For 34 years the people of Burma have been ruled by a military junta as tyrannical and secretive as any in the modern era. Now, desperate for hard currency, the country's dictators are at pains to establish Burma as a vacation paradise. Posing as a travel consultant, John Pilger penetrated beyond this new tourist trail to uncover a nightmare world of intimidation, forced displacement, and slavery.
by John Pilger
At dawn, in Burma's ancient capital of Pagan, crows glide
without a quiver among the silhouettes of temples that rise
like cathedrals in the desert. In Ananda, the most celebrated
temple, there are four colossal standing Buddhas. As the
light catches one of them, it is smiling. As you get closer the
smile becomes enigmatic, then it fades. As you walk to one
side and look back, the Buddha's expression is melancholy.
Walk on and it becomes fear veiled in pride. I have not seen
anything quite like it. For the devout, no doubt, it symbolizes
Buddha's timeless wisdom. For me it is the face of modern
Six years ago, more than 4,000 people lived in Pagan, a city which stands alone of the last wonders of the ancient world. They were given two weeks to leave,
some only a few days. The city was being opened to mass tourism, and only guides
and the staff of a planned strip of hotels were permitted to
stay. The people's homes were bulldozed and they were
marched at gunpoint to a shadeless, waterless stubble that
is a dust bowl in the dry season and runs with mud during
the monsoon. Their new houses are of straw and poor-quality
bamboo and stand mostly out of sight of the tour buses that
come down the new and empty dual carriageway. Those
villagers who objected were sent out onto the barren plain,
or beaten, or taken away in the night.
The dispossession was mild by the standards of the dictator Ne Win and the generals who have ruled Burma since a military coup in 1962 crushed the
democratically elected government. Last year the International
Free Trade Unions reported that in Rangoon alone, a million
people had been forced from their homes in preparation for
tourism and foreign investment. Throughout Burma perhaps
three million people have been brutally swept up and exiled
to "satellite zones" where they are compelled to serve
Burma's new facade of "economic growth."
Arriving in Rangoon on a Sunday afternoon, there is a veneer of normality. Frangipani blossoms perfume the air and incense fills the covered bridges that lead to the stupas surrounding the great golden pagoda of Shwedagon. Families seek the intonation of a passing monk, though there is a furtiveness about them all.
Rowers glide on Inya Lake;
behind them, work on high-rise tourist hotels proceeds at a
There are surreal touches. A billboard advertising Lucky Strike cigarettes has "Welcome to Yangon" in the space otherwise allotted to a cancer warning. "Yangon" is the name the military regime has given Rangoon; Burma is "Myanmar," which is the equivalent of the German government insisting that the rest of the world call their country Deutsch- land. A billboard near the airport announces "Visit Myanmar Year 1996" beneath a cartoon picture of a Burmese Betty Boop. On the next street is the headquarters of Military Intelligence, known to the Burmese as "Em-eye."
It is Burma's KGB and, alongside the old tyrant
Ne Win and the army, it is the power in the land and the
source of what the United Nations special rapporteur has
described as "an atmosphere of pervasive fear."
For arriving foreign tourists and businesspeople, the drive to their hotel inevitably includes a short detour along University Avenue.
To the uninitiated, this has a frisson of the forbidden and seditious. Number 54 is the home of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the Burmese democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi.Here, until her release last July, she spent six years under house arrest.
this time, every Saturday and Sunday, she was allowed to
speak from over her garden gate to several thousand
supporters corralled behind barbed wire barriers. This was
not so much a concession by the regime as a showcase for the
new "openness" of "Visit Myanmar 1996." |
A busload of Taiwanese tourists was just ahead of me, snapping pictures through the tinted glass. What struck me was the extraordinary courage of the Burmese who came to listen to her in doing so they branded themselves as opponents of the regime and the Kafka-like absurdity of the country's elected leader having to address people while on a platform behind her garden fence.
|Since her "unconditional" release,Suu Kyi has been denied freedom of movement. On a recent attempt to leave Rangoon, she boarded a train to Mandalay only to find her carriage adrift at the station as the train pulled out. She cannot freely associate with anyone. Those Burmese who pass through her gate take a risk: Their names are noted and they can expect a call in the night. Shortly before I interviewed her, eight members of a dance troupe who had celebrated Independence Day with her "disappeared." They include the popular comedians U Pa Pa Lay and Lu Zaw, who are said to have made a joke about the generals. Each has since been sentenced to seven years' hard labor. Since May, the regime has detained several hundred members of Suu Kyi's party,||
the National League for Democracy, and has banned her
"garden gate" meeting (a prohibition she has so far
Aung San Suu Kyi lived in Britain for many years before she
returned to Burma, and her family lives there still.
Her husband, the British Tibetologist Michael Aris, has once again been refused permission to visit her. This also applies to their two sons, whose Burmese nationality was long ago canceled. The official newspaper, the New Light Of Myanmar, attacks her regularly and with mounting viciousness. She is "obsessed by lust and superstition"; she "swings around a bamboo pole brushed with cess"; she is "drowning in conceit" and "it is pitiable and at
once disgusting to see a person [like her] suffering from insanity
... now at a demented stage." Aung San Suu Kyi dismisses all
this with a laugh that is brave, though difficult to share.|
Of course, the reason for such intimidation is her popularity, which could not be greater.
At the mention of her name, the contrived neutrality of faces, by which people survive, breaks into smiles. People whisper her name as you brush them in a market, then turn and put a finger to their lips. And if you are able to speak and disclose that you have been to see her, all caution is discarded and questions about her well-being pour forth. But along with expressions of admiration, affection, and solidarity are fears for her safety and the recognition that she, and the
democracy movement, may be
"She is a Mandela without a De Klerk," a close friend of hers told me. "Unless pressure comes from the very governments that the regime is now courting in Asia and the West, nothing will change for a long time."
Aung San Suu Kyi herself told me that foreign investment and tourism were shoring up the power of the junta, and that the world must realize the scale of Burma's human rights abuses, particularly forced labor. "News comes and goes like fashion," she said. "After the people rose up in 1988 and paid the price in bloodshed, we slipped from the headlines. It will be a pity if we slip again."
|In February, the UN Commission on Human Rights reported, as it does every year, that the following violations were commonplace in Burma: "Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labor, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities. ..." Take at random any of the reports by Amnesty International and what distinguishes the Burmese junta from other modern tyrannies is slave labor. "Conditions in the labor camps," reports one study, "are so harsh that hundreds of prisoners have died as a result. ... Military Intelligence personnel regularly||
prisoners to the point of unconsciousness. Even the
possession of almost any reading material is punishable.
Elderly, sick, and even handicapped people are placed in
leg-irons and forced to work."|
In Britain, tourism to Burma, a former British colony and repository of much imperial nostalgia, has become a lucrative business. Pick up a travel brochure these days from any of the famous names in British tourism British Airways, Orient Express, Kuoni and there is no problem. Indeed, to British Airways, Burma offers "the ultimate in luxury" and a "fabulous prize" for its Executive Club members. "To find an unspoilt country today may seem impossible,"extols the Orient Express brochure, "but Burma is such a place. It has retained its
charm, its fascinating
traditions ... its easy-going ways are a tonic to the Western
traveler." Moreover, this "truly unique experience" includes
a "free lecture on Burma's history and culture." I inquired
about this lecture. It makes no mention of the momentous
events of 1988.
Although eyewitnesses reported the massacre, there were no professional TV cameras and no
satellite images to shock the
world. Troops had orders to shoot on sight anyone with a
From out of jungle so dense that its bamboo and foliage formed great wickerword screens, they were carving the railway.
On one tape smuggled out of Rangoon, the voices of two amateur Burmese cameramen are caught at the moment they were spotted by soldiers.
"What shall we do?" asks one
of them. His friend replies, "Keep on filming until they shoot
In April 1988, Suu Kyi returned from England where she had settled with her husband and two children to take care of her dying mother. Her father was Aung San, the revered national hero whose guerrillas were trained by the Japanese, but then turned against them during the occupation of World War II. Having helped to lay the foundations of a democratic state, and negotiated independence from Britain,he was assassinated in 1947. More than 40 years later, his daughter agreed to take on leadership of a renewed democracy movement; and it was her explicit demand for "the restoration of democracy" that led to her house arrest in 1989.
