Tuesday Mar 28

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Brand Burma

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Issue #03 - Interviews

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irAsia vs Neil French vs McCann. You might remember in our last edition that we published a name-and-shame list of well-known companies that do business with Burma's military regime and we asked our readers to respond. They did - and the results were thought provoking to say the least.

Firstly, we contacted the CEO of AirAsia, Tony Fernandes, asking why - contrary to appeals from Burma's democracy movement led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - any airline would continue to fly into Burma. Separately - and coincidentally - Philip Rowel, ECD of McCann Bangkok, asked if he might argue for the case that international business should not boycott Burma. While we don't share this view, we do support free speech. We agreed to let Philip make his case by writing a campaign. We let him know that pro-democracy supporter, Neil French, would be wading into the argument. Neil was too gobsmacked to art direct his reply - but we're confident you will get the drift.

Before we open the debate, allow us to offer a short background into the situation in Burma. Here is a country ruled by one of the longest running and brutal military dictatorships in the world, one charged by the United Nations with a "crime against humanity" for its systematic abuses of human rights. Forced labour, human trafficking, and child soldiers are common. The military is notorious for its use of sexual violence as an instrument of control, including systematic rapes and taking of sex slaves. After a cyclone devestated Burma just over a year ago - with the loss of 100,000 lives - it's military government rejected foreign aid.

Here is AirAsia's position on Burma in an official statement to Agency.Asia Magazine:

Blackmail isn't the way forward and we have to think of the people at large. I have flown to places that no one wants to fly. Naritwat where the people are suffering. Aceh where no airline flies but we do because of the tsunami and the people are so grateful. I am providing employment to many Myamese and they are so grateful. I won't cut that link. They themselves don't support us cutting a flight to Myanmar and they say it won't make a difference. We are apolitical and only look at ways we can help people. Our motto is now everyone can fly and we won't change that. Tony Fernandes, AirAsia CEO.



Tony Fernandes' airline has a somewhat black record regards to its being a good corporate citizen - even going so far as to charge people on disability pensions for the hire of wheelchairs. Arguably the most scathing attack on any corporation in the blogosphere is the "Fly Air Asia? Not Me" website - here - acting as an aggregator of all AirAsia's sins and slip-ups.

As to being 'apolitical', we reccommend you read the blog and draw your own conclusions. While we appreciate Tony Fernandes' official statement regarding Burma and his stated generosity, we don't believe a word of it. We hasten to add that AirAsia is not the only airline that flies into Burma and hopefully this article serves as a signal to those other airlines ... you're next!

Amid some of the worst poverty, health problems and corruption in the world, many people now have only one wish: escape. Even long-suffering Zimbabweans have an option to flee to neighbouring countries. But the Burmese are locked in, held down by their rulers and not wanted in India, China or Thailand. With an estimated population of more than 50 million, Burma has become the world's biggest prison camp. Mrs Suu Kyi won more than 80 per cent of seats in an election in 1990 but her party was denied power by a military junta that has ruled since 1962.

From The Guardian: according to Benjamin Zawacki of Amnesty International, half a million people are internally displaced. He said the army is continuing systematic rights violations against Karen and other ethnic minorities including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, forced labour, crop destruction and restrictions of movement.

From Time Magazine: as far back as 2001 evidence given to the United Nation's International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that around 8 million men, women and children are forced to labor on construction projects, including those linked to tourism, every year.

Again from Time: in spite of these horrors, though, many in the media and the travel industry have consistently argued for tourism to Burma to continue -- often arguing that it benefits Burmese people. In fact, only the tiniest minority of Burma's 48 million people are even touched by tourism. Around 75% make their living from agriculture; of the remaining 25% only a small percentage comes into contact with tourists. So whilst you may be able to give a few dollars to benefit someone working in the tourism industry, the scales don't quite balance when tourism is simultaneously helping to prop up a regime that keeps 48 million people in the most desperate poverty.

Part #1 Brand Burma: Who's doing the business? here





So, should the world do business with Burma?

