Broken Ethics

As luck would have it, I connected with a friend of ours from Thailand this morning. Matt is in Oslo to launch EarthRights International’s new report, which details how 15 multi-national oil and gas companies are contributing to human rights violations in Burma.

I attended his press conference this morning where he called Norway to task for their investments (~$4.7 billion) in these companies. While Norway has in place a very laudable set of Ethical Guidelines, Matt’s report details how their investments in these companies violate those guidelines. The hope is that the Council on Ethics will act on this information to evaluate whether the companies should be put under observation or potentially even excluded from their fund.

While there has not been a response from the Council quite yet, the report has received a good amount of coverage over the past few hours. Articles have appeared in Bloomberg and The Independent, as well as more traditional Burma-focused press outlets such as the Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma. For those who speak Norwegian, there is additional content here and here.

It felt great discussing the Burma situation all afternoon and reliving some of my activist days; it also reminded me how much I miss our Burmese friends in Thailand, how complicated the situation is, and  how much work remains before the Burmese can live a life free of human rights violations.

Hanging out at the Litteraturhuset
Hanging out at the Litteraturhuset before Matt’s BBC interview

Burma News Rollup: Aung San Suu Kyi Freedom Edition

As expected, the election was a farce. But now, a few days later, the more momentous event: after 20 years in and out of house arrest, today Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is free.

Here’s a round-up of some of the coverage in the news:

President Obama made a few comments from Japan, where he is attending the G20 summit:

While the Burmese regime has gone to extraordinary lengths to isolate and silence Aung San Suu Kyi, she has continued her brave fight for democracy, peace, and change in Burma. She is a hero of mine and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world.

One member of the crowd greeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi outside her house caught this video of the joyous moment (via The Lede):

Of course, while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is technically free from her prolonged unjustified sentence, many questions remain. How long will she be free before the regime finds some absurd reason to imprison her again? And while this event may give some hope to an otherwise disheartened and discouraged democracy movement, it is tempered by the fact that over 2000 political activists remain in prison and the junta is still in control after the “election.”

Why is Western Veg Food So Boring?

During our stays in India and among Burmese people in Thailand this year, Kenny and I have often observed that vegetarian food is so much more interesting – and delicious – in communities where eating meat is not the norm. In the case of our South Indian friends, the refusal to eat meat stems from religious observance, while for our Burmese friends (especially the tribe with whom I was working), it’s simply a result of the high price of meat. Both cuisines feature some of the best vegetarian food I have ever consumed.

This observation was reinforced several times this week, when I heard many of my carnivorous friends proclaim that South Indian cuisine has revolutionized their idea of what non-meat food could be. All of the meals we’ve eaten in Bangalore – especially those at Archana’s parents’ house – have been spicy, varied, and spectacularly delicious. South Indians just make incredible use of lentils, beans, whole grains, tomatoes, okra, coconuts, jackfruit, chilies, and even plain old potatoes.

What a contrast after the steamed broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower that were often served as a side dish in London and environs. Bleh. Even Seattle, which features a relatively creative restaurant scene and a plethora of ethnic restaurants, is fairly boring on the vegetarian front. I’d kill for a real South Indian restaurant.

Getting a Burmese Education

Today was my last official day in the office. As we have done many times over the past three months, one of my colleagues (we’ll call her Q) and I spent a long time lingering after the lunch plates had been cleared and talking about Burma.

Q told me that when she was a high school student in Burma, she knew that her country’s educational system was broken and she wanted it to change, but her dissatisfaction with the government did not reach any further at that point. Later, when she was studying at university, her father told her that she was unlikely to learn anything of value from her regular coursework, and advised her to seek out training from a private tutor on the side. Q’s tutor was a well-informed man, and a former member of the democracy movement. Every day he told humorous stories that kept the students entertained and engaged. Only when Q arrived home after class and had time to reflect did she realize the important lessons that her teacher was relating through these stories.

