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.
I had hoped that I would never in my life have to read a newspaper more boring than the East German communist party daily, Neues Deutschland. I had not seen The New Light of Myanmar. (“Myanmar” is another Slorc renaming, casting off the supposedly imperialist “Burma” in favor of another Burmese word for Burma.) In leaden prose, New Light records how Secretary-1 (usually on page 1), Secretary-2 (page 2), or Secretary-3 visit another flourishing school, hospital, or factory, greeted by ever-smiling pupils, doctors, workers. But instead of Marxism as the official ideology, we have Buddhism. No issue is complete without some account of a general making gifts to a Buddhist monastery:
In conclusion, the Secretary-1 expressed his wishes, “May I be able to attain Nirvana due to merits gained for building and donating the centre, may I be a worthy son who can promote Buddhist Sasana in case I go round the circle of rebirth….”
(New Light, December 19, 1999)
Otherwise, I suppose, he would be in danger of coming back as a rat. Elsewhere, New Light tells you about the Tatmadaw Golf Tournament. The Burmese military learned national socialism from the Japanese; from the British, golf. The game is, apparently, one of the great passions of the high command.
Experienced observers say the top commanders see themselves as heirs to Burma’s absolute monarchs, from the medieval Anawrahta of Pagan to the hapless King Thibaw, whom the British peremptorily expelled from the Mandalay palace in 1885. At a recent reception for the diplomatic corps, the generals had performed in front of them an “abasement dance” that used to be reserved for homage to the king.
Since this is an army-state, the economy is also directly run by the military, with disastrous results for the country, although not for the generals. The post-1988 military leaders have denationalized many companies—and given them to themselves. A share of the spoils has gone to foreign investors, especially from China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, as well as British, French, and American oil companies. But in almost every joint venture, the Burmese partner is either military, ex-military, or related to the military. Corruption is endemic. Someone who worked for a foreign tobacco company described to me how a generous present—an expensive new set of golf clubs, for example—had to be sent around to the responsible general’s home, before he would even receive the supplicant businessman. As a result, senior officers live in large, luxurious houses, while junior officers and other ranks share the general poverty. According to a recent World Bank report, the economy is locked in a steep downward spiral.
The end that supposedly justifies all the Slorc’s means is “nondisintegration of the Union.” A Brief History of the Myanmar Army, sold at the vast, empty armed forces museum, manages not to mention the 1990 election while explaining that the Slorc saved the country from “the kind of anarchy experienced in the (former) Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Indonesia.” The generals’ one substantial achievement has been to negotiate cease-fire agreements with most, though not all, of the ethnic rebels. These agreements typically leave the rebel leaders in far-reaching control of their own areas, often with private armies and free to do much as they please. In several cases, this includes very direct involvement in the large-scale production and export of heroin and amphetamines. In return, drug barons like the notorious Khun Sa, who now lives unhindered in Rangoon, launder their profits through investments in the Burmese economy. Secretary-1 last year graced with his presence the opening of another infamous drug dealer’s headquarters.
Yet these cease-fires are only temporary, pending the new constitution which the regime has spent seven years not producing. The Slorc’s constitutional proposals envisage a distinction between “national” politics, where the “leading role of the armed forces” would be secured, as it used to be in Suharto’s Indonesia, and “party” politics, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) could compete with all the rest. In the meantime, however, the Indonesian model has gone down the drain, to be replaced by a fragile new democracy. And the NLD has refused to have anything to do with this unequal negotiation since, in 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from six years of house arrest in her mother’s villa on University Avenue, across the Inya Lake from the old tyrant Ne Win.
Of course I had come to see Suu. I say “Suu” in this familiar fashion because I had been talking about her as Suu for years with her husband, Michael Aris, a dear friend and colleague of mine at Oxford. Michael died tragically of cancer in March 1999, cruelly prevented by the Slorc from ever seeing his wife again. He had told me of her close interest in the way dissidents prepared peaceful change in Central Europe, and we had long been plotting my trip to Burma. I had also learned of Suu from other mutual friends who knew her well during her more than twenty years as student, budding cultural historian, hard-up housewife, and devoted mother in North Oxford.
