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Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008

UNDER THE JACKBOOT

A 'Wonderland' where monks call for foreign air strikes


By LEWIS NORMAN
Special to The Japan Times

Burma is a topsy-turvy sort of place, where surprises lurk and suddenly jump out at you.

News photo
A monk in one of the robes that gave the Saffron Revolution of Bloody September 2007 its name. LEWIS NORMAN PHOTO

Prices for some goods are not just high, they are astronomical. Incredibly, a mobile phone SIM card costs $2,000, a 1990 Corolla costs $30,000 and a new Toyota Land Cruiser goes for $300,000. In Tokyo they practically give away mobile phones, nobody would pay even $1,000 for a 1990 Corolla, and a new Land Cruiser would cost less than $60,000. The fact that these goods are not uncommon and command such prices in a country with the lowest per-capita income in ASEAN is remarkable.

Meanwhile, in the markets around the country, foodstuffs are plentiful but the people are destitute; and in the monasteries, uniformed police still guard the entrances and camp inside, while the monks continue to go out and beg alms from the legions of faithful, their spirits unbowed, their anger unabated.

In this "Wonderland," the SPDC is constructing a new capital, Naypyitaw (meaning "Seat of Kings"), and an IT city with its gleaming shrines to warped priorities. And why not buy a $250-million Russian nuclear reactor to produce, we are assured, medical isotopes in a nation where annual health spending is less than $1 per capita?

When I mentioned my "Alice in Wonderland" feeling to an elderly Burmese he laughed and told me that a new translation of this Lewis Carroll classic into Burmese has recently been nominated for a prestigious literary prize. Timing is everything, and what could be more apt for a nation collectively experiencing the unnerving feeling of falling down the Rabbit Hole where the Mad Hatters in green are in charge and monks are shot, arrested and tortured at the Queen of Hearts' behest?

The newspapers, meanwhile, lay the blame for the nation's mounting problems and unrest on unpatriotic saboteurs orchestrated by evil powers who seek to control Burma for their own nefarious ends.

The Buddhist monks who were killed, we read, were not real monks, merely hooligans masquerading as pious devotees. Now many of the monks are gone, many returning to their homes under duress, but the whereabouts of others remains uncertain — some perhaps secretly cremated in the wee hours when security forces told crematorium staff to make themselves scarce.

In their stead are what the people derisively refer to as the "new" monks — soldiers who have donned robes and taken up residence in some of the most troublesome monasteries to keep an eye on things. All is not as it appears.

Risk getting the ax

Many Burmese are jobless, and those who do their jobs well in Wonderland run the risk of getting the ax. For example, Charles Petrie, the senior United Nations representative in Burma until December 2007, was expelled for announcing that the emperor has no clothes. The government tersely declared that he had "exceeded his mandate," which apparently in Burma means that the U.N. coordinator of humanitarian programs should not speak up about humanitarian problems.

On U.N. day (Oct. 24, 2007), Petrie said that the protests "clearly demonstrated the everyday struggle to meet basic needs."

Soon after his expulsion I asked numerous Burmese why he was expelled, and I was told that it was because he had been doing a good job. One ethnic Rakhine in Sittwe told me, "Because he told the truth in a country where telling the truth is inconvenient (for the government) and usually punished." Others said he embarrassed the SPDC because everyone knows that the gathering humanitarian crisis is a consequence of its failures.

News photo
A gorgeous sunset over benighted Mandalay LEWIS NORMAN PHOTO

By implicitly linking the political protests to the dire economic circumstances, and reportedly saying that the situation will remain explosive if the pressing needs of the vast majority remain neglected, Petrie was stating the obvious. His expulsion may also have been a shot over the bow of U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, warning him about what the consequences might be if he offends his hosts by doing his job.

What Petrie said about Burma's humanitarian crisis and widespread poverty is not exactly a state secret; the signs are everywhere evident. A stone's throw from central Yangon train station, and less than 10 minutes' walk from the swank Traders Hotel, is one of the grimmest slums you might never want to encounter. There, families live in flimsy and crowded shacks built along narrow alleys and open sewers. But stunningly, the squalor is relieved by the mirage of a palatial military family estate that stands cheek-by-jowl, divided only by a fence from its impoverished neighbors. This urban oasis features gleaming condominiums sprouting satellite dishes and late-model cars, watered lawns and well-kept premises of those who are so openly despised by the people. The tenement kids noisily play badminton and soccer while the estate is lifeless, huddled in on itself.

Given how grim conditions are in Burma, it is amazing how people manage to maintain their sense of humor and joke about their plight — and especially their miserable leaders. "Where do the generals go for medical care?" as the joke goes. Answer: "The airport."

Par Par Lay, 60, a Mandalay comedian in the locally famous Moustache Brothers Troupe, has been imprisoned three times because the regime doesn't have a sense of humor. He was released from jail shortly before I met him. He erred by making a wordplay in Pali that drew attention to the shooting of the monks, and also joined the antigovernment demonstrations.

He didn't seem like a man who had just spent two months in jail under constant interrogation, subjected to sleep- and food-deprivation. His interrogators wanted to know who was instigating the demonstrations, and they were not amused when he said that the monks and people were demonstrating because of government policies that made everything too expensive — implying that the government itself must be the instigator.

Despite the "minders" in the audience, Par Par Lay jokes about a Burmese man who went to Bangkok seeking treatment for his toothache. When he got there the dentist asked, "Why did you come all the way here to get your tooth treated? Don't you have dentists in Burma?" The man replied, "Yes, but in Burma we are not allowed to open our mouths."

Meanwhile, monks in Rakhine — when asked what the international community should do to help — replied, "Send F-16s to bomb Naypyitaw (the new capital). That's where the bad men are." It is a measure of just how topsy-turvy things are in Wonderland, when monks are calling for air strikes.



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