Timothy Garton Ash
This article is dedicated to the memory of Michael Aris
of all, there is this difficulty: to identify the people I talked with in
I have rarely seen a more beautiful country, or a more ugly regime. The connection between this beauty and that beast is complicated. It's tempting to say simply that the country is beautiful in spite of its politics. But that is too easy. For these gentle allures of an older world are also a result of the isolation and economic regression enforced by forty years of bad politics. This is the beauty of backwardness. Traveling to communist-ruled
However, the result is always a debased and corrupted version of the old.
Yet there is also, most definitely, a hard, corrosive reality of worsening poverty, malnutrition, and infant mortality; of more than three million people driven from their homes, some of them now living in barely human conditions in the jungle; of forced labor, rampant corruption, banditry, sexual exploitation, and the closely linked plagues of drug abuse and AIDS, with an estimated half-million people in Burma being HIV-positive.
Meanwhile, amid the archaic beauty that charms the privileged Western visitor, you glimpse a pathetic craving for even the cheapest totems of the West. Young men proudly sport baseball caps above the otherwise universal national dress of flip-flops, longyi, and cotton shirt or blouse. A few already wear their baseball caps reversed: globalization's moronic meme. The cheroot is abandoned for a cheap Rothmans' cigarette called "
"Aya Shiya!" a friendly young monk urged upon me, as I sat on the steps of a pagoda. "Aya Shiya!" What timeless oriental wisdom was this? Finally, I recognized the name of Alan Shearer, an English soccer player.
Military intelligence, says one of the oldest jokes in the world, is a contradiction in terms.
1962, a wildly superstitious former postal clerk, born Shu
Maung but now known to the world as General Ne Win ("Brilliant like the
sun"), organized an army takeover, arguing that the country's feeble
multiparty democracy was incapable of keeping the Union of Burma together
against communist and ethnic minority rebels. Ne Win led
In fact, the old despot's announcement of his retirement in July 1988 was a major catalyst of the nationwide protests on the supposedly auspicious date of "8.8.88." Crushing those protests with great brutality—estimates of the number who died in the ensuing orgy of repression range from three thousand to ten thousand—the army formed a State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. It even sounds like a beast. A few years ago, apparently advised by a PR firm that this name played badly in the West, the generals changed it to State Peace and Development Council. From the Tolkienesque to the Orwellian.1 However, the regime's opponents continue to call it "The Slorc," and so shall I.
The Slorc is not simply a military dictatorship. Rather, it is an army-state, as communist countries were party-states. Army officers shadow or control all functions of the state, and most of the activities of everyday social life. Even the Red Cross is a paramilitary organization. The military is estimated to consume a staggering 40 percent of the national budget. Even according to official figures, expenditure on defense is sixteen times that on health care. Since 1988, the army has grown in size from some 200,000 to more than 400,000. You see soldiers everywhere.
The country displays all the familiar pockmarks of dictatorship: high gray walls, barbed wire, armed guards, bureaucracy, crude paper forms in quadruplicate, propaganda, censorship, inefficiency, and fear. Under the heading "People's Desire," faded red billboards proclaim, "Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views." Just occasionally, as if to compensate, there is a green billboard saying, "Please provide assistance to international travellers." Well, thank you, Slorc.
I had hoped that I would never in my life have to read a newspaper more boring than the East German communist party daily, Neues Deutschland. I had not seen The New Light of Myanmar. ("
In conclusion, the Secretary-1 expressed his wishes, "May I be able to attain Nirvana due to merits gained for building and donating the centre, may I be a worthy son who can promote Buddhist Sasana in case I go round the circle of rebirth...." (New Light, December 19, 1999)
Otherwise, I suppose, he would be in danger of coming back as a rat. Elsewhere, New Light tells you about the Tatmadaw Golf Tournament. The Burmese military learned national socialism from the Japanese; from the British, golf. The game is, apparently, one of the great passions of the high command.
