Tourists, temples and torture

To report the reality of daily life under military rule in Burma puts both the reporter and those who help him at great risk, as Phil Reeves discovered. But a handful of picture postcards and a golf shirt helped...
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The Independent Online

We understood one another. There were no personal questions. He showed no curiosity about why someone purporting to be a golfer was showing a keen interest in the abuses committed by the military junta running his nation. I did not ask why he was risking imprisonment and torture by talking to me, a foreigner and what Burma's generals would view as a "colonialist stooge", about such issues as the imprisonment of "The Lady", Aung San Suu Kyi.

To converse, he had found a quiet place away from Rangoon's main streets, which bustle with soldiers in olive-green fatigues and - his chief concern - ordinary-looking, sharp-eyed men loafing around in longyis and flip-flops. He explained that the country was awash with spies from military intelligence. "They're everywhere: at the bus stops, in the cafés, on street corners. Nowhere is safe." Several months of his life had been spent inside a Burmese prison for his activities as a young man with the National League for Democracy, the Lady's party; he had no desire to serve any more.

He came straight to the point. "The trouble is, we cannot do anything internally. The generals have the opposition nailed down. Our leaders are in hiding, or in prison. All the students have been made to sign documents acknowledging that if they take part in illegal opposition activity, their parents will be held responsible and punished." He paused. "We need more external pressure. There should be no foreign investment here; the government will only spend the money on arms. And we need more international pressure on our neighbours China and Thailand, which are doing a lot of business here."

Where is the Lady now, I asked? We had heard she was being held in a hut in the grim Insein prison, but was later moved. He shook his head. "We just don't know."

Then he left. Note-taking in public was impossible, so that was the gist of his words. The military government does not welcome foreign correspondents to Burma - or Myanmar, as it styles the country. I had acquired a tourist visa through a travel agent in Bangkok by expressing a desire to play at a Burmese golf course and to indulge in some light tourism.

This was not entirely untrue. Golf isn't really my game, but I was eager to see Rangoon's breathtaking golden Shwedagon pagoda, the country's holiest Buddhist shrine; to explore the city's silent lakes; to see its bare-footed, pink-swaddled nuns and shaven-headed monks padding the pavements with their alms bowls; to drink in its sheer beauty, the product, in part, of repression and economic retardation. Neither my cover story nor my carefully selected bright red logo-ed golfer's shirt had deceived my friend. He never said so, yet there is not much doubt that he guessed I was a journalist. He wanted to get a message across. We understood one another.

People in Rangoon want to talk about the Lady and her pro-democracy movement, but their fear and their desire to express themselves are in unending conflict. Half-remarks are made sotto voce; unfinished sentences trail into an embarrassed laugh; eyes slide off into the middle distance. They particularly want to know what happened on 30 May, when Aung San Suu Kyi's convoy was ambushed north-west of Mandalay. The regime has held her in detention ever since, calling it "protective custody".

Two of her supporters turned up in Bangkok this month, saying they had witnessed the attack. After dodging arrest for illegal entry, they appeared before a Thai Senate panel and described an assault by government-backed thugs armed with spears, iron rods, bats and sticks, who pounded the heads of their victims on the stone road. Supporters of the Lady say as many as 70 people were killed. This figure is far from certain, but there is no doubt that the toll was considerably higher than the figure of four put out by the generals. There have been finger-wagging protests from the international community, but limited measures. The generals, accustomed to pariah status, have responded by pouring scorn on her and her foreign sympathisers.

The junta's version of the convoy "incident" was conveniently on display in my lodgings at the Kandawgyi Hotel, a cluster of luxurious teak buildings overlooking Rangoon's Royal Lake, designed to persuade tourists that Burma is an idyllic, smoothly run, civilised society. Each morning the English-language edition of The New Light of Myanmar newspaper was placed in the lobby in the hope that the handful of guests might swallow its contents along with their muesli and orange juice. There can be few more Orwellian entities than this organ and the figures in dark glasses and fatigues who strut through its pages.

The paper is a distorting porthole on an isolated society, a potentially rich land sandwiched between India, Thailand and China that has drifted into a tragedy of its own making. An edition last week was led by an account of "Secretary-1" opening a new university, omitting to mention that it is part of an exercise in social engineering in which students are being relocated from the city to the countryside, where they can cause less trouble. Was it, one wonders, built by forced labour? Burmese, including children, are still commandeered into building roads and public projects in rural areas.

Secretary-2 had met with "responsible personnel" from social organisations in a village to give them the "necessary instructions", said another article. The State Peace and Development Council - newspeak for the military government - has been busy pursuing Myanmar's four social objectives. These include the "uplift of the morale and morality of the entire nation" and increasing the "dynamism of patriotic spirit" - areas doubtless in need of a boost, given Burma's broken-down economy, corruption, repression and huge opium trade. One suspects that even the Belarussian ex-Soviets living under Alexander Lukashenko, the totalitarian former collective-farm director, would giggle at this nonsense.

There is nothing laughable about the newspaper's attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi. It has been running a series of articles supposedly from a disillusioned party member who depicts her as an ambitious and impetuous fanatic and blames the 30 May violence on NLD youths armed with sticks and catapults, intent on political chaos.

The 7 July edition ran a picture of Suu Kyi meeting the junta's top man, General Than Shwe. The photograph was taken several years ago, when she was free and the two sides were trying to negotiate, but the caption merely said that she had "gotten a chance to have frank and open discussions" - as if these had just happened - but "could not make a peaceful transition to the nation's future". No mention, of course, of the fact that her NLD won the 1990 election, but was barred from taking power.

