Sunday, February 14, 2016

BURMA AND THE GRAY LADY




(first published September 30, 2008 in Hyoron Shakaikagaku
Issue #86, Doshisha University Faculty of Social Studies 2008)

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Nobody likes to apologize, not individuals, not institutions, not governments, not even the gray lady known as the New York Times. Oh, the NYT is quick to make micro-apologies, a misspelled name here, a typo there, and every once in a while a fabulist such as Jayson Blair gets shown to the door for untruthful writing, but when it comes to really big stuff, at the editorial level at least, America’s best newspaper is as unrepentant and opaque as some of the face-conscious Asian regimes it so readily criticizes.

So to understand the abrupt turnaround in NYT coverage of Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, we have to do some reading between the lines.  After a month of nagging and finger-wagging, "Shame on the Junta," "More Shame on the Junta,"No More Time to Lose,” “Children Face New Risks,” “U.S. Frustrated by Myanmar Military Junta's Limits on Aid in Wake of Cyclone,” the Gray Lady adopts a less hectoring tone:

"Now doctors and aid workers…say they have seen no signs of starvation or widespread outbreaks of disease…the number of lives lost specifically because of the junta’s slow response to the disaster appears to have been smaller than expected."

(NYT June 18, 2008)

WHAT??? NO STARVATION? NO WIDESPREAD OUTBREAKS OF DISEASE? SMALLER THAN EXPECTED?

The worldview of the Gray Lady very much lives up to the New York City-centric view of the world famously depicted on a cover of The New Yorker in which mid-town Manhattan looms larger than the rest of the world combined, Asia but a frilly fringe on the edge of the map. Burma, or “Myanmar” as the NYT style-sheet has it, is all but a blank slate, remote and difficult to imagine.

The point is, nationalism and one’s place in the world are always at play in the news. It’s often hard for the editors of even a fine newspaper to get sufficiently outside of themselves to see what they are doing wrong.
The New York Times editorial board has a tradition of chastising, and championing, foreign political trends about which they have little first hand knowledge. Calls for “humanitarian intervention” might sound noble when voiced in comfortable mid-Manhattan offices or after work at a fine restaurant, but they do not comport with reality on the ground, and do not take into account the visceral death and destruction that often comes from military interventions.

When Americans harp on about humanitarian intervention and human rights, it sounds good in theory, but real lives are apt to be changed by these abstract ideas in unpredictable ways, as in Iraq. People around the world take notice, and not without trepidation.

The government of Burma (or the "Myanmar junta" according to the NYT style sheet) may indeed be bad news, but making bad news worse is not good journalism.

The New York Times, to its credit, has a solid tradition of fact-collecting in the field and thus the interventionist and jingoistic tendencies of the editors are at times checked by reporters on the ground.

For an example of what happens when warped provincial American values reign supreme, one only has to look American television news sources that focus on and adulate the personalities of their own "news" stars in a triumph of style over substance, a victory of innuendo and attitude over news.

More dangerous still when the nation’s leading newspaper no longer speaks truth to power but becomes the ventriloquist voice for those in power.

Not too long ago, NYT reporter Judith Miller and other star reporters echoed and amplified the drumbeat to war coming out of the Bush White House and the office of Vice-President Cheney. By a combination of design, carelessness and inadvertence, the Gray Lady lent considerable credibility to a less-than-credible war effort based on bogus intelligence.

Popular opinion counts. Because the US is so powerful, a minor shift in popular perception can make or break the attempt to intervene in a controversial way far from US shores. To make blatant frontal attacks on a government which, like it or not, represents a population suffering from natural disaster is insensitive, if not incendiary, especially when hints about regime change are made even before the floodwaters have receded.

So what’s Burma to think when the world’s most influential newspaper—seen by foreign critics, and not without justification, as the house organ for US imperialism—aligns its coverage of a terrible cyclone with the interventionist position of the US government?

There are ample indications, taken from the pages of the Times itself, that it initially adopted the US government line as expressed by USAID, a relic of Cold War aid programs with historic links to the CIA. On May 9, 2008 NYT the "Quotation of the Day" is by Henrietta H. Fore, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development:  "It's a race for time,” she says, as US warships neared the Burma coast. “A race to save lives."

The race was on.  The race to show the world how much the US really cared. First out of the starting block was US First Lady Laura Bush who got on the air and made the pronouncement that, and I paraphrase here, because she also talked about other “world issues” in the same breath, that Burma was bad and America was good.  (see Huffington Post, “Laura Bush Discusses Jenna’s Wedding During Myanmar Press Conference.”)

