Chiang Mai, THAILAND
One bright day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
One was blind and the other couldn’t see,
So they chose a dummy for a referee.
A blind man went to see fair play,
A dumb man went to shout “hooray!”
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came to arrest the two dead boys.
If you don’t believe this story’s true,
Go ask the blind man; he saw it too!
I’ve always found this limerick clever and funny. It’s fraught with paradox and humor. The two dead boys confusedly shoot one another, supposedly with swords while facing away from one another. The general uproar that ensues shows that no one could ably resolve the situation. In short, there’s an irreconcilable contradiction resulting in the nullification of all actions therein. Now this limerick comes to mind when I think of the current state of affairs among Thai-Burma border groups, non-governmental civic groups internal to Burma, and international advocacy foundations, such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) or the US Campaign for Burma. The above organizations are typically considered as divided into two main camps of democracy assistance: political and developmental. All are advocating the slow and taxing process of democratization in one form or another.
The ICG and US Campaign for Burma, among others, fall into the former category of political assistance, while more grassroots agents in civil society, like community based organizations (CBOs) and border groups fall into the latter: that of development aid.
Thomas Carothers characterizes the second camp:
The developmental approach rests on a broader notion of democracy, one that encompasses concerns about equality and justice and the concept of democratization as a slow, iterative process of change involving an interrelated set of political and socioeconomic developments. It favors democracy aid that pursues incremental, long-term change in a wide range of political and socioeconomic sectors, frequently emphasizing governance and the building of a well-functioning state.¹
Some charity-based organizations on the border and in Burma, focused on providing humanitarian aid to those most in need, criticize the long-term goals of political aid. They often claim that policy advocates have little sense of the real conditions of things on the ground, in the vulnerable sectors of society. After Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta region of coastal Burma in May 2008, for example, the world immediately responded to the world natural disaster to strike in Burma’s history, donating food supplies and emergency relief like medical treatment and minimal shelter. This tremendous effort no doubt saved countless lives and improved the basic living conditions of the poorest of the poor, who by and large were helpless after losing their homes and livestock.
On a subtler and more persistent level, organizations like Myanmar Red Cross Society, the UN Development Programme, and numerous CBOs, donate a regular supply of support at the village level, whether it be mosquito nets, water sanitation units, or otherwise. We all too often praise these relief groups at the price of ignoring the real change promulgated by policy advocates and civic empowerment agents. I have even observed this divisive tendency within the camp of development aid, which hardly pretends to be a unified cause.
The Burma Volunteers Program (BVP), part of the Tabyay Education Network, which helped me to find a research position in Chiang Mai for an advocacy think tank, and which serves as an umbrella consortium, mostly places volunteers in teaching positions within Burmese and Karen refugee camps in and around Mae Sot, Thailand, a hodgepodge border town, 9 km away from the Burma border, of mixed population: Thai citizens, Burmese migrant workers, refugees, NGO employees, ex-political prisoners, and interested foreigners.
As said above, some organizations within Burma and on the border are more devoted to aiding in the development of transition by way of raising the collective consciousness of civil society, advocating civic empowerment and political education. I found out before I started work in Chiang Mai that I had already been relegated to this group of “slow change”. As one BVP Coordinator told me, my organization and its founders were controversial in this circle of activists because they are viewed as none too overly concerned with human rights, and generally held to overlook the “way things are” for the people of Burma.
This conceptualized dichotomy is pervasive and insidious wherever one goes in this region of Northwest Thailand, hugging the Burma border. I come across this rift between the humanitarian and the political again and again. In what was my first dinner out with the Burma Volunteers Program in Mae Sot, we went to the night market, where we were joined by nearly twenty other volunteers affiliated with BVP. At this point, I had yet to find my own position, and I was unemployed. People there were friendly and engaging, but in the opening remarks of each introduction, I could sense those around me were trying to place me, figure out which “side” I was on. One conversation developed around me, in which one English teacher was decrying an unpleasant argument he had had with another local NGO employee of the “advocacy” type. The bitter way he drew out that word “advocacy” with a low snarl surprised me. I claimed neutrality with an innocent shrug, explaining that I was still looking for a placement through BVP’s network. But I had quickly learned the imagined divide between different camps involved in work towards, essentially, the same goal! It was as if, were I to choose to engage in democracy assistance from an office rather than the refugee camp, I would be criminalized, while the volunteer who places himself on the front lines, so to speak, was the saint. I didn’t buy it.
I thought about this conversation for a while. Why did the English teacher volunteering his time in the refugee camp feel so hostile toward the democratic policy advocate? Why did he envision himself atop a moral highground inaccessible to those outside his camp? Were things really the way he saw them: the volunteer teachers devoting their time to extended stays within refugee camps, real “men of the people,” so to speak, and the removed and emotionally distanced policy researchers, unmoved by the plight of the common people? This debate was lodge in my thinking for weeks.
What need is there for various groups promoting democratic reform and human rights in Burma to point fingers at one another, accusing the one of insincerity or unrealistic, long-term goals? Nobody wants to see this nonsense go any further. Let’s work together before, as the limerick goes, our “two dead boys” shoot each other.
¹Carothers, Thomas. “Democracy Assistance: Political vs. Developmental?,” in Journal of Democracy 20 (1), January, 2009: 5.