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A fragile democracy

Author and human-rights activist Benedict Rogers sees reason for cautious optimism in Myanmar's reforms.

Publication Date : 01-10-2012


In the last 12 years, Benedict Rogers has made 40 fact-finding trips to Myanmar to document the human rights situation and abuse in the country. He's been detained and deported twice: in March last year and again last May. Yet even after the second deportation, Rogers was able to get a visa to go back and this time he came back with a sense of "cautious optimism" about Myanmar's reform process.

"There's a change in the atmosphere but not in the system. That's why I have to be cautious," he says.

After his last Burma trip, Rogers launched his latest book "Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads", a comprehensive study of the country's turbulent past and complex present through key issues ranging from human rights and ethnic conflicts to Cyclone Nargis and freedom movements. Things are changing slowly, he notes.

By bringing out such a tome that seeks to cover the gamut of Myanmarese affairs, Rogers wants to highlight a shortage of "comprehensive" books on the country.

"One of the reasons I wrote this is that I felt a lot of books on Burma tend to approach Burma through one dimension: either the dimension of democracy movement, of Aung San Suu Kyi, or the perspective of one ethnic minority group," he says. "Those works are definitely valuable, though. With this book I want to look at the situation in a comprehensive fashion, from the struggle for democracy to the plight of ethnic minorities, with some historical context. And the book looks into the future too. That's what I try to do."

Rogers doesn't call himself a journalist, although he has had work published in the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. He's now a human rights advocate with the Christian Solidarity Worldwide based in London. Over the past 15 years, his focus has been on Myanmar.

Rogers became involved in human rights work when he was a university student. He travelled to Asia and worked as a journalist based in Hong Kong.

"I was in East Timor when I started hearing more about what was happening in Burma. I wasn't involved in the Burmese cause until 1997 when I visited refugees on the Thai-Burmese border. Through that visit, I became actively involved. What drew me in was the extent of the suffering, especially of the Karen and other ethnic groups, which went largely underreported. I found Burma to be such a beautiful country with dignified people and I didn't see why the country had to suffer so much," he says.

Through his long-running involvement in the Burma cause, Rogers feels obliged to highlight the suffering its people have gone through at the hands of the military regime for the past five decades and the need to secure true freedom for the country.

The comprehensive book relies on his extensive travels beyond Yangon and other tourist cities into areas controlled by ethnic groups, including those of the Kachin and Karen, where he saw for himself the plight of these severely marginalised peoples.

"I made sure I was travelling as a tourist visiting tourist sites," he says, adding, "and I had to be very careful travelling to meet them. My principle has always been to meet people in a place of their choosing because they know you will be safe."

However these trips hit snags. In March last year and again last May, he was stopped by members of the Secret Service, detained and deported. But Rogers admits he's not really faced any life-threatening experiences in Myanmar.

On one trip to the Kachin-controlled area, he was staying in a hotel in which a top-ranking military figure from the Burma's Northern Regional Command came to have lunch three floors below.

"That was the during the ceasefire agreement reached between the Kachin and the Burma Army before it broke down last year."

The closest he came to danger was on Thai soil in February 2008. Three days after sitting down for a discussion with Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, then the general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), the major resistance organisation struggling on behalf of the Karen people, Phan was murdered at his home in Mae Sot in Thailand's Tak province.

"The man was sheltering some child soldiers who had escaped from the Burma Army and was looking after them well. Three days after that meeting, an unknown gunman shot him dead.

"It was a loss not only for the Karen people, but for people engaged in movements for the freedom of Burma. He was someone who bridged the gap between different ethnic groups and religions. He had good relations with people in the democracy movements," he says.

Stories of atrocities have come from people Rogers met along the way, among them of ethnic groups trapped in the jungle as they were displaced from their homes and women gang-raped by soldiers of the Burma Army.

"Rape has long been a weapon of war for the Burma Army," he says.

He also met a landmine victim in Karen state, who had lost a leg after stepping on a mine.

"He was partially carried and sometimes crawled or hopped for three days to get medical treatment," he notes.

But things are changing in Myanmar, says Rogers. He's confident that the reform process is genuine and there's a strong likelihood that democracy will come to the country at least by 2015 when the next general election is due.

"Democracy cannot happen in one election. It's a process. So I have to maintain my cautious optimism. It's a combination of recognising the changes that are taking place and taking the attitude that when the government does the wrong thing we should criticise them and speak out. Just the same, when they do the right thing, we should welcome what they are doing and encourage them.

"You have to be cautious because there's still a long way to go, prisoners are still in jail and there's still an active conflict in Kachin State. This process is fragile. We are by no means there yet," he concludes.


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