on the road to mandalay...

...there are apparently quite a few monks. A lot of whom, tonight (US time), may well be dead. As may be the current protests there. In Burma, that is.

My first holiday, as a grown-up (I was 21 at that time), was to the borders of Thailand and Burma. As I trudged my way through the forests where the Thailand-Burma railway (or the Death Railway, as it is oh-so-poetically called) ran, it was fairly easy to believe nothing much had changed in the 50 or so years since the end of World War Two. The forests were quiet, not many people could be seen and the horror stories of wartime, which we'd had to read during my world politics class, were still fresh in memory. I went all the way up to the Three Pagodas Pass*, found out that the border guards were willing to let a fairly innocuous looking person through and had to haggle for a motorbike ride to the nearest (Burmese) town. Unsurprisingly, probably, it was not much different to the small Thai border towns and the people even understood my dodgy Thai as I bargained for a jade elephant (which I still have).

Later, I found out this border was different--other border areas between Thailand and Burma were teeming with people who had escaped from Burma, many of whom had been living there for decades. New people arrived every day. People were sold from the refugee camps (and ended up in dodgy parts of Bangkok) every day. There was tension among the local Thais and the refugee Burmese. But, at that time, it was my first holiday. I was seeing and walking through areas I'd read about in my classes. I was following the trail where over 120,000 people had died during the War, just making these train tracks. It was, as most things are for 21-year olds, a grand old adventure.

Why the detour into memory lane? Well, when I had to pick a case for my in-class exercise** for the kids I'm teaching, I thought of and rejected quite a few. The way the textbook for the class is organised, it focuses on cases which are "of interest" to the United States so you are likely to read about Israel, Palestine, NATO, the GWOT and so on. Smaller countries do not get much of a mention. Then, I thought of Burma--the BBC had been reporting about the few protests going on (at that time) and I thought it was an excellent case to see what different actors do (or would do) and to discuss issues of alliance, sovereignty, democracy-promotion and so on. I could (as I did) change the names of the actors and make my students guess the country.

One student did. Then, on Tuesday, I used Burma again as an example of how identities matter in world politics.*** We talked about whether assisting the pro-democracy forces in Burma was in the United States' national interest (and why or why not). We talked about social movements and the status of religious leaders in society. We talked about what would happen, in Burma, if one of them were killed. As they are all from the United States or Japan, the likelihood of their death being in the news would be high. Then, we went through what would happen if I was killed. As a Nepali, I'd hardly rate a mention.**** A rather cheery class, you might say. We also discussed allliances and why the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) admitted Burma as a member and maintained ties with it despite its non-democratic government. We talked about China and its policies. We talked about US interests and how "we" never hear about Burma (or hadn't until very recently). So, yes, Burma's featured a lot in my world politics class this past week.

This means the kids are keen to see what is going on there now. As am I. On a cynical level, I have a feeling that the end will somehow be similar to 1988. Or, even if the pro-democracy forces somehow overthrow the government, that will not change the lot of the people much. On a level that still remembers my walk through the woods at a time when I still thought the world could be a world of my (our?) making, I do hope the Burmese people get the changes they want. Or, at the very least, cheaper fuel prices.

* Not hiking all the way though--I took public transport partway there!

** See post on democracy: a social experiment.

*** This week is "constructivism week".

**** Unless I was killed in a rather spectacular fashion. And, of course, numbers matter.

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