316th Meeting – Tuesday, October 13th 2009

Living Silence in Burma: Surviving under Military Rule

A Book Talk and Presentation by Christina Fink

Present: Paul-Andre Lavabre, Martin & Liz Spring, Daniel & Mukda Bellamy, David James, M. Vonapone, Suriya Smutkupt, Edward van Tuyll, Veronique Van den Bere, John Pellegkino, Bredi & Brice Vaughan, Guy Cardinal, Oliver Hargreave, Max Herde, Ann Fink, Eva Latalova, Liz Beck, Gina Hope, David Mathieson, Gaelle Linard, Doug & Claire Gibbons, Mo Soi Lenz, Ba Han, Sai Noom, Lihith Bragat Gahdioha, Jacques Op de Laak, Naw Kuthe, Aung Htun, Kie Layain, Janet Hennessy, Lwin Lwin Hlgin, Lway Seng Bioh, Bo Bo, Bodil Blokker, Rangsan Myat, Thurboo, Mu Sell, Harry & Margaret Dulmen, Glynn Morgan, Gert Slambrouck, Celeste Holland, Bonnie Brereton, Renee Vines, Paul Mahoney, Patrick, Cecile Medail, Jasmine & Annette Kunigagon, Kanokwan & John Cadet, Min Min, Susan Morgan, Mael Raynaud. An audience of 57 plus probably another 25-30 people who didn’t sign in. It was standing room only spilling out the doorway.

Summary for Living Silence in Burma: Surviving under Military Rule prepared by Christina

Living in silence is unnatural in any society, but because of the oppressive nature of military rule in Burma, people feel compelled to watch what they are saying and raise their children to go along with a system they themselves dislike.  The talk focused on three main points:

  1. the insecurity that pervades everybody’s lives
  2. the fact that the situation in Burma is not black and white
  3. the factors that people hope may lead to political change

First, some background information:

Burma was renamed Myanmar by the regime in 1989; the opposition continues to use “Burma” as they disagree with the regime making such a decision without consulting the people.  The population is about 50 million and consists of 8 major ethnic groups and many smaller ones.  Burma has been under military rule since 1962.  The struggle for ethnic autonomy began in 1949, with many armed ethnic groups agreeing to ceasefires over the last 20 years.  In the 1990s, a military clique ruled Burma, but by 2000, Senior General Than Shwe had become the dictator.  In 2005, Than Shwe moved the capital to the center of the country and named it “the Royal Abode”. 

In 2007, the regime increased gas prices dramatically without forewarning.

Monks protested on behalf of the people, some of whom could literally no longer afford to take the bus to work.  When democracy activists joined the monks’ marches, the regime decided to crack down.  Over 30 people were killed, and far larger numbers were beaten and imprisoned.

In early May 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck.  International aid workers were originally denied entry, but later, with international pressure, they were able to enter and carry out relief and recovery programs.  Part of the reason for the regime’s original resistance was that Than Shwe wanted to go ahead with a planned referendum on the new constitution which would institute a military-led, semi-democratic government.  The referendum went ahead, amid widespread cases of intimidation and authorities voting for citizens.  Nevertheless, a significant proportion of the population was ready to vote for the constitution with the hope that the situation might improve slightly. 

In 2009, the regime began preparing for elections to be held in 2010.  Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further 18 months of house arrest for allowing an American intruder to stay briefly at her compound.  This was a convenient pretext for keeping her out of the election process.  Ethnic armed groups who had made ceasefire agreements with the regime were also ordered to integrate into the Burma Army as border guard forces.  One group which refused was attacked and its headquarters overrun, and other groups are preparing for attacks as well. 

Part 1: Insecurity

The military regime is obsessed with national security and sees everything from a security perspective, but virtually everyone’s lives, including the generals, is filled with insecurity. 

In urban areas, people feel insecurity, because they don’t know who is listening in to their conversations and might report them.  University students come under extra surveillance because so many demonstrations have been started by them.  In rural areas, people face great problems with livelihoods security.  They have been compelled to engage in forced labor on roads and other projects, the authorities control the sale and movement of rice, and farmers are often ordered to grow certain crops which they do not want to grow.  For instance, between 2006 and 2009, farmers were ordered to grow jatropha (physic nut) for biodiesel, with no information about how to care for the plants or whether the seeds they produced would ever be purchased.  In the conflict areas, life is particularly insecure because the Burma Army targets civilians rather than the ethnic nationalist armies.  All civilians in conflict areas are considered the enemy, and terrible human rights abuses have taken place.

