Fear and Loathing in Burma

Whether living in oppression at home or over the border in Thailand, many Burmese share a deep-seated resistance to the current military regime in their homeland, and the hope that the dream of democracy will still come true.

MAESOT, THAILAND - From my hotel room in Maesot, a Thai town just across a shallow river from Burma, the sound of artillery could be heard booming in the middle of the night. I had come to Maesot to prepare for my trip into Burma. Here, in this quintessential border town, I had been told, it would be easier than in Burma itself to find people unafraid to speak about life under the military regime. If the Burmese reality seemed, to an outside observer, to be composed of an unfamiliar and intricate tapestry of historical, political and cultural influences, many of the loose ends came together here in Maesot, where a constant flow of Burmese refugees, migrant workers and smugglers enter Thailand, and where some 40 organizations that oppose the Burmese military regime have their offices.

My host in Maesot was a young man named Zarny, who worked for an organization made up exclusively of former Burmese political prisoners. When I was introduced to the organizations' members, I was told their names and the number of years they had spent in prison. Later I learned that the names were aliases used by the people to protect their families still in Burma. The numbers of years in prison were real.

The members of the Aid Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) had all been involved in the 1988 student-led, nonviolent uprising that had been viciously suppressed by the military regime. Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators had been shot to death around Burma in a massacre whose scope and brutality surpassed that of the one in China's Tiananmen Square a year later.

Although the military government that took over from the military dictatorship of General Ne Win promised democratic elections in Burma when they were held in 1990, and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the country's democracy movement, was elected, the military refused to relinquish its power and continued to arrest thousands of pro-democracy activists. The AAPP members served prison terms for crimes such as distributing pro-democracy pamphlets or leading chants at student demonstrations. Some had served 10 years in prison for their actions, smashing boulders in labor camps, their legs in irons. All had been tortured during interrogation.

Zarny arranged for me to meet a cross-section of the various people involved - activists, guerrilla commanders and exiled political leaders who operated out of Maesot. Despite ethnic and ideological differences among these groups, all saw Aung San Suu Kyi as the legitimate leader of a free Burma; all revered her as the living symbol of Burma's hope.

My hope was to elude the military regime's attempts to restrict journalistic coverage of Burma's struggle for democracy, and to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, who had recently been released from years of house arrest. But in the meantime, I had collided with another part of the Burma story.

Expanding to amphetamines

The explosions I could hear from my window at night signaled that the war between Burma and the tribal militias, that had been going on since the country gained independence in 1947, had heated up. The Thai military was providing sanctions and artillery support to the tribal militias and Burma, in anger, had closed its land border with the Thais. The tribal groups controlled about 50 percent of Burma's land, in a ring along its periphery, and made up about 30 percent of the country's population. They had never accepted the idea of a central government seated in Rangoon that would control their homelands. They demanded, at the very least, a federation of states with equal rights and powers.

The long battle with the militias - and, until the 1970s, with an armed communist opposition - had given General Ne Win the pretext to form an emergency military government in 1962. Although a council of generals that called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) had taken over from Ne Win in 1988, military rule had been an ongoing fact of life for 40 years.

The tribal groups' guerrilla war in the hilly jungles had created a no-man's land that was, surprisingly, the site of the most lucrative industry in this corner of the world. Afghanistan's opium production had been crippled in the wake of September 11, Burma was now the premier producer of heroin in the world, and the fighting at the border, I was told, was clearly related to the burgeoning drug industry.

Over the past few years, moreover, Burma had been branching out beyond heroin. In crude laboratories hidden in jungles in the ethnic enclaves of northeast Burma, groups aligned with the government have been producing hundreds of millions of amphetamine tablets. The pills provide a burst of frenetic energy to which factory workers and prostitutes, truck drivers and policemen all over Southeast Asia have found it easy to become addicted. The Thai and Chinese government see the spread of amphetamine addiction in their population as cause for alarm. A tribal leader I spoke to saw the recent upgrade in Thai support for insurgents on the border to be a warning to Burma: control the spread of amphetamines or else.

Although both the heroin and amphetamines were being produced in areas not under the direct control of the Burmese army, hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money was being funneled into the pockets of Burma's military elite. After decades of fighting, the Burmese government has signed cease-fire agreements over the past few years with many of the militias that control the opium-growing hilltop regions in northern and eastern Thailand. Most observers are convinced that a share in the drug money for Burmese army officers was part of the cease-fire deal. Some believe that the Thai government also has an interest in the heroin trade.

The fascists' disciples

David Tharkabann, a member of the ruling council of the Karen National Union, which fielded a 2,000-man militia and represented the Karen tribe, the largest minority group in Burma, spoke to me in his offices in Maesot. He explained the border war as a potent mixture of insidious greed and politics.

