Burma: Rape of a Gentle Land

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My literary romance with Burma began with Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay,” a piece that high school literature education could not do without. I dreamed of taking a dip in Irrawaddy River under the shadow of a pagoda on a cool afternoon, camping out in the outskirts of Rangoon while watching the stars frolic in the sky, or romping in the park with a Burmese tiger cub as a way of fulfilling my nostalgia for the youth that I’ve lost.

Other times I dreamed of getting a job as a police officer in Moulmein to see how it feels to be George Orwell, who wrote in his memoir: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” I also fancied myself being taught the Manipuri language by a Burmese girl. A minority dialect in Burma, Manipuri is more common in India than in this country of Kipling’s Mandalay romances, therefore a Burmese girl who knows it surely rises above her equals. And I imagined taking up the challenge of the Hkakabo Razi, the highest peak in southeastern Asia, living there for a month. With my Burmese girl teacher for company, I thought that challenge was more pleasurable than Everest. There we could subsist on a Burmese diet— boiled rice, a little spicy meat, some vegetables; hot noodle soup flavoured with coconut; ngapi sauce made from fermented fish; mangosteen, custard apple, and tepid green tea poured in small cups. The gentle life that is Burmese land—far from the madding crowd that is the military junta— one can have on a platter as wide as one’s palm.

Burma the former British territory is located in Southeast Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. To its west are Bangladesh and India. To its northeast is China, and and to its east Laos and Thailand. In size it is slightly smaller than the state of Texas, with an area of about 676,577 square kilometers. Forty-seven million four hundred thousand people live in Burmese land.

The Burma I knew during that interlude with Kipling’s “Mandalay” was from history books. Their modern history began with the gentle intellectual named Aung San (1915-1947), nationalist leader, hero of its independence struggle. Aung San founded the so-called Thakin student movement in the 1930s, Thakin, “master,” being a term previously applied to the British. He was jailed by the British. He escaped to Japan in 1940 and returned with the invading Japanese at the head of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in 1941. Later he served as minister of defense in the puppet government headed by Ba Maw. Disillusioned with the Japanese, General Aung San handed the BIA over to the Allies in 1945. He emerged as the de facto prime minister of British Burma after the war, negotiated the agreement that would make Burma independent, but was assassinated before that agreement could be implemented. A political rival of his, U Saw by name, had him and six ministers of the new government assassinated, reportedly with the collaboration of British former-officials angered by Aung San’s wartime collaborationism. This was in July 1947. In 1948 the country was freed from British rule.

Imagine a country going through its birth pangs as it is ushered to its place among nations. Intrigues, assassinations, turmoils—the order of things when the colonizers pack up their bags and leave the colonized to settle the problem of politics among themselves. With the independence hero assassinated, U Nu, former Foreign Minister in the wartime Japanese-puppet government of Ba Maw, was asked to head the government and Ne Win to head the army. When Burma went on a crisis in 1958, General Ne Win was asked to lead the government in caretaker status. His government fell in 1960, so again control was placed in the hands of civilian authority. In 1962, General Ne Win seized power by a military coup and thereafter ruled as virtual dictator. Being a Buddhist, Ne Win’s arbitrary actions were apparently guided by native divination techniques. Gun power at the hands of the armed became a source of intimidation to the unarmed. He nationalized the economy with ruinous results, bloodily suppressed political dissent and made Buddhism the religion of the state, suppressing minority religions. The gentle Burmese were made to toe the line. General Ne Win, Aung San’s contemporary, was Burma’s first political misfortune.

Ne Win’s misgovernance triggered the anti-government riots in March and June 1988, ushering in a period of political instability. He resigned. Then junta replaced junta. The one that came to power after September 1988 coup when Ne Win resigned was a military clique that remained devoted to Ne Win, headed by General Saw Maung, who was also a Ne Win protégé.

The junta headed by Saw Maung went by the name “State Law and Order Restoration Council.” I understand this to mean that the law in the hands of the military favored only the military, and order was never restored in the country. In June 1989 Saw Maung oversaw the official renaming of the country as the “Union of Myanmar.” The junta must have argued among themselves that they could salvage their tarnished reputation by relabeling. They were wrong.

