Dodging the Junta

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POLITICS JUNE 16, 2008

Dodging the Junta

Over a month after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma's
southern coast, the country’s ruling junta continues to restrict international
efforts to assist the disaster's victims, so domestic ad-hoc groups are taking
the lead in funneling aid through back channels. The organization
of these impromptu relief efforts speaks to the surprising resilience of civil
society in a brutally repressive environment, showing how, despite the junta's
stranglehold on Burmese society, grassroots networks and alliances have emerged
within the country.

Though the junta has attempted to commandeer every level of the
relief effort--backed by its legions of foot soldiers in the army and police--some
local groups have found detours around the blockades, helped by ground-level
officials willing to look the other way. On a Wednesday afternoon last month, a
group of volunteers visited a makeshift shelter in Shwebaukan, an area in the
outlying districts of Rangoon.
Inside a government school--the only concrete building in the neighborhood--500
homeless cyclone victims were huddled, “being threatened by the local army guy [who
was saying] that they could not stay there for long,” according to a Western expatriate
who accompanied the group. The military man turned out to be a member of Suan
Aa Shin, the local “brute force” contingent. Two days later, the victims were
evicted from the school, left to patch together lean-to shacks from the
wreckage of ruined huts.

Despite the clampdown, no one stopped volunteers from
returning to the area the next weekend to pass out rice, beans, and oral
rehydration solution to the evicted residents. The volunteers were able to do
their work because they had an established history with area leaders. Before
the cyclone, they had worked on educational activities in the neighborhood,
building local ties. “Local authorities are in many ways our biggest allies,”
said Beth Jones, program director of the Foundation for the People of Burma (FPB), a
U.S.–based humanitarian group funding some of these grassroots relief efforts.
“They sit on these [township] councils, participate in military activities on
occasion. But there are people who have hearts and minds, concern for their
fellow citizens. They’re the smokescreens between the small civic groups and
the higher-ups who don’t want any of this going on, on the ground.”

Since coming to power in 1962, Burma’s junta has maintained an
unyielding grip on the country’s politics, media outlets, schools, public
gatherings, and commercial industries. Over the past decade, however, it has
conceded limited opportunities for humanitarian and educational activities to
take place. Alongside a small number of international NGOs, a loose network of
local advocates and community leaders has conducted public health campaigns,
cultural programs, and religious activities. The regime has maintained a harsh
and capricious attitude toward these civic groups, frequently cutting off
access and closely monitoring their members. But their work has been
provisionally tolerated, if not openly embraced, so long as the groups steer clear
of politics.

Burma’s
monks have frequently served as the first point of contact for any
grassroots-level initiative (along with their Christian and Muslim counterparts
in ethnic minority communities). Among the first to be seen clearing trees
after the cyclone, the monks have joined in supporting the ad-hoc relief
effort. Despite the crackdown on monasteries following last year’s mass
demonstrations, a number of powerful local abbots have leveraged their ties
with government officials to pave the way for distributions of food, clean
water, and medicine, one volunteer in Rangoon
reported.

Within a week of the cyclone, a coalition of local religious
leaders, ethnic minority groups, student unions, labor organizers, and artists
distributed aid to some 4,000 victims and quickly expanded ongoing relief to
over 70,000 people. The volunteers described the junta’s attempt to intensify
its control of aid handouts, confiscating supplies and cutting off access to
the devastated southern Delta region. International aid groups may be easy
marks, but local volunteers and civic groups have also been targeted. FPB has received ongoing reports of interference
by military personnel and police. Outside one of the makeshift refugee camps in
Rangoon’s
satellite communities, “a soldier informed us that we could not give supplies
to the shelter, and should instead give the money and food to a local
government official,” a local volunteer said in a statement released last month
by the FPB. In another instance, an armed official confiscated the notebooks of
local volunteers who were trying to create a census of the dead, Jones says.

In response, the ad hoc coalition has continued aid delivery
under the cover of night--at times quite literally. On Saturday, May 10, one
team attempted to bring clean water and medical supplies to a small hospital in
one of the devastated towns beyond Rangoon.
(The organizers declined to specify the exact location.) The hospital, one of
the few operating in the region, had victims with broken bones and
gangrenous-looking wounds waiting in a line that stretched past the doors. None
had received treatment within in a week’s time. The medical director tried to
hurry the volunteers away, saying “You can’t do it right now, you can’t do it
right now or they will take it away--please come back after dark,” the group
reported. Later that evening, the volunteers snuck back into the hospital to
drop off the supplies.

Burma’s
civic groups and community leaders have spent years learning how to maneuver around
such crushing restraints. “They have faced controls on their movements, on
goods and money, on their general freedom for so long, they have learned how to
rely on some of these backdoor and relationship systems,” said Jones. “They
know how to get things done in this environment.” Because most foreign aid
workers still face visa blockades and are prohibited from entering the
hardest-hit regions, the coalition has recruited local doctors and nurses to
tend to victims. Only a modest flow of aid from abroad has been allowed into
the country, so the volunteers rely on well-connected businessmen to procure
chlorine tablets and temporary toilets from local suppliers. Low-level military
officers helped secure access to the Irrawaddy Delta, the epicenter of the
disaster. And the civic groups have turned to blogs and fundraising
newsletters to convince potential donors that their contributions won’t go
straight into the hands of the junta.

Given the magnitude of the devastation, however, even the
most enterprising and resourceful grassroots efforts can only go so far. By the
government’s count, 134,000 people have died or are missing, and the U.N. says
that 2.5 million are still in need of aid. The logistical hurdles of reaching
the entire Delta region are beyond the scope of any small-scale operation. But
though their reach may be limited, the ability of civic groups to persist with
their work is evidence that the junta’s control is less than total, according
to Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Johns Hopkins
University. “The fact
that they let them have a space, that they have let people act, shows that
[officials] on the ground believe the military is not capable of addressing the
issues,” She says. Such cooperation between local officials and organizers
“serves to build trust and networks that bridge divides in the community that
the military foster to hold onto power.”

In the long run, these kinds of internal networks and
linkages are key to any hope for a more open society. As Joshua Kurlantzick argued
on this site, neither popular revolt nor international condemnation has led the
junta to budge in the past. Over the past month, the generals have acted true
to form, limiting foreign aid for fear that “destructive elements” will undermine
their grip on the state. By working outside of official channels to deliver
humanitarian relief, domestic civic groups have created unlikely alliances
within Burma’s highly militarized and stratified society: between monks and low-level
officials, Delta villagers and city residents, community organizers and
military cronies. However precarious these relationships, their potential
impact should not be discounted. For ultimately, some analysts say, the
catalyst for long-term reform will have to come from within the regime’s ruling
cadre itself--prompted not only by internal discontent among officers, but also
by sympathy for other factions of Burmese society. “The military’s mid-level
officers would need to see that people are all are suffering, the same as them,”
says U Win Min, a Burmese exile and political analyst based in Thailand.

In the meantime, the recent disaster has created some small
opportunities for Burma’s
fragile civil society to reconcile with the army. In the cyclone’s aftermath, “[the
military] even neglect their own,” an expatriate in Rangoon said by email last month. “As I
passed some soldiers cutting trees yesterday, I asked if they'd eaten
breakfast. Of course not! So, I went back home to get them some bread.”

Suzy Khimm is a writer based in New York.

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