Applauding Burma’s democratization

Civic Action,Inclusive Politics27 Aug 2013Yola Verbruggen

Burma (Myanmar) is going through a great transformation. What was a relentless military dictatorship only a few years ago is now an applauded ‘democracy’. But not everybody is joining in with the clapping.

Even though negotiations are taking place between the government and ethnic minority groups in Burma, lives are still being lost during the occasional, though not rare, violations of ceasefires. Communal violence has cost many lives in the west in Arakan state and threatens to take more in a nationwide growth of religious tensions. But it is not only guns that are causing pain in Burma. The long conflict, whether for democracy, minority rights or equality, has ripped families apart by other means than violence and continues to do so.

On the border with Thailand a young Burmese girl tells me about the fight for democracy in her country that she and her political party are striving for. She is very dedicated and, even though she is only about 20 years old, she seems much older. After she has answered all my questions about a potential future for Burma, she has a question for me. “Do you think I am a bad daughter?” she asks me. Confused by her question I encourage her to explain. Her family has resettled in America and even though she was allowed to come, she decided to stay to ‘fight’ for her country. She thought that one day they would all be together again, her grandparents in Burma, her family in America and she herself. But now her grandfather has passed away, her sisters have built up new lives in America and the struggle for a genuine democracy continues. Her mother has trouble understanding the new American lifestyle of her daughters and feels lonely in the States. Should she have gone with them? Is she a bad daughter? How could I possibly say yes?

Then there are those who choose to take on a different struggle, an armed one, in one of the many ethnic armies that have emerged in Burma in recent decades. An older Karen man tells me passionately that he is still involved in his people’s armed struggle. No longer as a soldier, though he likes to remind me that he once fought, but now in a more political form. He is busier than ever, travelling the country and sometimes even the world to talk about the Karen cause and to secure peace for his people. His daughter is visiting him; it has been two years since he saw her last. She has a successful career in Australia and has come to spend some ‘quality time’ with her dad, also taking this opportunity to bring her fiancé and introduce him to her father. Memories of a different life from the comfortable one she is currently leading in Sydney resurface when we visit her old school, a bamboo hut just across the border in Burma with only a roof and a few benches. A new generation of children are taking a break from their education in a ‘rebel camp’. What will happen if her dad succeeds and helps to establish peace, will there still be a place for him with his family? Will they move here, or will he move there? Will anybody move at all? I don’t want to ask him.

Many people didn’t choose to stay apart from their families; the choice was made for them. Political prisoners have spent many years in jail while life outside continued, for good or for bad. They missed their childhoods, their friends’ weddings, their children’s’ birthdays and their parents’ funerals. So what happens when you come out? Can you pick up your old life? Maybe your old life is already gone.

These stories do not yet belong to the past. The many changes taking place in Burma have so far not been able to ensure that. People in refugee camps are still hoping to be resettled to start a new life elsewhere, many continue to fight in ethnic nationality armies, prisoners remain behind bars and equality seems a faraway goal. Let’s not forget about all this while we are so busy applauding Burma’s transition.