The Ugly Beauty of Backwardness

Sunday, July 30, 2000

First of all, there is this difficulty: to identify the people I talked with in Burma could send them back to prison. The leaders of this grotesque army-state are officially titled, as in some schoolboy version of Orwellian dystopia, "Secretary-1," "Secretary-2," "Secretary-3." So in my notebook, later smuggled out, I refer to their victims and my interlocutors as "U-1," "U-2," "Daw-1," "Daw-2," and so on—"U" and "Daw" being, in Burmese, the respectful forms of "Mr." and "Mrs."

Opium Bowl of the World

"I’m a vegetarian," says U-5. "I became a vegetarian after being in prison. You see—I’m sorry to have to tell you this—we ate rats." But how did they cook them? "We couldn’t. We just dried them in the sun and ate them raw."

U-13 describes the thick blue hood his interrogators put over his head. The hood was filthy with the sweat, mucus, and blood of previous captives. He could scarcely breathe as the interrogators attached electrodes to four points on his body. They charged the electrodes from a small, primitive, hand-cranked generator.

I find in Burma an everyday fear that is worse than in Ceausescu’s Romania. And desperate everyday want. In poorer parts of the countryside, peasants ask each other, "Fingers or spoon?" "Fingers" is better: it means you have enough solid rice in your bowl to eat with your fingers. "Spoon" indicates a few grains of rice in a watery soup. Increasingly, the answer is "spoon."

A hundred years ago, Burma exported more than two million tons of rice in a year. It was called the rice basket of India. Forty years ago, it still exported one million tons. In 1999, the figure was less than 70,000 tons. As the country’s exports of rice have declined, its illicit exports of drugs have soared. From being the rice basket of India, Burma has become the opium bowl of the world.

Tales of misery and horror abound 10 years after the citizens of Burma voted overwhelmingly, on May 27, 1990, for the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and, in the large swathes of the country inhabited by ethnic minorities, for other opposition parties. Denied what they voted for, they’ve had a decade of this.


These surface allures of an older world are the result of the isolation and economic regression enforced by forty years of bad politics. This is the beauty of backwardness.


Yet, perversely, the images that linger in my memory are all of heartrending beauty. Early one morning, I set out with a friend to drive across the Irrawaddy delta. As the sun rose, a magical landscape emerged through the morning mist: bamboo houses, raised on stilts amid the endless green and emerald patchwork of paddy fields; farmers in broad hats bicycling silently along the raised river bank; brilliant white pagodas with gilded conical spires, dotting the landscape like so many whitewashed anthills; ox-drawn wooden plows, slowly turning the underwater mud.

In Rangoon, there was the unending wonder of the Shwedagon pagoda, its vast, banded golden spire subtly changing shade with the movement of the light. On my first evening in Burma, I walked up to the Shwedagon at about nine o’clock and found myself the only foreigner in the entire temple complex. All around me were Burmese, men as well as women wearing the traditional longyi, an ankle-length, skirtlike garment. Some prayed devoutly to one of the many Buddhas; others sat smoking a cheroot or idly chatting in the warm, scented air. I marveled at the tranquillity of a national shrine that seemed still authentically part of a traditional culture—something unthinkable, lost forever, at St. Peter’s, or St. Paul’s, or the Taj Mahal, let alone in the temples of Bangkok, where you can’t walk two yards without stumbling into a German tourist, praying with clasped video camera to the great god Sony.


The country displays all the familiar pockmarks of dictatorship: high gray walls, barbed wire, armed guards, bureaucracy, crude paper forms in quadruplicate, propaganda, censorship, inefficiency—and fear.


I have rarely seen a more beautiful country, or a more ugly regime. The connection between this beauty and that beast is complicated. It’s tempting to say simply that the country is beautiful in spite of its politics. But that is too easy. For these gentle allures of an older world are also a result of the isolation and economic regression enforced by 40 years of bad politics. This is the beauty of backwardness.

The result is a debased and corrupted version of the old. Burma may still look like Rudyard Kipling’s "beautiful lazy land full of very pretty girls and very bad cheroots." What is more, those who live here may genuinely find deeper pleasures and satisfactions in a slower, more traditional way of life.

Yet there is also, most definitely, a hard, corrosive reality of worsening poverty, malnutrition, and infant mortality; of more than three million people driven from their homes, some of them now living in barely human conditions in the jungle; of forced labor, rampant corruption, banditry, sexual exploitation, and the closely linked plagues of drug abuse and AIDS (an estimated half million people in Burma are HIV-positive).

