Burmese Daze

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.