Looking for Hope in Burma

In the ordinarily glacial world of Burmese politics, the last few weeks have been remarkably active. On November 7 the generals who run the country held the first parliamentary elections in twenty years, and only the second in half a century; a few days later, on November 13, they released the country’s preeminent opposition figure, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from seven and a half years of house arrest.

The elections themselves brought little surprise or excitement, and apparently much lower turnout in this country of more than 50 million people than the generals would have liked. They were also quickly labeled unfree and unfair by most Western governments, with the British ambassador to the country telling the BBC on the day of the vote, “Everything about this electoral process, I’m afraid, goes toward more of the same.” The party backed by the military won three quarters of the seats in Parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release has initially been a somewhat subdued affair, and by all indications deliberately so. Smiling, dressed in pink, and placing a flower in her hair as she leaned over the high, pronged gates of her lakeside villa on University Avenue in Rangoon, she greeted a crowd of several thousand enthusiastic supporters with words that made clear that she would remain firmly engaged in national politics, and yet nonetheless seemed very carefully measured. “There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk. People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal,” she told the crowd, before returning inside to consult with senior members of her National League for Democracy party, which chose to disband in May rather than declare void its 1990 electoral victory.

One widespread interpretation of recent events in the country is that the generals are gambling that after her long detention, Aung San Suu Kyi is a largely spent force, particularly among many in the country’s educated, middle, and professional classes. In dozens of interviews during a recent month I spent there, many such people criticized Suu Kyi for what they see as her past unwillingness to lower tensions with the military and seek compromise.1

I’ve told her to call for a lifting of the [international] sanctions, which the generals actually like,” said one prominent intellectual who has maintained good relations with her.

I want to tell her to impose a moratorium on politics for a while and concentrate on bringing a bowl of rice to the Burmese people, enough to eat, a bit of cooking oil. Then we can ask for a release of the political prisoners, and keep working on progress in the humanitarian situation and with poverty.

Others express dissatisfaction at the international attention focused on Suu Kyi. “They reduce our story to the lady and the thugs in green uniforms, turning the story of Burma into a classic fairy tale,” the leader of a prominent Burmese think tank in Rangoon—called Yangon in Burmese—told me. “Both sides have been stubborn, both sides have been arrogant, and both sides are utterly isolated.” Suu Kyi has been cut off from Burmese society and the world during her long periods of house arrest, and the military has retreated to its grandiosely monumental new capital, Naypyidaw, or “abode of kings,” and its illusory atmosphere of order, prosperity, and progress.

Criticisms like these against someone who has spent fifteen of the last twenty-one years of her life in detention will strike many as unfair, but they come mostly from progressives—people involved in social welfare or efforts to reduce poverty, and not from a merchant class clamoring for an end to sanctions so they can do business again. Early signs suggest that Suu Kyi is mindful of such views and is indeed eager to avoid a confrontation and to explore conciliatory contacts with the military, including support for the easing of international sanctions, perhaps in conjunction with the release of over two thousand other political prisoners who remain in detention. “I think we have to sort out our differences across the table, talking to each other, agreeing to disagree, or finding out why we disagree and trying to remove the sources of our disagreement if we possibly can,” she told the BBC.

Whatever the reservations of the country’s small professional class, the regime’s calculation that she is a spent force could founder; she appears to enjoy continuing strong and enthusiastic grassroots support. Her numerous past arrests came about not because the Western-educated elites were coalescing around her but because she had a powerful popular following, first as a leading figure in the 1988 uprising against military rule, then as the rightful but denied winner of the country’s last elections, in 1990, which were nullified by the army. In view of what Burma has been through more recently, especially the horrible destruction of Cyclone Nargis—which struck on May 2, 2008, killed at least 138,000 people and devastated much of the country’s best rice-growing lands, and was followed by severe droughts—there is no reason to expect a lessening of the popular hopes invested in her. Signs of the recent drought were apparent everywhere I traveled in the middle belt of the country, particularly in rural areas around Mandalay and Bagan, where automobile traffic is rare and where villagers complained of major crop failures and there were many beggars, including children.

Outsiders trying to make sense of developments in Burma, which, renamed Myanmar, remains one of the world’s most closed and willfully opaque societies, have tended toward the view that with both her release and the election that preceded it, the military junta, led by General Than Shwe, who came to power in 1992, is currying favor with the international community, hoping to win a measure of respectability. The junta, it is said, even hopes to eventually build relations with other countries as a useful counterweight to Myanmar’s increasingly important and imposing neighbor, China.

