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City of whispers

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.


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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Stale news is best

Photo: Patrick Brown / Panos Pictures

The morning sun enters my room quietly. Though I don’t want to leave bed just yet, today is Monday, deadline day. So, I have to report at work as early as possible.

I am under a lot of pressure – both at work and in Rangoon. Lately I find the city too hot, too crowded and too noisy. I hate downtown Rangoon, but that’s where my office is.

Every day I travel to Rangoon from my quiet home town, Thanlyin or Syriam, on the other side of Bago (Pegu) River, a 40-minute ride on an always crowded bus. On the bus, I have to obey every order from conductors who seem to have absolute power. They are so rude and always shouting: ‘Hey, why you standing here? Go deeper inside! Stand here! Shove inside! Come on, shove in!’

Sometimes they push my back roughly. They want to cram in as many passengers as possible. ‘Hey, don’t forget to pay. I don’t want to touch you and ask for bus fare.’

Many of the Thanlyin-Rangoon buses date from the 1940s. Sometimes their engines get exhausted on the way, forcing a stop. On those days I am sure to be late for work.

Panting, I climb the seven floors to my office – we have no elevator.

I get in and sign the staff attendance book. It’s 9.35am – five minutes late! The administration staff underline my name and I get the red card, even though I am executive editor and only two persons rank above me in the office.

Never mind – let’s begin the day. On my table, a pile of papers has been waiting for me. I sit and start editing news written by our reporters and discussing items with them.

We all sit in a hall, all 70 of us.

We have only one internet connection between us, but the computer with the connection is locked in the corner of our room. If we want to go on the web we have to ask permission from administration staff. If we are allowed use the internet, we have no permission to visit chat-rooms or send emails during office hours. I hate using the internet in my office.

When the monks took to the streets last September, we went to cover the events almost daily. My boss allowed us to go and he went as well. But after the military government gave a serious warning that it would crack down on the monks and protesters, my boss suddenly changed his policy. He said: ‘No more going outside, and I won’t allow you to go to see monks.’

He added: ‘The uprising will be finished in two or three days.’

He was not wrong – the uprising was over.

We watched satellite television, CNN and Al Jazeera, at our friends’ houses. But in our office there is no satellite receiver. One of our editors made a daring proposal at the staff meeting and asked our boss to get a satellite receiver. His reply was stunning: ‘Really, you don’t want to see the news, that’s why I won’t install the receiver. I can buy it, but I won’t.’ End of story.

Strangely, in our newsroom we don’t have computers except for the management staff and typists. We write stories on paper with a pen. After writing and editing, we pass our papers to typists. After typing them, they print out copies and we check them for spelling.

Electricity is a dominating factor, what with the frequent blackouts. We have our own generator sitting on the verandah. But when it runs the temperature in the room rises, as does the noise. We all would like to run away from our room.

There are about 25 reporters working on our journal. All look pale and impoverished. It’s understandable – their salary is $40 a month and the married ones need to look after their families. It’s not enough.

So they borrow money from our office every month. Every 15th of the month we can get a loan from the office. So we all wait for the arrival of that day. We usually borrow about half of our salary and then return it at the end of every month – a vicious circle!

I love my reporters and I would like to help them out, but I can’t. They have to go out every day to look for news, and they take crowded buses. They can charge for a bus fare but have no permission to take a taxi or trishaw. They have no cameras and no tape recorders. They have no permission to make phone calls from outside, let alone use cellphones. If they want to make a call, they must use the office phone – that means coming back and climbing seven floors!

We editors can’t say anything about the unjust management. I love my profession, but hate my office. Do I have a choice?

I love to write news stories but I hate the censor board. The censor board vets our stories and they always tell us to publish government policy and propaganda articles, week after week.

My boss has two faces. One face is all smiles for the censor board, the other grimaces at us. I think many journal publishers must be similar to him. They all want to hold on to their business and so are self-interested, always ready to compromise, to give in so as to survive.

Now it’s 2.00pm – my boss calls me to go to the censorship office for a meeting.

As we arrive, journalists of all the journals and magazines are sitting in the meeting room, waiting to hear words of wisdom from the head of the censor board, Major Tint Swe.

The meeting has been called to discuss co-operation between journals and the censor board, particularly how to speed up our submission deadlines, because all journals sit one week in the hands of the board’s officials – meaning that when news reaches readers it’s outdated.

But to me it is a boring process and one-sided – whatever suggestions or advice we offer to Tint Swe, he won’t listen to us anyway.

At around 6.30pm I head back home. My sons will be waiting for me, especially the youngest one, who is only one year old.

I leave my office and run to the bus station. Filthy and crowded buses are waiting for me again. I would like to be back home as quickly as possible. I have no choice but to get into a bus.

It’s dark as I step into my home. My sons are waiting for me. ‘Mum!’ they scream. When I hear them, all my tiredness flies away.

Their grandmother has prepared dinner – she is lighting a candle, as the electricity is gone again. After the darkness, the light, of course, would come – we all live with that hope. Don’t we?

For five years *Aye Chan Myate* (a pseudonym) was executive editor of two journals published from Rangoon. She left Burma earlier this year and now reports for the Burma issues magazine _The Irrawaddy_.


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The price of defiance

A former political prisoner demonstrates regulation positions he was forced to adopt in prison. Some are equivalent to torture.

Photo: Nic Dunlop / Panos Pictures

Bo Kyi is in debt; a debt of honour to which his working life is now devoted. Toward the end of our conversation, he tells me about it.

‘I salute those democracy activists who are in prison, those who still continue inside Burma. It is incredible, they know they will be arrested, they know they will be tortured, but they still carry on. It means we have no other way, we have to support them. If you have respect for democracy or human rights.’

That sense of compulsion has got to be what drives political activists in a country where mere disagreement with the authorities is viewed as treason. Activists like Min Ko Naing, the chair of the banned All Burma Federation of Student Unions, who spent nearly 16 years in solitary confinement. This meant sleeping on concrete floors with no bedding and receiving starvation rations (mainly gluey rice). Excrement piles up in a corner on the cell floor or, if the prisoner is lucky, in a small pot. Maggots abound. Punishment iron shackles must be worn. These weigh nearly six kilos and have a bar that keeps the feet permanently astride.

It was from such conditions that Min Ko Naing refused an offer made by a US State Department official to relocate to America. Upon his release he took up political activity again, for which further incarceration followed. In another brief period on the outside (release can scarcely be called freedom in Burma), he became one of the guiding spirits of the demonstrations in August 2007. He is back behind bars.

This is the kind of debt Bo Kyi talks about. We meet in the dusty and, to all appearances, sleepy border town of Mae Sot in Thailand, where Bo Kyi and other former Burmese political prisoners started the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). In reality Mae Sot swirls with the activity of the myriad exiled Burmese groups who are trying to get help to communities across the border and are constantly scrabbling together resources for the bedraggled refugees who arrive in Thailand. It is also a hub of Burmese politicians in exile and consequently there are tales of infiltration and worse by agents of the regime.

Bo Kyi is soft-spoken, composed, diligent in putting down markers of date and place, careful that the right details are provided – it’s a manner, instantly recognizable by journalists, common to many people who have suffered the worst that human depravity can throw at them. It could be mistaken for emotional numbness, but how else to recount horror without reliving it?

Bo Kyi spent two spells in prison totalling seven years and three months, beginning in March 1990, for student union activity, organizing demonstrations and refusing to become an informer for Military Intelligence (MI).