However, the generals did hold elections. Having banned canvassing, threatened the electorate, and
silenced Aung San Suu Kyi, they were confident they had
fragmented the National League for Democracy (NLD), and
that their own front would gain the largest bloc of seats. It
was a miscalculation "of historic proportion and
unfathomable stupidity," said a former British diplomat
based in Rangoon. The NLD won 82 percent of seats in the
new parliament. Stunned, the junta responded by arresting
3,000 NLD workers and handing out prison sentences of up
to 25 years to those of the newly elected parliamentarians
who tried to establish the government.
The euphemism for oppression was the now familiar "economic stability." Having re-invented themselves as the State Law and Order Council, which goes by the fine Orwellian acronym, SLORC, the generals declared Burma "open to free enterprise." At the
same time, in order to
rebuild the crumbling infrastructure roads, bridges,
airports, railways they set about turning the country into
a vast labor camp. Last year, the moat around the imperial
palace in Mandalay was excavated and restored almost
entirely by forced labor, including chain gangs guarded by
troops. When photographic evidence of this practice was
produced, the regime claimed that "contributing labor" was
"a noble Burmese tradition" and, anyway, many of the
workers were convicted criminals who had "volunteered to
work in the open air."
In totalitarian Burma the term "convicted criminal"can embrace someone guilty of having been elected to office or of handing out leaflets calling for democracy (five years' hard labor), or of singing a song the generals don't like (seven years' hard labor).
There is a terrible irony in the building of the railway.
During World War II, some 100,000 Burmese and other
Asians died alongside 16,000 British and Allied
soldier-slaves on the Japanese "death railway" that linked
Burma with Thailand. Outside the gates of the
Commonwealth war cemetery at Thanbyuzayat in the south
of Burma, the death railway is still there. The same rusted
lines rest on the same sleepers: A life was lost for every
sleeper laid, one survivor calculated. A Japanese locomotive
stands as it was abandoned on the day the horror ended. It
is jet black and on the track in front of it is a square of
barbed wire enclosing three figures rendered in cement a
Japanese guard with a rifle and two emaciated,
shaven-headed POWs working with pick axes.
Now, history is repeating itself. An extension of this line is being built in
Mon State, between Ye and Tavoy on the
This is Burma's great secret. Although
human rights organizations have documented the
testimonies of the slave workers on the new death railway,
few outsiders have seen it and the slave camps along the
route. This is because much of Mon State is closed to
foreigners. It is Burma's gulag.
SLAVES OF SLORC
groups of prisoners in chains, quarrying rock. Those guards
at roadblocks were junior, asleep, or uninterested; money
fluttered across to them.
The towns in this remote part of the country are a step back
in time, as if the British Raj were temporarily away at the
hill stations. Ancient sewing machines whirred on balconies;
the roads were filled with bicycles, not cars; carbon paper,
radiograms, and sleeveless sweaters were for sale. Tavoy has
streets of decorous teak houses, the biggest with lace iron
People considered us with due curiosity; a whole generation
here has seldom laid eyes on Europeans.|
To talk openly to foreigners is to beckon interrogation and worse. Hotels must copy guest registration forms to as many as 14 different authorities. On the day we arrived in Tavoy all "independent travelers" were told they had to leave. Fortunately, all the roads out were closed, and the ancient Dutch-manufactured Fokker aircraft of Myanmar Airways had been commandeered by a general. We calculated that we had about a day and a night to find the railway before we were caught. Following the line of embankments north into the jungle, we succeeded in getting lost, then by chance came upon a clearing that presented what might have been a tableau of Victorian England.
Scores of people were building
embankments and a bridge across a dry river bed that is
now, with the arrival of the monsoon, an ochre-colored
From out of jungle so dense that its bamboo and
foliage formed great wickerwork screens, they were carving
the railway.A 20-foot-high embankment had been built with
earth dug by hoe and hand from huge holes. The skilled were
paid about $.50 a day. The majority were slave laborers, of
whom many were children. Laboriously and clumsily the
child workers wrested clay from the excavations, sharing a
hoe among three. One little girl in a long blue dress
struggled to wield a hoe taller than herself, then fell back
exhausted and with a wince,held her shoulder.
