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  Issue No 106 Official Organ of LaborNet 10 August 2001  

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Review

Living Silence


In these extracts from her new book, Christina Fink goes inside Burma to find a world where military repression is slowly crushing a people.

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Burma is a surprising country. Boasting emerald-green rice fields, a multitude of tropical flowers and fruits, and brilliantly painted temples and shops, it is awash with colour. Most Burmese, men and women, continue to wear longyis (sarongs)decorated in striking patterns, and children run around with sweet-smelling sandalwood paste smeared on their faces. A carefree cheerfulness seems to characterize the people, but if you mention 'democracy' or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, people freeze.

The majority of the country's 50 million inhabitants are farmers. In the rural areas, oxcarts are still the primary mode of transportation, and television sets remain a luxury. Rangoon, the capital, is dominated by the shimmering golden Shwedagon Pagoda, although new high-rise hotels and office buildings have begun to clutter the view. The capital's markets and teashops bustle with activity, but the universities are often quiet. They are shut down for months or years at a time whenever student protests occur.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations broke out nationwide, shattering the silence that had characterized political life for so many years. Students, professionals, civil servants and even some soldiers took to the streets to celebrate their new-found freedom. But after six weeks, the military was able to re-establish control, in part by promising multi-party elections for a new government. In 1990, the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced chee), won a landslide victory, and change seemed imminent. But the regime refused to transfer power and instead began arresting some of those who had been elected. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself had been put under house arrest in 1989.

Ten years later, Burma was still under military rule. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest in 1995, but when she continued to demand a transfer of power, or at least a dialogue about it, the military regime began restricting her movements and harassing members of her party who refused to resign...

It is not without irony that I have selected Living Silence as the title of this book. Burma is such a vibrant and lively place, yet so many subjects are off-limits or only talked about in whispers, behind closed doors. People in Burma are reluctant to speak up because they are living under the seemingly omnipresent surveillance of military intelligence personnel and informers. Those who act against the regime risk torture, long-term imprisonment and being treated as outcasts for life. To protect themselves and their families, Burmese participate in creating the silence that constrains many aspects of their lives.

Moreover, although the regime now allows foreign investment and tourism, it denies outsiders access to areas where human rights abuses are rampant and insists that what damaging information does get out is unsubstantiated. The regime has tried to muffle Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the most prominent critic of the regime, by frequently cutting her phone line, restricting others' access to her house, and blocking her from traveling outside Rangoon.

To recognize other voices besides that of the military regime, I have followed the pro-democracy movement in using Burma rather than Myanmar. Although in Burmese 'Bama' and 'Myanma' are used interchangeably for the name of the country, the choice of names in English has political connotations. The military regime unilaterally changed the English name of the country to Myanmar without consulting the country's citizens.

Despite the regime's stifling of its citizens' creative potential for so long, Burma is not the same place today that it was in the early years of military rule. Because of their liberating experiences during the 1988 pro-democracy movement and their increasing awareness of far better living conditions in other countries, Burmese today are less willing to accept the regime's claims that military rule is necessary. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has provided focus and leadership while a vocal opposition movement in exile has helped make Burma much more of an international issue than it ever was in the past.

At the same time, Burma has drawn international concern because of its status as one of the world's top heroin producers, along with Afghanistan. Burma is also rapidly becoming a key amphetamines producer, with the drugs flowing out of Burma and leading to rising addiction rates in neighbouring countries. Along with the expansion of the drug trade has come a worsening HIV/AIDS epidemic, with high infection rates not only in Burma but also in other countries in the region. Many governments have sought to work with Burma's military regime on these issues, but with limited success.

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Obedience is a Habit

Some activists have argued that the military is habituating people into silently obeying as part of a strategy of disempowerment. Control through humiliation is often used by the regime. Political prisoners with their heads covered are frequently ordered to jump or bend down as if there were obstacles along the path when in fact there are none. In the interrogation room they are told to pretend to ride a motorcycle, including making 'vroom vroom' noises all the while.

