Burmese Daze

Monday, August 18, 2008

Back at the Blog

OK. It's been 10 months since I posted anything. It's not that nothing has happened here since the government crushed the monks and the protestors; I just really lost the stomach for it. Then came Cyclone Nargis and the government's craven, larcenous, callous response to it and I got very upset and depressed at the whole situation.

Now, however, with a bit of perspective and time to heal psychic wounds, I think it's time for me to start posting again. Today is a good day to start, as Ibrahim Gambari has returned for yet another session of futile diplomacy with the kleptocratic generals. I hold out no hopes for anything meaningful to come from this, but at least they're talking. It seems like a pointless game, in which the Burmese government holds all the cards; what leverage does the UN have here? On the bright side, though, the Internet hasn't gone down the way it usually does when Gambari is in town. There are rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi has been allowed to see both her doctor and her party's lawyers this past week, as the generals make nice for public consumption and for Gambari.

It's amazing how little has changed in the past year; this time last year, the fuel-price-increase demonstrations were just taking shape, a few brave souls here and there defying the government and complaining about the skyrocketing price of compressed natural gas, diesel and gasoline. Now the prices are substantially higher, not just for fuel but also for basic food, and wages certainly haven't kept pace. People are much harder off this year than they were last year, but this time around they don't dare protest.

Meanwhile the government spends its money on a big new expressway to Naypyidaw from Rangoon that's so poorly built that a few rainy seasons seem destined to consign it back to the red laterite mud from which it rises.

More later; I just want to get this out there to re-start my blogging habits.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Ten Days of Turmoil

Bangkok, October 2, 2007

How quickly things change. Just over a week ago I was writing about the swelling monks’ marches sweeping the country. I had no sooner posted my blog when I heard that, incredibly, the monks had been allowed to march past the roadblocks guarding Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and that, even more amazingly, she had been allowed outside her doors for the first time in several years to go stand by her (heavily guarded) front gate and greet the monks. It was a deeply moving, stirring moment that captured the sudden swelling optimism and hope that swept the population along through the huge marches of Saturday, Sunday and Monday of last week. The two great moral authorities of Burma, Suu Kyi and the monkhood, suddenly stood united for a few magical moments. At that moment, it seemed as though it was possible to hope that the protests might have an improbably happy ending. After the Orange and Rose Revolutions, could this be the Maroon Revolution? I had happy fantasies of a huge crowd swarming over the roadblocks on University Avenue and bearing Suu Kyi off, carried shoulder-high in triumph, to Shwedagon.

On Sunday and Monday, the demonstrations reached their zenith. Perhaps 100,000 people thronged the streets, with tens of thousands of monks marching serenely along the main thoroughfares flanked by even greater numbers of ordinary citizens who flooded out of buses and taxis and off the sidewalks to join the multitudes. For the first time university and high school students, the vanguard of the 1988 uprising, appeared in force. On Monday pictures of Suu Kyi and her father, the independence hero Aung San, were carried aloft, along with the Fighting Peacock flag of the 1988 student movement. The monks’ spiritual march was acquiring a more overtly secular and political flavour. The frustrations and hopes of a generation, repressed for 19 long years, burst forth in chanting and singing and banners. And still, incredibly, the authorities did nothing.

On Tuesday, the atmosphere changed. Troops were seen moving into and around the city. Rumours swirled that Tuesday would be the day that the government would crack down. Defiantly, more marchers than ever filled the streets, showing their refusal to be cowed. People went to bed that evening wondering whether the government had lost its nerve, and whether this was the defining day for a generation.

Sadly, it was not to be. On Wednesday morning, everyone was convinced that this was the day that the government would show its iron fist. The previous night, government loudspeaker trucks had driven around at 2 am, declaring Rangoon to be under military administration and forbidding gatherings of more than 5 people. Trucks and buses, commandeered by the military, were seen waiting to take arrested demonstrators away, their number plates covered to protect their drivers’ identities should the military not win the upcoming confrontation. Troops in combat gear were seen driving around town. Warnings were given by the government that no protest would be tolerated that day.
Monks from all over the city nevertheless congregated, as had become the pattern, at Shwedagon Pagoda, the spiritual centre of the city, the Vatican or Qaaba of Burmese Buddhism, around lunchtime. Prominent dissidents such as the actor Thu Zaw and the comedian Zaganar showed up to provide lunch to the thousands of monks before they set off to the downtown Sule Pagoda. At the end of the road leading from the east gate of Shwedagon to Kandawgyi Lake, however, 20 or more armed soldiers, automatic weapons at the ready, stood waiting.

