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GUARDIAN WEEKLY (12/5/96): FOCUS ON
Subject: GUARDIAN WEEKLY (12/5/96): FOCUS ON BURMA BY JOHN PILGER (1/2)
GUARDIAN WEEKLY, MAY 12, 1996.
FOCUS ON BURMA
BRUTAL FACTS LAY BARE A LAND OF FEAR
A tyrannical military junta has ruled for 34 years. Now, desperate for hard
currency, it seeks to attract holiday makers. But, writes JOHN PILGER, a
world of slavery and intimidation lies beyond the tourist trail
AT DAWN, in Burma's aincient capital of Pagan, crows glide without a quiver
among the temples in the desert. In Ananda, the most celebrated of the
great cathedrals, there are four colossal standing Buddhas. As the light
catches one of them, it is smiling. As you get closer the smile becomes
enigmatic, then it fades. As you walk to one side and look back, the
Buddha's expression is melancholy. Walk on and it becomes fear veiled in
pride. For the devout, it symbolises Buddha's timeless wisdom. For me it is
the face of modern Burma.
Six years ago, more than 4,000 people lived in Pagan, a city which stands
as one of the last wonders of the ancient world. They were given two weeks
to leave, some only a few days. The city was being opened to mass tourism
and only guides and the staff of a planned strip of hotels were permitted
to stay. The people's homes were bulldozed and they were marched at
gunpoint to a shadeless, waterless stubble that is dustbowl in the dry
season and runs with mud during the monsoon. Their new houses are made of
straw and poor-quality bamboo. Those villagers who objected were sent out
on to the barren plain, or beaten, or taken away in the night.
The dispossession was mild by the standards of the dictator Ne Win and the
generals who have ruled Burma since a military coup in 1962 crushed the
democratically elected government. Last year the International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions reported that a million people had been
forced from their homes in Rangoon alone, in preparation for tourism and
foreign investment. Throughout Burma perhaps 3 million people have been
brutally swept up and exiled to "satellite zones" where they are compelled
silently to serve Burma's new facade of "economic growth".
A billboard advertising Lucky Strike cigarettes has "Welcome to Yangon" in
the space otherwise allotted to the cancer warning. "Yangon" is the name
the military regime has given Rangoon; Burma is "Myanmar", which is the
equivalent of the German government insisting that the rest of the world
call their country Deutschland. A billboard near the airport announces
"Visit Myanmar Year 1996". In the next street is the headquaters of
Military Intelligence, known to the Burmese as "Em-eye". It is Burma's KGB
and, alongside the old tyrant Ne Win and the army, it is the power in the
land and the source of what the United Nations special rapporteur has
described as "an atmosphere of pervasive fear".
For arriving foreign tourists and businessmen the drive to their hotel
inevitably includes a short detour along UNiversity Avenue. To the
uninitiated, this has a frisson of the forbidden and seditious. Number 54
is the home of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the Burmese
democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi. Here, she spent six years under house
arrest until her release last JUly. NOw, every saturday and Sunday, she is
allowed to speak from over her garden gate to several thousand supporters
corralled behind barbed wire barriers.
What struck me was the extraordinary courage of the Burmese who came to
listen to her -- in doing so they branded themselves as opponents of the
regime -- and the Kafka-like absurdity of the country's elected leader
having to address people standing on a plaftorm behind her garden fence.
Since her "unconditional" release, Ms Suu Kyi has been denied freedom of
movement. On a recent attempt to leave Rangoon she tried to catch a train
to Mandalay, only to find her carriage adrift at the station as the train
pulled out. She cannot freely associate with anyone. Those Burmese who pass
through her gate take a risk: their names are noted and they can expect a
call in the night. Eight members of a dance troupe who had recently
celebrated Independence Day with her, "disappeared". They include the
popular comedians U Pa Pa Lay and Lu Zaw, who are said to have made a joke
about the generals. Each has since been sentenced to seven years' hard
Ms Suu Kyi lived in Britain for many years before she returned to Burma,
and her family continue to live in Britain. A few weeks ago her husband,
the Oxford Tibetologist Michael Aris, was once again refused permission to
visit her. The ban also applies to their two sons, whose Burmese
nationality has long been withdrawn. The official news paper the New Light
Of Myanmar attacks her regularly and with mounting viciousness. She is
"Obsessed by lust and superstition";she "swing around a bamboo poled
brushed with sewage"; she is "drawning in conceit" and "it is pitiable and
at once disgusting to see a person [like her] suffering from insanity...now
at a demented stage". Ms Suu Kyi dismisses all this with a laugh that is
brave though difficult to share.
Of course, the reason for such intimidation is her popularity, which could
not be greater. At the mention of her name, the contrived neutrality of
faces, by which people survive, breaks into smiles. People whisper her name
as you brush them in a market, then turn and put a finger to their lips.
And if you are able to speak and disclose that you have been to see her,
all caution is discarded and questions pour forth as to her wellbeing. But
along with experssions of admiration, affection and solidarity are fears
for her safety and the recognition that she, and the democracy movement,
may be trapped.
"Unless pressure comes from the very governments that the regime is now
courting in Asia and the West, nothing will change for a long time." a
close friend of hers told me.
Ms Suu Kyi herself told me that foreign investment and tourism were shoring
up the power of the junta, and that the world must realise the scale of
Burma's human rights abuses, particularly forced labour. "News comes and
goes like fashion," she said. "After the people rose up in 1988 and paid
the price in bloodshed, we slipped from the headlines. It will be a pity if
we slip again."
