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Burmese Days

As the wheels locked down on the final approach to Burma’s Yangon Airport, the young Japanese diplomat sitting next to me said; “If you haven’t been here since ’95, I expect you will see a lot of changes.” The cavernous marble and glass terminal building, its corridors echoing with the footsteps of our arriving planeload of people, was new. The smiling, attractive, female immigration and customs officers were quite a change from the scowling, hostile guys I had become familiar with in previous visits, scattered between1971 and 1995. The Kuwaiti Government Airbus parked at the only other active gate was new, too, but somehow not surprising.

As I stood in the immigration line, I saw, waiting on the other side of the glass, a familiar face. It would be hard to credit, if I hadn’t known, that this serene, dignified 70-year-old man had spent more than 15 years in the infamous prisons of longtime Burmese dictator Gen. Ne Win and his successors, the State Law and Order Restoration Council. When I first met him back in 1994, U Ye H’toon, dissident attorney and scion of two of Burma’s great families, had just been released from his latest three-year stint as a guest of the regime—leaded water provided free of charge for guests of a political persuasion—and he did not look well. Now he appeared to have fully recovered.

Except for the visible damage that the recent cyclone had done to the countryside, I noticed little change as we drove to Ye H’toon’s family compound on Inya Lake, where all the Burmese elite, including the infamous Gen. Ne Win and dissident Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi Aris have their homes—dictator on the north end, antidictator at the south. One change I did observe immediately was that the pillbox in Ne Win’s backyard with the twin 50-caliber machine guns aimed at U Ye H’toon’s front porch had been removed. After the old dictator’s death, his son was jailed for corruption, and Ye H’toon, again permitted to practice law, was retained for Ne Win fils’s defense. Familial amity restored, machine guns gone.

In Myanmar now, as in Burma before, politics are personal. This essential feature either escapes or confounds all the principle-driven democracy advocates and interventionists whose relentless pursuit of virtue has contributed so much to the catastrophe that befalls the ordinary humans who actually have to live in this country.

Another thing that had changed was U Ye H’toon’s house. The rambling 1920s British colonial bungalow had been replaced by a lovely multi-story villa, worthy of this family and their station. My host explained that his daughter Yuza had built it for them in the late 1990s, when holes in Western-imposed economic sanctions had permitted her to operate a profitable tour business. When the insurance industry was forced out of Myanmar, as sanctions tightened, organized tourism stopped, so only the first floor of the villa is inhabited. There’s simply no money—no rich, no poor, just a daily, common struggle to eat and function at the most basic level. In a strange way, Ne Win’s crackpot “Burmese Way to Socialism,” abetted by the imposition of economic sanctions in the name of democracy and human rights, has finally yielded a truly classless, albeit anti-utopian, society.

The Trader’s Hotel in downtown Yangon is also new, and rather pleasant. Part of the Shangri-La chain, it’s a step down from its Bangkok sibling, but it’s staffed by the requisite collection of breathtakingly beautiful human beings. It’s also the first hotel I’ve stayed in that offers “Private Party” on its guest services list. With the eye-feast downstairs, I’ll bet they get a lot of calls. I mention this because on the puritanical scale, Ne Win’s regime ranked somewhere between Taliban Afghanistan and Castro’s Cuba, and that had not appeared to change by the mid-1990s. But pariahs run the country, and that’s a fair description of those who do business here, the unfortunate corollary being that these are the kinds of people that ordinary Burmese have to deal with.

The food at the Trader’s rivals anything offered at Asia’s five-star venues. The only thing causing unease was the desperation in the eyes of the staff as they hand you little cards to fill out saying they “went out of their way to be helpful.”

The angle of the view from my ninth-floor room was different from the view from the roof of the YMCA where I stayed in 1971, but the vista hasn’t much changed. A few shoddy buildings over ten stories tall have been added, but they already look like the junk that they are made of. Otherwise, it’s the same badly stained concrete, rusting tin roofs, and crumbling sidewalks, overlooked by the magnificent and oft photographed Shwe-Dagon Pagoda. The difference is all in the ambiance. On the plane back to Bangkok, I sat next to a fashion designer from Rio who had come to investigate garment production in Myanmar, a very sophisticated and well-travelled lady. “What’s wrong with them?” she asked. “I’ve seen poverty and misery. Even at home, it’s unbelievable. But I’ve never seen people as beaten as here. It’s like a zombie movie. I cried every night in my room. What has happened to them? It’s the saddest place I’ve ever seen.”

The best explanation I could offer was that the world knows this is a terrible regime and has set out to punish it. This is how decent people react to a man in the neighborhood who habitually beats his wife. The neighbors, the cops, the judges—everybody tries to make him stop. He won’t, so they start to mete out punishment. But Myanmar is really more of a hostage than a domestic situation, so all the well-intended threats only agitate and enrage the aggressor. The punishment lands on her. Everything the civilized neighbors do violates the biggest rule of hostage crises: unless you can take him out right now, don’t threaten the perp. These people have been beaten by the perp and punished by the wider community for two decades, to the point that their disfigurement blurs out the elements of their demeanors that are recognizably human.

