What did I learn from the coalface?

  • • Young activists require protection in situations where they are exposing illegal activities. Law enforcement agencies need to be engaged on their side, but this may be tricky if these agencies have already been contracted by the opposition.
  • • Donors are hypocritical in the way their rhetoric is at odds with the knowledge that they have. This should be exposed, and those who operate ethically should be praised and promoted. “Diplomatic language” is, all too frequently, a politically correct cover for lies.
  • • Getting to the bottom of what are the actual drivers of endemic and established corruption is no small task. It takes a lot of research, people and time, and donors have to consider this to be worthwhile.
  • • Those who have been political prisoners and have lived through long and cruel imprisonment, and who are ready to keep their cause alive when they are freed, are amazing and praiseworthy people.

What happened to it all?

  • • The big issue is the Rohingya genocide and ethnic cleansing, which illustrates, if it is necessary to do so, the hypocrisy, denial and lying that are a standard tactic of the military in Myanmar. That has always been their modus operandi - it has not changed and it must stop. What has changed, as everyone knows, is that the Lady, who was so honoured and so praised, is now part of that corrupt way of operating. She has lost her honour and her reputation. I do not know what this means from the perspective of the realpolitik between the Myanmar Government and foreign donors, but presumably a great deal more scepticism. I discovered that DFID had refused to continue funding the FLEGT process.
  • • When I was there with ALARM, the Myanmar Army was not a well-liked, trusted or approved organisation. In ALARM, there were many staff from the ethnic groups that had supported armed groups against the anny. There were also many lowland “Burman”, who had the same opinion of the anny. What was extraordinary to me was that, once the Rohingya crisis broke out, people were prepared to praise the anny for defending the homeland and for persecuting the Muslims, whom, I found to my shock, were greatly vilified by large numbers of Buddhist Myanmar citizens.

And on apersonal note

My wife, Clare, was in France while I was in Myanmar but came out on a long trip in which we followed up on the astonishing story of George Orwell (Eric Blair). Clare had spent four months in Burma in 2002 for UNICEF and, as a family, we had all made several tourist trips to Burma before then. Blair’s Burma story is amazing when you appreciate what he did later in life, including fighting in the Spanish Civil War and writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

George Orwell came from a British/Burmese family and once he left school he returned as a military policeman in the colonial administration of Burma. He wrote a powerful book called Burmese Days about that experience, based on the time when he lived in a town called Kathar (not the name in the book), a port on the Irrawaddy about 12 hours by boat north of Mandalay. With the help of local enthusiasts who could see some niche tourism possibilities in George Orwell, we visited his old house (now occupied by a Myanmar police official, suitably), the old British Club with its tennis court (now occupied by a cooperative), and a building that has been set up as a kind of George Orwell museum.

What were we thinking at the time?

ALARM, with EU support, was researching and exposing illegal logging, helped greatly by the EIA, and we were using their research for our work. The nature of corruption in the timber trade seemed to me to be clear, but no one from the government or the donors was interested in prosecuting.

Springate-Baginski, Oliver, Treue, Thorsten and Htun, Kyaw. 2016.

Legally and Illegally Logged Out: The status of Myanmar’s timber sector and options for reform. EcoDev and ALARM, Yangon, Myanmar.

EIA. 2019. State of Corruption: Crime and corruption in Myanmar’s teak trade. Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), London, UK.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to interest donors in pursuing corruption issues, using ALARM’S work on timber as a model.

Holloway, Richard. 2016. Corruption: The open secret of Myanmar. Selfpublished.

I also tried to educate myself about Myanmar through the few foreign anthropologists and sociologists working on the country. There was much material available in the Myanmar language, but 1 could not read it.

Prasse-Freeman, Elliott. 2016. Burma’s historic elections. Anthropology Today, 32 (1): 3-4. https://doi.org/10.llll/1467-8322.12222.

Prasse-Freeman, Elliott and Latt, Phyo Win. 2018. Class and inequality in contemporary Myanmar. In Simpson, Adam, Farrelly, Nicholas and Holliday, Ian (eds), Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Myanmar. Routledge, Abingdon, UK and New York, USA.


  • 1 Burma became Myanmar in 1989. The government claimed that “Burma” referred to the lowland “Bamar” majority, but “Myanmar” incorporated all the people of the country. This, however, is challenged: the consensus is that “Myanmar” is a formal literary designation and “Burma” more everyday.
  • 2 The Jaipur foot is a tremendous piece of appropriate technology from India. It is a lower-leg prosthesis for people who squat to defecate. It is made of recycled auto tyres (newer versions use plastic tubing) and has a flexible ankle joint. Its use has restored millions of disabled people’s mobility' in Asia.
  • 3 CAF (Charities Aid Foundation) World Giving Index 2018. By 2018 it had fallen to seventh place.
  • 4 The only' people who were researching corruption were those connected to corporate ethical behaviour, particularly the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.
  • 5 See Prasse-Freeman and Latt on “Class and inequality in contemporary Myanmar”.
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