Tharkabann began his analysis of the current situation by taking me back a 1,000 years in history. Sounding like a Jew trying to explain anti-Semitism, Tharkabann insisted that contemporary events could not be understood unless I realized that the Burmans had brutally dominated all the other groups in the area for centuries. The Karen, many of whom had converted to Christianity, experienced the British occupation, which began in the 1880s, as a liberation from Burmese rule. When the Japanese fascists conquered Burma from the British, during World War II, it was with the help of Burmese nationalists. It was the Japanese fascists that had first trained the Burmese army, and in their cruelty, the Burmese military were still the fascists' disciples.

Tharkabann's take on the drug wars at the border seemed like something out of the plot of an insane film noir. High officials in the Thai government, he told me, were deeply involved in the drug trade. They were anxious to cut a deal with the Burmese regime, whose leaders were also profiting from the traffic in illegal drugs. The Burmese were demanding that the Thai government cease giving sanction to the Karen rebels who intermittently sought refuge on the Thai side of the border. The King of Thailand and the army's chief of staff opposed selling the Karen down the river; they were the reason that the Thai were so far aiding the rebels. But Tharkabann worried that the day might come when corrupt Thai politicians would abandon the Karen, allowing them to be crushed by the superior forces of the Burmese army.

By the time I left the region, three weeks later, Tharkabann's scenario seemed to be in danger of unfolding. Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had removed the army chief of staff from his position for taking too tough a position against the Burmese, and had announced that he intended to take a reconciliatory stance toward the Burmese regime.

The more I studied the various aspects of the Burmese quandary, the more the complex interplay of cause and effect that was producing so much misery became apparent. One tangible by-product of Burma's political tragedy was that hundreds of thousands of Burmese men, women and children - estimates went as high as one million - had illegally crossed the border into Thailand and were laboring in factories, as maids in private homes, or working as prostitutes in the Thai sex industry. Why had they come? When I interviewed a group of recent refugees living in shacks on the outskirts of Maesot, I learned that the answer was connected to the cruelty with which the military regime treated its own people, using the tribal wars as an excuse.

The refugees I spoke to eked out a meager living by gathering discarded cardboard boxes, cans and strips of plastic, which they sold to recycling centers. They had come from the Mon state, in Burma's southeast, but had not met until coming to Maesot. "This is where we became one family who loves and helps each other," said one of the women with heartrending simplicity.

But their stories were remarkably similar. All had been rice farmers. The Burmese military government, in need of the hard cash that high-quality rice exports can bring in, had passed a law decades ago requiring rice farmers to sell 30 percent of their crops to the government at a fixed price, well below the market rate. In practice, army field commanders often demanded 40 or 50 percent of the farmers' crops. Several bad years, in which yield was low and market prices were high, were enough to ruin the farmers. Since their farms had not produced enough to satisfy the army, they had been forced to buy rice at market prices in order to sell it to the army at a great loss. Eventually, they had gotten so deep into debt that they lost their land.

But even that would not have been enough to turn them into refugees. Worse than poverty was the army's policy of forcing villagers into service as "porters" for the military, for periods of six months to a year. The porters' official job was to carry the army's supplies as the troops patrolled the jungles and border areas. But the army used the porters as living minesweepers, forcing them to walk ahead of the troops through mine fields planted by tribal rebels. One of the women told me that mines had killed her son and brother; another, that her husband had one of his legs blown off by a mine.

"At night, the soldiers forced us to have sex with them," the women reported.

During their trek to the Thai border, they believed that they were in constant danger: If soldiers found them attempting to leave, they said, they would have been shot to death.

"Go back?" said one of the women. "Only if Aung San Suu Kyi gains power. She is our mother."

Wealthy Thais and international corporations were profiting from the refugees who poured into Thailand. In Maesot alone, 60,000 Burmese worked in some 70 factories, the largest of which employed 3,000 workers and produced items for companies like "Camel" and "Nike." The Burmese worked 13-hour days, seven days a week, with one day a month off for vacation, the day after payday. After deductions for food and shelter, charged to the workers, they might earn $20 a month. They were paid about half of the minimum wage earned by Thai workers.

When factories received a rush order, workers were ordered to labor for 18 hours out of every 24. According to health workers I interviewed and Burmese factory workers themselves, during the rush orders, some factory managers passed out amphetamines to the workers. First the pills were given for free; after the workers were addicted, their cost was deducted from their paycheck. Health conditions in some of the factories practically guaranteed debilitating illness: In some production lines, workers handled acid without gloves, and in others, laborers were exposed to a fine plastic dust which caused chronic respiratory ailments. If a worker complained, the manager simply had the Thai police arrest him as an illegal and send him back across the border.