A campaign in the affirmative by Philip Rowel and Christo Tchobanov - followed by a rebuttal from Neil French

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Philip Rowell - Writer

I don't know which is right. But I don't think that's it's an obvious choice to boycott Burma if you want to help the Burmese people. I would have thought that there's an argument that the less Western business there is in Burma, the greater the power the odious government has, simply because the people don't have anywhere else to turn. Living in Thailand, I come across a lot of Burmese people who have come across the border. But what they're fleeing isn't oppression: it's poverty. They're not here to taste freedom; they're here to make a living. True democracy in Asia is relatively scarce: but the people thrive with or without it. Cutting off their economic lifelines because of a government they didn't have any say in electing - it feels perverse. Anyway, everyone knows that the boycott isn't affecting the junta in the slightest. We could boycott Burma for a hundred years, and the generals would still be in power, would still be driving Mercedes, would still be throwing obscenely elaborate wedding parties. With the only effect being generations of grinding poverty for the Burmese people for no good reason.

It seemed to us that there were two main voices in the Burma debate. The Burmese government on one side, who don't give a damn about anything but themselves, and the chorus of charities, churches, Western governments etc, who back a boycott. One side you never really hear anything from is the Burmese people. So that's what this campaign is about. The name of the movement is The 48 million. It's an attempt to focus minds on the people the boycott is really affecting: the Burmese population. Not a concept called 'Burma' which makes no differentiation between government and people; not just a name that people in the West can get on their soapbox about: but a great number of real people, living with the effects of the boycott every day. The thought is: give the people a voice. Let them tell their stories: the more the better. Hundreds if possible. Let people read for themselves the effects of the boycott, and make their own minds up.

There's no line. No logo. No flag. No raised fists. Nothing that could be seen as a rallying point against the Burmese government: that would be counterproductive, and they would only respond in their usual way. Just windows into the ways the boycott is really having an effect - so people can make their own minds up as to whether it should be acceptable for Western companies to do business there and bring some sort of prosperity to the Burmese people.

Christo Tchobanov - Art Director

As someone who spent his childhood in what was then the Communist Bloc, I was keen to work on a campaign taking this stance. Every totalitarian government actually wants the isolation. A boycott is actually rather welcome for them, while for the ordinary people it would seem to come as a final confirmation of what their government has been telling them all this time - that the outside world doesn't care about them, and all they have is their leaders. The basis of totalitarianism is the presumption that "somewhere out there, there is an enemy who hates us." By boycotting a country and hiding your true face, you are giving them the image of the enemy the junta needs so desperately for their ideological warfare. By ignoring the country and acting cold, you are allowing the Burmese government to speak for you to their own people, portraying you any way they want. The result is not only that you are not helping the ordinary people, but you are directly supporting the Generals' cause.



And for the closing argument

... we hand over to Neil French


Philip is ECD of McCann Bangkok? Do they handle the Air Asia account? They'd clearly like to. (If I may be allowed, I won't comment on the ads themselves. The argument is clearly insupportable, and the campaign reflects that). So... Well, that's a powerful argument in support of fascism, and certainly it's an original approach. I think we've found a marvelous training tool here. Next time I have a bunch of students to teach, the campaign they'll be asked to produce will be a political one. But to make it easier, I'll choose a cause that has had its day; one whose denouement is common knowledge. We'll even give a choice, eh?


1. "Why we should support the Nazis in their heroic liberation of Poland". Key issues are that the people of Poland are clearly incapable of governing themselves anyway, and that your money will go towards the construction and upkeep of much-needed ovens, to be built for the comfort of persons of Mediterranean antecedence, for whom Poland is obviously too cold to live in..


2. 'Khmer Rouge; the future of Cambodia". The efforts of the new government to tackle the problem of overpopulation have not met with universal approval. But visitors to this beautiful land will appreciate the lack of hustle and bustle in the city, the quietness of the countryside, and the reasonably-priced child prostitution.


3. 'Why Democracy doesn't work'. The examples are too numerous to count. One Man One Vote should be the watchword. (It helps if you happen to be that one man, but you can always hang on to his coat-tails. If you know what's good for you.). From Albania to Zimbabwe, the benefits to the common people are a shining example to us all..

Specific to the Burmese situation, it goes without saying that making the absurdly-rich even richer is the first principle of capitalism, and anyway it's a well-known fact that giving more money to crooks encourages them to give up and retire to Switzerland. (Incidentally, the campaign from McCann is apparently dedicated to 'give the people a voice'. They had one. They elected Suu Kyi. Much good it did them).


Agency.Asia wishes to thank Neil French, Christo Tchobanov & Philip Rowell for their respective arguments. The advertisment below is from an unknown source - but thank you too. If you are interested in further reading on why you should not travel to Burma we would strongly suggest this Time Magazine article from 2001 here which sadly still holds true.



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