Regime Unchanged

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 5, 2003 | Destinations: Myanmar / Yangon

In Burma the other day on a visa run, it occurred to me that I was carrying Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule by Christina Fink. Theoretically it could have been confiscated, or my person arrested. I felt slightly exhilarated to be carrying what amounts to contraband while the Burmese vendors, their faces painted in yellowish thanaka powder, looked at me unknowingly. I could have pulled a James Mawdsley, an opportunistic young Englishman who would have waved the book around while hollering about freedom. But nope. I bought a Coke.

As I walked through Tachileik market I pondered what an unbelievable thing is the oppression of so many by so few. And for the record, no, the Burmese do not look very happy, or Burma very well off, despite the efforts of two American consulting companies hired by the regime in the late 90s to improve the country's image. Within seconds of entering Burma I had been offered women. And as I left, a barefooted, semi-naked boy followed me for several minutes. He wanted one baht. Or the empty Coke can. Whatever.

There is one good reason why books about the situation in Burma seem to be coming out more frequently: the situation is worsening. In the last 15 years the troop strength of the military has more than doubled. The exchange rate of the Burmese currency, the kyat, has gone through the roof. And since the military regime's rejection of the 1990 elections, in which the military party won barely 2 percent of the vote, the democracy movement has been in disarray.

Indeed Fink's Burma is vaguely reminiscent of Cambodia just before the Vietnamese invasion. Things have gotten so bad that the regime may begin aggravating its neighbors to distract the populace from domestic problems. In numbers Burma's army is formidable, but loyalty tends to decrease with decreases in rank, so the first sign of weakness at the top could spur widespread mutiny. A society based upon fear is inherently unstable, and the regime's audacious refusal to resume dialogue with the National League for Democracy (NLD) makes a smooth transition to a more stable form of government increasingly unlikely.

Unlike many books about contemporary Burma, Living Silence depends a great deal upon the personal testimony of Burmese themselves, most of them refugees because political expression in Burma amounts to tempting fate. The result is a much more intimate and sympathetic (and complicated) portrait of the country's ordeal, too often framed in statistics, embellished chronologies, or the simplistic dichotomy of regime versus people.

Fink argues that for many Burmese it seems perfectly rational to cooperate with the regime because to do otherwise might mean the loss of family members or the ruination of a family. She also observes that many families contain both military and pro-democracy elements, but that the economic advantages of cooperation are sometimes too good to pass up. And the regime has mastered the appropriation of popular or powerful figures, everyone from artists to the notorious drug baron Khun Sa. The average Burmese may be worse off now than in 1988, but the regime has made substantial gains, not least in having secured ceasefire agreements with ethnic insurgency groups.

Cambodia is one parallel to Burma. Others are the totalitarian countries of the former Warsaw Pact. Information about the outside world is scarce; communication is conducted through signs, codes, and other forms of indirection; and everyone is scared of informers in their midst. But adversity being the mother of invention, the Burmese have shown an astonishing ingenuity in defying the regime. Fink writes of political prisoners using sheets of plastic in lieu of paper, bribing wardens to get one copy of Time magazine smuggled into jail, communicating between cells using a code of knocks. The behaviors suggest that there is nothing more natural or irrepressible than free expression and association, and that any government denying either is doomed. In this respect the similarities with the Warsaw Pact countries should be inspiring; it's no accident that the name of Vaclav Havel appears frequently in Living Silence.

But there may be some decisive differences. One is what Fink calls Burma's "tradition of political passivity." Another is its unfamiliarity with the advantages of a political opposition: in the 1990 elections, the NLD received 81% of the vote, a degree of unanimity probably unsurpassed in Western democracies. Yet another is the Burmese custom of ah nay day: according to Fink this is "a desire not to impose on others", similar to the Thai greng jai. Fink also notes that the Burmese have traditionally counted government as one of the five principal evils, an irritant to be borne, like plague, rather than a reflection of the general will. And she mentions something that no observer of Burmese politics can ignore, namely the tendency to emphasize talk over action, factionalism over compromise. Indeed the regime came into power originally because it viewed Burma's parliamentary democracy as fragmentary and impotent. Junta leaders continue to believe not unjustifiably that a restoration of democracy might mean the disintegration of the union.

