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National Geographic Magazine, July (r)
- Subject: National Geographic Magazine, July (r)
- From: FreeBurma@xxxxxxx
- Date: Fri, 23 Jun 1995 21:14:00
Subject: National Geographic Magazine, July 1995 (Part II of III)
Attn: Burma Newsreaders
Re: National Geographic Magazine, July 1995 (Part II of III)
Burma offers another plentiful resource: cheap labor. The DTK garment
factory, about 15 miles north of Rangoon, is typical of those now found
throughout the developing world. Twelve hundred women are sewing. The owners
are high-ranking military officers and their South Korean partners--such
military-foreign partnerships dominate the economy. To get a job at
DTK--coveted in a country with high unemployment--one must have a relative
with the rank of sergeant or above.
Investors in such ventures argue that their dollars will stimulate the
economy and motivate SLORC to loosen its grip. Many Western governments and
Burma's pro-democracy leaders disagree, insisting that meaningful movement
toward democracy should precede foreign investment.
SLORC counts on compassion fatigue, outsiders becoming saturated with images
of suffering in faraway places. SLORC also tells potential investors that its
roughness has been necessary. In Rangoon a delegation of Japanese business
executives watches a video of a small crowd in 1988: Someone stabs an accused
government informer. Chopping. Sawing. His head falls off. A few such horrors
did occur. The actions of agents provocateurs? Evidence of public rage? No,
says SLORC. This is how the people act without strong leadership.
Burma's leaders have been unwilling or unable to address systemic economic
problems. The black market, which is at least equivalent to the official
economy, feeds inflation. The official exchange rate is about six kyats to
the American dollar. On the street, you can get 120. A business debt may be
paid in a jute bag. No one counts the money. They weigh the bag.
"Align yourself with individual members of SLORC," a British firm advises
investors. Outside scholars describe the government as arbitrary and bloated.
I expect denials when I ask a Burmese businessman about his successful deals
with American investors. Instead, he says, "Go day by day. What is true today
could be false tomorrow." Hands go to his eyes like blinders. "Do not look
forward or back. Accept the risks. Accept the way things are or go crazy.
Then you can make big money." He drives away in a Mercedes-Benz.
Most of Burma's economic muscle strengthens only the military. SLORC has
spent a billion dollars on weapons. It has doubled Burma's armed forces,
which SLORC claims will soon number 500,000 men and women, one-third the size
of the U.S. military. With such spending, can Burma emulate the
efforts--population control, capital accumulation, government-supported
industry, education, and infrastructure such as roads and harbors--that have
enabled other Asian countries to flourish? Infrastructure is probably the
most pressing need, because it makes trade possible.
Because mountains rim Burma on three sides, it has few overland links with
neighbors. Most trade has been by sea. Just after World War II, Rangoon's
harbor had 10 berths. Now it has 13, even though Burma's population, which
was 17 million in 1941, now exceeds 45 million. One ship captain tells me he
waited for a month before he could unload. Such delays raise prices and
exacerbate shortages of crucial items such as medicines. Scarcity of trucks,
storage sheds, and cranes, coupled with poor connections to the harbor, also
contribute to the costly delays.
Plans call for road improvements, financed in part by China, which wants
better transportation between its landlocked western provinces and Rangoon.
SLORC keeps much of upper Burma closed to outsiders, but it grants me
permission to visit Mu Se, the major crossing to China.
I take the night train to Mandalay. Nyunt Wai, a 39-year-old Information
Ministry official, is assigned to travel with me.
We pull out at 6:30 p.m. The train is crowded. At the end of the train are
two "ordinary class" cars with wood benches and people sleeping on the floor.
The dining car has charcoal stoves. Windows are open, and wind makes the
curtains bounce. Grasshoppers jump in. Because rural Burma has little
electricity, the outside is black. Frogs, rain, and the train's metallic
clip-clop. A rim of light slowly becomes brighter and rounder. After nearly
an hour I recognize a pagoda, floating in the distance.
A typical station: Soldiers. Incense. People asleep on straw mats. Dirt.
Monks begging. Boy in a "Hard Rock Cafe" T-shirt. Plastic bags of coconut
milk. Burlap bags of rice, onions, and beans. Children sell bananas, mangoes,
grapes, pineapples, and quail eggs. When the train stops for bridge
construction, voices rise from the darkness: "We are hungry. Have pity."
Passengers toss food out to them. "It was never like this when I was young,"
an older woman mutters.
Sunrise reveals purple soil, sunflowers, and banyan trees. Four bullocks wait
to begin work. Arrival in Mandalay is at 9:30 a.m.--the 373-mile trip has
taken 15 hours.
In 1890 Rudyard Kipling romanticized this city--"On the road to Mandalay, /
Where the flyin'-fishes play"--but apparently he never came here. The city of
about 700,000 was founded in 1857. It is dusty, flat, and treeless. A
construction boom, propelled by trade with China and government efforts to
attract tourists, has fractured sidewalks and main streets.
Virtually all commerce between upper Burma and Rangoon passes through here,
using the Irrawaddy River. Although most Burmese consider it too cold for
swimming--its waters come from the Himalaya--men stand waist-deep, sawing
teak logs. Water buffalo pull out the logs, kneel on command, and push them
onto a cart. Nearby, women weave straw mats--walls for their homes. Boys
stand in a circle playing chinlon, keeping the woven bamboo ball in the air
without using their hands. Children play with sticks and cans. They use water
to draw lines for hopscotch.
