The Burma Crisis
The above title was the name of a World War II movie about the invasion of Burma by the Japanese. It was the only historical knowledge I had about the country of Burma and I saw that film when I was nine years old.
I spent much of my adolescence focused on grades, girls, issues of self-esteem, and worrying passively about the Cold War and the conflict in Korea. I marched a few times in the fight for Civil Rights and against The Vietnam War in my twenties and thirties. (I blush to think how tepid those efforts were.)
My concerns over the next forty years revolved around establishing a career, growing a family, dealing with Star Trek, subsequent financial struggles, health crises, and the death of loved ones. In all that time I discovered nothing more about Burma than I had in a dark movie theater in 1945. I could have learned more. The information was out there. It just had to be looked for. It just needed a little research, a strong sense of indignation and a world view of human rights violations. I’m not beating myself about the ears for not having done so and I’m not casting stones at those for whom the progress of my life resonates. What’s done is done. What’s yet to come is still open to discretion. I think that goes for all of us.
In May of 2007 I was asked by Jeremy Woodrum, Campaigns Director for the U.S. Campaign For Burma, if I would travel to Thailand (Burma borders Thailand on the east) and meet with people involved in the four decade old Burmese struggle against violent oppression by the military government. It was the hope that my presence and association with Star Trek would focus more public attention on the existing problems. I came back to them in two days with my answer and plans to make the trip in the middle of July began to go forward.
I’ve been asked why, at this autumnal moment in my life, I would suddenly agree to stand up and be counted. My father’s family had been Russian Jews living in Lithuania at the turn of the Twentieth Century, despised for both their nationality and their religion. They came to this country seeking a more tolerant homeland. My father never lost the notion that the world could be a better place to live in. He was definitely an activist during his time here and if I didn’t contribute a little something to that legacy now there might not be a later. Star Trek had been “very, very good to me” as the Saturday Night Live comedian used to say and I decided it was time to give back a little.
My son, Andrew–an actor and filmmaker in his own right–volunteered to accompany me and record the events on tape. The first leg of the flight to South East Asia was ten hours. After cobbling together all the free air miles everyone had there was still only enough for one business class and one coach seat. There is an occasional advantage to senior status which I shamelessly exploited, but I also discovered that the business class seat next to mine was empty. I told the attendant that my son was in coach and then did something I had only done twice before. I asked her if she knew who I was. The look on her face was devoid of animation. I’ve seen wax dummies – melting ones at that – who have shown more expression. I slunk back to my seat very embarrassed but a few minutes later she returned accompanied by a male counterpart. They looked down at me with the disregard of the thirty seven judges at the sentencing of Joan of d’Arc. “Do you know who he is?” demanded the first of the second. “No” came the bloodless reply condemning me to a stake burning. When I looked back up they had gone, only to return after a short interval with a third party. The same question was asked again. Under other circumstances one might find a comforting consistency in the uniformity of the response but I was not, at the moment, so disposed. “Do you know Star Trek?” I blurted out in a last ditch effort to salvage my dignity. The silence that followed might have been as grave as that which accompanied Joan to the pyre. The newest arrival then kneeled in the aisle close to my ear. I thought she was going to pray for me but instead she hissed: “We never, never, never upgrade for free. We could all be fired for that.” At this point I was grateful that I hadn’t been condemned for heresy and nodded energetically. “This is the only time we will ever do this.” I think my head was still bobbing when Andrew slipped into the seat beside me. We were on the tarmac before I fully realized that once again Star Trek had its privileges. If it had not, the final event on our trip might not have been as successful as it was. But on to that later.
Thailand is fourteen hours ahead so although we left L.A. Monday morning we didn’t arrive in Bangkok until late Tuesday night.
On Wednesday morning we met with Debbie and the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, an organization promoting awareness in Southeast Asia of the plight of the Burmese people. It was a modest building with creaky stairs and small rooms with unadorned walls. Andrew and I were immediately taken with Debbie. She is a native of the region and has committed herself to improving the quality of life in that part of the world. That has gotten her into trouble. In fact, by official decree she shouldn’t have been in Bangkok at all. I’m not mentioning her last name for that reason. Debbie has a wry sense of humor which is very engaging and, against all odds, is a huge Star trek fan. She knows everything about all five series quoting chapter and verse without prompting.
