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South Asia Wired Blog is put to bed

Faithful readers may have gleaned by now that South Asia Wired is due to be axed due to severe budget cuts for Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

As part of the most massive re-organization in its 65 year history, Radio Netherlands will lose 70% of its funding.  Out of some 370 journalists and support staff, only 100 will remain in the new RNW.

RNW’s new mandate is to exclusively focus on Free Speech for selected regions and alas, South Asia is not one of them.  I would like to redirect blog readers to our website which will continue its web and audio production till 1 July 2012. 

Thanks to all readers and participants for your comments and feedback over the years.

A predictable victory

It was inevitable - Aung San Suu Kyi was never NOT going to win this election.

The question now remains, what will the government do with her victory, and that of her party.  There’s always the chance that the hardliners still in high government positions win and reverse many of the positive steps Burma has taken over the last year.  But some in the know believe that the President Thein Sein is genuine in his wish for reform and that the doors of the country have already opened enough to be irreversible.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for the good part of two decades.  Her release last year was cause for widespread celebration but since then there have been low level rumblings that she may be out of touch with the people, that she may be listening to the wrong people, that she isn’t clearly prioritising the problems that her country faces.

It remains to be seen if she can bring unity to a fractured society.  40% of the country’s population consists of a myriad of ethnic groups who themselves are divided by religion, geography, culture and a battle for resource grabs.  The country has faced internal conflicts for more than 60 years and healing the divisions will take years, perhaps decades.

Some Burma watchers hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will take over something like the portfolio for the Education Ministry.  At its independence, Burma had the best education system in Asia - today it would be hard to find a worse one on the continent.  Less than 2% of the national GDP is spent on education and for years, only the elite had a chance to send their young to India or Singapore to study.

How the leadership responds to the overwhelming victory in this recent by-election of the largest and most influential of the nation’s opposition party will be crucial in seeing how the wind is blowing for Burma’s future.

The loss of two powerful voices

Two sad events in the news this last week.

The death of NY Times correspondent Anthony Shadid is a cause of real sorrow for anyone who has wanted to get a nuanced portrait of the true human cost of the conflict in the Middle East.  Mr Shadid who was reporting in Syria at the time died after an asthma attack as he and his colleague, photographer Tyler Hicks were following smugglers from Syria to Turkey.  The obituaries written by colleagues and students show a genuine love and admiration for an engaging and kind man who was also a gifted journalist.  To read his work, was to recognize him as the old school kind of journalist who insisted on being present at the scene, rather than the kind of “rooftop journalism” practised by today’s broadcast media stars.  He worked to speak from the perspective of the ordinary man and woman, the chief victims of the conflict.

And here in The Netherlands, the news of the death of writer, intellectual and opinion maker Anil Ramdas was also a cause for sadness overshadowed immediately by the news of Prince Friso’s skiing accident.  Unlike the obituaries of Mr Shadid, Mr Ramdas has not been as kindly treated by his national media who have often chosen to highlight his professional failures and his problems with drink.

Anil Ramdas, born in Surinam, was of Indian descent, and came to know India as a  student and later as a Delhi based reporter to criticism that he was sending back reports from there that seemed to come more from a sociologist than a journalist.  Ramdas was portrayed as having struggled between his three identities - Surinamese, Indian, and Dutch - made to feel like an outsider in all of them.  His family said he had a “self chosen death” on his 54th birthday.

Their writing is their legacy.

The jealousy of a non sporty Indian

Indians don’t ice skate.  In fact, Indians don’t do much of anything in the way of sports, and true to my heritage, I’ve been lousy at anything that involves moving, running, jumping or holding a ball.  I have no balance, was always the last kid picked for my netball team and I have those spindly Indian ankles that seem to twist on anything higher than the court heel.

But when I came here more than 20 years ago, a colleague insisted that I try to overcome the shortcomings of my genes and my own self censoring cultural prejudices and give ice skating a go.  Everyone in Holland ice skates, she told me, and if I was going to make a life here, I should at least give it a go.

