Tuesday, July 19, 2016

19 July - Martyrs' Day

Today is a day of remembrance in Myanmar. The people commemorate and remember Bogyoke (General) Aung San who was assasinated on the 19 of July 1947 in Yangon.

To this day General Aung San remains one of the most popular and beloved iconic figure in the country mainly due to his tireless struggle for an independent Burma.

inside the Secretariat building

He is considered the Father of the Nation, a personality loved by the people. Sadly his vision of unity in diversity for all Myanmar's ethnic groups remained just a dream the day he was assassinated in Yangon, on the 19 of July 1947. 

Today, 19 of July, I also think at the struggle of this resilient people who kept its faith in the future. Without their constant struggle for survival, freedom and human rights the country would today not be on its way to democracy and development.

Not a single day passes by since I arrived in Myanmar without seeing, reading or hearing about the constant struggle of Myanmar's diverse population. The causes for this continuous struggle, in many cases for survival, are multiple: internal conflict, natural disasters, corruption, lack of education, economic hardships, lack of proper sanitation, and deathly diseases. The suffering is not recent. The past proved to be a difficult one for this country with a long and agitated history of colonialism, war and oppression. The Burmese kings and Great Britain, the colonial power who ruled Burma for over 120 years, proved to have little consideration for the people's needs. Not long after the country's independence from colonial rule, the military took power. The ordinary people suffered even more with Myanmar becoming one of the most impoverish countries in the world due to internal fights between the Burmese army and the ethnic groups, economic mismanagement and international isolation following economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union. In the past years the political climate slowly improved. Last year, in the general elections, citizens were able to cast their vote freely. As a result Myanmar is now a young democracy but still very much a developing country. The people's hopes and expectations are high. It is for the first time in many years that they look up to their rulers with admiration and belief. 

People visiting the Secretariat building in Yangon

Myanmar is a country with over 50 million people who belong to eight major ethnic groups:  Bamar, Shan, Kayin (Karen), Rakhine, Mon, Kayah and Kachin, and numerous ethnic sub-groups. Despite the national ceasefire agreement which was signed between the army and a majority of ethnic armed groups, fighting still continues in some parts of the country. The ones who suffer most are the villagers from these areas who are affected by continued armed conflict. They struggle to survive from one day to another. Thousands became refugees in Thailand. Many were not able to cross the border in their flight and are now part of the countries tens of thousands of Internally Displaced People. Their survival in the Myanmar jungle is hanging on a thread of international support quite often. The children fall sick with malaria and fever. Their only meal during endless days is rice. They live in a constant fear of being attacked. Last but not least you have the Rohingya's plight to be recognised as a minority in this country. With many thousands currently housed in displacement camps following inter-ethnic violence in 2012, the end of their struggle is still far from sight and the issue remains very sensitive. 

Migration inside the country is mainly forced by the economic hardship. The rural exodus towards the cities where many arrive in the hope of a better life often remains unfulfilled with many struggling to make ends meet. Many are day labourers and often work on the countless construction sites in dire conditions. The small income they receive is sent back home to support their family. But you also see children working at the tea shops in Yangon, serving clients, washing dishes or cleaning the tables. In the evenings or mornings you find them at street crossings hoping to sell jasmine flowers or water bottles to the drivers. What an unsafe place to be, as some street-vending children are being hit by speeding cars! The destitute parents risk their children's life out of desperation. These families' situation will not improve without support from Government. In Myanmar there is no social safety net. There is no pension system, and only recently work contracts and a minimum wage have been introduced.

In Myanmar's press you often read sad news or stories. Mothers with small children abandoned by their husbands, orphan children trying to survive on their own, the drama of people with disabilities and the discrimination they face, the uncertainty of the future for the young people who interrupted school at a young age to support the family's income, the drama of the scavengers looking for jade (and other precious stones) caught by landslides, and so many more.

Stories of abusive land expropriation are frequent in the newspapers. People who used the land for decades are forcibly pushed out. While driving out of Yangon you notice the squatters' homes on the city's outskirts. The inhabitants are mostly the displaced families or the young working force who moved to the big city by promises of a better life. Their current living conditions are worse than in the places they have left. The diseases flourish in this environment which sees high water in the rainy season and which is overflowing with trash due to the absence of a proper waste management and sewage system.

Because of the elusive promises by unscrupulous human traffickers you still have today thousands of Myanmar people working as slaves on fishing boats in Thailand. Their working conditions are indescribable, with no pay and endless months at sea. The Government tried to address the problem under international pressure but without a strong regional crackdown on this phenomenon reports of human trafficking and modern-day slavery will continue to be reported by NGOs or the press.
Natural disasters are no less frequent in Myanmar. The last major natural disaster which happened in 2008 caused the death of more than 120000 people. Every year, during the monsoon season landslides happen in some of the country's region with high causalities due to poor constructing materials and lack of information on the dangers of building houses in high risk areas. Last year's floods cost the lives of dozens of people and destroyed thousands of houses, schools, hospitals and other buildings. More importantly it destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of people whose fields were flooded and whose harvest was ruined.

Actually the Government is lacking proper funding for two of the arguably most important sectors: education and health. An urgent switch in the country's policy priorities is needed.  The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San has a difficult task ahead. She needs to rise to the expectations of all the people of Myanmar. There is no doubt that the most challenging period of her life has only just started. 

Today is a day of remembrance. The former house of General Aung San, now a museum close to Kandawgyi lake, has been cleaned and refurbished for weeks, the streets around the house have been repaved, the house's gardens trimmed. 

Huge numbers of people waiting to visit the Bogyoke Aung San Museum
The Secretariat (or the Ministers' Building), the building where General Aung San was assassinated together with six cabinet ministers, was today opened to the public. This year there were record numbers of people waiting to visit these places despite the rain so that they could pay their respects and remember the great General. I joined them. 

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