By Anisha Desai
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Yesterday in Bankok was a rare day of mostly down time – except for an unexpected trek to the Press Club for a live TV interview with Al-Jazeera. I can’t say I didn’t feel a bit of irritation to have to think about work and be “on” again when I’d so been luxuriating in a free day. Once Rachel and I headed out, however, I managed to get my message together and ended up glad for having made the effort.
Back at the hotel, near the end of the day, we all got together with our Burmese friends and colleagues to strategize a bit for post-delegation followup as a result of our various meetings while in Thailand. It was a a good and productive brainstorming session.
We then had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Sima Samar about her most recent trip to Sudan in her capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Sudan. The situation is bleak and desperation among those displaced on both sides of the Darfur-Chad border by the war grows. Splintered rebel factions splinter even more, resulting in spiraling criminality, as bands of heavily armed men with allegiance to no one rampage through the countryside. Attacks by government and militia forces continue often supported by arial bombardment before and during the attacks.
Before we finally broke to go to dinner to bid farewell to our Thai and Burmese colleagues as well as to Dr. Sima and Lydia Cladek, Sima also shared with us her insights into the increasingly unstable situation inside her own country of Afghanistan. Violence increases, warlordism continues it retrenchment in the provinces and Sima paints a bleak picture for Afghanistan’s future as well.
Yet tenaciously and with incredible courage, Sima leaves us to return to Kabul and her position as head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Council. She continues to fight for the rights of women and children – indeed for all the people of Afghanistan – even as she cannot move an inch without heavily armed bodyguards who are with her 24 hours a day. Her fourteen-year-old daughter also must live with such “security” – if that is what we can call it. It is impossible to not worry for Sima and her family every time she goes home.
We left our hotel that night at 9pm making our way through the city’s infamous traffic for Bangkok’s international airport. Our direct flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, left only an hour late and most of us were able to get at least a few hours of sleep during the eight hour flight.
As our plane headed out into the night, many thoughts of our week in Thailand came to mind. Highlights – if one can even begin to pick highlights out of days of activities with simply amazing women and a few good men (ha!) – would have to include: the students of all ages and their determination to get an education to be able to help their people and assist in bringing democracy to Burma; the women of the ethnic nationalities we met with and their tremendous clarity about what support they needed and wanted from Nobel Women’s Initiative; having the opportunity to talk with survivors of Cyclone Nargis and hear their views on the humanitarian response to the disaster; Dr. Cynthia and her clinic…..I could go on and on.
While I’m not sure I’d call it a highlight, I also kept on thinking of things we’d seen in Mae Sot walking along the river that divides Thailand from Burma. While eating lunch near the big bridge that spans the river, and has dramatically increased cross-border trade, we saw a different loaded truck headed for the bridge to go into Burma. That truck, which was like some sort of human cattle car but with bars that looked like the bars of a prison cell, was overcrowdedly full of people. People standing practically on top of each other, the shoulders and arms of some prodruding out between the bars. This truck was full of the perennially undocumented Burmese – the unlucky ones who’d been captured by the police and were being sent back into Burma.
But in a bizarre scene that I keep thinking Fellini could have done a lot with in a film, under that same bridge, you could see small boats ferrying people back and forth across the river. One boat on the Thai side was filling up with women carrying now empty baskets, having sold all the fruits and vegetables they’d brought across the river. Now, near the end of the day, they were going back home to Burma, only to return again the next day again with items to sell.
Along side these little ferry boats were the inner tube kids. Young men and boys who’d paddle giant inner tubes across the river holding as many people as could sit on the tube and charging five bhat a trip. Many of the people we’d seen being deported via the human cattle car would simply come back down to the river, pay their five bhat, and come back to Thailand. And all of this took place under the watchful eye of Burmese soldiers in a blue tent pitched above the river on the bank near the base of the bridge, as well as Thai soliders standing around, smoking and talking as if nothing unusual at all was going on in the daily life of the Thai-Burma border in Mae Sot.
One of the lower moments for me personally was around our press briefing at the Press Club on Friday. Not that media attendance or interest was lacking, quite to the contrary and the reception of the messages we brought from the hundreds we met with along the Thai-Burma border and other places were enthusiastically received. Perhaps predictably, some officials there were not happy with our expressions of deep concern about how much of the relief aid was actually reaching the survivors and how much might be stolen directly by the military junta or used to manipulate the 2.4 million people of the disaster-struck Irrawaddy delta.
We’d spoken of the stories of the regime “trading” food and shelter for bogus votes for their “referendum” to change the constitution to suit their own purposes and cling to power. We told of others describing of having to purchase the very items donated to help them in the aftermath of Nargis.
We’d commended ASEAN in our remarks for having taken the step of trying to help facilitate provision of relief, and for its efforts along with the UN and unfortunately the military regime itself, to document the situation on the ground. We’d noted the recommendations of the report they’d just recently released looked great on paper, but expressed extreme concern as to how that would look in reality given the nature of the Burmese military junta and its complete disregard for the people of Burma. We’d also stated our worry that the focus on the Nargis disaster might eclipse the larger political situation in Burma.
Yet, some officials there were visibly angry that we’d not taken their words of success at face value and had chosen to question aspects of the relief effort and not accept the view that somehow the junta had suddenly seen the light and was actually going to help its people recover and rebuild, rather than exploit the situation all it could. How dare we question the official version of reality and actually believe the stories of some of the survivors themselves.
Needless to say, when I was sitting the next day back at that same Press Club for my Al-Jazeera interview, I wished I heard the lead-in line for my interview before our briefing the day before, rather than after. The interview opened with a line noting that the United Nations was expressing concern that 25% of the humanitarian relief assistance was simply gone – this because all aid must be funneled through the junta, which manipulates the exchange rate so that it can immediately skim 25% off the top. And this is just the thievery we are aware of. So much for official stories.
Ok, I’m wrapping up for now. In just about an hour – which would be 5:30pm here in Addis Ababa, I’ve got to go down to the lobby and do an interview with the reporter for Christian Science Monitor. This in order to at least get one out of the way today because we have a full day of media and meetings here tomorrow in Addis, home of course of the African Union. And while we’ve lost Dr. Sima and Lydia and our Thai-Burma working group, we’re being joined here late tonight by Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai along with Wanjira Maathai and Leymah Gbowee, Executive Director of Women, Peace and Security Network – Africa.