The children carried heavy loads of mud mixed with straw in baskets
and dishes on their heads and clearly agonized
under the weight. They poured them into a vat and grinder,
turned by two tethered oxen. The sticky clay, now almost as
hard as rock, was gathered by two children, one of them
small enough to fit up to his shoulders in a hole directly
beneath the grinder. Horrified, I watched a load of clay, like
fresh cement, tip over him, almost burying him. I reached
under his arms and pulled him out. The others laughed, as
if this was normal. How many children are trapped and
injured and die like that? As many as 300 adults and
children have been killed or have died from disease and
exhaustion, according to one estimate. There were at least 20
other bridges in the vicinity and children were working on all
Every village along the way must
give its labor "voluntarily," regardless of age or the state of people's health.
pregnancy is no excuse. If people protest that, as peasant
farmers, their labor is all they have to keep them and their
families alive, they are fined and their possessions
confiscated. If a whole village objects, the head man is
beaten or killed and all the houses razed.
"I saw one old man accidentally drop his load into the river," a former civil servant told me in a nearby safe area controlled by the Karen National Union. "As he tried to retrieve it, the soldiers shot him in the head. I could see the water turn red with his blood, then the river carried him away." A man who escaped with his wife told me: "I saw people dying because of landslides or fever.
|Some of the bodies were never found, only the head or a foot. They didn't bother to bury the bodies properly, with a funeral. They just dug a hole and left them there." His wife, Min, said, "I feel for the children. They are too young to anticipate danger, so they are vulnerable. They are the ones who die first." I asked her if she knew why she was being forced to work in this way. "We were told nothing," she said. "We overheard we were building a railway so that a French oil company could run a pipeline through, and foreigners came to look over the site." The oil company is a partnership between a US company, Unocal, and Total, which is part-owned by the French government. They are building a $1 billion pipeline that will carry||
Burma's natural gas into Thailand. The deal
will give the Rangoon generals about $400 million a year
over 30 years. Since they put an end to democracy in 1990,
it is estimated that SLORC has received 65 percent of its
financial backing from foreign oil companies, including
Britain's Premier Oil and America's Texaco and ARCO.
In its 1993 report on human rights abuses throughout the world, the US State Department says SLORC "routinely" uses slave labor and "will use the new railway to transport soldiers and construction supplies into the pipeline area." Unocal says
reports of slave labor are a "fabrication" and
both the oil companies deny the railway is linked to the
pipeline project. But more than 5,000 troops have already
been shipped to the pipeline area and army patrols protect
Although taken aback by the sudden arrival of two Europeans on the embankments, the chief engineer admitted to me that the railway was being built mainly with "volunteers." He said that the children made bricks for the army,which sold them to the construction company. As we talked, soldiers guarding the "volunteers" began to emerge from their tent. We left expeditiously.
Western entrepreneurs in Burma claim that foreign investment has multiplied tenfold since 1992. "It's not so much a gradual pick up," said Pat James, a Texas businessman , "as a skyrocket." This claim is disputed by, among others, a recent report in The Economist. The World Bank and IMF have yet to lend the generals a penny. However, what has begun in Burma is a familiar process in which a dictatorship's crimes against its people are obscured and "forgotten" as foreign businesspeople seek to justify what the East Asian governments and the US call "positive engagement" and the Europeans and Austral- ians call "critical dialogue." The prize is a cheap labor colony that
promises to undercut even China and Vietnam.
Most Western governments, together with Japan, are running a "two track policy" on Burma: offering public support for Aung San Suu Kyi while pursuing, often in secret, long-term business links with SLORC. Tax havens, such as the British Virgin Islands, are used to move money to Burma; this is the route used by Unocal, the US oil company.
In spite of criticism by the Clinton administration and Secretary of State Warren Christopher's recent description
of a "new tide of repression in Burma," US policy is business
as usual: "not to encourage or discourage trade." After
visiting Rangoon in June and "conferring" with SLORC,
President Clinton's special envoy, William Brown, praised
the role of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian
Nations, which has since offered SLORC full membership.
Calling ASEAN "that noble organization," Brown reaffirmed
US policy as "constructive engagement" with Burma.
(This was the term used by the Reagan administration for
US support of the apartheid regime in South Africa).
Brown also said that "the issue of forced labor has diminished" in the
week that the International Labor
Organization reported that SLORC was forcing its people
The prize is a cheap labor colony that promises to undercut even China and Vietnam; the price is slavery. into forced labor "on a massive scale and under the cruellest of conditions."
