Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Politically incorrect and probably a little pessimist on development, globalization, rich and poor countries, etc. - Burma

Some kind of "energy saving" traffic light in Thibaw
Burma is an opportunity. An opportunity with a blurred expiration date printed on. A chance, a model, a concrete example to reflect on matters such as development, globalization and international relations that in a few years we might not have anymore. Getting out of Rangoon airport means entering a world that in the last sixty years has developed very little, almost nothing at all actually. A system that for some aspects has even gone back in time. A place where people move on foot, by bicycle or with run-down cars on dusty roads that cut through expanses of trash, get on the bus with a sack of rice and two chickens, don't complain if the train travels at twenty kilometers per hour bumping on undulated and badly connected rails, cook their dinner on a wood fired stove, if a tooth is aching because of a cavity just pull it out, are not much interested in fashion and the latest technological devices (actually, nowadays this last statement is true only in part). Yet, they seem to be little stressed and moderately happy, they smile a lot and live with optimism. 
Still, if one looks carefully around, it is not possible not to take notice of the first signs of a wave of development that in a few years will probably wipe all this out. And every time something like this happens you can hear some foreign visitors mutter their usual trite comments.
Comments that I'd like to organize in two categories. The ones belonging to the first category sound pretty much like this: "How sad it is to think that all this will soon be given up for a little modernity." Those belonging to the second category can be exemplified like this: "It's always the same story. We arrive to a place, we, the rich, the disrespectful ones, the Europeans, the Chinese, the Indians, the Australians, the AMERICANS, we give them a few shiny trinkets and with a sleight of hand we make everything else disappear."
Comments that might sound quite deep but that are actually rather shallow, consequences of an attitude that might seem romantic, and maybe actually is romantic, but that also indicates a good dose of selfishness. 
I'll try to make myself clear. Let's start with the first category. Looking at the country from the privileged position of a tourist visiting it for a few weeks, an NGO volunteer, a university IT teacher, we could well wish that this place never changed, because it is so beautiful the way it is. However, we could do it in a lighthearted way only if while we're looking at it we were hiding behind the bulletproof shield of our foreigner status, aware that as soon as the situation should turn for the worse we could take our stack of dollars out of our safe, buy a flight to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and be out of here in a couple of hours, landing in a country with a modern healthcare system, efficient services and advanced technology, where the food is good, hygienic and maybe even organic. 
There is a question though. Why should a guy whose only passport reads "Union of Myanmar" (provided he has got one) and who makes fifty dollars a month (yes, right, 50, like a young fellow who works at a guest house where we stayed during our trip) find technological and social development sad? Why shouldn't he also wish to travel on more comfortable means of transport on safer roads, in a country with an efficient and modern healthcare system, advanced technology and, why not, even some new silly habits? Exactly like we do, by the way. Because he doesn't really know what he wants and we can assure him that it is better if his country remains the way it is now? I don't think so. 
Let's face it, one of the main reasons why a country that at the end of WWII was, along with Japan, the most advanced in Asia has remained, or rather has become like this is a sequence of dictatorial regimes that have sealed it off the rest of the world, persecuting dissidents, shooting crowds of unarmed demonstrators, condemning to forced labor even some comedians who told a joke about a touchy and humorless army top-brass, keeping under house arrest the leader of the opposition movement, the effective majority party. A majority that is asking not to be captured in a picture taken sixty years ago anymore, to be, or rather to become like everyone else. Whether everyone else likes it or not.
Let's switch to the second category of comments now. Slimy globalization and the pulsing gland that secretes it: America. Until a couple of centuries ago the United States were a scarcely inhabited place (or rather, inhabited by a population that has since been exterminated) that got densely populated due to waves of immigrants coming from every corner of the world: England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Russia, Nigeria, Korea, China, Lebanon, Mexico, Cuba. People from all over the planet have gone to America. Individuals that in some cases arrived with strong will and a few ideas and finding a fertile environment came up with a good service or product, commercialized it and finally exported it, even to the place where they came from. America can have a lot of faults and flaws but, as far as this aspect is concerned at least, we all are Americans. Hold America responsible for globalized development means holding the whole globe responsible. If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. And responsible for what then? For selling something to someone who wants to buy it? The one who buys something is as responsible as the one who sells it. Of course who sells something is also advertising it, and advertising creates a need that one second earlier didn't even exist. This is true. These needs though are generated by hitting the individuals on a sensitive spot, a gray zone, a red button that everyone has inside of them. And, each one in their own way, we feel some kind of pleasure, maybe a slightly perverse one, when that button is pressed. Plus, this mechanism doesn't only work with mobile phones and lipsticks, it's also applicable to healthy food and medicines, intangible products such as a novel or a good movie, or even noble ideas such as respect for human rights and the environment. 
No one is at fault. It's just the way we are made. This is the fucking way the human being works, our nature, our world. Maybe the strangest thing, meaning the least natural one, is that someone finds it sad, unfair, or even wrong

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