Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Burma VJ" & May Day


I’m sure everyone agrees that we need to overcome violence, but first we need to analyze whether it has any value. From a strictly practical perspective, we find that on certain occasions violence appears useful: one can solve a problem quickly with force. But this success is often at the expense of the rights and welfare of others. Although one problem has been solved, the seed of another has been planted.

The day after I read this quote from the Dalai Lama, I watched "Burma VJ," a documentary by Anders Ostergaard. Foreign reporters are banned; a free press is illegal. So, Ostergaard assembled handicam footage taken by video journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma during the protests in September 2007 that started when fuel prices skyrocketed. Soon the monks led marches against the junta. As before in the dictatorship, hopes rose for victory.

But, when marchers took to Rangoon in earlier outrage, in 1988, three thousand were slain by the army. Aung San Suu Kyi, back then, looked like her election would propel her into a takeover of the regime and as in other regimes at that time, that it would lead to freedom from totalitarianism. The clandestine cameramen defiantly tried to document the demands made by unarmed, peaceful demonstrators even as (see the image above), plainclothes police sought to arrest the handicam holders. As you might expect, filming is illegal. They try to upload their footage to the Net or to smuggle it out, but the net, as in the PRC, can be suppressed and dissidents can be whisked off to prison and after that, who knows?

Still, buoyed by the hope the whole world was again watching, they decided to speak up. The silence of the past nine years under the cruel regime ended. For a few days, urged by the monks, people dared to come out and join the marches for reform.

Yet, as at Tiananmen Square a year after the earlier Burmese protests, glasnost and detente failed as power obliterated democracy. And in both cases, allies of the U.S. and foreign powers not to mention corporate energy providers (that is, oil barons), decided to ignore the demands for justice. Chanting monks bravely led early street demonstrations. They were arrested, beaten, and then they disappeared. The red robes that comprised the center of early marches dwindle and then, one day as seen on cameras, are no more.

Then the military crushed the students. One of the last scenes in the documentary takes place in a stairwell. The young men and women are trapped. The stairwell is being shot into. A voice rises. "Let us pray to conquer our fear of death."

Now, the DVB is scattered, its thirty secret filmmakers silenced. I will soon read the second book by Emma Larkin on Burma. Her first, "Finding George Orwell in Burma," chillingly retraced similarly secret events in this grim Big Brother society.

If we ignore human rights in little outposts such as East Timor, let alone the nearly seven million estimated to have died in the Congo, or the prisoners in China or the resistance among the Uighirs or Tibetans against the Communists, it seems that compared to the oil rich barons profiting off of "Myanmar," that the Burmese matter very very little except to provoke momentary discomfort. I posted the end of March on the U.S. Campaign for Burma and their publicity campaign "Arrest Yourself to Free Burma", all the same.

Power or money- which drives us more? This was my wife's question the morning after we watched this film. Later that day, we went off to see spring's wildflowers in the Antelope Valley and to let my older son practice on that rare open road for his test.

The afternoon my friend spoke to Radio Free Eireann at WBAI NYC, I was sitting in the passenger seat as my teenaged son drove the straight line of Highway 138 through what's left, for now, of rural Los Angeles County. The Antelope Valley stretched ahead into rolling orange and purple, poppy and lupine, filling a few slopes. Among them, Joshua trees stood, gradually reclaiming meadows and dales.

U2 came to America, once, in the midst of the Troubles, to speak out for peace. Their LP arguably made the Joshua Tree, heightened by Anton Corbijn's iconic photos, world famous more than either prophet or flora had. While the peace treaty did come to Ireland a decade and more later, the decade and more since the tellingly named Good Friday Agreement of '98 left many Irish republicans unhappy with, as my friend put it in her radio interview, not the peace itself but the way the peace was sold.

That is, the cause for which so many had sacrificed their youth, the safety of their families, the lives of their comrades and those of their foes, had been given up in a stroke of a pen and a photo op to the political necessity to broker a face-saving deal worse than the one proposed in 1975 to settle the Irish conflict. The armed struggle, at the hands of those feted on White House lawns and before Stormont's chambers, long before the second and final ceasefires had been proven a farce. Many had been sent out to kill or had been killed in the name of a strategy already years before determined to have been a failure. The leaders postured and assured their rank and file that the Republican Movement continued its commitment to the "physical-force tradition" while behind the scenes, the IRA volunteers had been already consigned to the past-date bin, the rummage sale, the leftovers of history.

This betrayal sparked the former Belfast Brigade and Long Kesh prison commander, Brendan "The Dark" Hughes to speak out against his friends, under whom and among whom he loyally served so long, to speak out. As with a few others at the online project run by my friends,"The Blanket," in the dozen years following the "peace process," for his dissension he was pilloried by those among whom he had fought and worked all of his life. Censorship and death threats came.