In a letter to the Far Eastern Economic
Review, a State Department official, John Shattuck, sought
to play down Brown's remarks. "While there are undoubtedly
fluctuations in the use of forced and compulsory labor within
Burma," he wrote, "the fact remains that such serious
violations of internationally recognized worker rights are
widespread and remain a matter of grave concern to the
The "two-track" policy is exemplified by the role of Britain. While Nelson Mandela was in London last July, feted by a
British establishment that once did everything in its power
to undercut him, his fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San
Suu Kyi "Asia's Mandela" was being quietly abandoned,
with the British now undercutting her. On June 12,a day
Suu Kyi appealed to the world not to do business with
SLORC, a senior official of Britain's Department of Trade
and Industry arrived in Rangoon to "evaluate the commercial
prospects" of British support for the regime.
Mike Cohen, head of export sales to Asia, met an official of the SLORC's investment agency in the week the junta decreed a 20-year prison sentence for anyone attending
meetings outside Suu Kyi's home. On the day Cohen flew
into Rangoon, Jeremy Hanley, the British Foreign Office
minister, told Parliament that the British Government
supported "democratic reform and human rights" in Burma.
"We have made it clear to SLORC," he said, "that the
resumption of normal relations is conditional on progress in
those key areas. He added that the Department of Trade had
"pulled the plug" on future British trade missions to
What the minister neglected to say was that, even as he rose to address Parliament, Cohen was flying into Rangoon to "evaluate" the next trade mission. In fact, the British government
has funded two recent trade missions to Burma
and an international seminar in London called, "An
introduction to Burma the latest Tiger Cub," at which
speakers described "the real visionaries" in SLORC.
For all the European Union's pretensions on human rights, European companies, backed by their governments, are among SLORC's biggest underwriters. The Total oil company, building the oil and gas pipeline for the regime, is part-owned by the French Government. Germany is SLORC's longtime supplier of weapons-grade machine tools. On July 15, a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels formally blocked a
call by the European Parliament for
sanctions against Burma. At the same time, the EU Council
of Ministers "welcomed" Burma's membership of ASEAN's
So it is with Japan, another of SLORC's major underwriters. Although Japanese foreign minister Ikeda Yukihiko is said to have privately criticized SLORC, Tokyo continues to hand the junta $48.7 million in "aid." The great zaibatsu, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Honda, and Nippon Steel are in Rangoon. NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster, has issued a remarkable directive that the video footage it owns showing the Burmese army shooting down demonstrators "is prohibited for use by anybody in the world,
even by NHK in Japan, because it's too
delicate and might threaten Myanmar's (Burma's) stability.
... Please erase the material in your library."
And so it is with Australia. On July 22, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer was reported in the Australian press to have taken "a tough line" on human rights abuses in Burma. He immediately contradicted this by declaring that Australia "would not stand in the way of Burmese membership of the ASEAN Regional Forum." In the last year, the number of Australian business delegations visiting Rangoon has doubled. The largest fence in Burma, advertising the Australian beer, Foster's, shields an army watchtower from
the gaze of tourists.
By far Burma's biggest backer is China,which has armed SLORC on a barter system that has seen many of Burma's natural riches, such as its gemstones and teak, go to China. Chinese business interests are now so well ensconced that Mandalay is often referred to as "a Chinese city." Leading the "tiger" investors is Singapore, whose state arms company came to SLORC's rescue in 1988 at the height of the pro-democracy demonstrations when troops were running out of ammunition.
The collaboration of Thailand has been critical to SLORC's survival.
The Thai Petroleum
Authority will be the sole
importer and consumer of the gas that comes through the
French/US-built pipeline. The deal is little different from the
logging, mining, and fishing concessions which Thai interests
have negotiated with Rangoon since "development" in their
own country has all but destroyed its principal natural
Part of the unstated deal is that the Thai military sends back Burmese refugees who manage to cross the border. In April 1993, Thai troops burned down two refugee camps in an operation, reported the Bangkok Nation, "probably related to the gas pipeline." Thousands of ethnic Mon refugees have since been forced back into Burma,
straight into the hands of the SLORC military. On the
border, where the pipeline will enter Thailand, SLORC
troops display pens distributed by the French oil company,
Total, in their uniform pockets. "Total is coming," said one of
them with a broad smile.
