Organizing in Exile

P1010006Chiang Mai The Organizers’ Forum delegation had travelled from Bangkok to Chaing Mai and almost immediately sat down with organizers from three different groups focused on support and assistance to Burmese refugees and displaced citizens.  The organizers had been involved in the work from several to twenty years.  In some cases the support was humanitarian, like the work with a clinic we were going to visit in Mae Sot in coming days.  In other cases they were involved in monitoring a huge gas pipeline extracting natural resources from Burma and moving the gas to China and all that might come with such a project.  In another we heard about the ways in which they were bridging the gap between the closed society of Burma and the rest of the world with any stories they could get into the press.

It took a question from one of our delegation for it to really hit home though that these were not just other projects by some interesting NGO’s in an exotic part of the world, but something very different.  These were not project based organizers, but rather these were organizers in exile, waiting at the Finland Station in many cases to go back home.

The question was a natural organizing inquiry.  Given the enormity of what they were describing, where were the specific “wins” that would move people?  One of the organizers answered the question and the answer was rooted in events in Rangoon and elsewhere that led to concessions and retreats by the military junta.  One focused on a bus fare increase and a boycott of the buses until there was a rollback.  Of course the stories of the saffron revolt in reaction to fuel price increases several years ago that pitted the Buddhist monks against the military in a vicious campaign were told as well.

When members of our delegation would ask where various pieces of the work were going and what the hopes might be, the answers were never piecemeal and process based, but always focused on the only real goal being a triumph of democracy over the dictatorship of the junta in power since 1988 or so.  Thinking after the meeting, the dialogue was only really clear when one realized that the Burmese organizers’ real focus was protecting people inside and maintaining the pressure with the conviction that victory was inevitable.  In that sense the smaller wins were really their survival and their ability to keep up the daily work and maintain the pressure on the regime, convinced that their time would come.

Talking earlier with LOCOA about the role of community organizing in the democracy movements in the Philippines, Korea, and Indonesia, it was easier to understand why such a project was able to define lifetime commitments and aspirations.  This is part of what we are now seeing in Chiang Mai.  Mae Sot will be different, but it’s all of a piece:  the real work of keeping a people’s voice and power alive.

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