(NB This post was written in 2007, a year after I travelled round Burma and at the time of widespread anti-government protests which brought a vicious crackdown)
Poor Burma. It couldn’t quite swing it. I feel bad for not having blogged about it before but I was hoping against hope, ever optimistic, that things would change. And that they would change through China. Because this giant neighbour of Burma is the only world power who can possibly alter the mindset of the ruling Generals. Shacked up in their new, soulless, purpose-built capital, miles from anywhere and completely out of touch with the people they rule so illegally, they will never be swung by penniless monks nor by the ineffectual UN. It’s money that talks and most of that comes from over the Chinese border in exchange for Burma’s incredible mineral resources of gas and precious stones.
However the Chinese leaders rival the Burmese perfectly on the enigma variations score – as seen at yesterday’s Communist Party summit when suit after identical suit strutted from behind a screen behind President Hu Jintao. Like to like, the Chinese and Burmese rulers seem to come out of the same impassive mould.
So what makes them tick? It’s hard to conceive of minds and hearts willing to kill or imprison young, pacifist Buddhist monks. Probably several hundred met their maker in the last few weeks – no one will ever know exactly – while a few thousand are thought to remain behind bars. It is shocking but, fickle as ever and always more concerned with oil-rich regions, the world’s attention has swivelled to other events and the status quo returned: Burma’s iniquitous regime has survived. All those hopes have been trashed.
When I travelled there just over a year ago (in 2006) I came across photos of Than Shwe, the supremo of the junta, prominently displayed inside temples, showing him making offerings and general reverences. So to all intents and purposes he is a devout Buddhist. But that’s public photos – or spin as we call it in the West.
Now it seems this brutal creature actually has emotions as, in the heat of the uprising a few weeks ago, he actually feared for the safety of his family. And where did he choose to send them to safety? Dubai!!! Now that seems highly significant if not highly ironic. This ersatz resort on the Gulf, the stuff of footballers, Russian oligarchs, property developers and minor sheikhs, took on the veil of being a safe haven for the family of Burma’s ruthless leader. Than Shwe’s family are the people whose hobby is counting diamonds (viz his daughter’s wedding a year or so ago) so they seem well-matched with the gold-bazaar aficionados of Dubai.
Meanwhile, isolated, ignored and confined, Suu Kyi roams around her house in central Yangon waiting for democracy. Waiting for Godot. It will never come until the West puts so much pressure on China that the latter actually does more than making reproving noises as in this case. India too, Burma’s other big customer, should have raised its voice and economic influence. So where were you Manmohan Singh, the apparently ethically-minded Indian PM?
I think back to the many impressive monks I spoke to in Burma, one in completely fluent English with a devastating humour, others in broken but enthusiastic words. However much of a cliche it is, they were all serene yet clearly inquisitive and avid for news of a world beyond their artificial calm.
In Mandalay I went to see a performance of the only Burmese dissidents allowed: the Moustache Brothers, a trio forced to perform in English in their front room in order to avoid arrest. Two of them have already done 6 years of forced labour after performing at Aung San Suu Kyi‘s house in 1996. They don’t say much, it’s brother no. 3 (on the left below) who fronts the compelling mix of vaudeville, satire and farce.
Fearlessly outspoken, he criticises everything about the regime, outlines the iniquities and absurdities of daily life, all the while playing with English idioms and challenging the audience for input. He was hysterically funny but with a bittersweet edge. The sad little audience is generally composed of just five or six backpackers on (Chinese) plastic chairs who’ve read about the nightly performance in the Lonely Planet.
In order to get to see this performance, I was desperately trying to find some transport from the other side of town. Pick-up trucks which serve as buses can be chartered as taxis but none was in sight. So I asked a couple of passing monks on their evening stroll and one ended up going with me all the way to find a taxi, accompanying me to a restaurant then to the Moustache Brothers’ house where he peered in from outside to watch the performance. Two hours later he came with me all the way back to my guest-house just round the corner from his monastery. He hardly spoke English so our communication was limited but there was something so charming and chivalrous in his manner – hard to forget. I wonder where he is now. And let’s hope the irrepressible brothers continue to harangue the junta because nobody else will (addedum: in 2013 one of the brothers died of cancer).
an addendum: one of the brothers was arrested during the uprisings, but later released.
2019 – an addendum further – how ironic that Aung San Suu Kyi now heads Burma, yet appears to have little sympathy for the persecuted Rohingya – Muslims, not Buddhists – wrong faith.