Daily Archives: 2 January 2006

Myanmar vs. Cuba, Olszewski vs. Pilger

I’m standing on million-dollar grass in front of a million-dollar restaurant overlooking a million-dollar beach at the million-dollar Australian beach resort, Noosa, my home town.

I’m home, in between contracts in Yangon [Rangoon], and I’m taking part in a media event ushering in the high point of the year for Noosa’s well-heeled culturati: the Noosa Longweekend Festival….

I am waiting for John Pilger because we have a mutual friend, and I’ve sent the message that I’d perhaps like to have a coffee with him and talk about Myanmar. Pilger is a strong campaigner against the Myanmar military junta and I figure I can update him on the political machinations and manoeuvrings….

Meanwhile, back at the million-dollar restaurant in million-dollar Noosa, the star has arrived, scowling and skulking, looking very much like the creative director of a fashionable ad agency. He chats for a while with a fan-cum-journalist. During a lull in proceedings, I slip over and introduce myself.

He looks at me reproachfully and accusingly. He says, ‘If you are working for a newspaper in Burma, then you must be working for the military. They own the newspapers.’ I explain that some newspapers and journals are owned by private enterprise, including the Myanmar Times, which employs me as a journalism trainer. He counters by saying that all press is subject to military censorship, and I tell him how different factions censor different publications and that the Myanmar Times is censored by Military Intelligence.

‘Military Intelligence! Then you are working for Military Intelligence.’

‘No. I’m working for a privately owned newspaper that is censored by Military Intelligence.’

The conversation goes nowhere. Pilger scowls and raises his eyebrows in an exaggerated manner. He stalks off across the million-dollar grass.

So much for heroes. I admire Pilger’s work, but I understand from this exchange that he is not a journalist with an inquiring mind. He is an advocate with a set agenda, a pre-written script. And I’d begun to worry about advocates, understanding that in the new emerging world such black-and-white thinking is outmoded. He stands for good against evil, but in the new world good and evil are often the flip sides of the same coin.

Leftists (and I’m a sympathiser in that house of cant, but not a worshipper) are usually by their very nature infracaninophiliacs–given a struggle they’ll almost inevitably, and nearly always emotionally, champion the underdogs, the minorities or perceived minorities, the powerless or perceived powerless. In some cases the stance is merely fashionable, the ’cause of the day’ amongst the chattering classes, as they’ve been dubbed, or the chardonnay socialists. But in the modern world there is no doctrine that is pure, unerringly fair to all, and universally applicable, and the world isn’t left or right or even wrong, just as it isn’t black or white or always right. It’s all sort of shades in between and, at times, as with the attitudes towards such nations as Myanmar, the left unwittingly converges with the right: it virtuously lashes out against oppressive regimes in a manner that prepares the path for the right to invade, invoke regime change, and impose democracy.

On the subject of left and right and what is wrong and what is right, what difference is there really, I wonder, in the day-to-day life of the grassroots people of Myanmar as compared to their counterparts in, say, Cuba? Both are repressed by a militaristic centralist regime, yet the people of Cuba are regarded by many left-leaning thinkers and liberals as beneficiaries of the leadership of a glorious socialist revolution, while the people of Myanmar are viewed as the hapless victims of a cruel military junta.

My stance could be perceived as the stance of a person who is prepared to do nothing but that’s not the case; I’m a person who believes we should do something, but something that’s different from what we’ve already been doing with such harrowing consequences.

Saving the world seems so clear-cut when watching world news through the filter of a television screen in the safety of a cosy Western domicile, but I was no longer watching Yangon via remote control. I was up close and personal. Very personal. There were people I knew and loved in Yangon and I didn’t want to see them die in a revolution that would prove to be bloody. Or in an invasion that would also exact ‘collateral damage’, as the Americans so coyly describe the civilian slaughter of war.

I didn’t want to sit in front of a TV set in ten years time watching a heartfelt and moving John Pilger documentary about the evils perpetrated by invasion forces entering Myanmar, intent on bringing about regime change and imposing democracy. There has to be a better way, a more subtle way.

SOURCE: Land of a Thousand Eyes: The subtle pleasures of everyday life in Myanmar, by Peter Olszewski (Allen & Unwin, 2005), pp. 82-83, 89-91

Although I sympathize a bit more with Olszewski than Pilger in this instance, especially in equating Myanmar with Cuba (both socialist in name, dictatorial in practice), neither of them have any adequate answer to Lenin’s burning question, What Is to Be Done? Nor do I. It’s much easier to achieve near-universal consensus on What Is Not to Be Done. Just ask the U.N.

Unfortunately, Olszewski indulges in a lame running joke throughout his book, wherein he repeatedly manages narrowly to escape yet another Burmese citizen who wants to talk with a Westerner about democracy. What exactly was he trying to accomplish in Myanmar? Whatever it was, it all went down the drain in the wake of a massive purge in October 2004, with examples provided in the book’s epilogue.

It was during my year in Romania in 1983-84 that I became acquainted with the term “actually existing socialism” used by true believers to distinguish their utopian ideals from the cynical implementations of socialist principles by so many real-world regimes. I’m sure libertarian true believers similarly distinguish “actually existing” market economies from their utopian ideals. Although far from a utopian idealist, Olszewski is the type of person who sneers at “actually existing democracy” without offering any better alternative.

Leave a comment

Filed under Romania