Experienced observers say the top commanders see themselves as heirs to
Since this is an army-state, the economy is also directly run by the military, with disastrous results for the country, although not for the generals. The post-1988 military leaders have denationalized many companies—and given them to themselves. A share of the spoils has gone to foreign investors, especially from
The end that supposedly justifies all the Slorc's means is "nondisintegration of the
Yet these cease-fires are only temporary, pending the new constitution which the regime has spent seven years not producing. The Slorc's constitutional proposals envisage a distinction between "national" politics, where the "leading role of the armed forces" would be secured, as it used to be in Suharto's Indonesia, and "party" politics, where Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) could compete with all the rest. In the meantime, however, the Indonesian model has gone down the drain, to be replaced by a fragile new democracy. And the NLD has refused to have anything to do with this unequal negotiation since, in 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from six years of house arrest in her mother's villa on
course I had come to see Suu. I say "Suu" in this familiar fashion
because I had been talking about her as Suu for years with her husband, Michael
Aris, a dear friend and colleague of mine at
Five thousand miles away, in her homeland, she is an uncrowned queen, respectfully referred to even by close acquaintances as "Daw Suu," and known to millions of Burmese simply as "The Lady." She is this legend because she is the daughter of the father of the nation, Aung San, the architect of Burmese independence, assassinated in 1947, when she was two; because of the extraordinary, charismatic style in which she joined what she called "Burma's second struggle for independence," with a speech before hundreds of thousands at the Shwedagon on August 26, 1988, and has led it ever since; and because of the Mandela-like mystique that comes from the combination of long captivity, international fame—including, in her case, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize—and daily vituperation by the regime. Wherever I went, people asked me, "How is she? Is she in good health?" Popular imagination endows her with almost supernatural powers. There is something even painful in the way so much depends on this one human being.
"I'm a vegetarian,"
says U-5. "I became a vegetarian after being in prison. You see—I'm sorry
to have to tell you this—we ate rats." But how did they cook them?
"We couldn't. We just dried them in the sun and ate them raw." From
the balcony of a good Chinese restaurant we look across to the great royal fort
U-13 describes the thick blue hood his interrogators put over his head. The hood was filthy with the sweat, mucus, and blood of previous captives. He could scarcely breathe as the interrogators attached electrodes to four points on his body. They charged the electrodes from a small, primitive, hand-cranked generator. Each time he heard the cranking sound, he knew that another electric shock was coming.
I find an everyday fear that is worse than in Ceausescu's
A hundred years ago,
Tales of misery and horror ten years after the citizens of
Yet, perversely, the images that linger in my memory are all of heartrending beauty. Early one morning, I set out with a friend to drive across the
I dozed, and woke again, and saw, at the side of the road, outlined against the dawn, the most lovely girl in the world. She was dressed from head to toe in pink and white, and she held out, with an exquisite elegance of posture, sensual yet demure, a large silver offering bowl. A shy smile flashed from under a large, conical bamboo hat. A moment, and she was gone. Had I been dreaming? When we returned along the same road seven hours later, she was still there, still looking cool and fresh. What's more, she had collected 2,500 kyats (about $8 at the free market exchange rate) for the local monastery.
Then: the old wooden junks slowly drifting down the broad, muddy river, carrying bags of rice from the antiquated rice mills of Bassein; the shaven Buddhist boy-monks in crimson robes, walking barefoot with their mesmerically regular stride, keeping "the mind mindful" as they collect rice and curry from the households of the faithful.
The Lady is no longer formally under house arrest, but the stretch of
She is—first things first—quite as delicately beautiful as in the photographs, reproduced like icons around the world. She looks much younger than fifty-four, with fine, upright posture, and a sophisticated version of Burmese traditional dress: fresh flowers in her hair, long, dark red longyi, and blue velveteen sandals. Every inch the lady. Indeed, she is ladylike with the slightly old-fashioned gentility of the Anglo-Indian school—she was "finished" at
Fragile, then? Yes, but also quick, decisive, very consciously her father's daughter. A leader. Crisp, highly disciplined, tough—even harsh in her judgments on former allies who have not come back, after their years in prison, to go on fighting with the NLD. But she is still tougher on herself. In his introduction to Freedom from Fear, a collection of her writings, Michael Aris recalled how she went on hunger strike in 1989 to demand that she should be allowed to join her followers in the appalling conditions of Insein prison. For her decision to join her people's struggle she has paid a huge personal price, in years of separation from her children. She spends most of her time in the large, run-down villa on the lakeside, with a strict routine of exercise, meditation, writing, reading, and conducting party business.
