In fear of shadows

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In Burma, everyone seems afraid -

except the pro-democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi. Steve Crawshaw and the photographer Tom Pilston obtained a secret interview with her, and immediately afterwards were arrested and deported

ONE BLACK CAR screeched to a halt and blocked the road ahead of us. Another swerved in from behind. A motorbike stopped at the side. A clutch of men - some in uniform, some in plainclothes - dragged us out of the car and started barking instructions at us while waving mobile phones in the air. Our perfect getaway from the secret police in Rangoon had not gone exactly as planned.

The mini-drama on the streets of the Burmese capital did not, it must be said, come as much of a surprise. From the start, the chances that the photographer Tom Pilston and I would be detained and expelled from Burma were high. Our offence was clear: we had secretly arranged to see Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the most popular politician in the country. The men in braided uniforms, who were humiliatingly defeated in elections eight years ago but retain total power, loathe her legitimacy. Anybody who talks to her is deemed to have committed a crime.

As one official told us after our arrest, "You can move freely. You can talk to anybody. But you can't talk to Aung San Suu Kyi. It is not permitted." Why not? "She disagrees with the government." And why is that forbidden? "I can't explain."

Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's national hero, is herself a heroine for millions of Burmese. "We all love her," as a lowly state employee whispered to us. Bogyoke Aung San, her father, led the fight for independence from Britain, and was assassinated just months before independence was finally achieved in 1948. Roads are named after him, and there is an Aung San museum - the only place in Rangoon where pictures of his daughter are still allowed to hang.

But Aung San Suu Kyi herself is beyond the pale. Her main offence is that her party, the New League for Democracy, won 80 per cent of the seats in the 1990 elections, despite the fact that it was made almost impossible for the candidates to campaign (Suu Kyi was not allowed to stand). The regime's reaction to its defeat was to clamp down more forcefully than ever, to put an end to any more talk of democracy. General Khin Nyunt, intelligence boss and one of the junta's main leaders, sums up the official view of the NLD: "Destruc-tionists with evil intentions."

The regime tries to make contact with the Chief Destructionist as difficult as possible. The road running past Aung San Suu Kyi's villa at 54 University Avenue is blocked off by police to prevent access. Her house arrest officially ended in 1995, but her movements are still severely restricted. When she tried to travel out of Rangoon to meet supporters elsewhere in the country earlier this year, her route was repeatedly blocked. About 1,000 of her supporters have been arrested in recent months, including 200 MPs. They are taking part, says the government, in "goodwill view exchange" - that is, locked up at unknown locations.

A courageous few who have not yet been locked up continue the battle with the system. Inside the sweaty-hot offices of the (still theoretically legal) NLD, relatives of those who have been arrested gather to share scraps of information. Plainclothes spivs in sarongs sit all day in the cafe across the road, watching and photographing everybody going into the office, in order to intimidate. But everybody in this crowded room long ago crossed that Rubicon of fear.

In a dusty room upstairs, as the last of the monsoon rains drums on the corrugated iron roof, sits the woman who remains their unchallenged leader - and who one day seems certain to be the acknowledged leader of the government, too. Aung San Suu Kyi asks solicitously about the difficulties in reaching her. There have been inevitable complications, with which she is all too familiar: telephones are bugged and even face-to-face meetings with her supporters are cumbersome to arrange without the authorities' knowledge; in recent weeks, those who are in touch with her have come under even tighter surveillance.

But the woman at the centre of the storm radiates an extraordinary calm. Even now, despite the pressures that she faces, she looks younger than her 53 years. Her almost unnerving serenity never falters, as she discusses the long separation from her husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford academic specialising in Tibetan studies, and their two sons, Alexander and Kim.

She met Aris in 1965, when "Suu Burmese" was in her second year at Oxford. She has missed out on her children's teenage years - they are now 24 and 20. But she keeps the obvious emotional loss to one side. "When you have work to do, you are not so frustrated as those who are not really doing anything. The ones who complain most are those who are not really doing anything at all."

She says that it is "not my aim to stay in politics" once Burma achieves democracy. But politics is in her blood. She is a charismatic speaker, as she demonstrates when she addresses a small crowd at the NLD offices. The audience, a mixture of old and young, sit politely through a couple of warm-up speeches. When Aung San Suu Kyi herself gets up to speak, the atmosphere is transformed. They laugh, cheer and applaud as she mocks the all-powerful regime. She has her listeners eating out of her hand - just as she did when she was first thrust into politics in Rangoon in 1988.