‘As soon as I was arrested I was taken to the interrogation centre. During the interrogation, for the first 36 hours I was not allowed to eat or drink. They asked questions. One group came in and asked questions very softly. Another group came, they asked questions with violent means – beating, kicking. They didn’t allow me to rest. For four days I was blindfolded and didn’t see daylight.’ Hooding is a common torture tool, depriving the prisoner of visual information as to what might be coming next.

‘After 36 hours they provided a very small cup of water in the morning, then in the evening another small cup. After four days I was very thirsty, but when I asked for water they said no. When I was allowed to go to the toilet, I drank water out of the lavatory. They created such situations intentionally – forcing me to drink for my survival. During those four days I was forced to stand. If I fell down they’d pull me like this [demonstrates being yanked up by the temples]. When, after eight days, I was told I would be sent to Insein prison, I was really happy, because I thought prison must be better than the interrogation centre.’

However, the harsh conditions of Burmese prisons easily qualify as torture. In a notorious incident, pigs were beaten outside Insein prison to drown out the cries of prisoners being beaten within.

In a notorious incident, pigs were beaten outside Insein prison to drown out the cries of prisoners being beaten within

‘I was placed in a tiny cell – 3 by 4 metres. I had to stay in it for 23 hours and 40 minutes, with only 20 minutes to go outside for bathing [water for which is limited to a few cupfuls].

‘One year later I was mixed with criminal prisoners, some of whom didn’t respect us political prisoners. It was part of the divide-and-rule policy of the prison authorities. Prison warders want to get higher so they can make more money for their own survival. I was under constant surveillance because prison authorities have to report to Military Intelligence.

‘During my second term the prison authorities accused me of trying to organize a demonstration in prison. Really I had no intention, but they accused me and asked me questions, beating all the time. I was beaten at least 200 times until I lost consciousness. Then I was shackled and forced to sleep on a concrete floor. For two weeks I was beaten every day; I could not sleep on my back, I had to sleep lying face down. Another time I was punished because they had found 500 kyats [currently worth 45 cents] and a piece of paper in my room. Money and writing paper are forbidden in prison.

‘Insein prison has a population of 10,000; its capacity is 4,000. Prisoners have to sleep on their sides, one behind another. The weather is hot – how can you sleep?’ Infested by mosquitoes, malaria stalks the wards. Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, diarrhoeal and skin diseases are common.

‘There are no preventive measures or medicines. Because of complaints, prison doctors use disposable syringes for political prisoners. But we have to buy them ourselves, otherwise, no way. As for criminal prisoners, they just use the same syringe over and over. If you want to see the medic your family have to pay a bribe. If you want proper treatment, it will take another bribe. If your family is poor there is a 70-per-cent chance you will die in prison.’

Political prisoners - the basics

The law

Political prisoners are arrested without warrant and are sentenced in short mock trials without proper representation.

The State Peace and Development Council has formulated numerous vague laws as ‘security’ legislation in order to imprison those who oppose it.

• Section 5 (J) of the Emergency Provision Act – most frequently used against political prisoners for ‘affecting the morality of the general public or threatening the stability of the Union’. Sentence: 7 years.

• Article 17 (1) and 17(2) of the Unlawful Association Act – all organizations of a political nature are unlawful, except for the National League for Democracy. This act is used to punish people involved with such groups. Sentence: 2 to 5 years.

• Printers and Publishers Registration Law – 7 years for all who print, publish or distribute written materials without permission.

• Section 10 (A) of the State Protection Law – detention without charge or trial for up to 5 years; commonly used to extend sentences of political prisoners. Section 10 (B) of this law is responsible for Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued house arrest.

Estimates of numbers

• 1,864 political prisoners in Burma in January 2008. An underestimate, as it doesn’t include all those arrested since the September 2007 crackdown.

• Over 10,000 former political prisoners.

• Unknown numbers of people held for short periods of interrogation (torture) – a tactic to discourage political activity.

• At least 127 deaths of political prisoners in prison or shortly after release.

*Sources*: AAPP website; AAPP, The Darkness We See, Mae Sot, December 2005.

*General disease*

When political prisoners die in prison, they are often buried or cremated without informing families, autopsies are often not performed or falsely written up. Funerals of political prisoners are monitored by Military Intelligence. When Aung Hlaing Win died during interrogation, his family was informed it was a heart attack. His body showed signs of extensive torture. The family released a statement saying: ‘Ko Aung Hlaing Win passed away unexpectedly, or because of an unknown reason.’ The authorities stepped in to force them to change it to: ‘Ko Aung Hlaing Win passed away because of general disease.’1

The general disease is the system itself. And it is getting worse. In 2006 the authorities clamped down further on the quantity of food prisoners could receive from their relatives while simultaneously slashing the food budget for prisons.2 The website of the Myanmar Correctional Department meanwhile conveys a vision of obedient prisoners working for their self-improvement. It claims prisons are open to inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Amnesty International. A quick call to Amnesty reveals that the organization is barred from visiting; the ICRC suspended visits at the end of 2005 after refusing to be accompanied by members of government agencies.

Back to reality. Bo Kyi introduces me to Aung Kyaw Oo, another former student unionist who served 14 years. Upon his release in 2005 he began working to support the families of political prisoners, until things got too hot and he fled, leaving behind his family, and arrived in Mae Sot on 6 August 2007. I am struck by the hungry eyes that dominate the face of this slight, intense man. He speaks in a near-whisper. He explains how an argument over his dinner ration led to him being summoned before a jailor. The jailor commanded him to assume one of the required submissive positions. Aung Kyaw Oo’s refusal resulted in ‘punches, beating, kicking. And then he put me in iron shackles with a hood. I couldn’t see anything, so he beat and kicked me a lot. Then they took me to sit on the sand in the sun. Next they put me with the death-sentence criminal prisoners – a 3-by-4-metre cell, with a prisoner who was always running, shouting, kicking and punching the wall, really angry. This was mental torture. I had to stay with him for six months.’

The AAPP does the usual things that groups supporting political prisoners do – documenting abuses with names, places, dates; monitoring prison conditions; lobbying international bodies to intercede when lives are in danger; publicizing details of abuse; supporting former political prisoners. But it also reaches out across the border to prisoners and their families, providing food and medicine.

‘How on earth do you manage to do this?’ I ask Bo Kyi.

At this point our conversation goes ‘off the record’. Bo Kyi is keen I write nothing that might endanger the networks his organization has built within Burma. Suffice it to say that such activities involve a combination of building family contacts and utilizing the sympathies of some prison guards and the corruption of some others.

From top: Bo Kyi, Aung Kyaw Oo, Lae Lae Nwe.

*Broken connection*

I switch off my machine, say my goodbyes and hop onto the passenger seat of AAPP member Lae Lae Nwe’s scooter. She has offered to take me to interview some monks and act as interpreter. On the way she reveals she had also been imprisoned and offers to tell her story at her home.

Home for Lae Lae is also home for some 50 migrant children and young people whom she looks after. The kids play with lusty squeals, the teenagers settling for the more sedate options of TV or study. Amid the din, she tells her story, quiet and straight.

‘One day in 1998 my best friend Zin Mar Aung – I had known her since kindergarten – asked me to type an anti-government letter. I was working for a computer operator, so I typed the letter and my friends and I distributed it around Rangoon University and other colleges. Unfortunately, some of my friends were arrested by Military Intelligence, including Zin Mar Aung. She was tortured, so she gave my name when asked who had typed the letter.

