Slave Nation

Aung San Suu Kyi may be free, but Burma has become a prison without walls


| November-December 1996


Milan Kundera once wrote that the “struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Few outside Burma know about the epic events that took place here between 1988 and 1990. Few have heard of the White Bridge on Inya Lake in the center of Rangoon, now known to foreign businesspeople as the site of an “international business center.” Yet it was here that an uprising as momentous as the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was sparked. On March 18, 1988, hundreds of schoolchildren and students marched along the bridge, singing the national anthem, signaling that they wanted no more of the authoritarian rule that had been in place since a 1962 military coup. The march was as joyful as it was defiant. When suddenly they saw behind them the steel helmets of the Lon Htein, the “riot police,” they knew they were trapped.

According to eyewitnesses I have interviewed in exile, the soldiers systematically beat many of the protesters to death, singling out the girls. A few protesters managed to escape into the lake, where they were caught, beaten, and drowned. Of those who survived, 42 were locked in a waiting van parked in the noonday sun outside Insein prison, where they died of suffocation. At the White Bridge fire engines were brought in to wash away the blood.

This state-sanctioned violence did not put an end to the protests. On the contrary: After months of rising popular confidence, the moment of general uprising came precisely at eight minutes past eight on the morning of the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988. This was the auspicious time the dockers chose to go on strike, and the country followed: teachers, journalists, railway workers, weather forecasters, grave diggers, even prison warders and police. The massive demonstration, soon joined by students, numbered more than 10,000 protesters.

When Ne Win, the now-retired chairman of the ruling junta, kept his promise to “shoot to kill those who stand against us,” there were no television cameras linked to satellite dishes, as there were during China’s bloody response to the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square the following year. Over the next four days several thousand Burmese died in the streets and in the prisons, under torture, and even in their homes as the army stormed the crooked lanes, firing at random into flimsy homes. Anyone with a camera was a target. Perhaps the world really took notice only when a charismatic woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero Aung San, was placed under house arrest in July 1989. Thereafter, so the junta calculated, they could proceed with an election that, without her, they were certain to win and that would legitimize their dictatorship. In fact, they lost spectacularly: Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82 percent of the parliamentary seats; she even swept the board in principal army cantonments.

Shocked, the generals (who had renamed the regime the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known by its Orwellian moniker SLORC) threw most of the newly elected Parliament into prison and turned Burma into what Amnesty International has described as “a prison without walls.” Since then, year upon year, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has translated Burma’s tyranny into the following catalog: “Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labor, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association, and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities.”

What drew me to Burma earlier this year was a Human Rights Watch/Asia report that said that despite the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 1995, “the overall human rights situation is worsening . . . As the SLORC has moved to attract international investment at least 2 million people have been forced to work for no pay under brutal conditions to rebuild Burma’s long-neglected infrastructure.” Having opened Burma to the “free market” and released its most famous prisoner, the SLORC bargained that the rapacious instincts of the “Asian Tiger” states and the venerable plunderers of the West would respond with the investment it craved. The SLORC was not disappointed. The U.S. government, in spite of a certain sound and fury by its representatives at the U.N., said it would continue “neither to encourage nor to discourage” trade and investment. The British government mounted a London trade conference—“Burma: The Next Tiger?”—funded by the Department of Trade, which was told about the “visionaries” in the SLORC. And, immediately upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the Japanese government restored some $50 million in aid. The new Australian deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer, who had previously announced that “democracy is coming to Burma,” said that Australia could now adopt a “flexible” approach to a country that offered “great economic opportunities.”

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