Bound by Burma

The Arts Democracy


by Harry W.S. Lee. Originally published by our partner site, World Policy Blog.


In a prison-issued white sarong, the artist enters, blinded by a black bag over her head, stumbling her way on tiptoes, her legs trembling from hunger and fear. On the floor, she struggles to devour rice and the water through the black bag, venting out heavy gasps, punctuating with groans—a disturbing sight almost too private to be public.


This performance by Chaw Ei Thein, a Burmese artist, opened “Expression and Exile in Burma,” an event co-hosted on June 8 by the World Policy Institute and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The event was moderated by Todd Lester, a project leader at the World Policy Institute and founder of freeDimensional, a New York-based organization that supports freedom of expression by providing activists with art spaces and using cultural resources to strengthen their work..


Chaw Ei, 42, is a Burmese artist, performer, activist and now a resident of New York City. Inspired by the experiences of her friends from the Republic of the Union of Myanmar—the official name of the country formerly known as Burma—who had been political prisoners, her performance during this event reflected on the torment of incarceration in Burma.


During her visit to her fellow artist Htein Lin in London, Chaw got a tip from her mother back in Burma that home had become too dangerous for her. By then, many of her artworks that convey messages critical of the Burmese military junta had become widely known beyond Myanmar. Chaw is one of many refugees who fled their homeland to escape the oppression of the Burmese government and the ongoing conflict between government forces and upland ethnic clans, which has persisted ever since Burma’s independence in 1948 from British colonial rule.


Myanmar has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Since General Ne Win took power in a military coup in 1962, Burma had been left at the disposal of various military leaders, until March this year, when General Than Shwe effectively dissolved the junta and yielded his power to a civilian leader Thein Sein, who had incidentally been a general himself and had served as prime minister under the junta since 2007.


Anti-government sentiments that had been widespread under the junta lingered on even after the new civilian regime came into power. “It’s the same people—they just changed the names and the address,” said Chaw during the event. Indeed the elections held five months prior to the junta’s exit were heavily criticized for being rigged—80 per cent of the seats in the new legislature are occupied by military delegates and their civilian allies.


Protests calling for democratization have taken place in the past. However, the junta’s determination to hold onto power has rendered the pro-democracy movement largely unsuccessful. That movement’s most recent manifestation was the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007, which began after the military junta decided to remove fuel subsidies, a step that led  food and fuel prices to soar. What started off as limited expressions of dissent by a few well-known political activists and students gained mass momentum, as thousands of Buddhist monks in saffron-colored robes took to the streets in unison.


The sight of peace-seeking, devoutly religious citizens getting involved in political affairs inspired thousands of civilians who flooded onto the streets to join the march. While the demonstrations did not employ violent means of conduct, the response from the junta was savage. A sense of defiance on the streets collapsed as unruly military reprisals came into full effect and monasteries all over Yangon were raided at night.


In Myanmar, it seems the only palpable results of civilian-led pro-democracy initiatives have been years of imprisonment and fear. Censorship remains extensive in Burma. Reporting on dissent of any kind is banned. All publications are subject to cross-examination by state-designated desks. 


“The media is closely controlled and the internet is also censored,” said Chaw. Reminiscing about her days as a college student in Burma, Chaw said that since students were at the forefront of uprisings, universities tried to prevent them from organizing by granting them easy degrees. “They don’t want to educate you,” she said. “There are chairs and desks, but no books. They even moved universities to rural areas” so that it was hard for students to organize or trigger mass riots. Chaw also emphasized that the government could imprison anyone with ease, “if they suspect you are organizing anything, even asking for international aid. The government is very sensitive.”


According to reports by the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, there are 43 prisons and over 109 labor camps in Burma. As of June 3, 2011, up to 1,992 people were being held as political prisoners, more than 490 of whom are students and monks. Between 2009 and 2010 alone, some 110 political activists, or those considered to be in the opposition party, NLDP, were incarcerated “without the basic rights of a fair trial.” Inside prisons, maltreatment and elaborate torture methods are commonplace, according to the human rights group.


In May, President Thein Sein announced an amnesty program that led to the release of 14,600 prisoners and reduced some sentences by a year. Yet only 34 of the 14,600 released were political prisoners, who serve the longest prison terms. Human Rights Watch dismissed the amnesty as “a slap in the face to a senior United Nations' envoy who had just called for the release of all political prisoners in Burma.”


As much as everyone—except the Burmese military—would like to see democratization, it will not happen overnight. The effects of any reforms will take years to be felt on the streets. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release November last year—after 20 years in house arrest—might have given hope to the Burmese people. Granted, she is becoming more active, but her ability to represent a genuine opposition in Burmese politics remains questionable. Moreover, given the origins of the new civilian government, a crackdown may come at any time. With a constitution that is designed to favor the military, the generals are widely expected to be at the helm at least for a while. In a country like Myanmar—where a large majority of the population is still mired in poverty and which lacks economic and civil-society institutions—sudden democratization might even backfire.


The United States and the European Union have recently extended economic sanctions on the Burmese regimes. But Western demands for reform have at best been useless, and in some cases counter-productive. Opposition activists in Myanmar have argued that Western pressures actually prevent concessions from the Burmese government, which loathes to be seen as bowing down to foreign interference.


But what about China?


Chinese economic interests in Myanmar’s natural resources are crystal clear. A hydropower project currently under construction on the rivers of N’Mai and Mali is heading for completion by 2019. All the electricity generated from the dam will be transferred to China, while the Burmese government will rake in all the revenue. This is one of many Chinese activities in Myanmar, which range from mining projects to gas pipelines and deep-sea ports in Southern Burma. Given China’s record of doing business with authoritarian regimes, there is not much reason to hope for pressure from Beijing. What’s more, even if the Chinese leadership were genuinely concerned for the plight of the Burmese people, it also remains questionable whether the Burmese leadership would simply obey orders from Beijing.



Harry W.S. Lee is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.


[photo courtesy of Chaw Ei Thein]



Burma, Chaw Ei Thein, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Performance