She had returned from Oxford to look after her dying mother in March of that year. In what is officially known as "the four-eights incident", the military organised a Burmese-style Tiananmen massacre, opening fire on pro-democracy demonstrators on 8 August (the date was chosen because 8/8/88 was considered an auspicious day). A fortnight later, Suu Kyi addressed a crowd of half a million at the Shwedagon Pagoda, declaring, "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on. This national crisis could be called the second struggle for independence."She addressed rallies all around the country in the months that followed. And in the 10 years since then, the popular support for her - and, with it, the government's hatred of her - have grown.

Even the passport-cocooned foreigner can have a brief first-hand taste of the lunatic system that rules Burma. After our meeting with Suu Kyi, we stand in the office doorway for a few minutes, looking through a crack at the waiting spook- paparazzi by the gate. We brace ourselves nervously as we prepare to leave the relative safety of the NLD offices for the pavement outside, where we will become fair game for the secret police. (For its own strange reasons, the regime treats the NLD offices as the equivalent of "home" in a playground game of tag. Inside, safe; outside, not. ) A speeding car stops momentarily for us; the plan is for a swift change of cars at a pre-arranged location, and thus, with luck, to slip the goons' leash. But Rangoon traffic jams put paid to that plan - hence the roadblock that spelt an end to our visit to Burma.

For us, as foreigners, the punishment was mild: three hours of questioning and elaborate body-searches, with a few slaps and punches to leaven the mix. Nothing by comparison with what any Burmese citizen suffers if he or she dares to confront the regime. As one prisoner was told when he first arrived behind bars, "You know what a prison is? It's where people are slowly tortured to death." With those who are lucky enough to be released, the authorities take a different line. A student activist was told: "We never tortured you, did we? If you ever say that we tortured you, you'd better not be around." In truth, torture is routine. As Amnesty International noted, this year marks "10 years of oppression by a military government which killed thousands of civilians in seizing power, and has since killed, tortured, raped, imprisoned and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Burmese."

The regime hopes that, by barring the media, it can keep its crimes out of the spotlight. To obtain a visa it is now necessary to provide written proof that you are not a journalist; in addition, you must sign a declaration that you will not report on the situation in the country.

The regime has gone in for a nominal facelift. Until last year, it was known as Slorc, an acronym of State Law and Order Restoration Council. Now, we have the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, instead. The rationale is that order has officially been achieved, and peace and development are on the way.

Even the way the country likes to be known is politically tinged: the official name is Myan- mar and the capital is deemed to be Yangon, a change that Burmese democrats ignore. (The name-change masquerades as anti-colonial defiance. But Myanmar and Yangon already existed as Burmese-language names. So it is as though Germany were to declare a name-change to Deutschland, or Venice declared itself Venezia. In short: meaningless bombast.)

Whether we choose to call it Myanmar or Burma, the generals are everywhere. Newspapers are full of photographs of men in uniform under headlines like "Secretary-1 attends marionette event of Widura Drama Contest", and "Masses in Shan State (North) denounce destructive acts that harm peace, stability and progress." At a series of highly publicised pro-government rallies, Burm-ese people have in recent months repeatedly expressed their "genuine desire" to reject everything that Aung San Suu Kyi stands for. But the rallies are less than convincing. The bussed-in audience can regularly be seen to be falling asleep. Even the speakers are not always as committed as they might seem. A businessman who delivered a blistering attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her "synchronised efforts to create unrest" complained privately that not only was he forced to read out a pre-written text, but he even had to rehearse the speech in front of officials to ensure that his rhetorical delivery was up to scratch.

Fear is the only language that this government truly understands. It is present at every turn. A student talks warmly about Aung San Suu Kyi, then suddenly breaks off, saying, "It's very difficult. Please forgive me. We are so afraid." A shopkeeper begins a friendly conversation, then starts trembling. With a sad bow of the head, he asks me to leave, explaining, "Informers are everywhere."

Even the brave learn to be cautious. Behind closed doors, one man proudly shows off his T-shirt, which proclaims, "Fear is a habit. I am not afraid." But he agrees to be photographed only if his face is not shown. The paradox is unsurprising. None except the deranged or suicidal would publicly display a slogan like that. In their brutal approach, the generals outdo anything that came before. In the words of one woman in Rangoon, "We suffered Japanese occupation during the Second World War. But this is much worse. It's very cruel, very cunning - and very stupid."

Certainly, subtlety is not the word that comes to mind when reading the attacks that are regularly launched on Aung San Suu Kyi. A typical poem, published in the New Light of Myanmar, talks of peace prevailing "with signs of gold". But, the poem argues,

Briton's wife cannot bear to see them,

Relies on foreign elements, serves as axe-handle,

Fails to preserve race, becomes traitor,

Plays leading role to incite riots...

