so sad to have left our village” said the leader of Ponyacho village, resting from his journey in a Thai monastery in Mae Salit. “But we had to leave. Now the fighting is more dangerous than ever.”

He recalled that as he was struggling with the decision to abandon their village, the sound of mortar and machine gun fire echoed through the mountains, which have acted as a last line of defense for the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) for more than 60 years.

Hearing the nearby gunfire, he quickly made up his mind.

The village leader ordered people to pack up what they could carry and to leave immediately. Many of the village men had been conscripted as porters in earlier armed clashes, and they were unwilling to risk capture again.

“If we stayed, we would have been forced to be porters,” said a villager who had previously carried the bed of a Burmese commander through the jungle. “The Burmese commanders want to live like kings, and they want us to live like animals.”

Villagers also feared the Burmese forces would need extra soldiers on the front line, and they would eventually be forced to participate in the fighting.

“How can the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) expect me to fight for the Burmese army and kill my Karen brothers?” asked one angry villager.

In the past, villagers conscripted by the Burmese army have been used as human mine sweepers—forced to walk in front of Burmese soldiers to set off any potential land mines.

“One Burmese soldier used me as a human shield,” said one villager. “As we advanced toward Karen soldiers, he hid behind me and held his gun over my shoulder. If anyone had fired at him, I would have surely died.”

Many of the fleeing villagers had been working hard on their farms and were waiting to enjoy their harvests. “We had been waiting for the mangoes to be ripe for eating” said the leader. “We’ve had to leave it all behind.”

Many of the Karen population retain their animist beliefs despite decades of Christian missionary work. As animists, every mountain, tree and river around a village has a name and spiritual presence.

“They have worshiped the spirits all their lives for protection” explained a Karen Youth Organization worker. “Outside of their village area, they wouldn’t know the spirits as well and for people who believe that spirits can kill, this can be terrifying.”

Some villagers hiked through the jungle for three days, traveling slowly to avoid detonating land mines planted by both sides of the conflict.

“Even if we don’t detonate a mine we are still faced with the risk of catching malaria or being bitten by a snake,” said the village leader. “When you travel with women and young babies, the decision to leave is not an easy one.”

When they finally arrived at the Moei River, the refugees crossed over on boats belonging to the KNLA’s 7th Brigade into the Thai village of Mae Salit. On arrival, they spread out, locating and staying with Karen families who had settled in the area in previous years.

They arrived in torn and ragged clothing. The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) told the recent arrivals to congregate at a local monastery, where they were given new clothes supplied by a foreign donor and interviewed by members of various Karen organizations.

“There are so many mothers with young babies here,” said Blooming Night, joint secretary of the KWO.

“It’s not right that they should suffer in this way.”

For the children, this latest offensive will have long lasting affects on their lives. The school year had just started and all teaching material was left behind in the schools.

School children actually came under attack in Pa-an District, forcing 89 students and seven teachers to flee through the jungle. In the rush, they had no time to contact their parents. They travelled through the jungle, eventually arriving at Safe Haven Orphanage where nine children were diagnosed with malaria which they contracted on the journey. None of the children have received information about their parents’ whereabouts, or whether they are even alive.

“It’s very tragic. Most of the children’s parents have probably been taken as porters,” said Tasanee, the director of Safe Haven Orphanage, who goes by one name.

Tasanee’s mother established the orphanage in 1994 to look after children in the area who had been orphaned. Located near the Moei River, the orphanage is still close to the fighting and the sound of mortar fire often interrupts the children’s English lessons.

“When the mortars begin, the children stop singing,” said a volunteer English teacher. “They just sit there glazed over and silently terrified. They know what the noises are, and they know what they mean. Sometimes they come and hug us but mostly they just retreat within themselves. It’s like they’re shell shocked.”

The mortar fire worsened on June 10 when four rounds landed in Mae Salit, only meters from the monastery where the villagers had received aid. One round landed near Mae Salit Luang School.

Many villagers were concerned the fighting would spill over onto Thai soil. The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) reported that a DKBA officer had sent a villager from the Ler Per Her area as a messenger to contact the recently arrived refugees. The messenger said the DKBA demanded 3,000 baht (US $100) per village to reimburse it for the cost of hiring porters to carry supplies during their offensive.

In response to the security concerns, Thai authorities have strengthened several checkpoints entering Mae Salit, and army jeeps with armed soldiers patrol the main road.

Observers say the recent clashes are designed to allow the DKBA to secure its new role as a border guard force under the Burmese army, and the KHRG reported that DKBA officials are already referring to themselves as the Border Guard Force.

If the DKBA and Burmese army succeed in their mission to eliminate the KNLA from the border area, many Karen villagers will be displaced and the survivors will be forced into refugee camps where they will be restricted for a long period of time.

Fully aware of the present dangers, the Karen villagers still managed to laugh and smile as they sat around the grounds of the Thai monastery.

“Our villagers feel lost and confused, but we are just happy to be away from the Burmese army—nothing can be as bad as living in a village under their control,” said the village leader.
“If I didn’t make the right decision, all our brothers and sisters would have perished in the village,” he said.

