Burma: Orwellian state, with teashops
http://news.bbc.co.uk/, June 2006
As I stepped down from the plane onto
Burmese soil, my head full of warnings about spies watching my
every move, I was pleasantly surprised to find friendly faces
rushing to greet me.
"Thank you so much for coming,"
said an elderly man, smiling through betel-stained teeth.
Where was the Orwellian nightmare I had
been warned about? Where were the police ready to cart me off
to jail because they had found out I was a journalist?
The sun was shining, the people were open
and friendly... it seemed like any other Asian country. I found
it hard not to wonder what all the fuss was about.
But it did not take long to find evidence
of Burma's darker side.
Barely 20 minutes along the main highway
from the airport, I saw a road leading off to the right that was
completely shut off by heavily-armed police.
The tight security was not surprising,
given that the road led to the home of opposition leader Aung
San Suu Kyi, whose term of house arrest had been extended just
days before my arrival.
Local people never mention Ms Suu Kyi
by name - they just call her The Lady, a term of deference towards
a woman whom many Burmese, probably the vast majority, believe
is the rightful leader of their nation.
Despite spending more than 10 of the last
17 years as a prisoner, she remains the main symbol of resistance
against the military regime that has ruled Burma for four decades,
and which often uses fear and intimidation to keep people in line.
Against this backdrop, Burma's 50 million
citizens carry on with their daily lives as best they can.
Down the road from Aung San Suu Kyi's
house, the people of Rangoon queue for the city's crowded buses,
huddle in shops with working generators during the frequent power
cuts or play their own version of the Thai national lottery.
Then they do what all Burmese do, and
stop in one of the many teashops to gossip about the weather and
But that does not mean that their anger
at the military regime has disappeared. If you talk to someone
about their life, any veneer of contentment will usually evaporate.
One day, as we drove past a peaceful rural
scene of villagers ploughing paddy fields with their oxen, I asked
my taxi driver for his views on the political situation.
He had been singing a song to himself,
but his face suddenly turned red and angry, and he said: "I
hate the people who rule this country. My hatred of the government
knows no bounds."
In fact he got so upset that we had to
stop the car so he could calm down.
Another man became equally animated when
I asked him about the secret military informants who lurk around
"They're like a virus - a disease
ripping this country apart," he said. "They are everywhere,
and they see everything we do.
"So many of my friends have been
caught and jailed over the years - some for doing hardly anything.
So many lives have been ruined."
It is hardly surprising that emotions
run so high.
I was only in Burma for a short time,
but I quickly found out how uncomfortable it is to be under surveillance
- albeit by a somewhat amateur spy.
On my first day, a man walked into the
lobby of my hotel and pretended to read a newspaper near where
I was sitting.
He did not turn the page for 20 minutes,
but the real giveaway was that the paper - a week-old copy of
The Straits Times - was upside-down.
Despite the obvious personal risks of
talking to a foreigner, many Burmese people were still willing
to put aside their fears and share their lives with me.
They told me about their healthcare system,
their schools, their views on the government and the extraordinary
decision to move the country's capital to what was, until a few
years ago, a rural backwater.
One day a tour guide showing me round
one of the Burma's many pagodas turned to me and whispered: "Please
let other people know what it's like for us here. We need the
outside world to understand."