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Life is cheap in the East, even cheaper in Burma

Pascal Khoo-Thwe

July 7, 2009 (DVB), The nineteenth-century Jewish-German writer and critic, Henrich Heine, once said, "Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people."

When the Nazis organized the nationwide burning of books deemed ‘un-German’ in May 1933, not many people could have imagined that they would go on to kill many unarmed, non-combatant and innocent people, mostly Jews, on the basis of racial ideology.

In Burma, the first military junta, led by the late General Ne Win, caused a similar shock when it seized power in March 1962. Then on this day in 1962, soldiers under the command of the ‘Butcher of Rangoon’, Sein Lwin, dynamited and blew up Rangoon University’s student union building with around one hundred protesting students still inside it. Scores were killed. The bloodied site was bulldozed and then paved over.

Some years later, Ne Win blamed one of his officers for the infamous incident, and the latter pointed finger back at him. But tellingly, none volunteered to re-construct the building or apologized for the action as they have no desire to see the resurrection of Burmese student activism that precipitated the demand for independence of Burma from the British. True to the form of the oligarchic rulers of old Burma, they also felt that admitting the mistake would be tantamount to accepting failure. Unlike the Nazis of the Third Reich, whose overarching ambition was to create a pure race, Burma's rulers use a policy of 'Burmanisation' primarily to achieve their final goal of absolute power.

It was a symbolic destruction of the future of the country, as well as a spiteful act against the students and intellectuals of the country regarded by Ne Win and his cohorts with a mixture of suspicion and jealousy. Following the incident, the junta gradually and imperceptibly downgraded the standard of education, once regarded as the best in Asia, by filling the pages of textbooks with propaganda and slogans. Passages of rational and humourous arguments were also phased out, making it harder for teachers to teach anything meaningful or useful.

Many Burmese students of that generation regard the event as the beginning of the ongoing struggle for predominance between the army and the civilians in Burma. In fact, it is also a struggle for the claimant of a definite ‘Burmese’ identity. The generals want to mould Burma into a uniformed, aloof and ‘pure’ nation while civilian leaders want it to be a nation of vibrant and prosperous people. But both sides lack well thought-out plans, the patience and diligence needed to realize their dream of a strong nation. They both put an emphasis on the importance of discipline and self-sacrifice but many are reluctant to commit themselves to their ideals. Over the years, the gap between the army and civilian life has become wider to the point where the army started to think of itself as of a special class and breed, while the people started to see the army as an alien force or a force working for alien powers occupying their country.

Tyranny prospers

To better understand the problem and impacts caused by the 7 July incident, one needs to look at the situation at the time and the mentality of the dictator and his followers, who had further sown ‘the seed of the poison flower’. Having gained its independence in 1948, Burma was a country struggling with rebellions and political intrigues when Ne Win seized power from the civilian government of U Nu, regarded by the former as a group of weak and corrupt politicians. To make matters worse, the country was caught between the two main sides of the Cold War, and powerful nations were not interested in who ruled Burma, as long as the country was on their side of the great divide. Thus, tyranny was allowed to prosper and take deep root in the name of stability.

On the other hand, Ne Win was known to have harboured deep jealousy and hatred towards his more educated and charismatic peers, such as national hero Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the civilian leader U Nu. A true gambler in character, Ne Win waited for his chance with patience and ruthlessness, and surrounded himself with yes-men and mindless thugs. He had enough intelligence to outwit his enemies and friends alike with the brutality and efficiency, but lacked the will to rebuild the nation as promised, once he was in power.

The combination of instability and the rule of a ruthless leader was to turn a relatively prosperous Burma into a country of recycled fear, poverty and suffering that continues to this day. Ne Win’s legacy is acutely felt among new generations born after his coup, who are forced to be obedient and placid before they have the chance to be a decent and responsible human beings. Many are caught in a state of mind with which they can neither comfortably hold on to these traditions nor go forward with confidence, partly due to the widespread confusion and clash of ideas among older generations. The ‘good’ old traditions of Burma are only kept in words, and older generations can only watch in despair the gradual erosion of traditions by economic pressures and political hypocrisy.

Ne Win also left behind the legacy of acute mistrust and disrespect among the people caused by his ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’ policy. People might maintain a public show of respect and politeness outwardly, but once out of sight they bless each other with derogative terms of various forms. Thanks to years of draconian censorship, the majority of the people also lost the skill to offer critical comments and hold rational arguments, as those who do are often accused of being ‘un-Burmese’ or un-revolutionary, and thus sidelined or persecuted. In general, Burmese communities regard criticism of any kind with suspicion as many people can’t help but use criticism as the means to attack the people they do not like.

The worst legacy left behind by the blasting of the student union building would be the callousness with which people in power, especially those with guns and money, often treat the lives of ordinary people. The derogatory remark, "Life is cheap in the East," was once added to by a Burmese student with the quip, "It’s even cheaper in Burma". The impacts of the continuing occurrence of state-sponsored atrocities in Burma since 1962 also numb the minds of both the victims and perpetrators alike until they break down with disastrous results for their families and communities. Many soldiers, policemen and men with combat experiences in general find it hard to settle down in a relatively peaceful community and many of them commit violent acts on other people or themselves.

It would be far from easy to repair the physical and mental damage done to the country by successive military rulers, as the generals who succeeded Ne Win are even less subtle and scrupulous in their approach to controlling the nation. Whereas Ne Win jealously guarded the natural resources of Burma against foreign hands, his successors could not wait to sell them off to anyone who has money , in both cases, for their own benefits.

At the same time, they do not hesitate to torture or kill anyone, including monks, who are held in high esteem by the majority of Burmese, as witnessed by the crackdowns on the monk-led September 2007 Saffron Revolution. Similarly, when cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta in May 2008, the army didn’t allow aid agencies to help the survivors of the storm and the accompanying sea surge until it was too late.

Nevertheless, after nearly half a century on, student activism, along with the struggle for freedom, is still alive and kicking in various forms inside and outside Burma despite drawbacks. Students do not have to depend on a union building for their survival, partly thanks to now being able to communicate with each other on the internet or phone. But they still lack a sense of clear direction and organization which is needed to spearhead a new ‘revolution’ to transform Burma into a truly confident nation at peace with itself.

The best one can hope and work towards now, it seems, is the emergence of a new generation of youth and leaders who concentrate their energies on pragmatic issues rather than ideology, and who are capable of performing their varied talents in unison, rather than in unity, and coordinating their actions for a common aim. The word ‘unity’ has often been used and abused by both the opposition and military leaders when they have nothing else to offer to the people.

Meanwhile, the ruling junta is doing its best to perpetuate its hold on power and destroy any form that resembles unity on the part of the opposition, carrying out actions from crashing websites to arresting anyone wearing t-shirts displaying political slogans. The generals are digging tunnels, buying weapons and installing advanced technology to maintain their version of Burmese identity, while the opposition groups are fighting vigorously – sometimes, among themselves – to come up with the ‘best’ solution for the country. The struggle continues.

The question of who in the end will win depends on how much each side could provide a better future for the people and establishes the foundation for a solid and stable administrative system capable of governing a nation with diverse identities and interests. The successful side should not be selected on the grounds of how many guns or slogans they have. For more than anything, Burma has been a geographic entity divided and plighted by the delusion of who are the real ‘Burmese’, and who own it.


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