Burma’s Gaza?
MAR — APR, 2009
The Irrawaddy - VOLUME 17 NO.2

Citizenship and land rights are hot issues in Arakan State

MAUNGDAW, Arakan State—In a simple house on the edge of this small town near Burma’s border with Bangladesh, a Rohingya resident carefully adjusted his cheap Chinese-made radio. Six other Rohingyas also huddled around the radio, straining to hear its crackling broadcast.

“Here we go,” said 52-year-old Ahmed triumphantly. “It’s VOA reporting on what the international community is saying about the Rohingya issue. Listen carefully.”

Ahmed said he and his friends tune in nightly to Western broadcasts in the hope of hearing news about efforts by the international community and humanitarian agencies to pressure Burma’s military government to improve their living conditions.

In a teashop near Ahmed’s home, a small group of ethnic Rakhine people discussed the same issue—but from a different viewpoint. They were united in opposing any move to grant citizenship to the Rohingya people of Arakan State.

One man in his late thirties claimed the state and its majority Buddhist population would fall under the influence of Muslim Rohingyas if they became Burmese citizens. “They [Rohingyas] are like a virus,” he said.

Another man, in his early fifties, agreed. “Let’s hope the government doesn’t pay attention to international pressure,” he said. “The Rohingya are not among the 150 ethnic groups of Myanmar [Burma].”

His claim, supported by most Rakhine people and reflected in regime policy, is disputed by many scholars and historians, who trace the arrival of the Rohingyas in the Arakan region back to the eighth century.

Ethnologists say the Rohingya—far from being a homeless migrant people—are a distinct ethnic group derived from a bewildering ancestral mix of Arabs, Moors, Persians, Turks, Mughals, Pathans, Bengalis, Chakmas, Rakhine, Dutch and Portuguese.

For centuries, Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhine people of the Arakan region lived in harmony. They enjoyed the same rights, guaranteed by the 1947 constitution and the 1948 Citizenship Acts.

Rohingyas were able to participate fully in post-colonial political life. They could vote and stand for public office in local and national elections, and they were granted Burmese passports and complete freedom of employment.

The 1962 military coup that brought Ne Win to power ended all that. Anti-Rohingya sentiments were allowed to fester. Race riots disrupted life in Arakan State.

“The Rakhine-Rohingya relationship was poisoned by the military junta,” said one moderate Rakhine historian in Maungdaw.

Denied protection by the Ne Win government and the current military regime, Rohingyas have been mercilessly exploited by many Rakhines, who are accused of treating the Muslim minority as a cheap workforce. The fiction that these dark-skinned people were illegal Bengali immigrants has been allowed to spread without much contradiction.

Discrimination against the Rohingya now permeates all levels of society in Arakan State, from local government departments to community life.

“The military government is systematically encouraging ‘divide and rule’ in our state,” said the Rakhine historian. “It can then exploit the instability it causes in order to rein in the people.”

Observers say the policy has inevitably fuelled racial tensions, leading to clashes between Rakhine residents and resentful Rohingyas.

Fear is said to reign not only in Rakhine towns and villages but also areas with Rohingya majorities—including Maungdaw Township, where more than 90 percent of the 493,000 inhabitants are Rohingya.

One other township in Arakan State has a large Rohingya majority—Buthidaung, where more than 80 percent of the 279,000 inhabitants are Rohingya. (Photo: Min Khet Maung/The Irrawaddy)

Building on Rakhine prejudice and exploiting social tensions, the current military regime has progressively tightened restrictions on the Rohingya, denying them not only citizenship but also the most basic rights.

Freedom to travel is severely curtailed, and permission has to be sought from local immigration departments for journeys even within Arakan State. Permits are issued for a maximum of 14 days.

The travel restrictions make life difficult for the Rohingya on many levels, including education. The university in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, has no faculties for medicine or engineering, meaning that young people wanting to study those subjects must enroll at universities in Rangoon. But that option is denied Rohingya students, who have difficulty enough trying to cope with the discriminatory practices and bureaucracy of Sittwe University.

Some restrictions are patently racist—one, for instance, requires Rohingya couples to sign an agreement that they will have no more than three children when seeking official approval to marry.

Many Rohingyas hope the general election planned for 2010 could bring about a relaxation of restrictions or even an end to them.

For one young Rohingya, who graduated from university two years ago, citizenship is the most important right he would like to see restored. “If democracy is restored, then we must be given the chance to ask for citizenship,” he said.

Yet the Rakhine historian warned that social tensions could increase if the Rohingya are granted citizenship and land ownership rights.

“If the government does not solve the problem wisely,” he said, “ this could be a hot spot of the future—another Gaza.”

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Talk Dirty to Me!

I was roped into watching Transformers 2 today (and how!). It really wasn't a movie I was interested in watching. It isn't that I didn't enjoy it, in a "yeah well, whatever" kind of way, but it didn't really surprise me... it was all pretty predictable stuff. (Also predictably, my mum and a friend's mum slept through much of it.)

