Burma's rage

Henry Brown
8 August 2008

Henry Brown was in Burma just after the suppression of the monks' revolt of September 2007 and again after the cyclone of May 2008. A regular visitor to the country, he explains the precariousness of the regime. The appearance of control that the military rulers have relied on for their exercise of power is gone. The country is impoverished. The rulers have had to turn against the monks, the single most important institution of Burmese civil society. The revered Aung San Suu Kyi is a permanent moral force against the regime. The army, the only institution that supports the regime, may not be loyal long.


Rage and hope

burma sunset

The salt from the sea-water that flooded the Irrawady delta in the typhoon is still in the soil. The monsoon rains have not washed it away, but driven it into the ground, and it will take a few years before it is eliminated. The Burmese authorities made little effort to recover the bodies of the drowned, and very many must simply have decomposed where they lay. Even now thousands are homeless, with few efforts made to help them. Little of the aid that foreign countries were ready and eager to offer was allowed in. The government even hindered affluent, urban Burmese from going into the countryside to deliver food and medical supplies. The most systematic efforts to help were made by monks. Many of the homeless took refuge in the monasteries. This made the authorities uneasy so quite often they ordered people out of the monasteries even though they had nowhere to go back to.

Also in openDemocracy on Burma:

Kyi May Kaung, "Burma's struggle, Aung San SuuKyi's role" (8 August 2006)

NickCumming-Bruce, "Burma and the ICRC: a people at risk" (15December 2006)

Kyi May Kaung, "Areality-check in Burma" (10 November 2006)

Karen Connolly, "The LizardCage" (22 February 2007)

Aung Zaw, "Burma'squestion" (26 September 2007)

Robert Semeniuk, "A chronic emergency: on theBurma-Thailand border" (10 October 2007)

Joakim Kreutz, "Burma: protest, crackdown - andnow?" (12October 2007)

MeenakshiGanguly, "India andBurma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)

Aung Zaw, "Burma: the cyclone and the referendum" (6 May2008)

Wylie Bradford, "Burma: cylone, aid and sanctions."(27 May 2008)

To the outside world all this has seemed incomprehensible. In fact it had its own logic. The regime has always feared anything that might make it seem not all-controlling and omni-competent. For the past forty five years control has been its raison d'etre. The military overthrew the last democratic regime, that of U Nu, in 1962 because they claimed that his negotiations with ethnic minorities threatened national unity. Any appearance of not being in control undermines the regime's claim to legitimacy. Yet both the outside world and the great majority of Burmese now see a government that combines bumbling with a blindness about how callous they appear that is almost comical. There is no doubt that their palpably inadequate response to the great emergency has stoked up an anger in the population that was already intense. It is this sort of combination of elements that typically brings about a crisis of regime. In Burma it follows on from the events of last September, which themselves shook the generals - the violent suppression of protests led by the country's monks.


How do we gauge the mood of the country? In September it already resembled the build up towards the great insurrection of 1988, which came within a hair's breadth of destroying the regime. The Burmese are a long-suffering people. But in 1988 virtually the entire population came out on to the streets inspired both by hope and rage. After recent events, it is possible that the new explosion, if it comes, will now be even more violent.


Then and now: 1988 Remembered

burma protest

One of the pleasures of Rangoon is to sit in a tea-house at the side of Inya Lake watching the sunset, as the floodlights come on to illuminate the vast, gilded stupa of the Schwedagon pagoda, as it appears to float almost weightlessly in the distance. The setting could give one pause for thought. On one side of the lake, still under house arrest, lives Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese democracy movement. On the other side, in the house that was the residence of the late General U Ne Win, military-socialist Dictator of Burma from 1962 to 1988, lives his favourite daughter, Sanda Win, reputedly now out of her mind, and also under house arrest. Her husband and three sons are in the Insein gaol, where Ne Win incarcerated his opponents, under a death sentence (which will not be carried out) for allegedly plotting in a Chinese restaurant a coup to restore power to the Ne Win clan. Inya lake was also the scene of a massacre during the uprising of 1988. Members of the Lon Htein military security forces chased protesting students into the lake, and held the heads of some of them under water until they drowned.

The Sagaing Hill, above Mandalay, is another popular tourist spot - although there are few tourists in Burma these days. To this hill, crowded with pagodas, monasteries and nunneries would come the politicians of old, democratic Burma to gain merit and meditate on their future lives. From the Hill you can look down to the splendid view of the Irrawaddy river, with its bridge dating from the British days. Under this bridge, in 1988, floated the bodies of many demonstrators, shot by the Lon Htein.