I wasn’t downtown at the time, so I had to follow the events by text message and Internet instant messaging. As monks milled about, ready to march, the police and army fired tear gas and attacked the monks, beating them savagely with nighsticks and rifle butts. A student who was at the demonstrations told me later that at least two monks were beaten to death, their skulls smashed open as they lay defenceless on the ground. Clouds of choking tear gas filled the air. Hundreds of monks and civilians were arrested, thrown into waiting trucks. The government had landed its first blow.

Amazingly, the monks weren’t put off and the crowd found a different route away from Shwedagon towards Sule. They arrived in the downtown core and made their way onto Sule Pagoda Road where they stopped and recited Buddhist prayers in a sort of sit-in. The government responded with more tear gas, baton charges and, for the first time in this series of demonstrations, gunshots. Many were warning shots, but some were not. A few monks and demonstrators fell, the latest victims of the junta’s bid to maintain total power over its people. Demonstrators ran for their lives, but then regrouped later, able even to induce riot police to part ranks and let them through. The student I talked to told me that although monks were allowed to pass, police arrested a number of civilians, including two of his friends. The police laid hands on him as well, but he was saved by the monks who grabbed hold of him and refused to let police take him away.

That evening was a tense one, with the government declaring a 6pm-6am curfew on the streets. We spent the evening exchanging messages; friends living in various parts of the city reported hearing gunshots, or went out to watch the demonstrations.

The next morning, Thursday, we awoke to hear that the government had struck in the night. Monasteries which had contributed large numbers of monks to the ranks of marchers had their gates smashed in by trucks at 2 am, their doors kicked in and the full fury of the government let loose on the monks. Hundreds of monks were beaten brutally, spattering the walls and floors with blood. Several monks died of their injuries on the spot, while most of the others were thrown into trucks and driven off to an unknown fate.

The effect of this news was electrifying, particularly when the pictures of the bloodshed made their way via blogs and cell phones and the satellite TV stations like BBC into Burmese homes. The ferocity and sacrilege of assaulting monasteries, smashing Buddha images and stealing money and valuables, was the ultimate outrage to the devout citizens of Rangoon. Despite the military menace, tens of thousands of citizens made their way onto the streets again. This time, there were almost no monks; for the first time, the demonstrations were led by civilians.

Thursday was a day of horror for those of us in Rangoon. Downtown, troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing an unknown number, including a Japanese journalist shot in cold blood at close range for carrying a video camera. Peaceful rallies, marked by singing and chanting and a large sit-in, were broken up with extreme violence. For hours the army chased demonstrators up and down the streets, ducking into side streets. An order was given to clear the streets within 10 minutes, sparking a panic-stricken flight by the crowd.
All this was seen and videotaped by observers high up in Traders Hotel, and it made its way within minutes out to the world media. Meanwhile, away from the city centre, scenes of equal carnage were unfolding. In South Okkalapa, to the northeast, the site of one of the raided monasteries became the scene of a huge confrontation between tens of thousands of outraged citizens and a few hundred soldiers. Rocks, catapults and a few petrol bombs were thrown at the army, but they responded with automatic weapons fire, killing an unknown number of demonstrators. At 5 pm, I was told that at least 4 people were dead, and more died after that.

A crowd of demonstrators had made their way from the downtown towards the South Okkalapa area to join this act of resistance, but they made the mistake of marching along a stretch of road between two high walls. The army cut them off in front and behind, trapping them in front of a school. Both rubber bullets and live ammunition strafed the panic-stricken crowd, chasing them into drainage ditches. Soldiers carried the bodies away. Again, an unknown number were cut down; there are still no accurate estimates of the death toll, but it may have been substantial. The next day hundreds of sandals lined the road, lost in the panicked flight from the gunfire.

Since then, it’s been all downhill. More mass arrests, more neighbourhoods sealed off for house-to-house searches, more force and threats of force. Ibrahim Gambari, the UN representative, has come for probably futile talks with the government. Rumours have swept the blogosphere that hundreds of detainees, especially monks, have been executed and their bodies either burned or dumped into the Yangon River by night. Other rumours, more hopeful, have surfaced of splits in the military. Than Shwe’s family seems to have fled the country, along with Tay Za, the multi-millionaire family financier. The military commander of Yangon has been cashiered for not using enough deadly force on crowds, and rumour has it that so have the commanders of the units deployed in Yangon and Mandalay. Both cities remain under curfew. The Internet is completely out, and has been for several days.

