New Internationalist

City of whispers

Issue 411

On the 60th anniversary of Burma’s independence, the country is colonized from within by its military rulers. Dinyar Godrej travels to its former capital, Rangoon, to catch what’s in the air.

Photo: THIERRY FALISE
Silhouettes of silence. Monks in the Shwedagon pagoda, Rangoon, Burma’s holiest Buddhist shrine. In September 2007 30,00 people, led by 15,000 monks, marched from this pagoda to the house of Aung San Suu Kyi. The pagoda was cordoned off by the military and many monks were taken away to unknown destinations. Photo: THIERRY FALISE

I’m riding a ghost plane. Apart from the roar of engines, there is an uneasy silence. No holidaymakers of the raucous variety. Just the occasional short, murmured exchange. An elderly Burmese man is fumbling with his immigration form. He turns it over and over in his hands, half the questions unanswered. Next to me a nervous young man cranes his neck, peering out of the window. Eventually he initiates some chit-chat, volunteering that he is returning from London, where he had been staying with relatives. I’m itching to ask how he feels, but I bite my tongue. I’ve been infected by the self-censorship that governs all conversations with strangers in Burma. ‘You never know who is your friend, who is your enemy,’ a local tells me later.

As we touch down, a foreigner abandons her half-read copy of Newsweek. The list of things not to carry into Burma is extensive. I’ve purged my luggage and left all my contact information lurking in an email to myself.

The two women at the immigration desk scribble down details in pencil (no computer in sight) and whisk me through. Following the vicious suppression of street protests in September 2007, tourists are scarce. Numbers were already down due to a long-running boycott urged by the country’s most famous prisoner, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

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Feeding the regime

Since 1962 Burma’s people have been under the heel of a military dictatorship. Business is dominated by military-owned conglomerates and entrepreneurs paying their dues, so buying almost anything here feeds the regime. Chances are that the roads one uses in popular tourist destinations, or the golf courses the rich set might tee off on, were built by forced labour. Pagodas visited or ferries boarded incur a dollar fee that goes straight into the junta’s coffers. One cannot visit this country without in some way contributing to the junta. Large parts of it are off-limits to tourists. These are also the places where rape, murder and pillage have reduced entire communities to refugees. Many Burmese in exile tell me the only way to justify a trip is if the solidarity you can show to the people will outweigh the damage you will do with your dollar.

All this makes me uncomfortable. Posing as a tourist, while hoping to get a sense of the place as a journalist, makes me even more so. It’s not easy being what you aren’t.

Every traveller to Burma is told never, ever to initiate a political conversation; let them do the talking. But politics is everywhere. The beaming staff at the reception desk of my guesthouse ask me why I am staying for such a short period. I say I would have loved to stay longer, but because there’s so little good news from Burma in the West I couldn’t persuade friends and family. Tight-lipped silence ensues and I scurry to my room with all the shame of someone who has farted in a lift.

Next morning I walk up Mahabandoola Road on my way to Sule pagoda. This is the wide thoroughfare where thousands gathered in September 2007, emboldened by the protest of the monks. Today it is calm. Monks I speak with later tell me how they were hunted through the city streets when the crackdown began, how they were taken in by sympathetic citizens who gave them ordinary clothes and smuggled them out of Rangoon, walking in groups around them. They tell of their fellow clergy rounded up, stripped naked and beaten, the families of other leaders arrested in order to smoke out those in hiding.

An emptying drain

The protests had begun for economic reasons, but economics is politics in Burma. The military regime is fabulously inept at handling the country’s finances. It used to be called the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC – like the sucking sound of an emptying drain – but now goes under the moniker of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), on the advice of a US PR consultancy. After a disastrous isolationist period supposedly following the ‘Burmese way to Socialism’, it now aspires to the authoritarian capitalism of its neighbour, China. But without the infrastructure or the business acumen of China, it is presiding over a grand sale of the country’s assets, with the top military brass amassing fortunes. Transparency International has dubbed the country, jointly with Somalia, the world’s most corrupt. On top of the heap is the ruthless Senior General Than Shwe, whose daughter’s wedding in 2006 cost an alleged $50 million. Meanwhile, an estimated five million Burmese face chronic hunger – in a country which used to be known as the rice bowl of Asia. About half of all children don’t enrol in school any more; healthcare is among the worst in the world.

Burma’s generals have a tendency to kick the economy about. New taxes are imposed overnight and inflation is rampant. They have thrice ‘demonetized’ the currency, making many people’s savings worthless at a stroke. The currency, the kyat, has an official exchange rate of 6.5 to the dollar. But step into a market and it’s 1,200 kyats to the dollar. The black economy is the one that counts for the Burmese people, while the generals, blocked from using Western banks, stash their loot in nearby Singapore and Malaysia. In August last year they doubled the price of diesel and petrol and jacked up the cost of gas five-fold – this in a country which has such enormous gas reserves that international players are tripping over themselves to corner a share.

I was struck by the lack of security personnel on the streets when I first arrived. Now I know – the police are in people’s heads

Fearing another economic crisis of the kind which triggered demonstrations in 1988 – when 3,000 protestors were killed – the 88 Generation Students, a coalition of former student activists who spearheaded that uprising, began protests in Rangoon. They were quickly rounded up and imprisoned or chased into hiding. Meanwhile, monks in Pakokku, central Burma, began a peaceful protest in sympathy with the people and were rewarded for their pains by beatings, resulting in one death. The protests spread to many parts of Burma. The main ones in Rangoon flashed across the world’s TV screens. They then acquired two more overtly political demands: the release of all political prisoners, including Aung Sang Suu Kyi; and for the military regime to initiate genuine dialogue with the opposition and the leaders of the country’s ethnic nationalities who have suffered long years of civil war. The military replied with guns.

