Our correspondent: Courage in the face of ruthless abuses

Myanmar Notebook
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The Independent Online

Myanmar is the original paranoid state: it is poetically fitting that George Orwell began his career here – as a colonial policeman, of all half-cock starts – because nowhere else in the world except North Korea is so permeated by fear and control. This notebook is not signed because to do so would not only make further visits difficult but could put all the people I met in jeopardy.

X and his family, for example – I'll call him Myint Swe, lifting a name at random from the New Light of Myanmar. Furtive pathways led me to his home in northern Rangoon, a shack close to a rubbish dump. A little beaming bird of a man, he recounted proudly all the time he and his family had done in jail. In 1993 he was so disgusted by the constitutional convention organised by the generals that he printed off leaflets denouncing it and handed them out. He was shopped by an informer, arrested by Military Intelligence, taken to jail in Bammaw, beaten around the head with an iron bar until he confessed, then sentenced to three years in jail.

His son-in-law was to be jailed in 2007 for four years for participating in the monks' rebellion. And his son was sentenced to seven years for organising armed resistance to the junta in 1989; when he came out he, like many others, had decided to go the Gandhian route instead, organising non-violent opposition in league with the monks – for which he was sentenced to 28 years in jail back in 2003. He has served the first seven years in solitary confinement.

The worst that any of these men has done is to agitate, for which they have been ruthlessly punished, and their family reduced to penury. To speak, as the generals do, of a return to democracy and constitutional rule in the midst of such abuses is obviously grotesque. The line taken this week by Aung San Suu Kyi's party, refusing to play that game, has not made its future any easier, but it keeps faith with the likes of Myint Swe.

The invisible hand of power

The generals' controls are invisible to the foreign eye but they certainly work. In the cities there are no policemen to be seen, let alone soldiers, but traffic lights are obeyed like nowhere else in Asia. Poverty is rampant, but I saw not a single beggar. Military discipline has been inculcated in everyone: every meeting I had with a Burmese started five minutes early. On the telephone one says nothing of importance. Recklessly I once telephoned an opposition leader from my hotel room. The next time I requested a cab it was not the usual beaten-up old Mazda that came to the forecourt but a gleaming Mercedes, with Myanmar flags on the dashboard: a polite warning from on high.