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Myanmar has no formal greeting words. A surprise? But we have variations that are more practical to our lives, depending on the time and circumstances. If you meet someone along the way, the most common words are: Where do you come from? Where are you going? Or, how are your father’s, mother’s or your own children?

The next common greeting involves lunch or dinner: “Have you already had your meal?” “With what curries have you had your meal?” Etc. When you pass the house of a friend, the usual greeting called through the gate is, “Hey, what kind of curry have you been cooking for dinner?”

Alarmingly, “Have you had your dinner?” often has become rude and insulting these days for the person to whom you are speaking. In asking such questions, you may cause them to lie or feel ashamed because not everybody can afford to cook each meal. This is more true in the drier parts of Myanmar, where most people rely on one crop annually.

It has been more than two years since the National League for Democracy, or NLD, the main democratic political force in Myanmar, entered a United Nations-brokers dialogue with the government. The first stage, “confidence building,” took more than a year. Although the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, announced last May that the first stage had been completed and that a new page of history had begun — a day before releasing democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her second house arrest — eight months later there has been no real dialogue with the NLD. The new history page thus remains blank.

I was very sad for the people of Myanmar when I watched news on television of Indonesian citizens crowding on the street to protest against the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri because of soaring commodity prices. Such protests are out of the question in Myanmar. If they did occur, they would more likely be met by lethal bullets rather than by water hoses and tear gas. The regime would then blame communists.

Although the regime clearly said before the world that it would encourage the people to pursue and engage in the politics of their choice, it seems that the announcement was a slip of the tongue. The regime is throwing away all chances for earning good will by remaining stubborn and inflexible toward the immediate need for reforms.

Thousands of people are either undernourished or starving, mostly in rural areas. Many thousands of children cannot go to school because of family financial problems. There are few jobs around for youths. Many have become victims of the sex trade and drug abuse. In such an environment, an increase in the number of HIV/AIDS victims cannot be checked, let alone the challenge of eradicating this dreadful disease.

Some thoughtful people in Myanmar are concerned about the rapid felling of forests for the Chinese market, especially the rampant harvesting of teak by favored business groups. Myanmar forests have been abused for more than 50 years by many groups, including the government, Karen insurgents and favored individuals and companies.

Infrastructure, including hydroelectric stations and dams, has been developed at an accelerated pace since the SPDC took power in 1988. It is a bit of wonder, though, how the regime has been able to afford it when foreign assistance has been minimal. Under U Ne Win’s one party system, the former regime could not offer very much, despite huge amounts of official development assistance from Japan and lesser amounts of aid from elsewhere. The Western block of nations has imposed economic sanctions against the present regime, and Japan has only assisted on humanitarian grounds.

The European Union’s intention of excluding the regime from the Asia-Europe Meeting has failed. George Sioris, a former ambassador of Greece to Japan and now president emeritus of the Asiatic Society of Japan, has pointed out that the attempt to exclude Myanmar could do more harm to ASEM than to Myanmar. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility to provide the people of Myanmar with the opportunity for decent lives rests with the current regime.

Whether foreign investments should be encouraged is a tough question, but the need for humanitarian assistance is urgent. The tug of war between the SPDC and the Suu Kyi-led political forces seems interminable. Does the West’s reluctance to engage the Myanmar government reflect its policy with other dictatorial regimes? At the very least, rich countries led by the United States should provide generous amounts of humanitarian assistance, in the name of God’s mercy.

There must be ways to prepare our youth for the upcoming democratic system. We need to nurture future politicians, technocrats and skilled labors for our country while working toward change. I would encourage Western and Japanese governments to assume these key roles through the activities of nongovernment organizations.

Soe Win, recently appointed No. 2 general secretary of the SPDC, stated in a speech about three weeks ago that the regime would not speak with the NLD or negotiate with Suu Kyi. Add this comment to the recent harassment of Suu Kyi’s political tour in the Arakan region, and the future looks bleaker than ever.

After an institution awarded Suu Kyi $1 million as the “Spirit of the Year,” two executives from The Freedom Forum videotaped her statement. She said she would be unable to attend the ceremony honoring her in March for fear Myanmar’s military rulers would not allow her to return. We see that there is still no complete trust between the SPDC and Suu Kyi, which means the journey to democratization has many difficult obstacles ahead.

There must be some dignitary who can bring forward an acceptable solution in the future. A Japanese politician perhaps? Who knows?

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