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Reply from S. Brookes (r)

To: Stephen Brookes, Asia Times

May 16, 1996

I have followed the discussion between yourself and a few of the
contributors to Burmanet. Here's my response to your letter that was most
recently posted to the list.

Just to identify myself, I work for the Boston-based investment firm,
Franklin Research & Development Corporation. Franklin Research manages about
$450 million of client assets for a variety of religious institutions,
endowments, foundations, trade unions and wealthy individuals. On behalf of
clients, Franklin Research has assisted in the filing of shareholder
resolutions on the subject of Burma at companies such as ARCO, PepsiCo,
Texaco and Unocal. 

I have also been personally involved in the Massachusetts Burma Roundtable
and lobbying the Masschusetts legislature to enact H2833, a bill that would
effectively bar the state from buying goods or services from companies doing
business in Burma.

>But what bothered me -- and the reason I wrote that piece-- was the "thought
>police" tone of the Burmanet contributors. You note in your letter that
>"individuals on burmanet-l did post critiques of Brookes' analysis."
>Critiques? What critiques? I was accused of being a SLORC propagandist. My
>analysis wasn't attacked -- I was. 
>And despite the more reasoned and articulate tone that you adopt in your
>letter, I still don't see a critique -- just a jibe at "journalists like
>Brookes who apparently are not disturbed by the oppressive policies of the
>military regime."   
>But you see, this is exactly the point I've been trying to make -- that by
>thinking only in tired, empty cliches, by standing piously on the moral high
>ground and uttering platitudes, the NLD and its supporters are consigning
>themselves to self-absorbed irrelevance.

I agree that the comments that you quoted about yourself from a Burmanet
contributor were immature and needlessly personal, not a reasoned critique.
Frankly, I thought the comments painted a very poor but unrepresentative
impression of the contributors to Burmanet.

By refering to "the "thought police" tone of the Burmanet contributors," you
are making an unwarranted generalization about all the contributors to
Burmanet based on just a few comments. 

Having agreed that were unfairly criticized, let's move on to a critique of
your letter.

>Want the surprising truth? I am a profound supporter of democracy, freedom
>and human rights -- yes, even in Myanmar! I'm a writer, I was a musician in
>my first career, I was even a registered Democrat once (then I grew up). This
>isn't to offer credentials about how hip I am -- only to note that freedom of
>expression has been absolutely central to how I've lived my life. 
>For me, it means questioning conventional wisdom, rejecting easy platitudes,
>and paying real close attention to reality. That's what my "Open Letter" was
>all about -- urging the pro-democracy movement to stop playing games, to get
>its head out of the clouds, admit unpleasant truths and figure out how to
>positively impact the changes that are now in full swing in Myanmar.  
>Otherwise the whole thing will remain what a friend in Myanmar calls it -- a
>"hobby issue" for people who just want to feel good about themselves without
>needing to actually know anything. 
>Before I came over here last July, I went to a party in Washington where
>there were a number of people who'd recently been here on a two-week NGO
>visit. "Oh, you'll love doing journalism in Burma," one woman told me. "It's
>so clear who's wearing the white hats, and who's wearing the black hats.
>There are no shades of gray."
>Well, surprise -- everything here is shades of gray. There are exceptional
>people in the government and buffoons in the NLD --and vice-versa. It's hard
>to even talk about "sides" as if there were only two. There are people
>working to improve the country in every social and political camp, and just
>as many self-interested crooks. And nobody -- even ASSK -- is pure. (Uh-oh --
>heresy. But come on -- she's a politician. When did THEY suddenly become
>But that's reality for you -- messy. Obstinately refusing to fit into easy
>categories. Darn that reality! 

I also strive to avoid characterizing issues as white and black. But the
current situation in Burma sorely tests my resolve.

I fear that you are just making another generalization: all sides in Burma
have their flaws. This assumption is just as lazy and imprecise as the white
hat/black hat generalization. 

Let's briefly stack up two of the key players in Burma. 

The Burmese military junta:

* refuses to open talks with the National League for Democracy and
representatives of the ethnic minorities

* uses forced labor for infrastructure projects

* attacks ethnic minorities such as the Karenni even after reaching
"ceasefire" agreements

* imprisons entertainers for anti-government jokes

The National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi

* has repeatedly called for a dialogue and process of reconciliation between
the democracy movement, ethnic minorities and the military junta

* has even offered to consider including military figures in a future
government of reconciliation

* has steadfastly stuck to the principles of non-violence

Do you think that perhaps one of these two sides is a different shade of
grey from the other?