Through this informal education, Q started to realize that the world outside Burma was likely quite different, and she developed a strong interest in moving to Thailand. J, a high school classmate of hers, had invited her to come to Thailand back when they finished Grade 10. J’s mother was already in Thailand and had founded an organization where they could continue their education and work for the democracy movement. At the time, Q had opted to attend university instead, but when she finished she knew that it was time to accept J’s offer.

When she arrived in Thailand, Q learned things that shook the foundation of her entire educational experience – concepts like human rights, women’s rights, and democracy. It was the first time she had ever been taught that she was afforded basic rights simply by virtue of being human, and that the practices of the  Burmese government were not acceptable. She learned that as a woman, she could take an equal role in society and that she need not be subservient to her future husband. And it was her first exposure to the governing systems of other countries, and the idea that people in other parts of the world could speak and live freely.

After completing an internship program at our organization, Q enrolled in an advanced women’s leadership course. She then returned here and took on a leadership role in our organization.

Q values the time that she spent learning with her teacher while she was in university, but she can’t help feeling some jealousy of our organization’s recent crop of interns, none of whom attended university before migrating to Thailand. Q arrived at age 25; some of our interns are only 17 when they get here, including Q’s sister, who came last year. Many of them did not finish high school. These young women have even more time to gain exposure to the world outside Burma and experience working for their community. They also have access to excellent educational programs in Thailand. On the other hand, they have less firsthand experience with life and education inside Burma, and less exposure to veterans of the democracy movement. Either way, their dedication to continuing their education is admirable, and the diversity of perspectives that they bring to our organization is a tremendous asset.

Burma: To Go or Not To Go

When we started planning our pre-volunteering travel around Southeast Asia, we strongly considered including Burma on our itinerary. Deciding whether to go to Burma is a complex enough issue to which Lonely Planet devotes an entire chapter, covering the arguments for and against visiting. One main argument against going is that you will be funding the junta with your tourist dollars. Another is that the government will only allow tourists to see the beautiful pagodas, lakes, ruins, and museums, and you will not see how people truly live in Burma.

We also talked to our AJWS coordinator, who told us that "AJWS doesn’t condone it [travel to Burma], but we can’t tell you what to do." After debating both sides for awhile, we decided not to visit Burma during our pre-AJWS travels, mostly because we were unsure how our NGO colleagues would feel about it.

Fast forward a few months. Today was my last day volunteering in Mae Hong Son, and this afternoon I had a long talk with my NGO director about travel to Burma. He feels emphatically that foreigners should visit Burma. On the question of money, he said:

The government doesn’t care about your money. They have China…and Russia. They just care about power. By going to Burma you can see how the people really live and start separating government propaganda from reality.”

On the question of will we just see what the junta wants us to see, his thoughts were:

Do your research before you go. Foreigners are very smart. They read about the situation before they go and they are careful when they are there. If you are smart and tricky, you will be able to see the true Burma.

I asked him were we should go when we visit Burma. He told me that we have to see Rangoon. He also mentioned that should visit Naypyidaw, the new capital erected by Than Shwe, to experience the alternate life/reality that the generals lead.

I was curious if he thought that I’d be able to visit some of the ethnic-minority border states. He thought it would be okay, but warned me, “Keep your eyes open. As a foreigner you will definitely be watched by the government.”

I do really want to go to Burma to see the people and situation that I’ve read so much about, and I feel that the experiences and conversations we’ve had in Thailand have provided us with some necessary preparations for such a visit. Now that they have visa on arrival, it’s easier to arrange for travel, but of course we are getting on a plane to the US this Tuesday. While we will have to wait until our next trip to Southeast Asia to see Burma, hopefully we can plan our trip at a time when our new Burmese friends will be in their hometowns and they can show us many of the places they’ve told us stories about.

