Burmese Daze

Sunday, October 01, 2006

First Impressions of Burma

September 30, 2006

Having been in Burma for a few months now, I will finally have a chance to post these musings now that I’m leaving the country for a while. What with the extensive scrutiny of Internet traffic that goes on within Burma, it seems prudent not to upload these posts inside the country.

So far Burma has been an interesting place to experience. As a foreigner, I’m far less exposed to government control than I would be if I were a Burmese citizen, so that the net effect of the government is more on the level of a mild annoyance than anything serious.

The most obvious effect of government control over our lives is the monthly reports filed on us by our building supervisors with the ward and city authorities. Presumably, although none of us foreigners have seen the reports, they detail our comings and goings and who we associate with. Rumour, that universal substitute for accurate information, has it that taxi drivers, security guards and office employees in outfits which employ foreigners all inform for the government. Certainly if we have friends from outside the country come and stay, we have to fill out forms and register their presence with the police and the ward authorities, as though we were a hotel registering our guests.

On the annoyance level are the petty restrictions on the Internet. While we have the Internet at work (not at home), many sites are blocked; a big red line comes up on our screens saying "access denied". The restrictions evolve over time, and seem to make little sense. Although the BBC and The Guardian and other western media sources deeply critical of the Burmese government are not blocked, certain free web-based e-mail providers, most notably GMail, Hotmail and Yahoo, are blocked. Blogger and other prominent blogging sites are blocked as far as posting goes, but we’re free to read blogs. Geocities sites are banned, as they are in China. The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree site is now blocked as well, at least for posts relating to travel in Burma.

The slightly alarming bit is that these restrictions evolve over time. Someone in the censorship bureau is keeping an eye on web traffic and blocking sites that were open a week previously. Blogger was open when we first arrived. So, for the first time in ages, was GMail. Now neither are open. The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree was available until only a few days ago.

Of course, the internet being what it is, there are ways around all these restrictions. GMail and Yahoo have "lite" versions that give you limited functionality but access to your mail. It can be hard to do things like remove junk e-mail or access folders, but generally you can read and write. As time goes on, though, these "lite" sites get blocked too. There are also web pages which redirect and disguise your requests to the web, so that the government software doesn’t realize what it is that you’re really looking at. Again, these come and go. They’re annoying because many of them exist to allow men to surf pornographic websites at work, and so are full of irritating banner ads and pop-ups, but they’re better than nothing.

We have a Burmese web-based e-mail account which seems to work reasonably well, except that attachments are sometimes stripped off by their server. We are told by those in the know that these mail accounts are routinely monitored, so we are advised not to discuss anything political, or related to sneaky ways around internet blocking, in our e-mails written on that account.

A few months ago, I looked into the possibility of getting the Economist magazine here, and was told that there was no possibility, and that the Economist was banned outright. Imagine my surprise to find it for sale, and even available for subscription, at a downtown bookstore the other day. The catch is that, like Newsweek and Time, it arrives late, more than a week after publication, because the magazines have to spend a few days in customs, and then a few more days in the censors’ offices before being released. Censorship is alive and well in the print media.
The government English newspapers come in two flavours. The first is the unreconstructed government mouthpiece rag Daily Light on Myanmar, with front pages devoted to Soviet-style exhortations for greater production of rubber and palm oil and breathless reports of deputy ministerial visits to concrete plants. The Myanmar Times is aimed more at the expats, and is fairly banal aside from a few editorials. There’s always one article written by a former dissident or rebel recanting his views and praising the government’s wisdom and clarity of vision, a very Soviet-style touch. Like most books and magazines for sale here, there’s always the propaganda printed on the inside front page of the New Light on Myanmar, to wit:

The four political objectives are:
stability of the State, community peace and tranquillity, prevalence of law and order;
national reconsolidation;
emergence of a new enduring state constitution; building of a new modern developed nation in accord with the new state constitution.

