Monday 6 June 2011
Peter Popham: The Lady may be free – but is she safe?
The former Vietcong PoW and US presidential candidate John McCain flew into Burma last week, and issued a polite warning to the lightly disguised military men who run the country. "The winds of change are now blowing, and they will not be confined to the Arab world," he said."Governments that shun evolutionary reforms now will eventually face revolutionary change later."
After the vacuous mumblings of Obama's men in their quest for "pragmatic engagement" and the desperate attempts of the InternationalCrisis Group to persuade the world that "Myanmar" was on the mend – "a new generation has taken over", they claimed in a recent report – it was refreshing to hear a leading American politician say it like it is. Quoting Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he met, the Republican senator said sanctions should not be lifted or eased "without concrete actions by this government that signal a deeper commitment to democratic change". In other words the holding of resoundingly fake elections, the release of Suu from house arrest, and the issue of visas to the likes of Mr McCain, symbolic actions all, are not enough.
In some ways this incarnation of the Burmese military junta is even more brazen than the one that preceded it. When Than Shwe became Senior General in 1993, he acknowledged that political prisoners were being held and within months released 427 of them. The new, pseudo-democratic government recently announced an "amnesty" for prisoners, but the Burma Campaign UK estimates that only 55 of the more than 2,000 politicals still held were let out. And when McCain called for "the unconditional release of all political prisoners of conscience," Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told him smoothly that Burma had no such prisoners. "Those serving their prison terms in Myanmar's jails are just law offenders," he said.
What little remains of the outside world's faith in the new Myanmar will be put to the test in the next few weeks when Suu Kyi goes back on the road. Since her release last November she has not left Rangoon. But last week she announced that she planned to make a trip to the Irrawaddy Delta.
This is the watery zone west of Rangoon where Suu was born and where tens of thousands died in 2008 in Cyclone Nargis. More to the point, it is also the area where Suu came close to being shot dead on the orders of a furious army officer in 1989. The last time Suu and her colleagues ventured into the countryside, in May 2003, she again narrowly escaped death in an ambush which Senior General Than Shwe himself later admitted ordering. He claimed it was to thwart a coup d'état planned by the democrats for Suu's birthday, on 19 June.
Suu's next birthday – she will be 66 – is only two weeks away. Than Shwe, doubtless as paranoid as ever, is still the power behind the throne. No wonder anxiety is running high.
A fork in the road for Sicily's corrupt old men?
The Arab Spring is taking its time crossing the Mediterranean but perhaps it is about to alight in Sicily. Following the eruption of the Spanish indignados, Sicilians fed up with the levels of corruption and unemployment on the island are taking up arms – their chosen weapon being plastic forks. Broken ones. Thousands of envelopes containing broken plastic forks have been landing on the desks of the island's politicians and bureaucrats. With them comes the message: "Sicily's youth are broken. Nobody eats our future any more."
Like the indignados, the inspiration for the Sicilians, this is a spontaneous movement, which claims to have no affiliations to the left or the right. What has inflamed them is the chronic injustice of the present situation on the island for young graduates: many with top degrees find themselves still out of work at 40, while at the same age pampered bureaucrats are picking up their ample pensions. The Forchette Rotte (Broken Forks) will show their faces for the first time at a demonstration on 25 June. Only then will we know if the island's nomenklatura have something to worry about.
Tyburn's ghosts still meander on
To avoid charges of bias, I should point out that in President Thein Sein's "amnesty", the death sentences of the 300-plus Burmese prisoners on death row were commuted to life. As the Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne told the Commons the other day: "No death sentences have been carried out in Burma for over 20 years."
I've been thinking about Tyburn this week, a word synonymous with capital punishment in England, the site at the west end of London's Oxford Street where thousands were hanged over a period of nearly 600 years. But there is more to Tyburn than the highwayman's death rattle and the roar of the crowd. Tyburn is a contraction of the words "Teo Bourne",Middle English for "boundary stream"; and Marylebone, my home when I am in London, is a contraction of "St Mary's Church by the Bourne," because in the old days that particular bourne or burn or small river ran past it.
So what? you may say: there is no more trace of a river in today's Marylebone than there is of a gallows on Oxford Street. But that is not strictly true, I discovered. Centuries ago the bourne wandered through the hunting grounds north of Oxford Street – and when they were turned into Regent's Park, the genius responsible created the park's famous ponds with Tyburn as the replenishing streamrunning through them. And if you have ever asked yourself why, further to the south, Marylebone Lane meanders so sinuously through this borough, it's because it follows the course of the bourne, now culverted far below. Old cities are full of ghosts, some malign, some life-giving.
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