Burma Betrayed?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Irrawaddy Editorial

In 1947, when Burma’s independence leader Aung San was in London to negotiate the end of British colonial rule over his country, Winston Churchill expressed indignation in Parliament at the sight of this “traitor rebel leader … marching up the steps of Buckingham Palace as the plenipotentiary of the Burmese Government.”

Aung San was, he said, a quisling who had aided the fascist Japanese Imperial Army in its invasion of British Burma, much as Norway’s wartime president Vidkun Quisling had facilitated the Nazi occupation of his country. The fact that Aung San later joined the Allies in their efforts to rid Burma of the Japanese did not, apparently, make his earlier collaboration with the enemy any less distasteful to Churchill, who described the later alliance as “not a very agreeable transaction.”

What Churchill failed to recognize, of course, was that Aung San never fought for the Japanese or for the British. The object of his struggle was always and only the liberation of Burma—a struggle that continues to this day.

Now, as in the days of Aung San, Burmese who seek to restore their country’s freedom and dignity must do so largely with the assistance of foreign supporters whose agendas are not always identical to their own. Fortunately, however, in our own time, this support comes chiefly from those with whom we share a set of universal values, based upon our common belief in democracy and human rights, rather than from imperialistic powers intent upon using Burma for their own ends.

That does not mean that our relations with our friends have always been easy, however.

Last week, for instance, The Irrawaddy was obliged to publish an open letter to the Danish Embassy in Bangkok to address several inaccuracies and unfounded accusations about our operations that had appeared in an e-mail sent to a number of other embassies in Thailand a week before our annual donors’ meeting on Oct. 1.

Apart from the factual errors contained in this e-mail, we were disturbed by the fact that it had been circulated without our knowledge, leaving us unable to defend ourselves against these charges until a more sympathetic supporter informed us of its existence. By this time, however, it had already reached pro-regime websites, providing a propaganda windfall to a junta that is already preparing to declare a final victory over the forces of democratic change in Burma after next month’s election.

The Danish Embassy is, of course, perfectly entitled to withdraw its support for our organization when and as it sees fit. However, the manner in which it chose to bring our relationship to an end, after providing a very generous sum of US $200,000 over a period of three years, suggests that there is something more at work here than just misgivings about the way The Irrawaddy is using Danish taxpayers’ money.

At this stage, it would be tempting to simply remain silent on this matter, to avoid incurring any further acrimony from a former donor that has already demonstrated an almost inexplicable ill will toward us. However, it has come to our attention that we are not alone in finding ourselves suddenly condemned for failing to live up to the Danish Embassy’s expectations.

We have thus decided that, in the interests of our community, which continues to face challenges unimaginable in countries that already enjoy the full benefits of democracy, we should speak out against what appears to be an undeclared war to undermine Burmese resistance to military rule.

The first signs of trouble emerged last January, when the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet published a report alleging that two Burmese groups based in Thailand, the National Health and Education Committee (NHEC) and the Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB), had engaged in illegal activities that disqualified them from receiving further support from Denmark.

The nature of the charges against the two groups betrayed a complete ignorance of the realities facing Burmese organizations operating in countries such as Thailand, where their very presence is often deemed illegal. The groups were even taken to task for setting up telephone numbers inside Burma without first getting the approval of the Burmese authorities—something that would entirely defeat the purpose of establishing contact with inside sources of information.

It should come as no surprise that the Danish newspaper report appeared to be utterly uninformed about the actual situation of Burmese exiles in Thailand: According to the Danish Burma Committee, a nongovernmental organization, it was based upon two audit reports written by a Thai national with little understanding of the status of the groups being audited. The fact that these groups agreed to subject their operations to a thorough examination, which involved sharing sensitive information such as the visa status of their members, attested to their willingness to abide by the terms of their agreements with the Danish Embassy. Unfortunately, however, their sincere efforts to cooperate were not reciprocated.

In a manner disturbingly reminiscent of the attack on The Irrawaddy, it appears that the original audit reports—which were password-protected and stamped “strictly confidential”—were leaked to the Danish press without the knowledge of those most affected by the disclosures they contained, raising serious concerns about their safety. In the case of both groups, the immediate financial effect of the reports was devastating; but this could pale beside the threat to their security posed by the irresponsible leaking of information about individuals engaged in political activities both in Thailand and inside Burma.

Until they were released to the Ekstra Bladet, the reports were in the possession of just three parties—the Thai author, the Danish Embassy and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is unclear who actually leaked the reports, but it is obvious that the intention was to do substantial harm.

In light of these revelations—which until now have attracted very little attention—the accusation that The Irrawaddy has become a “donor stooge” (to use the words of the e-mail sent from the Danish Embassy to our donors on Sept. 23) now sounds like something of a red herring. In criticizing our failure to develop a business that would make us more self-sufficient, the Embassy ignores the fact that many of the world’s most highly respected media organizations are publicly funded. It also seems to be reaching for straws when it points out that sales of our monthly print magazine are very low, without acknowledging that we also produce a range of other media products that have been highly successful in terms of reaching a wide audience.

And if the Danish government is so thoroughly unimpressed with our work, how does it explain its apparent reluctance to disburse $500,000 in funding to the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma, whose coverage of the 2007 Saffron Revolution inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary “Burma VJ,” by Danish director Anders Østergaard?

What are we to make of Denmark’s position on funding exile groups at a time when many seem to believe that Burma’s rulers are poised to open the country to a post-election free-for-all for anyone prepared to play by the regime’s rules? Are the Danish Embassy’s actions those of a truly disillusioned donor? If so, we sincerely wish it luck in making better use of its aid money inside Burma—a resource-rich yet deeply impoverished nation run by ruthless generals with multibillion-dollar bank accounts.

Quisling is a very ugly word to level at anyone, but unless Denmark clarifies its recent actions and its stance on aid to Burmese exile groups, it will be difficult not to conclude that it has betrayed our country’s democratic cause and sided with Burma’s fascist rulers. That might sound like the simplistic thinking of naïve activists, but if the people of Europe are genuinely interested in understanding our plight, they need only look back seven decades to their own darkest hour and imagine it never ended.


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