of her passions is literature. We talked of Jane Austen, Dickens, and,
inevitably, of Kipling—who, with the infuriating casualness of genius,
unforgettably captured the spirit of this place in his ballad
"Mandalay," although he only spent a few days in Burma and never even
went to Mandalay. I had been told by someone in, as it happens,
She and Michael named their youngest son Kim, after the hero of Kipling's novel. She asked me if I could find the full version of the poem that provides the epigraph to the last chapter of Kim:
Drawbridge let fall—He's the Lord of us all— The Dreamer whose dream came true.
The lines, she said, had always meant much to her.
Most of the time we talked politics, for her life is now the struggle. Like Václav Havel, who nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize, she insists that she had politics thrust upon her. However, even as a dissident playwright,
Her critics—both inside
However, she judges that the time for such compromise has not yet come. Now is the time for more pressure, not less, so as to bring the generals to the negotiating table. When she is not conducting a shadow foreign policy, she is busy with the National League for Democracy—which the regime still formally accepts as a legal political party, while harassing and imprisoning its members. She suspects the generals released her in 1995 because they thought the NLD was finished. But, she insists, it's not. Particularly important is a committee they have established, together with some ethnic minority parties, to represent the parliament that should have been constituted following the May 1990 election.
Next day, I came to give a lecture at the NLD headquarters. Hastening from my car to the entrance—for there is a heavy military intelligence presence outside—I found a narrow, two-story house, bedecked with the movement's red flags, stifling hot, and bursting with activity. I spoke to what was literally a packed house of some two hundred people—perhaps half of them under thirty, since this was the office's regular "youth" day. Suu chaired the meeting, translated my talk into Burmese, and added her own pithy comments. To either side of us sat, like a Greek chorus, the men she calls her "uncles"—elderly party members, several of them former army officers, on whose support and advice she relies heavily.
I talked about the transitions to democracy in
"You see!" said Suu afterward. "It's not so bad, is it?" Then she went off to talk to a delegation from the
might peaceful change come about in
Ten years later, the heart of the Burmese problem is that Suu has all the legitimacy and the Slorc has all the power. If the NLD had a little more real power, and the Slorc had a little more legitimacy, a negotiated transition would be easier to imagine. There's no doubt that Suu and the NLD still have huge potential support. The pertinent question asked by a British support group, "Why are 400,000 men so afraid of one woman?," is easily answered. Given an election tomorrow, the opposition would almost certainly win another landslide victory.
The trouble is, the generals know this. For all their firepower, they, too, live in fear. I was told by a reliable source that many of the top Tatmadaw commanders actually sleep in their offices or barracks. Nothing could better illustrate their siege mentality. If they feared popular retribution ten years ago, how much more must they fear it now. As with every dictatorship in history, optimistic interpreters—not Sovietologists but Tatmadawlogists—think "reformers" lurk behind the closed doors. Secretary-1 is even billed as a Slorc Andropov. But the generals show no outward sign of any serious readiness to deal.
Meanwhile, although the NLD's potential power is huge, its actual, effective presence is very limited. That
Those I spoke to recognize the importance of what dissidents in
Students could be a more potent force. This is something of a Burmese tradition: Aung San started his political career as a student leader; in the 1960s, the most courageous urban opposition to Ne Win came from the universities; it was students who initiated and led the 1988 protests. Again, the Slorc knows this. That's why a student activist recently received a fifty-two-year prison sentence, and most of the country's universities are closed. Rather than risk their own power, the military bosses sacrifice the higher education of a generation and hence the future of their country. A few university departments have reopened, often carefully relocated outside the main cities. Young people who can afford them take private courses in English, computing, or business studies. Meanwhile, the military have medical and engineering colleges to make sure their own children don't suffer.
