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Laughing in the face of despair

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

Burma is an entrancingly beautiful country of Buddhist monks and hill-tribe opium-growers, impoverished rice farmers and glistening golden pagodas, that has suffered under the rule of a brutal military dictatorship for nearly 40 years. Three factors serve to prop up the dictatorship and have prevented, until now, the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi from gaining power, despite overwhelming popular support. The first is the ruthlessness of the military regime, whose brutal measures have sewn fear throughout the country. The second is the drug trade, whose earnings feed an economy where success depends on corruption and crime. The third is China, Burma's neighbor to the north.

The Chinese have provided the Burmese regime with billions of dollars worth of arms, and are involved in virtually every aspect of the Burmese economy. The drug trade, Chinese money, and military rule have combined to make corruption an ongoing, corroding influence in Burma and a formidable obstacle to the emergence of democratic rule.

Soon after arriving in Rangoon, Burma's capital and largest city, I met Peter, a 26-year-old man from the Chin tribal area in the north. He had learned English, he said, in one of the Christian Bible colleges in his home territory and was anxious to converse. Peter had come to the big city in order to send money back to his parents, who needed to pay for his younger brothers' elementary-school education and for medicine in case of an outbreak of malaria, tuberculosis or any of the other diseases that sometimes rage through the area.

Because he was outgoing and spoke several languages, Peter had landed a job as doorman for one of the Chinese-style karaoke clubs that have sprung up here in recent years. The clubs are frequented by relatively well- off people, which means mostly men with army connections or Burmese and Chinese businessmen. According to Peter, the karaoke clubs serve as centers for one of the three kinds of prostitution in the city. Men who go there can request a private room where three or four girls are sent to share drinks with him, cuddle and sing karaoke until he decides which one he wants. The subsequent private meeting takes place in an apartment outside of the club premises.

For lower-income clients, there are also street prostitutes. According to a popular saying that reflects current reality, "everybody has to work two jobs in Burma" in order to make ends meet. For some of the policemen who patrol Rangoon at night, pimping the street prostitutes is that other job. The police, Peter said, pocket $3 out of the $6 that they charge for a girl.

Finally, for men flush with money, there are nightclubs. These feature line- ups of beautiful female singers who perform soft, romantic solos. In the two I went into, the women would each appear alone on stage and sing a song until every woman had done so; the rotation would then start again. The men expressed their devotions by adorning the women with crowns, jeweled scepters and other trappings of royalty provided for one-time use by the nightclub for a fee of $10. Average Burmese families often survive for two weeks on that amount of money. For a princely sum of $100 or more, one can arrange to meet a favored singer for a romantic tryst.

According to Peter, there are only two possible paths to escape poverty in Burma. One is to procure a visa to a Western country somehow. The other: to earn what he called "black money" by smuggling drugs or other goods, or engaging in some other type of crime or government-based corruption.

Evidence of such corruption hits you as soon as you walk through the passport control in Burma. Under Burmese law, tourists have to change $200 into special "foreign exchange bills," for use in hotels and official tourist attractions, that are worth 15 percent less than the real rate for dollars. But the officials at the booth offered, with heavy-handed hints, to ease the rules in exchange for a bribe of $10.

Landmark of corruption

In Rangoon's industrial area, just outside the city, you can see a row of factories built over the last decade. Some produce nothing; others are working well below capacity. The reason: Much of the raw materials of production - chemicals, fabric, metal - are siphoned off for resale by military officers and other powerful people. Recently, the government has joined the global rush toward privatization of the economy. Many lucrative businesses that until now were owned by the government are being bought by military officers who have enriched themselves through their power. Sometimes Chinese or other foreign businessmen are partners in these ventures.

One outstanding landmark of corruption is the home of Khun Sa, who lives in a gated estate in a fashionable area of Rangoon. Until a few years ago, Khun Sa was famous for being one of the wealthiest drug lords in the world. He commanded a militia numbering in the thousands that protected his drug empire in eastern Burma. For many years now, he has been wanted by the CIA, which has offered a $2-million reward for his capture. In 1995, Khun Sa made a cease-fire deal with the military regime, and now lives in great wealth and comfort in Rangoon.

