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An activist in Myanmar

Devjyot Ghoshal 

On the first visit by a Myanmarese leader to the United States in nearly half a century, President Thein Sein allowed himself to be interviewed by BBC’s well-respected HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur. In true HARDtalk style, Mr Sackur pulled a poker face and then began shooting the questions. No surprises there. What stood out was a distinct lack of detailed, thoroughly researched queries, the sort that has defined the BBC show in recent years.

No one other than the HARDtalk team can probably explain exactly why that was the case. Yet, few can deny that (or Burma, if you will) has remained one of those few nations that flirt with global newspaper headlines intermittently but remain a near-complete mystery to most.

That is exactly why Benedict Rogers’ book is “a comprehensive, vivid and powerful account” of the country, writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a foreword to the book, calling it “[an] important introduction to and a vital call to action”. But Archbishop Tutu’s words are more than just an endorsement; his presence also underlines Mr Rogers’ employment with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation that works for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights.

To be fair to Mr Rogers, who claims he has focused on for 15 years with almost 40 tours to the country and its borders, his introduction clarifies that the book is “more an activist’s text” that he has sought to make “academically and intellectually credible”. Through the book, though, one still wonders whether that credibility has actually been achieved.

Much of that is because – although the work begins with a racy yet detailed account of the country’s dramatic fall post-independence in the first two chapters – Mr Rogers’ subsequent attempt to explain the goings-on in Myanmar’s border states lacks the diversity of sources that stands out in the opening sections.

There is also the author’s understandable and intense admiration of Myanmar’s opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner — an interest that is reflected, interestingly, in his knowledge of the democracy icon’s tastes in music, which includes Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead. Given his activist background, it would appear that he has drawn his sides very clearly.

Indeed, in any analysis of it is difficult to remain neutral given the deplorable scale and intensity of the atrocities by the military junta, a complete chronicle of which the book provides. From the Karens, Karenni and Shan in the east to the Chin people in the west and, finally, the stateless Rohingyas of Bangladeshi origin, Mr Rogers presents a detailed account of the present – with substantial historical backgrounding – that makes the junta’s actions against these minorities indefensible.

However, the intricate, and often disturbing, state of affairs that he puts out is largely based on extensive travels through the region and the vast number of interviews conducted for the book. Although it is difficult to doubt the credibility of interviews outright, as most journalists would acknowledge, it is often problematic to base any analysis solely on such information. Nonetheless, while those issues persist, it is Mr Rogers’ sheer grit and persistence in travelling across Myanmar’s wide geography, including border areas in Thailand, Bangladesh and India, that cannot be ignored — and for that insight alone, this work cannot be ignored.

In a vaguely chronological order, the second half shifts focus to the recent spate of reforms that has brought Myanmar back into global spotlight, but not before Mr Rogers makes some significant assertions on the junta’s modus operandus. In Chapter 7, “Defectors, Deserters and Child Soldiers”, he points out that Myanmar probably has the highest number of child soldiers proportionate to its population, an estimated 70,000. Equally importantly, he establishes that gross mismanagement of the country’s armed forces is what actually causes much of the rapes, murders and pillage that have come to define the presence of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, in the border regions.

From there on, two of the most critical incidents that have effectively laid the foundation of Myanmar’s reform spree – the 2007 Saffron Revolution and the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, both of which exposed the military junta’s massive administrative and political shortcomings – are elaborately described.

The concluding two chapters are predictable. They include an instructive insight into the military’s power structure as it metamorphoses into some sort of democratic framework as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued role in pushing forward the reforms, although within the gambit defined by the country’s military leadership. The final point: Myanmar is indeed at a crossroads — and from a variety of perspectives.

But Mr Rogers’ finest passage perhaps is Chapter 8, “Torture Chamber”. Here, in conversations with leaders of the 1988 student uprising that was the start of an era of oppression, the spirit of Myanmar’s new-fangled reforms is truly revealed.

Freed after many years in prison, one of Myanmar’s most prominent dissents just days after his release told Mr Rogers that, for all the atrocities that the military regime has unleashed on the country, there is no overt sense of bitterness and revenge. It is this madness for justice that often pulls most efforts of democratisation in post-conflict countries into a spiral of violence.

“We can forgive,” Ko Htay Kywe, the dissident, told Mr Rogers, “But we cannot forget.”

Benedict Rogers
Rider (Random House), 2012; £12.99

First Published: Wed, November 07 2012. 00:32 IST