Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

The Australian Magazine, 21 January 1989

Dark Days in Burma

It is virtually closed to outsiders, its recent brush with democracy now a deferred dream. Lin Neumann, traveling on forged papers, visited Rangoon during the uprisings and found the streets full of terror. Photos: Steve Lehman.

Saturday Night. And I've been in Burma all of four hours. Finishing dinner in a western embassy in Rangoon, we hear gunshots and a crowd chanting in defiance. "A soldier must be shooting: the people have no guns," the ambassador says. "I hope this doesn't get out of hand."

That night in September turned out to be calm; but less than 24 hours later Burma's movement for democracy ended in violence and terror by a ferociously authoritarian military organisation. As one of a handful of Western reporters in Rangoon, I saw the last hours of popular upheaval. In the eerie half-light of Rangoon in revolt, long lines people clad in native longyi sarongs were marching in orderly formation or manning home-made barricades and brandishing improvised weapons: crude crossbows and "jinglees", sharpened bicycle spokes often dipped in poison; bamboo spears and antique Japanese samurai swords. For weeks they had controlled the city as the government looked on and their leaders demanded immediate change. That night, the crowds chanted, "Let the soldiers come! We will fight them! We are not cowards!"

I was lucky to be in Burma. Fascinated by the drama of what we thought would be the downfall of another dictator, Ne Win, and the end of Burma's road to socialism, the press corps sat in neighbouring Bangkok for weeks waiting for the revolution to succeed and the ban on journalists to be lifted. I grew impatient and decided it was time to go to Rangoon.

I obtained a forged tourist visa and on September 17 boarded a Thai Airways plane for the 55-minute flight.

I spent my first full day talking with protest leaders who confidently predicted that the old system of Ne Win's Burma Socialist Program Party would soon give way. Just three hours before General Saw Maung announced that he was taking charge, the former Defence Minister Tin Oo, now a bitter Ne Win opponent, claimed an interim opposition-led government was "days, even hours" from reality. "I think they have agreed," he said of talks between the opposition and government representatives.

Burma 1988 Street protests

I thought about his words later that night, after the military announced its intention to restore order by banning all gatherings and imposing an all-night curfew. That night the army called the Strand Hotel, where I was staying, to tell the staff that their guests must observe the curfew or risk being shot.

Another reporter and I crawled out on the balcony for a look at the Burmese army. Three troops carriers and an armoured car rumbled up to the front of the hotel, on Strand Road, fronting the muddy Rangoon River. The soldiers were clearing a barricade of trees and timber scraps hastily erected by residents to slow the military advance. Peering over the second floor balustrade, we heard the unmistakable lock and load of dozens of automatic rifles and a harsh command in Burmese, obviously directed at us.

Terrified, we hit the ground and crawled back to the safety of an open doorway just as one of the desk clerks scurried into the room. "Mr Lin, what are you doing?" he screamed. The soldiers, he told us, had order us to identify ourselves, otherwise they would shoot. When we didn't understand the words, the staff had shouted to them that we were only stupid tourists and didn't know any better.

The next morning we found out how serious the soldiers were. Outside the American Embassy they fired on protesters, killing two people and injuring dozens. Photographer Steve Lehman was trapped ina a building with several hundred residents and demonstrators, cowering in silence as the block was cordoned off by troops and swept by machine-gun fire. It was more than an hour before the soldiers moved on to the next block, and they could escape. Later, I was carrying a small video camera, interviewing people near the hotel. Soldiers turned a corner on the next block and opened fire without warning, forcing me into the fastest 200-metre dash of my life.

Looking for a key to the orgy of violence that erupted on that Monday, September 19, in Rangoon, was like grasping at shadows. Weary from the strain of the curfew, the deaths, and the uncertainty of my own status in a country suddenly under the rule of the gun, I pounded out copy of the telex late every evening, searching for a way to explain what was happening.

1988 Burma protest civilian injuries

Snipers patrolled rooftops and opened fire seemingly at random on students challenging their rule, littering the street with corpses. A man was shot through the heart as he sat in a tea shop. A 10-year-old boy was killed by a bullet between the eyes. A stray shot killed a man asleep in his bed. A medical student wearing Red Cross marking was shot as she tried to rescue the wounded near Sule Pagoda. Two students were taken from their homes in the slum district of Okkalapa and ordered to turn around. They were shot in the back and left in the street as an example to others. The crematorium in the municipal cemetery was said to be working 24 hours a day as soldiers were seen in the city centre piling bodies into trucks.

The events in Burma over the past few months -- beginning with student riots in March and accelerating into nationwide upheaval in August and September, before the military re-occupied the country -- occurred ina nation harshly separated from the rest of Asia and the world.

Independent from Britain since 1948, Burma's experiment with liberal democracy ended when the xenophobic and superstitious Ne Win seized power in a military coup in 1962.

