Emerald cool we may be,

As water in cupped hands

But oh that we might be

As splinters of glass

In cupped hands

-Aung San Suu Kyi

 

In the more than ten thousand kilometers and twelve countries that I covered in my half-year trip from Bali to Lhasa, the flights in and out of the ignominious kingdom of Myanmar were the only airplanes that I would have to take.

There is no overland route into central Burma. All of the land borders are blocked, as the activities that go on at these jungle frontiers are not amenable to tourism. Esteemed foreign guests like myself are only allowed to visit a roughly diamond shaped section of the country, encompassing about a third of the total land area. The upper tip of the diamond is around Mandalay, and the lower tip is at the capital, Yangon (previously known as Rangoon). Any travel outside of these boundaries is strictly proscribed, and anyone caught beyond the diamond is subject to immediate deportation.

Myanmar barely exists. It is certainly a nonentity in the cluttered mind of the western world. Almost no one from my country would be able to find it on an unlabelled globe. Say the name of it where I am from and many people will ask you what the word means. They will not recognize it as the name of a nation.

There are reasons for this.

The country has been under information lockdown for nearly fifty years. There is next to no internet, and what does exist is restricted to approved websites and monitored around the clock. There are very few books. Those that can be found are generally military propaganda, and those that are not are hidden from the authorities in secret caches of private collectors. There are no free newspapers and no real universities. Cell phones are largely prohibited, and Possession of an unauthorized fax machine is a crime punishable by years in prison.

The country is mostly Buddhist, and portraits of an avuncular general decorate all its key pagodas and temples. This angelic warlord is, Than Shwe, the senior officer of the current military junta. He is the head of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is internationally renowned for promoting peace and development through torture, mass murder, rape and imprisonment without trial. He is also behind the “social welfare” organization called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) which is used by the military to attack political opponents and suppress dissent. It is the same organization that attempted to assassinate Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi on May 30, 2003, in an attack which resulted in 100 of her supporters being beaten to death.

The People’s Power Group (PSAS[1]) has also been organized by the junta, composed of civilians paid about 3,000 kyat (approximately two dollars) per day to attack and rob demonstrators against the government. They are also known to infiltrate peaceful demonstrations and commit mock-attacks on government officials, in order to justify violent military response.

General Than Shwe, who has ruled the country for the past seventeen years, never speaks to the Burmese people and never appears in public. He does not have to.

Since all books about the country are critical of the current regime, almost all foreign literature about Myanmar is banned entry into the country. Bags are purged at immigration and practically the only books you can get in with are travel guides, and these are very restricted in the names and statements they can safely publish, because the writers know that whatever they write will be gone over with a fine tooth comb by the military government. Talk about the wrong person in the wrong context, and they just might disappear. Ironically, all public writing about Myanmar must necessarily be limited to descriptions of the unmentionables, like Than Shwe, while the invisible army of the unnamables, like Sao Oo Kya, are relegated to backpacker word of mouth.

Around 200 kilometers north-east of Mandalay, on the border of the tourist-prohibited sector of the country, sits a small city called Hsipaw. I arrived there around mid-afternoon and checked into a government hotel. After filling out the obligatory tracking form,[2] I headed out to visit the palace that had been home to Sao Kya Seng, the last king of the Shan people, who disappeared in military custody after the coup of 1962 and has not been seen since. When I went there, the real estate was being tended by the nephew of the absent king. This was the man I had come to see. The solitary head of a dying ethnicity.

As bad as it is for the Burmese majority of the country (the Bamar ethnicity), crushed lifeless under the junta’s iron heel, it is incomparably worse for the minority groups. From a military intelligence standpoint, Myanmar is divided into three classifications: black zones, where the Karen, Shan and other insurgents maintain mobile villages and nominal control; brown zones, where land is contested; and white zones, where the SPDC troops, known as the Tatmadaw, have complete and irresistible dominance. The white zone is basically the diamond I mentioned before.

War is constant. Any brown zone community may be subject at any time to sudden and unprovoked Tatmadaw attacks. The soldiers often burn the villages, kill the livestock and plant land mines around the village to harm any who return. Rape of minority women is officially condoned as a weapon of war. Since Burma defines ethnicity through the father, children born through violation mean one less minority and one more Burmese.

The old Shan palace was overgrown (the military had seized most of the farming and maintenance equipment) and the dilapidated royal residence would barely pass in my country for a regular middle-class house. I double checked the map to make sure that this desolate landscape was indeed the place, then let myself in through the untended gate. Before I could knock on the front door, it was opened by a diminutive white haired man of late middle age in a button-up shirt and western trousers. This was Sao Oo Kya.

He invited me in with impeccable English, a testimony of his royal education.  Ostensibly a tour guide, he briefly guided me around the grounds telling me about the history of the palace and the Shan dynasty. Historically minded tourists came by once in a while to get a tour of the place, and the revenue he derived from this was how he supported his wife and two small children.

He showed me dusty black and white pictures of the royalty of which he was the last remaining scion, and mentioned several books that had been published abroad about his family. Then I started in with some questions. I had my notepad out, and could see that it made him nervous.

“Who are you,” he asked hesitantly, “and why do you want to know these things?”

I introduced myself, saying that I had encountered an Australian in Singapore who had told me about him, and that if he had time, I would like to conduct an interview. I told him that I had already met with several other members of the underground resistance and they had also directed me to him. I told him I was planning to write about Myanmar after my trip was finished.