One of the first thoughts I had watching it was: this is the military's wet-dream... not to mention a lot of other kinds of wet-dreams. But the whole sleek, benign, "deceptive" machines turning into killing machines? Oh yea! That's military sexy. And Optimus Prime = "Army of One" fantasy, perhaps? And so I was reminded of an article I was introduced to years ago, when I was interning with a nuclear non-proliferation feminist NGO in NYC, called Reaching Critical Will. Or maybe it was something I read for my "War, Weapons and Arms Control" class at Oberlin.

The piece by Kathleen Sullivan is called Sexualizing Technology and is a feminist analysis of the language used by the military, specifically with reference to nuclear weapons. I'm pasting the article below... it really is worth a read. The highlighted parts are the ones I was specifically thinking of during the movie. It's actually kind of funny... on a theoretical level, not when it gets manifest in reality. But really, is there anything a penis can't destroy?

And also, would an analysis of race in the movie be too obvious? I really don't have the energy (and the interest, perhaps) in doing it... but there's a lot of interesting stuff going on there. I'm thinking specifically of Leo, Mikaela (setting aside the stuff about racial ambiguity, I have to say, I did like her plump, pouty lips), and the poor Jordanian air force dudes... it doesn't take much for brown folks to die in movies, does it? Or in reality too, actually...

Oh, and did they really say "President Obama" in the movie?! Is that ok? Legal even?

Sexualising Technology, or how we’ve come to love the bomb

In Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) the Nazi scientist who understands the creation of an atomic weapon and the military men who deploy it have learnt how to transmute their fear into a sexual desire for the bomb. Kubrick’s apocalyptic film noir portrays the men of science and the military as sexually turned on by a nuclear attack. The erect warheads and the cascading mushroom clouds are perceived to signify male penetration and ejaculation. But the fetishization of nuclear weapons is not only the stuff of fiction. The connection between sex and atomic science has a very long history. The use of sexually explicit, often violent language to describe the scientific method long proceeded the development of nuclear bombs. When Francis Bacon, the seventeenth century philosopher who is widely recognised as the father of modern science, described the "interrogation" of a female nature as that which must be "bound into service", "put in constraint" and made a "slave", he was laying the ground work for a sexualized lexicon that continues to characterise the language of so-called defense intellectuals and much of modern science and technology.

Indian scientist and social activist, Vandana Shiva maintains that “[the development of] modern science was a consciously gendered, patriarchal activity. As nature came to be seen more like a woman to be raped, gender too was recreated. Science as a male venture, based on the subjugation of female nature and female sex provided support for the polarisation of gender” (1989: 17). Thus, modern science has cemented a dualistic rationality that still persists and continues to be effectively used as a tool for controlling and repressing the autonomy of women.

The language developed by nuclear defense intellectuals is a sexualized lexicon which degrades the female/nature half of the male/culture binary. There are several examples of the sexualizing of nuclear technology, where on the one hand, nuclear bombs are represented as the virile son of ‘hard’ science, and on the other, nuclear power is the sexy love-child of technocratic culture. With regards to nuclear-philia, perhaps the most bizarre example of the perceived feminine sexiness of nuclear bombs has to be the Bikini bathing suit.

In 1946, the beginning of an era which lauded the presence of the ‘blonde bombshell’, the French designer, Louis Reard, named his two-piece bathingsuit the Bikini (Ruthven 1993: 63). The famous, and at the time shocking, swimming costume was named after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, which the US government commandeered from its inhabitants. Bikini was the site of early atmospheric nuclear tests including the hydrogen bomb test, code named ‘Bravo’. Bravo was the largest nuclear bomb ever exploded by the US. It literally vaporized three of the twenty-three islands in the atoll system and spread radioactive debris across nearly 50,000 square miles. Ken Ruthven, an Australian cultural theorist, highlights the sexualizing of nuclear technology when he asks, "who knows what gang-bang fantasies lurk subliminally in the subtitle of W. C. Anderson’s book on those Marshall Islands tests: ‘12,000 Men and One Bikini’?" (1993: 63). Today, Bikini is still heavily contaminated with radiation. And yet many people may never recognize the connection between nuclear technology and seductive swimwear.

Thirty years after bikini bathing suits hit the fashion industry, an advertisement for nuclear energy by the Crouse Group of companies featured an illustration of a young, white woman in a see-through night gown. Next to her is the question in bold lettering, "Why is a beautiful woman like a nuclear power plant?" The answer, in small print, is given as follows. “In order to remain beautiful she must take good care of herself. . . . She schedules her rest regularly. . . . When she is not feeling well she sees her doctor. . . she never lets herself get out of shape. . . She is as trim now as she was ten years ago. . . . In other words, she is a perfect example of preventative maintenance.” (Nuclear News Buyers Guide, February 1976, quoted in Caputi 1988: 507).