‘One of my friends informed me of Zin Mar Aung’s arrest and told me to run away from home. But it was difficult to do so. I was 22, I had no experience of politics and I hadn’t told my parents about the letter. On 25 September 1998 the MI arrested me at my company. They didn’t inform my parents, but my colleagues told them. I stayed at the interrogation centre for two weeks. I was very lucky. They follow your background. My father was in the navy and some of my relatives were from military backgrounds.’

Lae Lae kept denying any knowledge of the contents of the letter, while being forced to stand without food or water. Eventually she was moved to Insein prison and sentenced to 21 years; Zin Mar Aung (who remains in prison) received 28 years. After six months she was shunted to Mandalay prison and then on to Shwe Bo. ‘When I arrived there I told the prison officials: “I haven’t met with my parents yet, so please inform them [I’m here].” But they didn’t. My cellmate told her mother to inform my parents. So eventually we could meet.

‘I was released after four years, under Section 401(1) – I had to sign a paper agreement between the MI and myself that if I was involved in any political activities, I would be sentenced again for the remainder of my term, plus earning a new sentence.

‘All of my friends were former political prisoners, so they would always visit my home and we’d discuss the current situation. Sometimes we’d chat at the teashop. One informer was always watching me. I didn’t have freedom. At that time there was a signature campaign for the release of Min Ko Naing. The local authorities warned my mother that I shouldn’t be involved in any political activities. Because she needs to protect me, my mother had good relations with them. My father told me: “If you are arrested again, I cannot meet you in prison.” My father is retired and doesn’t have much of an income. So I left Burma in 2006.

‘Recently, an activist came here (from Burma) and joined a training session about community organizing. It was close to Christmas, so I wanted to send a present to my university friends. When the activist arrived back in Rangoon he gave them the presents. Unfortunately, he was arrested by the MI very recently. He was under cruel torture, so he told them about my presents. Consequently my university friends were arrested again because of my presents. Fortunately they have been released. Now my parents are afraid of me. Whenever I phone them, they hang up.’

  1. Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), Eight Seconds of Silence: The Death of Democracy Activists Behind Bars (AAPP, Mae Sot, May 2006).
  2. Amnesty International Myanmar Country Report 2007. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) Check out the rosy view of the Correctional Department at myanmar.gov.mm/ministry/home/PrisonsMain.htm

Photo: Dean Chapman / Panos Pictures


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'All history is propaganda'

‘We don’t need no education,’ goes the song. In Burma, they take it literally. The country has reasonable rates of literacy but appalling academic standards. I met up with a group of young people from Shan State and they told me their experiences of Burmese classrooms. They were following a nine-month blitz of a course to develop their critical faculties and computing skills at the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY) in Thailand. Most will then go on to be active in their communities back in Burma, as educators and motivators for change.

The school’s location is kept secret and its students must stay under ‘house arrest’ for their own safety. They all requested anonymity. Here is what they had to say:

*Knowing nothing*

‘I was an economics major at university, but I knew nothing. They taught the first year’s syllabus in 10 days. Our classes were in English, but I didn’t know the meaning of what was being said. So we just learned by heart or copied. There was only one teacher teaching the economics major. We had to take turns to attend tuition and push to get into the lecture room.’

‘At exam times we just copied [cheated]. It all depends on where you get a seat. If it’s far away from the teacher, then you’re lucky – you can copy a lot. Sometimes they didn’t lock the door of the room and the students came and wrote down notes on the desk beforehand. Most of the teachers knew what we were up to – they had done the same in their time. If, unfortunately, you didn’t have a “lucky seat” and you failed the exam, you went to the teacher’s home. You have to give him some money and he says: “Give me your table number.” If he says that, then you will be ok. If you take private tuition from the teacher, you get all the questions before the exams.’

*The bogey of politics*

‘We don’t have any chance for political education in Burma. They don’t teach critical thinking. We just have to copy things from the textbook. They show us the textbook and we write it down. Teachers are frightened to touch anything political.’

‘I finished high school in 2004, but I didn’t know anything about Than Shwe. Who is this Than Shwe? Also, who are the SPDC? I knew nothing about them.’

*Don’t speak the language*

‘Our ethnic history was completely suppressed. Their history books were written how they wanted them.’

‘We learnt only about Burman history, not about other ethnic people. Only a little bit in war history. We call our country the Union of Burma, but they only teach about the Burmans [the ethnic majority]. They didn’t allow us to wear our traditional clothes. We have no human rights, so how can we have ethnic [ie cultural] rights?’

‘The curriculum is flexible. In 2005 they had a big clash with the resistance groups along the Thai-Burma border. At that time they published new textbooks for the 4th to 8th standards about the Thai-Burma relationship. They taught the children bad things about the resistance groups and how the Thai Government was supporting the groups. My friend took “International Relations” as a major at university. But they just sat around talking about how bad the resistance groups were. What they learnt in Shan State they could not use anywhere else in Burma.’

‘In Burma, all history is propaganda. We couldn’t even speak our Shan language in school, let alone be taught it.’

*Then and now*

‘In Burma, English lessons at school went like this: ‘My name is Ay Ay. My mother is Pay Pay. My father is Oo Oo.’ So all of us had the same parents! At university no-one could write an essay. They get the teacher to write one for them and memorize it. Here things are very different and it has changed our lives.’

‘The difference is, now I am speaking with you. When I started, I could not introduce myself.’

‘When we asked questions in Burma, the teacher always replied: “Please listen, and follow me.” The first time we had to talk for ourselves here we were shaking. I now teach students to be confident and talk in front of people.’

School for Shan State Nationalities Youth


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A shrunken world

Uprooted villagers attempting to reach a place of safety away from the soldiers.

Photo: Thierry Falise

The red mud path slopes down almost vertically. Riding pillion, with my belongings strapped to my back, I grit my teeth as my young motorcyclist descends it, braking all the time. At the bottom, he revs up and lets fly for an almost vertical climb. It has rained overnight and midway up the wheels start to slip. I hop off and run alongside.

I have arrived in Wan Bai Pay, a refugee camp inside the Burmese border, on the southern fringe of Shan State. To get here I have had to hire a minivan complete with beer-swilling driver to drive me up mountain slopes decked with the ostrich plumes of pampas grass, past vast plantations of orange and tea. I have been smuggled past a Thai checkpoint. The Thai authorities are not keen on foreigners reporting on their doorstep.

And here I am. Wan Bai Pay stretches out, hugging a series of slopes, its huts on stilts dotted amidst lush jungle vegetation. It has tourist paradise potential. Instead it is a place without expectation.

The settlement began life in 2000 and now has 3,000 inhabitants. A previous settlement, on the Thai side of the border, was moved on when it began to show signs of permanence. The border refugee camps are such a mote in the eye of the Thai authorities that in May 2007 they ordered another camp, Loi Sarm Sip, to relocate 500 metres further into Burma because it was ‘too easily seen from Thailand’.

