Friday, 26 October 2012

We will not stop

Interview with Garrett Kostin Part II
TBF: What were your feelings about the situation of the people in general inside the country?
Garrett: This is a difficult and complex question to answer. I can only give my impression that the Burmese people themselves are the country’s most valuable resource. In a country with so many things going wrong, to me the only worthwhile reason to visit the country is to visit the people: to have the opportunity to learn from them, take guidance from them, support them, and befriend them, even if only briefly. The people have an astounding amount of patience and endurance, which is why they are able to still smile and find enjoyment even under such difficult and oppressive conditions. However, I have the clear impression that they are not living full, complete lives, and I think they are aware of this also. They are surviving now, but the hope that they will one day soon be able to live free, self-determining, complete lives is what sustains them.
In discussions with the people, I heard a lot of anger, cynicism, and disgust expressed towards the military regime. This was not surprising. What was disturbing was to also hear notes of resignation and helplessness from some. I was told by a few Burmese people that they felt everything that could be done to bring about freedom and democracy to their country had already been tried and had failed. They couldn’t see a solution, but did have hope that one would appear, possibly from outside of Burma. I encouraged them to look inside themselves, and not to wait for outside help, as it is my belief that a true, lasting change must arise from within Burma itself. Those of us on the outside can merely offer encouragement, inspiration, and support.
Finally, although I was told by one or two people that “maybe things in Burma will improve this year with the upcoming elections”, the vast majority of those I spoke with have no faith that the elections will be free or fair, or will result in any significant change or improvement in the country. One man told me that without the NLD, there was no one he could trust or support, so he would not be voting at all.
TBF: Do you feel tourists/visitors have an obligation to do something about the situation in Burma?
Garrett: This is another complex question. There is a difference between what I would like tourists to do and what I would say they have an obligation to do. I do feel it is irresponsible to go to Burma without doing some background reading about the situation there. I also feel it is wrong to stay in state-run hotels or guest houses, fly with the government airlines, pay to visit Mandalay Palace, etc., as all of those activities provide direct monetary support to the military regime, which the vast majority of the population has strongly rejected as the legitimate leaders of their country.
There is a concept called “responsible tourism in Burma”, which includes educating yourself about the country, attempting to give as little money as possible to the junta, looking for ways to directly support the people, and trying to listen to and learn from locals as much as possible about what they want for their country. I strongly support this type of responsible tourism, and I hope every tourist to Burma looks for some small things they can also do to show solidarity with the cause of democracy and freedom in Burma, and to remind the people that their cause has not been defeated or forgotten.
I also take inspiration from Aung San Suu Kyi in regards to this question. She has said, “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen to side with the oppressor.” Each individual must decide if their conscience allows them to remain neutral or not.
TBF: Do you think your actions could have brought local contacts in danger?
Garrett: Of course this a great concern, and something I discussed in advance with several Burmese monks and laypeople. I took every precaution I could, as well as every suggestion I was given about how to minimize possible negative consequences to locals I had contact with. Many of the people who had direct contact with me as guides, drivers, or guest house staff never had any idea of what I was doing. I also only put the stickers in public areas where they could not be linked to specific individuals.
Unfortunately I cannot give every detail of what I did, but I hope that people realize my actions were not simply the deeds of an irresponsible, adrenaline-driven foreigner, but part of a larger peace campaign constructed by and with Burmese monks, peace activists, and other Burmese people.
TBF: What happened when you were arrested? What did the authorities tell you? Did you see a lawyer, or somebody from your embassy?
Garrett: I knew that the authorities were following me and limiting my movements for several days prior to my arrest. It was quite obvious. At this point, the locals who were in contact with me knew that they were likely to at least be questioned by the authorities, but still none rejected me. I tried to apologize in advance to the managers of guest houses where I stayed, etc., but was consistently told that they did not resent me or wish for me to move away from them.