With young men and women housed in the same giant factory dormitories, the rate of unwanted pregnancy among them was high, and many women ended up having dangerous abortions performed by unlicensed health practitioners. The most terrible story I heard was that some young Burmese women had sold their infant children to drug smugglers who had sewn packets of heroin into the babies' stomachs to escape detection. I didn't know whether this story was true, or a kind of urban legend that tied the misery of the workers and the drug trade together in one horrific narrative, but it clearly expressed something about the desperation of the workers and the ruthlessness of the smugglers.

Willing to talk

After several days in Maesot, I flew into Rangoon, Burma's capital. Having been refused a journalist's visa by the Myanmar embassy in Tel Aviv, I got a tourist visa in Bangkok. Before interviewing Suu Kyi, after which, I was warned, I might be expelled from the country, I was interested in assessing the level of fear in the country. Would people be willing to talk to outsiders about the political situation in Burma? Did the process of democratization that the release of Suu Kyi was meant to indicate translate into something that the average Burmese citizen could feel or identify?

When I got to Rangoon, I learned that although everybody knew about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi through Radio Free Asia and BBC broadcasts, the regime had not allowed the news to be published by newspapers, radio or television stations, which were all state-controlled. People were still careful not to say her name in public. They referred to her as "The Lady" or "Our Auntie." State control was also very much evident when it came to the Internet. It was possible to send e-mail, although it was censored and thus delayed, but the general public had no access to the Internet with its potentially subversive Web sites.

It was not hard, however, to get the Burmese to talk about politics. After a few minutes, provided you were alone, people began to speak their mind. Most were skeptical that the release of Suu Kyi was anything but a way for the military regime to buy time, but some speculated that there was now an internal struggle within the ruling junta over democratization, and that the powers of light had a fighting chance of winning out over the powers of darkness.

Often, people let their true feelings out in the form of one-liners. Standing on the back of a tightly packed transport truck with a young Burmese worker, we passed a military camp and I mock-saluted. "Father," I said. "Yes, father," came the reply. "But bad father." And the driver of a rickshaw in the northern city of Mandalay ended a short diatribe against the government by saying, simply: "Our country is a jail."

Yet, despite the openness, fear was never far away. One man guided me around the city for a day before finding out that I was a journalist who intended to interview Aung San Suu Kyi. He began to beg me not to make contact with the woman he had only moments before described lovingly as "our auntie."

"Military intelligence will discover that I spent time with you," he said, describing with step-by-step precision how the secret police's inquiries would lead them to his doorstep. "You'll be fine, but I'll go to prison," he said, on the verge of tears. "And I just got married six months ago!"

One of the country's celebrated intellectuals - a writer who is now 85 years old and has served time in prison for penning pro-democracy pamphlets - spoke with outrage about the government's cruelties and deceptions, but asked me not to publish his name when I wrote about my trip. He had his nephew take me by motorbike back to my hotel through a labyrinthine route of darkened streets, telling him to leave me off a short distance from my destination to avoid detection.

"Nothing has changed," he hissed. "Suu Kyi has been released, but that is just window dressing. Without her field commanders, who are still in prison, she can't do a thing. We don't believe those chaps will ever hand over power voluntarily."

Enlisting Buddhism

Fear of the government was in no way confined to those engaged in political activity. For decades, the military had rounded up ordinary citizens in order to build roads or bridges or, as the refugees in Maesot had told me, to serve as "porters" carrying goods and supplies for the army. This unpaid service averaged about six months in length, and could last as long as a year. The military government had recently told international labor rights investigators that they had abandoned forced labor practices. But residents of Rangoon told me repeatedly that during the past two months, as the fighting with ethnic insurgents near the Thai border heated up, people had been kidnapped to serve as porters for the army.

As with the story of the babies used to smuggle heroin, I had no first-hand witnesses and could not fully assess the truth of the narratives I was told, but the stories expressed the nightmarish atmosphere within which people were still living.

"My brother was waiting for a minibus late at night in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Rangoon," I was told by one man. "As he was getting into the bus, he realized that the driver and mini-bus staff were actually soldiers." The brother avoided the bus and tried to warn others, but it still filled up with workers returning from their late-night jobs. "The people who got on the bus," the man said, "were taken to the front to serve as porters and living minesweepers."

