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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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Why We Fight

The Cold War imbued people in the West with propaganda images of the Soviet Union and China as aggressive militarized states. Jarecki’s closely argued documentary presents the United States as ‘militant and militaristic’, protecting its economic interests by force of arms. Tie-ups between the military, the arms companies and Congress ensure that the US is permanently geared up to fight.

An ex-airforce intelligence officer tells us how the Bush Administration placed civilians in the Pentagon to distort the intelligence on Iraq to prepare for war. We hear how arms companies employ military people to ‘open doors’ to lucrative contracts, which Congress always gratefully approves, to boost employment in constituencies.

Smugly, Richard Perle, an architect of Bush’s foreign policy, argues that it’s irreversible, part of the system. The cost is not just to those killed and maimed in America’s wars. As ex-President Eisenhower said over 50 years ago, America is building aircraft carriers –not hospitals or schools.

*ML*

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XXY

To operate or not to operate? Intersex 14-year-old Alex is under pressure to choose in this groundbreaking Argentinean drama.

This is a sensitive and unprecedented drama about a teenager exploring her sexuality. Hardly groundbreaking, you might think, but Alex is intersex – the XXY of the title refers to an extra chromosome which can give people both male and female sexual organs.

Alex lives with her parents in a remote coastal area of Uruguay where her father works as a marine biologist. When she was a baby they had refused an operation to choose her gender, but, now that she’s 14, her mother, particularly, feels she has to choose. So, her mother invites a friend to stay, who brings her husband, a cosmetic surgeon specializing in gender operations, and her son, Alvaro, who’s the same age as Alex.

Of course, given the set up, things can only go one way – Alex and Alvaro are very interested in each another. Alvaro has one or two surprises – Alex isn’t ‘out’ – but she is mature and aware of the shifting nature of Alvaro’s interest. Ines Efron, playing 10 years younger than her real age, is very good at getting across Alex’s turmoil in establishing her identity. The script handles her situation too sensitively: we never get a sense of the brutality – emotional and physiological – of medical intervention. But this is still a groundbreaking feature.

*ML*

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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.

Photo: THIERRY FALISE

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

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

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

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Feeding the regime

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

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

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

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

An emptying drain

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

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

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

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

Close encounters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skyful of lies

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping the lid on

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

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

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

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Jamaica Constabulary Force

A spate of murders of gays (known locally as ‘batty men’) and lesbians is just the most recent chapter in the sordid history of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). Though there have been some officers of integrity in the force, and many attempts at reforming it, criticism is again reaching avalanche proportions.

According to Nancy Anderson of the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights, there is one complaint made to her Council every day about the abuse of police powers. Corruption is so prevalent that the Commissioner of Police, Lucius Thomas, was forced to admit that ‘there are criminals among us... not only corporals, sergeants and inspectors – it goes all the way up.’

Partly due to a lack of faith in the police, Jamaicans have long been subject to mob and vigilante justice for everything from suspected criminal activity to sexual preference. The JCF has proved singularly unsuccessful, some say unwilling, to protect people from such attacks.

The JCF was formed back in 1865 amid a law-and-order panic following the Morant Bay Rebellion, when hundreds were massacred during a protest against the British colonial authorities that turned violent. It has never completely broken with its origins as an occupying colonial force.

Mind you, tackling crime in Jamaica is no easy matter. There are three or four murders a day, in a country of just 2.5 million people. Many take place in the working-class slums such as East Kingston and Warehouse. Unlike the recent death of Bob Woolmer, the cricket coach of Pakistan, these murders attract scant police attention. Killers are seldom arrested and convictions are rare.

On the other hand, police violence against ordinary Jamaicans is not. In 2006 a total of 138 people were killed by police – the record was in 1984 when the number reached 354. According to an Amnesty International Report, ‘impunity for police abuses and a complete lack of accountability in the security and justice systems remained the norm’. In 2006, for the first time in nearly a decade, a police officer, Glenroy McDermoth, was convicted of the murder of an unarmed suspect.

If you are gay or a lesbian your chances of getting justice go down considerably. Jamaica has witnessed a spate of homophobic violence over the past decade. The British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell believes it is being fuelled by ‘anti-gay hatred that is daily spewed from church pulpits, newspaper columns, dancehall music and radio stations’. Time magazine has dubbed Jamaica ‘the most homophobic place on earth’. Two prominent gay activists, Brian Williamson and Steve Harvey, have been murdered.

The violence takes a variety of forms, including mob attacks on individuals and on the funerals of gay people. Many killings remain unsolved. Back in 2004 Human Rights Watch issued a report, entitled Hated to Death, which condemned the JCF not only for its inability to protect gay people but also for collusion in some of the attacks.