The Saw Maung regime stirred condemnation worldwide when it refused to recognize the opposition victory in the 1990 elections. The league’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the independence hero, was placed under house arrest, where she remained even until now.

As anti-government protests continued, Saw Maung lost power and resigned his posts in 1992. He was replaced by General Than Shwe.

Here are other Burma facts for you:

Myanmar’s present ruling junta is formally known as the “State Peace and Development Council.” In truth, under the junta regime there has been no peace in the state. And the junta by its bumbling, fumbling and incompetence had destroyed what had been one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic and developing economies.

First among equals in the current Myanmar regime is Senior Gen. Than Shwe. A hardliner and an opponent of the democratization of Burma, he is perceived to be sullen and rather withdrawn. He is very superstitious and often consults with astrologers. Maintaining a low profile, he celebrates Myanmar national holidays and ceremonies with pipe dream messages in the state-run newspapers, but he seldom talks to the press. His daughter’s lavish wedding, involving diamonds and champagne, created a controversy in a nation whose people continue to suffer government-imposed hardships and poverty. Than Shwe’s credentials included having served in field combat operations against Karen insurgents between 1948 to 1950, and several years spent in a psychiatric hospital.

The number two man is Deputy Senior Gen. Maung Aye, whose reputation is that he is more ruthless than Than Shwe’s. This is probably because the general has more field combat experience from fighting ethnic rebels. Not much is written about this man because of his self-imposed policy of not talking to the press.

Soldiers in the 400,000-strong Myanmar military live secluded lives in isolated barracks, with their families provided with housing as well, far from civilians whom they are pledged to protect. Myanmar’s military have been accused of countless human rights abuses against civilians. Buddhist monks lead street rallies, threatening the junta’s power again and again, and the junta would respond with arrests and with raids on hundreds of pagodas and monasteries, hauling hundreds of monks to jail.

The Buddhist clergy consists of about half a million Buddhist monks. Nearly 90 percent of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist. The “saffron army,” journalists’ epithet for the Buddhist monks, has been wielding a considerable spiritual and political clout for many centuries among the citizens of a nation where the religion of Gautama Buddha has held sway. In a sense the war in Myanmar is a war that turns Buddhists against Buddhists.

The Buddhists of Myanmar observe the Theravada school of Buddhism, which is typically found in south and southeast parts of Asia. The Theravada school’s focus is on personal liberation from craving and suffering, and attempts to identify the causes of human suffering, offering a path that is claimed to end suffering.

I am of the opinion that the God the Buddhists don’t believe in looked down with pity from heaven, and put an end to their suffering. Cyclone Nargis devastated the country’s Irrawaddy delta on May 3, leaving about 62,000 people dead or missing, according to the government count, although it is believed that more than a hundred thousand actually perished. The Burmese, or the Myanmarese if you prefer, have suffered much, and death is a way out, whether one admits it or not. Cyclone Nargis has also exposed the junta regime in Myanmar as nothing but a bunch of incompetents.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the lady who is the center of this great political storm, has spent more than 11 of the past 18 years under some form of arrest. Her followers and other pro-democracy activists in the country are routinely harassed and imprisoned by this insensible junta regime who have no respect for the human rights and no concern for what the world will say about them. The US and other nations have called on the junta to release Suu Kyi and improve their human rights record, to no avail.

Power struggles have plagued Burma’s military leadership. Than Shwe has been linked to the toppling and arrest of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. Khin Nyunt, who said he supported Aung San Suu Kyi’s involvement in the National Convention, was seen as a moderate who was at odds with the junta’s hardliners. He was sacked and was arrested in 2004.

In the aftermath of cyclone Nargis, Myanmar’s isolated military regime has finally agreed to accept relief shipments from donor countries, but has largely refused to allow aid workers to enter and distribute the aid. For if the foreign aid workers do they would see what havoc the junta regime has made on its own people, which brought about this divine retribution. Al Gore has blamed the cyclone on global warming. I have no disagreement with Al Gore, but to me it looks like man has been reaping and is continually harvesting what he has sown for years — moral insensibilities, greed, lack of love for others, abuse of others’ rights, unkindness, unbrotherliness, etc.