Meanwhile, amid the archaic beauty that charms the privileged Western visitor, you glimpse a pathetic craving for even the cheapest totems of the West. Young men proudly sport baseball caps above the otherwise universal national dress of flip-flops, longyi, and cotton shirt or blouse. The cheroot is abandoned for a cheap Rothmans’ cigarette called "London," garishly advertised everywhere. Even the monks possess, hidden away in an old wooden cupboard, a television—and they all seem to be fans of the British soccer team Manchester United.

The Beast Known as SLORC

Military intelligence, says one of the oldest jokes in the world, is a contradiction in terms. Burma is a country ruled by military intelligence. The Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence is the backbone of this regime, and it has been ruining the golden land through four decades.

In 1962, a wildly superstitious former postal clerk, born Shu Maung but now known to the world as General Ne Win ("Brilliant like the sun"), organized an army takeover, arguing that the country’s feeble multiparty democracy was incapable of keeping the Union of Burma together against communist and ethnic minority rebels. Ne Win led Burma down what he called "the Burmese Way to Socialism," into 26 years of surreal isolation. His "socialism" was actually more like Japanese national socialism of the early 1940s (when the imperial Japanese trained the original Burma Independence Army), mixed with postcolonial nationalism, attempted autarky, vulgar Buddhism, astrology, and a brutal war against the insurgents. His Asian Albania was so nonaligned that it even resigned from the Nonaligned Movement. Eighty-nine this May, Ne Win still lives in Rangoon, just across the Inya Lake from Aung San Suu Kyi. He is thought to wield continued shadowy influence over the regime, but no longer to run it from day to day.

In fact, the old despot’s announcement of his retirement in July 1988 was a major catalyst of the nationwide protests on the supposedly auspicious date of "8.8.88." Crushing those protests with great brutality—estimates of the number who died in the ensuing orgy of repression range from 3,000 to 10,000—the army formed a State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. It even sounds like a beast. A few years ago, apparently advised by a PR firm that this name played badly in the West, the generals changed it to State Peace and Development Council. However, the regime’s opponents continue to call it "the Slorc," and so shall I.

The Slorc is not simply a military dictatorship. Rather, it is an army-state, as communist countries were party-states. Army officers shadow or control all functions of the state, and most of the activities of everyday social life. Even the Red Cross is a paramilitary organization. The military is estimated to consume a staggering 40 percent of the national budget. Since 1988, the army has grown in size from some 200,000 to more than 400,000. You see soldiers everywhere.

The country displays all the familiar pockmarks of dictatorship: high gray walls, barbed wire, armed guards, bureaucracy, crude paper forms in quadruplicate, propaganda, censorship, inefficiency, and fear. Under the heading "People’s Desire," faded red billboards proclaim, "Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views." Just occasionally, as if to compensate, there is a green billboard saying, "Please provide assistance to international travelers." Well, thank you, Slorc.

I had hoped that I would never in my life have to read a newspaper more boring than the East German communist party daily, Neues Deutschland. I had not seen The New Light of Myanmar. ("Myanmar" is another Slorc renaming, casting off the supposedly imperialist "Burma" in favor of another Burmese word for Burma.) In leaden prose, New Light records how Secretary-1 (usually on page 1), Secretary-2 (page 2), or Secretary-3 visit another flourishing school, hospital, or factory, greeted by ever-smiling pupils, doctors, workers. But instead of Marxism as the official ideology, we have Buddhism. No issue is complete without some account of a general making gifts to a Buddhist monastery.

Since this is an army-state, the economy is also directly run by the military, with disastrous results for the country, although not for the generals. The post-1988 military leaders have denationalized many companies—and given them to themselves. A share of the spoils has gone to foreign investors, especially from China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, as well as British, French, and American oil companies. But in almost every joint venture, the Burmese partner is either military, ex-military, or related to the military. Corruption is endemic. As a result, senior officers live in large, luxurious houses, while junior officers and other ranks share the general poverty. According to a recent World Bank report, the economy is locked in a steep downward spiral.

The end that supposedly justifies all the Slorc’s means is "nondisintegration of the Union." The generals’ one substantial achievement has been to negotiate cease-fire agreements with most, though not all, of the ethnic rebels. These agreements typically leave the rebel leaders in far-reaching control of their own areas, often with private armies and free to do much as they please. In several cases, this includes very direct involvement in the large-scale production and export of heroin and amphetamines. In return, drug barons launder their profits through investments in the Burmese economy.