The people of Wan Bai Pay have fled through the jungle from burning villages, from beatings, murder and rape by the Burmese regime’s soldiers and by an armed ethnic faction, the drug-running United Wa State Army, which has the regime’s blessing. It is the Junta’s old divide-and-rule policy. There are currently 30 non-state armed groups in Burma, some belonging to ethnic nationalities that have entered a ceasefire pact with the Junta, others part of an active armed resistance. The strife in Karen State qualifies as the longest-running civil war in the world, dating back to 1949. The Karen were denied autonomy in a Burma newly independent of British rule, but with a government dominated by its largest ethnic minority, the Bamar or Burman. Over the years, the policy of Burmanization – a catastrophic attempt at nation building through the attempted erasure of the ethnic nationalities – has led to military aggression, economic domination, forced conversions to Buddhism and forced marriages. Even today, the SPDC’s soldiers are mainly Burman, while the people they attempt to subdue are of different ethnic nationalities.

‘My mother was wounded and we had nothing. I had to beg the other villagers hiding in the jungle for rice’

No wonder Burma’s borders are leaking. People who make it across to Thailand, India or Bangladesh receive a far from warm welcome. In recent years, an estimated 60,000 ethnic Chin have wound up in the Indian state of Mizoram without documentation, without rights, surviving on the worst of jobs. In Thailand, migrants are registered for only certain categories of work (construction, plantation, domestic, garment factories and in the docks) and paid less than Thai workers. Checkpoints stop vehicles to look for ‘illegals’ or migrants straying outside of zones where they are allowed to live. Thai television regularly exhorts residents to snitch on neighbours they suspect may be illegal migrants. Many who have official refugee status end up in camps patrolled by the Thai military.

And then there are places like Wan Bai Pay, within Burma but in a ‘liberated area’– in this case, liberated by the Shan State Army - South, which keeps the camp under its protection. The region around it is laced with landmines. Visible from the camp and but a half-day’s walk away are camps of the Burmese military and the Wa Army. The only employment is tea-picking across the border in Thai fields for an exploitation wage, all movement monitored by Thai border guards. Some of the camp’s women are trying to get a sewing project off the ground to earn some extra income. The permitted radius of movement is all of five kilometres.

Much of the food, clothing, medicine and education is funded by aid, with the dependence that implies. In the camp’s bare-bones clinic a notice from an aid agency announces apologetically that certain food rations are being cut, due to a cash shortage. International funding for such cross-border aid is anyway difficult to gather.

When I talk to children in the camp, they want to grow up to be teachers – that is, not tea-pluckers, but one of the few other jobs going in this shrunken world. When I talk to their parents, they want to go back to their fields and villages – that is, to be able to earn their own keep and live in peace, without recourse to handouts.

Wan Bai Pay has got many things right: there are no conspicuous bigwigs; its various ethnic communities live harmoniously, side by side; there is a clinic and school, however rudimentary; water has been tapped from a nearby stream. The only generators have been assigned to the clinic and the dormitories for the orphans, one for the boys and one for the girls. When new arrivals emerge from the jungle, half-starved and scared, they are helped by others who’ve been through the same ordeal. Most importantly, here people can live in peace, even if it is a hemmed-in, precarious kind of peace.

There are over half-a-million people internally displaced in Burma; few have found a community like Wan Bai Pay.

The camp’s main path runs right along the border. Walk a few steps into Thailand and you can make a call on your cellphone; cross back into Burma and the signal goes dead. At night, the distant twinkle of lights from Thai villages on one side, pitch darkness on the other.

*Running with the rice pot*

The following morning I visit the dormitories for the orphans – two large, clean halls, with rows of beds and a trunk for each child. Among the children I speak with, Nang Seng Lao is the most eloquent. This is perhaps because she is, at 19, no longer a child. But her childhood will run like a torrent through her life. This is what she tells me.

‘I was living in Murng Karn, very close to here. The Burmese soldiers came and took my father and other villagers to be used as porters [carrying heavy loads for battalions operating in the area]. My father was sick, but they took him anyway. This happened when I was six.’

When the other villagers returned, her father was not with them. They had given the slip to the soldiers on the pretext of going for a pee; her ailing father couldn’t join them. ‘They told us: “We have to run, because the soldiers will come back again. They will come and force us to move.” The others abandoned the village, but my mother didn’t leave, because she was waiting for my father. The soldiers came, as the others had said.

‘They told my mother and me to move out from the house, but my mother replied: “I don’t want to go – I have to wait for my husband.” So one soldier got angry and beat my mother with the butt of his gun. She was bleeding. Some of the other villagers came and took me and my mother a little bit further away. The soldiers burned all the houses.’

Such senseless destruction of entire villages has taken place over 3,000 times in the last 10 years. It’s part of the Burmese Army’s counter-insurgency strategy, known as The Four Cuts. Villages presumed sympathetic to resistance groups are destroyed in order to cut links to food, funds, recruits and information. Civilians are also forced to move from contested areas to ‘relocation centres’, where their lives can be regimented at all times.

‘We could not take anything from our house, not even clothes or food,’ continues Nang Seng Lao. ‘My mother was wounded and we had nothing. I had to beg the other villagers hiding in the jungle for rice, but they also had very little rice and were hiding with entire families and children. So I got little from them. My mother got really sick, so I gave the rice to my mother.

‘At night people would sleep in a group. But because my mother kept groaning, the other villagers said: “Please go a bit further away.” Eventually my mother and I had to separate from the group. The soldiers came and found us. They asked: “Where are the other villagers?” My mother said: “I don’t know.” They started beating my mother again and my mum told me to run away. I said: “I won’t, I’ll stay with you.” But my mother told me again to run. I found the other villagers and told them to go and help my mother. But they were afraid of the soldiers and didn’t.’

Eventually she was taken under the wing of a childless elderly couple, who took her with them, while the group hid in the jungle. But the soldiers caught up with them and this six- year-old girl was again on the run. She ran to tell the group, who had just put on a pot of rice to cook. ‘Everyone just separated and ran away. I picked up the rice pot and ran. Eventually I reached a stream very close to this village and I found some Aka people. They took me to their house and I lived with them for many years. When this dormitory was built I came to stay. I’ve been here three years.

‘Before I was very lonely and wondered: “Is it only me who suffers like this?” When I came to stay in this dormitory I found friends who had also lost their parents like me, and they also feel some of the things I feel. I feel encouraged by them.’

In total, Nang Seng Lao’s period of hiding in the jungle lasted a full year, even though the village she fled is not far from the camp. It was a year of surviving on banana flowers, wild fruit and whatever kindness others chose to show her. She came out of it with just the longyi (wrap worn around the legs by Burmese women and men) her mother had used to cover her at night; now her most precious possession.

*The Lazarus of Naw Tao*

In the afternoon, I meet some older residents of the camp. They all tell of Burmese soldiers coming to their former villages every month, rounding up people for portering, forcing them to carry their weapons as the battalions move about. San Sai, a 75-year-old man who was taken into porterage, tells how the women in his group were forced to carry loads during the day and raped by the soldiers at night. The lands of his village were confiscated and given to Wa people loyal to the troops. Others tell of routine looting of their food stores and livestock by the soldiers, and being forced to pay arbitrary taxes.

Nar Auin clutches her young granddaughter as she explains how the situation became increasingly insecure for women in her village, which was close to the border and thus attracted regular visits by soldiers. Rape accompanied the visits, and eventually her daughter-in-law was abducted by the soldiers. Today, Naw Tao, her village, no longer exists. Gazing into the distance, holding on to the child, all she can bring herself to say is: ‘I really miss my daughter-in-law.’

From top: Jar Ta, who was left for dead; Nang Seng Lao, who ran with the rice pot; Nar Auin, whose daughter-in-law was abducted.

