Our Plight

01 May 2008

Recently, I read with much sadness the report of the death of a young man, by the name of Kyaw Zin Naing, who set himself ablaze to protest against the rising costs of living in Burma. He was only 26-years old. After a month of suffering with almost 70 percent burns on his body, he finally succumbed to death. As most of the media is busy covering the news of upcoming referendum in Burma, the desperation of this lone protester seems to have been overshadowed by such news. Nothing was also known about the fate of his family members. I remember reading in one of the very few media reports on him, mentioning that he had a young child. For such sacrifice, which was given very little attention, I wonder how his family will feel. Would they blame him for leaving them to fend for themselves in an already difficult life or would they have been devastated by sheer oblivion of their own Burmese people who seem to be not much impacted by his protest?

Nowadays, whenever I read about various articles on my country, the bulk of them seem to touch upon the poverty, repressions (which are in the form of arrests, and torture, sometimes leading to an eventual death or immense sufferings), and the declining states of health and education for the people. With the GDP growth of only 5.5% (2007 est.) [1] and the majority of the people earning less than US$ 5 per month when the estimated living expenses for a family of five would cost more than US$ 110 per month [2], it seems little wonder that the other side of Burma, well-known for its scenery, rich culture, and ever smiling faces of the people, does not get reported as often in the media.

When I went back to Burma for a visit in the middle of last year, the sights of up-to-international-standard shopping malls, hotels and restaurants were aplenty in Rangoon, the old capital of Burma. So was the number of poor, homeless and starving people. Over the years since the military regime took over control, the gap between the rich and poor in Burma has widened to an unbelievable level. I estimated that only around 20% of the whole population will be able to frequent to the above-mentioned places. So what about the remaining 80% of the population? Many of them make up of working class families struggling to bring two proper meals a day for the whole family, the poverty-stricken and starving people. It was heart-wrenching for me to see my own fellow countrymen, especially very young children, resorting to begging at many tourist attractions. Their need for daily survival has left them with no other choice.

Many of my foreign friends in Singapore commented that almost all the Burmese maids who came to work in Singapore , are degree-holders. They were puzzled as to why a degree-holder would come to another country to work as a maid. Being recorded as one of the countries having the lowest public investment in the world for health and education sectors [3], the dire states of health and education are alarming. Majority of the underpaid teachers seek to find an alternative income by conducting private tuitions to students and giving favor to those who attend their tuitions. The remaining students who could not afford to do so are subjected to a sub-standard level of education system where the teachers are heavily overworked as well. The need to earn enough to make ends meet has driven many of the educators in Burma to resort to accepting briberies from well-to-do students in exchange for better grades. As the military dictators in Burma concentrate in holding onto their power by expanding their military, maintaining a good level of standard in education becomes secondary or rather of little importance to them. So we end up with many young graduates who cannot find a proper job, indicating that the piece of paper with their degree is almost worthless.

The health care in Burma poses an even more serious problem. The overcrowded hospitals, where every patient had to purchase everything including little items like bandages from private medical shops, and the lack of proper medical instruments such as simple things like needles, pose a serious problem with an increasing rate of HIV infections for the patients. Many of them enter the hospital with one ailment and may end up being infected with another due to the deteriorating state of the hospital.

Having to face all these problems every day, many of the Burmese people try to seek greener pasture in other countries. Some of them survived. Some of them had tragic ends like the recent case of 54 people being suffocated to death on their way to Thailand [4]. Even those who had made it to other countries still have to struggle to survive and to fit in the unfamiliar surroundings, and unfavorable conditions.

A lot of focus has been on the political system of Burma. However, I wonder how many of the ordinary people in Burma fully understand the meaning of "democracy". To them, their immediate concern is about their struggle against those things that I mentioned above: poverty, declining rights in health and education, etc. They believe that change in the political system in Burma from military regime to democracy government will alleviate their sufferings. However, they have waited for this change for more than 20 years. Seeing the inability of the international community to intervene and influence the Burmese military regime, the belief and hope of Burmese people have turned into desperation. Such desperation must have led ordinary individuals like Kyaw Zin Naing, who had no association whatsoever with any activists' groups, to commit an attempt of self-immolating himself.

On 11 June 1963, there was a similar protest of self-immolation by Thích Quảng Đức, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, in Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Min City) as a show of protest against a brutal regime that suppressed Buddhist monks and civilians. It was a turning point which led to the change in the regime in Vietnam [5]. Much international coverage was given to this incident with the famous picture of Thích Quảng Đức engulfed in flames.

However, I feel that Kyaw Zin Naing's case has not been portrayed to represent the great significance and seriousness in desperation of the civilians in Burma. It was just a news report, mingled with many other reports out of Burma. Even in the minds of some of my fellow countrymen, it seemed to have been just an isolated case of impulse.

But I sincerely hope that you can put yourself in the shoes of Kyaw Zin Naing to imagine what probably went through his mind before making the decision to douse himself. Was it just suicide? No. He knew for certain that there will be the presence of many worshipers at Shwe Dagon Pagoda on a Full Moon Day and the fact that he chose to commit his act at that particular place simply indicates his hopeful intention to let as many people know of the plight of poverty-stricken civilians in Burma. He probably took it as an act of self-sacrifice since he had to leave his young family behind and anticipated that his sacrifice would ignite something to bring change in Burma, like in the case of Thích Quảng Đứ.

Therefore, I would like to urge my fellow countrymen and the international community not to turn a blind eye to the hidden meaning behind Kyaw Zin Naing's attempt of self-immolation. It is much more than simply an act of one individual's impulse. Let us give him the honor that he duly deserves.

[1] CIA - The world factbook - Burma (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html)
[2] World Socialist Website (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/may2002/burm-m10.shtml)
[3] DFID (http://www.dfid.gov.uk/countries/asia/burma.asp)
[4] CNN Report (http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/04/10/thailand.myanmar.ap/index.html)
[5] Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thich_Quang_Duc)


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