The first lady, to the extent she managed to stay on message, made a  point that was picked up by the US media: the foreigners must accept US aid immediately.

“Unimaginable Tragedy if Myanmar Delays Aid” reads the breathless NYT headline.

CNN naturally took this to mean that Burma should accept CNN without hindrance or delay and the TV station went on to make a mockery of its own sensational reporting by devoting lengthy coverage to the foiled efforts of its star reporter to escape from his Rangoon hotel under the watch of local security personnel. CNN’s cat and mouse game irritated Burmese authorities who went on to tighten visa regulations, an example of hyperactive reporting achieving the opposite of its intended effect.

When it comes to the imagined goodness of US intentions, and the inexplicable lack of reciprocity by a foreign power, it does not require a conspiracy, just unchallenged American hubris, for the US media to willingly fill in the gaps. What followed was an inundation of reports crafted to help news consumers to hate Burma, to hate it more than ever, and to feel a burning need for change.

The pressure was on the US media, almost from day one, to put pressure on the Burmese government to open up to US aid or else.  The upfront humanitarian motive was to relief suffering and save lives --all but the most cold-hearted pundits care about that-- and rapidity of response does make a difference in disasters, as the US learned bitterly from the Bush administration’s clay-footed response to the Katrina disaster, but there were hidden political agendas and veiled threats lurking in the editorial content.

The earliest NYT stories, filed by Seth Mydans sound as if they were written in an air-conditioned apartment in a fashionable section of Bangkok which they probably were because he was unable to travel to Burma until later on. When Mydans was joined by others on the ground in Burma, the reporting was at once more detailed and less sensational.
Consider the chronological flow of stories taken from NYT coverage
“Myanmar Reels as Cyclone Toll Hits Thousands”
“Bodies Flow into Delta Area of Myanmar”
“Myanmar Votes as Rulers Keep Tight Grip on Aid”
“When Burmese Offer a Hand, Rulers Slap It.”
“UN Leader Tells Myanmar’s Regime there is ‘No More Time to Lose.’”
“Myanmar Government Still Blocking Large-scale Relief; Death Toll Rises Again.”
“Aid Groups Say Some Myanmar Food Aid is Stolen or Diverted by the Military”
“US Frustrated by Myanmar Military Junta’s Limits on Aid in Wake of Cyclone.”

By May 18 the psychological pressure to do something, anything was accentuated by invoking the urgency of children in distress.
“Myanmar’s Children Face New Risks, Aid Groups Say.”

Thereafter, the Gray Lady’s tone becomes snide if not strident.
“2 Weeks after Cyclone, Burmese Leader Pays First Visit to Refugees”
“Myanmar Camp for Refugees seem to be for Headlines Only”
“Myanmar Junta Begins Evicting Cyclone Victims from Shelters”
“Gates Accuses Myanmar of ‘Criminal Neglect’” over Aid.”

Early evidence that Burma was indeed getting aid to people in need did not change this hegemonic narrative. How could aid from (communist) China and (poor, backward) Southeast Asia possibly do the job? It was assumed the Burmese government had no interest in looking after its own people, and subliminally suggested that what the Burmese people really needed was the steady hand of US intervention.

After weeks of emotional grandstanding and angry accusations in the face of field reports that things were not so bad, the NYT editorial tone begins to sound spent, imbued with a world-weary sense of resignation.

“Myanmar: Navy Aid Ships to Leave”

The failure of the US military to get permission to show its stuff in storm-torn Burma thus noted, coverage shifts to other matters and with other things going on in the world, the strident calls for intervention quiet down.

The humanitarian intervention mood shift is encapsulated by an Op-ed from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who opines that intervention is good (she did it in Kosovo) but makes note of the fact that the politics of Iraq (mostly the work of Bush and the Republicans) have weakened US ability to intervene with credibility.

Meanwhile, NYT coverage from the field, augmented by the work of other media, slowly, surely begins to paint a more balanced picture, challenging the monomaniacal editorial line enunciated in New York.

“More Help Trickles in as UN Chief visits Myanmar”
“In Cyclone Relief, Monks Succeed Where Generals Falter.”

By June, the idea that Burma might just be capable of picking itself up by its own bootstraps starts to kick in and gain strength, culminating in a remarkable piece published on June 18 piece that suggested, despite weeks of editorializing to the contrary, that Burma did okay without US aid.

