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The Bairns

An extraordinary feat from Rachel Unthank and the Winterset.

Out of Britain’s blustery Northumbria comes Rachel Unthank and her Winterset trio. The Bairns is Unthank’s second album and it is so bold that it almost undoes the folk tradition on which it’s based to make something utterly different.

This is an extraordinary, and not easily explainable, feat. Yes, Unthank draws on material that reflects a deep affinity with Northumbrian song and dialect, but she and her collaborators shy away from any cod notions of authenticity to reach a new space, helped by a series of little ‘lulls’ – including a portion of Will Oldham’s ‘A Minor Place’ – that link songs. The instrumentation is spare – just Unthank’s voice and cello, plus pianist Belinda O’Hooley, violinist Niopha Keegan and co-vocals from her sister Becky – but the colours illuminating the 15 songs (especially ‘I Wish’, a lament of a maid undone) are startling.

The careful pace of The Bairns is reminiscent of a more experimental tradition that takes in John Cale and the shimmerings of Jon Hassell. The beautiful ‘My Donald’, a mostly acapella song from the days of the whaling fleets, conjures up recollections of Nico, circa Marble Index era, while it’s no surprise to find a deft cover of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’. Sound artist Graeme Miller’s working of ‘Newcastle Lullaby’, in an echoing round, is also very special.



Plan B 3.0 - Mobilizing to Save Civilization

Plan B 3.0

‘We are in a race between tipping points in the earth’s natural systems and those in the world’s political systems. Which will tip first?’ is how Lester R Brown puts it. To win, we must embark on a radical change of direction with a wartime sense of urgency.

Brown’s plan has four interconnecting strands: climate stabilization, population stabilization, poverty eradication and ecosystem repair. The cost of $190 billion per year, Brown suggests, could easily be drawn from global defence budgets which total six times that amount.

To stabilize the climate he recommends reducing global CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2020 – 40 per cent by ending deforestation, planting trees and changing farming practices. Redirecting taxes from employment to environmental damage (ideally with a tax levied on fossil fuel producing companies) would wind down the use of hydrocarbon fuels and give incentives for efficiency and renewable energy. We haven’t time to wait for the UN, he argues: individual nations must go ahead and take action regardless.

Surprisingly, Brown maintains we can economically grow our way out of the problem – a moot point – and he puts little stress on using less energy through lifestyle and behaviour change. But he does acknowledge the benefits of moving towards a plant-based diet.



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May 2008

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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

    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


    Action on Burma

    “Please use your liberty to promote ours”

    *Aung San Suu Kyi*


    *Join the dots*
    Here are just some in reader countries:


    Australia Burma Network

    Australia Campaign for Burma


    Burma Campaign UK


    Canadian Friends of Burma

    Burma Watch International

    Burma Forum Canada


    Burma Action Ireland

    New Zealand/Aotearoa

    New Zealand Council of Trade Unions

    United States

    US Campaign for Burma


    Web campaigners Avaaz.org

    An extensive list, including groups providing humanitarian support, can be found at


    Numerous small local groups do community work, hold public information meetings and gather funds for projects that will help the people of Burma. Why not approach like-minded people to start one of your own? Some of the organizations listed above give tips on starting up and how best to contribute.

    Spread the word

    • International media attention harms the regime and reminds people within Burma that they have not been forgotten. Write to your newspaper on Burma issues and remind them that there is no peace in Burma even when things appear ‘normal’ on the outside.

    • Write letters or organize petitions to political representatives and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asking them to press for an arms embargo on Burma at UN level.

    • Humanitarian aid going to Burma through international agencies is severely hampered by the restrictions placed on staff by the military regime. There is a crying need for cross-border aid sent via neighbouring countries directly targeting vulnerable communities in Burma. Political activists in the country also need financial support in order to equip them better to face problems. For example, a cellphone which costs upwards of $2,000 in Burma can be a lifeline to an activist in hiding. Write to your country’s funding agencies to press for this kind of highly effective ‘unconventional’ aid.