Business people also suffer from insecurity because of the lack of rule of law.  Contracts are not enforceable in court, and compensation is generally not given for confiscated property.  Even the regime’s cronies risk losing everything if they are suspected of disloyalty or the general they have made business deals with loses power.  While the number of local and international NGOs has increased dramatically in response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Burma, they are never sure if their projects will be allowed to continue.

Meanwhile, censors check the work not only of journalists and magazine writers, but also song lyrics, the designs of album covers, and artists’ paintings.  Before an art exhibition can open, paintings must be checked for anything that could be considered anti-government or reflecting the situation in the country in a bad light.  Any paintings deemed inappropriate must be taken down.

The top generals can also not guarantee their security, as Than Shwe had the former dictator, Ne Win, put under house arrest in 2002, and the former number 3 in the regime, Khin Nyunt, arrested in 2004 and sentenced to 44 years in prison (later commuted to house arrest).  As a result, even top generals are afraid to report bad news to Than Shwe.  There is no systematized procedure for succession, and Than Shwe himself is worried about his future and the security of his family.

Part 2: The Situation is not black and white

While it seems like the military and the people are very far apart, the reality is different.  Many families contain both military people and democracy supporters, and a surprising number of young men from the ethnic minorities join the Burma Army and end up being sent to fight their own people.

Within the government, it is important to distinguish between the regime and the civil service.   Many civil servants want to do a good job, and even some retired military people working at senior levels of the civil service are approachable.  However, they are not provided sufficient resources or pay, leading many to take on second jobs or engage in corruption. 

Members of the government-organized community service organizations are compelled to participate in mass rallies denouncing the pro-democracy movement and ethnic opposition, but many of the lower ranking people are sincere about participating in community service activities.  The Myanmar Red Cross is a good example.  Meanwhile, high level business people may benefit from their connections with the regime but they are also acutely aware of regime’s policy failures.

Although soldiers seem to be clearly in the black category, their position is difficult.  Some were forced to join, and even if they joined voluntarily, they are not allowed to quit.  They tend to be treated very badly by higher-ranking officers.  They are severely punished if they disobey orders, and because the battalions are not provided with rations, they must confiscate villagers’ land or demand or steal food to survive.  They are also inadequately paid.

At a personal level, people often shift their positions depending on the situation.  In times of greater repression, people tend to be passive and dismissive of the opposition, but in times of greater opposition activity, many of the same people will voice support for activists or even join themselves.  Most people raise their children to go along with military rule, and even encourage their children to become military officers (or marry military officers), for their survival and security.

Part 3: An Analysis of Factors that could lead to change

The vast majority of people in Burma want change.  Many military officers and soldiers are not happy, especially with the regime’s economic policies.

The ethnic nationalist groups and the democracy movement are closer in their vision for the future than in the past and have more contact with each other.

Many hope that when Than Shwe dies, change will come.  It is true that he has been particularly isolationist and hardline, but the system encourages a leadership style linked to fear and control.  It should be noted that people said the same thing before Ne Win died, but his death did not lead to political change.  However, it is possible that a new leading general may institute policies resulting in gradual change, at least with regard to the economy.  This will depend, however, on who Than Shwe’s successor is.

Some hope that if economic sanctions on Burma are lifted, significant change could result.  Lifting sanctions would have the benefit of helping some in the middle class to prosper and a number of poor people to obtain jobs.  However, the rule of law and more rational economic policies are also needed before there will be large scale investment in the manufacturing and service sectors.

Others are looking to the planned 2010 elections and the implementation of the 2008 constitution.  It must be emphasized that the regime hopes to ensure continued control, and many provisions in the constitution protect the military’s power.  Nevertheless, there may be some opportunities.  The election campaign period may lead to greater expectations for changes in certain policies, depending on how free the campaigning is (it may not be very free).  There will also be new dynamics at various levels of power, with the president and commander-in-chief potentially seeing each other as rivals and a mix of elected and appointed representatives in the parliament.

How change will emerge in Burma remains unclear.  Nevertheless, it seems likely that it will require a combination of changes in the military leadership, a more pro-active and better networked opposition movement, and sustained international involvement which consists of both pressure and engagement.

After a marathon question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where Christina was engaged in more informal conversation over drinks.