Burma's most profitable export is illegal. More than half the heroin reaching the streets of US and Australian cities originates in the "golden triangle" where the borders of Burma, Laos, and Thailand meet. Under SLORC, heroin production has doubled. In a study, Out of Control, two researchers, Dr. Chris Beyrer and Faith Doherty, conclude
from a long investigation for the South-East Asian
Information Network that SLORC has allowed heroin to
circulate freely and cheaply in Burma in the hope that it
"pacifies" the rebellious young. *10 According to his son, the
infamous drug lord Kuhn Sa is living comfortably on Inya
Lake in the center of Rangoon with the support of military
While drugs bring in quick cash, it is tourism on which SLORC pins its hopes for foreign exchange and, above all, international respectability. "At last the doors to Myanmar, the magic golden land, are open," waxes Dr. Naw Angelene, the director of tourism, in an official handout. "Roads will
be wider, lights will be brighter, tours will be cleaner, grass will
be greener, and with more job opportunities, people will be
happier."11 One of the biggest foreign tour operators in
Burma is the Orient Express Group, which operates "The
Road To Mandalay," a "champagne-style cruise" between
Mandalay and Pagan in a converted Rhine cruiser. The
cabins, says the brochure, "are not simply luxurious"; there
is a Kipling Bar and a swimming pool.
When I found it at anchor in the heat and mosquitoes, The Road To Mandalay looked squat and sturdy rather than luxurious. Once on board, however, it seemed the perfect vehicle for pampering tourists in one of the world's 10 poorest countries.
|Like an air-conditioned bubble, it is constantly cleansed of the smells and noise and dust of the land through which it glides. In the "staterooms" the television rises at the foot of the bed and, presto, there is Rupert Murdoch's satellite TV. In February, the captain of The Road To Mandalay welcomed his inaugural guests. "They might have been, the cast from an Edwardian novel" wrote London Times travel writer Peter Hughes,"a prince and two princesses from the Endsleigh League of European Royalty, our own Princess Michael of Kent among them; a duke; a marche and marchese; a film star, Helena Bonham-Carter; and assorted lords and ladies whose names tended to be the same as their addresses. Those without titles merely||
had money." The actual road to Mandalay has
recently been converted into an expressway for tourists. For
the local people forced to work on it, it is known as "the road
of no return." According to Amnesty International, two
workers who tried to escape were executed on the spot by
soldiers. Another eight were beaten until they were severely
injured; one was hacked to death with a hoe.
When I interviewed James Sherwood, the American chair of Sea Containers, which runs the Road to Mandalay tours, he described the Burmese generals as "rather bright, well educated, dedicated men who are trying to
improve the country." He said he had contacted the CIA about the
"allegations" of human rights violations and it was
"confirmed to me these allegations were untrue."
Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old when her father was murdered. What distinguished the movement he founded was its complex attempt to apply a blend of Buddhism, socialism, and democracy to the freely elected governments that followed. The ideas of Nehru, Sun Yat Sen, Manzini, and Voltaire were adapted. Marx was virtually re-invented as a disciple of Buddha. But this flowering coincided with a period of turmoil as the ethnic peoples demanded autonomy.
|In March 1962, the army stepped in and seized power. Its leader, Ne Win, became Burma's Stalin. He displaced whole populations, built labor camps, and filled the prisons with his enemies, real and imagined. His wars against the ethnic peoples were unrelenting and vengeful. He abolished Burma's lively free press; and along the way he made himself extremely rich. In 1984, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that the privately chartered jet taking him to a Swiss health clinic "was delayed because chests of jade and precious stones carried on board had been stacked incorrectly and had to be reloaded." Three years later Burma ignominiously applied for Least Developed Country status so that it could qualify for relief on its massive foreign debt.||
In 1987, the leader who dubbed himself "Brilliant as the
Sun" produced his coup de grace. Without warning, he
withdrew most of the country's banknotes, replacing them
with new denominations that included or added up to the
number nine. According to his chief astrologer, nine was Ne
Win's lucky number. The people of Burma did not share his
luck. As most of them kept their savings in cash, most were
In a nation now so impoverished, the fuse was lit. By March 1988, the regime was at war with the students at Rangoon University. The moment of uprising came
precisely at eight minutes past eight on the morning of the eighth month of
1988. This was the auspicious time the dock workers, the
"first wave," chose to strike. Other workers followed in
succession; and in subsequent days and weeks almost
everyone in the cities and towns, it seemed, showed a
courage equal to those who stormed the Berlin Wall the
following year. Without guns, ordinary people began to
reclaim their country.
