Burma: the Good, Bad and the Ugly

Follow the news at any length these days,
writes Brian Covert, and you inevitably find an increasing amount of coverage on the heated political situation in Burma (Myanmar), most of it dealing with the country’s ongoing military rule and house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Such mainstream media coverage, not surprisingly, often paints a distorted or incomplete picture, leaving readers and viewers here in Japan grasping for real, uncensored information about what is actually going on both above and underground in that sequestered Southeast Asian nation. A couple of recent publications, however, pick right up where the mass media leave off.

The first,
Guide to Burma, is a superb travel guide that is both practical and user-friendly. British author Nicholas Greenwood goes out of his way to ensure that readers know exactly what they are getting into during a trip to Burma, whether it be an awe-inspiring visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital of Rangoon, a rough train ride to Mandalay, or simply adapting to and respecting the daily customs and manners of the Burmese people. Not to mention the sharp colour photos included in this book that give only a glimpse of the natural beauty for which this country is so well known.

At the same time, this book is politically astute, one step above politically correct, in its approach. Unlike many other tourist guides on the market, it shies away neither from updating potential tourists on the country’s political instability nor the fear that continues to be instilled into the common citizens by the ruling military junta: “…Talking to a foreigner is, for a Burmese, theoretically an act of treason. Above all be discreet: if you can’t desist, refer to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the ‘Lady’ and to [former general] Ne Win as the ‘Old Man’, ‘Number One’ or ‘Him’ but
never by name” (Greenwood’s original emphasis). All in all, Guide to Burma is a well-researched and extremely useful travel companion. Highly recommended for experienced Burma hands and first-timers alike.

Guide to Burma, Nicholas Greenwood, 1993, Bradt Publications, U.K., ¥2,000.

Where even the above book dares not tread, another publication offers a shocking, inside view of Burma that can make Japan’s ‘comfort women’ issue appear mild by comparison: the ongoing trafficking of Burmese girls and women into Thai brothels.

Through 30 direct interviews and various documentation,
A Modern Form of Slavery, by the US-based Human Rights Watch non-profit organisation, details how an estimated 20,000 Burmese women are being bought and sold into prostitution by money-hungry pimps and even by their own economically strapped families, then sent off to Thailand to work up to 18 hours daily under some of the worst conditions imaginable. Some of the most infamous brothels in Ranong, Thailand, are even surrounded by electrified barbed wire with armed guards to prevent any of the girls from escaping, the book attests.

The trafficking of Burmese women has more than just local repercussions. ‘Tar Tar’ was sold as a virgin to a Japanese man for 12,000 baht ($480). He took her to a hotel on Petchaburi Road in Bangkok and raped her while the man’s wife waited in a car outside. It was very painful, and Tar Tar said she screamed until she was unconscious. She thought that because the room was so big and expensive, no one could hear her. She was in pain and felt a terrible burning, but the next day, she was sent to a 50-year-old man. She tried to refuse, but the brothel owner said she had “better get used to it.”

Should any of the girls — average age 17 — be unlucky enough to get caught in the hands of corrupt Thai police authorities, they face yet more sexual degradation or even deportation back to the Burmese border, where the entire prostitution process starts all over again. Most of the victims go into Thailand as virgins and come out with the AIDS virus HIV, according to the researchers of Asia Watch and the Women’s Rights Project. Both are divisions of the New York-based Human Rights Watch organisation, who report that all this is happening right under the not-so-watchful eyes of the Thai government.

To be sure, the Burmese women are only a fraction of the estimated 800,000 to 2 million prostitutes currently working in Thailand. But what makes the case of Burmese women in particular worthy of attention is that the trafficking of these present-day ‘comfort women’ is part and parcel of the ongoing sociopolitical instability in military-controlled Burma — and, of course, yet one more contributing factor in the explosion of AIDS in Asia. The book’s appeal to the conscience of the reader is not so much through raw emotion as through the straightforward presentation of indisputable facts, concrete data, and the voices of the girls and women themselves.

A Modern Form of Slavery: Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls into Brothels in Thailand, Asia Watch and the Women’s Rights Project, 1993, Human Rights Watch, USA, ¥2,200.