In differing degrees, Burmese analysts inside the country acknowledge these factors, but they tend to ascribe secondary importance to all of them. For these intellectuals and professionals who have lived through the country’s tumultuous recent history, the complicated and shadowy maneuvers now underway all have something to do with the preoccupation of General Than Shwe—who is officially almost eighty—with succession. They involve a new constitution carefully engineered to preserve the power of the military, even as the country has been making a transition to nominal civilian rule, parliamentary elections, and finally Suu Kyi’s release.

The leader of a prominent local NGO who has extensive contacts with the military, and advocated participation in the recent elections, tried to explain the mindset of a leader who by most accounts has made only two or three broadcasts to the nation in his nearly twenty years in office and has concentrated power ever more tightly in his own hands during the last decade of his rule. His style of governing is often likened by Burmese to that of a king. The NGO official told me:

Our Dear Leader, and I deliberately call him Dear Leader, because here we have a textbook case of totalitarian rule, doesn’t want to see another Dear Leader succeed him, because he knows what he did himself to his two predecessors, and all of these maneuverings are part of a script to protect his own security and that of his family in the future, and to make sure that he doesn’t end up at The Hague.

The complicated arrangements underway include a new parliamentary system that will decentralize power and, many analysts also say, allow the regime’s current number two and perhaps other military peers of Than Shwe to be skipped over in favor of more junior army figures who will lead a new, seemingly civilian regime yet to be formed. Most of the officers elected to parliament were forced to resign their military commissions before they ran. They and the military officials will also allow Than Shwe to continue wielding considerable power from behind the scenes, somewhat like China’s Deng Xiaoping during the last phase of his long political life. “Than Shwe is creating a deliberately fractured landscape,” Thant Myint-U, a New York–based Burmese writer and former official in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs told me. “This should mean that however old and decrepit he becomes, he remains more powerful than any other player.”

Since the army took power in 1962, changes of leadership have often turned on the sudden and brutal demise of high military officers who have been pushed aside and eliminated by their former deputies. Although the circumstances are murky, there is widespread belief among Burmese that Than Shwe was somehow involved in the deaths of two of the country’s previous military leaders. Ne Win, the founder of the military junta, was living in poor health under house arrest, after a long period of semiretirement, when he is said to have suffered a serious fall while bathing; he was allegedly denied adequate medical care, which led to his death. The country’s next head of state, Saw Maung, suffered sudden and profound mental disability during his four years in power. At virtually all levels of the society, people claim that he was poisoned by injection or drugged, preparing the way for Than Shwe to take power in 1992.

The outlines of Than Shwe’s life and rise from obscure origins as a rural postal clerk and later as a member of the military’s Psychological Warfare Department to a deeply superstitious and reclusive head of state are reported as solidly as possible for such an elusive and undocumented subject by Benedict Rogers in Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant. Rogers makes it clear that the long period of Than Shwe’s rule has been marked by the stark impoverishment of the society—in contrast to other countries in a region of rapid growth and social transformation—as well as by rampant corruption and tightening political repression.

In other Asian economies, rice powerhouses like Vietnam and Thailand, the governments have invested in rural roads and electricity,” I was told by the leader of an internationally respected Burmese NGO, who spoke of a “silent humanitarian crisis” with eight million or more peasants in the country’s dry zone where lives are at risk. “In our rural areas people are still using oxcarts. Oxcarts are in museums in Thailand. If you take a photo of a village in Burma with its thatched huts and rutted roads, it looks exactly as it would have a hundred years ago.”

Burmese economists say that military rule has decimated the civil service, which is afraid to pass on bad news or debate policy directives, however bizarre, or even to maintain accurate records. The result, they say, is that those wielding power have little or no grasp of economics, and few sources of feedback.

We have gotten to the point where mismanagement, isolation, and disinvestment are all converging,” said one economist, who like most Burmese professionals spoke only on condition of anonymity. “The military is isolated from its own society, socially, politically—across the board, and no bad news filters up to the top, and they’ve gotten even worse since they moved to Naypyidaw. Sitting there, they think everything is great.”