Yet these cease-fires are only temporary, pending the new constitution, which the regime has spent seven years not producing. The Slorc’s constitutional proposals envisage a distinction between "national" politics, where the "leading role of the armed forces" would be secured (as it used to be in Suharto’s Indonesia), and "party" politics, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) could compete with all the rest. In the meantime, however, the Indonesian model has gone down the drain, to be replaced by a fragile new democracy. And the NLD has refused to have anything to do with this unequal negotiation since, in 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from six years of house arrest.

"The Lady"

Of course I had come to see Suu. I say "Suu" in this familiar fashion because I had been talking about her as Suu for years with her husband, Michael Aris, a dear friend and colleague of mine at Oxford. Michael died tragically of cancer in March 1999, cruelly prevented by the Slorc from ever seeing his wife again. He had told me of her close interest in the way dissidents prepared for peaceful change in Central Europe, and we had long been plotting my trip to Burma.

In Burma, Suu is an uncrowned queen, respectfully referred to even by close acquaintances as "Daw Suu," and known to millions of Burmese simply as "The Lady." She is this legend because she is the daughter of the father of the nation, Aung San, the architect of Burmese independence, assassinated in 1947, when she was two; because of the extraordinary, charismatic style in which she joined what she called "Burma’s second struggle for independence," with a speech before hundreds of thousands at the Shwedagon on August 26, 1988, and has led it ever since; and because of the Mandela-like mystique that comes from the combination of long captivity, international fame—including, in her case, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize—and daily vituperation by the regime. Wherever I went, people asked me, "How is she? Is she in good health?" Popular imagination endows her with almost supernatural powers. There is something even painful in the way so much depends on this one human being.

The Lady is no longer formally under house arrest, but she has only limited freedom of movement within Rangoon. We met at the house of a friendly diplomat.

She is—first things first—quite as delicately beautiful as in the photographs, reproduced like icons around the world. She looks much younger than 54, with fine, upright posture, and a sophisticated version of Burmese traditional dress. Every inch the lady.

Fragile, then? Yes, but also quick, decisive, very consciously her father’s daughter. A leader. Crisp, highly disciplined, tough—even harsh in her judgments on former allies who have not come back, after their years in prison, to go on fighting with the NLD. But she is still tougher on herself. In his introduction to Freedom from Fear, a collection of her writings, Michael Aris recalled how she went on a hunger strike in 1989 to demand that she be allowed to join her followers in the appalling conditions of Insein prison. For her decision to join her people’s struggle she has paid a huge personal price, in years of separation from her children. She spends most of her time in the large, rundown villa on the lakeside, with a strict routine of exercise, meditation, writing, reading, and conducting party business.


I find in Burma an everyday fear that is worse than in Ceausescu’s Romania. And desperate everyday want.


One of her passions is literature. We talked of Jane Austen, Dickens, Kipling. She and Michael named their youngest son Kim, after the hero of Kipling’s novel. She asked me if I could find the full version of the poem that provides the epigraph to the last chapter of Kim:

Drawbridge let fall—He’s the Lord of us all—The Dreamer whose dream came true.

Most of the time we talked politics, for her life is now the struggle. Like Václav Havel, who nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize, she insists that she had politics thrust upon her. However, even as a dissident playwright, Havel was a natural politician. Talking to him in the 1980s, I always had a strong sense of a political strategy. I did not have this impression with her. She has a firm grasp of what new political system Burma needs; a much less clear idea of how to achieve it. But then, does anyone else?

Her critics—both inside Burma and in the exile community—say she is inflexible and intransigent. Yet she left me in no doubt that she sees the need for compromise if one wants a nonviolent transition—and to a devout Buddhist, nonviolence is a categorical imperative. The starting point of any new political opening must be a recognition by the regime of the results of the May 1990 election; but there should then be a negotiation about arrangements for a transition. The top military would not have to fear for their lives. "Those I’ve talked to know I wouldn’t be nasty to them," she says, speaking of her jailers like a headmistress discussing a bunch of naughty children. In the interests of a peaceful transition, it might even prove necessary to leave them "some of their ill-gotten gains." A truth commission, rather than kangaroo courts, would be her chosen instrument of dealing with the dreadful past.

