Sunday, December 23, 2012

Countries Full of Questions

We are back on the night train! 

Heading south from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok for a hot minute and then on to Hua Hin for a pre-Christmas R&R.  We did not have nearly enough time to appreciate all of Chiang Mai, and I think that’s going to be the story for most of this trip – a sampler of Thailand and Burma, with 2-3 days in each location and a lot of time on trains and planes in between.  It’s enough to get a taste of the different regions, but just enough to make us want to go back for more!

Chiang Mai was much less intense than Bangkok.  Of course, we used about a whole day to get over jetlag while we were there, and we had the luxury of staying with the delightful and hospitable Stephan and Wan while we were in town.  So we were in a good place to get our feet back underneath us.

Even so, we did get a lot of ‘work’ done on our first day in Thailand.  Tuesday we managed to meet Raymond from The Border Consortium, formerly the Burma Border Consortium – their name has changed due to the expanding scope of the borders that they handle.  Ray seemed very busy, but managed to squeeze us into his schedule so that we could interview him. 

Photo of Ray - coming soon (it's on the hard drive)

The more people we talk to, the better we understand the Burma situation.  It’s a very interesting time for people involved on all sides of the issue.  Everybody that we speak to in Thailand about the potential changes that are coming up in 2015 has a different perspective, but they all have questions.  The big question seems to be:  Where will all of the Burmese residents of Thailand go after the 2015 election?  (Ok, so perhaps the bigger question is, will Aung San Suu Kyi become president in 2015, but that is a question for another blog.  For more opinions on that score, visit the Democratic Voice of Burma website for a wealth of information about the ongoing political upheavals in the region.)

But we’re talking about the people.  Where will the Burmese people go in 2015?  Will it be safe for them to return to Myanmar?  Will they be able to start a life in Myanmar after (some) have been living in refugee camps for as many as 28 years?  TBC does a lot of job training for refugees living in the camps along the Thailand/Burma border, but will these skills be useful in war-torn regions of tribal borderlands of Myanmar riddled with landmines?  Some people wonder what will happen to the Thai economy if they lose the millions (about 2 million said one USAID worker that we interviewed) of low-wage Burmese workers that have played a crucial part of Thailand’s growing economy for nearly the last thirty years?

Most importantly, it seems, is whether or not it will be safe for people to return.  Than of the Democratic Voice of Burma expressed skepticism regarding the safety and security of Burma’s leadership after the elections. 

Than at the DVB headquarters

Will there be another coup?  Will the economy be strong enough to support its people?  Will the infrastructures be sufficient to support independent media organizations such as his that require free access to internet, radio, and satellite television twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week?  Will free speech exist under the new government, in whatever form it takes?

The questions, once they start coming, seem endless.  The covers on the TBC reports speak loudly.  One picture shows Aung Sun Suu Kyi seated next to Thein Sein (check spelling), both in front of a portrait of her father, each with a rather uncomfortable expression on their faces.  Aung Sun Suu Kyi herself was imprisoned for twenty years and was only released from prison early in 2012.   She is the elected chairperson for the National League for Democracy of Burma and stands a good chance of replacing the man by her side, and leading the same country that her father did, only under much different circumstances.

The other cover depicts a family, presumably in a refugee camp in Thailand.  The family is all seated around a table with visions of their future dancing in thought bubbles over their heads.  The mother seems to be remembering a country that surely doesn’t exist anymore.  The father imagines the stark realities of trying to start subsistence farming in a countryside filled with mines.  The daughter imagines a bright future attending a school.  The son sees the future as a metropolis filled with airplanes and skyscrapers.  The baby’s image perfectly sums up the region’s unpredictable future with question marks.  Everyone knows that Myanmar is changing, but no one knows exactly in what way it is changing and what that means.

It’s a blank slate that will take a lot of effort and compromise to fill in a peaceful and equitable manner.


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