Border Math

My co-worker just educated me on how immigration works along the Thai/Burma border (if one making a border crossing is pulled over by the Thai police):

  1. If everyone (including the driver) has valid papers, they are free to continue on their journey.
  2. If no one (including the driver) has valid papers, everyone is arrested and has to either pay bail of 2,000 Baht per-person (~$60) or spend 14 days in prison. Assuming they aren’t arrested again in the interim, they are refunded the 2,000 Baht once seven months have passed.
  3. If there is a mix of people with and without papers, everyone is still arrested. Those without papers have the same choice of 2,000 Baht bail or 14 days imprisonment. if there are passengers with papers, they have a much steeper payment to face in order to avoid a jail term of seven months. Negotiations start at 75,000 Baht ($2,250, a year’s salary in these parts), and can be lowered to 50,000 Baht. If the driver has papers, he’s in even deeper water as the facilitator of the undocumented immigrant trafficking.

Things We Will Miss

  • Easy Thai, especially Rarn P Dam, where Kenny eats lunch every weekday.
  • Super spicy delicious Burmese ethnic minority cuisine.
  • Mango and sticky rice.
  • Now that I mention it, mango with anything. Or mango with nothing.
  • Lychees, rambutans, and mangosteens.
  • Free community yoga twice a week.
  • Riding my bicycle everywhere and never worrying about traffic.
  • The fact that the highway, which runs right behind our apartment, generally has more joggers on it than cars.
  • Our co-workers, who have also become good friends.
  • Swimming in the Nam Pai on hot days.
  • Eating delicious fruits and vegetables every day that come from our own farm.
  • Living the easy life in our peaceful town, nestled in a beautiful valley.
  • Frogs, geckos, roosters, and other fun neighbors. Well, maybe not the roosters so much. They are pretty, but it will be nice to sleep in past 5am.
  • Drawing on our software engineering experience to contribute to the fight for democracy in Burma.

Kenny biking to Nai SoiLake wat

Mango and sticky riceNai Soi

Gorging on fruitThe farm

The Next Six Weeks

We have only 10 days left in Thailand. I know it will be extremely difficult to leave. On the one hand, I do feel a bit ready to move on from our small town. It is lovely, but after three months I certainly feel like I’ve seen what it has to offer. On the other hand, it will be very hard to leave my volunteer assignment. Not that I didn’t accomplish my goals – on the contrary, the staff and I have accomplished a lot more than we expected. I just know that I will miss them horribly and I want to continue helping them work for democracy in Burma. The separation will also be a poignant reminder that while I’ve been here helping them voluntarily, this cause is their life and they can’t just leave. In fact, they can’t really go anywhere.

Here is our plan for the next six weeks. As usual, it’s ridiculous and it involves a lot of flights:

  • Thailand: We have one more week volunteering in Mae Hong Son, then we head to New York (via Chiang Mai, Taipei, and San Francisco).
  • New York: We’ll be in New York for about a week for Kenny’s sister’s wedding. We have a bunch of errands to run — AJWS post-mortem at their office, get new India visas, get yellow fever shots for Uganda, etc. — but we’ll also get to spend time with family and friends while we’re there. My parents are also coming to the wedding. I’m excited to see my Dad again so soon, and I’ve promised to take my Mom on the Jewish tour of New York (Lower East Side, Brooklyn, etc.).
  • Boston: We will have four days in Boston to visit our dear friends Julie and Damian, and their newest addition, Sophie. A few friends from Seattle will be joining us.
  • London: On our way to India for Sean and Archana’s wedding, we arranged for a four-day "layover" in London. Kenny has never been to Stonehenge, so we will probably try to squeeze that in too. It will be a weird, very first-world tourist experience in the middle of this year of Global South adventures, but hopefully New York and Boston will help with the transition. I expect that we’ll spend more money during four days in London than we typically spend in four weeks here in Thailand.
  • Delhi: Delhi always seems to be our gateway to India. Gio is meeting us, and we’ll spend a couple of days showing him the sights (and we need to take him for a celebratory meal at Indian Accent). Then we plan to make a day trip to Agra, since we promised ourselves we’d see the Taj Mahal this time. It’s going to be HOT, but I suppose it can’t be much worse than April in Northern Thailand
  • Bangalore: The main event for us in India is Sean and Archana’s wedding in Bangalore, which promises to be an all-out traditional Tam-Bram affair. After the wedding, we’re all heading to a Jungle Retreat in the Nilgiris for a few days.
  • Kampala: On June 11, we’ll fly from Bangalore to Dubai to Addis Ababa to Entebbe, in order to start our next volunteer assignment, which is a technology for agriculture project, based in Kampala.