By now, the question of who did this is academic and irrelevant. What matters is do you put a factory there, put some money into the battered wife’s hands? She will be grateful to you and do a wonderful job making your clothes. But one day, she may get her hands on a butcher knife, and there will be hell to pay. The part of her that has been brutalized to the point of mutation may drive rage to drench in blood and consume in fire anything she can, including that factory you cannot insure. Try Indonesia or Vietnam.

What appeared to be disrepair from the ninth floor was, on the ground, a city’s entire infrastructure coming undone. Sidewalks caved into the sewers, garbage piled up, once magnificent parks reverted to jungle. Domestic animals had turned feral. They shared the post-apocalyptic cityscape with the diseased, the starving, and the rats. The regime’s abdication of services essential to the maintenance of urban civilization is as deliberate as it is conspicuous, and the sense of abandonment and disposability is eerie. As U Ye H’toon explained later, “The army got the message from the 1990 election”—the one that the West insisted must bring to power Suu Kyi, the Burmese born but entirely Anglicized wife of an Oxford don who happened to be in the country during an upheaval in 1988, and whose father was a famous and short-lived leader of post-colonial Burma. He continued, “The army recognized the election results as a rejection of them and the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ and replied to the people, fine, if you think we’re going to put in power some Englishwoman who’s going to put us in jail, you’re crazy, but that’s the end of ‘socialism.’ You ingrates are on your own.”

So the regime, by decree, changed the name of the country to Myanmar and moved the capital to some unpronounceable redoubt 200 kilometers north of Yangon where they live in splendid isolation, safe from the people who hate them and, above all, immune to sanctions, threats, or anything else some outsider might dream up as punishment for their abuses. A smart, and predictable, move if you happen to be deeply paranoid and guilty as charged. These are very different thugs from your garden-variety wife beater, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon found out after the cyclone.

The storm that devastated Myanmar last spring came at a point when the regime was particularly annoyed at the UN—and not entirely unreasonably so—due to the behavior of the Security Council’s appointed mediator between the regime and opposition. After meeting with the junta and agreeing on an agenda, the envoy met with Suu Kyi. No doubt awed by her charisma and rectitude, or perhaps because taking your cues from a Nobel Peace Prize winner is always career-safe for a UN diplomat, he then deplaned in Singapore and publicly excoriated the generals. He called for even more punishment for Myanmar. This demolished any leverage the UN may have had and demonstrated how Suu Kyi’s inflexibility plays into the hands of the regime, which in turn prolongs the suffering of the Burmese, perhaps beyond endurance.

As a result, when Moon tries to talk to the junta about getting aid to the cyclone victims, they refuse to take his calls. By back channels, they get a message to him that they will receive him in person in Myanmar, to discuss the cyclone crisis only. No talk about human rights or national “reconciliation,” no criticism of the regime, and absolutely no nonsense about Professor Aris’s widow in her villa on Inya Lake. Having set the agenda, the three top leaders graciously receive Moon to discuss what might be done.

Visas? Help from experienced international relief workers? Why hasn’t anybody suggested this? How embarrassed we are that we didn’t think of it ourselves. And so on. Great TV to rip the guts out of the Burmese, seeing the UN secretary general himself groveling to these guys. Moon knows it, but what’s a little humiliation when so much death and suffering is at stake? The junta could not be more accommodating: just have those aid workers fill out some forms and hand in their passports at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. See, we’re not monsters, and we’ve got you bowing and scraping all over TV to prove it.

So the passports pile up at the visa section in Bangkok. The three guys who handle the paperwork are completely overwhelmed. Soon there are 500 or more just sitting there. All that chemically treated paper lying around “spontaneously combusts,” and hundreds of incinerated passports from all over the world need to be replaced. Then in a few months, after we do our repairs and the aid workers get passports reissued, we start over again. Yuck, yuck, yuck. Do you think Ban Ki-moon hates these guys and wants to punish them? He can join the queue.

The only way to get at them is through China, which will never allow a close and resource-rich neighbor to be turned over to some Englishwoman and her legions of Tibet-obsessed, problem-conflating, China-hating troublemakers. And Suu Kyi and her supporters behave exactly to type. “We’re here to liberate the Burmese, not to please the Chinese” is a typical response if you suggest a solution for Myanmar that involves engaging neighboring countries. Suu Kyi’s grim refusal to recognize, let alone accommodate, Chinese interests is the core of a delusional system that blinds her to the cruelty of the sanctions on the Burmese, not to mention the international community’s utter failure to lay a glove on the junta, two decades on. When it comes to the people in the here-and-now, the actual compassion index, the regime and its critics post what amounts to a draw. Both agree that the people who made the sweatshop lady cry are disposable in service to greater ends: Western democracy on one hand, preservation of power on the other.

