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Burma: Dizzying efficiency

Sometimes the urge to fling the nearest available projectile at the television set can take some suppressing. I found myself struggling when, during the course of a news item on Burma, the anchor mentioned the military junta winning the country’s referendum on a new constitution. A strangulated ‘Aaaargghhh!’ emerged nonethless.

Now I know the news media sometimes have to resort to shorthand, but this kind of passing reference confers legitimacy where none is deserved.

Let’s consider the regime’s glorious achievement. In the first round of  voting on 10 May, people in the areas not affected by cyclone Nargis went to the polls. In what was a voluntary vote, somehow over 99 per cent were reported by state media as turning up, of whom 92.4 endorsed the constitution. No matter that few of them would have had a chance to have read the document and criticizing it had been declared an imprisonable offence. Then two weeks later it was the turn of the cyclone-hit. Somehow these people found time away from their struggle for survival to vote en masse and approve the constitution by an identical 92.4 per cent (knowing the superstitious nature of Burma’s rulers, I wonder if the number has an astrological significance). Earlier the Government had said that this new constitution would take effect in two years’ time. But yesterday, a statement from the junta leader Than Shwe read out on national television announced that the new constitution had been ‘confirmed and enacted’. How’s that for speed.

But then, the regime is renowned for its efficiency. While international aid was being delayed by the generals’ prevarications, the official line was that the relief effort was already over and reconstruction must begin. While foreign NGOs were pleading to be allowed to reach the sick, hungry and dying, and aid shipments were being confiscated, packages were being handed out on state television to a token few. That they were a personal gift from their caring ruler was printed in large letters, nearly obscuring the print stating which country had originally donated them.

It is common knowledge that this year’s rice harvest in the region is ruined. But not to the junta – it has ordered survivors to go and plant their salt-logged fields anew. The regime’s confidence in its citizens is inspiring. The state-owned paper The Myanma Ahlin proudly declares: ‘People from the Irrawaddy delta can survive on their own, even without bars of chocolate donated by the international community… [they can live on] fresh vegetables that grow wild in the fields and on protein-rich fish from the rivers.’

And in order to go with the positives, all newspapers and magazines in the country have been banned from carrying reports or images depicting the destruction caused by the cyclone. Articles praising the military’s  aid effort or claiming that life is back to normal face no such restrictions.

Meanwhile there is the irritating persistence of the country’s icon of opposition – Aung San Suu Kyi. Recently her supporters kicked up a fuss that state law demanded that after her latest five year stint of house imprisonment (she has spent a total of 12 years in that condition) she must either be released or face trial. Well, the top brass just brushed aside the red tape and renewed her imprisonment for a further year. Just like that.

Such efficiency extends not just to the regime but also all those who come under its protective wing. I remember a conversation earlier this year with L Dwelling, a Joint General Secretary of the Women’s League of Burma, an umbrella organization women’s groups that lobbies the UN among other things to get human rights violations against women in Burma onto the international agenda. She mentioned a meeting during which they released their 2004 report System of Impunity detailing the extent of rape by the Burmese army in conflict areas. The following day a woman delegate from the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation (supposedly an NGO but in reality a mouthpiece for the regime) declared that all the report’s claims had been investigated overnight and found to be baseless.       

Whenever reality gets inconvenient, hey presto, the Burmese authorities whisk up an alternate one. 

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