Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Twilight of the Idle Regime

The Irrawaddy News

I lived in a military compound during my youth, when my father was an army officer and Burma was still ruled by the Burmese Socialist Party Program under Gen Ne Win.

In the final years of the Ne Win regime, two incidents occurred which I can still remember very distinctly. One was a storm warning that put everyone in the small-town base where we lived on alert. When the storm hit, soldiers were ordered to patrol the town to come to the assistance of any who might need it. This included not only government officials, but also people living in surrounding villages.

The other episode involved a major fire which destroyed several buildings and threatened many lives. Soldiers were promptly sent to prevent looting and to save children and the elderly from the conflagration. They also quickly tore down thatched roofs to prevent the fire from spreading uncontrollably.

As dramatic as these events were, however, they don’t compare to the night of May 2-3, when Cyclone Nargis tore through Rangoon. Fortunately, my family and I live in a flat about half-way up a tall building, so we were safe from danger. But after we put our children to bed, my wife and I spent a sleepless night, on constant watch like two soldiers who did not want to miss the battle raging all around us.

Outside we saw taxis and small cars driving with great care, as if they were clinging to the asphalt for all they were worth. Sheets of corrugated zinc flew through the air like paper. We even saw a few foolish people trying to walk in the streets, struggling against the incredibly powerful wind and rain. We worried ceaselessly about our friends and relatives in other parts of the city.

The next day, I was even more surprised by what I saw—or rather, by what I did not see.

Rangoon looked like a battleground, with trees toppled everywhere. Roads were impassable, and the city was at a standstill. The only signs of life were Buddhist monks—some of them helped by youths in their distinctive hip-hop garb—cutting the massive trunks and branches with handsaws to make them easier to clear from the roads.

Instinctively, I looked for soldiers, who were never in short supply in military-ruled Burma (whereas monks have been noticeably less visible in Rangoon since last September, when they dared to challenge the ruling regime’s authority). But they were nowhere to be seen.

Where were the soldiers? Some people suggested that they were waiting for orders from the generals. But I knew from experience that orders from on high were not required in these circumstances. Any commanding officer could have put his men to work. After all, the natural response to a natural disaster is action, not paralysis.

Personally, I suspected that the soldiers were reluctant to show themselves because they believed that the cyclone had been sent as punishment for their actions last September, when they mistreated and killed Buddhist monks. Many ordinary Burmese had suggested as much, half in jest, but perhaps the soldiers really believed it and were afraid to face the wrath the nature.

Meanwhile, we started to hear horrific stories coming from the Irrawaddy delta, which was much more severely affected by the cyclone than Rangoon. We received this news via the BBC and VOA: Local radio stations and the state-run television station were silent on the impact of the disaster in the delta. Like many other people in Rangoon, we started to think about ways to help.

When it came time to take action, we followed the example of the ’88 Generation Students group, which initiated last year’s protests by boycotting public transport after the government suddenly raised fuel prices and bus fares. Like them, we decided to bypass the government’s belated relief efforts (which came only after thousands of cyclone victims had needlessly perished in the crucial days after the cyclone hit). Instead, we entrusted our donations to monks, who had worked side by side with us as we tried to bring our lives back to normal.

It was not until two days after the cyclone struck that the soldiers finally made an appearance on the streets of Rangoon. Young captains commandeered the municipal government’s heaviest equipment to remove trees from the roads. They even used these machines to move small branches, in a show of their immense efforts to help the people.

Then Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein was named “president of the national committee for natural disaster mitigation.” It was all very impressive.

Of course, this was also the week before the referendum, when the generals were giving us a chance to vote for their constitution. With the aftermath of a major disaster on our hands, however, no one had any interest in the referendum, the outcome of which was decided in advance, in any case.

But we were surprised that the regime didn’t at least try to win support by making a serious effort to help the people in the delta. Apparently, it didn’t matter much what voters thought, since “victory” was already in the bag.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring China, a major earthquake struck, and the world witnessed a dramatically different response to a deadly disaster. It is ironic that in China, where the ruling Communist Party does not even pretend to be democratic, the authorities paid far greater attention to public opinion than the generals in Burma, who were trying to make everyone believe that they were steering the country towards democracy.

It is also ironic that, at a time when they were trying to impose a new constitution on the country, the regime showed its disdain for rule of law by illegally extending Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.

This was not only another slap in the face of Burmese voters, but also another lost public relations opportunity. Suu Kyi’s sentence ended the same weekend that international donors were in Rangoon, ready to pledge generously to relief and reconstruction efforts in the delta. Snr-Gen Than Shwe wanted $11 billion in aid, no strings attached. But he was unwilling to show good faith by honouring a previous promise to the international community that he would negotiate directly with Suu Kyi to achieve national reconciliation.

Burma under its current rulers makes the Ne Win era seem almost a model of competence and efficiency. If there is any consolation to be drawn from this experience, it is that the junta has shown its weakness, and sown the seeds of its future downfall.

With the military hiding from its own shadow, and the people defiantly taking the initiative, the ruling generals must be having many sleepless nights. If they doze off again, they may one day wake up to find that they are the casualties of a crisis of their own making.

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