The situation in Myanmar (the once and future Burma) is horrific. A beautiful country has been slowly gutted by thugs, and the world has silently watched its descent into madness. The democratically elected leader of the nation has been under house arrest for decades, and couldn’t even get her Nobel Peace Prize in person.
The violence on the streets of major cities has reminded the world of the crisis under way in Burma, and there is some hope that the pressure will finally force some changes. Slacktivist has a suggestion for letters to the Foreign Minister; I’ve written many letters like that to the same office through Amnesty International over the years. Others suggest pressuring China, since Burma relies on trade with China. This Friday, a group of people will be holding a protest at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco (1450 Laguna Street) beginning at 2 pm, and proceeding to the UN Plaza for a prayer vigil on behalf of the uncountable Burmese people who have fallen in pursuit of a better life.
During the runup to the war in Iraq, I remember using Burma as an example of a country which ?†if merely being governed by horrible people were reason to employ military force ? was a better choice to invade. Sure, Saddam tortured people horribly, but what we know about conditions in Burma are far worse, and we know only part of the story. We distract ourselves from the true crises at not only our own peril, but at the risk to people living in dire straits.
Some years back, Outside magazine ran a stunning article by Mark Jenkins, describing his experience tracing the Stilwell Road, a WWII supply route cut through the jungles to bring material from the allies to the anti-Japanese forces in China. What began as an adventure in navigating the totalitarian bureaucracy quickly turns into a life-or-death chase, as he sneaks across the border into areas kept off limits by the government.
The road, hacked out of the jungle to fight fascism, had been overgrown, but recently has reopened in order to ship trees and minerals out to China. And where do those trees and minerals come from? Jenkins explains what he saw after he was caught:
Eventually we arrive at a burned-out building in a clearing. Laborers in rags are squatting in the mud in front of the building. Using machetes, they’re hacking long bamboo poles into three-foot spears and hardening the points over a campfire. ?
I realize that this is exactly what I’m not supposed to see. This is why northern Burma is closed, why so many remote regions of Burma are closed. According to the Free Burma Coalition, ? most ethnic minorities across the nation have been viciously persecuted; more than 600,000 have been removed from their villages and forcibly relocated. By interviewing refugees, Amnesty International has documented forced-labor camps hidden throughout the country.
I wait for seven hours, tearing engorged brown leeches off my legs and watching the blood run down into my boots.?
I am pushed up the mud steps. Seated against the building, I could see only the laborers and the rolling jungle. WHen I reach the top of the mud steps, I truly confront the world I have entered. It is medieval, something from the Dark Ages.
Before me is a 400-foot-high hill, stripped naked. Cut into the base of the slope, circling the mountain, is a trench, 20 feet wide and ten feet deep. Two-foot bamboo spears, sharpened pungee sticks, stab upward from the bottom of the trench. Just beyond the pungee pit is an eight-foot-high bamboo wall. The top and outer face of the wall are bristling with bamboo spikes.
Past this is a strip of barren dirt too smooth and manicured to be anything but a mine field. Beyond that is another lethal bamboo wall. There are five walls and four strips of mined no-man’s-land ascending the hill in concentric circles.?
I try to imagine some purpose for this surreal jungle fortress. It lies on a forgotten, forbidden border and would be a ridiculous target for any combatant. It can only be protecting the Burmese soldiers from the local people they have enslaved.
The same people forced to build that fortress, and raped and killed throughout the countryside. On a different expedition, Jenkins reports this account from a young woman:
Junta warlords have been logging in northern Burma and, in places, are rebuilding the [Stilwell] road in order to transport the trees to China. Kachin [an ethnic minority] households must provide one family member for the labor.
She was 14 when she was taken away in a truck and put in a work camp with 13 other girls. At night they were locked in a large bamboo cage in the compound. Nearly every night, she says, a different girl was dragged out and gang-raped by the soldiers. One of the girls bled to death. Another girl went mad. After a year, she was set free to find her way back home, walking barefoot back down the road.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the last legitimately elected leader of Burma, remains a prisoner of the state. After being released briefly some years back, she told reporters “Courage means that if you suffer for something worth suffering for, then you must suffer.”
And so she and her people suffer, hoping for a better day, but living through some of the worst days anyone on the planet experiences. Let us hope we can change things.