Awzar Thi, Member, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong
In August 2007, rallies against rising prices in Burma were met with familiar violence. In the former capital, Rangoon, government-organised gangs consisting of plainclothes officials and hired thugs set upon protestors with increasing speed and severity; hundreds were kept in illegal detention—few, if any, were arrested and held in accordance with the law; the whereabouts of many remain unknown.
Protests persisted in places where authorities were slower to respond. In the western port of Sittwe, a column of monks and novices marched across town and chanted slogans, prompting warnings to those elsewhere not to follow suit. In the far south, students took to the streets in a column of motorcycles.
In the delta, a man stood alone with a placard in front of a filling pump before a policeman came and ordered him on to the back of his bike. On the way to the station, he reportedly continued to wave the sign, making the officer look like a fellow conspirator rather than custodian, to the amusement and applause of passersby.
Given the depth of frustration felt about virtually all aspects of life in Burma, it is not surprising that some persons began taking the risk of expressing outwardly what everyone else has been feeling inwardly. But what is perhaps surprising is how little these early expressions were heard abroad. Although world media reported on them for a few days and some governments issued stern pronouncements, the United Nations and other important international bodies remained circumspect at best.
The most awkward response was that of the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. In a statement read by a spokesperson on August 23, he called for dialogue and urged “all parties to avoid provocative action”: tantamount to suggesting that everyone get
This article consists of the edited text from a series of weekly commentaries, entitled Rule of Lords, written for UPI Asia Online under a pen name. All of the original columns, and others, can be read on the UPI website, www.upiasiaonline.com/human_rights, or on the author’s blog: www.ratchasima.net.
off the streets lest they cause the regime to respond with bloodshed, as if multiplying fuel prices in the impoverished country was not already provocative.
Although the secretary general’s tepid plea was in keeping with his background as a career diplomat, it was at odds not only with the human rights standards that the UN claims to uphold but also with the history of his own country.
May 22, 1980: the US state department responds to reports of protests against its client regime in the Republic of Korea in much the same way as the UN did towards those in Burma a fortnight ago, urging “all the parties concerned to explore ways toward peaceful solution through self control and conversation”.
People in the southern city of Gwangju were by then into the fourth day of a standoff with the armed forces, following their refusal to halt mass rallies against a renewed crackdown. There had already been numerous deaths and injuries. Some locals had armed themselves, and began shooting back. News of what was happening had precipitated further outbursts in surrounding regions.
The Gwangju residents set up committees to run the town and negotiate with the military. But they were split between those who sought to compromise and those who would not surrender. When paratroopers led a final assault on May 27 over a hundred men and around ten women chose to make a last stand at the provincial hall
Those persons’ relatives, as well as those of slain innocents, continued the fight. They assembled and buried bodies together, at a hill outside the city. Over the years, that place became a point for resistance to the military dictatorship: quiet at first, then louder.
As the story of Gwangju was kept alive, it gave impetus and meaning to the struggle for representative government. In 1987, the police state caved in and national elections were held. Two former dictators were later tried and convicted of treason; they were pardoned on the advice of an incoming president who had himself earlier been sentenced to death over the events in Gwangju. Hundreds of others also were indicted.
A new cemetery and monument now stand on the outskirts of Gwangju as lasting reminders of what happened there. And although the state is felt through official visits and speeches, each May 18 continues to be a day for the public, and for the relatives of victims who chose to provoke, rather than accommodate, despots.
It is hard to imagine what Korea might be like today had it not been for the fateful decisions of that May. But had Gwangju not arisen, Korea’s ordeal would almost certainly have been longer, its society weaker. And had Gwangju not arisen, it would have been a loss for Korea, and for the Koreans—including the UN secretary general.
None of this is to deny that conditions in Burma today are markedly different from those in Korea two decades ago. Its military regime, backed by China, is more intractable and ruthless. But its people are equally capable of using their brains and weighing up the consequences of their actions. If they’ve had enough, whether or not they yell out on the street is for them, not anyone else, to decide.
Like Koreans during the 1980s, people in Burma are looking abroad for some kind of support and empathy, rather than inane advice from persons who don’t really have their interests at heart. The secretary general wouldn’t have the effrontery to address people in his own country in the manner that he has spoken to those in Burma. From now on, he should either show some more respect and sensitivity, or let others do the talking.