Five thousand miles away, in her homeland, she is an uncrowned queen, respectfully referred to even by close acquaintances as “Daw Suu,” and known to millions of Burmese simply as “The Lady.” She is this legend because she is the daughter of the father of the nation, Aung San, the architect of Burmese independence, assassinated in 1947, when she was two; because of the extraordinary, charismatic style in which she joined what she called “Burma’s second struggle for independence,” with a speech before hundreds of thousands at the Shwedagon on August 26, 1988, and has led it ever since; and because of the Mandela-like mystique that comes from the combination of long captivity, international fame—including, in her case, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize—and daily vituperation by the regime. Wherever I went, people asked me, “How is she? Is she in good health?” Popular imagination endows her with almost supernatural powers. There is something even painful in the way so much depends on this one human being.
The Lady is no longer formally under house arrest, but the stretch of University Avenue running past her home is blocked off, and military intelligence allows only foreign diplomats, UN officials, and a few close associates to enter. She herself has limited freedom of movement within Rangoon. We met at the house of a friendly diplomat.
She is—first things first—quite as delicately beautiful as in the photographs, reproduced like icons around the world. She looks much younger than fifty-four, with fine, upright posture, and a sophisticated version of Burmese traditional dress: fresh flowers in her hair, long, dark red longyi, and blue velveteen sandals. Every inch the lady. Indeed, she is ladylike with the slightly old-fashioned gentility of the Anglo-Indian school—she was “finished” at Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi, where her mother was Burmese ambassador. So there’s refined small talk, with a hint of genteel primness, but happily subverted by an informal wit and still-girlish laugh.
Fragile, then? Yes, but also quick, decisive, very consciously her father’s daughter. A leader. Crisp, highly disciplined, tough—even harsh in her judgments on former allies who have not come back, after their years in prison, to go on fighting with the NLD. But she is still tougher on herself. In his introduction to Freedom from Fear, a collection of her writings, Michael Aris recalled how she went on hunger strike in 1989 to demand that she should be allowed to join her followers in the appalling conditions of Insein prison. For her decision to join her people’s struggle she has paid a huge personal price, in years of separation from her children. She spends most of her time in the large, run-down villa on the lakeside, with a strict routine of exercise, meditation, writing, reading, and conducting party business.
One of her passions is literature. We talked of Jane Austen, Dickens, and, inevitably, of Kipling—who, with the infuriating casualness of genius, unforgettably captured the spirit of this place in his ballad “Mandalay,” although he only spent a few days in Burma and never even went to Mandalay. I had been told by someone in, as it happens, Mandalay, that she had translated Kipling’s “If” into Burmese. She said this was not true, but she had used and interpreted an existing translation at her rallies, and the text, with her comments, had been published as a pamphlet. For her, the poem that in England is often dismissed as the epitome of imperialist bombast is “a great poem for dissidents.”
She and Michael named their youngest son Kim, after the hero of Kipling’s novel. She asked me if I could find the full version of the poem that provides the epigraph to the last chapter of Kim:
Drawbridge let fall—He’s the Lord of us all—
The Dreamer whose dream came true.
The lines, she said, had always meant much to her.
Most of the time we talked politics, for her life is now the struggle. Like Václav Havel, who nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize, she insists that she had politics thrust upon her. However, even as a dissident playwright, Havel was a natural politician. Talking to him in the 1980s, I always had a strong sense of a political strategy. I did not have this impression with her. She has a firm grasp of what new political system Burma needs; a much less clear idea of how to achieve it. But then, does anyone else?
Her critics—both inside Burma and in the exile community—say she is inflexible and intransigent. Yet she left me in no doubt that she sees the need for compromise if one wants a nonviolent transition—and to a devout Buddhist, nonviolence is a categorical imperative. The starting point of any new political opening must be a recognition by the regime of the results of the May 1990 election; but there should then be a negotiation about arrangements for a transition. The top military would not have to fear for their lives. “Those I’ve talked to know I wouldn’t be nasty to them,” she says, speaking of her jailers like a headmistress discussing a bunch of naughty children. In the interests of a peaceful transition, it might even prove necessary to leave them “some of their ill-gotten gains.” A truth commission, rather than kangaroo courts, would be her chosen instrument of dealing with the dreadful past.
However, she judges that the time for such compromise has not yet come. Now is the time for more pressure, not less, so as to bring the generals to the negotiating table. When she is not conducting a shadow foreign policy, she is busy with the National League for Democracy—which the regime still formally accepts as a legal political party, while harassing and imprisoning its members. She suspects the generals released her in 1995 because they thought the NLD was finished. But, she insists, it’s not. Particularly important is a committee they have established, together with some ethnic minority parties, to represent the parliament that should have been constituted following the May 1990 election.