The June 18 reversal of editorial line is subtle but substantiated by authoritative voices. Not only does the report state that there was no starvation nor widespread evidence of disease, but it also notes that observers in the field were less pessimistic than expected. “We saw very, very few serious injuries,” said Frank Smithuis, manager of Doctors without Borders in Myanmar. “You were dead or you were in okay shape.”

Still, some of the snide tone of old bubbled through, suggesting the haze of righteousness hadn’t entirely cleared from the eyes of the Gray Lady. In a line that reeks of rewriting at the international desk in New York, gratuitous mention is made of an unrelated earthquake in China, slyly linking China and Burma--the two regimes the Gray Lady loves to hate-- even though earthquakes and cyclones are utterly unlike.

“Those who survived were not likely to be injured in the aftermath by falling rocks or collapsing buildings, as often happens during natural disasters, like the earthquake in China.”

Despite that silly aside, the coverage of the cyclone closes on a sensible note as the NYT gently retracts some of its more feverish forebodings.

American diplomat Shari Villarosa, “the highest-ranking United States diplomat in Myanmar” is quoted as saying, “I’m not getting the sense that there have been a lot of deaths as a result of the delay.”

Subsequent narrative represents a major change in tone for the New York Times, both in terms of style and substance. Not only is Myanmar referred to as Burma, a term with friendlier connotations in common English usage, but the “junta” is twice described as a “government.”

Words really do make a difference.

The subtle mea culpa continues. “The United States has accused the military government of “criminal neglect” in its handling of the disaster caused by the cyclone…but relief workers say the debate over access for foreigners and the refusal of the government to allow in military helicopters and ships from the United States, France and Britain overshadowed a substantial relief effort carried out mainly by Burmese citizens and monks.”

The June 18 article gently distances itself from USAID position that the paper had adopted at the outset of the crisis.  It notes that 815 visas were issued for foreign personnel, though USAID did not get in.

“It’s been overwhelmingly impressive what local organizations, medical groups and some businessmen have done,” Ruth Bradley Jones of the British Embassy in Rangoon is quoted as saying. “They are the true heroes of the relief effort.”

Looking back on the voluminous number of New York Times reports filed on Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, certain patterns emerge.  At first coverage was animated by an impatient, pro-intervention narrative arch. But the tone starts to soften midstream and by June changes gear, resulting in a mea culpa of sorts, concluding that US intervention was not strictly necessary and the delay in aid was not a big deal.

It's partly a story of improved reporting due to improved access, something journalism-shy countries like China and Burma need to better understand. Good access allows for better reporting and more often than not, more sympathetic reporting.

By the time the floodwaters had fully receded, the idea that Burma might just be capable of pulling itself up by its own bootstraps with help from its neighbors started to kick in and gain strength, culminating in the inescapable conclusion that Burma could overcome the tragedy without US aid after all.

pc

Monday, February 1, 2016

BEN ANDERSON: A STUDENT'S APPRECIATION



(Ben Anderson illustration courtesy of Verso Books)


(first published in the Bangkok Post, December 15, 2015)

"AJARN BEN STILL ENLIGHTENS"

by Philip J Cunningham

When I studied with Benedict Anderson at Cornell University in the mid-1970’s, he seemed the quintessential absent-minded professor; at once erudite and bookish, idealistic and dreamy-eyed. The fact that he had just been kicked out of Indonesia only added to his aura. Giving lectures about coups and counter-coups and revolutionary martyrs, he’d pace the front of the classroom in clunky boots and mismatched outfits, utterly captivating class attention with his soft but mellifluous Irish-accented voice.

Ajarn Ben, as his is affectionately known here, was one of Cornell’s most accomplished professors, and he was too self-effacing to play the role of academic rock star. Still, I think he had a good deal in common with John Lennon. He was a dreamer with prodigious powers of imagination. Like Lennon, he was at once outrageous and shy, artistic and political. Both were gadflies and contrarians, successful by conventional social standards, yet quick to attack the establishment and advocate for poor and dispossessed.

While Lennon dreamed of a world with no countries in “Imagine,” however, Ajarn Ben couldn’t imagine a world without countries. He was deeply fascinated by nationalism, despite it being corrosive of his own utopian beliefs. On the positive side, nationalism could transcend race, and hold a disparate nation together, as he documents in his magisterial book: “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism.”

Ajarn Ben was openly leftist in his political views, but consistently curious about the way other people thought and deeply empathetic with underdogs regardless of ideology.