That the situation has not improved can be seen in a number of recent cases, including one in the town of Manville in April 2007, when a mob surrounded the funeral of a man suffering from HIV. The police, once summoned, joined in the general derision. In February 2007 Kingston police ended up beating one of the victims of another attack.

Kingston has joined a number of other Western cities (Caracas, Detroit, Bogotá, Port of Spain, Mexico City) in the somewhat loosely used category of ‘murder capital’. Here, as elsewhere, unchecked crime is often accompanied by brutal police tactics. The use by the JCF of Iraq-style ‘hot spot’ sweeps of troublesome communities is a case in point.

Writing in October 2007 in The Gleaner, Jamaica’s leading daily, Don Robotham points out that ‘a policy of several de facto mini states of emergency is deeply corrupting to the entire system of justice and governance’. While there are no easy solutions, Robotham is surely correct when he concludes that ‘a scalpel rather than a blunt instrument’ is required.

Criticism is now moving beyond the media and traditional civil liberties groups. May 2007 saw the formation of the National Action Coalition (NAC), an activist organization that speaks out against police brutality. It is the brainchild of Dr Jephthah Ford, who has himself been badly beaten by the police. The NAC is mobilizing popular support around a number of controversial police killings.

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Carlos Litulo

Photo: Carlos Litulo

Managing a weapon was something that became quite familiar to Mozambicans during the southeast African country’s 16-year civil war that ended with the 1992 peace accords. Sixteen years on, the same objects that once served to kill hundreds of thousands of people are now emerging as art sculptures in a countrywide project set up by the Christian Council of Mozambique. Artists such as 41-year-old Kester (seen here), a former industrial designer, use welding to breathe a new existence into automatic rifles, rocket launchers, hand grenades and other assorted weaponry. Some of the most renowned pieces have already found a home outside the former Portuguese colony, such as ‘The Tree of Life’, on display at the British Museum, or the chair in the Vatican that was offered to the late Pope John Paul II.

The Council’s programme, called ‘Transforming Arms into Ploughshares’ after Isaiah’s biblical passage, was set up in 1995 in an effort to disarm the population by collecting the vast number of weapons that had been scattered across the country during the civil war and the 11-year colonial struggle that preceded it. In exchange for the guns, the Council hands over farming tools, building materials, sewing machines and even bicycles. So far, more than 600,000 weapons have been brought in to be destroyed or transformed into artworks.

*Carlos Litulo*
Mozambique
With commentary by *Cristiana Pereira*

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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.

 

*economy*

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

 

*health*

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

Annual HIV/AIDS incidence

 

*technology*

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

*military*

Photo: THIERRY FALISE

• 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

*prisons*

• 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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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.

AM
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

PM
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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Uruguay

Map of Uruguay

It was the meddling British who used their cartographic skills to delineate the country that would become Uruguay in the early 19th century, as a buffer zone between the two regional giants, Argentina and Brazil. The result was a country stuck in the shadows of gargantuan neighbours whose influence has played a major role throughout this country’s history.

At the turn of the 20th century Uruguay was one of the region’s richest countries. Its wealth resulted from fertile land and high demand for its principal exports: beef and wool. The remnants of these glory days are etched into the streets of the capital, Montevideo, where crumbling neoclassical townhouses line the streets, reminding inhabitants of the opulence of days gone by.

Photo: Stefan Boness / Panos

With this wealth flourished a liberal political tradition and a stability that earned Uruguay the moniker ‘The Switzerland of Latin America’. Unlike in much of the rest of Latin America, the Catholic Church and landed élites were relatively weak forces as the state began to take shape. It pushed ahead with progressive reforms and was the first country in the region to legalize divorce (1913), grant female suffrage (1931), and create a welfare state. It was a land of plenty and took to this role with brio, staking a claim on the international stage and twice winning the football World Cup (in a bona fide example of poetic justice it trounced Argentina and Brazil in the 1930 and 1950 finals).

But in the 1950s demand for Uruguay’s exports dropped, unemployment grew and social unrest gained momentum. Trade unions clashed with governments and the revolutionary leftwing guerrilla group Tupamaros emerged. In 1973 the military took control. Twelve years of repressive social policies ensued, during which Uruguay accumulated the largest number of political prisoners per capita in the world. Torture often led to death, with an estimated 160 ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the junta.

With the restoration of democracy in 1986 came attempts to restore democratic freedoms and the battered economy. Power alternated between the country’s traditional (and very similar) political parties: Blanco and Colorado. Both were committed to following neoliberal measures by the book, pushing through reforms that favoured foreign investors and privatizing much of the public sector.

When the financial crisis that struck Argentina in 2002 spilled over, however, it led to recession and to deeper debts to the IMF. The peso collapsed, poverty proliferated and many younger Uruguayans emigrated in search of work. The popularity of the Government plunged, as did trust in the neoliberal model. The existing political duopoly was challenged by the Broad Front, a coalition encompassing members of the centre and far left headed by Tabaré Vásquez, and this triumphed in the 2004 elections.