Parallels between the events of 1988 and those of September 2007 are in the minds of many. You can even meet people who were beaten by the security forces in 1988 and again in September. In 1988 the underlying cause of the great uprising, in which the whole nation seemed to participate, but which was ruthlessly suppressed with the loss of several thousand lives, was the impoverishment of the country under the inept and cleptocratic regime of Ne Win. Ne Win ruled Burma through the army and the Burma Socialist Programme Party. His regime was a dotty, but sinister mixture of socialism, militarism, astrology and Burman nationalism. Before the War, Burma had been the most prosperous country in Asia, and the largest exporter of rice in the world. By the end of Ne Win's rule it was one of the world's least developed nations, and a net importer of rice.

But the immediate cause of the 1988 revolt was Ne Win's decision - not once, but twice - to demonetise the currency without compensation, leaving countless Burmese, who kept their savings under their mattresses in large-denomination notes, penniless. Ne Win introduced new notes, all of which could be divided by the number nine which astrologers had long ago assured him was his lucky number.

The long-term cause of September's protests, led by Buddhist monks, was the continuing impoverishment of the country. You now meet people even veterans of the 1988 rising who look back to the Ne Win era as a time of comparative prosperity compared with now. One student said to me: `At least my father had food to eat then.' But the immediate cause was a sudden steep increase in the price of fuel. People had even become too poor to give the monks their portion of rice in their begging bowls the daily way in which the average Burmese earns spiritual merit.

There is no doubt at all that the demonstrations of September were entirely peaceful, and that the regime used wholly disproportionate force against them. The monks walked in procession, and laypeople simply surrounded them to protect and encourage them. There are no Japanese tourists in Burma now because Japan is furious at the shooting by the military of a Japanese photographer. The government claims he was caught in crossfire, or even killed by opponents of the regime. But I spoke to a young man who had been standing only a metre behind the soldier as he fired, and four metres from the unfortunate photographer: `The soldiers first fired in the air, but the people did not disperse. They made funny faces at the soldiers, and laughed at them. They also shouted at them not to shoot the people. Then the soldiers were ordered to aim their guns at the crowd. The photographer was between the military and the crowd. He hesitated for a moment, then continued to photograph the soldiers. The soldier I was standing behind was enraged, he went straight up to the Japanese, and fired into his upper abdomen. Then he smashed the camera with his boots, and trod over the body towards the crowd. Later I saw them pulling the corpse by its feet and contemptuously throwing it into a car. He was obviously Japanese and a journalist, and he was deliberately murdered.' This witness saw ten people wounded, including old men and old women, and then roughly thrown into trucks. They were taken, not to hospital, but to City Hall. The soldiers who did this were Kachins (who appeared to understand only one Burmese word "Shoot!") and their army corps was the`Myanmar Group 66' from Mingaladon.

The soldiers did not shoot many demonstrators, but instead set about them with the butts of their rifles, and later with iron bars. A student from Rangoon University told me that he saw twenty monks beaten about the head with rifle-butts. One man a veteran of '88 - showed me the deep gash running about four inches down the back of his head. He had been taking photographs of the soldiers and the police. `They came for me at midnight five police and five soldiers, just to arrest me, and they took me to City Hall. They asked me why I was demonstrating. I said: "Because there is no food, no freedom and the economy has collapsed." The soldier said: "That is none of your business" and began beating me about the head.'

Another man spoke to residents of buildings near City Hall. Around midnight they heard prolonged screams, with people already injured by the soldiers pleading "Don't hit me, I'm wounded.' The seriously injured were taken to a gaol hospital, the rest to prison.

But the regime's greatest hatred was reserved for the monks. (They also hate the students. As always happens after any demonstrations, all the universities were closed after the September events.) With absurd mendacity the authorities actually claim that those leading the processions were`fake' monks. This is because they dare not admit that they sanctioned brutality against by far the most respected and revered group in the entire country. The truth, however, is that the demonstrations started at the heart of Burmese spirituality the Schwedagon pagoda, near the centre of Rangoon. Photographs have been seen around the world of the bloodstained floors of monasteries where the monks were picked up at night. Monks were beaten about the head, defrocked and sent to labour camps.

