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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 other opposition parties. Denied what they voted for, they’ve had a decade of this.

Yet, perversely, the images that linger in my memory are all of heartrending beauty. Early one morning, I set out with a friend to drive across the Irrawaddy delta. As the sun rose, a magical landscape emerged through the morning mist: bamboo houses, raised on stilts amid the endless green and emerald patchwork of paddy fields; farmers in broad hats bicycling silently along the raised river bank; brilliant white pagodas with gilded conical spires, dotting the landscape like so many whitewashed anthills; ox-drawn wooden plows, slowly turning the underwater mud.

I dozed, and woke again, and saw, at the side of the road, outlined against the dawn, the most lovely girl in the world. She was dressed from head to toe in pink and white, and she held out, with an exquisite elegance of posture, sensual yet demure, a large silver offering bowl. A shy smile flashed from under a large, conical bamboo hat. A moment, and she was gone. Had I been dreaming? When we returned along the same road seven hours later, she was still there, still looking cool and fresh. What’s more, she had collected 2,500 kyats (about $8 at the free market exchange rate) for the local monastery.

Then: the old wooden junks slowly drifting down the broad, muddy river, carrying bags of rice from the antiquated rice mills of Bassein; the shaven Buddhist boy-monks in crimson robes, walking barefoot with their mesmerically regular stride, keeping “the mind mindful” as they collect rice and curry from the households of the faithful.

In Rangoon, there was the unending wonder of the Shwedagon pagoda, its vast, banded golden spire subtly changing shade with the movement of the light. On my first evening in Burma, I walked up to the Shwedagon at about nine o’clock and found myself the only foreigner in the entire temple complex. All around me were Burmese, men as well as women wearing the traditional longyi, an ankle-length, skirtlike garment. Some prayed devoutly to one of the many Buddhas; others sat smoking a cheroot or idly chatting in the warm, scented air. I marveled at the tranquillity of a national shrine that seemed still authentically part of a traditional culture—something unthinkable, lost forever, at St. Peter’s, or St. Paul’s, or the Taj Mahal, let alone in the temples of Bangkok, where you can’t walk two yards without stumbling into a German tourist, praying with clasped video camera to the great god Sony.

I have rarely seen a more beautiful country, or a more ugly regime. The connection between this beauty and that beast is complicated. It’s tempting to say simply that the country is beautiful in spite of its politics. But that is too easy. For these gentle allures of an older world are also a result of the isolation and economic regression enforced by forty years of bad politics. This is the beauty of backwardness. Traveling to communist-ruled East-ern Europe had the same bittersweet charm, and for much the same reason. I call it the paradox of revolutionary conservation. Not all revolutions have this oddly conservative effect—Mao’s cultural revolution certainly did not—but some do.

However, the result is always a debased and corrupted version of the old. Burma may still look like Rudyard Kipling’s “beautiful lazy land full of very pretty girls and very bad cheroots.” What is more, those who live here may genuinely find deeper pleasures and satisfactions in a slower, more traditional way of life, in the seasonal round, the pagoda festival, the leisurely, raucous, bawdy pwe (a kind of folk theater performance), and in the sempiternal consolations of unquestioned religion. The recipe for individual human happiness is mysterious, and cannot be obtained from Wal-Mart.

Yet there is also, most definitely, a hard, corrosive reality of worsening poverty, malnutrition, and infant mortality; of more than three million people driven from their homes, some of them now living in barely human conditions in the jungle; of forced labor, rampant corruption, banditry, sexual exploitation, and the closely linked plagues of drug abuse and AIDS, with an estimated half-million people in Burma being HIV-positive.

Meanwhile, amid the archaic beauty that charms the privileged Western visitor, you glimpse a pathetic craving for even the cheapest totems of the West. Young men proudly sport baseball caps above the otherwise universal national dress of flip-flops, longyi, and cotton shirt or blouse. A few already wear their baseball caps reversed: globalization’s moronic meme. The cheroot is abandoned for a cheap Rothmans’ cigarette called “London,” garishly advertised everywhere. Even the monks possess, hidden away in an old wooden cupboard, a television—and they all seem to be fans of the British soccer team Manchester United.

Aya Shiya!” a friendly young monk urged upon me, as I sat on the steps of a pagoda. “Aya Shiya!” What timeless oriental wisdom was this? Finally, I recognized the name of Alan Shearer, an English soccer player.


Military intelligence, says one of the oldest jokes in the world, is a contradiction in terms. Burma is a country ruled by military intelligence. Military Intelligence, now formally entitled the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence, is the backbone of this regime. Its boss, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, though not formally head of the junta, is Secretary-1. But military intelligence, in the broader sense, has been ruining the golden land through four decades.

In 1962, a wildly superstitious former postal clerk, born Shu Maung but now known to the world as General Ne Win (“Brilliant like the sun”), organized an army takeover, arguing that the country’s feeble multiparty democracy was incapable of keeping the Union of Burma together against communist and ethnic minority rebels. Ne Win led Burma down what he called “the Burmese Way to Socialism,” into twenty-six years of surreal isolation. His “socialism” was actually more like Japanese national socialism of the early 1940s (when the imperial Japanese trained the original Burma Independence Army), mixed with postcolonial nationalism, attempted autarky, vulgar Buddhism, astrology, and a brutal war against the insurgents. His Asian Albania was so nonaligned that it even resigned from the Nonaligned Movement. Eighty-nine this May, Ne Win still lives in Rangoon, just across the Inya Lake from Aung San Suu Kyi. He is thought to wield continued shadowy influence over the regime, but no longer to run it from day to day.

In fact, the old despot’s announcement of his retirement in July 1988 was a major catalyst of the nationwide protests on the supposedly auspicious date of “8.8.88.” Crushing those protests with great brutality—estimates of the number who died in the ensuing orgy of repression range from three thousand to ten thousand—the army formed a State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. It even sounds like a beast. A few years ago, apparently advised by a PR firm that this name played badly in the West, the generals changed it to State Peace and Development Council. From the Tolkienesque to the Orwellian. 1 However, the regime’s opponents continue to call it “The Slorc,” and so shall I.

The Slorc is not simply a military dictatorship. Rather, it is an army-state, as communist countries were party-states. Army officers shadow or control all functions of the state, and most of the activities of everyday social life. Even the Red Cross is a paramilitary organization. The military is estimated to consume a staggering 40 percent of the national budget. Even according to official figures, expenditure on defense is sixteen times that on health care. Since 1988, the army has grown in size from some 200,000 to more than 400,000. You see soldiers everywhere.

The country displays all the familiar pockmarks of dictatorship: high gray walls, barbed wire, armed guards, bureaucracy, crude paper forms in quadruplicate, propaganda, censorship, inefficiency, and fear. Under the heading “People’s Desire,” faded red billboards proclaim, “Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.” Just occasionally, as if to compen-sate, there is a green billboard saying, “Please provide assistance to international travellers.” Well, thank you, Slorc.

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    It’s an irony so obvious it barely needs pointing out that one of the last Orwellian regimes in the world prevails in the country where Orwell was himself an imperial policeman. Curiously, Orwell’s Burmese Days was on sale in my Rangoon hotel—presumably as a sound anti-colonialist text for visiting businessmen or tourists.

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