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Video rebel
Burmese guerrillas are Hollywood's biggest fans

Army repression makes Burma a land of fear.

In a village in Burma, we watch videos. The VCR and television are mounted on an ox cart. Traders sell cans of Heineken beer and boiled duck eggs. People from nearby villages come to watch B-Grade American films. The Burmese love stories. Three Burmese Army regiments are stationed ten kilometres from here. But there are no soldiers in the village, only ten ethnic Karen guerrillas. Two hours’ walk away, a military dictatorship terrorizes the Burmese people, but there is a democracy of sorts here.

A trader travelling with the video show asks me if I have seen the ‘Aung San Suu Kyi film’. He is talking about John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon, a film about the 1988 democracy uprising in Burma. The massacre of thousands of Burmese people by the military serves as a backdrop for the personal journey of an American doctor coming to terms with the murder of her husband and child. But in Burma the film is famous because it features Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. In the West the film was a flop.

The trader says that everybody in the nearby occupied town has heard of Beyond Rangoon. He says everybody wants to see it. But if the Army knows you have seen the film, you will be sent to jail for five years. Screenings must be kept small and secret.

It would take only two hours for an informer to reach the Burmese army base and two hours for the Burmese army to return to kill ‘Karen terrorists and the foreign mercenary.’ The Burmese military dictatorship does not recognize journalists. In Burma there is one television station, one radio station and one newspaper. In Burma, the army considers Beyond Rangoon foreign subversion. But it is as popular with the people as Aung San Suu Kyi, who won 80 per cent of the vote in elections the army now refuses to recognize.

The Karen guerrillas carry their weapons at all times. We watch the video at night with our rucksacks on our backs. When we sleep, everything but our blankets stays in our rucksacks. The last time the Burmese army came to the village they fought a brief battle with the guerrillas at dawn. Two guerrillas and ten soldiers died before the guerrillas fled. The army then burnt down a quarter of the houses.

I spent three days and two nights with the guerrillas in the village. On the third evening we heard reports of Burmese Army troop movements, and ran towards the shelter of the mountains. Burma, every article will tell you, is a land of fear. It happens to be true.

Martin West

Move over, bit boys. Move over, big boys
Japanese women are throwing aside their traditional, submissive roles and pushing their way into a sacred male preserve – sumo wrestling. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the men who control the sport are welcoming female fighters in hopes of boosting their Olympic credentials. Traditionally, sumo involves large men trying to push or throw each other onto the ground or out of a circular ring called a dohyo. Top professionals live like superstars. So far, about 70 women have registered with the Shin Sumo Federation, a subsidiary of the Japan Sumo Federation.

Gemini News Service

Prisons, by Microsoft
Many of Microsoft’s products are packaged and shrink-wrapped by prisoners in Washington’s Twin Rivers Correction Centre (TRCC). According to Dan Pens, co-editor of Prison Legal News, Exmark, a company specializing in product packaging used 90 prisoners at TRCC to package 50,000 units of Windows 95 demo disks and direct-mail promotional packs.

Red Pepper, No 34

Peace Prize
The International Peace Bureau is to award the Sean MacBride Peace Prize to the four women who were arrested last year for disarming a Hawk jet destined for Indonesia, and who were subsequently acquitted on charges of causing criminal damage estimated at $2.4 million. The women told the court that they had disarmed the Hawk jet – using household hammers – in order to prevent it from being used to continue the crime of genocide against the people of East Timor.

Seeds of Hope/East Timor Ploughshares

Snake alarm

Snake alarm
Burglars beware! The citizens of Harare, Zimbabwe, are investing in new anti-burglary technology – the snake! For about $12 a day, Ben Vermuelen of the company Repsec leaves a few snakes inside the house of the client. Outside are signs in two languages and a cartoon version for the illiterate, that the house has new occupants with venomous attitudes. ‘People put in hi-tech security systems,’ said Vermuelen, ‘but criminals are going hi-tech as well. I’m getting back to basics: superstition and fear.’ In Harare, highly poisonous Egyptian cobras run wild. And Vermuelen picks them up for a fee from those who do not like freelance cobras patrolling their backyards.

Down To Earth, Vol 5, No 21


Dollar bills
Opening up to the world outside

Dollar bills

A billboard by Havana’s main boulevard, El Malecon, shows a confident Cuban shouting across the water at a shaking cartoon Yankee: ‘Hey imperialist! We have absolutely no fear of you!’ It serves as a reminder of the tense relationship that has prevailed between the US and Cuba for over 35 years. And yet despite the US blockade, Cuba’s relationship with other Western nations has changed dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90.

The visible signs are striking. The dollar is the currency of choice, if not universal use, throughout Cuba. Tourism has replaced sugar as the main foreign currency earner. In the 1970s no more than 3,000 tourists visited Cuba each year. Last year numbers topped a million for the first time. In February, Fidel himself played host to a group of American aficionados who had defied the blockade to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Cohiba cigar. Guests, including movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger and top model Linda Evangelista participated in a lavish auction that raised more than $1 million. In January 1998 the Pope is due to make an historic visit of reconciliation.

Cuba is in the throes of rapid modernization. Not the kind witnessed in Eastern Europe emerging from the rubble of communism, but perhaps more according to the Chinese model. Joint venture companies are sprouting up all over the place, from the Mexican company that took over the telephone system at the beginning of the year to the Benetton franchise in the newly restored Plaza de San Francisco in Habana Vieja (Old Havana).

