Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Getting Shot in the Stomach: Hunger and Dissent in Burma, and Other Countries...

Talking with some Burmese activists the other day, one young leader made a crucial point.

The discussion included familiar topics like sanctions and military practices -- at the Mingalardon base, for example, the Myanmar army supposedly likes to recruit from orphanages, and, according to a fellow who once lived on base, recruits seeking permission to go to the toilet are required to first take off all their clothes to ensure that they won't try to run away.

But that young leader kept coming back to a theme that applies to very poor people everywhere: "Burmese people are in a very dramatic situation," he said. "If they want to participate in demonstrations they have to look at their own stomachs. They wish to participate in demonstrations, but they have to think about their food. If they wish to oppose, they have to think about their own self. If they spend just a few hours in opposition they pay a very difficult price."

The price he was referring to was not the danger of being caught, shot or beaten by soldiers, but rather to the price of having to forgo a couple of hours of work, and, thereby, some crucial number of grams of food for one's self or family.

The point is that if you're close to the hunger line, time (and energy) for politics is very costly.

Some societies, like the US, like to say that time is money. But if you really don't have much money, its different. Then, time is food (or it can be, if you're lucky enough to have a job or location that can enable you to make it food).

"The Burma people want to spread their feeling," he continued, "but they are scared by the regime. Not only because of the killing and imprisonment, but because daily life is also very difficult in this day."

"The Burmese person wants to gain democracy, but what does he do for the family? If he opposes the military regime, the next day his family maybe faces starvation."

If you don't, say, pick and sell your fruit for half a day, or get the boss's pocket change you all count on, you may come home charged-up by politics but to a very disappointed family.

Under normal circumstances for poor people in today's Burma, he contended, "You may have enough for lunch for a big family, but going home to the house all the family is waiting for the dinner!"

The activists claimed that hunger is now bad, for example, in places west of Rangoon like Shwe pyi thar township, Hlain thar yar, and Ayar thar gyi.

They were referring to a threshold of hunger that is present -- not future -- oriented. It is one thing to worry about a few consecutive days of hunger endangering you babies' brains (see posting of November 8, 2007, "Duduk - Duduk, Ngobrol - Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia."), but it is another to worry about a lack of food tonight maybe causing you to keel over.

When you reach such a point, you reach for anything (almost). In East Nusa Tenggara Indonesia it is not-normally-consumable roots or leaves. In Burma now the meal of non-choice is rice-water porridge, served with nothing.

It is reminiscent, in a way, of Honduras in the 1980s, a far looser, semi-feudal regime. At that time, much of popular Central America was rising up, but in Honduras, largely not. When you asked people why, the answer was usually the same: the Hondurans are too hungry and tired. It was true that they had a big US base and a US-trained military death squad (Battalion 316, backed by the US Army Rangers, the CIA, and then "proconsul" John Negroponte), but it was emblematic of the situation that 316 murdered civilians by the dozens, while its US-backed counterparts in neighboring countries found it necessary to do it by the tens of thousands.

Though the Burmese regime did one of the big all-at-once massacres of recent decades -- 3,000 in 1988 -- the regime has since maintained its power with much less actual gun murder than, say, Indonesia.

It is interesting that the recent Burmese protests were apparently dispersed with fewer killings than in '88. Back then, all the activists agreed, people were eating better.

Hunger -- other people's -- can be the ruler's friend, so long as it doesn't undermine the regime's style of economy (and in today's Burma, it apparently doesn't, since its based not on broad production but on a well-fed martial elite selling minerals, gems, and narcotics to foreigners).

That's not to say that those rulers are not vulnerable. They may be. It in some part depends on their foreign customers/backers.

But for a poor Burmese, you have to think before you spread your feeling. You might get shot in the stomach, even if your adversary doesn't fire his gun.