Who knows what will come next? We can only hope that something hopeful may emerge, but at the moment, all I can think of is the chilling forecast of the future from George Orwell’s prophetic 1984: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever." If you believe in prayer, pray for the Burmese: they need all the help they can get.

Check out the blogs and internet news services that bravely, at great risk, brought the news from Burma to the world.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Six Days and Counting

Rangoon, Saturday, September 22

It's an exceptionally rainy weekend here in Rangoon; it's rained almost continuously for over 48 hours, resulting in flooding in low-lying neighbourhoods yesterday afternoon, and although there's no rain falling right now, the skies promise more of the same for tomorrow. It's all apparently the result of the typhoon that hammered the Shanghai area a few days ago and provoked rain all over this part of the world.

People have been joking that the rain must have been ordered by the government here in order to subdue the wave of monastic protest that has been building up this week. However, the monks are made of sterner stuff. They have been marching doggedly through the rain all week, and today saw some of the biggest demonstrations yet. Reports talk about 2000 monks marching in Sittwe yesterday, demanding the release of 4 monks who were arrested on Tuesday. Today saw more big marches : 2000 in Mandalay, 1000-strong here in Rangoon.

The BBC is getting hold of a reasonable amount of video footage that people are taking surreptitiously and sending to them. Some of it is hand-held video clips shot from the hip (so that the photographer isn't too obvious to the police watching the marches), while other clips seem to have been shot out of windows in tall buildings in downtown Rangoon. They show long columns of monks making their way down the middle of main roads, protected and cheered by parallel columns of ordinary citizens who give them water (like they need that in the rain! But it recalls the people jailed in Sittwe for giving water to protesting monks). There seem to be more laypeople at each march, which has to have the regime at least a bit worried. The clips show the onlookers clapping and making signs of obeisance, and walking along beside the monks. So far the government hasn't broken up these demonstrations, perhaps since breaking up a monks' march in Pakokku with violence is what got the monks riled up in the first place.

For the first time, the monks and their newly-formed umbrella organization, the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, are making overtly political demands. Yesterday, they vowed to continue protesting until the government collapses. This would certainly be a welcome development, but I doubt that the government will give up without a fight and lots of bloodshed.
I've just finished reading "Secret Histories", a book by the pseudonymous Emma Larkin about how George Orwell's writing was influenced by his five years of working in Burma in the 1920s, and how in turn his writing has proved prophetic about the society that has evolved in Burma since independence. In the book, which is dark and gloomy about the prospects for the future here, Larkin quotes from 1984, in which Orwell says that

"There are only four ways in which a ruling group can fall from power. Either it is conquered from without, or it governs so inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt, or it allows a strong and discontented Middle group to come into being, or it loses its own self-confidence and willingness to govern. These causes do not operate singly, and as a rule all four of them are present in some degree. A ruling class which could guard against all of them would remain in power permanently."

Here in Burma, option A is not going to occur. Options B and C might just be starting to emerge from the Orwellian night. However, as long as option D doesn't occur, as long as the generals retain their ruthless edge in military might, they will not fall from power except perhaps in an internal army coup. Someone who recently returned from the new capital at Naypyidaw said that rumours are rife there of possible coups; who knows if this is true, but I'm sure many Burmese are hoping fervently.

Just as an illustration of what a strange, Orwellian place this is, two articles from the most recent Myanmar Times, the less virulent of the two English-language papers here, will suffice. The front page has nothing about demonstrations, but does have a banner headline about "China hails Myanmar democratic progress". War is indeed peace, freedom is indeed slavery, and love is indeed hate. The second story was even harder to read with a straight face. "24-hour power to end in November" was the headline above a story remarking that when the rainy season ended, 24-hour electricity supplies would probably come to an end. This comes as a cruel insult to the vast majority of the citizens of Burma who are lucky to have 6 to 12 hours of power a day even in the rainy season. No-one in Burma, except perhaps for a few generals, ever has 24 hours of uninterrupted electricity. Everyone who can afford them has generators to supply power during blackouts, and with diesel prices doubling, the price of generator electricity is sure to increase sharply as well. However, in the fantasy world inhabited by the government's propaganda writers, the power grid supplies 24 hours of power a day to everyone. It's small wonder that few Burmese believe anything the government says to them.