Well, so what if it does? Fink makes the excellent observation that national unity is virtually the regime's only goal, overriding everything from human rights to economic development. Of course unity in a place as diverse as Burma is no small achievement, but to a large extent it is just a mirage and has come at an enormous cost. One is again reminded of the "unity" of the Warsaw Pact countries, and how quickly it dissolved, largely under economic pressure. And in any case there remains active opposition to a unified Burma, most notably from the still defiant Karen National Union.

Living Silence comes recommended by no less than Aung San Suu Kyi herself, the beleaguered and periodically ailing figurehead of the NLD. But Fink argues that she alone may be unable to bring the regime down. Fink suggests that change must come in the form of a general courageous enough to realize that the status quo is not sustainable. Unfortunately no such figure appears imminent; as of late 2003, the putative head of state was General Khin Nyunt, who as the head of Burma's military intelligence is hardly the man to undertake sweeping reforms. Mastering the art of appearing to do something without doing anything, the generals smile smiles that barely conceal their terror of retribution.

They've also mastered the art of maligning Aung San Suu Kyi in various and sometimes hypocritical ways. Fink relates that official news releases concerning the Lady often drop the "Aung San" from her name because this is the name of her father, the George Washington of Burma. (To be fair, the Lady emphasizes the connection just as much as the regime tries to de-emphasize it.) Suu Kyi was married to late Englishman Michael Aris, so the regime tried to paint her as susceptible to foreign manipulation. But Khin Nyunt's son married a foreigner, some of the generals are foreign-educated, and allegedly the regime encouraged Burman soldiers to take ethnic wives - a kind of "ethnic dilution", if you will. The regime has always made a policy of promoting Burmese traditions at the expense of foreign ones, unless of course such traditions (like the politically volatile art form known as Thangyat) run counter to the regime's aims.

Suu Kyi's use of her father's name is not the only respect in which she appeals to common Burmese. In fact much of her appeal is cosmetic, as Fink here explains:

"Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party members stood out because whenever they appeared in public they wore traditional clothes and often kamauk, the wide-brimmed farmers' hats which became the symbol of the party....[She] donned the clothes of the various ethnic groups in each region and, like Burmese women in the past, always pinned a sprig of flowers in her hair."

In a recent photo of Southeast Asian leaders, Khin Nyunt stood out for being the only one in military uniform (and a Western uniform at that.) Add to Suu Kyi's employment of traditional dress the simple fact that she is beautiful, which in Burma implies not only good breeding but good karma. In contrast, late strongman Ne Win was hideously ugly at the time of his death.

And while Ne Win was alive he was bizarrely superstitious, hardly what one would expect from a leader promoting so seemingly rational a system as socialism. Okay, so Ronald Reagan consulted astrologers and believed in the literal truth of the Book of Revelation. But what to make of this catalogue of irrationality that Fink has collected?

"On one occasion, [Ne Win] reportedly shot his image in the mirror so that he himself wouldn't be killed. Similarly, he had the lovely go go trees which provided shade along the road to his birthplace near Prome cut down, because the expression go go that, 'cut down the go go trees', also means to kill yourself. By removing the trees he believed that he could prevent his own political death. Most dramatically, in the mid-1970s he suddenly ordered cars to be driven on the right instead of the left. This was reportedly meant to stop the threat of a political attack from the right."

Unfortunately for many Burmese none of this is particularly odd. Nor is the widespread belief in numerology. The number 8 is unlucky in Burmese culture. So it's no surprise that the largest massacre in recent Burmese history took place on 8/8/88.

At the risk of defending the regime, it should be said that the 8/8/88 massacre was not directed at peaceful protestors alone. In fact one of the failures of the NLD has been its inability to make all of its followers espouse nonviolence. (Of course Gandhi had a similar problem in India, which he would "solve" by going on a hunger strike whenever things got out of hand.) On that fateful day in August, there were an unknown number of cases in which Burmese civilians killed suspected but unconfirmed agents of the government. This was not Amritsar; it was closer to the Indian Mutiny. Fink writes of slingshot battles occurring on other occasions; even Buddhist monks were not above kicking ass. Of course there is a reason for all this, namely that nonviolence as a political strategy remains unproven, and moreover that it denies our innermost urges.

Both the title and subtitle of Fink's book are apt, because it forcefully conveys the eerie state of suspended animation in which the Burmese live. And it does so with a combination of objectivity and intimacy unmatched by other accounts, which can often be too dry or too sentimental. Living Silence makes a not-so-joyful but welcome noise.

- The End -

Review of Christina Fink's Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule, White Lotus, 2001.

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