    Don’t buy it

    Let international corporations that invest in Burma know that they have got blood on their hands and you won’t be buying their products. Get an extensive list of such corporations from Burma Campaign UK –

    Two oil giants in particular are playing a large part in propping up the regime and there are boycotts against both of them.
    The campaign against Total can be found at www.burmacampaign.org.uk/total.php and inspirational images of protests, including pickets at filling stations, can be viewed at www.totaloutofburma.blogspot.com
    The Chevron boycott is at www.peacemajority.us/BoycottChevron.htm

    TOTALitarian OIL

    Olympic switch-off

    There’s little doubt that China’s support for Burma’s generals – as investor, weapons supplier and diplomatic protector – is crucial for their survival. Burma’s 88 Generation Students’ group of political activists has called for a boycott of the Olympics in China which are due to start on 8 August – the 20th anniversary of a major massacre of democracy protestors in Burma.
    For details visit http://tinyurl.com/2vklky

    This is not a game.

    Get the knowledge

    Follow developments in Burma via these exhaustive web resources:

    BurmaNet News
    Daily news articles gathered from the world’s media.

    Online Burma Library
    Lives up to its name by providing over 15,000 reference documents – including facsimiles of propagandist state news media.

    The Irrawaddy (www.irrawaddy.org) and Mizzima News (www.mizzima.com) With content provided by Burmese journalists (mainly in exile), these offer analysis and news.

    “I think by now I have made it fairly clear that I am not very happy with the word ‘hope’. I don’t believe in people just hoping. We work for what we want. I always say that one has no right to hope without endeavour, so we work to try and bring about the situation that is necessary for the country, and we are confident that we will get to the negotiation table at one time or another. This is the way all such situations pan out – even with the most truculent dictator.”

    *Aung San Suu Kyi*


    Was Jesus Christ a revolutionary?

    ILLUSTRATION: Francis Blake / Three-in-a-Box

    Jesus certainly kept some shady political company. One of his inner circle was known as Simon the Zealot, the Zealots being an underground anti-imperialist movement dedicated to driving the Romans out of Palestine. The Roman presence in the province was not in fact particularly oppressive. No Roman institutions, legal, educational or religious, were imposed on the people. In Jesus’s own home territory of Galilee there was no official Roman presence at all, so it is unlikely that he would have grown up at the knee of smoulderingly anti-imperialist parents. Any Roman soldiers he saw as a child would have been on holiday.

    NI Special Feature

    Even so, there were religious reasons why even hands-off rule by a pagan state was objectionable to God’s chosen people. The Zealots wanted a purified, traditionalist, theocratic Jewish state, and promoted a theology not unlike that of al-Qaeda today. In addition to the militant Simon, two other of Jesus’s disciples, James and John, are given a nickname (Sons of Thunder) which some New Testament scholars suspect may link them, too, to the insurrectionists. Perhaps Judas sold Jesus because he had expected him to be Lenin, and became bitterly disenchanted when he realized that he was not going to lead the people against the colonial power.

    *Daggers drawn*

    It is, however, unlikely that Jesus was part of the anti-imperial resistance. For one thing, he seems to have believed in paying taxes (‘Render unto Caesar...’), while the Zealots did not. For another thing, he was at daggers drawn with the Pharisees, who were in some ways the theological wing of the Zealots. In fact, they are the only sect whom he curses to hell.

    Another reason why Jesus is unlikely to have been a Zealot is that his disciples were not arrested after his execution. Had they been known insurrectionists, the occupying Roman forces would almost certainly have moved in to mop them up. There may have been a sprinkling of anti-imperialist militants among the disciples, but the Roman authorities seem to have been clear that the Jesus movement was not out to overthrow the state. This is not why he was crucified.

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    Indeed, why he was crucified is something of a mystery. It was certainly not because he claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus makes no such claim in the Gospels, except once, implausibly, in the Markian trial scene; and Mark had his own axe to grind. Taken in a literal sense, the title ‘Son of God’ would almost certainly have resulted in Jesus’s being stoned to death on the spot for blasphemy, which was presumably one excellent reason why he did not make claim to it. In any case, Jesus cannot have believed that he was literally the Son of God. Yahweh does not have testicles.