She introduced us to five young Burmese women between the ages of twenty and thirty who had been chosen from four hundred applicants for rigorous training. They each showed us on a map from where in Burma they had traveled to arrive in Bangkok. In addition to the the Burman population residing in Rangoon and other centers, there are seven ethnic states within the country’s borders. The people living there have their own cultures–including political structures, dialects, religion, and customs. In addition to Buddhists, there are regions that practice Christianity, Muslimism, and Animism.
In some cases these young women traveled by foot for days and slipped over the border illegally, or paid bribes with money raised in their villages to cross into Thailand. The intense training they were receiving was not to help them adjust to life away from the abject poverty and persecution they had known but to give back by helping those left behind. They would either return to their own country or work in the refugee camps teaching the survival skills they were learning now. These women, as with all the Burmese we met, were committed to improving the intolerable conditions in their native land, not escaping them. Time and again on this trip we were exposed to human beings who were gentle in nature but strong in determination. There was no beating of chests and cries for vengeance: just the absolute certainty that with time, perseverance, and pressure for change from the rest of the world, life would get better.
I don’t want to give a didactic on the ruinous policies of the military dictatorship in Burma (there are books I will recommend at the end of this piece) but a few facts should be known before I go further.
After the Second World War the occupying Japanese were forced out of Burma and a few years later the English agreed to relinquish their hold on the country. Turmoil remained, however, and a military junta took control. Under this regime a country with some of the greatest natural resources in the world began a steady downward spiral: economically, educationally, politically, humanistically. To quell increasing public discontent the government allowed a multiparty democratic election to choose a parliament in 1990 . The party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi (already under house arrest at the time) won over eighty per cent of the vote. The newly elected assembly was never permitted to convene, however, and Suu Kyi remains under house arrest to this day. (In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”).
Over the last four decades the military budget has grown to between thirty and fifty per cent of all spending–and this in a country that has no external enemies. Health care services are currently about three per cent of the budget, and only eight per cent is allotted to education. The major exports from Burma now are heroin and HIV/AIDS. The government, in the effort to suppress dissension, has engaged in systematic destruction of the infrastructure of the ethnic states within its borders. A scorched earth policy has razed over three thousand villages (more even than in Darfur), and to discourage survivors who have escaped to the jungle from returning land mines have been planted: to deadly effect.
The government tacitly supports rape of women and children: both as entertainment for its troops and as an organized effort toward ethnic cleansing. The more babies born that are part Burman, the fewer will be born who are Chin, Shan, Karen, Mon, Karenni, Arakin and Mon. Children are considered old enough to be soldiers and kill “enemies” when they are eleven and can begin instruction at military academies toward that end when they are only seven. Forced labor without compensation is a form of slavery and is an omnipresent government program.
There is one group which is doing quite well in Burma and that, of course, is the military. Not the hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers out in the field planting their own meager crops or stealing from the natives, but the small select group of officers with direct ties to the dictatorship.
These are the things I have learned about Burma and which, I imagine, I will never be able to forget.
After leaving Debbie and her young heroines in the making, we met with Jack Dunford, Executive Director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium. This organization oversees the refugee camps housing 150,000 people who have fled the Burmese dictatorship. The man in charge was English, not Asian, but a cool dispassionate nature only thinly disguised the dedication he had for his work. This was not a burned out civil servant too long in the field but another committed human being determined to improve conditions for other human beings. (If we could once get our minds around the idea that human beings are all of one species and, therefore, brothers and sisters to all other human beings there might not be racial hatred, religious intolerance, child soldiers, and genocide). He explained to us that the camps survived on the donations made by foreign countries. To date, the United States has been the foremost contributor to the cause and thirty year old Jeremy Woodrum, our guide on this trip, its man in Washington lobbying the congress for assistance. Jeremy, extremely bright and conscience driven, is a hero in his own right. If there is justice he might be president one day.
That night Jeremy took us to a Bangkok restaurant called “Cabbages and Condoms”. The place was run by people concerned with planned parenthood and safe sex. Yeah, that’s right, it wasn’t an after dinner mint they served with coffee. I still have mine: which I’d be happy to auction off with the proceeds going directly to the U.S. Campaign For Burma.
On the way out I noticed a wall chart with graphic drawings (if stick figures can ever be considered graphic) of sexual partners (in all combinations) in sexual congress (in all positions). Oh, so that’s how you do that ! There were also little red Xs next to those deemed too dangerous to engage in without a condom in place.