Close encounters

Walking along Mahabandoola Road I see the concrete spike of the independence monument. This year is Burma’s 60th of supposed independence. But as Lin Htet Naing of the banned All Burma Federation of Student Unions put it: ‘During the colonial period, the Burmese were slaves of the British. Today we are enslaved by the military junta.’ The anniversary passed under armed guard without mass celebrations. The independence monument is deserted.

Sule pagoda, meanwhile, is thronging with the devout. Worship is the one form of public expression still open to the Burmese. A young monk walks purposefully towards me, falls into step and starts talking as if he were an old friend. It’s clear he has singled me out because I am a foreigner. I go with the flow. He points out the internet café he likes to visit. Later, visiting it myself, I find it buzzing with young people. Despite the patrolling staff and the knowledge that the regime now insists on half-hourly screen captures, so it can see what its citizens are up to, they seem undeterred. It was from places like these that images of the protests were dispersed around the world within hours.

Gently the monk guides me to a pagoda off the beaten track, where the only other visitors are a grandmother and her grandchildren. Here, sitting before a golden Buddha, he says in a barely audible whisper: ‘This government is no good.’ Taken by surprise, I just nod and let him carry on. ‘The people have nothing. They are really suffering.’ Included in the suffering are his own parents, who live in abject poverty, far away in a state bordering India. Perhaps this is why he became a novice at the age of six. Now, after the crackdown, many of the monasteries are depopulated, the monks sent back to villages or infiltrated by government sympathizers. The monks have the best networks in the country and due to their revered position have much more freedom of movement than others. But they feel under threat, even though the actions they took were ‘for the benefit of both secular and sacred worlds’. My friendly monk now spends his evenings in study and his days, after the alms collection is done, ranging the city, honing his internet skills and watching escapist movies at tea stalls.

The following day, there is another encounter. This time a skinny young man pretends to show me the sights while pouring out whispered bile on the regime. ‘They have moved the university out of the city and the monks far away,’ he says. ‘They don’t want them to live close to the people and infect them with ideas.

‘People are struggling to stay alive. Do you know that an office worker in a government office starts at just 20,000 kyats [$17] a month? In a private office it’s double that. They can’t get recruits for the army, they just come and pick up tramps off the streets.’ Children, too.

He trembles as he tells me this, his forehead beading with sweat. He is taking a great risk; Burmese society is permeated with spies from the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a supposedly civil organization whose members are the eyes and ears of the junta. A related group carried out the near-lethal attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in one of her brief periods free from house arrest. ‘Do you know, in 1988 I marched on the streets with a framed photo of our independence hero [and father of Suu Kyi] Aung San in my hands? This time I could not. I have small children.’

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Skyful of lies

It feels odd after such meetings, when my ears have been straining to hear and my mind to remember, to step back into the ordinary world around me. I was struck by the lack of security personnel on the streets when I first arrived. Now I know – the police are in people’s heads. Everything is a little too orderly or, to use a favourite SPDC word, ‘disciplined’ in Rangoon.

It is a discipline born of control. After September’s protests, satellite TV license fees were jacked up from $5 to $800 to control who could see foreign news. Cellphones, the weapons of political activists in hiding, cost $2,000. They are often licensed to government servants who sell them on for cash. The regime believes it is surrounded by lies: foreign short-wave radio stations are spreading a ‘skyful of lies’, dissidents lie in order to affect the ‘stability and security’ of the country.

At the Anawrahta night market people jostle in darkness to buy their food – yet another power cut. The stallholders have just the one candle stub each, throwing a tiny circle of wan light over their wares. Many miles away, along the Salween River, Chinese and Thai builders have signed a memorandum of understanding with the generals to build mega-dams to generate electricity. Entire villages will be cleared. But the electricity is for export, not for Burma’s pre-electric villages or its energy-starved towns and cities.

The regime itself is far from sustainable. Cannibalistically, it turns on former leaders once they are out of power. It is riddled with superstition. Astrologers told Than Shwe to move the capital from Rangoon into the jungle of central Burma, and he did so at obscene expense. His predecessor was advised by an astrologer to dress in women’s clothes and wear flowers in his hair like Aung San Suu Kyi in order to steal power from her.

Burma’s young people are ready for change and were at the forefront of the demonstrations. So the baton of protest has already been passed down a generation. In terms of traditional politics, the National League for Democracy remains the main opposition, despite being persecuted almost to a standstill. There are criticisms that the ‘uncles’ who make up its executive committee are resistant to new ideas. But political spaces are being opened up elsewhere, with the activism of the 88 Generation Students the most radical.

Keeping the lid on

The SPDC will try to keep the lid on them all for good; its paramount interest is its own continued rule. As veteran Rangoon journalist Ludu Sein Win puts it: ‘In the entire history of the world, there has never been a dictator who willingly gave up power once he had it firmly in his hands. There are no countries in the world which have gained liberation through the help of the United Nations.’ In other words, the people of Burma must do it for themselves, with all the sacrifice that entails. But the rest of the world could be doing so much more than its current feeble attempts to engage with the regime.

Waiting in the gleaming marble mausoleum of Rangoon airport, I look at the row of women lightly flicking the floor with long bamboo brushes, endlessly, pointlessly polishing. On the runway, fighter jets take off and land in a steady stream. Among the passengers about to depart there is no whispering. There is silence.

Need more background? Click here for a short history of Burma.

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