Out of genuine desire, the people would like to request

the government,

Once again most tumultuously

To immediately uproot that party and jinx woman,

Giving trouble to the nation in many ways.

The official attempts to stoke xenophobia - in most countries, an easy button to press - have been remarkably unsuccessful in Burma. The attacks on the "foreigner's wife" are widely described as "low". She herself seems unfazed: the insults are "rather neurotic", she says, with a wistful smile. Nor does she believe that the attempts to link her with the country's colonial past can help the regime: "The colonial period was such a long way away. The ones who don't remember don't feel strongly about it. And the ones who do remember, remember that they were far freer under the colonial government than they are now."

In other contexts, too, attempts to scapegoat Aung San Suu Kyi have been unsuccessful. She is officially blamed for a continuing clutch of ethnic insurgencies in the north and east of Burma. Most observers believe, however, that it is a lack of democracy that has made a stable peace so difficult to achieve.

Despite official attempts to suggest that Aung San Suu Kyi somehow stands to gain from her position, the reality is clearly different: her life would be much more comfortable if she had stayed with her family in Oxford. In Rangoon, she lives in busy isolation. Her day begins at 6am; in the morning she catches up with correspondence and reading. In the afternoon, escorted by her dedicated gaggle of limousine-driving goons, she visits the NLD. Then she goes home for what she calls her "required reading". Occasionally she unwinds with a detective novel (Ruth Rendell and PD James are her favourites) or listens to a CD. She no longer plays the piano as much as she did a few years ago: "These days, it tends to sit there most of the time. There isn't time. Since I'm not such a marvellous piano player, I would much rather listen to somebody else playing."

In many respects, she has become a non-person in her curious isolation. The courier company DHL even produced an extraordinary ruling against sending any package to 54 University Avenue, or to Aung San Suu Kyi at any other address. "All shipments with contents making reference to the above mentioned individual are prohibited."

To an outsider, the incarceration of Suu Kyi - officially abhorred and unofficially adored - in her lakeside villa seems surreal. But she is briskly down-to-earth about her quasi-imprisonment. "It doesn't feel strange to me at all - I'm quite adaptable."

RUDYARD KIPLING wrote in Letters from the East in 1898: "This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about." A hundred years later , the sentiment is still appropriate. There are other countries, such as North Korea, where the fear is as deep. There have been other countries, such as South Africa, where a banned national leader enjoyed mass support. But it is difficult to think of a country where fear of the government and loyalty to the physically present alternative leader have simultaneously been so strong. This makes life difficult for ordinary Burmese - but the government is worried, too. Rangoon University has been closed for two years because the regime fears a renewed eruption of protests (although, bizarrely, it opened up to allow students to take exams in a ludicrous attempt to pretend that all is normal). In the words of a Rangoon writer: "They [the regime] are frightened of everything. They are frightened of shadows."

The contradictions are especially unsettling because of the soft beauty of Burma itself. On the road to Mandalay, pagodas gleam gold in the fields. Rice paddies shimmer at dawn in the shadow of distant hills. Giant acacia trees, gnarled like ancient oaks, shade the road for miles at a stretch. In every village, you are met by welcoming smiles. Friendliness, hospitality, fear -- the cruel Burmese triangle. Like a magnet that both attracts and repels, Burmese are keen to talk to foreigners and yet frightened of doing so.

George Orwell (whose Burmese Days was based on five years as a colonial policeman in up-country Burma) described Mandalay as "a rather disagreeable town - it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with P, namely pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes". It is a harsh judgement: in Mandalay and its surroundings you can find places of spectacular beauty. Many are connected with Buddhist temples and monasteries. Mandalay is known these days for its restless monks, and its monastery "strikes". Still, the rust-robed monks are as frightened of loose talk as their compatriots. As a young monk with an enchanting smile declares, "I like Aung San Suu Kyi. Everybody likes her. But we don't talk about it in the monastery - it's too dangerous." It is widely assumed that even the monasteries contain informers.

Another monk explains pointedly why open conversation in the monastery is impossible: "People dress in the habit of a monk - but they do not behave like monks."

One day, the beauty of Burma's Buddhist sites will bring tourists flocking here. "Welcome to the Golden Land," declare the poster hoardings as you drive into Rangoon from Mingaladon Air- port. The Shwedagon pagoda, described by Kip-ling as a "beautiful winking wonder", and by a 16th-century English traveller as "the fairest place that is in the world", retains its magical serenity - a complex of Buddhist prayer pavilions and shrines bedecked with wreaths of sweet-scented jasmine flowers. Crowds of worshippers gather in the shadow of the diamond-topped central golden spire. Shwedagon is one of the remarkable sights that the Burmese hoped would lure tourists in the Visit Myanmar Year, launched with much fanfare in 1996. But the campaign backfired, giving the opposition an opportunity to spotlight the regime's brutal record. To add insult to injury, many new tourist projects were built with forced labour. A popular alternative slogan retorted: "Don't Visit Burma - Yet." Luxurious steamers ply the River Irrawaddy up to Mandalay. A clutch of expensive hotels has been built in the last few years. But they stand almost empty. Travellers have taken more notice of Aung San Suu Kyi's warnings - "There is a time to come and a time not to come" - than of the blandishments of the generals.