Then the slaughter began. The army fired point blank at the crowds and bayoneted those who fell. In Thailand and Norway,I have interviewed the exiled witnesses to these epic events,
most of them speaking publicly for the first time.
"One of my friends was shot in the head right there, in front
of me," said Ko Htun Oo, a former student. "Two girls and a
monk were shot next to him." Another student, Aye Chan,
said, "A lot of flame was coming out of the crematorium
which was surrounded by troops. They weren't even
identifying bodies, so the parents would never know. The
dead and wounded were all mixed up. They just burned them
alive." Another spoke of hearing a wounded schoolboy cry out
for his mother as he was buried alive in the cemetery: "The
caretaker didn't want to do it," he said, "but the soldiers had
guns pointed at him."
Now well into his 80s, Ne Win
|remains the center of SLORC's power. His former aide, the secret police chief, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, is "Secretary One." Behind sunglasses, Khin Nyunt's pudgy face appears at least five times in every copy of the official daily. His seminal work goes under the catchy title, "The Conspiracy Of Treasonous Minions Within The Myanmar Naing-Ngan And Traitorous Cohorts Abroad." One wonders how many of the gallery of faces in its pages are dead. Pol Pot and his gang turned out similar tracts. "Secretary One" is the man whose job is silencing "heretics": those like the lawyer Nay Min serving 14 years for "spreading rumors" to the BBC, and the UNICEF researcher Khin Zaw Win serving 15 years for sending "fabricated news" to the UN,||
and the writer San San Nwe sentenced to 10
years for "spreading false information injurious to the state."
Last year the general subjected a US senator, John McCain
(R-Ariz.), to an hour-long harangue about how SLORC was
holding back the "red tide," then played him a videotape
showing "communists" beheading villagers with machetes:
footage so sickening that McCain's wife had to leave the
room. The aim was to convince the senator that Aung San
Suu Kyi was a front for "red subversives."
We peered through a hole in the corrugated iron gate and a
face asked our names. Inside, another sunglasses told us to
write down our names and occupations. We then crossed an
imaginary line into friendly territory and were greeted
warmly by Suu Kyi's assistant, U Win Htein, who was
arrested with her and spent six years in prison, mostly in
solitary confinement. He led us into the house, a stately pile
fallen on hard times, overlooking a garden that tumbles
down to Inya Lake and bordered by a fence equipped with
alarms, a reminder that this was one woman's prison.
Aung San Suu Kyi wore silk and
orchids in her hair. She is
a striking, glamorous figure who looks much younger than
her 50 years and appears at first to carry her suffering
lightly. Only in repose does her face offer a glimpse of the
cost and the grit that has seen her through, though when she
laughs this vanishes; it is like a blind closed and open.
We talked in a room dominated by a huge portrait of the father she barely knew, painted in the style of Andy Warhol by the artist Soe Moe at the height of the 1988 uprising. I asked her if her release from house arrest was a cynical exercise by the regime to
give itself a human face. "I think
they also miscalculated that the National League For
Democracy was a spent force," she replied, " and that
releasing me was not going to make any difference. ... "
"But with such a brute force confronting you," I asked, "how do you reclaim the power you won at the ballot box?" "We are not the first people to face this dilemma. In Buddhism we are taught the four basic ingredients for success: first, you must have the will to want it; then you must have the right kind of attitude; then you must have the perseverance; then wisdom. ... " What struck me was her extraordinary optimism, fueled,
it seemed, by her Buddhist principles that
draw a stark contrast with the realities outside. This
changed when I mentioned foreign investment. I said that
the British Foreign Office minister, Jeremy Hanley, had told
Parliament that "through commercial contacts with
democratic nations such as Britain, the Burmese people will
gain experience of democratic principles."
She laughed. "Not in the least bit, because the so-called market economy is only open to some. Investors will help only a small elite to get richer and richer. This works against the very idea of
democracy because the gap between rich and
poor is growing all the time. The same applies to tourism.
They should stay away until we are a democracy. Look at the
forced labor that is going on all over the country. A lot of it is
aimed at the tourist trade. It's very painful. Roads and
bridges are built at the expense of the people. If you cannot
provide one laborer you are fined. If you cannot afford the
fine, the children are forced to labor."
