Monday, October 15, 2007

News sent at great risk from Burma

As you know, the situation in Burma is dreadful. Monks who have lead a peaceful demonstration on behalf of democracy have been shot at, imprisoned, killed. There is very little information coming out of Burma now. The internet and cell phones have been shut down. People are under curfew and fear for their lives. The only information getting out is being smuggled out.

Through very unusual circumstances, I have been given two pieces of information to disseminate. I encourage anyone reading it -- in fact I ask you from my heart -- to spread the news -- copy the articles onto your blogs. Please do what you can to get the word out.

The first piece of information is about the conditions in Rangoon. I have published that letter on, and you can view it by clicking on this link.

The second is an article about the new capital city that has been built deep in the jungle by the current military junta. That is published below.

There is nowhere else that you can find these that I know of, although attempts are being made by others (thanks be to God) to get them distribution as well.

After 10 days of demonstrations and a brutal military crack-down on demonstrators Rangoon is now enveloped by a heavy silence. One of the most important Buddhist pagodas in central Rangoon is now described by UK's ambassador as being under military occupation. Burmese military have been observed cooking within the pagoda (an act of defilement for Buddhists) and leave their weaponry leaning against the walls of this ancient focus of devotion.

The bravery of the demonstrators and the peaceful opposition of monks has been captured by a large number of brave participants with mobile phones and concealed cameras. The systematic brutality of the military and security apparatus has similarly been captured as has the callous violence of thugs who were shipped into Rangoon to intimidate and brutalise demonstrators. Images have been posted on the internet which have shocked an international audience and catalysed condemnation and denunciations.

Ibrahim Gambari, (UN Special Envoy), has arrived in Burma to negotiate with the Generals who ordered this bloody crackdown.

But where are the men who ordered this bloody crackdown? Where do they live and how do they live? How have they organised their ruling structures and institutions to implement such systematic brutality and callous violence on peaceful demonstrators and respected and revered monks? Who are the men, and women that serve the military elite who instigated the crackdown? What factors motivate the civil servants of Burma to work for this military elite?

The military elite of Burma operate in an opaque fashion. Commentators and analysts speculate about the power struggles within their ranks and their motivations. The common man in Burma engages incessantly in tea-shop gossip about the Senior-Generals and their bickering. Some of this amounts to little more than contemporary Kremlinology in a tropical, and exotic, landscape. However, much of it does reveal some useful, but cryptic, information about the generals and their eccentricities.

This article attempts to shed some light on the Generals and their regime. The article bases itself on the first hand account of a visitor to the 'new' capital city of Burma (Nay Pyi Taw). This is the 'city' where the military elite live surrounded by junta officials and vast military protective force.

The city of Nay Pyi Taw is situated several hundred kilometres north of Rangoon (the former capital of Burma). In 2004 Senior General Than Shwe made the decision to move his military and civilian elite to a rural wasteland in the centre of Burma (an area known as they dry-lands). Civil servants were given 36 hours to pack for their new station in Nay Pyi Taw. Builders, cajoled and bullied into constructing the roads, houses and offices of Nay Pyi Taw often fell prey to malaria. Thousands of unskilled labourers from around Burma were transported to Nay Pyi Taw to sweep roads, tend gardens and clean ministry buildings. The junta was finally, and decisively, isolating itself from its people that it ruled with an iron, though arbitrary, grip.

Today the 'city' of Nay Pyi Taw reveals much of the dreams, fantasies, idiosyncrasies and failings of the Generals. The highway from the airport to the city is flawlessly flat in comparison to the bumpy roads of Rangoon after months of monsoon rains. Land Cruisers with opaque windows drive in convoys with officials sitting in air conditioning protected from the searing heat outside. Images of the Lord Buddha adorn the dash-boards of their luxury cars that a hardworking professional in Rangoon could never dream of owning.

Approaching the outskirts of the city a linear row of half-built constructions emerge. This is affectionately entitled the hotel 'zone', a privileged ghetto were foreigners and visitors reside, for the short period of time they are authorised to stay in the capital city. The hotels are built by a handful of new business men who are friends of the generals. The businessmen know that they will never be able to make a profit from hotels situated in this parochial backwater but understand that a cordial long-term relationship with their patron is worth this loss-leading venture.