Meanwhile, the economy has spiralled steadily downwards, affected both by the Asian crisis and by the generals' inability to run anything except a repressive regime. As one woman in Mandalay noted, "The government blames Aung San Suu Kyi for the bad economic situation - but nobody believes that."

At least one branch of the economy is booming. With few other productive sources of income, the government does very nicely from the drugs trade. Despite an alleged crackdown on opium-growing in the Golden Triangle area on the borders of Burma, Cambodia and Laos, heroin production has quadrupled since the Slorc seized power. Burmese heroin dominates the world market. One indication of the military's sense of priorities can be seen in the fact that a retired drugs warlord, Khun Sa, now lives undisturbed in a lakeside mansion close to the villa of Ne Win, the 88-year-old former military leader who remains the hidden power in the land. All requests for Khun Sa's extradition have been refused.

Even now, not all foreign businessmen shy away from this seedy and illegitimate system. The abundant gas and oil reserves keep Western companies licking their lips. Burma is an important source of cheap clothing, too. A number of British businesses, including Burton and British Home Stores, have pulled out. But others are still travelling in the other direction, happy to consort with the generals and torturers ("constructive engagement" remains the comforting buzzword).

Internationally, few seem much bothered by the locking up of hundreds of elected MPs. Here, the Labour Party was strongly in favour of sanctions while it was in opposition. Once it became the government, however, the line softened. The Department of Trade and Industry says that "trade sanctions are not the answer" - despite repeated requests for them by Burma's elected leader. Business is business, it seems, whoever is in power. Never mind the repression, count the cash.

JUST BEFORE we made our final dash into the arms of the military intelligence (known by the eerily British abbreviation of MI6), Aung San Suu Kyi insisted that we should write about the "brutality" of the action that would be launched against us in a few minutes' time. In reality, brutality was too strong a word. The authorities seized Tom Pilston's films (some unexposed cassettes, plus a film in his camera containing 32 identical shots of his feet; his other photographs can be seen on these pages). They confiscated my notes (which did not contain identifying details of those to whom we had spoken; a copy of the notes had landed on a London fax machine the previous evening). And they seized a Spice Girls cassette of my daughter's, which I had tossed into my bag just before leaving home. My questioners were determined to hear the cassette in its entirety, so that I had the unusual experience of being stripped and spreadeagled against the wall, to the background music of "I'll tell you what I want, what I really really want" and "Mama, I love you". (The cassette of the interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, on the other hand, is on the desk in front of me as I write these words.)

And that was it. Once the searches and the questions had finished we were bundled out of the country via the Thai Airlines Royal Orchid Lounge (economy ticket, business lounge - it's a cushy business, being expelled). Just a few more photo-graphs by yet more spook-photographers as we boarded the plane, and then it was all over.

For ordinary Burmese, by contrast, things get worse by the day. A Rangoon doctor suggested that the increasingly tough policies in recent months reflect official desperation: "The regime is like a cornered dog. When a dog has nowhere to run, it bites."

From the point of view of the dictatorship, the problem is that even the smallest retreat may swiftly turn into a rout. In talking to one of our arresting officers, I got a sense of how swiftly that could happen. To pass the time between searches, I asked a steady flow of needling "Why ... ?" and "Wouldn't things be better in Burma if ... ?" questions. The official gazed back with a silent half-smile, and I assumed that my questions were water off a loyal duck's back.

Later, though, when a particularly limpet-like MI goon was briefly out of earshot, the official acknowledged that his loyalty was less than total: "It was difficult for me to answer all those questions earlier," he suddenly declared, in an unsolicited, regretful confession.

If even the regime's own officials are ready to admit that something is rotten in the state of Burma, it is hard to disagree with Aung San Suu Kyi's assessment: "This is not what you would call a sustainable situation - change will come."

Meanwhile, millions of Burmese are waiting for the endgame, wondering if it will be peaceful or violent - and wondering if the rest of the world will ever care. An elderly lady in Mandalay summed up the mixture of hope and despair, the belief that the darkness cannot last for ever. "Something must happen. But nobody knows when."

! The people quoted in this article are not those pictured