Just to punctuate how dire the country's situation has become over the past 46 years of military rule, the Economist.com website's Rankings page has recently ranked Myanmar as the 5th least democratic country on earth (behind North Korea, Togo, Chad and the Central African Republic, in case you were curious). As well, Myanmar ranked in the bottom 10 in terms of business freedom, and near the bottom in Human Development Index. Maybe option B in Orwell's list of possible ways for an autocracy to lose power stems from this dismal performance.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Things are getting warmer in Yangon

After a week or two with almost no protests in Yangon, today has seen the biggest protest yet in Yangon. This morning Thein Byu Road, in central Yangon, was closed by protests (unconfirmed reports say that riot police were beating up protestors). This afternoon, 400 or so monks marched silently in single file to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda and were turned away by plainclothes security men, so they walked downtown instead. Pedestrians reportedly made the traditional sign of respect (hands pressed together) as the monks passed. This may not seem like a big deal, but in a previous march by monks in Sittwe town a few weeks ago, two men were sentenced to 4 years in jail for giving water to the marching monks; showing any sort of support to a protest can land you in very hot water indeed here.

There are reports of a larger protest today, again by monks, in Bago, 80 km to the northeast. It's an ancient capital city and big religious centre, full of monasteries, and apparently nearly 1000 monks marched to the biggest pagoda in town, the Shwemadaw, to protest at the fuel price hikes. Yesterday, the first day of co-ordinated monk protests, 400 monks are reported to have marched in Kyaukpadaung, near Pakokku.

Monks have been busy organizing and planning since the Pakokku incident two weeks ago in which a number of them were beaten by police, and shots were fired over their heads. Apparently a previously-unknown organization of monks has formed to co-ordinate the monastic response to government crackdowns. There are reports that the monks will refuse to accept alms and donations from anyone connected with the army until an apology is forthcoming for the Pakokku beatings, and until the fuel price rises are rolled back. This doesn't sound like much of a threat, but in a staunchly Buddhist country it would be a tremendous humiliation and sign of contempt for the generals.

These new protests come just as it seemed that the government was succeeding in cracking down on protests and the people who organize them and report them. Several people have been jailed recently, one for calling for Number One, General Than Shwe, to be "excommunicated" by the Buddhist establishment (I think they mean that all donations and alms from Than Shwe would be refused, and that no prayers or religious ceremonies be performed for him). The National League for Democracy has had its phone lines cut off in Yangon, and a number of journalists, dissidents and labour organizers have had their cell phone service cut off, presumably to stem the flow of information.

As well, state newspapers, radio and TV are full of angry denunciations of protestors, Western diplomats, the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi and anyone who opposes the government. Movies on the only pay-TV private station in the country are being interrupted constantly so that more denunciations can be broadcast, much to the annoyance of those people who have paid money to watch movies uninterrupted by commericals.

And yet the government, for all their supposedly sophisticated Internet monitoring and censorship, still hasn't blocked most Western news sites, nor closed blogging sites like this one (which was blocked for most of the past 12 months). Reuters, VOA, CNN, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and a few other new sites have been blocked recently, but BBC, the International Herald Tribune and many other sites remain open, so that information still gets in pretty easily. People still walk around early in the morning with radios clamped to their ears to hear the Burmese-language broadcasts from the BBC, Radio Free Asia and VOA, all of which report extensively on goings-on in the country.

The next few days could be very tense, and even decisive in determining whether protest continue to swell as monks lend their immense prestige to them, or whether the government will finally respond with overwhelming force. It's no coincidence that these protests are happening exactly 19 years since the current thugocracy (a word stolen from a recent issue of the Economist) seized power in a coup after the 1988 student protests. Let us hope that the bloodbath of 1988 is not repeated again in 2007.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Further Goings-On in the Golden Land

Sunday, September 9

The past week has seen a series of developments in the ongoing protests at the fuel price increases announced 3 weeks ago. Some of the news might be construed as hopeful, but much of it is going to be bad news for the long-suffering people of Burma.

First of all, the manhunt for various members of the 88 Generation student movement (OK, they're not students anymore, they're approaching 40 years of age) continues. The government press is vilifying them, trying to implicate them in a series of bombs that went off 2 years ago in Yangon, and saying that Htay Kywe, one of the 88 Generation leaders, is being hidden by agents of "a powerful country" (step forward the United States). I'm amazed and heartened by the fact that anyone has escaped the dragnet. Aung San Suu Kyi is being demonized as well for "destabilizing" the country. Her house, on the other hand, is sporting some fresh paint and NLD flags on its outer compound walls, so somebody is willing to risk arrest by showing support for her.

Meanwhile, rumour has it that one of the arrested 88 Generation dissidents, Kyaw Min Yu, otherwise known as Ko Jimmy, has died as a result of being tortured in police custody. As well, Kyaw Kyaw Htwe and Min Zeya, prominent dissidents arrested at the outset of the protests, are said to be in hospital as a result of the torture they've received. One protest leader, Ye Thein Naing, whose leg was broken during his arrest was released two days ago after a hunger strike by his fellow arrestees.

