Protests and Post-it Pasties: Transition in Burma
PEN Member Karen Swenson recently took a trip to Burma in the wake of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. Below Swenson reflects on the nation’s troubled history, her meeting with the Nobel Peace laureate, and what the current governments’s attempts at reform can tell us about Burma’s future.
Through enormous windows above diesel-belching traffic on Mahabandoola Road, the morning sun lit paintings ranging from realistic to abstract. The room, with its 20-foot damp-patched ceiling, was in one of the many decaying British colonial buildings in Yangon. The censor, his longyi, the sarong worn my Burmese men, protruding over his paunch, looked like a pregnant bride in a Dutch masterpiece as he stood before a painting of a man carrying a naked woman on his shoulders. They were both screaming. Her breasts, it became clear, troubled the censor. The painter took a packet of Post-it notes from his pocket and put one over each of the woman’s breasts. The censor’s frown melted away. He and his assistant left. Among smiles, the painter removed the Post-it pasties. In dictatorships unexplained screaming is acceptable but not nudity.
This was my fifth time to Burma. I had come to cover Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and reports of a thaw in the military dictatorship’s frigid grip. The government had promised the release of two thousand political prisoners, but a meager two hundred, mostly elderly and ill, had been freed. Work on the Myitsone dam, a cooperative project with China, much protested both inside and outside Burma, had been halted. However, reports in the Bangkok papers warned changes might be only window dressing to induce Western powers to remove sanctions.
I had arrived on July 15, 2011 at the new Yangon airport, an example of international-mediocre-modern, though the taxis outside are still held together by their drivers’ desperate ingenuity. Mine had a rusty, cellulite-dimpled door. This contrast is a paradigm of the gap between private and governmental worlds. As we drove into Yangon the shrill neon of supermarkets and electronics stores on the main streets, owned by Chinese or military men, contrasted with the houses on mud-holed side streets where cracked facades sprouted weeds and small trees.
This economic bifurcation developed over 49 years of military rule that began in 1962 with the 26-year reign of General Ne Win. In 1987 the U.N. declared Burma a Least Developed Country. In 1988, Ne Win demonetized the 25-, 35-, and 75-kyat notes without previous notification or compensation, and wiped out ordinary citizens’ savings. He, like Nancy Regan, believed in astrology and numerology, and his numerologist purportedly told him he would live to 90 if he changed the currency to notes adding up to 90. He issued 45- and 90-kyat notes and lived to be 91. This bizarre monetary manipulation was the fulcrum of the 8/8/88 uprisings.
My hotel’s preference for dollars reflected the outcome of Ne Win’s currency policy. A hunched, turtle-like man counted them in the dining room surrounded by piles of ones, fives, tens and twenties, bound by rubber bands into $100 batches. I realized later it was the same hotel that the Mormon and Vietnam vet, John William Yettaw, stayed in before swimming across Inya Lake to talk to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, giving him his one minute of fame and her the threat of time in Insein (pronounced insane) Prison. The unusually large number of young men populating the hotel may have been a lingering result of Yettaw’s visit. They would have been government spies, a species endemic to Burma.
Ne Win resigned on July 23, 1988 after his new currency denominations incited riots, but not before riot police killed thousands. Leadership shifted first to General Sein Lwin, chief of the riot police, also known as the Butcher of Rangoon. Lwin ruled for 17 days before relinquishing power to Senior General Saw Maung, who as Prime Minister created the sci-fi acronymed SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) that ruled Burma, under its new/old name, Myanmar, until 1992.
In 1990 SLORC, misjudging its popularity, held free elections. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD (National League for Democracy) party won 82 percent of the seats in Parliament. SLORC ignored the election results and in 1992 Senior General Than Shwe took over, initiating the new government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). When a political disaster causes demonstrations, the general in charge resigns and a colleague takes over. General follows general, like the ghostly procession of kings seen by Macbeth.
In March 2011, the procession continued when Than Shwe handed power to Thein Sein after winning 91.2 percent of the votes in a rigged election. He is touted as the first civilian president in 50 years. In truth he left the army to lead the Union Solidarity and Development Party after heading the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee, the government organization that blocked all outside relief after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta, killing a reported one hundred forty-thousand people.
As the new president, he was talking to Daw Aung San, no longer under house arrest. During the last 18 years of almost consistent house arrest, I have written letters to various leaders demanding the release of Daw Aung San, a frustrating but necessary activity. On earlier visits to Burma I tried to meet her and thought I’d try again. My contact in Burma was a handsome man in his early 50s, a painter and poet, (all middle class men in Burma paint and write). It was at his gallery opening that I observed the censor at work.
