Don's Diary

November 17, 2000

Saturday
Johannesburg airport. The plane is packed with community health workers jaunting off to consider poverty issues. If it fell, most of Southern Africa's leading brains on community health would disappear into the Indian Ocean.

Sunday
Bangkok at noon. Norwegian diplomat meets us, but we still face the usual passport stuff. Drive to palatial hotel and talk about Burma and the upcoming seminar on lessons from South Africa for that embattled country. Jeremy Sarkin, my travelling companion, University of Western Cape colleague and fellow seminar leader, is very focused. Retreat behind the long report I wrote 15 months ago for our hosts, the Norwegian foreign ministry.

Monday
Norwegian embassy. Meet friends from exiled Burmese community and talk about their expectations of the seminar. The ambassador joins us - she is new and very enthusiastic.

Tuesday
Sarkin and I prepare for the seminar. En route to purchase elusive hand-held computers, the dream of every modern academic, I am waylaid by Thai silk and jewellery. Order suit.

Wednesday
Seminar at Thamassat University's outer city campus. Pleased to see strong contingent of women. In my earlier report, I queried the absence of women activists among the exiles.
The Burmese analyse their situation. Very depressing. Frozen in the ice-age of no-compromise, the Rangoon government seems like the apartheid government 15 years ago. The core problem for the opposition is the absence of public space - something South Africa had in abundance. We walk them though pre-negotiations, negotiations, transition and safeguarding democracy the South African way. In the mid-1980s the country was a basket case; today, notwithstanding multiple problems, things are different.
Truckle bed and rickety electric fan in a student dorm offer the best sleep of the trip.

Thursday
Early morning walk to the stunning campus of Asian Institute of Technology. Back to transitions - we have lost a few participants. Ask for a show of hands of who has been in Burma in the past year: not one. The past five? One hand. The past ten? A few more. We punt the need for compromise and emphasise difficulties exiles experience as they come to govern. The young ask for more and more and, at long last, the women become vocal. Time runs out.

Friday
Lunchtime debriefing in the Norwegian embassy - Australian, American and some European diplomats, including a Brit who is stationed in Rangoon. No representative of the South African embassy, alas.
I ask the Brit about the universities in Burma. When open, they are in free-fall. Seems advertisements in the Rangoon press stipulate only those with degrees before a certain date need apply. Wonder about the value of an academic boycott.

Peter Vale is deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs, University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

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