The regime has not published a budget in years but implausibly boasts economic growth of 7 percent, nearly on par with neighbors like China; yet most economists estimate inflation at 20 percent, meaning that real growth is actually starkly negative. If the generals are running a crippled economy, they have clearly mastered the mechanisms of corruption. According to one internationally prominent Burmese economist, the state sells large amounts of natural gas and other resources to China, Thailand, and others at an official exchange rate of 6 kyat to the dollar while the real exchange range is actually roughly 1,000 kyat to the dollar. “What is happening to the other 994 kyat in all of our transactions?” asked the economist. “Of course it is being pocketed.”

Although Thailand and India do much business with Burma, most of the new big business, he is quick to add, is with China:

Timber, jade, minerals, and, sad to say, a lot of really rare animals are being traded across the Chinese border. Timber exports alone to China are estimated to be twenty-seven times more than the official figures; the result is that Myanmar, a country that should be rich, is full of poor people.

Much of the regime’s revenue has gone into building the monumental new capital at Naypyidaw, two hundred miles north of Rangoon, a place of immense avenues, steady electricity, and few people that stands in stark contrast to Rangoon, the moldering and overcrowded former capital, with four million people, most of whom have electricity for only two or three hours per day. Much of the teeming city appears untouched since the end of British colonial rule, with luridly streaked and faded buildings and shabby side streets, where people lay their produce and goods on the ground amid the mud and filth to trade and barter. The transportation system consists mainly of dilapidated jitney buses and equally antiquated taxis. The city’s greatest charms are its temples, of which there are many, including the towering, golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest shrine in the nation, and one of the most spectacular in all of Asia. Foreign diplomats in Burma say that as much as 40 percent of the national income has gone into building the new capital and toward the military budget. By comparison, a Western diplomat estimated that the state spends less than 1 percent of its budget on education and health care combined.

Benedict Rogers tells the bizarre and dramatic story of how Naypyidaw became the new capital:

At precisely 6:37 a.m. on November 6, 2005, hundreds of government servants left Rangoon in trucks, shouting: “We are leaving! We are leaving!” or, according to some reports, “Out! Out! Out!” Five days later, on November 11, at exactly 11 a.m., a second convoy of eleven hundred military trucks carrying eleven military battalions and eleven ministries left Rangoon. Perhaps influenced by astrologers, Than Shwe had decided to move the country’s capital. He had given government officials just two days’ notice.

Foreign diplomats, he notes, “were informed of the move a few days later, and were given one fax number to use to reach the government.”

When I asked travel agents in Rangoon to help with arrangements to visit Naypyidaw, I was told that it is not possible for foreigners to visit the city uninvited. “I’m afraid it’s not convenient at this time,” one of them said politely.

Hiring a car and driver to see the place for myself, I set out one morning on the broad, multilane highway where we drove for two hours before encountering the first exit. Along the way, we didn’t see a single vehicle. The roads in the city itself, as broad as Paris’s Champs-Élysées, were equally deserted, save for the teams of peasants working in peaked hats against the brutal sun to keep perfectly manicured the grassy strips of land dividing the roadways.

I was told that it was impossible, or at least too risky, to try to visit the quarters where senior officials live and where the main government ministries are housed. I was limited to driving around a gigantic empty zone of ersatz monuments, including a towering golden duplicate of Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, a water-themed amusement park, a Museum of Gems, and a forlorn new shopping mall with a large and empty parking lot.

I asked the representative of a major international relief agency who often visits the vast new city, “Who lives there?” “Government servants,” he said. “They are trapped there, and can’t leave the city without authorization. What you have basically are lots of unhappy people in an enterprise sustained by fear.”

On the second day of my visit to Burma, I was approached in downtown Rangoon by a young medical doctor who asked, “Have you ever been to North Korea?” That sounded like a potentially dangerous line of political questioning from a stranger. I told him yes, I had been to North Korea twice, thus providing him the opening for what he really wanted to know. “Which government is worse?” he asked. As I learned more from the doctor, and from scores of other conversations during my stay, I came to appreciate that in spite of the obvious differences between the two countries, the Burmese have a point when they frequently compare their country to North Korea.

The doctor’s logic was driven by bitter direct experience of the regime’s behavior. As a medical intern at a major hospital in Rangoon at the time of the so-called Saffron Rebellion in 2007, when the country’s revered Buddhist clergy rose in peaceful revolt against the military regime and demanded the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the doctor told me how he was ordered not to provide care for monks who had been shot or severely beaten by soldiers during the regime’s crackdown:

When I told my supervisor it was a doctor’s moral duty to provide care for people in urgent need of it, he warned me that if I didn’t follow orders and mind my own business I might find myself in need of care, too.