So I enrolled myself for skating lessons - a duty made considerably less tedious by the presence of two young, rather nice looking, male instructors.  On my third lesson, they were both standing on either side of me when I fell. By my third lesson, mind you, it was not my first fall - Lesson Number 2 was particularly memorable because it was conducted during some kind of Arctic gale that had turned right at the North Pole and hit Amsterdam front and centre.  The more hopeless novices in the group (myself among them of course) had been blown about like toy cars on the deck of a listing ship, and there were more than a few spectacular collisions.

The fall I took with my two handsome instructors next to me was a little ladylike thing, legs crossed primly as I fell on the ice on my overpadded bum.  But it resulted in a broken leg with enough complications to keep me hospitalized for nearly a month.  Twenty years later, my ankle is criscrossed with surgery scars and my two year limp has left its legacy: when if I’m wearing heels on a concrete floor you can hear the distinctive morse code of my footsteps.

So you may understand dear reader why I’m just too plain chicken to get back on those skates.

I’ve not had too much cause to regret the fact that any kind of winter sports activity will forever be a closed door to me - that is until we have a week like we’ve just had.  A hard overnight freeze followed by days of very un Dutch sunshine.  On the first glorious day about a week ago, this entire nation breathed an almost audible collective sigh of pleasure, every able bodied Dutch person grabbed their skates and walked out on their jobs and responsible lives for the joy of “natuur skaatsen“.  Seeing as this country is pretty much composed of water - in this weather, the whole place becomes a natural skating rink.

I’ve been here for most of my adult life, but it’s still a rare and precious thing to see the canals of Amsterdam freeze and watch almost the entire population of the city pour onto those roads of ice.  Everyone was there this last weekend - strolling or skating, setting up stalls to sell soup or hot wine, taking dogs on leashes, and toddlers in prams for a walk on the ice.  It was an old Breugel painting come to life, with almost nothing changed except people’s clothes.

The national anticipation for the 11 Cities Race built up to a crescendo with people in an agony to see if the ice would thicken enough for this most beloved of national races to take place, but alas, the thaw started yesterday and The Netherlands will have to wait and see if next year will give us the kind of ice needed for the race.

This time of year makes any Dutch Indian simmer in a stew of regret of lost chances, unsuitable genes and weak ankles.  The jealousy I felt watching the Dutch glide by on the silent lakes and not so silent frozen canals is only just beginning to fade.  But just as my desire to join the Dutch on the ice was overtaking my fear,  and I was coming to the idea that maybe I should give skating lessons another go, I met up with a friend yesterday who had her arm in a sling.  She told me the difficulties of trying to cope with a full time job, and a young child at home with a sprained and painful right hand - the legacy of a little fall she took pirouetting on the canals on the weekend.

Ok - so next winter, I’ll just stick to taking my camera on the ice.

Burma needs more than an icon

She’s beautiful, courageous, and no one can doubt her integrity.  Aung San Suu Kyi personifies the born leader.

From the moment she walked into the public arena in 1988, her people loved her.  First they loved her because she was the daughter of their assassinated hero, General Aung San.  Later they loved her because she stood against the military junta that was squeezing every freedom and right out of the lives of ordinary Burmese.  Then they grew to love her even more for her unstinting personal sacrifices by now transformed into a common mythology: her stubborn refusal of the junta’s offer of freedom so she could go to the side of her dying husband, in England.  She’s missed the growing up of her sons, the birth of her grandchildren, she’s missed the ceremony where her family accepted a Nobel Prize in her name, she’s missed the simple human interactions that every ordinary person takes for granted.

There’s no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi - the Lady - has given up a lot for her nation.

And now after more than a decade and a half spent within the crumbling walls of her lakeside villa, she’s out of house arrest and back in the political arena.  Her party, the National League for Democracy will be contesting all of the 48 seats available for the April 1st by election.  It’s inconceivable that she at least personally, won’t win.