The drive the next morning to the Thai-Burma border town of Mae Sot took about six hours altogether. We traveled over the mountains and through the jungle. It was less exotic than it sounds because the roads were wide enough to keep the jungle at bay. We saw lush foliage but not the indigenous creatures whose habitat it was.
We stopped a couple of times for snack and bathroom breaks. The 7-Eleven was exactly like the one in my own neighborhood. I knew precisely where to find the Haagen Dazs.
The bathroom at the second place was a considerable challenge, however. The urinals were outside, yes, outside: near where the cows lumbered by, the stray dogs yipped by, and the cars slowed as they went by. I would never have guessed it would take me that long to pee. Of course, that was a minor inconvenience compared with what the door-less bathroom stalls offered. If they had been inspired by art it would have been from the school of minimalism. More specifically, what they offered was a hole in the floor. Yup, that’s it, a hole in the floor! Maybe if I was a sumo wrestler I could deal with what that positioning entails but my knee joints are shot and my balance moot. I spent the last leg of our journey praying that the next road bump wouldn’t incite an internal rebellion I couldn’t suppress.
After settling in at the hotel (which, incongruously, had a swimming pool and tennis courts), we went to a meeting with former Burmese political prisoners. We met in an office in Mae Sot. The walls were covered with snap shots of people who had been arrested by the military and served time in a Burmese prison. There were hundreds and hundreds of photographs with a special section for the eighty monks who had been incarcerated. In the center of the room was a table on which a miniature of the prison had been built. In middle class America a realtor might display a model of a suburban home and point out where the sauna and wine cellar would be. Here we saw the rooms where the prisoners were beaten and the cells for solitary confinement. The political “crimes” for which they had been jailed and tortured, if not totally manufactured, were for things like passing out leaflets calling for democratic elections. Internment and the accompanying physical brutality was for sentences as long as ten years.
All this we were told by our hosts in quiet voices that held no rancor. I’m sure there was emotional scarring in addition to what their bodies had endured but when they spoke it was something altogether different that they conveyed. What I heard was “hope”; that if the world better understood what was transpiring in their country there might still be a better life ahead, that Aung San Suu Kyi could be set free, that the democratic process which the people had overwhelmingly endorsed in 1990 could be enacted, and that the Burmese people – from all the States and Divisions of Burma – all 52 million of them and particularly the estimated 75 % who live below the poverty line – could begin to finally share in a better future.
These stoic middle aged men, brittle in appearance, told us that they didn’t consider themselves “torture victims” but “torture survivors”. “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”… they didn’t actually say that but I read it in their eyes. Like the young women we had met they too believed they would one day return to a thriving democratic Burma.
I don’t think they had any idea who I was, but assumed I was someone important. They asked that I let the world know that they hadn’t given up and I promised that I would. Andrew was busy the whole time taping their story: making sure that a document of their struggles would be preserved.
The following day we visited Dr. Cynthia’s medical clinic in Mae Sot. There were not enough beds for all those requiring attention. Many people–too ill by our standards to be released–had their bandages changed, received their shots, and were sent home. The most infirm patients, those who were confined to a cot, came in all ages but pretty much one state of health. The little children were fragile and the old men and women frail. They looked up at us from under their burden of pain without interest. Television and movies were as remote to them as was the world’s knowledge of their plight.
We toured various rooms, including one reserved for the sculpting of prosthetic limbs. They are carved by hand from Plaster of Paris to custom fit each patient. I think I heard someone say that they are able to sculpt two hundred a year this way. Land mines and body ravaging disease are responsible for the torn and broken bodies we saw.
Dr. Cynthia runs the clinic. She is a quiet, contained woman whose work day never seems to end. She is a tireless, selfless practitioner devoted to her patients and committed to improving their lives. It is no wonder that she is known as the Mother Teresa of Southeast Asia. She quite generously made time for us but it was obvious that she was also needed elsewhere. I left feeling that I had been in the presence of someone who stood as testimony to the best qualities human beings had to offer.
Later in the day we visited with a group of girls and boys from the state of Karen, made orphaned by the military dictatorship of Burma. Karen is a Christian state and they had been prepped to sing hymns for us. I’d rather hear folk music than hymns, but they sang with incredible sweetness and the pastor who conducted the choir should be congratulated. The children were from about the age of six or seven up to fourteen. If you know a few adjectives hyperbole is a tempting trap, but that notwithstanding, it is difficult to restrain the enthusiasm I felt. They were such beautiful children, truly beautiful–made all the more so by the hope they inspired. One could not depart the clinic knowing the suffering those people had suffered without a sense of despair. But here there were young lives still being formed who were telling us with their voices that if they were just given a chance they would make the world a better place.