Here, the nuclear industry accomplishes two tasks simultaneously. The advertisement attempts to placate public fears by implying that there is no reason to worry because the experts are in control and they will take care of the community dependent on nuclear power. It also serves to reinforce male-defined gender roles for women. The woman, like a nuclear reactor, must be perfectly maintained by male-defined science. Her ‘preventative maintenance’requires that she be slim, white and beautiful; and that she waits around all day in her see-through negligee, willing to be ‘fixed’at any moment. In this way, nuclear power is rendered ‘sexy’. It will, like this woman, give the public what it wants because it only exists to serve. The sexualizing of nuclear technology — testing grounds represented as provocative bathing suits and nuclear reactors represented as alluring women — serves to reassure the public regarding issues of safety and to keep women in their rightful, unreconstructed place. After all, who could be afraid of a sexy bomb and a pretty, white reactor? The question remains: how can women empower themselves to break out of the male-defined gender-trap, when even weapons of mass destruction are used to remind them of their place in male-defined culture?

Specific to the sexualization of nuclear technology read in its manufactured connection to the female gender, is the work of Carol Cohn. Cohn’s (1987) case study of US defense intellectuals has brought a critical spotlight to bear on the sexualizing of the language of nuclear technology and its resulting imagery. Cohn describes the work of a defense intellectual as “[formulating] what they call ‘rational’systems for dealing with the problems created by nuclear weapons: how to manage the arms race; how to deter the use of nuclear weapons; how to fight a nuclear war if deterrence fails[.] In short, they create the theory that informs and legitimates American nuclear strategic practice” (Cohn 1987: 688).

Cohn spent a year as a participant observer "immersed in the world of defense intellectuals" in order to pursue her persistent question: how could these men (and they were exclusively men save the administrative staff) think this way? (1987: 688). After learning to speak and understand their ‘specialized language’, which she refers to as ‘techno-strategic speak’, Cohn found that her own ‘rationalizations’ were changing. "Soon, I could no longer cling to the comfort of studying an external and objectified ‘them’. I had to confront a new question: How can I think this way? How can any of us?” (1987: 688). There are two central aspects of Cohn’s research. Firstly, that images of sex and death dominate the rationalization of defense-intellectual-speak; and secondly, that inherent to the technology being sexualized is the glorification of male procreation and reproduction. Illustrated here is a modern Baconian notion of male pregnancy and birth; that is, men giving birth to nuclear bombs.

Cohn was surprised at the overt nature of the sexual innuendo in the description of nuclear bombs that she found among defense strategists. In her research she notes that, “American military dependence on nuclear weapons was explained as ‘irresistible, because you get more bang for the buck.’ Another lecturer solemnly and scientifically announced ‘to disarm is to get rid of all your stuff.’ (This may, in turn, explain why they see serious talk of nuclear disarmament as perfectly resistible, not to mention foolish. If disarmament is emasculation, how could any real man even consider it?) A professor’s explanation of why the MX missile is to be placed in the silos of the newest Minuteman missiles, instead of replacing the older, less accurate ones, was ‘because they’re in the nicest hole — you’re not going to take the nicest missile and put it in a crummy hole.’ Other lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted/versus spasm attacks — or what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called ‘releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.’ There was serious concern about the need to harden our missiles and the need to ‘face it, the Russians are a little harder than we are.’”(1987: 693).

Cohn was furthermore privy to strange, ritualistic (and again, overtly sexual) gestures towards nuclear bombs such as, "patting the missile". In touching actual nuclear weapons, or weapons systems, the men of the nuclear fraternity seem to derive some sort of sexual pleasure. Their sycophantic gesticulation of missile patting summoned great excitement among the defense intellectuals. One claimed that "the only real reason for deploying Cruise and Pershing II missiles in western Europe was ‘so that our allies can pat them’" (1987:695). Having heard that Cohn was in the near vicinity of a B-1 bomber, one of her colleagues "enviously" said to her "I hear you got to pat a B-1" (1987: 695). Thus, defense intellectuals will discuss, with ‘breathless eagerness’, their exciting adventures in patting missiles, yet they will only refer to human death as ‘collateral damage’. These defense strategists appear to love sexualizing their weapons, their technology, their ‘thrust to weight ratios’, but they appear equally unwilling to articulate the outcome of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. They are interested in their creations but they altogether skip the human and earth-scale details that their creations will bring.

Along with the fetishization of nuclear technology, the development of nuclear weapons is rife with metaphors about birth. The first atomic bomb constructed at Los Alamos was called “Oppenheimer’s baby” (1987: 700).

“The hydrogen bomb was called ‘Teller’s baby’(1987: 700). Later, Teller would send a telegram to Los Alamos from Enewetak to signal the successful test of another hydrogen bomb. The telegram read: ‘It’s a boy’(1987: 701). After witnessing the Trinity Test, Laurence wrote that [t]he big boom came about a hundred seconds after the great flash — the first cry of a new-born world. . . . They clapped their hands as they leaped from the ground — earthbound man symbolising the birth of a new force” (1946: 10).