The boys seem nine or ten years old. They are 16. I guess the girls' ages at
seven or eight. They are 14. I am seeing stunted growth--the United Nations
estimates that one-third of Burmese under five are malnourished. Hunger
prompts some Burmese families to borrow money and repay it with their
daughters' labor in Thailand. Many of these girls are forced into
prostitution; some return HIV positive.
Several Mandalay University students invite me to an outdoor teahouse. We sit
next to the stone oven and eat fried onions, beans, and fresh-baked
flatbread. On the wall is a wooden house about a foot high, decorated with
green cuttings. It is a home for nats, terrestrial spirits that influence
One student describes the female nat to whom he makes offerings. Another
discusses animal magic, insisting that "whenever a snake crosses your path or
you dream of a snake, you have good luck." Like most Burmese, the students
also believe in astrology. I buy breakfast with a 45-kyat note, which the
government introduced because astrologers say nine is lucky, and four plus
I visit Mandalay Fort at 7 a.m. Its 12-foot-deep, 250-foot-wide moat has been
drained. Thousands of men and women dig mud and carry rock. These are forced
laborers, who must work five to ten days every few months. I wander among
them. One man, mindful of soldiers lounging nearby, tells me the lack of pay
Conditions are rougher in border regions, where hundreds of thousands of
"volunteers" do construction for the military. Most notable is a railroad in
southern Burma that will intersect with a natural gas pipeline financed by
That night, I wander alone through downtown Mandalay. People invite me to
their shops and homes. The suffering of the people working on the moat upsets
them, but they are more concerned about food prices that have risen 400
percent since 1988. "People are on the verge of starvation," a woman says.
She holds her hands over her stomach, mimicking pain. One man looks over his
shoulder. "We need the Lady," he whispers, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many people insist on talking to me only in the presence of Nyunt Wai, my
government escort. Nyunt Wai and I have dueling notebooks. When I interview
people, I often take notes. Nyunt Wai is usually nearby, writing in his
notebook. "Are you writing down everything people say?" I ask.
"No," he replies, "I am just writing where we go." Nyunt Wai's notebook is
intended to hold people accountable. In the hands of his superiors, it could
cause torture and imprisonment. Because I gather information and talk to
people without Nyunt Wai present, my notebooks go under the covers with me at
As Nyunt Wai and I head northeast by car from Mandalay, the beauty of Burma's
Shan hills makes me forget his notebook. A sharp drop-off and we enter a
valley: fields, irrigation canals, ponds, and trees painted in a range of
colors, all green. Above, clear sky and clouds. Women talking, machetes
balanced on heads. Red mud glazing water buffalo bathing among lotus flowers.
On the far side, hills swirl like frosting on a cake. Atop one hill is a
white dot, a small pagoda, accessible only by footpath.
People and land are rough. Marco Polo, who visited this part of the world in
the 13th century, described "vast jungles teeming with elephants, unicorns,
and other wild beasts." The British never fully controlled this part of
Burma. Nor did the Japanese during World War II, or Burma's post-independence
democratic government. Nor has the present regime.
Lack of government control is clear in Lashio when I see United Wa State Army
jeeps and armed Wa soldiers. The Wa, an ethnic group living along the
Burma-China border and in the nearby Golden Triangle, have negotiated peace
with SLORC--which offers economic development and limited autonomy, a formula
that has neutralized breakaway movements in other Asian countries.
Groups like the Wa, however, are mostly opium poppy growers, and such peace
treaties formalize relationships between SLORC and those who help supply 60
percent of North America's heroin. Although SLORC mounts occasional campaigns
against some drug lords, production has doubled in recent years and is by far
the greatest revenue producer within Burma's borders.
Burmese authorities, however, do not want drugs in their own country. A
Burmese plainclothes officer, with pistol tucked into his longyi, checks
vehicles in Lashio. Officers seize nearly 70 pounds of heroin--street value
in the United States would be between 13 and 19 million dollars--from a small
I wander into one of Lashio's few restaurants. Five young Wa women are
laughing and flirting. They are from a small town in the Golden Triangle. One
of them was married the night before. A man sitting alone is a relative of
the groom. That night their family will have a post-wedding celebration. They
The groom's parents live in a thatch house decorated--like most Burmese homes
and shops--with family photographs and movie posters from India, Japan, and
the United States. The windows have fire-hardened bamboo bars. Light comes
from exposed bulbs. The floor is covered with people, with seats only for
older relatives and me.
After songs and formal speeches they serve rice gruel and sugary tea--the
only meal they can afford to serve to so many people. The newlyweds bow as
they give brightly wrapped presents to their parents and grandparents. The
bride's mother receives a towel, a longyi, and a piece of cloth.
I ask about a honeymoon. They do not understand. It is not their tradition.
The groom's mother repeatedly apologizes for being so poor. I say she is rich
in family. Not sure whether she understands, I add, "America has lots of poor
people too." Her mouth drops in amazement, and she says, "I thought this was
the only country with poor people."
Copyright 1995 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.
Transmitted: 95-06-19 17:00:43 EDT