Interview with Myint Myint Wai

That reunion was short-lived. Wai and her husband were told to leave Burma. They now pay her childhood nanny to care for the twins in Burma until they get official permission to be reunited. Yet even half-a-world away the will to live and fight for democracy in her homeland that the twins have inspired in Wai continues to shine in her work and her words. When I speak to her in a suburban lounge room in Melbourne, Australia, she is painting: donating the proceeds of any sales to NGOs such as Prospect Burma and Burma Hope Foundation. As she talks about prison, about Burma and about democracy, the words stream from her and she gesticulates passionately, even as her husband - with tears running down his cheeks - silently leaves the room. But when she talks about the twins she is emphatic and determined: 'They are my flesh and blood. They are my flesh and blood.'

She woke up strapped to a bed. There were sick and pregnant women lying everywhere around her: some sharing the 20 narrow beds that the 'hospital' provided, many others lying naked on the floor. This was a maternity ward with a difference: an extended cell within Insein prison, 10 kilometres north of Burma's capital, Rangoon. No drugs, no washing facilities. no swaddling clothes for the babes before they joined their mothers on the concrete floor.

UN sanctions on Burma - imposed over a decade ago when the military dictatorship refused to stand aside after the democratic election of Aung San Suu Kyi - have caused the basic cost of living (for food, medicine and transport) to soar, placing enormous pressure on the country's population. Despite these hardships, the prison conditions that greeted Myint Myint Wai in Insein were unexpected. The 52-year-old businesswoman had not realised that writing a cheque out for the lawyers assisting Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy would make her a political prisoner and then recast her as an activist seeking asylum. As the part-owner of restaurants she was unprepared for the taste of vegetables fertilized with the excrement from the prison latrines and the

dysentery that followed. And as one of the financiers of a hotel-in-construction, Wai was more used to sleeping in her Bangkok condominium than in a packed row of 40 women who - when turning in their sleep - had to do so in unison. At least here in the hospital - less than two weeks into her two-year sentence - Wai awoke in a bed: restrained after trying to kill herself by jumping from the first floor of the prison.

The women giving birth on the concrete floor below were not so lucky. A 16-year-old midwife - a malnourished and skin-scabbed prisoner who was born in prison and grew up as the servant of the prison guards - helped the mothers give birth in the clinic. If the babies got sick, they died: buried in a plastic bag at the back of the cell. 'The situation affected me. When I saw what was going on around me, I knew I had to help.'

So she got out of bed and started helping. 'A young mother was in labour for hours and when she finally gave birth to a skinny little baby boy, she said to me: "There's another one in there." Some 45 minutes later her second son was born. He was much bigger than the first. The mother was very sick, her breasts all shrivelled up. There was no way she could feed the babies. I got a warden to call my husband and ask him to send money for milk powder. Then I brought up the twins in jail. The twins gave me something to live for. I saved them and they saved me.'

'You need to bribe all the time in Burma. Not just one person, but everybody. I had to rely on my husband sending food parcels for me and the twins. The women with no money simply had to learn how to survive or they would die in a lot of pain and with no dignity.'

Wai and her husband alternated prison sentences: when one got out, the other was put inside. While the convictions against them ranged from forgery and theft to trespassing, their real crime had been to fight for democracy. They had held no guns. They had given no speeches. Supplying funds to help the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi was enough to make them a military target.

After five months incarcerated in Insein's political wing, Wai's family was able to bribe her way out of prison and shortly afterwards the twins would join her.

That reunion was short-lived. Wai and her husband were told to leave Burma. They now pay her childhood nanny to care for the twins in Burma until they get official permission to be reunited. Yet even half-a-world away the will to live and fight for democracy in her homeland that the twins have inspired in Wai continues to shine in her work and her words. When I speak to her in a suburban lounge room in Melbourne, Australia, she is painting: donating the proceeds of any sales to NGOs such as Prospect Burma and Burma Hope Foundation. As she talks about prison, about Burma and about democracy, the words stream from her and she gesticulates passionately, even as her husband - with tears running down his cheeks - silently leaves the room. But when she talks about the twins she is emphatic and determined: 'They are my flesh and blood. They are my flesh and blood.'

Myint Myint Wai talked to Becc Galdies

Asia-Pacific: US Security creates insecurity

Here is a special NI assessment of the fallout.

Containing China is the key to US foreign policy in the region. The Bush Administration has declared the country a ‘strategic competitor’, a description difficult to reconcile with China’s military budget when compared with that of the US. Though China’s 2002-03 military budget of $3.04 billion is 17.6-per-cent higher than that of the previous year, this is still a fraction of the US 2001 defence budget of $344 billion. While the US overestimates China’s military capacity, China sees itself as threatened by aggressive US foreign policy.

China is particularly concerned about the concentration of National Missile Defense systems (NMD – see box) that could soon be built around it. The Chinese Government sees NMD as an attempt to isolate the country within Asia, a fear fuelled by the fact that the Bush Administration has encouraged some of China’s traditional enemies – Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and even Russia – to be involved in the construction of the system. China has made it clear that it will not be intimidated by Bush’s plans for NMD. As a consequence, the US believes China may increase its missile build-up in a defiant response.