Through their visions of male technological procreation, the men of the Manhattan Project as well as today’s defense intellectuals hark back to the beginnings of modern science. Like Francis Bacon and Victor Frankenstein, the practice of the masculine-birth of technology is fathered in science. Caputi states that Shelley “conceived the exemplary monster of technological myth to be purely fathered (from dead flesh) and utterly unmothered” (1988: 511). Cohn points to the outcome of male-birth in science. “The nuclear scientists gave birth to male progeny with the ultimate power of violent domination over female nature” (1987: 701).

Beyond violence against ‘female nature’, there seems to be a normative acceptance of violence in US society, that archetypal nuclear nation, which appears to condone the iconography of atomic symbols. The mushroom cloud, symbolizing a nuclear explosion, has won its place among major cultural icons (Caputi 1993). The words: ‘atomic’, ‘nuke’, ‘mutants’, ‘meltdown’ and ‘ballistic’ show up in an array of cultural contexts (Chaloupka 1992). The predominance of nuclear imagery in US popular culture reveals a general acceptance of it. It is as if people from the US live under the rule of a nuclear mythology. Mushroom clouds, radiation signs, phallic caricature bombs, and other symbols of pending nuclear doom have been elevated to a cult status (Hilgartner 1982, Weart 1988). As the glamorized reversals of their true nature, these symbols are perceived as ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’, and as such, ‘nukes’and ‘mutants’ have won their place in culture.

Kathleen Sullivan

References cited:
Caputi, Jane. (1988) ‘Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Pallotechnology’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3: 487-521.
Caputi, Jane. (1993) Gossips, Gorgons & Crones: The Fates of the Earth. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.
Chaloupka, William. (1992) Knowing Nukes: The Politics and Culture of the Atom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Cohn, Carol. (1987) ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 12, No. 4: 687-718.
Hilgartner, Stephen et al. (1982) Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology in America. New York: Penguin Books.
Ruthven, Ken. (1993) Nuclear Criticism. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Shiva, Vandana. (1989) Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. London: Zed Books.
Weart, Spencer R. (1988) Nuclear Fear: A History of Images. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

क्या बात है!

Some days ago, I discovered this: blogger allows me to type in हिन्दी (Hindi), ಕನ್ನಡ (Kannada), മലയാളം (Malayalam), தமிழ் (Tamil) and తెలుగు (Telugu)! (No, I do not speak any of the languages listed other than Hindi. But turns out, this is an issue of transliteration.) Too bad though there is no Gujrati.

I grew up speaking English and Gujrati - so I can think pretty easily in both, which, theoretically, would make it pretty easy for me to actually type an entire post in Gujrati. Unfortunately, though, I can't actually read or write too well in Gujrati. Which, in this case, wouldn't have been much of a problem because like I said, blogger uses a system of transliteration.

Hindi and Marathi I'd be great at - learnt them in school for over 6 years - so reading and writing are not a problem, per se. But I don't really speak them unless required, so the actual formulation of thoughts and sentences is a little challenging. Compromise? Type a post in Gujrati with Hindi script. गुजराती। See? That's the word "gujrati" written in Hindi. Really, that's the equivalent of posting in Gujrati in roman script. But visually its much "cooler."

I do intend to the use the Hindi in a शुद्ध way though. Initially, I'd thought of just transcribing Hindi songs. But given the transliteration, that really wasn't much of a challenge - it would've just been a matter of copying and pasting. So, next best thing - translation.

I tried that with so many different songs, but given my rustiness with the language, I had to start with something really easy. Even so, I'm sure my high school Hindi teachers would be appalled by my efforts। :)

यूं कैन गेट ईट इफ यूं रिली वांट - जिमी क्लिफ्फ़
(You Can Get it if You Really Want - Jimmy Cliff)

कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
लेकिन कोशिश की ज़रूरत है
कोशिश करना भूलना नहीं
तो कामयाबी ज़रूर मिलेगी।

मेरा वादा है, सुनो!

इन्किलाब न होतें हैं एक पल में
(The actual lyrics here are: Rome was not built in a day. I'm pretty sure a literal translation would sound pretty absurd. So I changed it to: Revolutions don't happen in a flicker/in an instant.)
तुम्हारे विरुद्ध खूब लडेंगे
लेकिन जितना भारी होगा ये सामना
उससे मीठी होगी तुम्हारी जीत।

कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
लेकिन कोशिश की ज़रूरत है
कोशिश करना भूलना नहीं
तो कामयाबी ज़रूर मिलेगी।

दुःख-पीडन सेहेने पडेंगे
लेकिन जीतो या हरो तुम्हे तुम्हारी मिलेगी
अपने लक्ष्य को दिल-दिमाग से कायम करो
सीमा कितनी दूर न होई, कामयाब तुम होगे।

कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
कामयाबी उसकी जो सच्चे दिल से चाहे
लेकिन कोशिश की ज़रूरत है
कोशिश करना भूलना नहीं
तो कामयाबी ज़रूर मिलेगी।

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Burma I

I am currently reading a novel by Amy Tan, titled Saving Fish from Drowning, which narrates the (")adventures(") of a group of American tourists in Burma. This post is not about the book, although it is a very enjoyable read - you can listen to an NPR interview with Tan here. No, this post, and the next one, is a collection of pieces on Burma. Everyone that writes of Burma, or Myanmar, refers to it as "little-known," "mysterious," etc. While these references do have obvious Orientalist (under)tones, there is a political dimension/significance to them. I therefore started doing a bit of research on Burma, to make it less "little-known" for myself. There is, of course, lots of information out there if you wish to find it. Perhaps not as much as about "open," "democratic" states, but still enough, at least for the lay person.

This post is a collection of a few articles/reports about the implications of Burma's political status/conditions, in general. The next one will probably be about issues of ethnicity, displacement/migration, and statelessness. Although, obviously, the issues addressed in the two posts are not mutually exclusive.

Note: The picture above is from the Voices for Burma website. This website has some good information on the debate about boycotting tourism to Burma, and the possibilities for responsible, informed tourism.

Burma VJ

There is a documentary, recently released, title Burma VJ, which "celebrates the courage of the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a group of exiled Burmese journalists who secretly film the abuse of peoples in Burma. The film recounts the efforts of a small group of independent video journalists (VJs) who risked their safety, freedom and lives to record popular protests and the military government’s brutal response."

Below is a short trailer for the film, followed by a synopsis. Also, here is an interview with one of the filmmakers. For those interested in the States, here is a list of upcoming screenings:
19-Jul – Santa Fe, NM – CCA
24-Jul – Cleveland, OH – Cleveland Museum of Art
31-Jul – Washington, DC – Landmark E-Street
07-Aug – Salt Lake City, UT – Tower
28-Aug – Seattle, WA – NW Film Forum

Going beyond the occasional news clip from Burma, the acclaimed filmmaker, Anders Østergaard, brings us close to the video journalists who deliver the footage. Though risking torture and life in jail, courageous young citizens of Burma live the essence of journalism as they insist on keeping up the flow of news from their closed country. Armed with small handycams the Burma VJs stop at nothing to make their reportages from the streets of Rangoon. Their material is smuggled out of the country and broadcast back into Burma via satellite and offered as free usage for international media. The whole world has witnessed single event clips made by the VJs, but for the very first time, their individual images have been carefully put together and at once, they tell a much bigger story. The film offers a unique insight into high-risk journalism and dissidence in a police state, while at the same time providing a thorough documentation of the historical and dramatic days of September 2007, when the Buddhist monks started marching.

"Joshua”, age 27, is one of the young video journalists, who works undercover to counter the propaganda of the military regime. Joshua is suddenly thrown into the role as tactical leader of his group of reporters, when the monks lead a massive but peaceful uprising against the military regime. After decades of oblivion - Burma returns to the world stage, but at the same time foreign TV crews are banned from entering the country, so it is left to Joshua and his crew to document the events and establish a lifeline to the surrounding world. It is their footage that keeps the revolution alive on TV screens all over.

Amidst marching monks, brutal police agents, and shooting military the reporters embark on their dangerous mission, working around the clock to keep the world informed of events inside the closed country. Their compulsive instinct to shoot what they witness, rather than any deliberate heroism, turns their lives into that of freedom fighters.

The regime quickly understands the power of the camera and the reporters are constantly chased by government intelligence agents who look at the ”media saboteurs” as the biggest prey they can get.

During the turbulent days of September, Joshua finds himself on an emotional rollercoaster between hope and despair, as he frantically tries to keep track of his reporters in the streets while the great uprising unfolds and comes to its tragic end.

With Joshua as the psychological lens, the Burmese condition is made tangible to a global audience so we can understand it, feel it, and smell it.

Burma: Where journalism is a living hell
Tita C. Valderama (Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism - The Manila Times)

It is Southeast Asia’s largest country in terms of land area, yet there is reason why Burma is unfamiliar to many people, even within the region.For one, it has been isolated for the last few decades as a result of both Burmese and international actions. For another, press freedom is unknown in Burma, meaning accurate and up-to-date information is hard to find—and report—even within the country itself.In fact, this was largely why many people in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta were caught by surprise when a Category-3 cyclone (codename: Nargis) rampaged through their communities for about 10 hours last year.

The disaster that struck on May 2, 2008, claimed at least 140,000 lives and left 2.3 million homeless.

Burma’s 47-year military government had known about the cyclone several days before, but had failed to warn its citizens. At the height of the cyclone, few people outside of the affected areas had any inkling about the unfolding tragedy, with local television channels showing dancing and other entertainment programs. It was only hours later that the government-run television stations ran a brief news item about a storm that hit Rangoon, the former national capital.

Phillipines, Marcos-era: Filipinos born after the 1980s have no experience of being under what it was like to have a government that controlled and manipulated what its citizens read and heard. But even those who do not know what martial law is or who Ferdinand Marcos was should only look toward Myanmar to see what it is like to have no freedom of the press and little access to information.

Indeed, the Burmese have taken to relying on outside news sources just so they could keep up with what is happening in their country, even though doing so can be costly, and in more ways than one.

Among their favorites are radio broadcasts by the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia, all of which have Burmese-language programs. Since 2005, the Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Norway, has also been beaming television signals via satellite into Burma.