However, she judges that the time for such compromise has not yet come. Now is the time for more pressure, not less, so as to bring the generals to the negotiating table. When she is not conducting a shadow foreign policy, she is busy with the National League for Democracy—which the regime still formally accepts as a legal political party, while harassing and imprisoning its members. She suspects the generals released her in 1995 because they thought the NLD was finished. But, she insists, it is not. Particularly important is a committee they have established, together with some ethnic minority parties, to represent the parliament that should have been constituted following the May 1990 election.

Next day, I came to give a lecture at the NLD headquarters—a narrow, two-story house, bedecked with the movement’s red flags, and bursting with activity. I spoke to what was literally a packed house of some 200 people—perhaps half of them under 30, since this was the office’s regular "youth" day. Suu chaired the meeting, translated my talk into Burmese, and added her own pithy comments. To either side of us sat, like a Greek chorus, the men she calls her "uncles"—elderly party members, several of them former army officers, on whose support and advice she relies heavily.

I talked about the transitions to democracy in Central Europe, South Africa, and elsewhere. Although there were undoubtedly regime spies present, people asked questions freely—and seemed never to want to stop. Many were quite well informed, especially about recent changes in Indonesia and Malaysia. (Here, as once in communist-ruled Eastern Europe, Western radio stations broadcasting in the native language are a vital lifeline.) They loved the idea of their generals sweating before a truth commission. "How does one make a truth commission?" asked an earnest-looking girl in the front row, pen poised over notebook. From the back, a man wondered if this procedure necessarily involved amnesty, as in South Africa, and seemed relieved to hear that it did not.

A Complex Stalemate

How might peaceful change come about in Burma? What chance for a Silken Revolution? One must start by saying that the best chance was probably missed 10 years ago. In May 1990, the regime was stunned by the NLD’s election victory. If, before the eyes of the world’s press and television, then present in Rangoon, the NLD had immediately organized a mass march to University Avenue and freed Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the country might look very different today. But the "uncles" then running the NLD, too fearful of risking violence and perhaps also too trustful of their former army colleagues, failed to seize the moment. This was the turning point at which history failed to turn.

Ten years later, the heart of the Burmese problem is that Suu has all the legitimacy and the Slorc has all the power. If the NLD had a little more real power, and the Slorc had a little more legitimacy, a negotiated transition would be easier to imagine. There’s no doubt that Suu and the NLD still have huge potential support. Given an election tomorrow, the opposition would almost certainly win another landslide victory.

The trouble is, the generals know this. For all their firepower, they, too, live in fear. I was told by a reliable source that many of the top Tatmadaw commanders actually sleep in their offices or barracks. Nothing could better illustrate their siege mentality. If they feared popular retribution 10 years ago, how much more must they fear it now. But the generals show no outward sign of any serious readiness to deal.

Meanwhile, although the NLD’s potential power is huge, its actual, effective presence—especially in the countryside—is very limited. That Rangoon office is the signal exception. Suu’s brightest political advisers are imprisoned or exiled. For now, the regime has quite effectively corralled her and the "uncles" in a small, semiprivate space, albeit with a vast international audience.

Students could be a potent force. This is something of a Burmese tradition: Aung San started his political career as a student leader; in the 1960s, the most courageous urban opposition to Ne Win came from the universities; it was students who initiated and led the 1988 protests. Again, the Slorc knows this. That’s why a student activist recently received a 52-year prison sentence, and most of the country’s universities are closed. Rather than risk their own power, the military bosses sacrifice the higher education of a generation and hence the future of their country.


The heart of the Burmese problem is that the beleaguered opposition party has all the legitimacy and the military dictatorship has all the power.


Another important social group are the Buddhist monks, who have significant potential as both protesters and mediators. However, one venerable sage sadly explained to me how the Slorc had bought off the institutionalized Buddhist hierarchy with donations, televisions, cars, and a judicious mixture of intimidation and flattery. Nonetheless, the sage continued, ordinary monks shared the suffering and frustration of the society from which they came. In 1988, monks had been in the forefront of demonstrations. Now they were again waiting for the call. Some estimates suggest that there are as many as 400,000 monks in Burma: one for every soldier.

Finally, further economic decline might provoke spontaneous popular protest. But this is not an industrialized economy, in which economic crisis produces large concentrations of angry workers, capable of concerted action. More than 70 percent of the people still live on the land, and a dispersed rural population is always easier to repress.

Even a whistle-stop tour of possible forces for change must also mention the ethnic minorities, and what might be called the semi-external and external actors. For Burmese politics are anything but a simple fairy-tale confrontation between Suu and Slorc, beauty and the beast.