6 lanes of motorway speed the visitor past the hotel zone and onwards to the first of one of many theatrical displays of the Senior General's delusions of grandeur. An enormous fire-engine glistens in the harsh sun protruding proudly from a newly constructed fire-station. The fire-engine is at a perfect right-angle to the enormous and empty 6 lane high-way. Its heroic pose hints at an arrogant refusal to move in times of need or emergency. The fire station sits astride a police-station. Printed in bright letters on the entrance to the police station is the phrase 'May I help'. The sentence is not posed as a question with a question mark. Help is to be offered with, or without, consent of the passer-by.

The city is punctuated by grotesque roundabouts with sculpted and over-ornamented gardens attended by expressionless workers mindlessly cutting grass in the midday sun. The side-walks are populated by emaciated figures sweeping robotically without any pedestrians to enjoy the spotless surroundings.

Several minutes drive past the holiday-zone, and a few grotesque roundabouts later, the visitor to Nay Pyi Taw is driven past row after row of apartment blocks built for the unfortunate civil servants serving the military elite of Burma. Apartment blocks protrude clumsily from the tropical expanse of the dry lands. Each block is situated in a cluster of apartments that are colour coded. Even at home, the civil servants of Burma are obliged to confirm to a dehumanising and infantilising collectivity.

More lowly civil servants are transported to-and-from their houses in shuttles. Their days consist of a dreary routine of sleep-shuttle-work-shuttle-sleep. Occasionally this monotony is broken up with a trip to an expensive market in a nearby town which at least reminds the workers of the junta of their home-town and a normal life. More senior civil servants are granted the privilege of a car. The monotony of their lives may be punctuated with the assistance of a tranquilising bottle of whisky and there are of course opportunities to visit Rangoon for meetings. Official meetings in Rangoon have become a perk of senior officials rather than a bind.

Ministry buildings are more like fortresses. They are designed by rulers to intimidate. They are not constructed to invite the participation of citizens in the affairs of the state. In any case, it would take the majority of citizens months to walk across empty Dry-Land expanses to physically access the corridors of power even in the miraculous event that they were granted access through the barbed wire fences and barricades that surround ministry buildings.

But only two years since the construction of Nay Pyi Taw the fascist fa├žade of the new city look less lustrous and intimidating. The forbidding facades of ministries are, at closer scrutiny, peeling and chipping. The corridors of ministries are populated by misplaced equipment, antiquated furnishing and a general atmosphere of daily misery. The overly industrious application of disinfectant fails to conceal a pungent smell of monotony and human unhappiness.

The apartment blocks of civil servants, whilst symbolising the mastery of the Burmese military elite over the tangled foliage of the drylands, cannot conceal the dreary daily existence of civil servants living several hundred miles away from their families in a god-forsaken wasteland. Vests, underwear and bedding sit in undignified rows on the washing lines of the apartments of the managers of ministry departments with unnecessarily complicated names and acronyms.

The massive motorways are used not only by Khaki clad members of the military elite but also trishaw drivers transporting less fortunate members of the unskilled and semi-skilled army of workers who clean and maintain the new city. The trishaw, more reminiscent of the busy urban street-scenes of Rangoon from where the bureaucrats come, appear lost and absurd in the deserted motorways.

Every day in the mid-afternoon there are now electricity cuts in Nay Pyi Taw. Whilst the majority of Rangoon's citizens live with a chronic lack of public services, including electricity, this represents a shameful affront to an elite whose lives are constructed to avoid the suffering of the masses they rule.

Whilst the atmosphere and architectural design of Nay Pyi Taw is inspired by dystopian fantasies of a totalitarian nature it remains difficult to stop farce, tragedy and comedy from intruding through the cracks of the official veneer. Senior civil servants, with privileges, sitting in forbidding ministry buildings find it impossible to tear themselves away from their TVs. As senior officials they are granted access to CNN news programmes. They sit and watch the spectacle of demonstrating monks and brutalised protestors in rapt silence. Many of them are members of the educated intelligentsia and technical professional classes. A large majority will have been young men, and women, during 1988 when demonstrations were crushed with massive force. A vast majority of them are good people with strong Buddhist beliefs who hope to abide by a strong convention of religious and social morals. They are the unlucky civilian elite who have to mediate between their xenophobic military patrons and the wider world. They are the misunderstood civilian elite who are often compelled to implement the perverse political regime of a military elite with an increasingly tenuous grip on reality and little interest in the sufferings of the average Burmese citizen.