Public Speaking and Private Emotions

The staff of my NGO asked me to provide training on public speaking, so I put together a four-part course for them. I included sections on “speaking style” – body, voice, eye contact, hand gestures – and “speaking substance” – how to structure the content of a presentation. In session III we added PowerPoint.

For sessions II and IV, each member of the staff (and I) delivered short presentations on the topic of her choice. For the first homework assignment, we gave speeches without any visual aids, and for the second we used PowerPoint. Not only did these homework assignments provide great public speaking practice opportunities for everyone, myself included, but they also created a very safe forum to discuss deeply emotional topics. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should feel guilty that three out of the six staff members ended up in tears at various points during our practice sessions. But whenever we hit an emotional hurdle in a speech, the speakers showed great composure – they stopped, took a few deep breaths and maybe a drink of water, and then continued. After each of these talks, we were able to frankly discuss what had happened with the group, and I told them how impressed I was that they were brave enough to discuss such personal topics in front of an audience. None of the later presenters were deterred by the tears of her predecessors – on the contrary, the presentations got more personal as the week progressed.

One presenter spoke about her experience giving training in conflict areas inside Burma. She had to travel through the jungle by foot with a few members of an ethnic minority army for a month, watching Burmese Army movements carefully, and often rising in the middle of the night to retreat to safer cover. One member of their party stepped on a land mine and lost his leg. My colleague’s friend dressed the wound, but he was in great pain and they heard him crying all night.

Another presenter gave a talk entitled “Why My Life in Burma was So Hard,” in which she told us about leaving her family at the age of eight to move to a city and continue her education. While there, she performed domestic work for a family in exchange for room and board. When the head of the household died she had to leave, living with other families and in monasteries over a period of 10 years until she was finally so sick and malnutritioned that she was forced to quit school and move back home. Her father has been in Bangkok as a migrant worker since shortly after she initially left for school and she hasn’t seen him since.

One of the joint secretaries of our organization spoke about the needs of poor and orphaned children in the state where she grew up, citing statistics and sharing photos to illustrate her points. She made an impassioned pitch for a free primary school for children in the capital city, and presented her implementation plan for the project.

Not all of the presentations were serious. One junior staff member (who is 19 years old!) gave a presentation entitled, “Why Have All of My Boyfriends Left Me?” My PowerPoint homework assignment was about why I think my organization should have a website (we are planning to build one starting later this week, after I give a short Web Training course).

Through these sessions I learned more about my staff and their backgrounds, and I felt that all of us became closer as a result. So it was certainly a valuable experience for me, and they’ve asked me to give them a “training of trainers” (TOT) course next week, so they can teach public speaking to their students and interns as well.

The Limitations of Eggplants

This afternoon, I helped one of my co-workers write a grant proposal for an HIV/AIDS prevention training program that she wants to conduct later this year. She explained to me that many people in the villages in Burma don’t like to use condoms or don’t understand why they should use them. As part of an HIV/AIDS training course that she has given in the past, she used an anatomically correct model to demonstrate how to use a condom. She told me that previously, an NGO had given a similar training in the refugee camps, but had used an eggplant for the demonstration instead of a realistic model.

Neither the NGO nor the trainees were thrilled with the results. One of the trainees complained that she “put the condom on the eggplant like you demonstrated, but the eggplant died and I’m still having babies!”