Beauty and the Beast in Burma

This article is dedicated to the memory of Michael Aris.

First of all, there is this difficulty: to identify the people I talked with in Burma could send them back to prison. The leaders of this grotesque army-state are officially titled, as in some schoolboy version of Orwellian dystopia, “Secretary-1,” “Secretary-2,” “Secretary-3.” So in my notebook, later smuggled out, I refer to their victims and my interlocutors as U-1, U-2, Daw-1, Daw-2, and so on—“U” and “Daw” being, in Burmese, the respectful forms of “Mr.” and “Mrs.” In what I write here, I must further disguise identities and omit telling detail, because, precisely, it will tell.

I’m a vegetarian,” says U-5. “I became a vegetarian after being in prison. You see—I’m sorry to have to tell you this—we ate rats.” But how did they cook them? “We couldn’t. We just dried them in the sun and ate them raw.” From the balcony of a good Chinese restaurant we look across to the great royal fort of Mandalay, its broad moat shimmering in the twilight. A tourist’s delight. U-5 tells me that the embankment of the moat was recently rebuilt by forced labor. His own family was compelled to work on it. Earlier, from the top of Mandalay Hill, he pointed first to a landmark that the tourist guides never mention: the large, semicircular prison where he, like many others, spent years in solitary confinement for his part in the pro-democracy protests of 1988. The rat house.

U-13 describes the thick blue hood his interrogators put over his head. The hood was filthy with the sweat, mucus, and blood of previous captives. He could scarcely breathe as the interrogators attached electrodes to four points on his body. They charged the electrodes from a small, primitive, hand-cranked generator. Each time he heard the cranking sound, he knew that another electric shock was coming.

I find an everyday fear that is worse than in Ceausåüescu’s Romania. And desperate everyday want. In poorer parts of the countryside, peasants ask each other, “Fingers or spoon?” “Fingers” is better: it means you have enough solid rice in your bowl to eat with your fingers. “Spoon” indicates a few grains of rice in a watery soup. Increasingly, the answer is “spoon.”

A hundred years ago, Burma exported more than two million tons of rice in a year. It was called the rice basket of India. Forty years ago, it still exported one million tons. In 1999, the figure was less than 70,000 tons. As the country’s exports of rice have declined, its illicit export of drugs has soared. From being the rice basket of India, Burma has become the opium bowl of the world.

Tales of misery and horror ten years after the citizens of Burma voted overwhelmingly, on May 27, 1990, for the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and, in the large swathes of the country inhabited by ethnic minorities, for …

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