Vásquez has overseen a recovery in Uruguay and aligned himself to the so-called ‘pink tide’ of leftwing countries dominating Latin American politics. Attempts to deal with the country’s bloody recent history are also being addressed. Although an amnesty law prohibiting the prosecution of members of the armed forces for human rights abuses remains in place, a reinterpretation of the law has led to the detention and trial of high-ranking officials, including former Presidents Juan María Bordaberry and Gregorio Álvarez. New life is being blown into the ailing welfare state, and Uruguay is again taking the lead in pushing forward progressive reforms. The country’s sandy beaches and hilly plains are bustling with visitors from increasingly far-off destinations who have come to experience its famed buena onda (good vibe) and many of those who left are returning to find that something similar to ‘the golden years’ are back.

*Ana Caistor-Arendar*

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Homeless in Delhi

A smoky sunset in the choking streets around Old Delhi Railway Station, where the traffic is permanently stalled. Low sunlight through a violet cloud bathes the scene in blood. Stringy cycle-rickshaw drivers strain every muscle with a mountainous load of goods to be despatched from the station. Everything moves with agonizing slowness, as though people are in an alien element. As indeed they are: displaced villagers struggling to survive in the city.

Behind the main road is a shelter for homeless men: an extensive structure, a series of hangars which provide bedspace for 350-400 people. The concrete floor is smooth, worn away by the bodies, or perhaps the dreams, of sleeping men. The walls are painted crimson at the base – to make invisible the splashes of betel – and yellow up to the ceiling, where fans flutter, captive metal birds, dispersing the rank smell of sweated labour. Around the walls, black-painted metal bunks, three tiers high; evocative of third-class rail travel or, more disturbingly, of the accommodation provided for prisoners in Bergen-Belsen. The men pay six rupees ($0.15) a night; the elderly, those with disability, children, pay nothing.

People must desert their family for the sake of its future – yet their desertion jeopardizes the very future they envisage for those they love

One room is for working men, the next for the elderly, both segregated from the boys and adolescents. This hostel was formerly run by Delhi Municipal Corporation, to which the building still belongs. Originally inaugurated by Nehru but, in keeping with the retreat of government from welfare provision, the service has been contracted out to a non-governmental organization, Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (Right to Shelter).

Government, which implements programmes that uproot more and more people from the rural areas, passes over to a voluntary body care of the injuries of development. But government is, of course, only carrying out orders, as it were, for a higher authority: the framers and dispensers of distant ideologies of liberalization, of which the occupants of these sleeping-spaces are victims.

*Night shelter*

Estimates suggest Delhi has at least 100,000 homeless people, most of them male. Night shelters accommodate a maximum of 7,000 – a fraction of the need, as can be seen all over Delhi: sleepers lie on traffic islands, in doorways, in grassy spaces, on ledges and beneath walls, wrapped in colourless rags like cerements.

Most men work. Few remain in the city without income: only the doubly destitute, robbed of family and belonging, hide their pain in the loveless bustle of the city. Their work does not provide enough to rent a room. Here is the embodiment of ‘informal’ or ‘casual’ labour, a convenient abstraction for used-up flesh and bone.

They push carts, drive cycle-rickshaws, work on tea-stalls and dhabas, as day labour on construction sites. The minimum daily wage in Delhi is 90 rupees ($2.23), but despair is the most effective wage-depressant. Many are villagers, whose migration to the city is a seasonal smash-and-grab raid: they live in frugal self-denial to save precious earnings that will educate children who, they are resolved, will not journey to the city, as they did, in trucks or on the roof of buses.

They are from a vast arc of rural poverty, the rainshadow of wealth around Delhi. Some have fled land disputes, unwelcome marriages, disturbed sexuality, quarrels with brothers or parents, amputees of the land from which they have been separated. Among the children, bewildered runaways – the stowaway, the truck helper – who came to the city because there is nowhere else to go out of a degraded agrarian life. Sometimes they have, like Santosh, 16, from Darbhanga, been steeped in urban lore of immense wealth; with both parents dead, he has nothing else to lose.

Even skilled workers – carpenters, painters, masons – sit at the crossroads in the pale morning, with paintbrushes, hammers, saws, the tools of their trade, waiting to be hired. The ‘slave-market’ they call it. At 8.00am they may be offered 100 rupees, but by 10.00am or 11.00am the rate has fallen to 60 rupees: the passing morning hours erode the value of labour.

Manoj, from Jhansi, is a seasonal migrant who came to Delhi for the first time four years ago. He stays a few months, labouring on a construction site, and spends the rest of the year at home. Sleeping here costs 200 rupees a month. At home there is no rain and the harvest is small. In the city, people who build houses for others have none of their own. If he had work in the village he would never come to Delhi. He is part of a great global paradox: people must desert their family for the sake of its future; yet their desertion jeopardizes the very future they envisage for those they love.

