The waiting

Ang San Suu Kyi was released. And there was an election. And that’s about as concrete as this post is going to get – of course there are more to be said, but as is always the case with Burma and her elusive leadership, there are no answers to be found in Rangoon.

As always, details are sketchy, indecipherable and insufficient and what is really the situation for the average Burmese citizen is unclear. Getting more concrete than just stating the two above things is not an easy task.

The best way to get answers is to piece tidbits together yourself. Here is one:

On the Thai side of the border between Burma and Thailand there are several refugee camps and they have been there for decades. A majority of the people living in those camps are the ethnic Karen, who has rebelled against the Burmese leadership since the 70s. They came in 1984, when the Burmese military launched a major offensive and around 10,000 people were driven out of Burma and into Thailand. There was never a clear resolution to that conflict and thus, the refugees remained in Thailand.

By 1995, the camps had grown into housing around 115,000 people and because of the student uprising in 1988 that landed Ang San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the camps were not only populated by Karen, but now also by political refugees.

The junta had by then taken control of the border areas and clashes were not uncommon. The military started a process of carrying out an extensive relocation plan which affected around half a million people – in 2007, hundreds of thousands were unaccounted for, having fled to unknown whereabouts, and the population in the camps were now about 150,000.

So the fact that the recent election on Nov 7 resulted in fighting between Burmese military and Karen-rebels in that area is not surprising. Just weeks before the election Thai authorities had made it clear that it was their intention to return the refugees after the election, but – again – no clear plan was articulated and it was not certain how the refugees would be received once they got back. Later on, the Thai Foreign Minister declared that Thailand was NOT going to start repatriating the refugees immediately after the election, but rather when Thai authorities deem Burma safe for them to return to.

No wonder people reacted. When the election came, the Burmese soldiers came with it and people ran.  

They were caught in between the Thai soldiers on one side whose orders were to get them to run the other way and the Burmese military on the other side, whose orders no one has any clear idea of. That explains the contradictory reports that came out of the area just after the election where people were first running from and then returning to Burma.

Today, the situation has stabilized again, which is a nastily neutral way of saying that the refugees are back in the camps – there is nothing stable about living in a refugee camp, not even if that camp has been there for decades.

 What the future holds for them is impossible to foresee as the information coming from both Thailand and Burma is wildly changing every few days. So they sit there and they wait.

And what are they waiting for? Possibly they are not waiting for anything.

Possibly they are just waiting.

 

 


Is this what they call momentum? by Anya Palm

The Lady is free. She speaks to her people and what comes out of her mouth is the definition of grace and dignity – listen to some of her words here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11752918

Should anyone ever have doubted why Ang San Suu Kyi is the iconic symbol of hope in Burma, she put that to rest when she spoke to the thousands of followers, who had been awaiting her release outside her house this weekend. Having been placed under house arrest for almost 20 years, her first speech was in the “I have a Dream”-league and her ability to chose her words and focus on the Burmese people rather than the injustices she has endured herself raises hope for the future. She is not a martyr and she does not wish to be.   

Her case, however, is so symbolic and so political it is difficult not to dwell on it. The main unanswered question concerning her release is obvious: Why?

When asked by a BBC-reporter ” Do you think there is a reason that the ruling generals have allowed you out now?”  she herself replied: “I don’t think so…do you think there is a reason?”.

And this is very important. Because, the reporter – and many others with him – think there is a reason she was freed just days after the much criticized election. Very rarely do things like this happen in Burma without there being some sort of agenda behind it.

But Burma’s generals are not generous with information and so, we as the onlookers are left to ponder and guess about their motives. And we do, what else can we do? Within the answer to the Why Now-question lays an explanation to something, we really want to know: What is it that Burma’s generals want for their country? Her release is part of that answer, and it affects all of us.

But  Ang San Suu Kyi did something very clever in her speech. While all of us were trying to figure the above out, she made a less controversial, but way more valid point: She wants to know what the Burmese people expect of her.

And by doing so, she reversed the question from “what is on the junta’s mind by releasing her, where are they going with this?” to “what are the Burmese people’s wish for the country now and how can she help?”

So what if the elusive Tan Schwe and his generals are not an easy bunch to deal with? If they refuse, forbid and punish as they please? We can condemn that all we want – but we can also listen to The Lady and put our focus on the democratic powers that lay within the people instead of fuming.