The anatomy of thuggery
When a group of Buddhist monks in Pakkoku, upper Burma, in early September joined public protests against drastic increases in nationwide fuel prices, they were met with shocking violence. At least three suffered injuries; one is rumoured to have died. Afterwards, some decided to go after the ringleaders of the gang responsible for the assault. They knew exactly which shops and houses to visit. There was no secret about who was involved. Like everywhere else in the country, the gang leaders are locally known and established.
Want to get a gang together on short notice in downtown Rangoon? Just call up the nearest township leader. Where? Let’s say Bahan. There it’s U Min Htun, a 45-year-old trader residing in 38th Street. Or try his deputy, U Naing Tint Khaing, who can be reached at his office. How about Mayangone? Ironically, the person in charge there, U Soe Aung, is a law student. Need someone in Hlaing? Kyauktada? Sanchaung? No problem: names, phone numbers and other details are all available on lists that have been compiled and kept by township councils, with orders and training from above.
them. They are not in any way self-organising. Rather, they are part of a comprehensive survival strategy devised by the military regime, one that is at least for now putting uniformed soldiers at the rear—rather than front—line of defence.
The authorities in Burma have been experimenting with mob violence for some time. In 1994 the supreme commander, Senior General Than Shwe, admitted that his government had set up the Union Solidarity and Development Association the year before with a view to preventing popular uprisings of the sort that occurred in 1988. The army has been training the group’s members since at least 1996, when thugs first emerged to assail a motorcade of political party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, smashing car windows and waving iron rods under the watch of police and soldiers.
In 2003, around 5000 men attacked another convoy carrying the Nobel Prize laureate at Depayin, in upper Burma, killing at least four persons and injuring dozens. The regime described the violence as a fracas between two groups of civilians, and blamed the latter.
In the months leading up to this August, the gangs took on more explicit and regular duties, breaking up small protests against rising commodity prices, illegally detaining participants, and harassing and assaulting persons holding prayer vigils. They even protested outside western embassies to show that they “had lost patience with alien instigation”. In each case the state media disingenuously referred to them as “concerned members of the public”.
The thugs have also been given a name, “swan-ar-shin”. Loosely translating as “masters of force”, it carries the same fascist overtones as the titles of other organised attack squads throughout world history: from the Nazi storm troopers of Kristallnacht, to the Interhamwe in Rwanda, and the Red Gaurs and other army-sponsored vigilantes that slaughtered hundreds on 6 October 1976 at the heart of Bangkok.
When officials use proxies to remove themselves from direct responsibility for the harassment and butchery of their own people, they touch off profound and lasting effects.
The hundreds of thousands of lives lost during the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia weigh heavily upon its society today. The notion of the state as monopolising legitimate violence was lost from that time onwards, as the New Order administration routinely co-opted civilian groups to serve its political and military objectives. When it collapsed, the army continued to use them for its dirty work, but with less control over their behaviour. They have since proliferated with or without its endorsement: the product of four decades’ unrelenting bloodshed and impunity.
In the northern Indian state of Gujarat, the government oversaw a February 2002 pogrom against the Muslim minority. Carefully designed and instigated, it obliged the involvement or at least tacit approval of bureaucrats, police, firemen, doctors and lawyers, among others. Hundreds were publicly tortured and killed; thousands were wounded and raped; tens of thousands “were forcibly displaced. The chief minister who presided over the savagery held a self-congratulatory parade across the worst affected ares:he was promptly reelected;India went into denial.
Years of arbitrary violence and uncertainty in Burma have already deeply scarred millions. “The vulnerability produced by a breakdown in institutional integrity has become routine,” anthropologist Monique Skidmore has written, “Just another exigency of everyday life.” Insecurity in turn generates mistrust, not only of institutions but also of others. It pervades the most mundane exchanges, and slowly eats at the decency and simple humanity that people ordinarily bring to their day-to-day affairs.
Whatever else happens, the psychological damage caused by the calling of thugs onto Burma’s streets in the place of men in uniform will only compound the malaise already deeply felt throughout the entire country. The very least that everyone else must do—especially those interpreting and reporting the details of these events to the world—is understand properly what is happening and call the gangs for what they are, rather than how the military regime might have others see them. The monks at Pakkoku had no illusions about who was responsible for the attack on their counterparts; nor should anyone else.