It is the great misfortune of the Burmese that in 1988 a spontaneous and long overdue popular uprising against Ne Win happened to coalesce around a political novice whose identity and program made her, from day one, entirely unacceptable to the regional superpower, not to mention the rest of the country’s neighbors. Since then, invested with the secular sanctity that goes with a Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi Aris has proven to be as unyielding and incapable of compromise as Ne Win himself, demonstrating, year after dreadful year of stalemate, that bravery and leadership are not synonyms.

Suu Kyi’s 15 minutes of fame have been frozen into two decades of misery because she continues to play the one card the regime—and everyone else in the region—knows China will never accept or allow: unconditional surrender to Western pressure, immediate transition to British-style parliamentary democracy, which, as the neighbors know all too well, didn’t work in Burma before. Her program translates as “put yourselves in manacles and order your pilots to deliver you to the Hague where you can be tried by your former colonial masters for crimes against humanity. Oh, and by the way, take your criminal Chinese sponsors with you because we don’t approve of them either.”

I understand some of Suu’s inflexibility. Over a four-year period I had occasion to meet her husband, Dr. Michael Aris, at various conferences and awards ceremonies. I came to like and admire the guy. I also became increasingly uncomfortable with the loss, grief, fear, and confusion that were clearly killing him. The regime—always in control, always playing the emotional torture game on their pitch and by their rules—caught on to this, too, and allowed him to visit his wife, from time to time. She could have ended the game at any point by getting on a plane with him. But she chose her principles, her duty, and the greatness of her bourgeois martyrdom, and watched him die.

As someone who knew Michael well enough to be invited as his guest in Oslo, I have a hard time getting past that. I imagine that if Suu Kyi ever gave in on anything, doing so would open a pit of regret and self-loathing that would probably be unendurable. She would have to figure out how to forgive herself for Michael, not to mention the two sons she abandoned, and admit her culpability in the misery that surrounds her. That could be far too much to ever expect from an ordinary human, so it’s probably impossible to be other than an icon, if you have the option, as she certainly does.

But the endgame is coming. All the Bangkok-based Chalabi wannabees, the widow Aris, even U Ye H’toon think that they will control the inevitable uprising. But I respectfully beg to differ, for two separate but related reasons.

First, the junta may as well have hung a “Property Condemned” sign on the entire city of Yangon and would be happy to see it blown sky high, knowing that U Ye H’toon, Suu Kyi, other troublemakers, and the many foreigners who despise them will be consumed in the conflagration. That would be fun to watch and film. They love to show unedited atrocity porn taken during the 1988 uprising to unsuspecting foreign guests, including Senator and Mrs. McCain. She threw up and then passed out. My money’s on them sending the arsonists in, whenever they’re ready and when they have the initiative. It’s hard to bet on the other guys.

The other, more disturbing reason is because I watched Sule Pagoda for two hours and nobody came. This matters because this unpretentious stupa in the center of Yangon represents the mythological Mount Meru, around which Theravada Buddhist cosmological order coheres. The ring of shops surrounding its base was empty. No one buying incense, amulets, miniatures of the Buddha, or the other trappings of complex ceremony that ritually maintain spiritual order and keep chaos at bay.

On the contrary, all the myriad and visible signs of the underlying “primitive religious system” that Theravada Buddhism exists to suppress abounded. Engagment with the spirit world, common everywhere in Southeast Asia, has always been particularly visible in Burma. But what I saw was a level of obsession, permeating the consciousness and activities of the people in the streets—written on their faces, as it were, in swirls of rice powder, tattooed on their bodies in ink, worn as charms or amulets, and codified in precise rituals of gesture, art, language, and behavior ever so tightly wound, to ward off the animate evil that they have come to believe defines their age and controls their fate. This apathy has been building for years, but the processes were clearly accelerated by a putative uprising attempted by Buddhist monks who began peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Yangon last year.

At the time, I began receiving overheated calls and e-mails from all over the world inviting me to rejoice in the imminent deliverance of the Burmese by means of the “Saffron Rebellion.” “They won’t dare shoot the monks!” Burma’s well-wishers enthused. I thought the junta would not only dare, but would rather enjoy ordering their village-boy soldiers to do just that, showing everyone, God included, once and for all who’s really boss in Myanmar. Apparently I was right. The monks were gunned down, and then the cyclone hit. It broke the back of the higher religious system that stands between order and chaos in society, but not those thugs who hold a country hostage.

I was younger and a lot smarter when I saw the same thing start to happen in another Theravada Buddhist country in 1972. Of course it’s a lot more comforting to think that a cabal of Left Bank intellectuals calling themselves Khmer Rouge, through sheer malevolence of personality and program, turned a peaceful, docile, kindly, and very civilized nation called Cambodia into a charnel house of homicidal maniacs. The idea that such things might be related to violence, hopelessness, and fear inflicted upon people in unimaginably toxic doses, causing the collapse of belief itself, ushering in the reign of chaos, is almost incomprehensible. It might give people pause when considering whether to interfere in other obscure and mysterious places. Like I told the girl from Rio: just get on your plane to Paris and forget this place entirely, lest you turn into a pillar of salt—or something worse. 


BJim Pittaway is a licensed psychotherapist. He resides and practices in Missoula, Montana. 

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