I did not witness, and cannot begin to encompass, the fiendishly complex mixtures of ethnic discontent, insurgency, and drug trade, varying widely between the country’s numerous ethnic groups. Altogether, these minorities make up roughly a third of the country’s population: a dangerous proportion, as all students of nationalism know. They have been crucial to shaping Burmese politics for half a century, and in any negotiated transition ethnic minority leaders will immediately demand their place at the table.

By "semi-external" actors I mean people like the thousands of students and other political activists who fled to Thailand after the bloody repression of 1988, some of whom still move in and out across that porous frontier, and the government in exile, which works in sometimes ill-coordinated tandem with the NLD. These in turn are closely linked to the remarkable profusion of foreign support groups concerned with Burma. For Burma has become one of the great symbolic causes of our time. There are now more than 100 unofficial Burma web sites. The idealism and energy of those involved will be a great asset when freedom comes, but the current impact of this virtual Burma on the real one is small.

Coordinated action by states might have more direct influence on the regime than this "international civil society." Burma enjoys the rare distinction of being annually condemned by UN resolution.

Beyond this, however, the countries with an interest in Burma are lamentably divided. Britain and America support a policy of pressure and selective sanctions: the approach favored by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. U.S. sanctions, in particular, have denied Burma major foreign investment and international development loans. A milder version of this Anglo-American policy is the agreed position of the European Union. Japan, South Korea, and several ASEAN countries have followed a much softer policy of "private diplomacy" and economic engagement. (Burma was accepted into ASEAN in 1997, against the wishes of the NLD.)

Yet the Slorc can still rely on the largest Asian power: China. For all the differences in official ideology, Burma is now almost a client state of communist China. A flourishing trade goes up and down the old Burma Road, on very favorable terms for the Chinese. Mandalay is increasingly a Chinatown where Chinese businessmen live like lords, in houses bigger even than those of the generals.

A Dreamer’s Dream: Four Miracles

Only a fool would predict the future of such an immensely complex witches’ brew. My own melancholy hunch, based on the views of many I talked to, is that explosion is more likely than negotiation. Several people pointed out to me that Burma’s long-suffering Buddhist gentleness has alternated, historically, with short periods of violent protest. No one can know what the spark will be. An explosion, particularly if it took the form of a peasants’ revolt, might initially be suppressed by the well-prepared army, with more bloodshed. Such a crisis would also have an important international consequence, for it could see the West arrayed on one side and China on the other. After Taiwan, Burma!


On my first evening in Burma, I walked up to the wondrous Shwedagon pagoda and found myself the only foreigner in the entire temple complex. I marveled at the tranquility of a national shrine that seemed still authentically part of a traditional culture—something unthinkable, lost forever, at St. Peter’s, or St. Paul’s, or the Taj Mahal.


The hope must be that, as in Indonesia and Malaysia, such violence would eventually be the midwife of negotiation. We would then have to look for four miracles—as if reaching this point were not already miracle enough. First, that the opposition and the Slorc could negotiate an orderly transition to democracy. Second, that the country would not fall apart in this most dangerous period for all multiethnic polities: when dictatorship is dying and democracy still unborn. Ten years ago, the main political representatives of the ethnic minorities were ready to work within the framework of a new democratic federation. It is less clear that they would do so now. Third, that, with the help of the outside world, the new government could begin to tackle an appalling list of problems: poverty, malnutrition, banditry, an overmighty army, corruption, poor education, decayed or nonexistent infrastructure, drugs, ethnic insurgency, ethnic insurgent drug lords with private armies, AIDS—you name it, Burma has it.

Finally, and I fear most unrealistically, I would hope against hope for a fourth miracle: that something of the tranquil beauty of an isolated, traditional culture, almost unique in today’s world, could survive the necessary and longed-for tempest of modernity. But the armies of global capitalism are waiting at the frontier, engines revving up, with their container-loads of tawdry goods, their ready-made lifestyle packages, sex shops, reversed baseball caps, and state-of-the-art software for the unceasing manufacture of new consumer desires. These armies are more irresistible than any Tatmadaw or People’s Army, because they are truly welcomed as liberators.

On my last evening, as on my first, I went to the Shwedagon. Again, there was a quiet glory. As I sat gazing up at the golden winking wonder, outlined against a black velvet sky, I thought of all that I had seen—and of Michael, and of Suu.

I stayed a while, and sent up a secular prayer: that all my pessimistic analysis should be proved quite wrong; that the four miracles should follow; and that Aung San Suu Kyi should, herself, be

The Dreamer whose dream came true.