In an unrelated development, 6 young labour organizers were just sentenced on Saturday to long jail terms for organizing a seminar at the American Center in Yangon in May. Thurein Aung, Wai Lin, Myo Min and Kyaw Win were sentenced to 28 years in prison. Nyi Nyi Zaw and Kyaw Kyaw were given 20 years in jail. The government hates the American Centre and has accused the English teachers there of interfering in internal affairs by teaching courses in "Journalism and Ethics" and allowing members of the National League for Democracy to take courses at the Centre.

In other news, apparently 4 home-made primitive bombs were found last week at Yangon's central Bogyoke market. They were crude flour-and-cotton contraptions, but the authorities banned taxi traffic into the market for a while in order to lessen the chances of more bombs being brought in. There were a series of bomb attacks two years ago at shopping centres, but nothing more of that sort since then.

There have been no new protests in Yangon this week, but protests have spread around the country. The most spectacular protest was in the central town of Pakkoku, near Bagan. On Wednesday, 100 monks marched to protest the fuel price increases, and police and army units fired shots over their heads to disperse them, while beating three monks severely. Beating up monks is a big no-no in such a devoutly Buddhist country, so the next morning 20 government and army officials went to the monastery to apologize. The monks dragged the officials inside and held them hostage all day, burning the officials' vehicles to punctuate their protest. Apparently townspeople came to the monastery and shouted slogans supporting the monks. The officials were released unharmed late in the afternoon. The next day (Friday) a group of monks went into downtown Pakokku and smashed up a shop owned by a government official, so tensions remain high in Pakokku.

An unconfirmed rumour I heard on Saturday is that Pyay, a city on the Irrawaddy River halfway from Pakokku to Yangon, is under martial law, with troops patrolling the streets, after protests on Friday. I don't know if it's true, but it would be nice to know that protests are continuing and not dying out. Another report culled from the Internet says that 50 people have been arrested for their role in protests in various towns in central Myanmar.

I'll do my best to keep posting snippets of information here on the blog as things develop.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Interesting Times in Burma

Rangoon, September 2, 2007

I feel as though I’m living in a Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. The last couple of weeks have been full of interest on the political and economic front, although little of it seems to affect my everyday existence here. There actually seems to be more news about Burma and local goings-on in the international media than is noticeable to the casual observer on the street.

It had been a quiet few months here, ever since some tension in May at the time of the renewal of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest. The monsoon rains arrived and kept people off the streets and out of politics for a while. Even the August 8th anniversary (it was 19 years since the popular uprisings of 8-8-88 which started the process that resulted two years later in the National League for Democracy winning the elections which were ignored by the generals) passed fairly uneventfully, although communications did become much dodgier than usual for a day or two beforehand. I think that most people, although they despise the government for its brutality, kleptocracy and economic incompetence, have resigned themselves to their inability to influence political events in any way. It’s not that people are apathetic; they simply make the informed decision that political activity is not worth the personal risk.

Often, in history, popular uprisings and revolutions are sparked less by political events than by economic changes. Two weeks ago people woke up one morning to find that the price of fuel had gone through the roof. Government-subsidized gasoline went from 1500 kyat (about US$1.20) a gallon to 2500 kyat. Government-subsidized diesel went from 1500 to 3000 kyat. Compressed natural gas, a popular fuel for taxis and buses, went from 50 kyat a litre to 250 kyat a litre, a 400% increase. Bus fares tripled overnight; a typical ticket went from 50 kyat to 150 kyat (4 cents to 12 cents), which doesn’t sound like a huge increase until you realize that most workers here earn about 1000 kyat a day. If your daily bus fare goes from 100 kyat to 300 kyat, you’ve just lost 20 percent of your daily wage. People were incensed, not least because they had had no warning at all.

For the first time since I’ve been here, there’s been a sequence of protests. It began out in an industrial suburb where workers at a garment factory staged some sort of strike the day after the fuel price increases. There are different stories going around: some say that lots of workers didn’t show up for work because they couldn’t afford the new bus fares, while other people say that they walked out for a day to demand higher pay. Official figures for anything are hard to come by, and official economic figures that make any sense are harder still to find, but the best estimate I’ve heard is that inflation here was running at 35% before the fuel price increases, so unless workers get a pay increase, they will have lost 35% of their purchasing power in the last year.