Any recent visitor to Burma would be hard pressed to miss the general mood of optimism.  From the stand ups that Al Jazeera and BBC reporters are doing on the streets of Yangon and Naypitaw, to the use of real names and photos of people interviewed, to the images of the Lady, totally banned during the dark years of the 90’s - that adorn T-shirts, posters and mugs openly sold on the streets, the country is a long way from the furtive and restricted place it was even a couple of years ago.

Taxi drivers wave and gesticulate,  “yes, good place now - many changes.”  Civil society groups and pro-democracy politicians assert that they are “cautiously hopeful.”  Telephones with local SIM cards, unaffordable for the casual visitor a few years ago, are available as is free  WiFi in certain hotels.  The first uncensored film festival for 60 years was inaugurated on New Year’s Eve by the Lady herself and the theme was - what else - Freedom.

But.  And yes, there is indeed a but.  These are tiny baby steps on a long long road to any real freedom as we understand it.  Freedom of ordinary people to earn a decent living, freedom to be able to rely on a a regular supply of electricity, freedom to expect education for your children, affordable medical care for your old and sick.

And while we’re talking of the road to freedom, let’s start with the road itself - roads in Burma can be trying for anyone venturing out of the capital.  A 90 kilometre trip means five bumpy uncomfortable hours.  Night driving is done in almost complete darkness, as what little sporadic electricity there is usually comes in the form of a few dingy neon tubes in towns along the way with little in the way of street lighting outside the cities.

The country - one of the most resource rich in Asia - wears its poverty on its sleeve.  The ruling military designated less than 2% of its national budget to education and health combined, and indeed out of the city, what schools and hospitals there are, are in pitiful condition.  The average lower income wage hovers somewhere around 8-15 euros a month, and its not unusual to see taxi drivers who’ve tossed their engineering degrees because they can earn more driving a taxi than working as an engineer.  A university education does not guarantee a job, or indeed an education.  IT graduates from Mandalay University may well find that using the internet or sending an email is beyond the limits of what they’ve learned from their studies.

There’s a full blown conflict raging in Kachin state in the north, with tens of thousands of internally displaced people living in miserable conditions, uncertain when, if ever they can go back to the homes and fields they’ve fled.  40% of the country’s 50-60 million people come from dozens of ethnic groups who have been the butt of a successful divide and rule policy that was inherited from the British colonial rulers by the military, so there’s little consensus between the different groups, a web of ceasefires and broken treaties between ethnic groups and the army, and often the groups themselves are split into warring factions.  Add to this poisonous stew a steady stream of funding from smuggling, narcotics and illegal resource stripping and it gets even more murky.

60 years of military repression and mismanagement has bred a ‘do nothing without an order’ mentality and a singular lack of capacity in almost every area of governance.  English language ability is limited to those who were lucky enough to benefit from Burma’s splendid pre-1962 era education; the young people working the reception desks of even the larger hotels now bursting with foreign tourists can barely understand the basic communications of the “I want to change my room” variety.

There are, in short, a plethora of problems facing the country in its efforts to re-join a world that has long ago left it behind.  Catching up with even neighbouring Thailand with its constant supply of electricity, its miles of strip malls, its universal health care and education, will be a mammoth task.  And for such a task, Burma will need more than a beloved icon.  The country is in dire need of a functioning infrastructure, a civil service that has the know how and ability to administer good public policy, it’s three lost generations will have to be replaced by a  generation that can be offered a good education and employment prospects.

It’s a lot to put on the frail shoulders of one Lady, no matter how formidable her will and integrity.  Yet she must bear an even heavier burden;  that of the exaggerated expectations of her country and the world.  A great number of Burmese people love her with a passion that is bemusing to a westerner who would never think of using the words love and leader in the same sentence.  In 2008, the newly minted president Barack Obama entered office carrying just such a burden.  Being only human, it proved too much for him.  It is after all, too much for any one man to carry, and I fear it is too much even for a woman of the moral and personal stature of Aung San Suu Kyi.