Some two million cyclone survivors, mostly poor rice farmers whose homes were washed away, now live in abject misery and want, facing starvation, disease and uncertain future. With large tracts of land in the Irrawaddy delta under water, the survivors are packed into Buddhist monasteries or camped out under the open sky, drinking from the dirty water contaminated by human corpses and animal carcasses that littered the landscape and the river system. Medicines and food are in scarcity. The Buddhists have no God to call upon, but only the spirits they certainly are not familiar with. But in the midst of the great devastation brought by Nargis, even those spirits are absent. You only see men in uniform, manning the check points, spying in hotels, policing its own ranks, sitting in the comfort of their homes, in the barracks, in front of TV sets, not mindful of the destruction wrought on crops and homes and of corpses that littered their landscape and the stench that these corpses brought. If this is the karma Buddhism has been talking about, they now have it, flooding them like wholesale, in the form of a cyclone. But someone may complain that that karma goes the wrong way. Or doesn’t it?

There have been verified reports about the misappropriation of the aid by the military, about quantities of the high-energy biscuits rushed into Myanmar that were instead sent to a military warehouse, and replaced by “tasteless and low quality” biscuits produced by the junta’s Industry Ministry to be handed out to cyclone victims, says Yahoo! News. This appears to be backed up by some reports. Aid workers brought back some of the rotting rice that’s being distributed to the cyclone victims, “the poorest quality rice we’ve seen… affected by salt water and it’s very old,” they said. In some countries, dogs eat better. They are even made to inherit the wealth of their owners.

Several Myanmar businessmen have been told by the government to make “donations” in cash of a minimum of $1,800 to aid cyclone victims, Yahoo! News says. Why cash?

The junta has barred nearly all foreigners from going to the devastated Irrawaddy delta and is expelling those who have managed to go in, on the pretext of protecting them from imminent dangers. I think there is no phenomenon in Burma imminently dangerous to foreigners than the junta regime itself. One editor of an independent paper says this shows the junta government “is very paranoid, very xenophobic (for) they think this cyclone could undermine their credibility.” He added that “the military regime wants to conceal the extent of the damage. They don’t want the Burmese people telling the foreigners the true story.” Myanmar’s tightly muzzled media, such as The New Light of Burma and other government media mouthpieces, paints a one-sided picture of a “beneficent” junta, showing ony images of the Myanmar military distributing aid and comforting survivors, with no mention of aid pouring in from countries around the world, so say some reports from the field. The credits go to the junta clowns.

Myanmar has become a police state, not only for its people, but also for foreigners. Foreign journalists’ are being eavesdropped. Yahoo! News says that while a reporter in Myanmar was talking to an editor in Thailand, loud clicking sounds could be heard on the telephone line. Journalists understand this is an indication that the phone was being bugged.

This being the case, a few reporters managed to get into Myanmar, concealing their tools of the trade—-satellite phones, battery packs and generators necessary to operate in the storm-hit areas where power lines are down. But that is just the first of the many obstacles they should hurdle. In the hotels where they stay, spying policemen keep close watch, prompting many reporters to constantly change locations and lodgings to avoid attracting too much attention. They never talk and write in the open. They are often on the move. They are indeed Reporters Without Borders.

Yahoo! News reports that Myanmar police are manning checkpoints along the roads linking to the devastated Irrawaddy delta and other cyclone hit areas, stopping vehicles to inspect passengers’ identities, passport numbers and reasons for their trip. One reporter is said to have hidden under a blanket in the back of a van at one checkpoint. He has been informed by a local contact that the reports he has sent to foreign media have made him a marked man. Hail, hail, hail, the KGBs are here.

Can local journalists leave Burma? It is not an option for them, because the junta requires exit permits for trips out of the country. The junta regime has invoked a variety of national security laws to imprison Burmese journalists, political dissidents and other activists. In 2007, Reporters Without Borders ranked Burma as the world’s sixth worst violator of media freedom.

Burma is being raped by a gang of rapists, rapacious men, abusive men, and they all wear military uniforms.

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows from the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8). The abusive governments, in Myanmar and elsewhere, should brace themselves up for divine retribution, either in this age or in the hereafter.

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