Special Report

Throwing Away the Key in Burma

The future is bleak for those who protested Burma's high fuel prices.

By 11.20.08

Editor's Note: The identity of the author, an American, is anonymous (as are the identities of those he interviewed) because disclosing their names could compromise their safety in Burma.

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The time of reckoning for those who protested Burma's high fuel prices in September 2007 came long ago, but only now are most of them beginning to learn their long-term futures. It is bleak.

This land of rich resources, renamed Myanmar in 1989 by its military dictatorship, delivered last week the verdicts of several prisoners -- many of them Buddhist monks -- it has held since the government (again) expunged political dissent last year. The decisions were announced after alleged trials were held at the frightening Insein Prison. Reports vary, but last week on Tuesday as many as 23 dissidents received sentences of 65 years each for their roles in the protests, and two days the same punishment was revealed for another 13.

The defendants' hearings are more appropriately characterized as show trials without the show. Any prosecution and defense activity, if there was any, was conducted behind the walls of Insein. The protesters' defense lawyers were themselves jailed for contempt of court, which further illustrates the futility of pursuing justice in Burma. And nearly three-quarters of those detained in the last 15 months still await almost certain similar fates, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

As for most of the rest of Burma -- especially in the former capital of Yangon, where this reporter recently visited -- there is little hope for even a minimal standard of living. Oppression and corruption dominate. General Than Shwe leads the ruling military junta, and discussion about his regime's destructive policies is spoken in careful words where no one can overhear.

The torture and squalor of places like Insein only speak to the fate of those who have crossed the government. Those who remain "free" live a frustrating and meager existence. A layer of mildew coats nearly all buildings. Regular (that is, most without a family or friendly connection with the Shwe regime) citizens live in shacks, or in the aforementioned concrete apartments. Thousands try to live by peddling goods or food on sidewalks. Roads are in gross disrepair and workers overload old, sputtering modes of transport (at least those that are motorized: taxis, truck beds, buses, trains and boats) that they depend upon each day. Very few people own cars.

As for the things we take for granted in the West, operators in the Shwe regime demand their cut of the slim earnings of others. Territorial officials (those who oversee individual neighborhoods) must be bribed for "protection." Guests from outside -- especially foreigners -- have to be reported to those officials (who get extra bribes for the added "trouble"), and none are allowed to lodge overnight in homes -- they must stay in hotels.

"They are like an employee waiting for a salary," a local friend, who sometimes entertains visitors from outside the country, said of these neighborhood officials. He added that towards the end of each month his local authority often complains about an artificial problem with his business to remind him it's time to pay up again.

Simple occupations like driving a taxi -- despite their ubiquity -- are burdensome. To own a '70s- or early '80s-era jalopy (usually a Toyota model) costs in the neighborhood of $12,000 to $15,000, according to locals -- vehicles you can no longer get parts for in the U.S. Cab drivers (not the owners) pay more than $400 annually just for the privilege of carrying passengers. Above that they pay $15 daily to the owner for the use of the vehicle -- if their fare revenue falls short of that amount, then they must pay out of their own pockets. With no meters running up the tab, cross-town fares a pittance, and the great amount of competition for customers, earning $15 in a day is not a given.

As for the struggles of other citizens, they can muster little resistance to the Shwe regime. Internet communications are extremely limited, cell phones are cost prohibitive and even fax machines must be registered with the government. Burmese can consider little more complexity in life other than simple survival.

"People don't have a chance to think about the country," said one community religious leader, "because they struggle for food."

He said Cyclone Nargis, which in early May severely damaged Yangon and devastated the Irrawaddy Delta region south of the city, came without warning to most Burmese. Alerts went out over state-run broadcast media but few heard it, since most people don't bother to watch or listen to the government propaganda.

"They warned people on TV," he said, "but we didn't watch TV at the time.

"That's the only way they can keep control. Their very intention is to keep people away from knowledge and education."

Today's scarcity of Buddhist monks on the streets of Yangon illustrates the suffocating power of Myanmar's government. Before the September 2007 crackdown they were everywhere, but now they are scattered in exile or await their prison sentences.

Nothing under earthly power can be done about it, barring an outside overthrow. Democracy activist Aung San Syu Kyi has lived under house arrest, off and mostly on, since the military junta overturned the country's last democratic elections in 1990. And there are no signs of change, given last year's flattening of the peaceful monk marches.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in his book Courage: Eight Portraits, "So Suu Kyi's courage is the courage to sacrifice her own happiness and a comfortable life so that, through her struggle, she might win the right of an entire nation to seek happy and comfortable lives."

Sadly, this long struggle she has shared with her nation has not broken the stranglehold that evil has upon Burma.

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