A handwritten letter to a military dictator may sound like an ineffective and risky way of conveying defiance, especially in this internet age where emails, blogs and websites have combined to threaten political authority in a number of countries.
But in Burma, where a strict censorship regime is in force and access to IT is limited, the good, old-fashioned letter is being used by the country’s long-suffering people to express growing dissatisfaction with Rangoon’s incompetent, corrupt and oppressive junta. A letter-writing campaign, launched in the first week of the New Year, has involved tens of thousands of people in and around Rangoon.
‘This is an effort to break the silence. To get people to write openly about their grievances to the military government,’ explains Naing Aung from the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a group of Burmese political exiles. ‘It is not enough just to complain. This is to get people to show their courage by standing up and openly identifying themselves as critics.’
The month-long letter-writing drive, known as the ‘Open Heart’ campaign, is the latest effort by an organization of former university students known as the ‘88-Generation’. ‘It is a peaceful way of expressing the public’s views,’ says Naing Aung, ‘because protests are banned, the media is censored and there are no elections.’
The 88-Generation comprises people who, as students, led a 1988 pro-democracy protest that was brutally crushed. This effort builds on the success of their other recent campaigns – such as the petition in October 2006 calling for the junta to release all political prisoners, including detained opposition leader (elected prime minister before her arrest) Aung San Suu Kyi. An estimated 60,000 people signed it.
Yet the act of directly addressing Burma’s leader, Than Shwe, involves high personal risk – including a prison term – if it provokes the ire of the regime. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, currently holds over 1,100 political prisoners in jail including opposition parliamentarians, Buddhist monks, journalists, writers, students and political activists.
‘The people want to co-operate in this campaign because of the growing suffering. Some people don’t care what will happen to them because they are just angry,’ says Zaw Min, spokesperson for the banned Democratic Party for a New Society.
Last year the price of rice, a staple dish in the Burmese diet, rose by 30 per cent. At the same time Than Shwe’s daughter was married in a lavish event where champagne flowed, the bride was decked in diamonds and pearls and the newlyweds received gifts reportedly worth millions of dollars.
Another factor triggering this rising tide of discontent was the arrest of Burma’s former Prime Minister and intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt and his allies. Khin Nyunt, who received a 44-year suspended sentence in July 2005, had close contacts with the country’s business community and was viewed by many as a moderate.Marwaan Macan-Markar