In his moving introduction to Freedom From Fear, a collection of essays by and about Aung San Suu Kyi, Michael Aris quotes from a letter she wrote him
|shortly before they married: "I only ask one thing: that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them ... if we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure love and compassion will triumph in the end." I reminded her about this. "I asked him," she said, "to be sympathetic when the time came ... and he said, `yes'. ... During my house arrest the longest period we were out of touch was two years and four or five months. I missed my family, and I worried about my sons very much because the young one was only 12, and he had to be put into boarding school. But then I'd remind myself that the families of my colleagues in prison were far worse off." She revealed that in her isolation|
she had difficulty breathing and would lie
awake listening to the thump-thump of her heart, wondering
if it would fail. There were times when she did not get
enough to eat and her weight fell to 90 pounds.
"Weren't you terrified?" I asked.
"When I was small," she said, "it was in this house that I conquered my fear of the dark. I just wandered around in the darkness and by the end, I knew all the demons weren't there." During the first years of her house arrest, soldiers were ordered to lie with their ears to the ground so as to detect her "tunneling" to the house next door. They failed to grasp that she had no intention of escaping, or seeking exile. Outside, her name became a byword and people would pass her house just to be reassured by the sound of her playing the piano. When it stopped there were rumors that
dead. "That was when the string broke," she said. "I was
pumping too hard. I have a hot temper, so I took it out on the
piano!" "Will Burma be free in the foreseeable future?" "Yes!"
she replied unhesitatingly.
"That's not just a dream?" "No, I calculate it from the will of the people and the current of world opinion. ... I knew I'd be free ... some day."
The next day I joined the crowd outside her gate waiting for her to speak. The people were different from any I had seen; they were smiling, talking freely with each other, as if waiting for a gig to start. There were betel nut sellers and cheroot vendors and a man with a block of ice ingeniously balanced in a red sock, selling cups of cold water.
grace and courtesy that is never deferential and is so much
part of the Burmese character, people made way for the
foreign Gulliver, offering a cushion for me to sit on.
When Suu Kyi appeared she was flanked by two other figures of principle and courage: General Tin Oo and U Kyi Maung, a former colonel, the vice-chairmen of the NLD, both of whom have spent years in prison. The clapping and whooping lasted minutes. She now looked grey and drawn. Yet she had people in stitches as she carefully mocked the dictatorship, using irony and parable (so I was told; she spoke only in Burmese). As they laughed, I counted the spooks in sunglasses,filming, photographing, watching. Their arbitrary power was like a presence. Recently, a young man tried to ease the crush by moving the barrier and was
bundled away and given a two-year sentence.
At the end of her speech, people asked questions. She leaned over the spikes in the fence and listened intently, replying expressively. An old monk pushed through and asked her if she would join him in prayer; and she did. Most did not linger. A man told me he never went straight home after a meeting. "If they follow you," he said, "things start to happen. The power goes off; the kids are sent home crying from school." When I asked him if 1988 could happen again, this time successfully, he said: "Imagine a pedestrian crosswalk. The traffic never seems to stop for the pedestrians. One or two dart across. The majority wait impatiently at the curb, then they surge across, until the traffic has lost all its power. Well, we are
all back at the curb
now, waiting impatiently." At that, he looked over my
shoulder and walked quickly away.
Desmond Tutu like Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner said recently, "International pressure can change the situation in Burma. Tough sanctions, not constructive engagement, finally brought about a new South Africa. This is the only language that tyrants understand." What is hopeful is that there is the promise of sanctions in a remarkable disinvestment campaign already well underway in America. Based on the boycott of apartheid South Africa, selective purchasing laws have been enacted by a growing number of US cities,including San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin.Massachusetts has passed its own selective purchasing law,which has brought
corporations based in the state, such as Gillette although
Gillette says it is no longer in Burma. These make municipal
contracts with companies that trade with or invest in Burma
illegal. New York state is considering similar legislation; and
one of the biggest investors in Burma, Pepsi Cola, with its
headquarters in upstate New York, has partially withdrawn.
Rep. Byron Rushing, who wrote Massachusetts' selective purchasing law, told me: "In the case of South Africa, we were able to put pressure on a whole range of companies, like General Motors, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, and most eventually withdrew. And that really added to the pressure on the white government. That was a victory. As for Burma, it's not going to happen overnight, but we have started. The civilized world should follow."
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