I decided that I would not give up and leave Burma early on my own accord, as this would just show the authorities that I feared them or that I felt I had done something wrong. I spoke with a duty officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon and based on our conversation I was determined to complete my itinerary, knowing that minimally I would be followed every step of the way, and possibly detained for questioning or even deported. I only had five days left on my itinerary anyway, and I was very determined to get to Kachin State! I don’t give up or scare too easily.
As it turns out, after a day in Mandalay in which the surveillance of myself was not as obvious as it had been in smaller cities and I had started to relax a little, the next morning I woke up to find that a few immigration officers and several plain-clothes officials, possibly policemen, were waiting for me in the lobby of the guest house. I was not told much beyond that I was going to be taken to the airport and forced to leave Burma that day. The officials could not speak English and had difficulty finding an interpreter, so they did not ask me any questions, nor were any of my questions answered. My passport was confiscated, and not returned to me until I boarded the final flight to Bangkok.
Before I was taken from the guest house, I was allowed to pack my things, and during this time I was able to pass a note to another foreigner at the guest house. I asked her to please call the duty officer at the U.S. Embassy and let him know that I was being deported. From reading about other foreigners’ encounters with Burmese officials, I knew it was pretty pointless to request a lawyer. At this point, they were under no obligation to provide me with one.
I had to suffer a long, awkward drive to the Mandalay airport crushed in the backseat of a taxi with two bulky men, but oddly I was allowed to listen to my i Pod during the ride! No one spoke to me the entire time. I figured maybe I would be questioned when we reached Rangoon. I was never handcuffed or handled roughly. At the airport there were what I assume to be government agents waiting with cameras. I was filmed the entire time. I was put on a plane with an escort. Unfortunately, it was a Myanmar Airways flight – but I was able to get a final peace dove sticker up in the aircraft’s bathroom.
We flew from Mandalay to Nay Pyi Taw, then to Rangoon. In Rangoon I was taken to an immigration office, but still never questioned or thoroughly searched. On a shelf in the office I saw a large folder on a shelf labeled “Blacklist 2005”. I asked an officer if my name would be featured in “Blacklist 2010.” He told me, “Sure”. At this point the mood was more relaxed, and I was asked if I had already had my lunch or not. I told them I had not even had any breakfast, but that I was okay. I was given a cup of green tea.
Any question I asked about the reason for my deportation was answered with, “I don’t know”. I was simply told that I had to leave Burma that day. I got the impression that the authorities directly dealing with me were just following their orders, doing their jobs. The decision-makers were behind the scenes. Finally, I was put on the plane to Bangkok and my passport was returned to me.
TBF: What are some of the future plans for the peace campaign?
Things will not slow down, but for now will focus on activities outside of Burma. For myself, I am back home safely, but very busy answering questions about my actions. The interest others have shown is wonderful, but also completely unanticipated. Initially, I sent out a brief e-mail to about fifteen friends and family members just to notify them of my deportation and let them know that I was now safe. That e-mail was translated into Burmese and sent out to several media outlets by a friend of mine who is a Burmese reporter in Malaysia. The next day I had an interview request from the BBC World Service in Bangkok, and saw that my news had been picked up by at least 20 blogs.
The future activities of the Peace Campaign and those of The Best Friend Library are very interrelated. We will be hosting another screening of “Burma VJ” in Chiang Mai next week, followed by a discussion with Ashin Sopaka. In June there will be a two-day event in Chiang Mai in honor of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 65th birthday. There are plans for another “Peace Walk” in Mae Sot for later this year, and I have also just heard the good news that we have received a grant to produce another 10,000 peace dove stickers!
I will most likely be unable to have another opportunity to spread the stickers inside Burma myself, but we have already had a few other volunteers who have taken stickers with them on day trips across the border. Perhaps more people will be willing to help spread the stickers inside, although that will now be increasingly dangerous as the authorities now know that the sticker is related to The Best Friend. We will not stop looking for ways to promote peace and freedom in Burma by providing information and education to anyone interested, and support to those working for positive change in Burma!

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Sat 10 Nov 2012
BABSEA 2nd Annual Access To Justice Public Interest Fair
"justify">Get information and help support local community-based organizations, build a network, and find out about job and volunteer opportunities at this fair showcasing the work of NGOs working in Southeast Asia.
Where: Kantary Hills Hotel, 44 Nimmanhaemin Road, Soi 12, Chiang Mai
Time: 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Entrance: free

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