‘Deceptively Calm’
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Magazine

LETTER FROM BURMA

‘Deceptively Calm’


By Kim Williams DECEMBER, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.12


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But anger surfaces when people recall the September crackdown

The glimmering pagoda seems to attract people like a large golden magnet. Trishaws are slowly pedalled through the darkness as if the passing of time does not exist. “It seems so calm,” says one of the group, a local writer. “Deceptively calm. People are so angry. Anything can happen, any time.”

Everyone in the small group, seated at a table in downtown Rangoon, has witnessed the September demonstrations and the brutal crackdown at firsthand. Their recollections tumble out.

“They beat skulls as if they were crushing ice in a bag…Never in the history of our country have the pagodas been so empty…We have no words to describe this…If we give up now it will be 50 years before we get another chance…It is the beginning of the end.”

Talking to foreigners has always been an act of defiance in Burma. And for many Burmese, words are all they have these days to battle the regime.  So they speak, as soon as they sense a chance—about what they saw, what they feel and think, and about what they want to do.

In Mandalay, a self-assured activist frowned when asked if the protests were over. “If we were so naive to think that we could bring about change at this one time we would deserve rulers like these,” he said.

He gave his own version of Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous words “Fear is a habit”—saying, “We should not let fear poison us, because then we can’t do anything.”

A monk sitting next to him agreed and was keen to point out that his pagoda was continuing the religious boycott against the military. “The violence against the monks by the armed forces was a major sin, according to the Buddhist principles. There is no forgiveness for it.”

In a remote town in Arakan State, a young monk who participated in the demonstrations struggled to control his anger, and the words just spilled out. “The future life of the military will be very bad. They will not go to hell, but to a place below there.”

His voice became so loud that an older monk had to raise the volume of his incantation to drown him out as he prayed with a visiting family of pilgrims.

In a nearby Muslim quarter, two men recounted how they took to the streets in support of demonstrating monks. “For the first time in our life we felt a sense of solidarity with the Buddhist Burmese,” said one.

Back in Rangoon, a young female student said: “My classmates never believed that 1988 really happened. Now they have seen the brutality of the military with their own eyes, and they want to do something.”

In a modern sports center, a businessman of Chinese origin said after watching BBC coverage of the demonstrations “this government is very cruel,” and then walked rapidly away as if he feared being overheard.

Many Burmese with whom I talked said they want to give initiatives for political change a chance, but after years of disappointments they are skeptical.

The realities and hardships of just scraping together an existence were uppermost in many people’s minds. “I live from day to day,” said one.

“The harvest doesn’t look too good this year, so that is my main worry,” said a young woman working in a rice paddy in the countryside near Rangoon.

Asked about the protests in Rangoon, she shrugged: “I only watch government TV. How do I know what to believe?”

As night falls in Rangoon, the writer in our group surveys the quiet streets where only weeks ago thousands defied the regime. “Our city is so beautiful. And yet the generals are too afraid of their own people to live here.”

He laughs as if that thought is his revenge for what Rangoon has had to suffer. “The regime reminds me of a woman cancer patient. Every day she puts on makeup and puts flowers in her hair. She will never confess to her illness, but she will somehow have to deal with it.”

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