Others tell of being forced to grow jatropha (a plant whose oil can be used for biodiesel) instead of food on their lands. This is one of the junta’s export-oriented money-making schemes. Last September, Soe Myint, the director of Burma’s Energy Planning Department, announced that jatropha had been planted on three million hectares. The villagers say they are made to pay exorbitant prices for the seed of a crop that no-one wants to grow and no-one can eat. Famine-like conditions are developing.

A wraith of a man comes up to talk, bending low politely as he approaches. Jar Ta explains how survival became impossible in Naw Tao. ‘The soldiers came to ask about the Shan and other resistance groups. They wanted information, whether we had it or not. So if we said we didn’t see any Shan State Army soldiers, they beat us. I was the secretary of the village, so they really went for me. Thinking I was dead, they took me to the river bank and buried me hurriedly. Fortunately, I had been buried in sand and could still breathe. When I regained consciousness I was able to claw my way out.’ I ask him what he thinks should happen to the soldiers who did this. ‘We cannot fight them because we are weak. If I were able to, I would kill them right away.’

This is the Burma no tourist will see. People keep telling me to tell the world what is happening to them. It’s a story that has already been told time and again, of course. The question must be asked: is the world interested in listening?

I leave Wan Bai Pay as I came, clinging for dear life to the pillion of a motorbike as we negotiate roller-coaster dips and rises. Turning a corner, we suddenly come upon armed Thai soldiers and have to dismount. The senior one has a face like thunder and he’s alternately pointing his gun and his walkie-talkie at me. He takes my passport, puts a camera to my face and clicks, relays my name down a walkie-talkie and addresses fusillades of anger toward me in Thai. I feel like public enemy number one. Eventually, my passport is returned, I release my breath and we make a swift exit. Apparently, I have been read a sermon on endangering international relations in this sensitive area: one way of saying I have seen and heard rather too much.

Wan Bai Pay, which means refugee camp in Shan, is not the real name of the camp, which cannot be revealed for the security of its inhabitants.
More reports from Wan Bai Pay will appear on Dinyar Godrej’s blog.


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Eye candy

Who wants to watch pricey satellite television, with its rolling news and international distractions, when there’s a garden of propaganda delights to be explored on TV Myanmar? The channel has a short morning burst until 9:00am, then breaks off until 4:00pm, presumably so no-one slacks off work in order to catch an eyeful. Some highlights from a regular viewing day – Tuesday, 18 March 2008.

7:25 To be healthy: exercise programme
7:40 Documentary: Ying Nyein water gate
7:45 Short drama: ‘Fire dropped on Thigh’
8:10 Burmese traditional floral design
8:20 Programme to honour the 63rd anniversary of Army Day
8:45 Lively cultural dance

4:00 Military March music & Soldiers’ songs
4:10 Prize-winning songs from the competition to honour the 63rd anniversary of Army Day
4:25 TV lesson for Distance University Education: 2nd Year Zoology major students
4:45 Songs to uphold National Spirit
4:50 Competition: playing musical instruments
5:10 Sing & Enjoy
5:50 Programme to honour the 63rd anniversary of Army Day
6:50 Variety of knowledge for fun
7:10 Foreign soap opera ‘Love you, love you’ (Episode 9)
8:00 Foreign soap opera ‘Parallel of love’ (Episode 13)

There are four ‘news’ bulletins, and if you are especially lucky you can catch a hapless presenter reading out verbatim a lengthy speech made by one of the generals. See for yourself at http://tinyurl.com/yund57 Be warned – it’s addictive stuff! But Burmese people seem to prefer Hollywood action thrillers and Bollywood song-and-dance family dramas on VCD (video compact disc, a cheaper option than DVDs). Heck, the traitors will even watch banned copies of John Rambo, man-tits and all, giving the Burmese army a single-handed thrashing in his latest outing. There’s gratitude for you!


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Burma - the facts

Map of Burma

*the basics*

Population: reported variously as 48.37 million (2006), 49 million (current) and 51 million (2006) by UNICEF, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific, and the World Bank respectively. The last nationwide census was in 1931, with a partial census in 1983.

People: There are about 120 different ethnolinguistic groups in Burma. Estimates for the main groups are: Bamar or Burman (69.0%), Shan (8.5%), Karen (6.2%), Rakhine (4.5%), Mon (2.4%), Chin (2.2%), Kachin (1.4%), Karenni (0.4%), other indigenous groups (0.1%) and groups of foreign extraction (such as Burmese Indian and Sino-Burmese people) 5.3%.1

Religions: Buddhism predominates, followed by Christianity, Islam and Animism.

Government: Military junta – State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Head of state: Senior General Than Shwe.



The military junta’s corruption and economic mismanagement, combined with low investment, guarantee Burma’s continued poverty despite a wealth of natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas, timber and gemstones.
• Burma is the world’s second largest producer of opium and a major supplier of methamphetamines.1
• Annual Gross National Income per person (2006): $220.2
• Average annual rate of inflation, 1990-2006: 24%.2
• Major trading partners: Thailand, China, Singapore, India, Hong Kong. Trade with China alone was worth $209 billion in 2005.1
• There is an exodus of impoverished workers into neighbouring countries. In Thailand alone they are conservatively estimated to number 2 million.5

Employment breakdown (1996-2005) 3



Burma is bottom of the spending league for health provision.
• Life expectancy: 61.
• Under-five mortality rate (per 1,000 live births, 2006): 104 (Australia and Canada: 6). This means one in every 10 Burmese children will be dead before they reach the age of five.
• Under-five-year-olds who are underweight (2000-2006): 32%.2
• Public spending on health (as % of GDP, 2004): 0.3.3

HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate: 1.3%.
People living with HIV/AIDS: 360,000.

Annual HIV/AIDS incidence



Just 11% of Burmese people live in areas with electricity supply, however halting.
In 2005, the population without electricity was estimated at 45.1 million.3

Lines of communication


*human rights*

*refugees and internal displacement*

Burma has no enemies among its neighbouring countries. Instead the regime deploys soldiers extensively in states dominated by ethnic minorities, especially in eastern Burma. They are used to quash armed movements for autonomy, clear areas for commercial projects (such as dam building and mining), and extract forced labour and resources from civilians. Widespread rape by soldiers has been reported, particularly in Karen, Shan and Chin states.

Number of battalions active in eastern Burma in 2006 – 273.
3,000 villages destroyed, forcibly relocated or otherwise abandoned in eastern Burma (1996-2006).

