I travelled to Burma with a friend for the first time this past summer, visiting the country as an inquisitive tourist with a layperson’s knowledge of its history and no Burmese language skills to speak of. Never before have I experienced a place of such powerful contrasts and reckless humanity.
Below are just two of the stories told to me by individuals whom I was fortunate enough to meet along the way. Their personal histories form passages in the history of the Burmese and minority struggles against oppression and violence; struggles that have been carried out by people of diverse backgrounds for far too many years. I will attempt to recount details of their stories as accurately as I can.
Brian, the English teacher
In a small town about 5 hours out of Yangon, we were walking along a main street on a sweaty afternoon when a young man pulled up beside us on the obligatory Chinese scooter. He explained that he taught English in the town and rarely had an opportunity to speak in his second tongue to foreigners. Soon we were all sitting round a table in a sleepy restaurant eating rich Indian curries. Brian (not his real name) did most of the talking and wasted no time before plunging into a frank and unforgiving account of his time spent abroad as a labourer in Thailand and Malaysia.
In order to gain a passport and visa to leave Burma, Brian spent thousands of US dollars in bribes for various government officials, the approval of whom was required to fulfil the requirements of his passport application. Government taxes allegedly owed by close and distant relatives needed to be paid before Brian would be allowed to leave the country.
These hurdles eventually surmounted, Brian arrived in Bangkok to start work in a factory job that he had arranged from Burma. He touched down on a Saturday and was illegally held by Thai airport authorities despite having paid copious sums of money to buy the right to legitimately leave the country of his birth. Suspicious of his claims of secure employment, the Thais refused to allow Brian to leave the airport, restricting his movement for 48 hours until his new boss came to the airport on Monday to vouch for Brian’s claims.
Later moving to Kuala Lumpur from Bangkok, Brian again worked in a factory, labouring long hours with hundreds of other migrant workers for low wages. In Malaysia in 2007, Brian told us, domestic events in Burma sparked violent riots at the offices of the Burmese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The Embassy was torched in the midst of the unrest as angry Burmese migrants collectively protested the grave injustices being perpetrated against their countrymen and women back home.
(Ironically, according to Brian the embassy had also been set alight by its own employees at some point during his residence in Malaysia to destroy evidence of malfeasance when a high-ranking government official was due to pay an inspection visit to the offices.)
Now back in his hometown, Brian is working to build a life for himself and his partner in a country he loves ruled by a dictator he despises. Tellingly, the English ‘reader’ that Brian whipped out in the restaurant to show us, which he presumably carried around with him regularly, was a hefty tome chronicling the lives and feats of the world’s dictators. Brian gestured at General Than Shwe’s mugshot on the dust jacket with a mischievous grin.
Fern, the Shan princess
In the Shan State town of Hsipaw, at the end of a dirt road in a very quiet part of town, is the so-called ‘Shan Palace’, former residence of Shan saopha (prince) Sao Kya Seng, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances during the 1962 military coup, and now maintained by his nephew, Hkun Oo Kya (Donald) and Donald’s wife, Sao Zarm Phong (Fern).
Donald has continued the political activities of his uncle and was fortunate not to be arrested during a meeting of Shan political leaders in early 2005, a meeting he was supposed to attend, where several prominent Shan figures were detained, including Donald’s younger brother, Hkun Tun Oo, leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).
However, Donald’s luck did not last and he was arrested in August 2005, on trumped up charges of defamation and violation of the Library and Museum Law. Both charges stem from Donald and Fern’s practice of inviting foreigners into their residence to discuss Shan history, life in Burma and the realities of the junta’s rule, a practice pursued for many years without complaint from the authorities. That some visitors gave small donations for the upkeep of the sprawling property was said to contravene laws against operating as an unregistered tourist guide and accepting money for illegal museum services.
The greater irony is that the charge of defamation is said to have been justified by messages written in Donald and Fern’s guestbook, in which tourists thank the couple for telling them “the truth.” In a real-world Orwellian Burma, it seems that famous triumvirate of fictional propaganda, “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,” can be enhanced with the addition of a fourth slogan: truth is lies. This is not 1984; it is 2010.
As we approached the side gate of the ‘Shan Palace’ compound, we saw a small woman emerge from the house and proceed to amble amongst the potted plants, watering her garden. After a few minutes, Fern noticed the two foreigners standing at the gates of her property and walked slowly toward us, dog in tow. She greeted us warmly and enquired about our travels and experiences in Burma. It seemed that this was certainly not the first time that she had conversed with foreigners through the bars of the gate, but she was nonetheless quick to state that she could not let us inside.
Indeed, Donald had suddenly been released from prison on amnesty in 2009 after serving 4 years of a 13-year sentence, but the couple was under no illusion that they could simply begin again where they had left off. Nevertheless, Fern challenged us to spread the story of Donald’s conviction and detention as widely as we could. “Tell the people in your country”, she urged us. Networks of international support have proven invaluable for dissenting Burmese citizens since the earliest years of the military’s harsh rule.
Our Responsibility To Protect
The international community has a clear responsibility to protect the world’s men, women and children from genocide, ethnic cleansing and other grievous crimes against humanity. This responsibility is becoming increasingly recognised as real and important. Now the onus lies with the world’s most powerful and influential governments to act for the realisation of this most critical goal.
In this election year, the first in two decades, Burma’s future in the community of nations stands at a crossroads. Down one path lies growing international acceptance of the military junta as a legitimate governing force. Should the charade of national elections give rise to a multi-party system in which civilians find themselves in positions of nominal power, it is plausible that major nations may surrender even more readily to claims of ‘progress’, ‘development’ and ‘rights’ issued by the junta as disenfranchised and disempowered citizens slip even further into the back pages of history. This path spells disaster for the decades-old movement calling for human rights for Burmese citizens.
Down a second path lies an unflagging adherence to principles of justice, human rights and equity no matter the outcomes of any proposed election. In this scenario, millions of Burmese citizens may retain some shred of hope for a more humane future to benefit their children and grandchildren. The international community has a responsibility to protect. We as citizens of freer countries than Burma have a responsibility to raise our voices on behalf of those who face persecution for their political beliefs and ethnicity. If I as a tourist can be even briefly exposed to the broken silence in Burma, then we must shatter it absolutely outside the reach of the junta’s power.
2010 could be a watershed year in the 40-year fight for independence from unjust rule for Burma. It could also be just another link in the chain lashing innocent Burmese and minority peoples to a hazy future of fettered freedoms. May we, as I did, take strength from the stolid resilience of Burma’s people. May we strive to stem the tide of absurdity and violence that threatens to bleach the colour from the tapestry of Burma’s diverse histories and cultures and condemn generations of fellow humans to an existence of distorted propaganda and delusionary politicking. In this endless wash of global current affairs and political change, may we not forget Burma.
Huw Pohlner recently graduated from the Australian National University and currently works in the Crawford School of Economics and Government.