Burmese Daze

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.