For his honesty, Brendan was blackballed from the building trades now controlled, post-GFA, by pro-Sinn Féin elements eager to undermine any opposition to the grant money, the gladhanding, and the corruption endemic to those who in the North went along with the leadership's acquiescence to the power and wealth that flowed towards those willing to compromise, to shut up, and to give in to the messages that a cowed and duplicitous leadership now in control of West Belfast transmitted to their party followers and fellow recipients of largess from the EEC and British and Irish-funded schemes awarded to the faithful. The party machine ruled as had the "lads": the same people, this being Ireland where everyone knows everyone, doing backroom business.

"The Dark" spoke to my friend's husband as part of interviews archived at Boston College; after Hughes' premature death two years ago the embargo was lifted on using his testimony and Ed Maloney then compiled the work that the interviewer had done. It has been published last month as part of a new book, "Voices Beyond the Grave." Because Brendan's accounts of IRA activity and his critiques of their current mindthink clash with conventional Sinn Féin-controlled versions of events, the interviewer, his wife tells the radio station, has received death threats.

All this leaves me despondent. The violence instigated by Irish republicans determined to lash out against injustice carries a bitter legacy that rankles their divided ranks today, forty years after the latest series of uprisings in the name of a democratic, secular, socialist Ireland that fails to be any of these three qualities.

My wife finished and now I've started a novel by an American who lived in Belfast to write about it longer than most did during the Troubles. Lionel Shriver's brief Wikipedia bio notes: "(she plans to will whatever assets remain at her death to the Belfast Library Board, out of whose libraries she checked so many books when she lived in Northern Ireland)." From her fifteen or so years, her 1990 "The Bleeding Heart" (published as "Ordinary Decent Criminals" in Britain) acerbically tells what transpired. She finds as does her protagonist, an Philly ex-pat in West Belfast, a state of "arrested adolescence" among both minorities, an insular groupthink that glorifies aspiration while delaying arrival. Begrudgers never want success to come.

It ends with a "Glossary of Troublesome Words" and that in turn concludes with "United Ireland:
a hypothetical nation in which there are no more problems and all the citizens thrive in peace and tranquillity. Metaphorically: happiness. Historically: what has never happened. Mythologically: at the end of the day, a phrase Northerners use compulsively, a time and a place where all conflict will be resolved and there will be no more armies, and therefore an eventuality that every faction in Northern Ireland has a vested interest in preventing at all costs. (426-7)


Like a lot of those involved in the Irish cause, I've evolved. In my younger days I backed the "physical force tradition." As I have noted here before, a few years ago I learned how my own great-grandfather, a Land League activist from Co. Roscommon, had died, "drowned in mysterious circumstances" in the Thames to where in 1898 he had been summoned for a meeting with the British. (He also had the same first nick/name as me, although given the marked lack of imagination inherent in my family tree as to nomenclature, this is not much of a coincidence.)

Certainly a telling legacy and an eerie lesson in the persistence, unbeknownst, of somehow nature as well as nurture. Now, I find myself giving up meat. I'm tender towards puppies. I don't enjoy war movies as I did as a kid. My younger son watches "The Pacific" about the brutal Marine landings in '44; I remind him as I pause (before leaving the room) of my uncle I'm named after who died on the shore of Saipan that "island hopping" campaign. I gave up long ago joining the Navy; my first year of college I filed as a "selective C.O.," not that it'd have stopped (if severely myopic?) me from being drafted as the first year to have to sign up for Selective Service under the new Persian Gulf Doctrine of '79. I take no comfort that many of my students undergo rehab at the V.A. Hospital after being wounded in Iraq.

Yet, I bristle at Islamic intolerance. I wonder how pacifists would have fared in the Shoah. I nod as Shriver compares the conflict in the North to some stale entrenched slump in the Great War. But I get as angry as the next guy at injustice, I root for underdogs, and I suspect in a previous life I was an anarchist malcontent somewhere in 1914 Europe. (Reading Thomas Pynchon's endless "Against the Day" can be blamed for that surmise.)

Today downtown L.A.'s jammed as protesters rally against Arizona's law to enforce immigration laws that apparently nobody enforces. I pass giant black pickups with large Mexican flags draped on their rear doors. The freeway's packed going downtown. An MSNBC headline this week:
"Arizona Law 'Makes it Crime to be Illegal Immigrant'."
A progressive's oxymoron. Those who wave flags in my hometown enjoy the protection of laws that enable them to protest the imposition of other laws. I wonder why May Day signals distress rather than some proletariat triumph. Still, the fact that my state allows millions to live here illegally says something about American tolerance and Angeleno attitudes. Or more than one thing.