    Only the Romans had power of execution, and they took no interest in the theological squabblings of their colonial subjects. Or rather, they took an interest only if they threatened to breed political consequences. They would certainly have been put on the alert if Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah, since the Messiah was seen for the most part as a militant political leader who would put Israel on its feet again. But Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah either, except on two occasions, both of which are historically dubious.

    It is likely that Jesus ended up on Calvary because of his enormous popularity with some of the poor, who had swarmed into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and who no doubt looked to him for some vague sort of salvation from the Roman occupation. His popular support was probably by no means as massive as the evangelists make out. Even so, there was a general expectation that God was about to do something dramatic. For Christian theology, he did – but it turned out to be a resurrection, not a revolution.

    It may be that Jesus’s violent act of trying to clear the temple of moneychangers, which sailed preciously close to blasphemy, was enough for his antagonists to nail him. A reverence for the temple was an essential feature of Judaism, and a strike against it was a strike against Israel itself. The temple rulers controlled Israel’s currency and economy, so that the place was among other things perceived as a bastion of the ruling class.

    *Not ‘anti-capitalist’*

    Running out the moneychangers was not, however, intended as an ‘anti-capitalist’ gesture. Jesus would have understood well enough that pilgrims would not have brought their sacrificial animals with them from home, for fear that they might be found blemished by the priests who inspected them on arrival. They would consequently buy a dove or pigeon in the temple itself, and would need to change currencies to do so. Jesus was probably signifying the destruction of the temple in a symbolic way, rather than expressing his distaste for its commercial sleaze. The paraphernalia of organized religion was to be replaced by an alternative temple, namely his own murdered and transfigured body.

    Quite what the charges against Jesus were is not entirely clear. The accounts of the Gospels on this score are mutually inconsistent. The general impression is that the whole of the Jewish governing caste were against Jesus, but that they could not find common ground among themselves on why they were. He was certainly accused of blasphemy. But the Romans would not have cared about that, and in any case executing someone as a pseudo-teacher or pseudo-prophet was remarkably rare in Jesus’s day.

    The High Priest, Caiaphas, had therefore to concoct some charge which legitimated Jesus’s execution in the eyes of the Jews while sounding sufficiently alarming to the Romans to spur them to dispose of him. Protesting that he claimed to be king of the Jews, even though we have no evidence that he did, would fill the bill nicely. Suitably spun, it might sound like blasphemy to the Jews and sedition to the Romans. But it might also have been enough to get Jesus crucified to advise the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, that this unruly vagabond represented a threat to law and order in such politically volatile conditions.

    *Brutal Pilate*

    Pilate seems to have had a particular penchant for stringing people up. He is presented in the Gospels as a vacillating liberal of a metaphysical turn of mind, but we know enough about his historical record to be sure that he was nothing of the sort. He was, in fact, a notoriously brutal viceroy, an official who was accused of bribery, cruelty and executions without trial and who was eventually dishonourably dismissed from office. Had Jesus come up against a more liberal regime, he might well have got off.

    Was Jesus, then, a ‘spiritual’ rather than a political leader? This, to be sure, is the customary reading of his exhortation to render unto Caesar what was owed to him, while at the same time granting God his due. But it is unlikely that this is how his words would have been understood in first-century Palestine. It projects back upon them a modern distinction between religion and politics which is decidedly non-scriptural. Those who heard Jesus’s words would have understood that ‘the things that are God’s’ included mercy, justice, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, sheltering the destitute and protecting the poor from the oppression of the powerful. There is little opiate delusion in Jesus’s grim warning to his comrades that if they were true to his Gospel of love and justice, they would meet the same sticky end as him.

    The motif of a close link between the deepest suffering and the highest exaltation is a traditional one in Judaism, as it is in the Western lineage of tragedy. True power flows from powerlessness, a doctrine which Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection is meant to exemplify.

    In the so-called Beatitudes, the poor, hungry and sorrowful are declared blessed, but not the virtuous. Unlike the virtuous, they are signs of the coming kingdom because they exemplify the emptiness and deprivation which the New Jerusalem is destined to repair. The point of prophecy is not to foresee the future, but to warn those in the present that unless they change their ways, the future is likely to be extremely unpleasant.

