Inside Burma

June 26, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
Reprinted in the Burma Digest, and Euro-Burma

Fred Taino is a Burmese-speaking human rights defender who regularly visits Burma. Following a recent trip to Burma’s biggest city, Yangon, he describes the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, how locals are fighting repression, human rights abuses and how tourists have deserted the country.

Yangon looks different after Nargis. About 70% of the big trees collapsed so the view of the city has changed; much more is revealed. The tragedy is remarkable for the fact that many either lost their entire families in the cyclone, or they lost no one. I haven’t come across anyone who just lost an uncle or grandfather because in the places that were hit nearly everyone was swept out to sea and drowned. I asked about one monastery I have stayed in and was told that two of the monks had lost relatives, and for both it was their entire extended families. One man’s entire village was wiped off the map.

The psychological damage of this is enormous but there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to come to terms with it at all on a national scale. The cyclone caused many business- or middle-class families from the damaged areas to move into the cities. This year those who can afford it have moved to Yangon for the rainy season.

These days more mobile phones are being used and they’re just starting to introduce pre-paid cards, which will mean that access to people is a bit less restricted. But despite some differences – more overseas employment shops and more internet cafés – the living conditions remain stagnant. In the rainy season there’s pretty much no electricity from local grids (there’s no national grid) and almost every business has a generator running. Many households do without. There are huge problems with the water supply too; you only get water when the power comes on and in the dry season the pipes often dry out.

It doesn’t look like imprisoning Aung San Suu Kyi is going to generate protests inside the country; she was barely discussed, not like the way she used to be. There is great respect and concern for the monks in jail from last year’s protests, but again, it rarely comes up. From the conversations I had and those I listened in on, people are much more concerned with the basics, like the cost of food and the fact that more products are turning up with toxins in them. People were contracting serious illnesses this spring from mouldy, dried chilli.

In terms of the political situation the Burmese have an expression – hpyit thaloe nay – it basically means: “You just have to live with it.” People ask why should they spend their time and energy thinking about something when they can’t tell what’s true anymore? After fifty years this is how they survive psychologically.

Aung San Suu Kyi embodied expectations for change, but by systematically destroying her party and locking her away, the regime has managed to bring them down. It may still be there, deep inside people, but now it’s like a sadness more than anything else.

In internet cafés the computers have proxy programs to beat the censors and almost all staff members have numbers committed to memory. I went to one café and found that Yahoo was blocked but the attendant was able to help me access it pretty quickly by trying a few different proxy addresses. Those people know an incredible amount about the technology out there out of necessity. But they probably wouldn’t help me access a controversial site, such as Human Rights Watch, and I thought it dangerous to try. Most users wouldn’t think to anyway; they are like net café customers everywhere: 15 to 20 year olds playing computer games and downloading rock music from South Korea. The consequences of anything else have been made all too clear to them.

Still, the technological capabilities of the police force are limited, often in a ridiculous way. Police reports tend to be vague about exactly what they find in a supposed dissident’s possession. If a hard drive is recovered, the contents are not usually mentioned; this is because they don’t know what they’re dealing with, and because they don’t need to detail anything for a charge to be made.

It’s still a surveillance culture in the sense of insulation. People watch what one another are doing.

The economy has just stalled. The current figure on tourism is a quarter of a million people, and most of those are from neighbouring countries. Only 90,000 came from further afield on tourist visas this financial year. For a country of this size and compared to the expectations they had in the nineties, it’s very low – they were talking about half a million then, and this year projecting millions. There were five-star hotels built and never completed in Yangon. Some are concrete shells and some have been converted into private hospitals, which is pretty much the only boom area, and it’s thanks to Chinese and South Korean expat business travellers.

But there’s no other new development. All state funds were poured into this new national capital of ostentatious buildings and highways with no cars on them. The one from the Yangon airport to Naypyidaw is about to be officially opened. One driver I talked to said he’d never seen a road like it in his life.

The private news journals can’t say anything about the economic downturn directly, though you can sometimes read between the lines. Instead they give regular announcements of new committees being formed to solve every problem under the sun.

On the plane out I sat next to a consultant dealing with the mortality rates of pregnant women, who told me that not only is Burma the worst place for this in South East Asia, but it doesn’t even come close to somewhere like Cambodia. The statistics are similar she says – about three to four hundred deaths per 100,000 births in both countries – yet though she thinks this is true in Cambodia the anecdotal evidence in Burma says otherwise. In interviews in Cambodian villages she’ll hear of maybe one woman who died in childbirth in a year, in one village in Burma there were 14.

Tourists are free to travel to most places except those frontier areas under ceasefire arrangements such as parts of the Shan State, or economically sensitive areas like the ruby mines. Wherever you go outside of the main tourist areas though, be expected to be questioned by officials – usually three or four representing different government agencies. They don’t seem to trust each other.

• Fred Taino was interviewed by journalist Jo Baker.