When we left I made a point of shaking each child’s hand and smiling into each child’s eyes. In every case, the face lit up and the smile was returned. I cannot express how extraordinary a feeling that was. We were communicating in the most personal way human beings can. It didn’t require words, just the understanding that we were all part of the same family and that as such we had something quite spectacular to share.
On Saturday we visited a border camp that housed thirty thousand refugees. We walked around, nodded and smiled, and people smiled back. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being an intruder. No matter how bravely they survived and endured, theirs was a hell too private to be exposed to outsiders. I was envisioning histories of violation; people who had been burned from their homes and villages; people who had their cultural identity stolen from them; people who had their children abducted and their parents slaughtered; people whose lives had been shattered because they dared to dream of living in peace under a benevolent government. These were the stories I imagined and, to my considerable disquiet, knew to be true. But had I earned the right to bear witness to their suffering? What we hear in television dramas over and over again – “Very sorry for your loss” – doesn’t begin to do it. “What can we do to make it better?” is the only response that doesn’t sound hollow.
We returned to Bangkok on Sunday evening. Monday was a free day. “Serpent Head” fish was on the restaurant menu. I was told that this was an aquatic animal that by use of it’s fins, could travel over land for more than a mile. I did not choose it for my dining pleasure. I didn’t want it’s relatives coming after me.
On Tuesday we attended a media event at the Foreign Press Club. Jeremy told me that if he had been the only speaker there would have been far fewer people present. So, even though the airline folks had no idea who I was, the press, at least, was curious enough to attend.
There was one point more than any other that needed to be communicated at this meeting and, hopefully, sent out across the wire services and other media. It was that as the existing government of Burma constituted a “threat to the peace”, the United Nations Security Council needed to pass a resolution condemning it and, thereby, facilitate international intervention “to restore the peace, promote national reconciliation and effect a return to democratic rule”.
There are five permanent members of the Security Council. The United States, the United Kingdom and France are three, and so are Russia and China. The vote has to be unanimous. Russia, it appears, is visiting the issue with a degree of sincerity: but the same cannot be said of China. China is tied to Burma through natural gas, oil, and an overland route to the Andaman Sea. It is also true, however, that the Olympic Games will be held in Beijing in 2008. If for this event alone, China is trying to put a better foot forward: particularly to obscure its own record of human rights abuse. This world showcase could be its Achilles’ heel. The time to apply pressure on China to influence the Burmese military junta is now. That’s what I had learned and that’s what we told the good people of the fourth estate.
My wife’s cousin’s son, Nick (who lives in Bangkok), along with Jeremy, Debbie and others, accompanied us to lunch. The feeling was that the conference, within the modest goals that had been set, was successful. Of course, a great deal more light needs to be thrown on the Burmese tragedy. The public consciousness needs to be raised to the level of horror that grips the world over conditions in the Sudanese region of Darfur. Surely, the family of the human race is compassionate enough, and generous enough, to embrace the catastrophic concerns of its members everywhere. At least that’s what Andrew and I are rooting for.
We flew back to California the next day, July 25th. There were no vacant seats in Business Class but Andrew didn’t seem to mind.
For more information on the situation in Berma the following texts are available:
Burma-Women’s Voices For Freedom edited by the Thanakha Team
Threat to the Peace prepared by Piper Rudnick and Gray Cary
Shoot on Sight by Burma Issues/Peace Way Foundation
The Darkness We See Assistance Association for Political Prisoners
Internal Displacement by Thailand Burma Border Consortium
Burma – Women’s Voices For Hope edited by the Thanakha Team
To become directly involved in the U.S. Campaign For Burma contact Jeremy Woodrum at www.uscampaignforburma.org
Burma Photo Gallery
Walter’s Trip to Burmese Camps and Mae Sot Clinic
The Burmese Refugee Camp
©Andrew Koenig and MonkeyGoLucky Productions
Mae Sot Clinic 7-19-07
©Andrew Koenig and MonkeyGoLucky Productions
Walter and Andrew interviewed by “The Young Turks”
©The Young Turks
Walter’s Press Conference in Thailand