Khaki leaders and karaoke democracy
The Nation, Saturday, February 5, 1994
In Burma today, the ruling military junta tries to buy off everyone to silence dissent. Aung Zaw comments.
Under the present ruling Burmese junta, it seems like the main political opposition party and winner of the 1990 elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is probably dead or at least suffering from a paralytic stroke.
Despite the fact the NLD won a landslide victory in Burma's first general elections in 26 years, the current leaders of Burma are the army men dressed in khaki, the Tatmadaw. These military men have been very busy at the Rangoon war office since 1988: declaring a state of emergency - the executions, street killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, anti-strike committees, forced labour, forced relocation, intimidating the people -- all of this ordered from their offices in order to stay in power.
Five years later, the leaders of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) are pleased to see the current situation of Burma firmly in their control.
In an effort to retain this grip on power, the Slorc has even hired a public relations agent from the United States in order to improve “relations between the US and the Union of Myanmar (Burma) and to speak on behalf of Slorc.”
Clearly, one of Slorc's purposes is to demonstrate to the Burmese people at home that they (Slorc) have a good relationship with everyone, both West and East. These well-paid Americans PR agents are being flown to Burma to visit and listen to what Slorc wants to show and vocalize to the outside world. Of course the Slorc-owned media is busy reporting about the State's visitors, activities and dinners with Slorc ministers.
One Burmese intellectual from Rangoon University likened this to them "making love".
In a related effort on behalf of the Slorc, some foreign journalists and US senators were invited to visit Burma and see Slorc's show. Up to now journalists who go to Burma have been allowed to interview and chat with some of Slorc's ministers, including Lt-Gen Kyaw Ba, the Tourism Minister, and Khin Nyunt, 1st secretary of Slorc. The Tourism Minister advertised how they are improving the country, in particularly how many hotels are being built and the success of the boat regatta and the many other tourist attractions in Burma like Pagan, Shwedagon Pagoda, etc. But none of journalists were really able to talk with ordinary Burmese people, let along opposition leaders from the NLD, for example.
Obviously, there is no freedom and a state of fear still continues. The state secret police are everywhere. The most disgusting thing in Burma, one analyst said, is thesecret police and the informers who always threaten and intrude into people's everyday life.
Some journalists, like Bertil Lintner, Christopher Gunnes and other strong critics are not allowed to enter Burma.
“If they go to Burma they will write different things as they understand Burma’s political situation very well. Besides this, people will try to contact them despite being under Slorc's eyes,” a Burmese in Bangkok said.
Lintner, a Burma specialist based in Bangkok, said recently that “No one can say that the human rights situation is getting better. If only 25 persons demonstrate on the street they will be taken to prison right away.” He was referring to the latest report released by the human rights group, Amnesty International, which repeated its continued criticism of Slorc’s human rights record.
At the moment there are about 500 political prisoners being detained by Slorc. They are the, first-and-second echelon leaders from various political parties, including the NLD. About 2,000 political prisoners have been released since 1992. Actually these people were freed after agreeing not to participate in party politics anymore. Some have even been taken to investigation centres again and questioned about their activities.
One woman, San San Nwet, a wellknown writer and NLD member, after being released in 1992, was detained for 24 hours in an incident this last year. Beside this harassment they are under constant surveillance.
Another public tactic of the Slorc has been the recent formation of the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). Primary and middle school students, farmers and civil servants have been forced to attend recent USDA rallies. A diplomat in Rangoon who witnessed one of these rallies described the scenes as “clearly depressing. The people were marching like zombies.”
A young man in Rangoon said he does not care what the Slorc is organizing as the USDA members are just former BSPP members. “Of course people go there because there are some concerts and fun and the important thing is we don't have to pay.”
Obviously Rangoon is trying to appease the international community by making cosmetic changes and stalling any meaningful economic or political development. Despite these manoeuvres, Slorc seems to be unable to convince the world community let alone the Burmese people and others in exile that it is sincere in promoting democratic reforms.
A Rangoon University student who actively participated in the 1988 upheaval recently came to Thailand via Japan. He said that in Burma he observed few changes except that the lives of ordinary people are getting harder and harder, especially with the sky-rocketting prices of daily goods. He went on further to point out that, “What we demand is a free democratic country but what Slorc gives us instead is karaoke, night clubs, floating hotels, sports races and road construction.”
This article appeared in the The Nation newspaper, Saturday, February 5, 1994.