In many ways, the military regime seemed highly incompetent. Even in hotels in the center of Rangoon, the electrical power failed as often as it worked, and the roads between cities were in such disrepair that the average speed of transport was no more than 40 kilometers per hour. But in its strategy for preventing another outburst of mass demonstrations, the regime has proved to be crafty and resourceful. The army has cracked down mercilessly on any attempts at free expression; even the once-ubiquitous photos of Aung San, the acknowledged hero of Burmese independence are now considered a dangerous statement of support for his daugher, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since university students have been the catalysts for political change in Burma since the 1920s, the regime has scattered students to a dozen small colleges in outlying districts instead of allowing them to congregate in the two big universities in Rangoon and Mandalay, and had shut down student dormitories. Even more demoralizing for students has been the widespread educational corruption; well-off children of military officers have been able to buy degrees, even medical certification, without putting in the long hours necessary to master an area of study. Higher education, once synonymous with moral integrity, has become devalued, a shadow of itself.

And, yet, resistance to the regime has deep sources of strength. The Buddhist tradition is one of these sources. Buddhism is a force that both the democracy activists and the dictators try to enlist on their side. Playing on the fact that many of the tribal groups who oppose them are Christian or Animist, the military regime has tried to promulgate an ideology of Burmese Buddhist nationalism, portraying the army as the savior of Burmese cultural purity.

Members of the ruling council, including Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt, the head of military intelligence who is called "Secretary One" and is considered the strong man of the regime, have made ostentatious and well-publicized donations to Buddhist monasteries. In 1999, the regime built a huge, ornate gold-leafed entrance hall to the Shwedagon, Rangoon's scintillating Buddhist shrine that is said to contain 8 hairs from the Buddha's head.

The military has also counted on the widespread belief in karma to keep the population passive. At the most vulgar and popular level, the poor in Burma understand karma to mean that those who are suffering deserve what they are getting because of misconduct in a previous lifetime, and those who are thriving - the military leaders, for example - are reaping the rewards of earlier good deeds.

But the people, and the government as well, know that in 1988, the hearts of the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Burmese Buddhist monks were with the pro-democracy demonstrators. In Mandalay, Burma's second largest city, tens of thousands of monks protected demonstrators from the army during the uprising that year, and the death toll was many times lower there than elsewhere. Monks, especially younger ones, participated in demonstrations all over Burma; sometimes their robes were torn off by the army, as if to strip away the sacred immunity the culture bestows on monks, and then beaten or even shot.

Some monks are renowned all over Burma and even beyond its borders for their saintliness. They are considered to have spiritual power that the military cannot touch. One such monk is the 92-year-old Tha Man Ya Siyadow ("Siyadow" is an honorific designating a head monk), who preaches vegetarianism and who counts the King of Thailand among his devotees. The Tha Man Ya Siyadow's picture adorns many houses and stores in Burma; because of his status as a religious leader, the government would not dare to ban his photo the way they have that of Aung San Suu Kyi.

During my long bus-ride to see the Siyadow, I was told a story that symbolized the deep interconnections between spirituality, politics and resistance in Burmese culture. Aung San Suu Kyi had visited the Tha Man Ya Siyadow on a number of occasions and has always been received warmly. However, a few months ago - so I was told - Khin Nyunt, head of military intelligence and the most powerful man in the Burmese government, visited the monk, seeking an endorsement of his policies or a blessing for his future success. The Tha Man Ya Siyadow refused to bless him. Stalking out in anger, the general searched in vain for the helicopters, jeeps and bodyguards who were supposed to be waiting for him. Confused, he returned to the monastery. "Where did all my people go?" he asked. "They are there," he was told. He walked outside, and sure enough, his retinue was now visible; he had been given a lesson in the power of the Siyadow.

When I arrived at his home, I was hustled in for a quick blessing from the Siyadow. Old and ailing, he kept our meeting short. But what I saw all around me demonstrated one source of the monk's popularity: Every day, hundreds of hungry people crowded into the monastery where they were fed simple meals of rice, fruit and vegetables, courtesy of the Siyadow. He also funded free education for all of the children living within about a 45-kilometer radius of his monastery. And he had built a smooth road from his monastery to Pa-an, the nearest large town and capital of the Karen state, and then eastward toward the Thai border.

What the government could not do - build decent roads, feed the people, educate the children - the Tha Man Ya monk was showing could be achieved with the power of goodness. And so, despite the regime's best efforts, Buddhism remains a potential and sometimes actual source of resistance to its plans of total domination. Even the notion of karma is double-edged: My guide in Rangoon, the one who nearly cried trying to convince me that I should not interview Aung San Suu Kyi, suddenly calmed down and caught himself. "It is my karma," he said, with sudden, Buddhist clarity. "It is meant to be. Do what you need to do. I will to help you. If it is the right thing, it cannot be harmful."

This is the second article in a series.