“Then you need to be careful,” he said quietly, sitting down. “Very careful. I’ve already checked the house for bugs and wiretaps this morning. We can speak freely, here. But if I see you in the street tomorrow, I will just walk by without saying hello. Make sure you do the same.”

I promised him that I would.

He told me about his younger brother, Hkun Htun Oo, who had been head of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and won 20% of the popular vote in the 1988 election. He would have been the head of the official opposition of Aung San Suu Kyi, if the election results had been recognized by the junta. He has now vanished into a military “insane asylum” somewhere deep in Burma’s northern jungles.

He told me how, two days before I had arrived, the police had raided his house and searched it top to bottom, finding nothing incriminating. Then he went in the kitchen and came back with a box of forbidden books that they had not found. God knows where he had hidden them. I picked through the contraband. They all looked like they had been read countless times. Every one of them had been smuggled in, sub rosa, by sympathetic foreigners. Every one was a dark simile of years in prison.

He pulled out a well-thumbed copy of “Animal Farm.”

“This is my favorite book,” he said. “It was the first one I ever got from a foreigner. Immigration let it in because they thought it was a textbook on animal husbandry!” He roared with laughter.

He showed me letters he had received from foreign governments. France had invited him to tour their country. Germany had invited him to Berlin, and had even provided a prepaid plane ticket in the envelope with the letter. But Sao Oo Kya could not get a passport from his own government to allow him to leave his country.

We talked economics. He told me of the vast timber, fisheries, natural gas, jade, copper and other resources of his people’s land that were being exploited. He described how the properties of the old British “Burma Corporation Ltd.,” which used to be one of the richest companies in the world, have now become dismantled into a mad scramble for vicarious wealth between China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and South Korea.

He told me how the kyat currency had decreased in value by 1,500,000% on the world market since 1962, thanks to the mismanagement of the military regime.

He told me how the junta command was moving its government offices to a new administrative capital in Naypyidaw, a thick jungle area 300 kilometers from Yangon. This was being done at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, to reduce the effectiveness of a possible American naval attack, as Yangon is right on the coastline and would be a much easier target.

He explained how, in the Bay of Bengal, the Burmese military is drilling billions of dollars a year in crude oil, and piping it to all to Bangkok, reminding me that the average per capita annual income in Burma is just a little over one hundred dollars.[3]

He told me all this, and more. He was angry, furiously angry, and yet very clear and deliberate in his speech. In spite of his white hair and wealth of years, it was obvious that there was nothing foggy about his remarkable mind. It had been etched with a thousand unforgettable horrors. His family murdered and imprisoned, his people suffering from genocidal persecution, his house searched and possessions seized, his wife and children constantly in danger, and worst of all, the full knowledge the whole time that he was powerless to stop it.

We talked until well beyond midnight, and when I left the house, he deemed it dark enough to walk me to the gate. As he shook my hand, he whispered in an animated voice, “Everything that we discussed, write about it! Write it and let people know! You must understand how much your words can matter! Knowledge is the key!”

The weathered old gentleman smiled and waved to me one last time, before finally turning away and walking back to his house.

Two months after I met Sao Oo Kya, he was arrested and taken into military custody. On September 30, 2005, the 66 year-old man was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for “operating as an unlicensed tour guide, defaming the state and being in violation of the restrictions imposed under the Habitual Offenders Act.” The police had discovered that two tourists had written “Thank you for telling us about the real Myanmar” in his guestbook, and that was considered more than enough evidence to convict him. His wife is now alone to care for and protect the two children, and the Shan palace has been completely shut off to foreigners ever since.

So another man disappears. A dynasty ends. Two years later Buddhist monks march in the streets and are shot down. The year after that a typhoon levels the capital city and hundreds of thousands die while the junta refuses entrance to international aid.

Nothing changes. Just one atrocity after another in an invisible country where so much happens without anything happening. People in comfortable armchairs squint at unpronounceable names, fold up the newspaper, and go to work. World leaders tighten sanctions again and remonstrate against tyranny again. The United Nations sends representatives again, bickers between its members again.

I wrote the words that told the story, and the story passed through hands and screens and minds and faded away as newer and more photogenic scandals arose. It never made it into the newspapers. Just a writer without a name discussing the obscure fate of an unknown man. So the story died, perhaps with the man. Or perhaps not. Maybe, somewhere in a country we cannot find on the map, he is grinding out his last, unimaginable days in prison because we are too busy to care.


[1] Compare the four ministries of George Orwell’s “1984” government: The Ministry of Love, that tortures and executes, The Ministry of Peace, that directs the war, The Ministry of Plenty, that rations the food, and The Ministry of Truth, that falsifies and retouches. Orwell lived in Burma for four formative years, where he served in the Indian Imperial Police. He knew both the Burmese and Shaw-Karen languages, and wrote his first novel there, “Burmese Days.”

[2] The hotels that are allowed to accept tourists in Myanmar are all under the thumb of the military, and every time a foreigner checks in, he must fill out a form saying where he stayed the night before, and where he is planning to stay the following night. This form is then immediately faxed to a central intelligence ministry, called Myanmar Travel and Tours, which tracks the location of every foreigner in the country. If you drop off this grid for longer than a couple of days, a military search party is deployed to apprehend and deport you.

[3] Burma sits on top of an estimated 700 billion cubic meters of natural gas and billions of barrels of crude oil reserves, which is all exported at a profit that goes directly into the pockets of the generals. This is why the people were mobilized to riot when the junta, on Aug 14, 2007, suddenly declared a fuel hike of 500%, so that many wage earners were required to spend approximately 80% of their daily salary on the commute to and from work, and barely have anything left over with which to buy food.

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