Hope for a democratic Burma glows on the horizon

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 3, 2007

In the past few days two of our coffee companions have helped drive home for me the horror and the hope of the human rights situation in one of the world’s most troubled countries, Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Cochrane educator Shirley Pepper bumped into me at Java Jamboree and began our conversation with “What’s become clear to you since we last met?”— a quote from Benjamin Franklin often used by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I paused for a moment, then almost overwhelmed with unexpected clarity about recent images of Burma, I responded: “The irony of the words to ‘What a Wonderful World’ as used with devastating effect in the Robin Williams movie Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s hit song is sort of an unofficial theme song for Coffee with Warren. Its upbeat tone, however, found a most disturbing visual setting in that Vietnam War film.

To “colors of the rainbow” we see an impromptu execution by bullet-to-the-head. And to “We see friends shaking hands saying ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you,’” we see placard-waving civilians marching down a Saigon street, confronted by dozens of armed, uniformed men who beat an unarmed woman to the ground, bleeding and pleading.

And so with the bloodshed and repression in the cities and villages of nearby Burma today.

Here is a nation blessed with beauty and tradition. Mountain landscapes form breathtaking backdrops to teak forests and jungles rich in rare butterflies and birds. Saffron-robed Buddhist monks and the golden stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda lend this mysterious land a hint of Canadian autumn.

Yet, once again we see media images of gross inhumanity and violence in this land whose religious roots speak of compassion. The ruthless military regime that seized power in 1962 has kept Nobel laureate Daw Aung Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy, under arrest since 1989, in defiance of her party’s election victory. It has ordered its military to fire on unarmed monks and other peaceful protestors, killing who knows how many. It has attempted to terminate all free communication with the outside world, murdering at least one journalist, shutting down Internet access, and seizing cameras from any who might show the rest of us the all-too-present evil.

The hope that beauty in governance might once again be in harmony with the beauty of the land seemed dashed as the streets fell silent, monasteries under siege and freedom-loving folks afraid to step out of their homes.

To quote a line from Apocalypse Now, “The horror, oh, the horror!”

But in fact all hope is not lost, according to another of our coffee companions, Innisfail geologist Tiger Yawnghwe, a fan of Cochrane coffee shops.

Tiger is also known as His Royal Highness Prince Hso Khan Pha. He is the eldest son of the first president of Burma following independence from British rule. Tiger’s father was driven from power by the military dictatorship and apparently assassinated in the early 1960s. Two years ago Tiger was elected as president-in-exile of the Federated Shan States, a region in eastern Burma.

I’ve known Tiger for 20 years. In the late 1980s he asked me to join him in forming Burma Watch International. The human rights watchdog society came about as a response to the Burmese dictatorship’s slaughter back then of students calling for democratic reforms, much as the monks and their followers have been doing in the past few days.

At its founding, Tiger wrote letters to the Queen and Canadian MPs, and to corporations who were doing business in Burma. This seemed to have had an effect. Some major companies ceased doing business with the regime. And it’s clear that Tiger’s initiatives, combined with the diligent work of other concerned groups and individuals around the world, resulted in increased attention being paid to Aung San Suu Kyi’s situation.

(For more information on Burma Watch, go to www.burmawatch.org.)

By phone this past weekend Tiger told me that the current uprising and international pressure are bearing fruit. There are intelligence reports indicating Burma’s corrupt leadership is making preparations to flee the country. And the silence in the streets may not be so much because of fear, but because Burmese military units are too busy fighting each other – perhaps some because of their moral revulsion at the shooting of unarmed monks in this ideologically peaceful Buddhist country.

So, rethinking Shirley’s question about what’s become clear to me since we last met, I would have to say now, “Hope for Burma.” May its people soon have restored to them the beauty of life and happiness to match the beauty of their land.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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