Next day, I came to give a lecture at the NLD headquarters. Hastening from my car to the entrance—for there is a heavy military intelligence presence outside—I found a narrow, two-story house, bedecked with the movement’s red flags, stifling hot, and bursting with activity. I spoke to what was literally a packed house of some two hundred people—perhaps half of them under thirty, since this was the office’s regular “youth” day. Suu chaired the meeting, translated my talk into Burmese, and added her own pithy comments. To either side of us sat, like a Greek chorus, the men she calls her “uncles”—elderly party members, several of them former army officers, on whose support and advice she relies heavily.
I talked about the transitions to democracy in Central Europe, South Africa, and elsewhere. Although there were undoubtedly regime spies present, people asked questions freely—and seemed never to want to stop. Many were quite well informed, especially about recent changes in Indonesia and Malaysia. (Here, as once in communist-ruled Eastern Europe, Western radio stations broadcasting in the native language are a vital lifeline.) They loved the idea of their generals sweating before a truth commission. “How does one make a truth commission?” asked an earnest-looking girl in the front row, pen poised over notebook. From the back, a man wondered if this procedure necessarily involved amnesty, as in South Africa, and seemed relieved to hear that it did not.
“You see!” said Suu afterward. “It’s not so bad, is it?” Then she went off to talk to a delegation from the Irrawaddy delta youth wing while I was driven to the airport, where “customs officials” minutely searched my luggage and ripped the film out of my camera.
How might peaceful change come about in Burma? What chance for a Silken Revolution? One must start by saying that the best chance was probably missed ten years ago. In May 1990, the regime was stunned by the NLD’s election victory. If, before the eyes of the world’s press and television, then present in Rangoon, the NLD had immediately organized a mass march to University Avenue and freed Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the country might look very different today. But the “uncles” then running the NLD, too fearful of risking violence and perhaps also too trustful of their former army colleagues, failed to seize the moment. This was the turning point at which history failed to turn.
Ten years later, the heart of the Burmese problem is that Suu has all the legitimacy and the Slorc has all the power. If the NLD had a little more real power, and the Slorc had a little more legitimacy, a negotiated transition would be easier to imagine. There’s no doubt that Suu and the NLD still have huge potential support. The pertinent question asked by a British support group, “Why are 400,000 men so afraid of one woman?,” is easily answered. Given an election tomorrow, the opposition would almost certainly win another landslide victory.
The trouble is, the generals know this. For all their firepower, they, too, live in fear. I was told by a reliable source that many of the top Tatmadaw commanders actually sleep in their offices or barracks. Nothing could better illustrate their siege mentality. If they feared popular retribution ten years ago, how much more must they fear it now. As with every dictatorship in history, optimistic interpreters—not Sovietologists but Tatmadawlogists—think “reformers” lurk behind the closed doors. Secretary-1 is even billed as a Slorc Andropov. But the generals show no outward sign of any serious readiness to deal.
Meanwhile, although the NLD’s potential power is huge, its actual, effective presence is very limited. That Rangoon office is the signal exception. More typical is the NLD secretary in a provincial town who told me, “We can do nothing.” His wife had just lost her job because of the NLD connection. Suu’s brightest political advisers are imprisoned or exiled. For now, the regime has quite effectively corralled her and the “uncles” in a small, semi-private space, albeit with a vast international audience.
Those I spoke to recognize the importance of what dissidents in Poland called “the self-organization of society.” But “it’s impossible here” was their common refrain. Talking to one Rangoon writer, I asked, “What about civil society?” He laughed, and gestured around the tiny, bare room, where two disconsolate colleagues sat beside a small pile of magazines: “This is our civil society!” Those magazines are what is left of independent debate, but they are subject to fierce censorship. I was shown a recent issue of one journal in which even references to “people concerned for the future” and “those interested in the new” had been excised. At another editorial office, I was told that an article about the plague of mosquitoes in Rangoon had been banned. The censors apparently suspected a political allegory.
