To go or not to go?

Should you visit Burma? Not if you want to discover the harsh realities of life under the generals

In May 2002, with Aung San Suu Kyi temporarily released from house arrest, I was doing poetry workshops and readings in Mandalay and Rangoon. It was just before the monsoon, and the dawn air was like a sauna as I walked round the Golden Palace, destroyed by the Japanese and rebuilt with forced labour. Restored, it feels like an emptied concentration camp, aggressively regimented and dead: the way the junta would like to keep the whole country. Above is Mandalay Hill, from which, at dusk, the largest lit-up building you can see is Mandalay Correction Facility, the city's jail.

In Rangoon the monsoon broke. The swirling streets were ankle-deep. I talked to writers about how British poetry had been revived in the 1970s by translations from eastern European poets struggling with censorship - which Borges called "the mother of metaphor". They identified instantly. I wish I'd had more books with me. They have no access to other writing, and drew straws for the books I had to give.

I asked Suu Kyi what she thought of tourists coming to Burma. "Let the junta know tourism is waiting to happen the moment they change on human rights," she said. "But now tourists shouldn't come; they won't see the truth."

"No," said a writer friend. "Let tourists see for themselves." "No, she's right," said another. "What would they see?"

I agree. On the surface you see poverty but not the misery: forced labour, surveillance, writers tortured for "distributing information regarding repression to international press agencies and western diplomats" or "spreading information injurious to the state". Incessant power cuts illustrate the unseen truth. My friends got eight hours of electricity in 72. In hotels, the air-conditioning just switched to generator.

What tourists do see are "The People's Desires", painted on walls and prefacing all printed matter. "Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views; oppose those trying to jeopardise stability of the State and progress of the Nation; oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State; crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy." Writers have to pay to print this on the front page of their books.

Conservation is another matter. Burma has the largest tiger reserve in the world. Whether conservation is a Canute-like operation against relentless Chinese exploitation of Burmese timber or not, western conservation agencies, like welfare groups, have to operate there - or the animals will disappear. For that, I would go again. Otherwise not.

Ruth Padel's "Tigers in Red Weather" is published by Abacus (£8.99)

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times