Catastrophe in Myanmar
I had the privilege of visiting Myanmar back in February 2018. That visit resulted in me writing a book “The politics of coffee”, a series of blogs and images that attempted to unpick my experience and also to put it into some kind of context. As I re-read my book one can see how the seeds of today’s great tragedy were sown. The question is will those with the power to stop this incredible injustice do so, or will they simply stand by as another chapter of carnage and human misery gets written with the blood of those trying to uphold democracy?
My opening prologue spells out the core issues that face our very divided world today. “Huge migration issues, the fear of the stranger and extreme wealth discrepancy”. Myanmar has this but in addition “a volatile political situation, religion, a global 24 hour press with the attention span of a goldfish and the echo chamber of the internet and you have a Molotov cocktail of issues waiting to explode”. Sadly the Molotov cocktail just exploded.
Myanmar or Burma as it was under British rule (1885-1948) once produced 75% of the world’s teak. It is a country rich in oil, gas and gemstones yet 25% of its population lives in poverty. Like DR Congo in Africa millions have been made by those whose only desire is to exploit these resources and of course there have been plenty of corrupt Governments only too willing to help.
Whilst Aung San Suu Kye has been blamed in the west for the tragedy of the Rohingya Muslims, this issue has been fomenting since the days of empire. A few vociferous critics need to read their history books before becoming keyboard warriors.
Aung San is an extraordinary individual, a hero in the eyes of most Myanmar people which is why her party the NLD won a landslide victory in 2020. However in an echo of what happened in America recently the military decided that the election was somehow rigged, because their people didn’t get in. Unlike those who unsuccessfully attempted to storm the White House to change the outcome of the American election the military in Myanmar simply rolled out their tanks and arrested Aung San Suu Kye. It demonstrates how fragile democracy can be when you don’t control the guns.
Aung San also has previous. Her father was assassinated just as the fledgling democracy was about to kick off. She in turn has lived under house arrest at 54 University street, Yangon for in excess of 17 years prior to becoming leader of her country. So many times she could have walked away and lived in exile but she didn’t, no wonder she is a heroine to so many.
Strategically Myanmar is in a very complicated part of the world. Huge amounts of trade is done with China. When we were in Mandalay we were staggered by the vast quantities of goods travelling along the main road to and from Yunnan in China. Those in the west who think goods embargoes work without international assistance need to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s a well known fact that the military are heavily involved and a lot of international trade would not happen without their authority. I think the Chinese know on which side their bread is buttered as it were.
The military have done some mad things over the years, demonetising a particular note in 1987 which rendered 75% of the country’s currency worthless. Changing the direction of travel on roads literally overnight, no wonder their local credibility is in tatters.
We saw plenty of “USAID” stickers helpfully pronouncing “from the American people”. Just as we had a “cold” war in Europe for so many years so today’s superpowers play out their “cold” war in places like Myanmar. Everyone is trying to buy influence, frustratingly the lolly doesn’t tend to end up in the pockets of the poor.
We met some truly courageous people who I hope remain safe. I have recounted so many of their stories and I’m sure they too can’t quite believe what is happening today. Maybe they had the audacity to think that today’s events were consigned to the history books. Clearly though there are some who can’t let sleeping dogs lie.
Many now call on the UN to step in not realising that the very term United Nations is an oxymoron. This institution is a busted flush incapable of changing the hearts and minds of the Myanmar military. The only people and only person who will ever achieve anything are those within Myanmar who have tasted democracy and are willing to die or be imprisoned in order to achieve a brighter future.
In our way we are trying to ensure that their plight is not forgotten. The people of Myanmar need trade to survive which is why we are selling their great coffee. We are also labelling each and every packet of coffee that we sell with a drawing created by the protest movement #SaveMyanmar. Lest we forget.
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