Students could be a more potent force. This is something of a Burmese tradition: Aung San started his political career as a student leader; in the 1960s, the most courageous urban opposition to Ne Win came from the universities; it was students who initiated and led the 1988 protests. Again, the Slorc knows this. That’s why a student activist recently received a fifty-two-year prison sentence, and most of the country’s universities are closed. Rather than risk their own power, the military bosses sacrifice the higher education of a generation and hence the future of their country. A few university departments have reopened, often carefully relocated outside the main cities. Young people who can afford them take private courses in English, computing, or business studies. Meanwhile, the military have medical and engineering colleges to make sure their own children don’t suffer.2
Another important social group are the Buddhist monks. I heard quite contradictory views on the intriguing question of whether Theravada Buddhism encourages resistance to dictatorship and support for democracy, but there is no doubt that the monks have significant potential as both protesters and mediators. Last November, the abbot of one of the largest monasteries in the country wrote public letters to General Than Shwe, the head of Slorc, to Aung San Suu Kyi, and to Ne Win, appealing for dialogue between “the sons and daughters of the nation.” I had hoped to meet him, but was told that he was under close surveillance and my visit “would not be good for him or you.” However, I sat barefooted before another venerable sage. While a choir of mosquitoes made a leisurely meal of my feet, he sadly explained to me how the Slorc had bought off the institutionalized Buddhist hierarchy, the so-called Sangha Council, with donations, televisions, cars, and a judicious mixture of intimidation and flattery.
Nonetheless, the sage continued, ordinary monks shared the suffering and frustration of the society from which they came. In 1988, monks had been in the forefront of demonstrations, especially in Mandalay. Now they were again waiting for the call. Some estimates suggest that there are as many as 400,000 monks in Burma: one for every soldier.
Finally, further economic decline might provoke spontaneous popular protest. But this is not an industrialized economy, in which economic crisis produces large concentrations of angry workers, capable of concerted action. More than 70 percent of the people still live on the land, and a dispersed rural population is always easier to repress. In a preemptive action, the generals have moved many of the urban poor out of Rangoon into settlements beyond rivers. The bridges over those rivers are heavily guarded and, as Ne Win famously remarked in 1988, “When the army shoots, it shoots to hit.”
Even a whistle-stop tour of possible forces for change must also mention the ethnic minorities, and what might be called the semi-external and external actors. For Burmese politics are anything but a simple fairy-tale confrontation between Suu and Slorc, beauty and the beast. I did not witness, and cannot begin to encompass, the fiendishly complex mixtures of ethnic discontent, insurgency, and drug trade, varying widely between the country’s numerous ethnic groups—Shan, Karenni, Mon, Wa, Chin, Kachin, and so on.3 Altogether, these minorities make up roughly a third of the country’s population: a dangerous proportion, as all students of nationalism know. They have been crucial to shaping Burmese politics for half a century, and in any negotiated transition ethnic minority leaders will immediately demand their place at the table.
By “semi-external” actors I mean people like the thousands of students and other political activists who fled to Thailand after the bloody repression of 1988, some of whom still move in and out across that porous frontier, and the government-in-exile, which works in sometimes ill-coordinated tandem with the NLD. These in turn are closely linked to the remarkable profusion of foreign support groups concerned with Burma. For Burma has become one of the great symbolic causes of our time. There are now more than one hundred unofficial Burma websites. The idealism and energy of those involved will be a great asset when freedom comes, but the current impact of this virtual Burma on the real one is small. One analyst drily observes that the much-heralded anti-Slorc protests planned for “9.9.99”—widely held by superstitious Burmese to be another especially auspicious date for action—were more of an event outside Burma than they were inside.
Coordinated action by states might have more direct influence on the regime than this “international civil society.” Burma enjoys the rare distinction of being annually condemned by UN resolution. In an unprecedented step, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has come close to expelling Burma for its continued use of forced labor. The UN secretary-general has just appointed a new special representative for Burma, Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who, it is hoped, will be more active than the last.
Beyond this, however, the countries with an interest in Burma are lamentably divided. Britain and America support a policy of pressure and selective sanctions: the approach favored by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. US sanctions, in particular, have denied Burma major foreign investment and international development loans. A milder version of this Anglo-American policy is the agreed posi-tion of the European Union, although Germany and France are more inclined to pursue détente with Burma. Japan, South Korea, and several ASEAN countries have followed a much softer policy of “private diplomacy” and economic engagement. Burma was accepted into ASEAN in 1997, against the wishes of the NLD. All this is reminiscent of cold war debates about the merits of “megaphone diplomacy” versus “constructive engagement,” but here there is the added dimension of allegedly “Asian” versus “Western” approaches. In March, a secret meeting of major interested powers tried to narrow the differences. Much to the Slorc’s annoyance, it took place in Seoul and was attended by ASEAN members such as Thailand and Malaysia.