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National Missile Defense (NMD)

President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars has re-emerged under recent US administrations as National Missile Defense (NMD). NMD will theoretically enable the US to destroy any missile fired at it (or its allies) while that missile is still travelling towards it in space, before reentering the atmosphere. Scientific organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, MIT Security Studies Program and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology openly question the viability of NMD as a workable defence system. Sceptics say that its effectiveness in stopping terrorist attacks will be marginal, as terrorists are far more likely to use 11 September-style tactics rather than missiles.

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Piers Benatar / Panos Pictures / www.panos.co.uk

A GROWING US policy is to engage with countries which have unresolved disputes with China so as to contain China,’ says Bharat Karnead, strategic-affairs expert with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, India. This is a factor in the turnaround of US support for Pakistan since 11 September. Pakistan, traditionally an ally of China, was condemned by the US in 1990 when it was discovered to be developing nuclear missiles. But on 14 September 2001 Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf went from pariah to hero when he pledged total support for a US-led multinational force into Afghanistan. The US has lifted sanctions on Pakistan, which should mean that direct sales of arms can now take place.

The US is also, however, now attempting to deal evenhandedly with India in the dispute over Kashmir. As a consequence the US now proposes to grant Pakistan and India $52 million each for military training, services and equipment in 2002.

Nevertheless, US activity in the region weighs heavily on both countries. Peace activists say that if the US positions its National Missile Defense Systems near China as planned then China will respond by increasing its nuclear capability. This will provoke India to increase its nuclearweapon capability, which in turn will stimulate Pakistan to match India. The net effect will be that without a bomb being dropped three of the world’s most populous countries will divert state funding needed for rural development, water, food and health into arms stockpiling instead, propelling their people deeper into poverty.

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Although President Bush identified North Korea – China’s neighbour to the north – as a member of an ‘axis of evil’ in January this year, the North Korean Government has been on the US State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism since 1988 when North Koreans allegedly blew up a South Korean Airliner killing 115 civilians. Inclusion on this list has prevented North Korea’s bankrupt economy from obtaining monetary support from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The toll of North Koreans who have starved to death as a result of famine and drought is conservatively estimated at a million. Despite this, the ‘war on terror’ has meant cutbacks in the food relief entering the country from Japan and the US.

In the aftermath of 11 September the North Korean Government joined worldwide condemnations of terrorism and has subsequently pledged to sign two UN-sponsored anti-terrorism treaties. However, the US says this is not enough, and that its war on terror will prevent regimes like North Korea from threatening the US and its allies with weapons of mass destruction such as the Taepodong-2. This ballistic missile – currently being developed by the North Korean Government – will be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead an estimated 6,000 kilometres, putting it within striking distance of Alaska and Hawaii.

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Send in someone else’s troops…

In a speech on 11 March 2002, President Bush said: ‘We will not send American troops to every battle, but America will actively prepare other nations for the battles ahead.’

s part of this preparation, the US International Military Education and Training (IMET) budget is set to increase by nearly 40 per cent over the next two financial years. This will provide assistance for the training of over 3,000 extra military personnel across 125 nations.

Foreign Military Funding – which provides grants to countries so that they can acquire US military equipment, services and training – will increase from $3.6 billion to $4.1 billion over the same period.

The total US defence budget for the 2001 financial year was $344 billion.

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Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

ICBMs are guided missiles – self-propelled space or air vehicles carrying an explosive warhead. An ICBM can travel between 8,000 and 14,800 kilometres. When equipped with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs), they can carry several nuclear warheads, each capable of hitting a different target. Although no nation will confirm their exact holding of these weapons, the US and Russia have by far the largest number, with estimates running into the thousands. China comes a distant third with an estimated arsenal of 20 ICBMs and 2 new missiles under development.

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Since the 11 September attacks the US has been using airports and previous Russian bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to carry out its offensive against Afghanistan. It has also expanded its presence to Kazakhstan where it plans to use a civilian airport to continue the ‘war on terror’.

US interest in Central Asia does not derive solely from that area’s strategic access to Afghanistan. The Central Asian nations combined have an estimated 6.7 trillion cubic metres of oil, worth approximately $2,000 billion, in which the US has overtly stated an economic interest. The presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have agreed on the construction of a $2 billion pipeline to bring gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. This paves the way for a revival of the plan by US company UNOCAL to lead a consortium that will build the pipeline, an idea it shelved because of the instability in Afghanistan during the 1990s.

The move towards a long-term US presence in the region has diminished Russia’s historic influence over Central Asia. In return for their support, nations in the region have been promised and provided with financial aid. Funding for military training, services and equipment that the US gives to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the financial years 2001 to 2003 is planned to rise by nearly 140 per cent from $8.6 million to $20.5 million. Uzbekistan has been flooded with humanitarian help, unconditional financial aid and vast loans for social projects by the US. Despite the millions pouring into the country, very few benefits seem to be filtering down past the rich and powerful. Millions of Uzbeks are emigrating.

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