Over the weekend, the intrepid BBC made sure that the world would not forget Nargis and the ruling junta; it ran a series of reports on Burma, including a most daring documentary on how Burmese folk endure hunger, land mines, and military reprisal in villages sympathetic to the Karen guerrillas.

Owning a satellite dish, however, would mean forking over serious money as subscription—as much as one million kyats (Burma’s currency), or the equivalent of $1,000, in a country where the annual per capita income is said to be $280. One Rangoon-based journalist in an interview in Bangkok said: “The regime does not ban them . . . just made it impossible for the people to afford.”

Small market: Burma does have local journalists in both print and broadcast. In major cities across the country, stores and stalls have stacks of daily, weekly, and monthly publications. But there seems to be few, if any, buyers of these.

That may be because everyone knows each piece that appears in any local publication or broadcast has to be vetted by a strict censors board. Some magazines have even come out with entire pages blacked out while others have been forced to cancel certain issues altogether because the censors deemed the content too sensitive. In Myanmar, “sensitive” usually means anything that seems contrary to any official line or policy.

As a result, news coverage in that country is generally devoid of political developments, except for ribbon-cutting ceremonies and official government activities and announcements.Burma has about 400 newspapers, journals, and magazines at the moment, most of them based in Rangoon, the former national capital. Five of the publications are state-owned, including the omnipresent New Light of Myanmar, a tabloid-sized daily.

The rest, which are privately owned, face political and financial struggles every single day. But most of them know how important their work is to the people of Burma. That’s why, says one Burmese journalist, “we try to get around all the rules for our readers.”

That, of course, is easier said than done, especially when journalists are constantly in the crosshairs of the military junta. Said Zin Linn, information director of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)-East Office, in Bangkok: “They think journalists are key enemies of the military junta, [next to] the dissident politicians . . . so they [are] always catching the journalists.”

In early February 2008, for example, authorities arrested Thet Zin and Sein Win Maung, chief editor and manager respectively of the Rangoon-based weekly Myanmar Nation. Their publication’s offices were also searched.

Exiled media: According to Mizzima News, which is run by exiled Burmese journalists in Delhi, India, the two were later charged of violating section 17/20 of the Printers and Publishers Registration Act because they were in possession of a report by UN Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro on the human-rights situation in Burma, as well as the book Unbreakable Union by ethnic Shan author U Shwe Ohn and video discs of the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Other laws that have been thrown at journalists and even bloggers to keep them in check are the Emergency Provision Act, which has a section that criminalizes the spreading of “false news,” and the Penal Code, specifically section 505(b) regarding “Crimes Against Public Tranquility.”

Publications that have refused to run propaganda are closed down, and journalists are harassed and intimidated at every turn. Some have even been detained and arrested simply for covering opposition figures or demonstrations against the junta.

Yet, Burma’s journalists have remained undaunted. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who has been banned by the junta from visiting Burma since 1989 because of his unflattering reports about its administration, said that his Burmese colleagues have simply learned the “skillful art of writing in a crazy way,” such as through literary pieces and cartoons that carry political messages.

Aung Zaw, a Burmese journalist now based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, agrees. “Cartoons or comic strips are very popular and attractive,” he said. “Some can be very clever and get away with it.”Many, however, do get caught. Last November, poet Saw Wei was sentenced to two years in prison for “inducing crime against public tranquility” by way of a poem published in a local weekly. Reports said the first letters of the Burmese-language poem’s lines spelled out “Power Crazy Snr. Gen. Than Shwe.” Than Shwe is the chief of the military junta.

Too many issues: Besides the generals, there is a surfeit of other subjects to be scrutinized in Burma, courtesy of the way the military has run the country since 1962. For instance, households experience chronic power shortages, leaving much of the country in almost permanent blackout, but the junta’s new capital in isolated Naypyidaw gleams with 24-hour electricity. For some reason, too, women workers have become staple sights in road projects while children as young as seven toil away in tea stalls, many with only food as their wage. Burma has also long been known as an AIDS hot spot.

But a straightforward report on any of these or something similar is bound to land one behind bars. Tired of dodging authorities, many Burmese journalists have elected to report on their country from far away.

There are more than 100 Burmese journalists now working in exile, mostly in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They fled Myanmar after a crackdown following the 8888 Revolution (a student-led uprising that culminated on August 8, 1988) against the military junta. “I myself am a persona non grata,” said Aung Zaw, who is editor in chief of the popular Irrawaddy magazine. “I cannot go back to Burma. I am forced to live in Thailand. From outside, we tell the story as much as we [can].”

Aung Zaw said he was jailed for a week in 1988, while his younger brother spent eight years in detention for participating in student demonstrations against the junta. Irrawaddy magazine comes out in print, but is also online. It has become one of the most visited news websites on Burma and Southeast Asia. At the height of the Saffron Revolution, it had 20 million hits in a month, a phenomenal jump from its regular average of 80,000 hits per month.