Another important social group are the Buddhist monks. I heard quite contradictory views on the intriguing question of whether Theravada Buddhism encourages resistance to dictatorship and support for democracy, but there is no doubt that the monks have significant potential as both protesters and mediators. Last November, the abbot of one of the largest monasteries in the country wrote public letters to General Than Shwe, the head of Slorc, to Aung San Suu Kyi, and to Ne Win, appealing for dialogue between "the sons and daughters of the nation." I had hoped to meet him, but was told that he was under close surveillance and my visit "would not be good for him or you." However, I sat barefooted before another venerable sage. While a choir of mosquitoes made a leisurely meal of my feet, he sadly explained to me how the Slorc had bought off the institutionalized Buddhist hierarchy, the so-called Sangha Council, with donations, televisions, cars, and a judicious mixture of intimidation and flattery.
Nonetheless, the sage continued, ordinary monks shared the suffering and frustration of the society from which they came. In 1988, monks had been in the forefront of demonstrations, especially in
Finally, further economic decline might provoke spontaneous popular protest. But this is not an industrialized economy, in which economic crisis produces large concentrations of angry workers, capable of concerted action. More than 70 percent of the people still live on the land, and a dispersed rural population is always easier to repress. In a preemptive action, the generals have moved many of the urban poor out of
a whistle-stop tour of possible forces for change must also mention the ethnic
minorities, and what might be called the semi-external and external actors. For
Burmese politics are anything but a simple fairy-tale confrontation between Suu
and Slorc, beauty and the beast. I did not witness,
and cannot begin to encompass, the fiendishly complex mixtures of ethnic
discontent, insurgency, and drug trade, varying widely between the country's
numerous ethnic groups—Shan, Karenni, Mon, Wa, Chin, Kachin, and so on.
Altogether, these minorities make up roughly a third of the country's
population: a dangerous proportion, as all students of nationalism know. They
have been crucial to shaping Burmese politics for half a century, and in any
negotiated transition ethnic minority leaders will immediately demand their
place at the table.
By "semi-external" actors I mean people like the thousands of students and other political activists who fled to
Coordinated action by states might have more direct influence on the regime than this "international civil society."
Beyond this, however, the countries with an interest in
even if these "Asian" and "Western" policies converge, the Slorc can still rely on the largest Asian power:
Only a fool would predict the future of such an immensely complex witches' brew. My own melancholy hunch, based on the views of many I talked to, is that explosion is more likely than negotiation. Several people pointed out to me that
The hope must be that, as in
Finally, and I fear most unrealistically, I would hope against hope for a fourth miracle: that something of the tranquil beauty of an isolated, traditional culture, almost unique in today's world, could survive the necessary and longed-for tempest of modernity. But the armies of global capitalism are waiting at the frontier, engines revving up, with their container-loads of tawdry goods, their ready-made life-style packages, sex shops, reversed baseball caps, and state-of-the-art software for the unceasing manufacture of new consumer desires. These armies are more irresistible than any Tatmadaw or People's Army, because they are truly welcomed as liberators. If so few of the good things of an older world have survived in
On my last evening, as on my first, I went to the Shwedagon. Again, there was a quiet glory. As I sat gazing up at the golden winking wonder, outlined against a black velvet sky, I thought of all that I had seen—and of Michael, and of Suu.
Suddenly I was accosted by a fat woman, expensively dressed, with a smart leather shoulder bag and a curiously expressionless face: "Where you from?" In broken English she told me of her great love for the Lord Booodah, and how she had come to pray for her husband who was born on a Tuesday. "
I stayed awhile, and sent up a secular prayer: that all my pessimistic analysis should be proved quite wrong; that the four miracles should follow; and that Aung San Suu Kyi should, herself, be
The Dreamer whose dream came true.