A regime mortally wounded?

burma monks

It is difficult to overstate the outrage felt by almost all Burmese Buddhists at the brutalisation of the monks. Monks are integrated into all levels of Burmese society. Monks give babies their names; they provide astrological charts for the newborn; in the almost complete absence of medical care in rural Burma (i.e. for eighty per cent of the population) they give traditional medical care in the monasteries, and general help and advice. Monks and pagodas are just about the most conspicuous things in Burma. The regime has 450,000 soldiers but there are 500,000 permanent monks. If you add the temporary monks (and all Burmese boys become monks for at least a few weeks in their lives) then at times there are more than two million of them. Monks were the only organised group to provide effective help after the typhoon, handing out what little food was available and sheltering people in monasteries until the regime forced them out to return to their destroyed homes and villages.

When the British abolished the ancient, semi-divine monarchy of Burma after 1885, the Sangha (organised body of monks) remained the only traditionally legitimate authority in Burma. They held, and hold the soul of the country. The first (and last) democratically elected prime minister of Burma, U Nu, regularly retired into monasteries for spiritual refreshment. Now the most important temples always have to display photographs of the current leader, Than Shwe, and his cronies`gaining merit' by visiting the shrines and presenting alms. To the great mass of Burmese, the idea that the monks could be beaten over the head and even killed is simply inconceivable.

I was taken to meet a revered senior monk who actually organised all the monks' demonstrations in Rangoon. He is still in contact with all the monks there. He is hated by the regime, but has not been touched. The Burmese I was with prostrated themselves before him when we were brought into his presence. It was considered dangerous for us to talk to him at length, and my Burmese companions were not very good translators, so the conversation had its difficulties. But his anger and contempt for the regime were palpable: `The whole country hates the government. And the government hates the monks. The top monks have been bought by the government they are given free apartments and other perks. But the monastic order as a whole is utterly opposed to the regime. They see the destitution into which the people have been bought how they have so little to eat themselves, they cannot even give rice to the monks. Ne Win's lucky number was 9. Than Shwe's is 6. Back to back they are the same number.' (This was obviously a contemptuous joke, which no doubt loses something in translation. I would like to think that that the combination of numbers has the same suggestion of the obscene in Burmese that it can have in English but I fear it does not. People will tell you, by the way, that Aung San Suu Kyi's lucky number is 7.)

I asked him how the regime can be so stupid as to create outrage by their attacks on the monks. Will the people not be moved to revolt? And if so, can they possibly win against an army of nearly half a million that has shown no compunction in shooting down unarmed demonstrators? He answered with an appropriate Buddhistic detachment: `They may win they may lose.'

I would guess that the brutalising of the monks, along with the aftermath of the typhoon has mortally wounded the regime. There is now a complete understanding between the monastic order and the nation that the present regime is beyond the pale. The danger is that the universal hatred of the generals, now turned into outrage at a sort of sacrilege, combined with rage at their astonishing indifference to the suffering caused by the storm, could lead to a violent irruption, and a violent response by the panicking authorities.

The Lady

aung san su kyi

That is what everybody calls her. I went to Burma expecting to find that Aung San Suu Kyi has considerable support. That falls far short of the reality. She is loved it is the only word beyond anything you would imagine from the outside, loved as (say) Gandhi was loved. And by comparison, Gandhi was a divisive figure, for he was loved more by Hindus than by Muslims. Aung San Suu Kyi is revered by the masses, by the monks, by Burmans and by the minority peoples, who make up about a third of Burma's population. I talked about her to farmers, fishermen, students and the reponse was always the same. The humblest people know all about her, even if they are quite often afraid at first to say what they think. The only people who do not like her are the generals. Than Shwe is said to hate her with a passion.

She must be a nightmare to the ruling clique. She is manifestly more intelligent and better educated than they are, a better speaker, and beautiful: She is also the daughter of Burma's national hero, Aung San, who created the very army that now keeps her under house arrest. People who pass by statues of Aung San, sometimes coated in gold-leaf, are certainly aware of the inheritance.

She has offered compromises to the regime. The army can keep some sort of political role if it goes back to the barracks. The top generals can even leave the country taking their loot with them. There is absolutely nothing that an intelligent, patriotically minded military has to fear from her.

But the regime seems unmoved by such considerations. Having abandoned the trappings of the socialist ideology of Ne Win, all the regime has left is its pledge to defend the unity of the country against ethnic insurgents. True, in a country were at least fifty per cent of the budget goes on the Tatmadaw, the old ethnic rebellions have largely been crushed and the pledges of autonomy of minorities such as the Shan and Karens, which were part of the agreement which led to Burma's independence in the first place, have been reneged on. But anyway there is reason to think that an Aung San Suu Kyi government could come to an agreement with the minorities that preserves the unity of Burma.