In 1988, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi came to international notice. She had returned to Burma when her mother, a former ambassador to India, had a stroke. Soon after her return, Daw Aung San wrote the government asking for multi-party elections. In Burma she was a known figure being the daughter of General U Aung San who was assassinated, with others in the Executive Council, while negotiating Burma’s independence from the British in 1947. On August 26, 1988 at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon before her sons and husband, Michael Aris, she gave her first speech to several hundred thousand people.
On September 18, 1988 the National League for Democracy (NLD) was established with Daw Aung San as General Secretary, just as SLORC made political gatherings of over four people illegal. The NLD’s stated policies were non-violence and civil disobedience.
From October to December she toured the country speaking for free elections and democracy. After her mother died, she continued to speak and travel. On February 17, 1989 SLORC prohibited her candidacy on grounds that she was married to a foreign national. This did not stop her: in April on a road in the Irrawaddy Delta she walked toward a line of SLORC soldiers with loaded guns who had been told to aim at her. On July 20, she was placed under house arrest without charges or trial. Almost a year later, the NLD won 82 percent of the parliamentary seats in what turned out to be the last free election in Burma.
Midway through my first day in Yangon I began to believe the papers might be wrong; there might be more than superficial change. Yangon has more bookstores than all of the cities of the U.S. combined. In five trips to Burma, I had never seen a picture, let alone a book, of U Aung San publicly displayed. And yet as Martyrs’ Day—the day commemorating the massacre of General U Aung San and his fellow negotiators with the British—approached, bookstores across the city had displays of all the different biographies of General U Aung San. His picture gazed from these bookstores and from the front pages of newspapers—not the government newspaper—and from the glossy insert of his portrait in uniform. The irony was apparent: the good dead general opposed to the live general who let his people die in Cyclone Nargis. Allowing this display was not an action of importance to Western powers, but it was to the people of Burma. The resemblance between U Aung San and daughter suggested future possibilities.
I told my painter friend I wanted to meet Daw Aung San. He asked if I had a contact in the NLD. I did. My contact said I should come to the NLD office; he would see what he could arrange. At the NLD office, I handed over an official letter of request along with my bio. I was told they would try to fit me in. Having done this before, I didn´t feel hopeful.
Leaving the NLD, I took a taxi to the center of town to visit Sein Win, a journalist I had interviewed in 2004. Yangon has decayed since then. In 2005 the generals moved the capital 320 kilometers north to Naypyidaw (Seat of Kings). It is not just the old colonial buildings that are decomposing in Yangon; it’s the sidewalks, too—precast slabs of broken concrete exposing the city’s leaky plastic plumbing underneath.
Sein Win was released from prison in 1980; the government preferred that he die outside their jurisdiction. He was still hooked up to his oxygen tank, perhaps a little thinner, but looking much as he had in 2004. Ne Myou Zin joined us. He had written an article, which had not been censored, about his granddaughter who manages a hotel in Dubai. She and her husband cannot return to Burma because there is no work for them; he cannot visit her because he is afraid he would not be allowed to reenter the country.
Many of her generation have found menial jobs in the Middle East, but educated Burmese do well in international businesses. Burmese parents, if possible, send their children abroad. Burmese education has become a joke; a Ph.D. is referred to as a Phony Doctorate. The Yangon University is closed, the campus overgrown with weeds. To eradicate university demonstrations, the generals closed it and created universities in obscure corners of Burma and online. So far the Internet, which the generals have used to disperse the students, has not united them.
On Martyrs’ Day, my painter friend and I took a cab to NLD headquarters. Crowds streamed on either side of the traffic-choked road, reminding me of 1995 when I had heard Daw Aung San speak on University Avenue. When we went inside, I could see Daw Aung San sitting among the NLD members, almost all elderly. She is not elderly, but looked desperately tired. The speakers were mostly Burmese but one spoke in English about how Burma has not been forgotten by the Western world.
My friend shoved me into the receiving line. In the few minutes I had with Daw Aung San, I held her hand in mine and told her how PEN members from around the world and I wrote to government officials every time she was under house arrest. I asked if there was anything we could do beyond those letters. No, she said, the letters were enough.
That night I decided to return to the NLD office to see if Daw Aung San would sign a picture U Aung San for me. The next morning I bought a paper with his portrait as an insert and took the photograph to the NLD where I asked that Daw Aung San sign it. While I waited, I talked to U Hla Min and had lunch with the rest of the party members. A message came after lunch thanking me for my patience. Daw Aung San was looking for a better photograph to sign. As soon as she found it, she would sign it. A half-hour later I had a better picture, signed.
Since I left Burma the painter has been in touch. He writes that Thein Sein and the generals are using Daw Aung San to manipulate the West, that although they speak of change the actions of what he calls “their staff” remain the same. Perhaps, although the talks continue between Western officials and the Burmese government, the Bangkok newspapers will finally be right.