The four economic objectives are:
development of agriculture as the base and all-round development of other sectors of the economy as well;
proper evolution of the market-oriented economic system;
development of the economy inviting participation in terms of technical know-how and investments from sources inside the country and abroad;
the initiative to shape the national economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples.

The four social objectives are:
uplift of the morale and morality of the entire nation;
uplift of the national prestige and integrity and preservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage and national character;
uplift of dynamism of patriotic spirit;
uplift of health, fitness and education standards of the entire nation.

In other, older editions there's also the national duties, which include:

opposing those relying on external elements, acting as stooges or holding negative views;
opposing those trying to jeopardize the national stability and the progress of the nation;
opposing foreign nations trying to interfere in the intenal affairs of the state;
crushing internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

Real Maoist stuff that you might have heard during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

One place in Rangoon that’s still a bit of a draw to the opposition is 56 University Avenue, the overgrown residence on the south side of Inya Lake in northern Rangoon where the rightfully elected prime minister of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, lives under lonely house arrest. It’s possible to walk by the house, although guards at one of the three military checkpoints near the house will direct pedestrian gawkers (including all Westerners) to the opposite sidewalk. Last year the road was closed to traffic entirely, but in the last few months it has opened during daylight hours, although it’s closed off at night. Everyone in town knows why, although they wouldn’t dare mention it in public. Inside the walls Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly lives with one faithful servant who goes shopping for her mistress. Aung San Suu Kyi is not even allowed out of the house into the jungle-thick garden. Strangely, though, banners of the National League for Democracy still adorn the garden walls from the inside; you would think that the government would simply remove this visual irritants. Friends of mine say that the NLD still has a decrepit but recognizable office in Mandalay; again, it’s strange that the government tolerates even that token gesture of opposition.

I think that the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi, like that of the Dalai Lama, is a counterexample to those of Gandhi, Mandela, Walesa and Havel. Peaceful dissent and non-violent protest doesn’t always work, at least not if the government involved is sufficiently ruthless, as this one is. The idea of such a courageous, principled and tireless woman locked up inside her own house for most of the past 16 years is outrageous. My hope is that during my time here in the country, I will see her released and allowed to resume her political activities. I don’t think this hope will be realized, though.

Sitting here in Bangkok, I can read far more in The Nation and in The Bangkok Post about what is happening in Rangoon than is reported in the press in Burma. On Thursday, there was a photo of protestors outside the National League for Democracy headquarters in Rangoon, shouting anti-government slogans on the 18th anniversary of the foundation of the NLD in 1988. Today there are stories about the arrests of several of the student leaders of the 1988 anti-government protests: Pyone Cho, Ko Min Zeya, Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Htay Kwye have all been arrested in the past week. The first two were arrested after sending a letter to the junta supremo Than Shwe calling for the other three to be released. Pyone Cho spent 14 years in jail and was only released in 2003. Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing were vilified in the official press for several days before their arrests, accused of fomenting unrest. This may be connected with external being applied by Britain and the US, who have hauled Burma up in front of the UN Security Council, asking for a resolution asking the Burmese government to stop jailing opposition leaders, persecuting ethnic minorities and sending waves of refugees into Thailand and Bangladesh.

What with the coup here, Thais are getting a taste of what the Burmese have lived under for 42 years. Yesterday a taxi driver spray-painted anti-coup slogans onto his taxi and drove head-on into a tank, hoping to become a martyr to democracy. He survived the crash, but it's all over the newspapers here. An editorial in one of the papers, written by a Burmese exile, said that the official Burmese press said little about the Thai coup, as they don't want the Burmese to see that you can have a military coup without killing hundreds of people in the streets, as happened in 1988-90, or throwing thousands into prison.

In closing, the Burmese like to joke that George Orwell wrote not one but three books set in Burma: Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. The 1984 idea is easy to see; Animal Farm can be explained laughingly as being about the pigs and dogs who rule the country now. It’s a joke with more than a kernel of truth in it.