After that, on the first weekend after the fuel price shock, a sizeable protest march wound its way from the northern suburbs almost to the downtown area, walking quietly along a main road, gathering members from passing buses who realized a protest against the fuel hikes was going on. That went off peacefully, and I hear that there were 500 participants or so. There were calls for a larger nation-wide protest on the following Wednesday, but nothing came of it. However, since then there have been almost daily protests, mostly small and low-key.

I’ve been checking out the various news sources to see what I can glean from the world press. The local media hasn’t been too forthcoming about protests, although they’ve played up the arrests that they’ve made of various dissidents and political leaders. Interestingly, they haven’t even reported the price increases; only good news appears in the government press. So I’m left in the ironic position of only knowing what’s going on inside the country by reading what’s published outside its borders. This is what I’ve picked up so far.

A week and a half ago, on Tuesday, August 21st, the government struck to forestall the next day’s planned protests by arresting 13 prominent dissidents, including Min Ko Naing, Min Zeya and Ko Ko Gyi, the most prominent members of the 88 Generation dissident movement, and after Aung San Suu Kyi probably the best-known anti-government figures. Min Ko Naing was in prison for over a decade until 2004, and is again now, locked up in the notorious Insein Prison. Aung San Suu Kyi is world-famous thanks to her Nobel Peace Prize, but these brave figures continue the struggle for human decency and human rights in relative obscurity. I hope that the Nobel committee one day (it’s not too late for this year!) honour some of these brave souls who dare to stand up and be counted. All of them face up to 20 years in prison for endangering the security of the state, as well as a high likelihood of being beaten and tortured while in police custody.

The protests continued on a small scale that week, and the government initiated a new tactic to deal with them. Rather than have police do the dirty work, members of a shadowy pro-government militia known as the Swaan Aah Shin have been stationed at places where protests are supposed to take place. When marchers congregate, the tough guys in the militia, armed with bamboo sticks and broom handles, wade into the crowd and rough up the marchers before the police load them into waiting trucks. There are reports that the government has released a number of violent non-political prisoners to swell the ranks of the militia, rather like the Romanian government used to truck in coal miners to beat up demonstrators.

This militia has been more prominent in recent years. The infamous attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in 2003 (in which up to 70 people may have died and which may have been an assassination attempt on The Lady) was carried out by this militia, which is under the control of the Orwellianly-named Union Solidarity and Development Authority, a vast pro-government network with tentacles extending into every village. The government is trying to deal with this year’s protests in a less overtly bloodthirsty manner than it displayed in 1988-90, in which thousands of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down in the streets, in a foreshadowing of what was to come in neighbouring China in the 1989 Tian An Men massacre.

On Sunday, August 26th, a week ago, the government swooped again, detaining Htin Kyaw, a man who had already been detained several times earlier this year for organizing the electricity protests. After further small-scale protests on Monday and Tuesday, there was a further series of arrests on Wednesday night as police searched for some of Htin Kyaw’s dissident colleagues. There are reports of house-to-house searches in some neighbourhoods, and of pictures of wanted activists being circulated to all guest houses and bus stations as the government tries to close the net on those organizers still at large.

So who has evaded the government’s tender mercies? Su Su Nway, a labour organizer, narrowly escaped a thrashing and arrest on Tuesday and is now underground. Two of her labour colleagues, Ma Mee Mee and M Nee Lar, are also underground. Aung Moe Min, one of the organizers of the recent protests, is still at liberty, and giving interviews by mobile phone to the world press. Mie Mie, one of the Generation 88 leaders, has not been captured yet. Another prominent Generation 88 figure, Htay Khwe, is underground and is reputed to have made his way to Thailand. Somewhere between 50 and 100 dissidents and activists haven’t been so lucky, though, and are being put through the wringer by police as I write, probably undergoing beatings and torture before they are sent to prison.

What about the rest of the country? There have been reports from Sittwe, in the west, of a large march of up to 300 Buddhist monks a few days ago. Bago, the old Mon capital 80 kilometres north of Yangon, saw a demonstration as well, as did Pathein, the major city of the Irrawaddy Delta. Anti-government posters have appeared in central towns like Taunggok. Not exactly a tsunami of protest, but the fact that it exists at all is a huge surprise and a testament of the fundamental strength of the human desire for decency and fairness.

The large Burmese communities living in Singapore and Bangkok have not been quiet. There were protests outside the Burmese embassies in those cities; the Singapore protests were suppressed after a few days to avoid embarrassing a fellow ASEAN country.

Meanwhile the streets seem very much as they were three weeks ago, with scant evidence of protest or discontent. What I have noticed is that there are more bicycles, pedestrians and cycle rickshaws in evidence; I think that some folks have given up on the expense of public transport or taxis and are using human power rather than fossil fuels to get around.