The military government has managed to create some areas of growth in the economy, despite the corruption. Tourism is one of the economic sectors that produces hard cash, and it is being encouraged by the government. Lake Inle, along with Bagan and its numerous ancient temples, is Burma's most heavily visited tourist area. The Inle and Paot tribes inhabit parts of the shallow, picturesque lake, building houses on stilts and farming rows of tomatoes on land they have coaxed out of the fertile bottom silt.

Lake Inle has dozens of little hotels and restaurants, and an expanding circle of boatmen, rickshaw drivers, guide services and bike-rental agencies. The government has made concessions in order to allow Inle to flourish as a tourist site. Two years ago, I was told by a resident, the government announced that, at least in Inle, they were abandoning their practice of forced labor, in which citizens were frequently rounded up for six-month stints building roads or serving as porters and as living minesweepers for the army. They have kept their word.

The government has also managed to make peace with the White Paots, the largest faction of the Paot tribe. The Red Paots, a more militant faction, are still fighting on. In exchange for laying down their arms, the White Paots were given land to cultivate on the lake, and rights to build the first hotel on stilts, situated in the lake itself.

In the barely inhabited forest areas surrounding much of Inle Lake, the government's presence was hardly felt. At an outdoor regional market - a one-hour boat ride and a half-hour walk from the nearest town - hundreds of tribesmen gathered to sell, to buy and to gamble using giant dice marked by pictures of animals rather than numbers.

"Do the police come here at all?" I asked. "Only to pick up their payoff," I was told.Yet, despite their relative prosperity, people I met in Inle Lake still longed for a democratic government. "They can't turn back history forever," a Paot boatman told me.

People in Lake Inle remember the events of 1988 well. The entire town was involved in the uprising; citizens committees began to run the city in preparation for democracy. A few weeks later, the army marched in and the citizens surrendered. Still, the memory of those days of freedom lives on as a possibility in their minds.

Laughing in the face of fear

Perhaps because the memory of the 1988 uprising exists there, too, terror of the government has not broken the people's spirit in Rangoon either - which is something that the military regime knows well. A subtle but precise reckoning of the balance of power between the military and the people is constantly being played out in political decisions. Take the memory of Aung San - the charismatic leader-turned-general who spearheaded the movement for independence in Burma in the 1930s and `40s - whose day of death, July 19th, used to be marked by the government as a national day of mourning and inspiration. Schools would hold essay contests on the topic of Aung San's life and his contribution; nearly all homes hung out a flag at half-mast. Since his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, entered the scene, the regime has tried to eradicate the cult of Aung San. In recent years, Rangoon residents were warned by government representatives not to fly their flags at half-mast on July 19.

This year, as fighting on the Thai border flared in June, residents of Burmese cities were ordered by neighborhood committees to fly their flags in solidarity with the government troops. But on July 18, they were told to take the flags down. The government was afraid that with the flags already flying, the temptation to convert the patriotic gesture into a gesture of resistance and a display of support in Suu Kyi was likely to overcome people's fears.

In Mandalay, Burma's second largest city, heavy Chinese investment has awakened resentments. A rickshaw driver I spoke to told me bitterly that the Chinese had bought up all of the city's real estate and many of its stores, and that the Burmese had been economically marginalized. But I also found a bubble of freedom in Mandalay that was more than just a threat or a memory. Alongside the rigors of Buddhism, Burma has a more unrestrained and celebratory aspect to its culture. Troupes of dancers, musicians, comic actors, spirit mediums and puppeteers are hired to play at weddings, on holidays, and to give thanks to the local gods for business successes.

One of the most famous troupes is the Mustache Brothers of Mandalay. In 1996, two of the Brothers, Lu Maw and Lu Saw, were invited by Aung San Suu Kyi to a large celebration put on by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Rangoon. This was soon after Suu Kyi's first release from house arrest. The brothers brought the house down with their skits lampooning the regime, including one in which a democracy protester is shot by police but refuses to die. A video of the performance began to circulate; hundreds of copies were quickly distributed. Within a few days, the two Mustache Brothers who had performed were arrested; one brother had been left behind to support all their families in case this happened. The Brothers' lawyer invited Aung San Suu Kyi and another NLD leader, U Tin U, to testify at their trial, setting the stage for a powerful courtroom drama. But when Suu Kyi and her entourage tried to travel to Mandalay, all their attempts were blocked by the government.