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    The kingdom did not, of course, arrive shortly after Jesus’s death, as the first Christians (and certainly St Paul) seem to have believed it would. The Christian movement begins in bathos. Its origins lie in a hideously embarrassing anti-climax, one which follows hard on the heels of the shameful scandal that the Son of God has actually been butchered.

    One reason why Jesus and his followers expected the kingdom to arrive very soon is that they had no notion that human activity might have any role in helping to establish it. For the early Christians, the kingdom was a gift of God, not the work of history. History was now effectively at an end. There was no point in seeking to overthrow the Romans when God was about to transform the whole world. Jesus’s disciples could no more bring about the kingdom of God by their own efforts than socialism for deterministic Marxists can be achieved by intensified agitation.

    Some aspects of the way Jesus is portrayed in these texts have an obvious radical resonance. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful. The problem of much modern Christianity has been how to practise this lifestyle with two children, a car and a mortgage.

    Jesus has most of the characteristic features of the revolutionary activist, including celibacy. Marriage belongs to a regime which is already passing away, and there will be no marrying in New Jerusalem. This is not an anti-sexual motif. Celibacy is seen by Christianity as a sacrifice, and sacrifice means giving up what is regarded as precious. St Paul, an enemy of the flesh in popular mythology, regards the sexual union of two bodies, not celibacy, as a sign of the coming kingdom. Actually working for the kingdom, however, involves surrendering or suspending some of the goods which will characterize it. The same is true of working for socialism.

    ‘He expected it to be soon swept away by a form of existence more perfected in its justice, peace, comradeship and exuberance of spirit than even Lenin and Trotsky could have imagined’

    Even so, Jesus is not presented as an ascetic, in the manner of the ferociously anti-social John the Baptist. He and his comrades enjoy food, drink and general festivity, and he enjoins men and women to unburden themselves of anxiety and live in the present. What one might call Jesus’s ethical extravagance – giving over and above the measure, turning the other cheek, rejoicing in being persecuted, loving one’s enemies, refusing to judge, non-resistance to evil, laying oneself open to the violence of others – is similarly motivated by a sense that history is now at an end.

    In his crucifixion and descent into hell, Jesus in St Paul’s view is ‘made sin’, identifying with the scum and refuse of the earth, enduring a solidarity with suffering, evil and despair in order to transfigure it through his resurrection. Like the classical tragic protagonist, he succeeds only through failure. If he lay down confidently expecting to spring up again, he would not have been raised from the dead.

    *Effervescent hopes*

    This, then, is what all the effervescent hopes of Jesus and his entourage have come to. The crucifixion proclaims that the truth of human history is a tortured political criminal. It is a message profoundly unacceptable to those sunk in a dewy-eyed delusion (idealists, progressivists, liberals, reformers, Yea-sayers, modernizers, socialist humanists and the like), though one which was perfectly understood by a Jew like Walter Benjamin. Only if you can gaze on this frightful image without being turned to stone, accepting it as absolutely the last word, is there a slim chance that it might not be.

    Christianity is thus considerably more pessimistic than secular humanism, as well as immeasurably more optimistic. On the one hand, it is grimly realistic about the recalcitrance of the human condition. On the other hand, it holds out not only that the redemption of this dire condition is possible, but that, astonishingly, it has in some sense already happened. Not even the most mechanistic of Marxists would claim these days that socialism is inevitable, let alone that it has already come about without our noticing. For Christian faith, however, the advent of the kingdom is assured, since Jesus’s rising from the dead has already founded it.

    Was Jesus, then, a revolutionary? Not in any sense that Lenin or Trotsky would have recognized. But is this because he was less of a revolutionary than they were, or more so? Less, certainly, in that he did not advocate the overthrow of the power-structure that he confronted. But this was, among other things, because he expected it to be soon swept away by a form of existence more perfected in its justice, peace, comradeship and exuberance of spirit than even Lenin and Trotsky could have imagined. Perhaps the answer, then, is not that Jesus was more or less a revolutionary, but that he was both more and less.

    *Terry Eagleton* is Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. This is an edited extract of his introduction to The Gospels, published as part of its ‘Revolutions’ series by Verso, London and New York, 2007, www.versobooks.com


    '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


    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.


    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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