Burmese Daze

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.


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