I meet another man, another admirer of the Lady. Again, this is the gist. He favours tougher international sanctions against the government, acknowledging that in the short term this will make life harder for Burma's 48 million people. I ask whether the military government will ever voluntarily cede power to Suu Kyi. He seems doubtful. He says the military men are afraid. He says they worry that one day they might have to answer for the 3,000 students their troops killed suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. "I think she will be detained for a long time - at least a year." I'm told that some Burmese dream of an American invasion, like Iraq.

Some journalists who have slipped into Burma in recent years have chosen to smuggle out their notes and photographs. I decided on a different system - fake postcards to my wife, which might escape notice if my luggage was searched. These would act as a form of record, even though cast only in general terms.

"Dear Mandy," began my first, "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here. Last night the phone in my hotel room suddenly rang at about 7pm. A man's voice informed me that my package tour included dinner with a Cultural Show. 'The show starts now,' it added. Something about his reproachful tone made clear that truancy was out of the question.

It was held in a cavernous hall, with long tables set for 150 diners. The place was almost empty. There was only one other guest, a chatty French-Canadian woman who the following day was to begin a three-month meditation course under the instruction of Buddhist monks. For the next dozen weeks she will live in silence. Her final night of conversation was spent watching a troupe of lavishly costumed dancers performing to the whistle and clatter of a seven-man Burmese band. The star was a po-faced girl in pink football shorts who had mastered the art of balancing on one foot on top of a milk bottle placed on a bar stool, while juggling a small wicker ball with the other foot... I thought of the Intourist hotel, Moscow. circa 1980.

Afterwards I went downstairs to the nightclub, optimistically called Hot Shots. The latter species was nowhere to be seen. It, too, was more or less empty but for half a dozen hookers who looked about 16 (again, more echoes of the Soviets). They flocked around. I hoped they might talk - shedding a little light on their dark corner of this isolated world - but their minds were trained exclusively on the foreign currency in my pocket. Lots of love, etc."

"The Burmese are too docile. They'll accept anything." I can tell you no more than that the speaker is a businessman from a neighbouring Asian country, trying to make money in Burma. He reels off Burma's riches - rice, gas, teak, huge tourism potential, talented people - as evidence of the scandal of its mismanagement. "The place is a nightmare to work in. There is no transparency, so it is very hard to draw up business budgets. The military has a hand in everything. And military intelligence is very, very good. You can do what you like - sleep with women and so on - and they will leave you alone, until you conflict with their interests. Then you're finished."

"Dear Mandy: Went to the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in the centre of Rangoon. If ever there was a little corner of England, this is it. Neo-Gothic, red brick, dark wooden pews, whitewashed walls. At the last service, they sang Hymn No 470, HF Lyte's 'Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven', just as they must have done decades ago, British bureaucrats and mustachioed soldiers blaring away lustily in the name of the Empire. There is a small chapel dedicated to the Brits and other imperial forces who died fighting the Japanese in the Burma Campaign of 1942-45 (during which the Japanese turned the altar into a brewery). Wooden shields of the regiments who lost men - the Blackwatch, East Lancashires, Royal Scots, King's Own, Notts and Derby, Royal Engineers and more - hang on the walls."

The caretaker proudly showed me a framed article praising the freedom of worship in Burma under the junta's rule. I thought I would explore this by dropping into another Christian church near by - can't say which. A portly cleric appeared and agreed to show me round. "Does freedom of worship mean that you can preach what you like from the pulpit?" I asked. He threw me a glance full of suspicion. "There's no politics. Any mention of politics and you will be arrested at once." Why, I asked, knowing the answer. The suspicion turned to obvious fear. "Ha, ha, ha" he laughed, looking bleakly out of the window. Why is everyone afraid of foreigners, I asked? "HA, HA, HA." I left, leaving him miserable and cross.

The Rangoon street stalls sell the paraphernalia of fantasy, of dreams of better things. You can buy a licence application form for a GSM mobile phone, alongside entry forms for a US green-card lottery, pictures of David Beckham and Manchester United, and powdered monkey's skull for medical purposes. The problem is, one man pointed out in the customary half-whisper, that the government charges vast fees for issuing the licence, and restricts phone access to its friends and supporters. He was in his twenties, a BBC World Service fan who wants nothing more than to get out of the country and explore the world. That's the other problem: there is no freedom of travel here. We talk about getting a visa. He shakes his head despairingly.

"Dear Mandy: Today I went for a ride on a suburban train - Rangoon's equivalent of the Circle Line, but above ground. Before I was allowed to board, I was stopped on the platform by some officials and sent to an office for a Sars test. The carriage was dusty, entirely unornamented, wooden, with glassless windows and no doors. Two policemen lounged at one end, separated from the masses by a piece of grubby blue string stretched across the carriage's width. On seeing me, one of them, a sullen young man in a vest, insisted on writing down my name and details in a crumpled notebook with an air of enormous self-importance."

After three days, my tour package expires. I have played no golf. As we drive through Rangoon to the airport - past the pavilions, the shabby stores, the half-built luxury apartment blocks, rumoured to be built on the proceeds of drug money - I see a big red iron sign. People must "oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views", it declares. There is not much to gladden the heart here, but it is a gratifying source of hope that, for all the fear and repression, these instructions are so widely ignored.