Short on funds, staff: Aung Saw said most of the Burmese media in exile are understaffed and underfunded. Yet while their apparent staying power is admirable, what is really remarkable about them is their army of sources within Burma itself.

“We have a lot of sources inside the country,” Aung Zaw said. “We rely on the telephone, Internet, e-mail . . . talking to sources. Some of our sources have been with us for 10 years, but some of them we don’t meet or have met just recently.”

“We are not disconnected,” he said. “Ideas keep flowing inside and outside Burma.”This can only be an indication that while the Burmese themselves are left in the dark about much that is going on in their own land, many of them understand that the rest of the world needs to know as much as possible about Burma if they want to put a stop to the junta’s abuses. Thus, there are those who risking the ire of authorities and investing considerable sums just to get information out of the country.

Clearances required: After all, in Burma, to own a computer and other electronic devices capable of accessing outside information, one must first secure government clearance.

Too, Internet access is not only limited, but also has very prohibitive rates and highly controlled. A mobile phone’s Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card, meanwhile, costs $1,500 to $2,000 each.

One senior editor in Rangoon theorizes that it is the younger generation that has become very creative in communicating with the outside world. “We have no [open] access to Yahoo, Gmail, YouTube, and the like,” he said, “but everyone seems to be breaking the rules . . . they have secret access.”

Still, the information from Burma often comes in trickles. Or at least it seems that way to impatient editors at international news organizations. This has prompted some media companies to send their own reporters to Myanmar—itself a tricky operation, since Burmese embassies are quite strict with granting visa requests; anyone who identifies his or her occupation as “journalist” is turned down. Journalists who intend to make several visits to the country therefore tend to use aliases in their reports to avoid difficulty in securing visas for subsequent trips.

Deportation, death: Old Burmese hands, though, said that any foreign visitor to the country was likely to be the subject of surveillance by authorities, and advised caution in talking to the locals and discretion in taking photographs.

“You just have to be careful who you are with, just use your common sense,” said a foreign photojournalist who has been in and out of Burma for the last 15 years and is now working on a photo book on the military junta. “Just don’t draw attention to what you’re doing.

But the risks confronting members of the foreign media are obviously less compared to those faced by local journalists. According to one business magazine editor in Rangoon, the worst that could happen to a foreign journalist in Myanmar is deportation and seizure of photographs, discs, or printed materials about the country.

Then again, during one of the biggest of the monk-led rallies in 2007, Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai was shot and killed by a Burmese soldier. Nagai was working for APF Tsushin, a media company based in Tokyo.

It’s a situation that could test the resolve of anyone, but to the likes of Aung Zaw, it’s also one that highlights the role of media in society. “Without a free media,” he said, “a democratic society is incomplete.” What more for one under an autocratic regime.

Burmese Detainees in Danger
Saw Yan Naing (The Irrawaddy)

The relocation of Burmese refugees in Malaysia could lead to worse human rights abuses as they would be isolated from outside world, rights advocacy groups in Malaysia said.

According to the rights groups, the Malaysia immigration authorities moved 598 Burmese refugees including women and children who were detained at Semenyih Immigration camp near Malaysia’s Kajang Township on Friday.

The move was likely due to the Malaysia authorities wanting to isolate the refugees from the outside world, while other sources said it was due to the riot between Burmese refugees and Malaysia camp authorities on July 1. The riot broke out after camp authorities beat 30 detainees who were refusing to board a truck that was to take them to another camp. Eight Burmese detainees were wounded in the riot.

Aung Naing Thu, general secretary of the Malaysia-based rights advocacy group known as the Burma Youth of Nationalists Association said, “Now the Burmese refugees have been relocated to other places, they will be isolated, and the authorities will be able to do whatever the want, even torture them.” Forty-eight out of more then 600 Burmese refugees who were detained in Semenyih detention camp were released on Monday, but 598 of them remained. Many of the remaining refugees are undocumented, said rights groups.

The released detainees said there had been many human rights abuses while they were in the camp. Months-old children and women and pregnant women were the most vulnerable, as the meals distributed in the detention camp lack nutrition, they said. Thant Zin, a Burmese refugee who was released on Monday, said that only ten sick people are allowed to receive medical treatment per week.

“Many people who feel sick in the camp go without medical treatment. They are not allowed to see doctors,” said Thant Zin. “The drinking water and the water used in the toilet come from the same source,” he added.

“If they find communication materials such as mobile phones, they brutally beat you,” said Thant Zin.Immigration authorities regularly beat the detained Burmese refugees during inspections. Last week, two Burmese detainees were seriously beaten when they went to the clinic to ask for medicine.

One detainee was beaten around the eyes till they filled with blood and he became unable to see. The other detainee suffered from cigarette burns on his body and was said to be in serious condition.A delegation from the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees in Malaysia is now investigating the riot, according to Yante Ismail, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, in Kuala Lumpur.

There are 22 detention camps in Malaysia, some of which are located in isolated areas on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Some refugees have spent years in the detention camps. About 500,000 Burmese migrants work in Malaysia, legally and illegally, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based Burma Workers’ Rights Protection Committee.