Yet even if these “Asian” and “Western” policies converge, the Slorc can still rely on the largest Asian power: China. For all the differences in official ideology, Burma is now almost a client state of communist China. A flourishing trade goes up and down the old Burma road, to and from the province of Yunnan, on very favorable terms for the Chinese. Mandalay is increasingly a Chinatown where Chinese businessmen live like lords, in houses bigger even than those of the generals. Burma’s other large Asian neighbor, India, claims that the Slorc has given its Chinese allies strategic access to the Indian Ocean. The arrival of a Chinese Gorbachev in Beijing could really change the international constellation around Burma. Alas, it hardly seems imminent.
Only a fool would predict the future of such an immensely complex witches’ brew. My own melancholy hunch, based on the views of many I talked to, is that explosion is more likely than negotiation. Several people pointed out to me that Burma’s long-suffering Buddhist gentleness has alternated, historically, with short periods of violent protest. No one can know what the spark will be, although the death and funeral of Ne Win is mentioned as one potential risky moment for the regime. An explosion, particularly if it took the form of a peasants’ revolt, might initially be suppressed by the well-prepared army, with more bloodshed. Such a crisis would also have an important international consequence, for it could see the West arrayed on one side and China on the other. After Taiwan, Burma!
The hope must be that, as in Indonesia and Malaysia, such violence would eventually be the midwife of negotiation. We would then have to look for four miracles—as if reaching this point were not already miracle enough. First, that the opposition and the Slorc could negotiate an orderly transition to democracy. Second, that the country would not fall apart in this most dangerous period for all multiethnic polities: when dictatorship is dying and democracy still unborn. Ten years ago, the main political representatives of the ethnic minorities were ready to work within the framework of a new democratic federation. It is less clear that they would do so now. Third, that, with the help of the outside world, the new government could begin to tackle an appalling list of problems: poverty, malnutrition, banditry, an overmighty army, corruption, poor education, decayed or nonexistent infrastructure, drugs, ethnic insurgency, ethnic insurgent drug lords with private armies, AIDS—you name it, Burma has it.
Finally, and I fear most unrealistically, I would hope against hope for a fourth miracle: that something of the tranquil beauty of an isolated, traditional culture, almost unique in today’s world, could survive the necessary and longed-for tempest of modernity. But the armies of global capitalism are waiting at the frontier, engines revving up, with their container-loads of tawdry goods, their ready-made life-style packages, sex shops, reversed baseball caps, and state-of-the-art software for the unceasing manufacture of new consumer desires. These armies are more irresistible than any Tatmadaw or People’s Army, because they are truly welcomed as liberators. If so few of the good things of an older world have survived in Central Europe, where conditions were so much more favorable, how could they be saved here?
On my last evening, as on my first, I went to the Shwedagon. Again, there was a quiet glory. As I sat gazing up at the golden winking wonder, outlined against a black velvet sky, I thought of all that I had seen—and of Michael, and of Suu.
Suddenly I was accosted by a fat woman, expensively dressed, with a smart leather shoulder bag and a curiously expressionless face: “Where you from?” In broken English she told me of her great love for the Lord Booodah, and how she had come to pray for her husband who was born on a Tuesday. “Burma people help foreigners,” she said, “only a few not-good people not help.” Her sons, she added, were at university—one was studying medicine. And her husband who was born on a Tuesday? Well, he was a major-general in the Burmese air force. On her stubby fingers she wore four of the largest, most heavily gem-encrusted rings I have ever seen. Ostentatious wealth—and easily portable in case of trouble. What was the phrase Suu had used? “Ill-gotten gains.” Then the general’s wife waddled off, with two servants scuttling behind her.
I stayed awhile, and sent up a secular prayer: that all my pessimistic analysis should be proved quite wrong; that the four miracles should follow; and that Aung San Suu Kyi should, herself, be
The Dreamer whose dream came true.
May 25, 2000
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. ↩
Several charities try to alleviate the effects of this disastrous policy by giving those Burmese students who can get out of the country the chance to pursue higher education abroad. Notable among them are Prospect Burma, a British-based charity originally established with the money from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize, and the New York-based Burma Project, one of the many valuable initiatives supported by George Soros. ↩
The best introductions to this highly intricate subject are Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (Zed Books, second, updated edition, 1999; distributed in the US by St. Martin’s) and Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (Westview, 1994). I am grateful to a number of leading Burma specialists for their generous help in the preparation of this article. ↩