Habana Vieja shows the most visible signs of modernization. Declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations in 1988, large parts of the city were, and still are, falling down. But money is pouring in from Western Europe and Canada. Whole streets of buildings 200 years old or more are being rebuilt. For every dollar a foreign company invests, a third goes to rebuild the city and a third to sustain the public services that make the city work: schools, cheap public transport and hospitals.

The Government’s attitude to the changes puzzles the locals. For example paladares (private restaurants) have been legal with a government licence since 1995. They provide excellent food in private houses, paid for in dollars. However, because they compete with state-owned restaurants and hotels, only a limited number of licences have been given out, and no more than 12 seats and a restricted range of dishes are allowed. As our hostess in an unlicensed Havana guesthouse put it: ‘The Government cannot decide. They love the dollars you bring and they want to encourage a class of entrepreneurs like me, but it gives us an independence and freedom they are not sure they can handle.’

Martin Stott

In the name of eco-tourism, the Government of Laos has given the green light to the Malaysian Syuen Corporation to develop a mammoth resort on 18,500 hectares of national parkland near the Nam Ngum dam reservoir. The $211 million ‘Phou Khao Khouay-Nam Ngum Resort’ project, including a mini-city of hotels, golf courses, casinos and a ‘lovers’ paradise centre’, will force local residents to move out of the area.

New Frontiers, Vol. 3, No. 3

[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Big Bad World Cartoon by POLYP Cartoon by POLYP [image, unknown]

Future freezers
Chinese struggle to reduce CFC - consumption

Selling vegetables - but the Chinese people need to buy CFC-free refrigerators

When sales assistant Li Haichun watches a Beijing couple choose a refrigerator, the world should be watching with him.

As living standards rise in the world’s most populated country, more people are buying refrigerators. Most cooling systems in these domestic appliances contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs damage the earth’s ozone layer, letting in cancer-causing ultraviolet rays from the sun. If every family in China buys a refrigerator, international attempts to halt the atmospheric damage would be defeated by sheer weight of numbers. Scientists believe this could cause a global health crisis.

For the crisis to be averted, refrigerators not only have to be manufactured using non-CFC technologies, but consumers have to buy them. This is why the choice the couple makes in Li’s store is so important. Will it be the ordinary one or the one with a green sticker? The sticker, issued by the National Environmental Protection Bureau, means the product is free of CFCs, or has comparatively low levels of the chemical.

Li says most buyers choose the ozone-friendly model, even though it cost about 250 yuan more than the conventional CFC version. Their choice reflects more than environmental awareness: many of those using CFC replacements use less electricity.

However, in rural areas only three per cent of households possess refrigerators. A large majority of China’s 1.2 billion people live in the countryside where incomes are generally far lower than in the relatively affluent urban areas. It will be difficult to convince them that CFC-free is worth the extra cost.

‘If technologies of CFC-substitution are not effectively introduced, CFC consumption could increase by an estimated six per cent annually from now on,’ says Wang Lei, an engineer with China Household Electrical Appliances Association.

The drive for change began in 1990 when the European Union banned the import of appliances using CFCs. China’s refrigerator exports plunged by 59 per cent. Financial help was promised by the World Bank, United Nations and Western governments for developing countries to switch to alternative substances. In 1992, China announced its intention of phasing out CFCs by the year 2010.

In an effort to meet this goal, China reduced consumption of CFCs by 1,369 tons – or 13 per cent – in 1995. International donors also pledged $105 million for 184 projects as a major step towards zero usage. ‘Should the overseas funds promised in our accords arrive in time, China should be able to stop using CFCs in refrigerators by the year 2003, or even earlier,’ says Wang.

Pan Xiaoying/Gemini

The flying president The flying president
Air Zimbabwe’s slogan ‘Experience our commitment to excellence’ has been changed by mischievous cartoonists to ‘Experience our commitment to His Excellency’. President Robert Mugabe clocks up tens of thousands of kilometres a year on the state airline, Air Zimbabwe. The result of this presidential patronage is diversion, delays and bad publicity. The potential for disruption is illustrated by a three-day Cyprus trip when his use of an Air Zimbabwe aircraft left scheduled passengers for Kenya, South Africa and Britain stranded for several hours. The cost, according to an airline official, was $10,000.

Gemini News Service

Starbucks coffee
The US coffee company Starbucks has failed to take credible steps to implement its code of conduct in Guatemala. Over two years ago, in response to consumer campaigns, Starbucks announced that it would adopt the first-ever code of conduct for a US coffee company in an effort to improve working conditions for coffee producers. The code of conduct included a commitment to treating employees with respect and dignity, fair wages, safe and healthy work conditions, decent housing and freedom of association. Starbucks received significant positive press coverage and awards for this initiative. However, the Starbucks 1997 Action Plan fails to demonstrate any credible effort to implement this code in Guatemala. On the contrary, it represents an apparent effort to renege on its commitments and redefine what it said it would do.

US/Guatemala Labor
Education Campaign

Mad cows in Africa
The suspicion that banned European products and wastes end up in Africa was confirmed when Kenyan customs and health authorities impounded at least 3.2 tonnes of suspected British ‘mad cow’ corned beef at Mombasa. The importation generated much anger because of earlier local press reports that Conservative British politicians thought Africa, with its food shortages and famine, was an ideal destination for the potentially lethal British beef. The corned beef arrived aboard the ship Annamaria with documents alleging that the consignment came from Brazil. However, authorities claim that close scrutiny indicated that the beef came from Britain.

Down to Earth, Vol 5, No 23


‘The Taliban have brought us security
so we can grow poppies in peace.’

Wali Jan, an Afghan farmer in Kandahar, Afghanistan,
on why he supports the new rebel government.

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