The Brothers were sentenced to seven years in prison. After an international campaign to free them, including a letter signed by 20 Hollywood comedians, they were released a year ago. They had served five- and-a-half years of their sentence. The government has forbidden them from performing as a traveling troupe, but they do perform a show for tourists several nights a week, emceeded by Par Par Lay, the younger brother who was not imprisoned and the only one who speaks English. Along with dance and vaudeville-style comedy, Par Par Lay spikes the performance with acerbic references to his brothers' imprisonment and the Burmese political situation. The walls at the Mustache Brothers home-theater are plastered with photos of them and Aung San Suu Kyi - startling in a country where many are afraid to say her name in public. Some of the photos are recent: When Aung San Suu Kyi visited Mandalay two months ago following her release from house arrest, she spoke from the Brothers' home to a crowd that filled the street from one end to the other. Military intelligence agents sat next to democracy activists outside the Brothers' home, and the government shot videos from the second story of a building across the street, but nothing could dampen the crowd's joy at being with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Chinese interest

Suu Kyi has, until recently, advocated a ban on tourism and even on humanitarian aid to Burma, figuring that any hard cash entering the country would end up mostly in the pockets of the corrupt military regime. Now she has begun to say that she would welcome aid as long it is accompanied by a mechanism of accountability and transparency. Her hope is that international aid, and perhaps tourism, will strengthen the sources of democracy and decency that still flow just under the surface of the stricken society.

Poised against the hopes of the people of Burma are two enormous forces: the multi-billion-dollar drug trade, and the People's Republic of China. Since the post-September 11 collapse of Afghanistan's drug production, Burma has become the world's largest opium producer, and the source of an estimated 50 percent of the heroin that makes it to the streets of the United States. The opium is grown in the hilly jungle areas in Burma's north and east that are controlled by tribal militias which have been fighting the central government since independence was declared. These nearly inaccessible areas have also become major producers of amphetamines, and they are fast becoming a dangerous plague in Western China, Thailand and Burma itself.

In the past decade, the military regime has signed cease-fire agreements with many of the tribal groups, and despite the regime's declared war on drugs - which Western observers think is at least partly sincere - it is common knowledge here that a cut of the drug money reaches Burmese army officers as part of the cease-fire deal. This easy money creates a strong incentive to continue the current state of affairs: low-level conflict in some areas, cease-fire agreements in others, all accompanied by military rule.

But even more threatening to the possible triumph of democracy here is the Chinese interest in Burma. In the 1960s and `70s, the Chinese, who supported communist insurgents in the north, were the Burmese military's arch-enemy. Beginning in the 1990s, they have become the regime's closest friends, selling or donating billions of dollars of military aid including fighter planes to the regime, mining the country's northern hills for jade and rubies, and harvesting vast forests of teakwood. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese from the western Chinese province of Yunnan which borders Burma in the north, have bought homes and businesses in Burmese towns. In Rangoon, China has invested in Western-style shopping centers whose prices are too high for anyone but military and the Chinese, and in gated housing developments, still spookily uninhabited.

Geopolitically, the Chinese are hoping that an improvement in Burma's transportation infrastructure will give them access through Burma to the Indian Ocean. Burmese democracy activists also believe that China is anxious to thwart the emergence of another democracy on its border - a bad example for its own people. Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed in our conversation [see "Creating her own karma," Week's End, August 16] that in contrast to her high-level meetings with Western and Japanese diplomats, the Chinese have made no contact with her.

What is at stake for the world with respect to the fate of democracy in Burma? This was a question that Aung San Suu Kyi didn't like. "People should care about Burma because Burma is part of the world," she said, chiding me delicately.

But I still think that the question is important, because Burma has been easy to ignore. And the answer is quite simple: The Chinese would like nothing more than a Burma made in its own image: capitalism without democracy, free markets without free human beings. The danger of the spread of the Chinese model is palpable throughout Southeast Asia. Even in democratic Thailand, where everyone has a vote even if it is for sale, several million Burmese, Laotian and Nepali migrant workers with no civil rights, no health insurance, and under the constant threat of being sent back across the border if they complain, man the rice mills, the fish ponds and many of the factories. Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are all in peril of moving toward the Chinese concept: an authoritarian central government that can keep goods flowing and ideas under control.

Of all the nations in the region, it is the Burmese - who have longed for political freedom for so many years - who have developed the most profound popular commitment to democracy and the most promising leaders. Indeed, Burma is a perfect place for democracy to make a stand.

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