Meanwhile, peaceful protests by monks in Tibet as in Burma have been wiped out. Those in the North of Ireland turned, the narrative has it, to violence only after the civil rights marchers of '67 & '68 were beaten. Their political demands ignored by police and politicians and militia all to eager to stomp out sit-downs. Much as the media lament crackdowns by law enforcement here, their impact certainly diminishes next to most other places.

The Dalai Lama's own nation and people seem nearly extinguished. Buddhists claim that aggression sows its own horrible harvest, karmic revenge as it were bearing poisonous fruit. Radicals assert that concerted guerrilla warfare can bring about structural change for the better of the working men and women in whose name the struggles are fought against imperialism and capitalism. Compromisers after these battles conclude that giving in and working it out makes better sense and that within the corporate, imperial, capitalist system one can slowly bring about a more lasting, if more subtle, degree of progress and a satisfying change. Power and money, intimidation and threats continue.

Do those who once urged violence upon others bring, in the Dalai Lama's calculus, an equivalent reaction upon themselves? The "Gaelic Irish" and their "Ulster British" foes in their paramilitary guises both identified not as conscripts or career soldiers but as Volunteers. The concept was that nobody forced you into the militia and no one stopped you from getting out. But just as my city's local gangs jump you in and jump you out, the impact of brutality hammers away at anyone trying to free him or herself from the crazy life. A pub-stool dissenter in Shriver's story reasons how regarding the I.R.A. "as an institution it is not in the long-term interests of the organization to meet its own goals: the lot would be out of a job." Two decades later, a dozen years after the GFA, the intimidation by those once socialist idealists continues, channeled into thuggery, blackmail, smuggling, and beatings.

Consider this excerpt under the subheading "Moral Questions" from Sarah Kershaw's "The Terrorist Mind: An Update" (NY Times, 1-10-10):

David C. Rapoport, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a longtime expert on terrorism and morality, said that the final common pathway is a moral calculus, driven by the conclusion that the terrorists’ enemies have “done something so bad, so terrible that they can’t get away with it.” Moral quandaries have often splintered groups, or caused them to disband.

If your objective is to create a world in which innocents (the members of your persecuted group) prevail, but you have to kill innocents to get there, you are in essence destroying your own dream, Dr. Rapoport said. Nevertheless, he said, many terrorists believe “the pathway to paradise is straight through hell." And to kill or in any way violate their own personal moral codes, many terrorists must believe they will achieve a higher moral condition for the group or society as a whole.


Faced with the predicament faced by my friends in Ireland I mull over my own discontent. I sympathize with the message of the Dalai Lama. Do we create a cycle of violence that consumes us? Can the veteran ever rest in peace once home? I teach vets who come back shattered physically and mentally. They sign up out of desperation to pay for college, to leave home, to follow a familial tradition, to get a fast track to citizenship. They come back well-honed to do well in college, but what a cost to pay-- to pay for their education. Trauma, stress, injury: other debts outweigh perhaps interest rates and government loans.

I still bridle against what seems to me the Dalai Lama's resignation for Tibet's impermanence. The genocide of an ancient tradition and a cultural patrimony continues, worse than ever after forty years. As in Ireland, committed by former idealists for a progressive and ameliorative cause, now hardened into thugs.

I bristle at the same old story of republicans in Ireland intimidated and stalked by their former allies willing now to do in those who stand up and assert their convictions. The obliterated Burmese protests discourage me. I lack the insight of a Tibetan lama. I wish I had more wisdom than I do, hearing the shouts of power drummed as always by the clout of money.

(The RFE radio show above on WBAI 4-24-2010 can be heard at that URL with my friend whose husband's life has been threatened. s It starts at 1:11 and her interview, interspersed with host Sandy Boyer, and activist Geraldine Taylor of RSF, ends around 1:24 on the download. Still image from "Burma VJ.")

2 comments:

Layne said...

I realize how much I miss your writing and how my own suffers without your inspiration. I heard a guy while I was cooking, either on Colbert or Daily Show. Of course I forget his name and the title of his book but it addresses declining world population statistics. Women in China, via legal force and now India and Africa, via more gentle persuasion, bear fewer children than in decades past. This will ultimately result in a much older and inevitably more mature population, ostensibly more predisposed to reason than violence. The prison documentaries I watch show how as most convicts age their violent inclinations decrease. I verified the statistics suggesting that the world population will decline on the U.S. Census website. Until the old inherit the earth, keep writing my dear old crank, if only to incite my optimism.

Fionnchú said...

These demographic speculations remind me in turn of my current reading, Christopher Caldwell's "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West." Trouble is that Muslim & African immigrants sustain very high fertility rates, contrary to expectations that settlement encourages smaller families. For Islam, the idea is to procreate to take over the nation where one lives, so that incentive bodes not well for an aging secular Europe.