His story helps explain what happened after Cyclone Nargis, the largest natural disaster in the country’s history, which posed the same moral issues, but on an immensely larger scale. When the storm hit in May 2008, Burma’s military leaders remained all but silent for the first week or so. With Rangoon, the country’s economic capital, flooded, and the Irawaddy Delta to the south devastated, the army for the most part remained in its barracks in the storm’s early aftermath and left people to fend for themselves. Thousands died even as the country’s diplomats denied the need for international aid.

Only after many Burmese attempted to fill the void in a piecemeal and improvised voluntary action, with celebrities and local NGOs and monks and ordinary citizens, like my new doctor friend, banding together to organize relief, did the military government finally take action. It cleared roads in some cases, but created checkpoints and other obstacles and restrictions for civilians in many others. Battery-operated radios distributed by NGOs allowed the disaster-stricken people of the delta to remain in contact with the world and to hear of the mounting international relief response.

For a time, the doctor said, he rode hidden behind supplies in the back of trucks in convoys of monks that delivered food and medicine in the worst- afflicted areas, until officials learned that he was involved in relief work; then he was ordered to stay out of the delta and mind his own business.

In those early days, a flotilla of international ships laden with relief supplies assembled off the coast of Burma, but was kept at bay. Some officials alleged that the presence of the United States Navy meant that a military invasion was imminent. It took the regime nearly a week to grant landing rights at Rangoon airport for relief flights bringing in supplies. A statement from the foreign ministry said that Burma was “not yet ready to receive search-and-rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries.” Once foreigners were allowed in, the regime tried to create obstacles to their work, for example prohibiting many relief workers from sleeping in the delta, requiring them to make arduous and time-wasting trips back and forth to Rangoon every day.

In Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma, the reporter Emma Larkin quotes a telling dispatch from the obscurantist official state tabloid, the New Light of Myanmar, which perfectly captures the government’s attitude:

Myanmar people are capable enough of rising from such natural disasters even if they are not provided with international assistance. Maybe they need temporarily instant noodle and biscuit packets. However, [they] can easily get fish for dishes by just fishing in the fields and ditches.

The article concluded by saying people could survive in the Irrawaddy Delta “even if they are not given chocolate bars from the international community.”

Larkin is a longtime visitor to the country who writes under a pseudonym, and as the author of Finding George Orwell in Burma, she has a well-earned reputation as one of the most perceptive observers of the country’s life, recent history, and society. After spending much time in Burma in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, she observed that when the government issued its contemptuous communiqués about foreign aid and the plentiful availability of food in the delta, the still-swollen waters of the Irrawaddy River had turned a chalky and unnatural white from the many carcasses of people and livestock floating in it.

Pondering my doctor acquaintance’s question about North Korea, it is easy to draw up a list of qualities that the two countries share as isolated, near-failed states on the booming Asian mainland. Both societies lavish their meager resources on deeply entrenched military elites. Both are intensely secretive and heavily policed. And both minimize or deny the extent of economic devastation, even by enormous disasters like famine or flooding, because to admit them would amount to an intolerable loss of face. They build whatever legitimacy they can on the idea of holding their nations together against dissolution, an argument that relies ultimately on much crude xenophobia. They both resort to secretive programs for making weapons of mass destruction, reportedly in close cooperation; the Burmese are rumored to be making both nuclear and chemical weapons. Both countries see such weapons as guaranteeing the continuity of their respective regimes.

The most telling shared trait, however, may be the challenge they pose to other nations about how to engage with them. Years of Western strategy toward Burma based on imposing isolation through sanctions and other means have produced few results. As the Obama administration’s own diplomats found in the gruff reception they received this summer during the highest-level contacts with the regime in years, it is not at all clear that such engagement would produce much better results.

I was once very strongly in favor of the sanctions,” a Burmese newspaper editor told me.

It proved to be a naive thought, that a guy like [Than Shwe] should be punished. The problem is that the sanctions are a noble notion that hasn’t worked except to hurt the people, and I would be in favor of easing them selectively if there is some positive signal from the regime. It’s just that the people in power are doing very well for themselves and they just don’t care about such things.

Across Burma today, millions of people would like to believe that Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is a sign, however tentative, to the contrary.

—November 22, 2010

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    Photographs taken during this trip can be seen at www.howardwfrench.net .