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.