But it is hard to see the army giving up its privileges. Officers get free housing, cars, cheap petrol, medical services beyond the dreams of the vast majority of Burmese. It will be hard to push their mouths away from the trough. Beyond that, there is an arrogance, a sense of being a state within a state, a contempt for civilians that goes back at least forty years. It is now purely an army of occupation. It has its friends in China and Singapore the latter, along with India, supplying most of the ammunition it uses to shoot Burmese.

Nevertheless, in the only free election since 1962 which the Lady won by a landslide, but which the regime simply set aside most of the ordinary soldiers voted for the National League for Democracy, her party. Rumour has it that the commanding officer in Mandalay refused to order his men to fire on the demonstrators in September, and was replaced. Many Burmese will tell you with confidence that many of the young officers of the army hate the ruling clique. After all, the great majority of the soldiers have to be from the same families who send their boys into the monkhood. But who can know?

Burma is a land of icons, of images of a compassionate Buddha. It is not too fanciful to see Aung San Suu Kyi in this light. In the misery that is modern Burma, her beauty, her birth, her gentleness stand out against the stupidity and sheer brutishness that has characterised rule in the country since 1962. There is a general belief that she speaks for the whole country and that no one else does so, or even could do so: `The whole strategy of the government is always try to turn one group against another. Only she speaks for the general good.' Add to that that she is the daughter of the Founder of Burmese independence, and it is not surprising that she becomes virtually a source of religious consolation herself. For the average Burmese, consolation is what is needed.

The barracks

burma military

Mussolini absurdly tried to impose a martial, Fascist mentality upon the Italians the people of Europe least suited to the experiment. Something similar happened in Burma. Ne Win tried to impose his own barrack-room mentality upon a nation to whom it is profoundly alien. The erratic, fairly bumbling U Nu embodied the spirit of Burma, for good and ill, in a way that the authoritarian regimes since have never understood. The Burmese are not a people made for uniformity. I have noticed this odd phenomenon amongst school children learning their lessons, and young boy-monks learning off their sutras by heart: There will be a babble of discordant voices as they learn the texts, all sitting close to each other. At first you will assume that they are learning the same thing, but then you realise that they are all getting by rote different lessons, entirely unbothered by the babble. This is Burmese individualism it may be an odd sort of individualism, but it does not take easily to authoritarian bullying.

Whatever people thought of Ne Win and very many hated him he was not actually despised. He had a`narrative' he was one of the Thirty Comrades who accompanied Aung San to Tokyo and then came back with the invading Japanese army. He had his socialism, nationalism and determination to preserve the Union of Burma. The successor regime has nothing, except the last, no claim to legitimacy, no programme, no ideology, nothing except fear that it will lose its material gains. Add to that that many Burmese see it as handing over the country to its Chinese protectors (and Mandalay has become a significantly Chinese city in the past twenty years) it cannot even claim to be patriotic. Than Shwe is an object of ridicule and contempt. He inherits the paranoia and weirdness of the Ne Win regime but not its measure of credibility. In the style of the old kings of Burma who changed capitals with some regularity the government have moved from Rangoon to a new capital, which started off simply as an army-communications centre. The regime has cocooned itself away from public opinion, and appears to have given up politics completely in favour of simple military rule. Than Shwe is thought to have kingly delusions he regularly has an officer follow him holding an umbrella over his head, and ancient sign of regality throughout South East Asia. The televised wedding of his daughter involved fabulous expenditure on gems, worthy of Emperor Bokassa.

Such a vulgarly conspicuous display in one of the poorest countries in the world, where the military rulers have long been suspected of pocketing the lion's share of the gems and precious stones that Burma produces, was idiocy enough, and an insult to the population. The regime's lack of response to the typhoon, its actual obstruction of both foreign and domestic aid, its determination to go ahead with a bpgus referendum designed to legitimise its power in the midst of the emergencyc have produced exactly the mix of ingredients which can cause a regime to fall. The regime's 450,000 soldiers have families of their own, many of whom will have suffered, and are themselves (apart from the officers) not well paid.

Than Shwe has a very narrow power base, even within the army. I wouldn't have thought the future was bright for him. The precedents are not good. As one Burmese said to me: `Ne Win died like a dog. There were only two people at his funeral.'


Sunset in Amarapura, Burma: copyright jmhullot

Devastation following Cyclone Nargis: copyright groundreporter

Demonstration marking 14th anniversary of the 1988 uprising: copyright alca_impenne

A monk confronts Burmese military during the "Saffron Revolution", 2007

Aung San Suu Kyi: copyright Katinho

The Burmese military, c. 1997: copyright taptaptap


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