Threats to safety and security, eastern Burma



• 488,000 members of armed forces, 12th in the world ranking of active troops on service.
• Defence spending is not known but is estimated at 22% of central government expenditure2 and Burma is estimated to rank within the top 15 countries in terms of total military expenditure.8
• Countries supplying arms to Burma: Russia, Ukraine, China and India.
• Forced recruitment is common and Burma is believed to have the world’s highest number of child soldiers.
• Morale, as well as pay, remains low. In 2006 there was an 8% increase in the desertion rate.1


• Burma has 43 prisons and 91 labour camps.6 In the latter, numerous prisoners have been worked to death.
• The prison population in 2007 was 60,000.3 In addition, large numbers of people are detained for spells of interrogation lasting up to two weeks.
• There are 39 known interrogation (torture) centres; but interrogation can take place in Government buildings used for other purposes.7

*investing in burma*

Despite numerous sanctions, foreign investment in Burma continues, providing funds for the regime.
Among those doing business in Burma are:

Chevron: US oil giant which owns Texaco. One of the partners developing the Yadana offshore gas field, which earns the junta millions of dollars.
China National Petroleum Corporation: China’s largest oil and gas company, active in Burma for over a decade.
Daewoo: has numerous investments, including gas exploration and car production.
Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand: involved in the construction of five mega-dams on the Salween river which will cause massive displacement.
Ivanhoe Mines: Canadian corporation operating Monywa copper mine with the regime. Rail and power infrastructure in the area was built using forced labour.
• Mitsui: Japanese conglomerate in joint venture with regime.
Suzuki: in partnership with a regime-controlled company to manufacture engines.
Total Oil: French corporation, one of the largest players in Burma and being sued over forced labour.10

*Elections were last held in 1990, when the National League for Democracy secured a landslide, winning over 82% of parliamentary seats. The results were annulled by the military regime.*

  1. Burma country profile, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, revised 21 December 2007, http://tinyurl.com/2x95w
  2. UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 2008.
  3. UNDP, Human Development Report 2007/2008.
  4. National AIDS Program, Response to HIV & AIDS in Myanmar: Progress Report 2005, http://tinyurl.com/yrgvyb
  5. Burmese Women’s Union, Caught Between Two Hells, 2007.
  6. Figure provided by Bo Kyi of AAPP(B).
  7. AAPP(B), Eight Seconds of Silence: The Death of Democracy Activists Behind Bars, Mae Sot, May 2006.
  8. www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0607-03.htm
  9. Thailand Burma Border Consortium, Internal Displacement in Eastern Burma: 2007 Survey, October 2007.
  10. Burma Campaign UK’s Dirty List: www.burmacampaign.org.uk/dirty_list/dirty_list.html


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Caucus of terrorists

Defiance on the streets of Rangoon, September 2007.


Burma’s ruling generals have a catchall word for all those outside the country who want to usher in democracy – terrorists. Whizzing about northern Thailand, meeting exiled politicians and activists, I feel somewhat let down – they are, in the main, a peace-loving lot.

They see themselves as part of the same struggle as the main actors within the country – the beleaguered National League for Democracy (NLD), the activists of the 88 Generation Students Group, the leaders of the ethnic resistance movements, dissatisfied citizens and, more recently, the monks. So I ask these exiles the unfairest question of them all: what is Burma’s future?

A composite answer emerges that doesn’t really surprise. After 46 years of military rule, Burma is ripe for change. It’s now 20 years since the mass uprisings for democracy which brought Aung San Suu Kyi to the fore. And it’s 18 since her party’s landslide win in national elections, which the ruling junta swiftly annulled. In all these years, the country has accumulated a long list of woes: grinding poverty, pitiful infrastructure, endemic corruption, zero human rights, drugs, HIV. In all these years, opposition has been building, though there have been long periods when it has been invisible. Cellphones and the internet have aided organizing in ways unthinkable in the past. Even though the NLD is limited to carefully worded press releases, its allies have been busy doing the spadework for a civilian administration so that, when change does come, a gaping void won’t open up.

But when, and how? I get differing answers. The Government could collapse. Or there could be a period of negotiation with the Government, possibly protracted. Or the regime, bolstered by countries putting economic partnership ahead of human rights, could carry on suppressing its people until there is revolution. One person says he feels the momentum of last year’s protests has been lost already. Others say the country is abuzz with underground activity.

In all of this, politicians in exile sometimes get lambasted by civilians in exile, for being disconnected from the NLD mothership. The exile group of former NLD members goes by the rather fanciful name of NLD-Liberated Area (NLD-LA) and they are happy to live with such accusations. Given that they are considered terrorists by the Burmese authorities, and given that the NLD operates under such threat inside the country, they cannot endanger their colleagues further by publicizing any communication between them. Instead, they are focused on preparing for any eventuality.

*Evolution, revolution*

According to Myint Thein, the joint General Secretary of the National Council of the Union of Burma, a broad-based coalition of exiled politicians and democracy activists: ‘We accept the dialogue process [with the SPDC] is primary for a strategic plan. At the same time, the people’s struggle for Burma is another way to solve the situation. We have to do many things, not just pursue one way, to get a genuine democratic process in Burma.’

Deep in terrorist base camp – or rather, the NLD-LA headquarters in Mae Sot, Thailand – Myint Soe, General Secretary of the party, explains: ‘The future of Burma could change suddenly; we have no idea. The SPDC dictatorship could collapse internally. The collapsed part [comprising the more moderate generals] could co-operate with the NLD.’

The mantra I keep hearing from most quarters – not just the politicians – is ‘tripartite dialogue’ followed by ‘national reconciliation’. But again, other exiles say angrily that these are just buzz words that please international funding agencies. So what do they mean?

‘Tripartite dialogue’ means the SPDC, the NLD and the ethnic leaders sitting down to genuine negotiations. No-one is in any doubt that this would mean a dwindling of the military’s role – without their losing face. The generals will not enter such dialogue voluntarily, but the hope is that events will force them. And there is no denying this is the strategy that sails best on the oily waters of international diplomacy, however unrealistic it may seem.

‘Aung San Suu Kyi is not just a political leader, she’s a national icon, an icon of freedom’

As for ‘national reconciliation’, this would be a great healing of the wounds inflicted by the military, particularly on the ethnic minorities. Myint Soe tells me: ‘We will need more and more reconciliation after “regime change”.’ Knowing grins break out on the faces of the party members around him.

Later, Nyo Ohn Myint, the Chair of the NLD-LA’s Foreign Affairs Committee, admits that reconciliation would be a mountain to climb: how can ethnic groups, whose women have suffered widespread rape at the hands of the military, ‘reconcile’?

*Referendum in the dark*

The regime has announced a referendum on a new constitution to take place this month, followed by elections by 2010. Some have seized on this as a realistic opening, but one which grassroots political activists have rejected. Here’s why.

The constitution emerged out of an interminable National Convention which began in 1993 and was attended by handpicked delegates who had no voice in the proceedings presided over by the generals. The constitution gives the military a 25-per-cent stake in Burma’s future government – but at the top of a decision-making hierarchy. It rules out Aung San Suu Kyi – no-one ever married to a foreign national could be elected – and limits the involvement of the NLD. Changes to the constitution are forbidden. Criticism of the document – which ordinary citizens of Burma have no opportunity to read – has been declared a criminal offence. People have been imprisoned just for joking about it. International observers are banned.

Photo: Howard Ford / PANOS pictures

Still, activists in Burma are doing all they can to educate the public and press for a ‘No’ vote. The stakes are high. As Htoo Paw of the Karen Women’s Organization puts it: ‘If we agree, we grant the military legitimacy and allow them to govern forever.’

Some predict a Balkan-style disintegration if the generals are toppled. But NLD-LA members insist extensive meetings with the ethnic leaders have borne fruit. Htoo Paw, who is Karen, explains: ‘We no longer ask for secession; our demand is for federalism, with self-determination for ethnic states. We have the Ethnic Nationalities Council; we are united; we are ready for the process of tripartite dialogue. The SPDC always say they have to be in power because the different ethnic groups will stand up and fight against each other. It is ridiculous. Nobody likes to fight. We fight because the Burmese troops came into our villages, killed our relatives, burned down our homes. We are not going to fight forever. We are fighting for equality and self-determination.’

Then there is the charge that Aung San Suu Kyi’s uncompromising position is leading to lost opportunities. Her enormous sacrifice makes a moral appeal which does not have the same resonance it did. Increasingly, governments worldwide are showing a callous indifference to peaceful struggles.