What really matters now is to create a situation where it does not capsize the democratic process if she were to be arrested again.

What really matters now is to hold on to the momentum her release and the election combined have given to Burma and her way towards democracy.

What really matters now is getting Ang San Suu Kyi down from the pedestal she is on and into the role of an opposition politician, just like all the other brave and fearless Burmese democrats working for the same cause as her. She just told us that’s what she wants. We should listen.

 



The Pursuit of Happiness – The Ninth Millennium Development Goal by Nicol Foulkes, NIAS

A couple of months ago I attended a lecture here in Copenhagen given by the charismatic Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bhutan, the Honorable Jigmi Y. Thinley. Bhutan is a small country in South Asia nestled between north east India and Tibet in the Himalayas. With Buddism as the dominant religion (75%) and Hinduism as the second (25%), it may not come as such a surprise that Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure the well-being of its country by gross national happiness rather than the more widely recognized, gross domestic product. During his speech the Prime Minister downplayed the role of religion, responding humorously to a question on the connection between religious practise and the use of genetically modified products that he knows nothing in the writings of either religion that forbid us to explore and experiment with nature. However, it is difficult to ignore that two central tenets of Buddhism are karma and rebirth. Many, myself and Wikipedia included, do not believe that a nation needs to be Buddhist, or have any other religious conviction, to promote equitable and sustainable economic development; in the words of Mr Thinley “Happiness is the ultimate desire of any human being [and thus] must be the goal of the state.”

We are reminded during the lecture of the warnings about the inadequacies of GDP as an indicator of economic welfare from the Nobel Laureat Simon Kuznets who, in 1932, was commissioned by the US government to develop a uniform set of national accounts – the prototype for GDP. The calculation simply measures the total value of final goods and services made within a country within a year. ‘Value’ refers to monetary value; hence the natural resources that are plentiful in many developing countries are not taken into account until they have been turned into a commodity, which invariably is at some environmental or social cost. Furthermore, GDP does not reflect the value of non-commodified or non-commoditized institutions that serve to enhance human well-being such as community and family. The list of flaws is plentiful. Under GNH, economic development is merely one component of a whole, as its originator explained decades ago.

Kuznets’ warnings seemed to have been ignored for a long time. According to the OECD’s historical data, in the 19th century, GDP was highest in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. However, during the 20th century, levels in the USA sharply increased and in 1998 it was approximately five times that of the European laggards.[1] In 2009, the gaps between Germany, France and the UK have widened, yet the USA continues to be recognized as the ‘richest’ country in the world with a GDP that outstrips Japan[2] who lay in second place last year by almost 300%[3]. The fundamental flaw that human beings are making, according to Mr Thinley, is mistaking the means to happiness (GDP) as being the end; the end goal to be pursued should be happiness and not the excessive pursuit of wealth through higher GDP.

Perhaps the most telling indicator that the pursuit of higher GDP is not ‘working’ as such must be disparities in incomes, with income gaps between the richest and poorest regions of the world being 19-to-1 at the end of the 20th century according to the OECD. Perhaps even more alarming is that income disparities are not only greater between countries and regions, but also within countries. The reigning champion of GDP exhibits the greatest gap between rich and poor of all Western industrialised countries with a ratio of approximately 14.5-to-1. In September 2010, several news sources reported that according to US 2009 censor data, the top-earning quintile receive 49.4% of all income generated in the US, with the those who lie below the poverty line (14.3% of the workforce) receive just 3.4% of all income generated. By comparison in Sweden, a Nordic and supposedly more egalitarian society than most,  the highest salaries can be found within the “economic power elite” whose salaries are approximately 50 times that of the average Swedish worker. Also in Sweden, the 10 largest venture capital firms pay their bosses an astounding 95 times more than the average Swedish worker. Meanwhile in the “democratic elite” (select public sector positions) salaries are a mere seven times as high.[4] The question remains then, if the elites who invariably also hold strong power positions in society are ‘happy’, how strong is their incentive to redistribute the wealth, and how can it possibly be done? 