Burma’s Saffron Revolution
Among the many inspiring photographs to come from Burma in this past week, perhaps one of the most compelling was not of rain-soaked monks wading through flooded Rangoon streets or teenagers and their grandmothers with hands locked together to form protective chains alongside them, but of a small assembly in the north of the country.
On September 18, monks in Mogok, upper Burma, gathered together at the Aungchanthar Monastery to decide whether or not to overturn their alms bowls: to declare a formal boycott of the country’s military regime, together with the rest of the Buddhist order—the Sangha—in response to a brutal attack on a group of their peers early in the month.
The overturning of bowls is not done lightly. It is a last resort that must be carefully discussed and considered. There are only eight prescribed circumstances under which it may be invoked: one being that the offending party has put the lives of monks at risk. It also must be declared through a formal procedure.
The last time that the Sangha in Burma declared a boycott against the regime in response to a similar incident in 1990, it was violently suppressed. Thousands of monks were arrested and hundreds disrobed and detained. Monasteries were occupied; some were seized. New orders prohibited unofficial religious groupings, and disciplinary committees were later established to oversee behaviour.
So the significance of declaring a boycott was not lost on the community in Mogok. In the photo (above), they sit together in the manner of their predecessors over two-and-a-half millennia: a line of senior monks faced by a semicircle of pupils. Their faces are stern. One superior clutches a piece of paper: perhaps the formal pronouncement of the ban.
During the following days, in Mogok as throughout the country, the Sangha took to the streets, barefoot and formally garbed, to indicate publicly that the bowls were turned. The marches took hold quickly, in big towns and small, in the upper and lower regions. In Rangoon it rained heavily, but although umbrellas are prohibited under the boycott rules, the monks walked anyway. In Sittwe, on the western seaboard, a monk was assaulted and others harassed by government thugs, but they too kept at it.
Initially the monks discouraged ordinary citizens from joining them, in part to demonstrate that they alone had taken the drastic step, and in part out of fear for the security of the general public. Some were hostile to photographers, fearing that they might be government officials. A blogger posting pictures on his page wrote that not only did he have to contend with informers and spies but also with the monks themselves.
However, after a few days, it was impossible to keep the crowds away. And once they were out, they swelled with tremendous speed, from a few hundred, to a few thousand, to tens of thousands.
Their message also swelled, from the first silent walks of the monks, to their chanting of verses for loving kindness and protection, and then to the increasingly vocal and political demands to lower commodity prices, free political prisoners and open genuine dialogue for national reconciliation: the last co- opting a government propaganda slogan.
It all became a bit much for the junta, which appears to have been caught off-guard by the scale and spread of the rallies, and also perhaps by the intense interest that they have attracted abroad. On the night of September 24 it warned that further protests would not be tolerated, and iterated the contents of the 1990 directives, that monks “stay away from forming, joining or supporting any illegal Sangha organization”; that is, any not under direct government control.
The threats had the opposite effect of what was intended: larger rallies followed, and monks and ordinary citizens alike said that they were determined to continue. A group of prominent actors and artists came to give alms to protesting monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda in the former capital. Lawyers set up a new union to support calls for political change.
As people were settling down to sleep on September 25, a 60-day nighttime curfew was announced and further threats issued against continued dissent. This time they were backed with force. Marchers approaching Shwedagon Pagoda on Wednesday morning found it locked and surrounded by riot police, soldiers and assorted heavies. When some refused to back down, bullets and teargas were fired. Then the police moved in and began assaulting and shouting obscenities at everyone in range. Hundreds were taken away in trucks. Unknown numbers were injured, some seriously. At least one monk may have died.
But it will take more than that to quell these protests. Even as the demonstrators in Rangoon were being beaten, thousands more were walking past army barricades on the streets of Mandalay. And back in the old capital, others met up at Sule Pagoda in the afternoon and exhorted non-violence, until they were beaten back.
While the failure of the military to deal with the protestors sooner remains the subject of conjecture—which abounds in talk about Burma—the cause of the rallies themselves are obvious. People have had enough. As an elderly woman told a group of monks in the ancient city of Amarapura, “We are sick and tired of being in the hands of these kings, these bad kings. We are destitute. We are miserable. We are depending upon you.”
The reference to kings in a country that lost its monarchy in 1885 is not accidental or archaic. It alludes to the preliminary versesthatprecedethechantingofcertainBuddhistdiscourses in Burma, including those for loving kindness and safekeeping, mentioned above. These call for safekeeping from iniquitous kings, which are counted together with fire, flood, thieves and ungrateful heirs as one of the five traditional enemies.
In a sermon, the late renowned Mingun abbot explained that,
When the ruler regards the citizens as a child of his beast and reigns in accordance with the code of conduct of a ruler, then he is a parent of the people. But when he derives various schemes that are ill and persecutes the people, he belongs to the list of enemies.
What the junta has lost
The reports of car crashes, court cases and actresses’ haircuts that normally comprise the television broadcasts on Hong Kong’s aboveground trains last week gave way to the images seen all over the world of monks leading their people in prayer and protest at Burma’s military rulers.
In this city known for large and orderly public marches, people watched the inevitable bloodshed on Rangoon’s streets with both bewilderment and horror. A senior Buddhist leader, not known for his outspokenness, was moved to say that those responsible would surely go to hell—the killing of a monk being one of five sins from which there is no immediate redemption.
The image of twinkling pagodas and tenacious development that the junta has tried to create is no longer. No one inside the country, and no informed person outside, was fooled by that exterior; however, it had allowed the ruling council to go about its personal business with relatively little unwanted attention. No more.
To understand how and why things happened as they did, and why the monks have posed such a formidable challenge to the generals, it is necessary to go back at least as far as the last mass uprising of 1988, when the socialist state—which had been built to conceal the army’s presence in all areas of life—collapsed under the weight of protest.
Initially, the military council that took its place clung to its eponymous law and order mandate. But after ignoring the results of the 1990 polls, which revealed to the council that it was almost universally disliked, it needed something more to stand upon.
Lacking the aptitude or taste for anything original, the generals took to imitating the ancient monarchs whose gaudy oversized statues now peer down on the parade ground at the new capital. Builders of towns and bridges, patrons of religion: the larger-than-life men in whose likenesses the army officers sought to mould themselves.
And like the kings of old, in exchange for their guidance they demanded obedience. “I gathered in the people and reorganized them,” the last dynasty builder, Alaungphaya, wrote over two centuries before, “Now let them fulfill their traditional obligations.” Upon such notions too a modern, developed state was supposedly going to be built.
So when monks began protesting against steep price rises this August, they kicked both legs straight out from underneath the regime. With the quiet turning of alms bowls in September they also upturned the twin frauds of religious merit and economic progress upon which it had made its grandiose claims.
The army’s bloody response, captured on film and replayed via Internet and satellite, will remain another permanent blot on its long record of uncompromising brutality.
The reports of arrests and killings of monks and invading of monasteries, photos of the country’s most significant religious sites looking like military encampments, and stories of soldiers trampling on Buddhist flags and smashing icons to remove gemstones—ironically, the sort of behaviour that led monks into protest against the British colonial rulers, for which they are celebrated in schoolbooks and poems today—have spread throughout Burma and the world.
These accounts will only further harden people in Burma against their self-appointed rulers, making more conflict of one sort or another a certainty; the nightly ritual performances of generals prostrate before monks on state-run television constant reminders not of largesse and piety but of gross wrongdoing and moral bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, the poverty and inequity that caused the outpouring of discontent is worsening. The August price rises have not been reversed. Curfews and transport restrictions have caused extra hardship. Shopkeepers have kept their doors closed for fear of being raided by marauding troops and government thugs. The World Food Programme has complained that it has been blocked from moving desperately-needed supplies to hundreds of thousands of people in large parts of the country.
The regime’s neighbours are also exhibiting growing intolerance. The Association of South East Asian Nations, which prides itself on non-interference in the internal affairs of members, expressed “revulsion” at the turn of events in Rangoon, cognisant perhaps that its decade of efforts to redeem the junt
through a vaguely-defined policy of constructive engagement have quickly been reduced to naught. Even the government of China has made sounds indicating that it would have preferred for things to have been handled differently.
Citizens of many Asian countries have responded with shared outrage. From Colombo to Manila constant protests have during this week brought together monks and priests; parliamentarians and migrant workers, one person and the next, all sharing the sentiment that enough is enough.
Writing in 2004, Burma scholar David Steinberg remarked that the organised lethal assault on a convoy of democracy proponents—including Nobel Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—the year before had “hurt what modest credibility the military regime could still claim” and had been unnecessarily inimical to its own interests.
That incident, isolated, at night, unrecorded, was nothing by comparison to what happened last week. By frontally attacking the monkhood while the world looked on, the regime has not just hurt its modest credibility: it has killed it off completely. It has lost the few shreds of legitimacy that it spent the last 20 years stitching together. It has lost all hope of reconciling itself to its society. And it has lost its religion.
Burma’s government is today more than ever at war on all fronts. But it is a war that it cannot win, because it is a war that it cannot end. Its survival depends upon forever treating its own people as its enemies. Their survival depends upon the opposite. The question remains, how much longer will they be forced to defend themselves?
Bickering about sanctions gets Burma nowhere
The Hong Kong University in early October hosted a talk on recent events in Burma by its dean of social sciences, who was billed as arguing “for new forms of intervention that take policy responses beyond the bankrupt strategies of sanctions imposed by Western states and constructive engagement undertaken by Asian states”.
Unfortunately, the professor gave no such argument. His comments, although well intended, foundered on the ground over which they were supposed to pass: sanctions don’t work; some kind of engagement is necessary. He pinned his hopes on a different sort of corporate involvement, while acknowledging that there exist no legal or institutional arrangements in Burma through which investors can be held accountable or upon which they can place their trust.
There is nothing new in any of that. Long before the United States first imposed a formal ban in 1997, arguments were raging about its practical use, given that Burma has few direct economic ties with the west. The disagreements have continued for the last decade. But genuine debate has long since given way to the tired reiterating of immoveable opinions.
Take the set of papers published by an American think tank, the National Bureau of Asian Research, in 2004. As the writers all share the view that sanctions are ineffective, their work— despite being varied in contents and quality—has a sameness in its conclusions that leaves the reader with the feeling that it consists of established truths, rather than guarded assertions: sanctions achieve nothing; they push the regime into the arms of China; foreign policy should win friends rather than make enemies, etc.
The advocates of corporate non-involvement stake their claims with equal certainty. They buttress the moral high ground with reports of human rights abuse, environmental rape and military enrichment in Burma, even where acknowledging that sanctions have little more than symbolic value. Their efforts at obtaining formal embargoes are supplemented by boycotts of companies, which are relatively easy to organise and give people a feeling of involvement, but again with equivocal effects.
None of this is to say that the choice between sanctions or economic engagement is unimportant. On the contrary, it is significant. It deserves meaningful discussion. The problem is that there isn’t any to be heard. Instead, years of squabbling have taken up precious energy that could have been used for better purposes.
So in the wake of the protests across Burma over the last two months surely it’s time to put an end to this unproductive fracas and get on with something else.
Here are three alternative topics.
One, the International Committee of the Red Cross must have access to Burma’s prisons, police stations and unconventional places of detention.
Thousands of people and monks were taken away during and after the protests. Unknown numbers are still being held, the majority in undisclosed places. Almost none are being held in accordance with any law. Most are at risk of torture and abuse. A released female detainee described how she was kept at a government institute in the north of Rangoon:
I saw people being beaten there. There were people with fractured skulls, with hands bound by rope. We went hungry at mealtimes, and also were not allowed to bathe. They didn’t feed us. For over 150 women there was a single room to one side for discarding excreta. Just only this room. After a while it began to stink…
The ICRC has a mandate, an office and staff in Burma with which it is supposed to monitor such conditions and report in confidence to the government. But since 2005 it has been locked out, after demands were imposed on it that would have breached the terms of its work under the Geneva Conventions. If the prison doors can again be opened to it, so too will at least one door be reopened for direct contact between government officials and the outside world.
Two, humanitarian work must also be secured and redoubled. Agencies already operating in the country must be given guarantees, such as that obtained by the World Food Programme, that they will not be hampered. If what little is already being done cannot be protected, there can be no hope for new initiatives.
At the same time, international groups need more strategies to strengthen and expand their work, particularly on health, schooling and labour issues. They face a lot of obstacles, but have staff and know-how. The studied involvement of informed persons and organisations can produce results, as it has in the past.
Three, the United Nations must come up with a specific proposal for a special monitoring group to operate in the country. Just sending an envoy now and then is in no way sufficient. A clear vision for active work on the ground is vital if outside efforts are to be worth anything; the persistent lack of any such plan is one of the reasons that so many people have wasted time falling back into the to-and-fro about sanctions.
Right now the chances of setting up a mission in Burma may seem remote, but this is in part because of the self-reinforcing belief that it is somehow beyond the reach of the outside world. Burma is not North Korea: even if its generals are isolated, their country certainly is not. In this gap room exists for headway. And with the events of September, there is newfound international and regional resolve to make it so.
No more time or energy should be wasted in either proposing or opposing sanctions. Over a decade of bickering has solved nothing. Any arguments worth hearing have already been made; anyone with something to say has already been heard. Those who persist with it contribute nothing new. Those who are serious about effecting change in Burma would be wise to apply themselves elsewhere.
Teaching grandma how to peel onions
The lead article in the South China Morning Post of 21 October 2007 breathlessly reported that some of those involved in recent protests throughout Burma had received training from the National Endowment for Democracy, a group funded by the United States government. Its editorial tut-tutted that Americans are yet again meddling where they shouldn’t be.
In a letter to the editor, Basil Fernando, director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, observed that hundreds of groups from around the world have been working openly along the Thai- Burma border for two decades now, many doing such training, which he likened to teaching grandma how to peel onions.
Anyone presuming to instruct people from Burma on how to defy military dictatorship, or planning to write about others doing so, should first take the time to learn a little history. Resistance to coercive rulers there goes back a long way. In pre-colonial times, peasant rebellion and mass withdrawal were common. Buddhist monastic estates were places of refuge when times were tough, and if things got really bad people moved away completely.
Under the British Empire, many of these practices persisted, and indirect protest increasingly gave way to open conflict. “The people of this country have not, as was by some expected, welcomed us as deliverers from tyranny,” a senior bureaucrat lamented in 1886.
The colonial army was by then mired in warfare with a loose village-based insurgency that continued for years after the last indigenous king was exiled. And then as now, religion was important in motivating the discontent. “Wherever there was an appearance of organised resistance,” another civil servant later wrote, “Buddhist monks were among the chiefs.”
Ordinary people’s defiance of authority—as distinct from that of politicians’ parties or warlords’ armies—has evolved to the present day. The tactics of dissent vividly demonstrated throughout the streets and towns of Burma this August and September have been refined through countless small and mostly undocumented acts of resistance.
Among them, a few were some years ago depicted in a series of comic books published in Thailand. In one, a group of villagers with insufficient rice to supply government purchasers indicate their inability to contribute by feeding the officials a sumptuous meal, but without rice—something unthinkable in Burma. In another, no one in a village affected by civil war wants to be chief because it means having to suffer the army’s abuses. They hit upon the idea of rotating the post daily. And when incompetent administrators at a new dam in the country’s heartland flood nearby crops, farmers descend on it and literally begin smashing it to pieces before the astonished officials rush to intervene.
Among those, some of the most remarkable are of pitched battles to defend monasteries and their occupants from marauding security forces. After soldiers looted the Ngwekyaryan monastery and detained over a hundred of its monks on the night of September 26, outraged Rangoon residents the following day surrounded security vehicles that returned for more. Finding themselves under verbal and physical attack, the soldiers and riot police fell back.
That night, military units twice attempted to enter a monastery in another part of the city—once by road and once via a neighbouring creek. Both times crowds armed with sticks, knives, slingshots and catapults broke a nighttime curfew to repel them. The following night they came back in greater force and successfully entered only after firing shots.
Similar events were played out across the country. “We’ve prepared drums and pots to bang so that when people in the neighbourhood hear they will take up whatever weapons they have available to repel this mob—this army government—from the monastery and monks,” a Mandalay resident said in a radio interview.
Meanwhile, contrary to the image portrayed in the state media (overleaf), despite considerable danger the religious boycott of the military regime is still being enforced.
At Thayetdaw monastery in the former capital, a pile of government-donated rice sacks lay untouched for a week. On October 15, in a crude attempt to force the monks to eat the rice, soldiers stopped them from going out for their morning alms round. An officer came to bribe the abbot with a new electricity generator, which was also rebuffed.
Elsewhere, authorities in Magwe cancelled an annual alms- giving ceremony, apparently fearful that no monks would turn up. In parts of the delta, lists of participants in government- organised gangs have been distributed and monks are refusing to attend their houses to offer prayers or accept benefaction.
Civilians in many parts of the country also have continued to fight back. In Taunggok, locals have stopped frequenting shops and stalls owned by members of government bodies and their subordinates. Posters, signboards and graffiti keep springing up here and there. Small marches are continuing, and at some rallies organised to denounce the uprising, participants who have been forced to attend have shouted pro-democracy slogans rather than those of the government. On October 16 two former schoolteachers who chastised those participating in one such event were arrested.
None of this has anything to do with some outsiders pretending that they can teach people in Burma a thing or two about resistance. Their defiance is born of necessity, of shared outrage at wanton injustice and of needless degradation. Its methods extend back thousands of years, not since the arrival of a few foreign experts on the country’s borders.
As for writers obsessed with finding the effects of US imperialism everywhere, they might be disappointed to learn that people in Burma can think and plan for themselves. For the rest of us, this gives cause for optimism, even in the worst of times.
The generals’ mythical compromise
While hundreds of persons remained detained or missing in the aftermath of the uprising, and new sporadic protests emerged, Burma’s national newspapers consisted of the usual phalanx of army officers pushing their largesse onto Buddhist monks and attending an all-important performing arts festival.On October 20, their headlines declared that the new prime minister, Lt-Gen. Thein Sein, had the day before watched a performance of the Suwannasama legend, one of ten allegories about previous lives of Gautama Buddha that is known to the majority of people in Burma by way of religious homilies and primary school lessons.
Suwannasama, the story goes, is a young man who lives with his blind parents in a forest. One day a king on a hunting trip accidentally shoots him dead, but a sympathetic deity brings him back to life. The king is remorseful and devotes himself to the family, thereafter being reborn in a higher plane of existence. The elderly mother and father even regain their sight.
The choice of drama appears to have been intended as a message that with a little bit of compromise everybody in Burma, like the play’s protagonists, can come out ahead. A long-winded feature article belaboured the point, concluding that it would be in the interests of all to heed the folktale’s lessons. And on the days before and after there were other equally gripping reports of senior officers watching the play.
But the spirit of compromise itself quickly turned to myth.
On October 24, a United Nations office in the country issued an unusually frank press release in which it acknowledged that the uprising was a response to severe economic hardship, and exhorted the government to heed the signs of dissent. “The average household is forced to spend almost three quarters of its budget on food, one in three children under five suffer malnutrition and less than 50 per cent of children are able to complete primary education,” it read in part.
The foreign affairs ministry quickly issued a strong rebuttal. A week later the government sent a complaint to the UN secretary general, and then made clear that it did not welcome the UN humanitarian relief coordinator, Charles Petrie, any longer. Petrie had worked closely with senior figures in the regime and had been chary of criticising them lest his mandate be adversely affected, but apparently this didn’t make any difference.
At a press conference on November 2 the government unrolled a sheet of statistics to show that things are getting better, not worse, and that “poverty in Myanmar is not very different from the neighbouring developing countries and the suffering is not to the extent as exaggerated by the UN country team”.
Here is a major obstacle to any sort of compromise between the junta and just about everyone else.
The gap between propaganda and actual conditions in Burma is so vast that there is no point at which it may be traversed. Every concerned international organisation, including the World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross, has openly stated at one point in time or another—and with increasing frequency—that military rule is the unparalleled
cause of poverty there. Yet for its part the government cannot even admit to the existence of this poverty, let along accept responsibility.
In this also we find the gap between the propaganda of myth and the harshness of reality.
Suwannasama was brought back to life because he fed and cared for his blind parents. By contrast, the generals are starving their people, and inhibiting anyone else seriously trying to do anything about it.
The king who accidentally slew Suwannasama was ultimately rewarded because he was contrite. By contrast, Burma’s military remains unable to acknowledge even the most blatantly obvious damage caused by its decades of greed and incompetence.
Absurd data do not shield a government from the scrutiny of international groups and others based abroad; they just beggar belief and frustrate the efforts of even the most conciliatory parties to make things better. Nor do they shield it from what its people know for themselves; they just make growing demands for change all the more imperative. If it insists upon clinging to them then its compromise too can be nothing more than myth.
At the end of the grade four reading on Suwannasama, students are asked, “How does Suwannasama admonish the king?” The correct answer is: he admonishes the king to serve others with humility, just as he has his parents. In response, the chastened king earnestly pays his respects, acknowledging that, “To you who is without blame, I have done wrong.”
Someone should remind one or two of the generals that only then does everyone live happily ever after.