In the hotel-zone each hotel room has a TV showing a stream of distressing images transmitted to the world by CNN of Rangoon and the bloody crack-down. The scenes are relayed in TVs in the hotel lobby and the hotel restaurant. The surreal spectacle of the events in the heart of the Generals' capital in a public space with Burmese waiters, waitresses and bar-staff watching agog appeared at first to be a hallucination. Scenes of the crackdown were juxtaposed with extracts of Senior General Than Shwe's daughter's wedding associated with the most ostentatious display of wealth and conspicuous consumption. Whilst demonstrators are massacred we watch the Senior-General's daughter bedecked with millions of dollars of gems.

Hotel staff oscillated between nervous laughter and moments of uncharacteristic tearfulness. Staff made daily telephone calls to Rangoon and other cities, where their families were based, to check that their loved ones were in good health and had survived the crack-down.

As I left the hotel-zone for the airport a hotel staff member cheerfully announced that one day this place 'would be a museum'. In the meantime a more sinister series of sentences remains in my memory. I talked with a man who belongs to the community of lowly workers that does not usually come into contact with visitors to Nay Pyi Taw. When I asked what it was like living in Nay Pyi Taw, he answered 'They keep changing the rules. We keep quiet.'

The events unfolding in Rangoon on the 10th day of demonstrations indicate that they will indeed keep changing the rules, and the luckless people of Burma will have to keep quiet again.

However, the rules cannot be changed forever and the people of Burma will not have to be quiet for another eternity. A trip to Nay Pyi Taw demonstrates several elements of the junta, and its arbitrary grip on power, which ensure that its rule is impermanent.

First, the generals will not be able to insulate themselves permanently from the messy reality of daily life. The civil servants of the junta will increasingly engage in foot-dragging and subtle acts of disobedience. Today they are skiving off Friday duties by organising official meetings in Rangoon. Tomorrow foot-dragging will be become more frequent and disturb the operational functioning of the government. Ultimately civil servants will 'abscond' and escape from their jungle apartments.

Two, the military elite have isolated themselves in Nay Pyi Taw in a fashion which is now irrevocable. They understand nothing of those that they rule. Their inability to understand the power of new technologies and media (TV, CNN and the internet) are indications of this small-minded parochialism. Dictators need to understand how their clients think. Fear, and terror alone, can only work in the short to medium-term.

Three, the Generals have now brutalised the Sangha (Buddhist monks) whilst having experienced embarrassing videos of elite conspicuous consumption being leaked to the entire country. They have no legitimacy in any social class or group. Only within their own tiny military elite is there any form of support for the Generals. Even among their civil servant elite there are clear indications that their loyalty is increasingly diminishing. The waning loyalty of civil servants results from a sudden awareness that they are merely the instruments of their masters, and have been moved to a jungle hide-out, by patrons who are willing to callously murder members of the religious elite who are universally admired and revered.

One day Nay Pyi Taw will be a museum. Much may need to be done in the meantime.

If the Generals refuse to change heart, many empty side-walks will need to be swept. Fire-engines will need to be polished and cleaned. Grass will need to be cut and tended in the searing sun. Much water will need to be pumped across the drylands for grotesque fountains. Flaking ministry buildings will need to be repainted. Much disinfectant will need to be administered to conceal the smell of unhappiness and human misery in ministry buildings. Many rules will have to be changed arbitrarily. Many people will have to be silent.

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Blogger Bourgeois Nievete said...

Hi Ms. Mata,
you just came to me through one of my Google News Alerts for Burma. How cool is that!
I started my Burma Tree with
and these guys are great for breaking news...
All these are listed on my blog.

You have an excellent blog and I hope to get my own nascent blog there someday.
Please check it out and the ever growing Burma links list.

I have been sending around my latest post to try to get the idea going.
If you like my blog I would be honored to include you on my list of Blog Friends.
love & t'anks

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Bourgeois Nievete said...

I'm beginning to see the world's news respond in (r)evolutionary ways.

5:42 PM  

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