The greatest critique of happiness indicators is of course how can we measure happiness and does it mean the same thing to everyone? Surely it is subjective and means different things to different people? The Bhutanese government believes that happiness is a state of mind; it is a state that is reached when the body and mind are in balance, in harmonious equilibrium and therefore cannot be quantified, or even worse, commodified. Mr Thinley stresses that it was only as a consequence of great international pressure that his government came up with a set of 72 indicators for GNH that are founded on nine focus points: psychological well-being, health, education, time use and balance, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. At present, the Kingdom of Bhutan does not have quantifiable figures for the 72 indicators, but the Gross National Happiness Commission (prior to 2008 known as the Planning Commission) pursues the principles of these goals. Mr Thinley focused on the concept of GNH and so unfortunately there was little room for discussion on the measures that have been taken thus far in this pursuit.

I learned during the lecture that Denmark has been one of the greatest supporters of the Bhutanese pursuit of happiness. Most recently, 30 June 2010, the Danish government signed a new agreement with Bhutan in support of good governance. The support totals 50 million Danish kroner which will go towards constructing a new court building, strengthening the capacity of democratic governance institutions, and towards civil society organizations and other non-state actors among other things. It seems a poetic coincidence that Denmark, apparently one of the ‘happiest’ nations in the world be such a great supporter of Bhutan’s pursuit of happiness, second only to India, most of whose citizens incidentally are far from being happy.

The happy state of Denmark has been in media focus over the past few years, with critique varying in the media on this outcome covering a wide scope: from the view that it is simply untrue (foreigners’ in Denmark perceptions of Danes), to the happiness being connected to peace and freedom of choice (researchers at the University of Michigan), or simply to the prevalence of low expectations among Danish citizens (researchers at the University of Southern Denmark). Whatever the verdict, there is no doubt that the Danes have far less to worry about than the vast majority of the world population, but does that mean they are happier, in Bhutanese terms? It was my intention at this point to compare some of the questions included in WVS and the GNH surveys, however, since the day of the lecture, the website www.grossnationalhappiness.com which detailed the framework and survey questions is mysteriously down.

Mr Thinley believes that human society has been deluding itself that material comfort and material acquisition brings happiness, which has led among other things to social disintegration and dislocation, to rising conflict among nations over commodities, and to environmental degradation. He is not alone. Debates and discussion on sustainability and social responsibility have been rife since the latter part of the 20th century, and currently much discussion is cen
tring round the concept of ‘degrowth’ (= ecological sustainability and social equity)[5] and contractual economics. Ironically, Mr Thinley throughout his lecture praised Denmark, a country very much focused on economic growth, for its achievements in the field of happiness frequently referring to the aesthetic pleasure he encountered whilst driving through Copenhagen. The happy Danish hosts and audience were quick to remind the guest of the high suicide rates, excessive alcohol consumption, and the fact that if everyone on the earth were to have the life of the average Dane, then we would need four planet earths. To the latter, Mr Thinley responded, let there be four planets.

For the foreseeable future however we only have one planet, and that planet is far from being in harmonious equilibrium, in fact it seems to be moving further and further away from that state with so-called progress. In Denmark, which is also considered to be one of the most desirable places in the world to live, many of the highly educated and highly skilled leave the country in search of higher salaries and greater work opportunities in countries that are considered far less desirable and where there is more social unrest and discontent, leaving their own happy state behind. Many of those I have spoken to move not only to get a higher salary, but also simply to experience differences that they cannot find here in Denmark (e.g. working and living in international, multicultural environments).

I am left worrying that the word ‘happiness’ will be or rather is starting to be misunderstood and misused. The Prime Minister of Bhutan likes what he sees here in Copenhagen: aesthetic beauty, material wealth and material well-being. His dismissal of the social problems in Denmark indicates to me that he believes that the resulting society is worth these problems. There is also no shortage of disturbing and thought-provoking reports of human rights abuses in Bhutan. Are these justified if they are in the name of happiness? Looking more closely at the lives of the people of Bhutan may give a new meaning to the idea of gross national happiness.

 


[1] Madisson, Angus (2006), The World Economy, OECD: Paris

[2] In August 2010, China surpassed Japan in terms of nominal GDP, yet remains a very poor country in terms of per capita income. (Read more at http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2010/08/china_0)

[3] World Bank Data Statistics, accessed on 15.10.2010 at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/GDP.pdf

[4] http://www.thelocal.se/17344/20090204/  

[5] See http://www.degrowth.eu/v1/index.php?id=119 for more information about the concept of ‘degrowth’.