On the other hand, she is the one person who unites the entire opposition. As Nyo Ohn Myint puts it: ‘She is not just a political leader, she’s a national icon, an icon of freedom. She doesn’t want to be Prime Minister. She just wanted to be a bridge for people to cross to a better life.’

Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for international sanctions is sometimes attacked for causing undue suffering to the people at large. The generals can blame sanctions instead of their own pocket-filling economic policies. Nyo Ohn Myint feels that if sanctions were removed they’d lose that justification and hang themselves by their incompetence. But Htoo Paw makes the case succinctly: ‘I totally support calls for an economic boycott of Burma. Some argue that it affects civilians. The people in Burma are already poor; they are already starved. Even if they work for international companies, all the benefit goes to the SPDC.’

*International pussyfooting*

We are now squarely in the international arena. It is arguable that Burma’s agony has been protracted by the softly-softly approach of international players. The UN shows little leadership – resolutions against Burma in the Security Council are routinely opposed by China and Russia, both of whom also sell arms to the generals. The UN Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, gets brushed off and dressed down by the regime.

ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member) could exert the greatest influence. But India and China in particular are scrambling for Burma’s natural resources, and for dominance in the region. All their investments are extractive – benefiting the generals who get their cut but offering little to Burma’s people. India, which values the geographical buffer against China that Burma provides, claims that the country’s woes are its ‘internal affair’, thereby disregarding the voice of its people. China, which values stability on its doorstep, only asks the regime to show ‘restraint’. Both would probably benefit from increased stability under a democratic regime. But, with varying degrees of democracy at home, they prefer the status quo.

Sanctions imposed by Western countries do pinch the generals – who constantly complain – but not enough. Oil and gas are exempted. Burma’s trade in natural gas is the mainstay of its economy. If there were a more concerted effort on sanctions, there is little doubt the regime would collapse, or at least be forced into a more compliant stance.

‘If we agree, we grant the military legitimacy and allow them to govern forever’

There are many challenges that a democratic Burma would need to face, not least from within the movement itself – the low number of women in politics (there is no dearth of them in activism), the dominance of the NLD, the shortfall of trained people to fill administrative positions. Here again, international support could make a great difference.

Eventually, change will come from within, from those currently being hunted down, incarcerated, tortured, even killed. None of them would be willing to put their lives on the line if they didn’t believe that change will come. Almost all the Burmese exiles I meet have families torn apart by their involvement in politics.

As I write this, there is a young democracy activist, Nilar Thein, on the run in Rangoon. She has been in hiding for several months now. She has left her infant daughter behind. Out of hiding she says: ‘I love my daughter, but I also need to consider mothers fleeing with their children and hiding in jungles. My suffering is very small compared to them. Only if we end this bad system will the future of Burma’s people, including my daughter, be bright.’1 u

National Council of the Union of Burma www.ncub.org

Burma’s generals, who have ruled since 1962, strut their stuff on an Air Forces Day Parade.


  • Kyaw Zwa Moe, ‘No Soft Touch’, _The Irrawaddy_, October 2007

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    Corporate hogwash

    There’s no great difference between any country in the world when it comes to doing business with Burma. Look at the US – the Bush executive order is pretty good, but what is Chevron doing? The British Prime Minister and parliamentarians are very vocal, whereas they haven’t stopped trade in practice. So when the EU says: ‘Well, we have sanctions going on,’ I have to ask them: ‘Excuse me, where are they?’ Because visa bans are not sanctions. There is trade still taking place with countries from Europe. Germany has always blocked the EU position on sanctions. France has got Total there.

    Maung Maung

    When, in 1998, the regime was on its knees, it was a joint venture by UNOCAL (which was taken over by Chevron) and Total that brought it back on its feet. It’s the same situation now – politically, the regime is in a bad way. But it is Chevron’s and Total’s money that is allowing them to creep along. So it’s corporate policy that is supporting the regime, and corporate policy that is hampering the governments from going after Burma on all fronts, from going after full sanctions. We are working on a bill with our supporters in America on getting Chevron out of Burma; it’s been passed by Congress. But in the Senate it hasn’t passed because some Senators are worried about Chevron having to leave Burma.

    The attitude of the corporations needs to change. If they say: ‘Well, we’re just doing business,’ – no, you’re not just doing business, your business is helping the regime kill people. What the multinationals get out of Burma is really very little compared to their overall income. They say: ‘Well, we’re putting a foot in the door,’ but your foot is stepping on our necks. If we can get them to refrain from doing anything in Burma for the next three years, we would see a change in the political system which would allow the people of Burma to become ordinary human beings again.

    I think consumer boycotts are a very good thing. When we went on a boycott campaign in America, PepsiCo and Levi’s withdrew right away.

    We took UNOCAL to court. It’s got a budget that’s bigger than Burma’s. We started in 1996, didn’t have any money, didn’t know whether the money would come, didn’t have any lawyers. But we got them to settle with us. After nine years they shut up and admitted they were working hand-in-hand with the regime. These are very rare cases – you have to be a bit stupid to push them through. But the stupidity proved that there are still things that can be done in the world.

    State-controlled Burmese media accuse Maung Maung of offences ranging from petty theft to involvement in bomb plots. He is the General Secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions – Burma (FTUB), which has been instrumental in getting Burmese workers’ rights and forced-labour issues onto the international agenda. FTUB website: www.ftub.org


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    A Short History of Burma

    Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the oldest and holiest Buddhist shrine in Burma.

    Dinyar Godrej / New Internationalist


    Colonial historians of Burma claimed that its earliest civilizations had been founded under Indian influence and could not date back much beyond 500 CE. However, recent research indicates that civilization in Burma’s Irawaddy valley is very old – 3,500 years ago its inhabitants were farming rice, raising livestock and using bronze implements. In the fourth century, however, this civilization underwent its defining moment when it adopted South India’s Theravada style of Buddhism. Today over 80 per cent of Burma’s people are Buddhist and the country has the largest number of monks as a percentage of the total population.

    Burma emerges

    By the ninth century a group of people from the north, the Bamar, gained prominence and founded the powerful kingdom of Pagan (today’s Bagan). Old city states gave way to a more unified administration, which reached it’s apogee during the reign of king Anawrahta (or Aniruddha) who successfully unified all of Burma by 1057. The line of kings that followed him constructed thousands of pagodas, and also monasteries, libraries and colleges. Their harnessing of water resources led to a surge in rice production.

    However, the Buddhist kingdom was isolated from its geographical neighbours who followed other religions. The growing influence of the monkhood over resources prompted a decline, inviting Mongol and Tartar invasions. The succeeding centuries would be marked by divisions, as various ruling dynasties rose and fell, and territories under their control underwent constant permutation.

    Bayinnaung’s empire

    The next unifier of Burma would emerge in the mid-sixteenth century. Bayinnaung was an expansionist ruler who waged relentless war in order to gain increasingly larger areas of territory. His aggression is much admired by the military rulers of today’s Burma, for whom he is a role model. Upon his death in 1581 at 66 years of age his rule stretched over almost all of Burma, Thailand and Laos. But such dominion, won at great cost, was difficult to hold on to, and soon after his death sections of his empire began to fall away.