So small-scale marches and protests continue, 20 or 50 people walking quietly along to protest economic grievances, displaying great bravery in the face of the risk of arrest, beating and torture. It’s hardly on a scale to make the government quake in fear, but the fact that it’s taking place at all is amazing given the machinery that exists to crush dissent here. Let’s see what the next few weeks and months bring.

PS Just as I was posting this, I saw a report that a planned 200-km protest walk from the Irrawaddy Delta to Rangoon was quashed at the outset, with three protestors carted off. As well, the government has a Top 8 Most Wanted list, which includes those dissidents mentioned above.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Year-End Musings

Dec. 30, 2006

As 2006 draws to a close, I find myself thinking about the last couple of months of happenings, rumours and stories about life in Burma. Just a few random thoughts about this strangely surreal country, populated by some of the nicest people on earth and ruled over by some of the foulest.

The Great Train Caper:

A couple of months ago, the government unexpectedly announced that the night trains which ran between Yangon and Mandalay were to be cancelled with immediate effect. The reason given by the authorities was that with the new capital moved to Naypyidaw, near Pyinmana, there were security concerns. Precisely what these concerns might be was never made clear. There are rumours that the area around Naypyidaw are rebel strongholds, and that the government fears nocturnal attacks on trains passing by the capital as a publicity stunt. Given that historically, as far back as the visit of Norman Lewis in 1950 (read his excellent travel book The Golden Earth for details), rebel groups have specialized in blowing up train lines, this could make sense. I met a group of Western cyclists who were dissuaded from travelling by bike from Bago to Mandalay up the main highway past Naypyidaw because of fears of rebel attacks.

On the other hand, some Burmese think that there’s a far more prosaic reason for the cessation of night trains. Naypyidaw is full of civil servants unhappily uprooted from the comforts of Rangoon to the uncultured wilds of central Burma. If there were night trains passing through in both directions, civil servants could leave the new capital on a Friday night, wake up on Saturday morning in Rangoon, spend two days in the bosom of hearth and home, catch a Sunday night train and be at work on a Monday morning. By changing the schedule, now a civil servant would have to catch a Saturday morning train, get to Rangoon late Saturday evening, spend the night and then catch an early-morning train the next day in order to be at work on Monday. Thus the civil servants are more securely trapped in Naypyidaw. Who knows which version of the truth is more correct? I like the image of a government messing up transport connections for the entire country just to be mean to its employees, but it would also not be out of character for the government to transfer its capital right into the heart of the least stable part of the country.

Death of an Activist:

One of the leaders of the student protests of 1988 which nearly brought the government to its knees died in October. He had spent most of the last 18 years in prison; he was 38 when he died. His family allege torture; the authorities refused to release the body or carry out an autopsy, so we will never know. He had been tortured repeatedly over the course of his long incarceration, and he was reputed to be in ill health anyway. He is another in a long list of casualties of the government’s desire to hold onto power.

Magazine Censorship:

The major Western newsmagazines, such as Time, Newsweek and The Economist, are for sale here in Rangoon. You can even subscribe to them and have them delivered to your home. However the latest issue will take 10 days to get to your doorstep, since it has to pass through the twin gantlet of customs and the censors. Should there be any stories dealing with Burma, no matter how tangentially, they will be torn out of the magazine before delivery. The funny thing is that the same stories, and ones even less complimentary to the Burmese government, are freely available on the internet, or on satellite TV.

Character Assassination:

The New Light of Myanmar, known affectionately as the New Lies of Myanmar, is the government English-language mouthpiece and is worth reading for two features. One is the unreconstructed Stalinist/Orwellian rhetoric of the editorials, which have to be read to be believed. The writers regularly prove that black is white, compromise is confrontation, freedom is slavery, fascism is socialism, and love is hate. Today’s editorial is about how the students of the 1988 protest movement were actually all agents of the Burmese Communist Party. Generally a figure of the National League for Democracy is singled out for long-winded character assassination, with slanderous imputations on his or her personal morals, convictions, intelligence and alleged dependence on the US or British governments.

The other reason to read this poisonous drivel is to have some inkling of how the government is leaning on various issues: the new constitution, talks with the NLD, UN Security Council resolutions, the Thai coup or army offensives against the Karen, which have driven another 20,000 refugees from their burned villages into refugee camps in Thaland this year. As a barometer of what the generals of the Tatmadaw believe to be important, the New Lies are an unparalleled resource.

