When Myanmar makes the international news it almost invariably is in the context of government oppression. In September, 2007, it was the Saffron Revolution, the brutally suppressed monks' uprising. This last year it was the implications of John Yettaw's intrusion into Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest. While I was in Myanmar I followed a deliberate decision to be mum about political affairs, including discussion in this blog in order not to get anyone in trouble. Email is undoubtedly monitored by the government. Now that I am back, let me report what I observed.
Before going to Myanmar I informed myself of the political situation in Myanmar, about the nearly 50-year-old military dictatorship, about the landslide victory of the opposition in the 1990 election, the results of which the regime simply ignored, about the courage of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the “George Washington” of Burma and leader of the opposition, about the huge network of government-employed spies reporting conversations of common citizens, about the continual insurrection in the ethnic states. I had expectations before I arrived in Myanmar of endless identity checks in which passports, visas and other personal documents are scrutinized with gestapo-like attention, of huge posters proclaiming the merits of government policy. What I found was quite different.
The government is not as ubiquitous as I anticipated, in fact it keeps a very low profile. There are no posters praising the governments ideology or accomplishments, I think because it has neither. The military is rather reclusive and has simply given up trying to sell itself to the people. You see some soldiers and police in uniform in Yangon, hardly any in upper Burma, that is, in Mandalay or Sagaing..
In many ways security, for instance, at the airport, is rather haphazard. When our pilgrimage group entered the country at the Yangon airport. I expected an ordeal as we moved with the other disembarking passengers toward customs with luggage bloated with many things we were conveying to Myanmar on behalf of friends and associates. To my surprise a little man in what I would later recognize as traditional Burmese (civilian) garb waved us to the side where we passed through a gate and bypassed customs with our copious luggage altogether. Most of the time I was in Myanmar I did not have a passport in hand, because I was waiting for months for each of two visa extensions. But that is OK, a xerox of your passport including your last now expired visa was all the documentation anyone ever required at a checkpoint, and usually that was not checked. To make sure, a letter from a well-known Buddhist sayadaw seemed to bestow permission to do whatever it is one is doing.
Another way in which the government is almost completely invisible is in the scarcity of social services. I never heard the siren of an ambulance, of a fire truck or of a police car. I never saw anyone stopped by a policeman for a traffic violation; drivers seem to follow the honor system, which they seemed to do honorably, as far as I could see. I don't know how a crime would be reported or investigated. I never saw a traffic accident, but I would imagine that people would put the injured in taxis or horse carriages then look, perhaps in vain, for a doctor or a health clinic. The government schools to the extent they exist at all are reportedly very bad and many children have no opportunity for education. It seems monasteries provide most of the education in Myanmar, but cannot keep up with the need. There are private schools for those with resources. Health care is very sparse, with many infections diseases in circulation, such as malaria and typhoid. The government is simply out to lunch, a neocon's dream.
The government's and military's relationship to Buddhism is particularly interesting. The Saffron Revolution gave the impression of a government at war with the Buddhists. In fact the generals are themselves Buddhists for the most part. Monks are actually treated with quite a lot of respect at military check-points. When a bus passes through such, generally everyone must get off the bus and pass single-file through a gate and show their identification. The exception is the monks, who are allowed to remain on the bus; an officer will come into the bus to inspect their papers, and actually often neglects to even do this. On a couple of occasions some of us were riding in a car that was clearly marked as belonging to the famous Sitagu monastic organization and we were just waived through. When visiting Buddhist sites sometimes pictures will be on display of very pious-looking military officers in full uniform from previous visits, often sitting on the floor at the feet of some sayadaw.
At the same time there is a pervasive sense of fear and anger toward the government. The fear is reflected in how rarely anyone mentions the government or politics at all, the anger in how caustic their comments are when they do. Having heard that the government employs many people to spy on their associates, even monks, I never tried to encourage people to speak about politics. When they did it was always when they were among family members or alone with me; I don't suppose I fit anyone's profile as a government spy. Burmese are an astoundingly even-tempered people, but they seem to be incapable of mentioning the government without turning red in the face. An elderly man once implored me to do whatever I can to get the United States to intervene on behalf of the Burmese people, and entertained the hope of some great Asian war spilling over onto Burmese territory and removing the existing government. Another woman who I had encountered frequently who knew almost no English told me in plain English, “They are killers.” Her brother in law, who I also knew, had been arrested for political activities and had spend 3 ½ years in jail. The most common complaint about the government was that it just does not care about the people. I began to imagine the government as something like a dangerous snake living in the sofa, something that could be very quiet for long periods of time, then suddenly strike when you least expect it. The abruptness of government actions applies not only to physical violence, such as the violence against monks in 2007, but to many changes in policy over the years, for instance, making it illegal to teach English at one point, since reversed, declaring all currency in certain denominations void, making all new currency in denominations divisible by 9 for numerological reasons, and most recently building a new showcase capital city, Naypyidaw, in a remote area at enormous expense.
Much of the international criticism of the Myanmar government concerns the conduct of wars against the ethnic states of Myanmar, about which people in the ethnically Burmese areas of Myanmar have little direct experience. Our mostly American pilgrimage group was once refused permission to continue in the direction we were traveling by car at a military check-point because we were venturing too close to an area of insurrection. Here in Minnesota there is a large ethnic Karen population, and I have had the opportunity to talk with some of them about their experiences.. The Karen State is the area of greatest insurrection at present. The tactics of the Burmese military remind me of those of the American military in the Vietnam war, including destruction of villages and crops and indiscriminant laying of landmines, forcing villagers to flee into the forest or across the border into Thailand. Karens, as citizens of Myanmar, are permitted to travel in Myanmar, but if they are stopped at a military checkpoint even in the middle of the country, many are routinely drafted into the army on the spot. The villagers are often used to perform labor for the army without pay.
So, what is the government for? Outside of the “Unity of the Union of Myanmar,” it seems never to try to justify its existence. In fact, it is a kind of mafia, with no goal beyond personal enrichment of an elite group of military officers. These officers extract money from the general economy through taxation, through tolls and fees and through other means. They then involve themselves in a variety of business deals and enterprises, including opium production, but also running hotels, an airline and other businesses in competition with the general economy. And often they give generously to Buddhist causes or start new projects. Like the mafia, the government uses various methods of coercion to give their enterprises an edge. Rumors abound. For instance, there have been a series of arson in Yangon of marketplaces which everyone seems to know are perpetrated by the government in order to clear land for some enterprise, I never understood what kind. Apparently at the most recent, the government fire department showed up (as I say, I never saw evidence that there was such a thing), proceeded to stand by, then when people tried to douse the fire themselves turned their fire hoses on the people to prevent this. Ironically they seem to use such heavy-handed tactics in gaining merit through the Dhamma. I heard of one incident in which some generals founded a Buddhist university then hired (apparently no one dares refuse a job offer from the government) the principle staff from an existing non-government Buddhist university.