    Wars with Britain

    Burmese expansionism in the late eighteenth century caused strife with China, but it was Burmese general Maha Bandula’s conquest of Assam in 1824 that would pit Burma against an enemy that would come to occupy it – Britain. Whereas the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) was fought to regain territory that Burma had wrested away from British India, by the time of the third war in 1885, which resulted in the total annexation of Burma, other factors were at play. The British viewed Burma not so much as land that they definitely needed to control, but as a market they needed to capture and as a backdoor to lucrative trade with China.

    A province of India

    The British made Burma a province of India in 1886 and instigated far-reaching changes to the country’s make up. Indians were brought in to fill civil-service jobs and the business interests of Indians and Chinese in Burma were encouraged, which bred resentment in many Burmese people. Agriculture was geared towards export and Burma became the world’s largest exporter of rice. Resistance to British rule continued in the northern territories up until 1890, when the British finally destroyed entire villages in order to halt guerrilla activity – a tactic still favoured by today’s military junta. Here, as elsewhere, divide-and-rule was characteristic of British governance, with certain ethnic groups being favoured over others, creating clashes of loyalties.

    The new masters

    Protests by university students in 1920 were the first signs of renewed resistance against British rule. Strikes and anti-tax protests followed, with Buddhist monks playing a prominent role and even leading armed rebellion. Rangoon University was a hotbed of radicalism and a young law student, Aung San, gained increasing prominence in the movement for national autonomy. He and fellow student Nu (a later Prime Minister of Burma) joined the thakin movement. The name, which translates as ‘master’, was an appropriation of the term colonial subjects in Burma had to use for the British. Now it signified that Burmese citizens wanted to be masters of their own destiny.

    World War manoeuvres

    The start of the Second World War saw the administration of Burma separated from India. For some nationalists the War presented an opportunity to gain concessions towards autonomy in return for Burmese support in the hostilities, but the thakins rejected any participation in the war. The nationalists drew much inspiration from Marxist ideas and the Sinn Féin movement in Ireland. Aung San co-founded the Communist Party of Burma. He sought contact with Chinese communists, but the Japanese authorities got to him first, promising military training and support for a national uprising. Aung San and 29 other young men, known as the Thirty Comrades, left for Hainan Island in China (which was under Japanese occupation) for the promised training. The deal was that the Japanese would help Burma rid itself of the British colonialists and grant independence. But with the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 came the growing realization that one set of colonialists had been exchanged for another. Aung San then quickly changed sides and negotiated with the British to drive out the Japanese. Having had his brush with the imperial ambitions of Japan, he was also one of the founders of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). The Japanese were successfully expelled from Burma in May 1945. However, many parts of the country lay in ruins, devastated by warfare.

    Freedom – and a leader lost

    A military administration resumed in Burma under the British and there were calls to prosecute Aung San for his involvement in a murder during military operations in 1942. However, the British were pragmatic about the popular support this 32-year-old man enjoyed and Aung San eventually managed to negotiate Burma’s independence from Britain in January 1947. Aung San also concluded an agreement with the country’s ethnic nationalities for a unified Burma. There were already dissatisfied splinter groups of the AFPL which had either gone underground or into opposition. An elected interim government saw Aung San’s AFPFL win 248 of 255 assembly seats. Aung San and his ministers got down to the business of drafting the country’s constitution – but not for long. On 19 July 1947, at the instigation of an opposition politician, Aung San and several members of his cabinet were gunned down. Aung San’s colleague, the charismatic U Nu, now took over the reins and Burma finally became independent on 4 January 1948 at 4.20 am – the odd hour was chosen for its auspiciousness by an astrologer. Anti-British sentiment was so strong that Burma decided not to join the British Commonwealth, unlike other colonies that had also gained independence.

    A brief democracy

    U Nu’s government faced many challenges from the outset – disgruntled communist factions and ethnic groups, who felt excluded from the deeply Buddhist Nu’s vision of the country, began insurgencies, as did Kuomintang Chinese nationalist forces in Northern Burma. In the international arena Nu sought co-operation while steering his country on a non-aligned course. Despite the civil war raging in parts of the country, the 1950s was a progressive decade for Burma, with the economy beginning to recover. The Burmese Constitution had guaranteed a level of autonomy for the ethnic minority states after a period of 10 years, but this didn’t materialize under Nu’s stewardship, leading to widespread unrest. There were also political schisms within the ruling AFPFL and in 1958 the army took over for the first time under General Ne Win, one of the thakins. This ‘caretaker government’ purged ‘communist sympathizers’ and forced the minority states to bow to central government. Elections in 1960 brought U Nu back as Prime Minister but the days of democracy were numbered. Having had his taste of power, Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, and the country’s decline under military dictatorship began.

    The tiger’s tail

    The constitution was suspended, opposition political parties and the All Burma Student’s Union were banned, the press was muzzled and the country was closed off to the rest of the world. Ne Win and his military cohorts in the newly formed Burma Socialist Programme Party followed what they called the Burmese Way to Socialism. Human rights abuses intensified and all dissent was crushed. Early in his career Ne Win had failed in business due to competition from Indian traders; now he purged the country of people of Indian extraction who had formed a significant part of its commercial and administrative backbone. All major industry was nationalized. Insurgency continued and was answered by state force. Ne Win called it ‘healthy politics’. Ne Win and his generals lacked knowledge of world economics and they didn’t seem interested in gaining any, driving the country to ruin. Later Ne Win would admit to journalists that his policies had been misguided but that ‘it was like having caught hold of a tiger’s tail… there was nothing else to do but hang on to it.’

    A dutiful daughter

    In September 1987 a ‘demonetization’ robbed most Burmese people of their savings and the UN admitted Burma to the club of Least Developed Countries. In July 1988 Ne Win suddenly announced that he would be stepping down. Driven by economic desperation and seeing a chance for change, demonstrations broke out in the country in the ‘democracy summer’ of 1988. But on 8 August 1988 troops began firing into the crowds, eventually killing over 3,000 people. Thousands of politically engaged people were forced to flee the country, but they continued their resistance, forging alliances with the ethnic nationalities’ resistance movements. In Rangoon, Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, who had returned to the country to nurse her dying mother, was approached to join a burgeoning democracy movement. The military imposed martial law; the country was to be led by a 19-member State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Aung San Suu Kyi, who had captured the people’s hearts with her non-violent stance and political integrity, was placed under house arrest. Surprisingly, SLORC honoured its promise to hold multi-party elections in May 1990 and, even more surprisingly, they were free and fair. But when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won overwhelmingly the military refused to hand over power.

    Roadmap - or dead-end

    In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year the military placed the uncompromising General Than Shwe at the helm. A National Convention was convened in 1993 to draft a new constitution and prepare the country for eventual democracy. This was a stage-managed exercise which sought to preserve military dominance. Members of the National League of Democracy walked out of the process. During the 1990s the military regime managed to negotiate ceasefire agreements with many of the insurgent groups, promising them benefits which for many are yet to materialize. In 1997 SLORC morphed into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but despite the name change, the beast remained the same. In 2003 an open-ended seven-step ‘roadmap to democracy’ was announced and the sham National Convention reconvened in 2005. In September 2007 there were widespread street protests in Rangoon and across the country, after a huge increase in fuel prices. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, having spent 12 of the last 18 years in this condition. Burma’s civil war has become the longest running in the world. The SPDC has announced that a new constitution is complete and that it will hold a referendum on it in May 2008, even though the people have no opportunity to read it or criticize it. Multi-party elections have been promised for 2010, but this is seen as yet another diversionary manouevre. Meanwhile, the military regime is busy selling off the country’s resources to its neighbours in a bid to finance its continued rule.


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