Saturday, December 1, 2007

Power Can Buy You People. Can It Buy You Happiness? The Regime Still Stands in Burma, Where "The People Just Want Food."

Crossing the Moei river from Thailand into Burma you see many river bathers. But if you look again more closely you notice they are all on the Burma side.

More Thais enjoy a degree of wealth conducive to piped-in water, which means fewer bad microbes, and therefore a chance at longer, more active lives.

If you happen to enter Burma via a legal route, through a regime checkpoint reputed as "rustic," you notice that it actually has an IBM clone running Windows and a camera-capture program that impressively prints out in seconds two cards containing one's personal data, and, in the upper right-hand corner of each, a little color photo of your face, from below.

The army Intel man in the booth has a nice silver watch and Che Guevara t-shirt, but he is not visibly packing a pistol. Few arms are visible in this Intel town.

A middle-aged Burmese woman, a highly-trained professional who fled Rangoon post-September, said that she was surprised when the army fired on them since, this time, they followed the monks' lead, and rather than demonstrating "angrily" with fists raised, they mainly proceeded quietly.

But the soldiers opened-up anyway, so now she's sheltering near the mountains.

"The people cannot understand why they are in poverty," she argued, a state which degrades them "physically, educationally, even morally," thus making it easier for the military to recruit thugs from regular people, basically doubling their virtually non-existent normal wage to get them to beat up dissenting neighbors.

Walking through town, one sees the usual Buddhist temples and, for this region, Christian churches, but also many pool halls and karaokes, lots of Johnny Walker Red and Black, and smart-ass young men lounging back on low teak chairs playing X-Box video.

They are smaller and thinner than their Thai contemporaries across the river, but still -- given what they have -- muscular. They give off what an Indonesian would call a distinctly "preman" vibe (preman being the Indonesian street thugs sponsored by army police, or local big men, or, freelancing if they're small-time enough).

One, using the universal semaphore of jerked back thumb and extended pinkie invites me to drink with him and his laughing boys. Another, inside a temple compound, before a golden shrine to the Buddha, ascertains that I'm from America, laughs when I point to his "US Army" jacket, and, without further preliminaries, offers to procure me a Burmese "lady."

A block off the main street, the houses' walls are paper thin, as with the very poor in Indonesia, but this in a region where it is cool -- even by US northern standards --, and where many wear long sleeves and jackets.

Outside Basic Education High School there is an anti-drug sign, in English ("The Fight Against Drug Menace is a National Cause"), this from a regime that helped lead the world in heroin (the phrase was "Golden Triangle," and the CIA's facilitating role was documented in Alfred W. McCoy's classic scholarly study "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia" [1972]) until it was recently outstripped by US/NATO occupied Afghanistan.

Outside the police base there is another English sign, this one announcing a "crime free week" this past March, presumably a week in which the junta sold no drugs and freed its political prisoners.

The military base is tucked a ways off the main road, beside some just-turned-over black earth and is so not-under-siege in feeling that its gate was sitting open and I didn't even notice the one very young guard until I shifted position to look for buffalos in the farmland and spotted him behind a pillar.

Its an anticlimactic contrast to the September footage from bloodsmeared downtown Rangoon, or, for that matter to the scene in today's Muslim southern Thailand where a vicious insurgency has the Thai army and police (who were vicious first, and still are) locked-in and very frightened.

When I asked that professional woman whether she thought the Burmese junta was frightened, she said: "Yes, I think they are afraid. They cannot sleep at night. And if they sleep, they have nightmares; they cannot be happy. They have power but they cannot have happiness."

That may (hopefully) be the case, but given a chance to reverse that polarity, I doubt that many repressive Generals would take it, inside Burma or elsewhere.

Indeed, there is a rumor going around the world that power brings -- or is a form of -- happiness, and many act is if they believe that to be so, hiring and shooting their way toward fulfillment.

On the way out of town I was accosted by a plump, spectacled man in safron monk's garb, who, sweating and speaking good English, explained rapid-fire -- with my barely asking a question -- that he had studied engineering in Singapore, was still meditating to control his body, and that the demonstrations had been staged by a team of "false monks" controlled by "an underground communist unit" (as were, he said, all the other various rebel/ dissident groups in Burma), that Aung San Suu Kyi was British, not Burmese, that her father had been a communist (which happened to be true, though his main politics were nationalist), and that -- getting interesting -- his own
(the monk's) sister is on the board of a shipping firm in Singpore that is controlled by Gen. Maung Aye, the junta's current number two (an Intel specialist), and that he, the monk, is related to various other generals, including the former Intel chief and Prime Minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt (who not long ago lost an internal power struggle, and is now, as this monk put it, "behind the partition," ie. interned inside the Insein political prison).

The monk gave me his G-mail and Hotmail addresses, said the Burmese don't know what democracy is (though -- he said -- he and I do), and in the most interesting moment, answered the question: "Do the people like the government?"

"I and people like me do," he said, "but the people just want food. All they want is food and peace." I said I had to go.

He said if I wanted "the truth about Burma," he would send it to me through G-mail.