It came as no surprise that he should be pleased when the progressive Dr. Puey Ungphakorn, former rector of Thammasat University, came to Ithaca after a narrow escape from Thailand in the aftermath of the October 6, 1976 military crackdown.

What was more telling about Ajarn Ben’s bandwidth as a scholar, however, was his equally gracious reception of a Thai government spokesman around the same time. He later told me he felt sorry for the tongue-tied spokesman, for it was a thankless job to defend the indefensible.

In a similar vein, Ajarn Ben would rail against the evils of the US government but would extend courteous welcome to spies and intelligence analysts. Even in heyday of  “CIA off-campus!” he was willing to share his insights with all takers. At a Southeast Asia Program dinner party, he introduced me to a visitor, saying, “I’d like you to meet my friend, she works for the CIA. I’m not joking.”

It is also telling that at a time when Cornell University offered courses in “Peace Studies” taught by Pentagon-inspired number-crunchers and nuclear war strategists, the steadfastly anti-imperialist Ajarn Ben was alone in offering a course in “Military Dictatorships.” When I asked him why he would want to dwell on something so negative, he answered, “Most countries in the world are run by the military, so if you want to understand the real world you have to understand that.”    

To the extent that the utopian and socialist leanings of his youth did not comport with the reality of a world where nationalism trumped ideology, and where his beloved Indonesia tore itself apart at the seams, he was intellectually courageous enough to challenge his own received knowledge.

Even as “Imagined Communities” became one of the most-referenced books in political science, Ajarn Ben wearied of academia, suggesting that “real genius resides elsewhere.” If the repetitive cycles of politics and academic fashion bored him, he never lost his enthusiasm for art. He tackled the Thai language at age forty and co-authored a book on Thai short stories with his Thai instructor, Ruchira Mendiones. Not one to rest on his laurels, he then tackled Spanish in order to read Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” in the original.

A good-humored gentleman and an iconoclastic scholar, Ajarn Ben was a maverick and a searcher for truth in all kinds of wrapping, shapes and sizes. As his chosen field of political science drifted into an increasingly quantitative, theoretical direction, he pivoted to language and culture, looking for nuggets of truth in small places. He saw the up-turned bowl of a single Buddhist monk refusing alms from the military in Burma as a radical rebuke of violence. He was endlessly fascinated with brilliant, lonely minds too far ahead of their time for their own good, be it Thailand’s Jit Phumisak, or the Philippine’s Jose Rizal. Both men were martyrs, targeted for their ideas.

In more recent years he became an avid film watcher. He invited me to a screening of Pridi Banonyong’s “King of the White Elephant” in Bangkok, a full thirty years after inspiring me to write a research paper about Thai statesman Pridi.  Back in Ithaca, he extolled the quirky, quiet contemporary films of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Films can capture a child’s wide-eyed wonder at neglected aspects of the everyday world, a wide-eyed wonder I think he shared.

It gave me great pleasure to reconnect with my favorite professor over the years, sometimes in Bangkok, sometimes in Ithaca. When I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University, I was especially proud when he came to speak to my class. When I returned to Cornell as a visiting fellow, many years later, he invited me to his home in the appropriately-named rural hamlet of Freeville. We socialized as colleagues, but I always felt a mere student in his presence.

With the rise of divisive color-coded politics in Thailand, I was not always in agreement with my old professor, and I think for this reason we tended to speak more about China when we met. China vexed him to no end, but Ajarn Ben’s humor was the saving grace of many a conversation.

On October 27, 2015, Ajarn Ben gave what turned out to be his valedictory remarks at Cornell University after half a century of enriching the university community. During a lengthy introduction to the Filipina novelist Gina Apostol, he explored the relationship between art and truth, citing “Act of Killing” by Joshua Oppenheimer as an exemplary documentary examination of the brutal political violence in 1965 Indonesia.

The topic was close to Ajarn Ben’s heart—his own writing on the topic earned him persona non grata status in Indonesia until the end of the Suharto era. I think the tragicomedy of the deeply atmospheric, sometimes whimsical film, cut close to the professor’s oft-expressed appreciation for humor and irony in a world full of tears.

Ajarn Ben died in Indonesia, the country that banished him for 26 years. He was visiting Java on a journey that was eventually to take him to his winter home in Taling Chan, Bangkok. Born in China, raised in Ireland, educated in England and tenured in America, Benedict Anderson gently bowed out from the world in Indonesia, the very place that sparked his passion for Southeast Asian studies.