In February the United Nations Commission on Human Rights reported, as it
does every year, that the following violations were commonplace in Burma:
"Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labour, abuse of women,
politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important
restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association and oppression
of ethnic and religious minorities..."
Take at random any of the reports by Amnesty International and what
distinguishes the Burmese junta from other modern tyrannies is slave
labour."Conditions in the laobur camps," says one study, "are so harsh that
hundreds of prisoners have died as a result ... Military Intelligence
personnel regularly interrogate prisoners to the point of unconsciousness.
Even the possession of almost any reading material is punishable. Elderly,
sick and even handicapped people are placed in leg-irons and forced to
Pick up a travel brochure from any of the famous names in British tourism
-- British Airways, Orient Express, Kuoni -- and there is no problem.
Indeed, to British Airways Burma offers "the ultimate in luxury" and a
"fabulous prize" for its Executive Club memters. "To find an unspoilt
country today may seem impossible," says the Orient Express brochure, "but
Burma is such a place. It has retained its charm, its fascinating
traditions .. its easy going ways are tonic to the Western traveller." This
truly unique experience" includes a "free lecture on Burma's history and
culture", which makes no mention of the momentous events of 1988.
In 1988, the year before the democracy movement in China was destroyed so
publicly in Beijing's Tinanmen Square, the people of Burma rose up and as
many as 10,000 were killed by the army. Unlike the Chinese leaders, the
generals in Rangoon moved quickly to curtail foreign media coverage.
Although there was eye-witness reporting, there were no professional TV
cameras and no satellite images to shock the world. Troops had orders to
shoot anyone with a camera. On one tape smuggled out of Rangoon, the voices
of two amateur Burmese cameramen are caught at the moment they were spotted
by soldiers. "What shall we do ?" asks one of them. His friend replies,
"Keep on filming until they shoot us."
It was in April 1988 that Ms Suu Kyi returned from England to take care of
her dying mother. Her father was Aung San, the revered national hero, whose
guerrillas were trained by the Japnese, then turned against them during the
occupation of the second world war. Having laid the foundations of a
democratic state, and negotiated independence from Britain, he was
assassinated in 1947. More than 40 years later, his daughter agreed to
take on leadership of a renewed democracy movement. It was her demand for
the restoration of democracy that led to her house arrest in 1989. However,
the generals did hold elections. Having banned canvassing, threatened the
electorate and disbarred and silenced Ms Suu Kyi, they were confident they
had fragmented her party, the National League for Democracy, and that their
own front would gain the largest bloc of seats. The opposite happened. The
NLD won 82 percent of the seats in the new parliament. Stunned, the junta
responded by arresting 3,000 NLD workers and handing out prison sentences
of up to 25 years to those of the new MPs who tried to establish the
The euphemism for oppression was now "economic stability". Having
re-invented htemselves as the State Law and Order Restoration Council,
which goes by the fine Orwellian acronym, Slorc, the generals declared
Burma "open to free enterprise". At the same time, in order to rebuild the
crumbling infrastructure -- roads, bridges, ariports, railways -- they set
about turning the country into a vast labour camp. Last year the moat
around the imperial palace in mandalay was excavated and restored almost
entirely by forced labour, including chain gangs guarded by troops. When
photographic evidence of this was produced, the regime claimed that
"contributing labour" was "a noble Burmese tradition" and, anyway, any of
the workers were convicted criminals who had "volunteered to work in the
open air". In totalitarian Burma the term "convicted criminal" can embrace
someone guilty of having been elected to office or of handing out leaflets
calling for democracy (five years' hard labour), or of signing a song the
generals don't like (seven years hard labour).
This has thrown up a terible irony. Alongside the 16,000 British and Allied
soldiers who died as slaves on the Japnese "death railway" that linked
Burma with Thailand during the second world war, were some 100,000 Burmese
and other Asian dead.
Now, history is repeating itself. A extension of this line is being built
in MOn state, between the towns of Ye and Tavoy on the Andaman Sea. This is
Burma's great secret. Although human rights organisations have documented
the testimonies of the slave workers on the new death railway, few
outsiders have seen it and the slave camps along the route. This is because
much of Mon state is closed to foreigners. It is Burma's gulag.
The towns in the remote part of the country are a step back in time as if
the British Raj were temporarily away at the hill stations. Ancient sewing
machines whirred on balconies; the roads were filled with bicycles not
cars; carbon paper, radiograms and sleeveless sweater were for sale. Tavoy
has streets of docorous teak houses, the biggest with lace iron balconies.
Others are dungeon-like, wiht iron bars and damp trickling over torn
posters of coy women holding parasols.
To talk openly to anyone is to beckon interrogation and worse. Hotels must
copy guest registration forms to as many as 14 different authorities. On
the day we arrived in Tavoy all "independent travellers" were told they had
to leave. Following the line of embankments north into the jungle, we
succeeded in getting lost, then by chance came upon a clearing that
presented what might have been a tableau of Victorian England. Scores of
people were building embankments and a bridge across a dry river bed that
is now with the arrival of the monsoon, an ochre-coloured torrent. From out
of jungle so dense that its bamboo and foilage formed great wickerwork
screens, they were carving the railway. A 20-foot high embankmment had been
built with earth dug by hoe and hand from huge holes. The skilled were paid
about 45 cents a day. The majority were slave labourers, of whom many were
children. Laborously and clumsily the child workers wrested clay from the
excavations, sharing a hoe between three. One little girl in a long blue
dress struggled to wield a hoe taller than herself, then fell back
exhausted and, with a wince, held her aching shoulder.
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