People Power

4 minute read
Andrew Marshall | Rangoon

Here’s a Burmese joke. A man with toothache goes overseas to see a dentist. “Don’t you have dentists back in Burma?” the dentist asks. “Of course,” the man replies. “We’re just not allowed to open our mouths.”

This joke, retold in Emma Larkin’s book Secret Histories, will elicit no smiles at the embattled Rangoon headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Its leader, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has spent more than 10 years in detention since 1989. Her senior colleagues are too old to fight the “stressful, bruising campaign” against the junta, argues The Irrawaddy, a magazine based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and written by Burmese exiles. The rank and file have been arrested, tortured and murdered. The party appears moribund.

But not Burma’s people, who seem almost hardwired for survival. In small yet significant ways, ordinary Burmese show their spirit of resistance against the tyrannical regime that rules them. Take, for example, the local editors who constantly challenge draconian censorship rules to inform readers about vital issues, often in clever and oblique ways. For example, it is illegal to publish stories about chronic power shortages, or about Burma’s ongoing brain drain. Instead, readers find pointed stories about the popularity of Chinese-made generators, or the impact of the brain drain in India. One editor I know departs for his regular appointment with government censors uttering the cheerful cry: “I’m off to the bulls___ department!”

Or consider the Rangoon social worker who, angered by state indifference to Burma’s rampaging HIV/AIDS epidemic, is privately raising $7,000 for a home for 30 AIDS orphans. (Compare this sum to Burma’s entire budget for combating HIV/AIDS in 2004: just $22,000.) The home will be constructed without revealing its function to health or social-welfare officials, for fear they will obstruct the project. Once it is up and running, the social worker explains, “we’ll ask officials to recognize and help us—or to take the children away and treat them themselves, which they won’t do.” Even the paperboy at the traffic lights on Shwedagon Pagoda Road does his bit to fight back: he sidles up to offer foreigners some antique contraband—a pristine 1994 copy of TIME magazine with Suu Kyi on its cover.

Burma is often described as a “hermit nation,” yet it is no North Korea. Radio and satellite TV have long brought news from abroad. And since its debut three years ago, the Internet is regularly accessed by thousands of people. In Rangoon, Internet cafs proliferate yet remain notably overcrowded with young Burmese researching foreign college courses or downloading PlayStation cheat codes. Even online dating has started. The junta controls the country’s two Internet service providers, but enterprising Burmese use proxy servers to access and anonymously surf banned websites, as well as to safely send and receive international e-mails. Mobile phones—virtually unheard of five years ago—are now a fairly common sight in Rangoon, even though service is spotty. Many Burmese doubt whether the regime’s intelligence apparatus—already scrambled by the purge of spy chief Khin Nyunt a year ago—has the manpower or expertise to scrutinize a gathering torrent of e-mails and phone calls.

Few Burmese believe ruling hard-liner General Than Shwe will even contemplate reform. “Elephants never retract their tusks,” goes a local saying. Yet with the government’s mass relocation to Pyinmana, the elephant seems to be vanishing—tusks and all. “They’re behaving like a retreating army,” notes a delighted Rangoon journalist. Burma watchers speculate that the junta wants to protect itself from a U.S. military invasion. More likely, the move is prompted by what Burma’s generals know is a clearer and more present danger: their own people.

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