Even ordinary civilians face similar kinds of humiliation. Daw Sanda explained that to impress a government minister who would be passing their town on a train, the local authorities ordered all those living on both sides of the track to repaint their houses. 'Those who didn't do it,' she said,' had to pay fifty kyat. Those who couldn't pay were sent out on to the train track to jump like frogs.'

U Po Khin, a farmer who became a labour organizer, talked about how the military has made regular, and sometimes arbitrary demands on citizens, so that eventually people don't even think about protesting. He gave an example of how some villagers were toyed with in Sagaing Division. The military officers said they were going to repair the road that linked the towns of Kalaymyo and Tamu. They ordered the villagers to collect stones and firewood, clear a site, and make tar. After the villagers had complied, the battalion withdrew. The tar spoiled, and all their work had been in vain. Later, the military officers came again and said this time they really were going to repair the road and made the villagers collect everything again, without any payment.

The villagers were told to pile all the supplies on one side of the road. When the officers reappeared later, they ordered the villagers to move everything to the other side of the road, and then again to the first side. The villagers had to do what they were told, no matter how capricious the demand.

U Po Khin explained that sometimes the demands are for money rather than labour. For instance, businessmen in Rangoon and Mandalay have no choice but to buy tickets for military-sponsored functions or to make donations to military-sponsored charities, because if they don't, they may find their business activities hindered in all kinds of ways. U Po Khin concluded that, with time, 'When one man in an army uniform stands in front of your house and says you have to pay this amount of money, the house-owner has no thought of complaining or asking, "For what?" He doesn't ask, he just gives it.' U Po Khin said that when he and his colleagues asked the villagers, 'Why do you give this money? You have the right to refuse. You have the right to question,' they answered, 'Oh, they are from the government, how can I?'

U Po Khin's colleague, U Tun Shein, added, 'To refuse a government order, we need a gathering. If only I refuse, I will be punished, it is sure. If we can collect the people, we can refuse. If there is an organization, it will be successful. But the government knows about that. That's why they do not allow freedom of association.' With no independent unions allowed, individuals feel overwhelmed by their helplessness in the face of the powerful military organization.

Raymond Tint Way, a Burmese psychiatrist who now lives abroad, put it in psychological terms. He said, 'People have regressed under military rule. They have become more dependent. They have had to endure so much hardship that they have become "immunized" to it. They can handle and cope with it. There are positive and negative consequences: they survive, but they don't overthrow the regime.'

Living Silence (Zed books) will be launched at Gleebooks on Saturday afternoon. It is on sale at Gleebooks, Readings and other bookshops for $39.95. It can also be ordered directly from Astam Books by phone (02) 9566-2440, fax (02) 9566-4411, or online at http://www.astambooks.com.au


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 106 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: In Exile
Burmese's government in exile's Minister for Justice U Thein Oo talks about a struggle for democracy that has become a test of international solidarity.
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*  Politics: A National Disgrace
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis gives his take on the workers entitlements issue and its mismanagement by the Howard Government.
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*  E-Change: 2.2 The Information Organisation
Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel look at how network technologies will change the way organizations operate in the Information Age.
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*  Media: The Fine Print
Mark Hebblewhite looks at how the major dailies handled the Tri-Star dispute and finds that the story really does depend on the telling.
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*  Human Rights: A People Besieged
Labor MLC Janelle Saffin, an active supporter of the pro-Democracy movement in Burma, sets out the issues behind the ILO sanctions.
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*  International: Postcard From Brazil
The CFMEU’s Phil Davey reports on a rural movement that puts our National Farmers Federation to shame.
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*  History: Indonesia Calling
They needed no resolutions. Soldiers and workers who did not know one another moved together, the black ban started to reach out across the harbour from the noisy, smoke-filled room.
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*  Solidarity: On the Frontline
Australian trade unionists are providing practical help for the Burmese through projects funded by APHEDA-Union Aid Abroad.
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*  Satire: Skase 'Too Ill' to Fly Home for Burial
Spanish authorities have deemed Christopher Skase too ill to return to Australia for his own funeral.
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*  Review: Living Silence
In these extracts from her new book, Christina Fink goes inside Burma to find a world where military repression is slowly crushing a people.
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