*Place of safety*

The shelter is a place of safety. For lone sleepers the streets are dangerous, not only the menace of thieves, but the threat of police, whose meagre wages are soon supplemented by extortion from the poor.

The people speak in metaphors. In Delhi, they say, brothers do not recognize each other. Santaram, a cart-pusher from Secundarbad, sometimes earns as little as 40-50 rupees. He has been coming and going for 15 years. He is married with one little girl. He takes all he earns to the village, paring his expenses to a minimum, as his thin, wasted body eloquently tells.

In Delhi, they say, brothers do not recognize each other

It should not be imagined that all are victims: some have chosen this life. Among them is Gopal Sharma, who left a well-to-do family in Bihar because, as he said in English: ‘There was no adjustment with my eldest son.’ An educated man, he left his village to maintain his dignity. His son has repeatedly begged him to come home. When he is ready he will go, even though it has been many years: he would rather remain here than go where he will not be treated with respect.

It is, of course, the universal sagacity of elders that the young have taken the wrong path; this friction exists between all generations, but has been exacerbated by the dramatic economic and hence social changes occurring in India: many young people have greater skills and higher earning power than the generation before. Where elders might have instructed and guided them in the ways of dealing with poverty, it is now they who initiate parents into the mysterious ways of growing affluence which, they believe, will last forever. This is shocking to people who have hoarded and husbanded their slender resources for the rainy days which came regularly as monsoons in their stricken lives. The stories of individuals are entangled with epic social dislocations.

The shelter is open 24 hours for the infirm elderly. Some are too old to work, although most do some casual labour – waiting at marriage parties, whitewashing, portering, buying seasonal items in the market and selling them on the footpath. Many were formerly skilled – car mechanics, drivers. Ram Gopal, a mechanic, knew how to repair old models of car. He could not cope with changing technology, since cars now need spare parts from the manufacturers; the ingenuity of repairers is no longer required. Specialization has ousted the competent, those who know how to make do and mend, to invent and to create their own solutions.

In the shelter the infirm, those with failing memory, are helped by the able-bodied. These acts of kindness give succour to the dependent and a sense of purpose to those who retain their strength into old age. Strangely, family structures are mimicked, even in places where people have lost or been rejected by their families. For them, the shelter is truly a refuge.

There are other casualties in the war against the poor – victims of road, rail and industrial accidents; as well as those with disability or people with untreated sickness. Nishant, from Surat, is blind, and makes a living by singing and begging. 'It is a curse to be blind,' he says. 'Begging is not dignified, but singing is. I know Indian classical music, so I consider I earn my money. I give people pleasure. I sing at the Hanuman Temple and at the Sai Baba Temple. I am a graduate in Sanskrit from Surat University. I am happy that I am Indian. My mother was born in Fiji, but she came to India in her childhood. I left Surat because I want to live life on my own terms, not depend on others. Lord Krishna is not a god, he is my friend. He comes when I call.’

A doctor comes to the shelter once a week; but doctors also volunteer with the Health Intervention Group for the Homeless and hold a surgery in the open air two days a week. They share the concrete space outside the Jama Masjid with hawkers and vendors. It is a touching sight. In the dust and cool smoky air of evening, lines of (mainly) men sit waiting for the doctors to come. There are three queues, one for new patients, one for follow-up medication – coughs, lung and chest infections, water-borne diseases – and the longest for the addicted, to heroin, ‘solution’, alcohol. It is a kind of ‘field hospital’ for those wounded by poverty, migration and urban life; the first time homeless men have had access to medicine.

*Public pity*

The sight is both shocking and inspiring: people must exhibit their pain in public, but doctors devote their time to reaching out to the most vulnerable. The hope in the dulled eyes of addiction is palpable and immensely sad – resources for detoxification and long-term treatment are not available. No-one has an illusion that this provides a permanent answer, but it is an experiment unique in India.

'Begging is not dignified, but singing is'

Late evening. Close to the place where I stay, a homeless woman, perhaps in her forties, lives on the pavement. Dirty and dishevelled, wearing a torn jumper and skirt, she sits in an attitude of permanent grief, like an elderly child of limited understanding. She has been abandoned by her family to the mercy of the street, but is nevertheless roughly cared for. Protected against predators by her vulnerability – and probably by dirt and rags – she sits close to the underpass on the ring road, knees up to her chin, rocking to and fro. But she is rarely without food: a plate of dal, some rice, an orange; fed by workers in the small dhabas or by passers-by. She survives on public pity – that reservoir of fellow-feeling which, even in a hard and self-seeking city like Delhi, is never quite exhausted.

*Jeremy Seabrook* is a regular contributor to _New Internationalist_.

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