Britain’s dirty Burma secret

The military regime used to be our friend.

Whatever the official results of today's elections in Burma – the first in 20 years (the last, won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, were ignored) – there is no doubt that the military regime will remain in charge, as it has done in various guises since 1962. This is why the leading dissident U Win Tin, who until his release in 2008 had spent 19 years in jail, is calling for an election boycott.

"The military junta wants to claim this election as free and fair and so we have to reduce the legitimacy of that claim by not taking part at all," he told today's Observer.

Ever since the crackdown by the authorities in 1988, during and after which Aung San Suu Kyi came to prominence (she only happened to be in the country because her mother was terminally ill), most of the rest of the world has been united in condemning Burma's generals – if divided on how best to express its revulsion, given that sanctions will never work so long as countries in the region happily carry on trading with their pariah neighbour.

What we forget, however, is that for many years we were not at all bothered about the suppression of democracy in Burma. General Ne Win, who took power in the March 1962 coup and ruled until he stepped down in 1988, may have brought ruin to his country with his inept Burmese Way to Socialism and increasingly erratic behaviour, often related to his strong superstitious beliefs, but at least he kept the country out the communist bloc.

That counted for more than the fact that his regime was brutal, capricious and authoritarian. Right up until 1988, Japan was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into the country every year.

As Dr Maung Zarni, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and founder of the Free Burma Coalition, has put it: "No general in Burma's modern history was more exposed to the west than General Ne Win: even after his coup in 1962, the general was welcome at the White House and was reportedly sipping tea with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. He maintained a house in Wimbledon, played golf in Scotland, received annual medical check-ups in London, saw his psychotherapist in Vienna and stopped in Geneva to check his Swiss accounts."

One British connection is, I'm afraid, particularly embarrassing for the New Statesman – whose long-time editor Kingsley Martin turns out to have been on very good terms with the old tyrant. When Ne Win died in 2002, the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell recalled a visit that Martin arranged for him.

"Given letters of introduction to their friend Ne Win by the socialist editor of the New Statesman Kingsley Martin and his partner Dorothy Woodman, my wife and I were invited to a long and simple lunch of rice and mangoes by Ne Win and his wife Katie in June 1965." Dalyell wrote most sympathetically of the isolation Ne Win had chosen. "He had closed Burma as the only way of keeping his country out of the horrors of the Vietnam/Cambodia war.

"His friends Chou En-lai and the Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong wanted to use the Burmese forests as a haven for guerrillas, which would have invited American bombing and Agent Orange."

Calling on the Burmese dictator in the 1970s "at the modest house in Victoria Road, Wimbledon, which was his refuge", Dalyell said that Ne Win "was very candid about the mistakes that he had made" since his second wife, Katie, his favourite, became ill and died in 1972. Small comfort to the millions impoverished by his disastrous policies, one imagines.

It is entirely right that we should voice our opposition to and revulsion for Burma's generals. But it might also be appropriate to acknowledge our dubious part in that country's past – however much we might prefer not to remember it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA