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National Geographic Magazine, July

Subject: National Geographic Magazine, July 1995 (Part I of III)

Attn: Burma Newsreaders
Re: National Geographic Magazine, July 1995 (Part I of III)


The richest of poor countries
By Joel L. Swerdlow
National Geographic Senior Writer

"Where you from?" strangers ask as I wander around Rangoon.


"America good," they say.

"Burma good too," I reply.

The strangers say, "No, Burma bad."

Anyone criticizing Burma's military dictators, the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC), faces possible beatings and prison, but many act
out a gun pointed at their head or a finger cutting their throat.

Their risktaking makes me uneasy. I also fear feeling out of place, a shadow
to memories no one shares. This was my childhood home. I have not been here
since the late 1950s, when the military assumed power and deported foreigners
like my father, who served as an adviser to the democratically elected

But Rangoon is still Rangoon. Men and women wearing tubular skirts called
longyis. Passengers on the roofs of buses. Monks with freshly shaved heads
and flowing orange robes. Monsoon drizzle. Cheroots. Roadside fires warming
mohinga, rice noodles in fish soup. Trishaw drivers standing as they pedal.
People spitting betel juice. So much is the same, so many sounds and smells
are deeply familiar, that for days I roam the streets, home again--connected,
aroused, barely sleeping.

Change is also clear. I remember well-kept buildings. Now paint and plaster
peel. Clothes and umbrellas were bright colored. Now they are drab.
Billboards with slogans--"Love Your Motherland, Respect the Law"--now
dominate streets. SLORC has required that all signs in English call the city
"Yangon, Myanmar," the Burmese language words for "Rangoon, Burma"--a change
that pro-democracy leaders oppose.

The Methodist English School, which I attended, is Number One State School.
In the main corridor a poster reminds students that washing hands helps
prevent cholera. "Cholera is common in Rangoon because of contaminated water
and poor sanitary conditions," one teacher explains.

Another reminder of extreme poverty--Burma's $200 annual per capita income is
among the world's lowest--comes from tea shops, where Burmese love to sit and
talk. "Why don't you put milk on the table?" I ask one tea shop manager. My
ignorance makes him sigh. "This is a very poor country," he says. "We cannot
afford to let people have all the milk they want."

My boyhood friends and I loved hand-carved slingshots, which we bought from
street vendors. We shot clay balls that had been baked in the sun. Where are
the slingshots? I ask. "When the army began to slaughter peaceful
pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988," someone explains, "some students fought
back with jinglees, darts shot from slingshots. The points were nails or
sharpened bicycle spokes. Now slingshots are banned."

The army has taken other actions to protect itself. Barbed wire surrounds
government offices and communications facilities. Army barracks have been
built next to pagodas. High walls, with shooting holes, protect military
headquarters. Wherever soldiers stand guard, their trigger fingers are
extended. Burma feels like an occupied country.

At a cafe I sit with villagers from areas surrounding Rangoon. Talk turns to
relatives seized by the army to serve as porters. "My nephew went to market,
and we never saw him again," one man says. With looks over shoulders, the
stories come out: relatives and friends forced into service who died from
exhaustion, disease, gang rape, and beatings while in army custody.

Such stories are, unfortunately, common. Official documents refer to porters
as "government servants." Army officers call them "ghosts." Forced labor and
the removal of ethnic groups from certain areas--some groups have fought the
central government since Burma became independent in 1948--have created
perhaps a million internal refugees hiding in mountains and jungles.

To know who, if anyone, is following me is impossible. Fear of military
intelligence is strong in a tea shop frequented by young writers and
painters. I ask what they see happening in Burma. The discussion goes
nowhere. One writer rises and recites from Dagon Taya, Burma's leading poet:
"In search of white among the white / In search of black among the black. /
It is very difficult to find the real things / trying to get the truth out of
the false things / years have gone / too long to count."

Amnesia has become a way of life here. One example: The records of dead
students have disappeared from university files. Many do not have graves--the
army often cremated its victims. Witnesses report that some were still alive.
As George Orwell, who served here as a British colonial police officer in the
1920s, observed, the past belongs to those who control the present.

But Burma's past struggles to live. I find the family of a college student
who died under machine-gun fire. They describe how troops killed the student
and used bayonets to prevent a funeral service. A bag containing hundreds of
small copies of his university photograph mystifies me until they explain:
They distribute key chains, each with a plastic-encased picture, the date of
his killing, and "Human Rights" in Burmese and English. I do not ask what
would happen if they got caught.

Such families welcome me with a hospitality that is characteristic of Burma.
After two visits to a home, family members call me brother. Most impressive
is their family loyalty. "How many in your family?" they ask.

"Four," I say. "How many in yours?"

"Forty-two," says a young mother. She is counting great-uncles and distant
cousins--most of whom live in adjoining houses. When I comment that my
parents and siblings became scattered among several cities, they keep asking,
"Why haven't you lived together?" They cannot imagine life without family.

Burmese have been known for their capacity to laugh. But three decades of
dictatorship and deprivation have taken a toll. Many evenings I long to hear
someone enjoy a good laugh. It never happens. Always present, however, are
the self-discipline and spirituality that define Theravada Buddhism, Burma's
chief religion. One evening I bring flowers to my hostess. "I'll take them to
the pagoda," she says, careful not to smell them. If the flowers provide
enjoyment to anyone, they lose value as an offering.

My new friends are in danger, so I have omitted names. This is most necessary
in the case of former political prisoners. One person tells me: "Before you
are released, they say to you, `You will not be arrested again. If you
criticize SLORC, we will come and kill you.'"

One evening I arrive unannounced--my usual practice because Rangoon's
telephone service is unreliable--at the home of someone I believe to be a
successful businessman. A man appears at the door. Several people crowd
behind him. He looks relaxed in longyi and sleeveless undershirt, but shouts,
"Who are you? Why have you come?" My answer makes servants and family

The man hesitates, then invites me in. Within minutes I realize he is a key
leader of the democracy movement. SLORC recently freed him from prison, he
explains, because of family connections and because he promised not to
discuss politics.

"I should not be here," I say, standing. "I'm leaving." But he insists, and
we keep talking. I dare not ask about the widespread torture--condemned by
the United Nations and brought to life by Wendy Law-Yone in her 1993 novel,
Irrawaddy Tango--and he volunteers only one story. Shortly after his release
he met a diplomat who said, "I see no scratches."

"The scratches are all inside," he replied.

My host is magnetic, irresistible, modest, soft-spoken, and believable when
he says, "I am not afraid to die." Maybe he already knows sadness that only
death can relieve. I leave at 1 a.m., reluctantly. As I step off the back
porch, I touch his shoulder. The flesh feels puffy. He remains alone in the
moonlight, his eyes fixed on something beyond me.

Torture seems out of place in a country so imbued with the Buddha's
compassionate teachings. Buddhists believe it is wrong to kill, because it
hinders a being from reaching nirvana. When I was a young boy, our gardener
once shouted "Stay away!" He pointed to a small bug and said, "That's very
poisonous." Then he gently lifted the bug with a leaf and placed it in the
neighbor's yard.

Full of such memories, I return to 21 University Avenue, the house where I
spent happy years. Still surrounding the house is the drainage ditch where I
sailed wooden ships during monsoons. When we lived here, water buffalo
wandered among thatch huts, wild dogs chased us kids past piles of trash, and
I once encountered a python. All are gone. The area is called Generals'
Village. Rents are high, because the homes of generals always get water and
electricity while the rest of Rangoon experiences daily cutbacks.

I stroll to 54 University Avenue, home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy
leader. Her father, Aung San, founded Burma's army and negotiated the
country's independence from Great Britain. He was assassinated only six
months before independence and has since been Burma's most venerated figure.

Suu Kyi campaigned for democracy and human rights even after SLORC threatened
to shoot her. In 1990 SLORC conducted an election in response to
international pressure. The party led by Suu Kyi won 80 percent of the seats,
even though she was under house arrest. SLORC effectively nullified the

SLORC has held Suu Kyi in custody even though she won the Nobel Peace Prize
in 1991. Persistent rumors say she might be released, but she vows she will
accept no conditions that compromise the pro-democracy movement.

Outside her house signs say, in Burmese, "No U-turn" and "No Slowing Down."
Behind a high fence and trees, Suu Kyi awakens at dawn, meditates, listens to
the shortwave radio, exercises, does chores, and reads. No guards are
visible. SLORC would not let me see her. Now, standing here, I want to leap
over the gate, but behind it are armed guards.

After I cross the street, Suu Kyi's gate opens, and a truckful of soldiers
drives out. I ask two shop clerks, "Why so many soldiers?" They look through
me as though no words have escaped my lips.

People walk and drive by, pretending one of the world's preeminent political
prisoners is not a few feet away. SLORC counts on this. It uses troops to
stifle dissent and tries to placate people with economic opportunity and
foreign goods. This opportunity represents a major change. Until 1988 the
government imposed a harsh "Burmese Way to Socialism," which impoverished
what had been Asia's leading rice exporter. Now military leaders say they
welcome marketplace economics.

The present SLORC policy, make-money-but-shut-up-about-politics, is also
being applied in China and Vietnam. No one knows how it will work. History
suggests that long-term prosperity produces a middle class that insists on

But for now SLORC seems to be successful. In Rangoon one bicyclist tells me
he wants to fight SLORC. I point to the growing crowd and warn him to be
careful. He leans close, whispers "One day, maybe explode," and pedals away.
Others shout for my attention. To discuss repression? No. They urge me to
visit their shops.

Later I stroll through a newly opened mini-mart. Rickety stairs lead to two
more floors, all full of such items as frying pans, pens, and canned foods.
One man shakes his head as he surveys electric generators. "Until two years
ago we had nothing. People prized even paper clips," he says. "In our hearts
we beg for democracy, but people enjoy too much what is allowed now." The
magnetic pull of consumer goods can be seen in a curious Burmese habit:
People leave brand-name stickers on plates, glasses, and utensils.

Southeast Asia has some of the world's fastest growing economies, so Burma
may take off. About the size of Texas, the country possesses extraordinary
natural resources: more teak than any other place in the world; petroleum;
minerals; rubies, jade, and other gems; raw rubber; and rice, fish, and other
foodstuffs. Burma is not poor. It is a rich country gone wrong.

Copyright 1995 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.
Transmitted: 95-06-19 17:00:42 EDT

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