In Burma, Both Arms Go Up Again

In Burma, Both Arms Go Up Again

What does the snub-nosed monkey think about her country's future?

They say when it rains, the locals can hear them sneeze in the forest. We’re talking about a new species of monkey recently ‘discovered’ in Burma. reports:

“Myanmar snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), was only discovered after researchers heard reports from hunters of a strange monkey with upturned nostrils and prominent lips. It is known locally as mey nwoah,or ‘monkey with an upturned face…

Rainwater collects on the monkey’s upturned noses causing them to sneeze. To combat this, the monkeys spend their rainy days with heads tucked between legs.”

Though just discovered, these monkeys, like so many beings in Burma, face severe threats.

I recently read Emma Larkin’s book, Finding George Orwell in Burma. Larkin wondered what the influence of this country was on Orwell’s decision to become a writer and sets on a journey following Orwell’s footsteps in Burma. Looking for Orwell in Burma, Larkin finds Burma in Orwell. Several people she meets believe Orwell actually wrote a trilogy about the country: Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell, they tell her,was a prophet. Modern Burma under the military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (classic Orwellian double speak), is not unlike Winston Smith’s 1984.

Larkin shares a joke about a Burmese man who travels many miles to a neighboring country to see a dentist. When he arrives, the dentist is shocked by the distance traveled and asks the man if there are any dentists in Burma. The man replies, ‘Yes, we have many dentists. The problem is we aren’t allowed to open our mouths.’

Many folks trace the origins of modern Burma’s woes back to 1962, when General Ne Win came to power. One man tells Larkin, this was the time of “green spectacles.” The origin of this phrase is quite disturbing.

During WWII, many of Burma’s farms were destroyed by battles and bombs. As a result, many animals refused to eat the parched grain because of the “unhealthy white color.” The Japanese had invaded and were using donkeys to transport their munitions. They were afraid that their donkeys might starve.

“They fashioned spectacles of green tinted glass and wire and hooked them around the donkeys’ ears.”

The donkeys saw their feed as green and resumed eating. “To look at a thing that is bad and be forced to think it is good,” was how one man described to her the time of Ne Win.

There is another joke about this period in history that Larkin shared. (Orwell had once said “every joke is a tiny revolution.” ) A soldier living in a hut in Rangoon caught a large fish and put him in a bucket of water to carry home. He wanted to cook the fish with tomatoes and onions, but got home to find no vegetables. He decided to just fry in oil, but also did not have oil. Perhaps just grilling on the stove would be enough, but he couldn’t find any charcoal. He decided to just let the fish go. The fish jumped in the water screaming “Long Live Ne Win.”

But it would be incorrect to think that the animals in Burma were better off.

The snub nosed monkey just discovered, was only found because of hunters’ reports. Chinese logging concessions are threatening their habitat and I’m reminded by similar patterns of ecological destruction elsewhere in the world. Natural resource extraction lines the pockets of those in power, while the other beings in Burma remain at risk.

I was recently at a Conference on Burma, organized by the Free Burma Alliance and Amnesty International with panels of activists, filmmakers, NGOs and writers. Everyone spoke passionately of all the problems facing Burma: longest running civil war with minority groups, forced labor along oil pipeline construction, use of child soldiers, rape of women, incarceration of political prisoners and the inequitable distribution of wealth and power.

No green tinted spectacles or Orwellian doublespeak could mask these realities.

And yet, in discussions about the future, it was hard to map out clear solutions. There was talk of boycotting and denying the results of the recent election and also for establishing a commission of inquiry by the International Criminal Court. What role could the international community play when India and China have invested interests in the country? Even American and European companies have been complicit in human and environmental rights violations.

There’s a hint of defeatism in the discussion, as if, like the snub-nosed monkey, we’re just waiting out the storm with our heads between our legs.

Today offered a glimmer of hope as pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

President Obama called her a hero of his, and offered these words about her release:

“Whether Aung San Suu Kyi is living in the prison of her house, or the prison of her country, does not change the fact that she, and the political opposition she represents, has been systematically silenced, incarcerated, and deprived of any opportunity to engage in political processes that could change Burma. It is time for the Burmese regime to release all political prisoners, not just one.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer, also expressed his delight over her release, but cautioned the world, that this did not reflect a major change in the country.

As we continue to wait out the storm’ the reign of the military junta’ I am reminded of a poem of the imprisoned Burmese comedian Zargana:

We cry out
“We’ve won!”
And raise both arms in glee.
But when we lose
Both arms go up again.