>You know what? Mostly, there are just ordinary Myanmars, living in a time of
>amazing change. Sure, life isn't perfect -- but compare it with the total
>standstill of a decade ago. A lot of things are in a muddle, but almost
>everything's improving. Opportunities are opening up. There's an actual
>economy. Are there human rights abuses? You bet -- just like there are almost
>everywhere in the world. And would you rather live in Myanmar, where some
>people are forced to work on road projects against their will for a few
>months? Or would you prefer, say, Liberia, where you're lucky to make it
>through the day? Or Uganda, where you're probably already dead? Or China? Or
>the former Yugoslavia? Or Chechnya? Or...or...or....
>Ok, brace yourselves. Things are much, much better in Myanmar than in dozens
>of other developing countries in the world, and there's a government in place
>which is moving the country rapidly from isolation and poverty toward global
>engagement and growth. Is it America the Beautiful yet? No -- maybe never
>will be. But it is changing dramatically. 

I always thought the phrase "America: Love it or Leave it" was superficial...

I would argue that Uganda and China today are big improvements on
present-day Burma. The fact that people might pick Rangoon over Monrovia or
Chechnya is hardly a ringing endorsement. 

>So why is Myanmar -- excuse me, Burma -- such a big issue on American college
>Because it's easy to reduce to sophomoric simplicity (even U.S. Congressmen
>can understand it, sort of). Because Aung San Suu Kyi is gorgeous and female
>and speaks elegant English and is A Lot Like Us Westerners, and the SLORC
>generals are not. Because it's so much fun to protest against anybody wearing
>a uniform. Because democracy is Mom and Apple Pie, and generals, as we all
>know, are Mean and Bad --  unless they're Colin Powell, of course.  

The cause of the Burmese democracy movement does have a superficial appeal.
But that superficial appeal masks arguments of substance. Where else in the
world today are democratically-elected representatives from a party that won
an election specifically calling for economic sanctions on their own country?

>And maybe also because, in the late 20th Century, when "victims" have been
>elevated to "hero" status, here's a victim-hero to form a whole international
>cult around, where the faithful can natter on to themselves about the future
>of Burma while the future is galloping by without them.
>Honestly -- sometimes I just want to take the whole pious, infantile lot of
>you and give you a good spanking. 

With those last two paragraphs, you're showing that you can get down in the
gutter with those who have criticized you.

But if you are serious about conducting a real discussion, you should try
not to stoop to that level. To paraphrase James Clad's recent posting: can
we try to keep this discussion at an adult level?
>I noted in my "Open Letter" that I would ask ASSK for an interview, to pose
>the question of the NLD's self-isolation and apparent inability to form a
>pragmatic plan to effect change in Myanmar. Her response? Theres been a
>comical exchange of phone calls between me and her schedulers, but basically
>the answer has been, "We'd French-kiss SLORC before we'd talk to the likes of
>Which, sadly, only proves the point. She's preaching to the choir, fingers
>firmly stuck in her ears, happily irrelevant.

>Sincerely, Stephen Brookes

I can't speak for Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues. However, I think you
may be reading too much into your rejection.

I would offer another possible interpretation of your failure to obtain an
interview. The situation in Burma is at a critical point. Despite every
obstacle the SLORC throws in her path, Aung San Suu Kyi is working hard to
rebuild the structure of the NLD. Dealing with press is not her main
priority. Giving interviews to media such as Voice of America and the BBC
that transmit their stories into Burma is probably her best use of scarce
media time.

I understand that Asia Times is a relatively new publication and, most
probably, lacks the kind of circulation of Voice of America and the BBC or
such magazines as Asiaweek. Put yourself in the shoes of Aung San Suu Kyi.
If, say, you had the choice of granting an interview to Asiaweek or Asia
Times, which would you pick?

Lack of time prevents me from discussing further your assertion that
conditions are improving in Burma. (Where and for whom?) I would also like
to discuss with some detail the operations of Unocal, Total and PepsiCo in
Burma and whether those companies are improving or worsening the situation.

I would also pose the question, why should any company invest in Burma when
the risk to the reputation and sales of companies in Burma is growing day by

May I suggest we shift from critiquing each other's general points and talk


Simon Billenness
Franklin Research & Development Corporation
711 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, MA 02111
(617) 423 6655 x 225
(617) 482 6179 fax