The Manichaean Folly

An acquaintance of mine, a long-time observer of the Burmese political scene, warns newcomers to the country against following a good guys vs. bad guys black-and-white picture of politics in this country. As he remarks, in 1988, once General Ne Win had allowed the prospect of free elections, nearly 600 different political groups of every conceivable political stripe and size popped into existence. Many of them were founded only to grab a share of the assistance promised to political parties: subsidies for establishing an office and, more important, a guaranteed allotment of gasoline ration cards. The National League for Democracy, viewed in the West as being Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal movement, an ethically-based non-violent movement, is in fact a greyer creature, an amalgam of dozens of different factions amalgamated under the banner of the daughter of Burma’s only genuine independence hero, Bogyoke Aung San. She was never able to be the NLD’s candidate for Prime Minister, given her holding of a foreign passport. The other leaders of the movement, the men standing for the various high offices of state, were all military officers, or ex-servicemen. In his view the tumultuous events of 1988-1990 can most easily be seen as a factional fight between economic liberalizers and the older order over the deplorable state of the national economy. Although seen in the West as a parallel movement to the student protests in Tien An Men Square or the revolutions which spilled across Eastern Europe in 1989, what happened then was more complex, involving fewer genuine heroes and more moral compromises, than the readers of Newsweek or The Economist might believe.

The Land of the $20,000 Beater

Burma probably has the highest used car prices on earth. A typical 15-year-old beat-up junky Japanese car sells for between $15,000 and $20,000. The very same car can be obtained for free in Japan, so where does the markup come from? I had an illuminating discussion with a Burmese businessman on this subject recently, and he had some surprising insights into the situation. According to him, cars are the most convenient medium for the average middle-class or wealthy family to store their wealth. The Burmese, having been burned twice by “demonetization” (the currency is declared worthless and bank accounts are devalued to almost nothing) have no faith in the banking system, and regard it as complete folly to have significant sums a bank. As such, they need another place to park the vast bundles of 1000-kyat notes that they accumulate. Gems, in which Burma is awash, are one possible investment, but they’re notoriously prone to scams and ripoffs. Property is another possibility, and in fact house prices in Yangon and Naypyidaw have been booming over the last few years, but houses take quite some time to sell.

Cars, on the other hand, can be sold in an hour down at the huge used car market. A newish four-wheel-drive Pajero or Land Cruiser, the mark of a successful businessman or a foreign NGO, fetches well over $100,000, approaching the price of a house, so cars provide an extremely liquid and valuable asset. Car prices have soared lately; they’ve increased several-fold over the past few years, and have apparently developed into that bane of central bankers, an asset-price bubble. High returns on capital traditionally carry higher risk, so I asked my friend what the risk was in this case. He said that the reason that cars sell for so much money is that import licenses are very hard to get, and import duties are exorbitant, while getting license plates for your car is also an expensive process. If tomorrow the government were to announce that from now on cars can be imported freely and license plates only cost $10 to get, the bubble would burst and your $20,000 1993 Corolla would suddenly be worth only $3,000, and lots of families would be ruined. It seems unlikely that the government would do that, but then again nobody expected them to announce overnight that the capital would move to the middle of nowhere either.

Google Earth and the Junta

I love Google Earth, and have bookmarked dozens of places where I have lived, worked or visited. The quality of images available varies from country to country, with Japan giving very low resolution pictures while much of England, for example, has outstanding resolution. Burma generally has fuzzy, low-quality shots available; in Bagan it’s almost impossible to make out even the largest temples no matter how closely you zoom in. There are two exceptions, though. Rangoon has some very high-quality images that show individual potted plants outside houses, and give great views of Shwedagon Pagoda. The other place with high-quality pictures is Naypyidaw, the new capital. Looking at the images, you can see big mansions, or maybe fortresses, built into hillsides overlooking the town. The generals who live there seem to be digging in for a long siege. It’s interesting to speculate why this new city gets such attention from Google Earth. Is it so that foreign government agencies can get a good look at what’s going on behind all the secrecy (foreigners are currently barred from visiting the city, or so I’m told)? Or is it so that the generals know that they’re being watched with great interest by, say, the US military? One speculative reason advanced as to why the capital was moved is that the generals feared a sea-borne military strike or invasion by the Americans. Maybe by releasing high-quality images of the generals’ lair, the US military is reminding the Tatmadaw that cruise missiles could strike them in their homes in Naypyidaw just as well?

Finally, I'd like to link to an article by an exiled Burmese politician and academic on the current situation. It sums up a lot of the despair felt by Burmese citizens as they face the political desert that is their country.