Denver Bar Association
October 2008
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Living in America (and not in Burma)

by Marshall Snider

This has been a rough year for those of us in the United States of America. We have a war in Iraq that is going nowhere fast. You can’t fill the tank in your car without taking out a mortgage, and the mortgage market is in a shambles. The dollar is weak, the economy stagnant, and the Rockies may not repeat as National League champions. As bad as it all seems, we are the lucky ones; we still live in one of the most prosperous nations on earth and our government is not throwing us in jail for disagreeing with it.

Despite occasional glitches – and there have been some major ones, such as the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II – we live in a society whose government by and large has been kind to its people for more than 200 years. Sure, the current administration wants to tap all of our phones, but just look around the world and name the other countries in which you would be willing to live. The number of possibilities is woefully small.

Earlier this year, two countries I’ve visited in the past have illustrated why we are lucky to live where we do. I speak of Zimbabwe and Burma (like the United States government, I refuse to use the Burmese military government’s chosen name of Myanmar when referring to this country). These two countries have been wrecked by dictatorships that have no interest in the welfare of their people, but that exist only to perpetuate their own power and corruption.

School children in rural Zimbabwe in 1993.  Photo by Marshall Snider
I spent a month traveling through Zimbabwe in 1993, when it was a prosperous country with a strong infrastructure and a promising future. Although many whites left the country when it gained independence and majority black rule in 1980, by the mid ’90s the children of these expats were returning to the land of their birth because they saw great economic opportunity in Zimbabwe. Many of these returnees opened businesses in the tourism industry, which was booming. The farms were producing and business was good.

Admittedly, some of the whites who remained in Zimbabwe were bitter, and even skeptical about the country’s future. I met a white farmer in the rural eastern highlands and commented on the strength of the economy and the solid nature of Zimbabwe’s tourism infrastructure: good roads, clean and pleasant hotels, and national park campgrounds and lodgings that would meet any traveler’s expectations. In response, this fellow said to me (referring to the government of President Robert Mugabe): "Well, they just haven’t had the country long enough to (mess) it up yet." I chalked up his comment to the bitterness and continuing racism that existed in Zimbabwe’s white community, and I wrote the guy off.

Unfortunately, he was right. Mugabe and his generals indeed have messed up this once beautiful country. Mugabe brutally appropriated the white-owned farms that were the bulwark of Zimbabwe’s economy and turned them over to his cronies, who had neither the skills nor the interest to engage in a productive use of the land. The economy went south in a hurry. This past summer inflation in Zimbabwe was so high that a loaf of bread was selling for several billion (that’s right, with a "b") Zimbabwe dollars.

In the meantime, Mugabe, the generals and his supporters have lined their own pockets in an obscene fashion. And when an opposition party dared to raise a legitimate challenge to the Mugabe government, we all saw what happened last June. The government and its thugs intimidated, assaulted and jailed opposition supporters, and Mugabe "won" a one-candidate election that has been universally condemned, even by his former supporters in other parts of Africa. At the hands of the Mugabe government, Zimbabwe is now a country without freedom or bread.

It is sad to see what has become of this once beautiful and vibrant country, not due to natural catastrophe but as a result of the ill will of its government. I feel the same way about Burma. The Burmese people are among the gentlest and most spiritual people in the world, even if their government (a military dictatorship) is run by some of the biggest fools on the international scene.

When I traveled in Burma in 1983, the ruling junta was deep into its form of quasi-communism it called "the Burmese Way to Socialism." The "Burmese Way" was so incompetent as to be laughable, and over time has destroyed the economy of this once prosperous nation that had been known as the "rice bowl of Asia."

In 1983, strict economic and currency control regulations were so easily evaded that the economy ran almost entirely on the strength of its black market. A visitor learned this fact very early in his travels to Burma: in the customs and immigration line at the Rangoon airport, black-market operatives approached arriving foreigners to purchase duty-free whiskey and cigarettes, cassette tapes and cosmetics — all staples of the local black market economy — right in front of customs officials. At the end of a trip to Burma, these same officials ignored travelers’ currency declaration forms, which in any event had been doctored by the tourists so that they could travel in the country at black-market prices, for a fifth of what the government would have had them spend.

The author took this photo of a fresh-water delivery cart pulled by oxen in 1983 in Pagan, a small village in rural Burma, near the site of one of the most important temple and pagoda complexes in Asia.

The overall impression 25 years ago was that, like the travelers to this country, the Burmese people ignored the government at every turn, happily living their lives. Meanwhile the ruling junta imitated the Keystone Cops, running in circles but not really harming anyone. This uneasy accommodation has fallen apart, however, as the government now brutally squashes the Burmese democracy movement at every opportunity, including the beating and murder of protesting monks. The government reached a new low in May when, due to its fear of outsiders and loss of control, it refused international relief after a devastating cyclone left millions of Burmese homeless. Characteristically, the government corruptly and inefficiently handled the relief effort, and even proceeded with an "election" to consolidate its power in the middle of this natural disaster.

These two beautiful countries have been ruined by corrupt and brutal dictatorships whose only interests are in enriching themselves and consolidating their hold on power. This is a tragedy for the citizens of these lands. Sadly, cases like that of Zimbabwe and Burma are not unique in the world. There is much to criticize about our own government right here at home, but we need to remember to be grateful that we live here, and not there.


Editor’s Note: As this article was going to press, Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition party.

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