The "Old Man", as the Burmese call him, has kept his country bankrupt and isolated, turning a once-prosperous land into a hermetic crucible for his fancies. Calling himself a socialist but ruling through armed force, with the guidance of astrologers and court numerologists, the 78-year-old former general, who has never given an interview, has come to resemble as emperor of old, a dynastic king unwilling to relax his grip.

My contact with Ne Win was limited to counting the bodies of people his troops had slain and cautiously moving around this once grand colonial city. At night, confined by curfew, I filed stories form the almost deserted Strand Hotel. During the day, I smiled optimistically at soldiers who blocked the streets with armoured cars and barbed wire, hiding cameras from their gaze. Gunfire was heard in nearby streets at night but the curfew made it impossible to know who was getting shot, or why.

In the cramped and soiled wards of Rangoon General Hospital, the pain was always on view. The Dickensian building echoed with the screams of the wounded and dying. Doctors were hunched over a man's leg in a corner of Ward 11, removing bullet fragments without an anesthetic. A young Burmese approached me from a small crowd of curious onlookers: "You're a reporter, right? Here, look, look what they have done." The boy took my hand and guided me through half a dozen wards, stopping beside the shocked and dazed patients to raise a sheet and point to a leg wound on a young girl, a chest wound on an old man, a gaping neck on a young boy, a man without a hand, an other man blinded, until I had to pull gently away. I couldn't look any more.

I could never find a satisfactory figure for the number of people killed in Burma's bloodbath that week. Diplomats say at least 1000 people perished in Rangoon and Mandalay, the second largest city; the government admits to killing more than 400. The Burmese, who have seen their government murder opponents for 26 years, say you must always multiply the official figure by 10.

Numbers are not the point, of course. The numbed sadness of the Burmese tell the story. As it became clear that democracy was to be at best a dream deferred, with almost no one willing to believe the military could hold a fair election, Rangoon's decayed colonial streets took on an air of defiant resignation. "It's just very sad and there will be more killing," a shopkeeper told me, shaking his head but promising support for the students.

As the weekend wore on, the tension settled in like a heavy shroud. The military started to round up student leaders, now pledged to fight a guerilla action against the regime. The arm-bands and banners of protest adopted by the people were hidden or burned.

Our Burmese friends assured us that they would be fine, that the chance for change had only been postponed, not eliminated. They spoke of resistance and sabotage: they settled on returning to work but insisted they could not be forced into being productive. "This is the army time," said a woman friend as we watched a troop convoy grind slowly past. it will come again, but for now we must be very careful."


Ne Win's resignation seemed to set the seal on change in Burma. It was an illusion -- behind the coup he is still in charge. Jon Swain reports. Every night it is the same. At the stroke of nine the curfew falls on Rangoon like a steel shutter, bringing a sense of deprivation and oppression that overwhelms the city's charms.

The dimly lit streets are taken over by soldiers with orders to shoot curfew violators on sight. Many people have already been home for hours, forced to abandon offices and factories early in the afternoon to catch one of the few State subsidised buses still running. Otherwise they must rely on private transport -- and with the price of petrol nearly 50 times what it was before the troubles, a ride home in a collective taxi can cost a worker a whole day's waste (about 50 cents at the black-market rate of exchange).

Clinging to the sides and rooftops of these rattletrap buses, the people of Rangoon ride past street after street of decomposing but still inhabited buildings. Apart from its golden pagodas -- notably the Shwedagon, the tallest religious shrine in Asia -- Rangoon is a drab, unsightly place. Its fine stone buildings have suffered from years neglect; weeds, even small trees, sprout from their rooftops. The government cannot afford their upkeep.

Since the troubles, many workers have taken to turning up for work on pay days only. Others spend only a few hours a day in their offices, chiefly to sip tea, smoke a fat green cheroot -- one of the few luxuries made in Burma and widely enjoyed -- or chew betel nut.

Seldom has any population seemed so cowed. Yet, not so long ago, this city of three million was reverberating with the clamour and excitement of mass demonstrations; Burma seemed alive with the possibility of genuine democracy after a quarter of a century of stultifying one-party rule, the hallmark of which had has been inefficiency and corruption.

In the face of student riots and mounting economic turmoil, General Ne Win offered to step down at the end of July from his position as head of the Burma Socialist Program Party, and gingerly floated the idea of multi-party rule. It seemed that the "Old Man" finally wanted to make a graceful exit from the political scene. His idiosyncratic "Burmese way to socialism", abolishing free enterprise and substituting total nationalisation, had transformed one of Asia's wealthiest countries into one of the world's poorest, its only lifeline of flourishing black-market economy. Ne win knew that the idea of multi-party democracy was gathering strength, and outsiders marvelled only that he had got away with thing for so long. Buddhism, which enjoins acceptance of suffering, traditional deference to authority, and an efficient military intelligence service also helped.

Weeks of chaos followed his official resignation, with many hundreds of people ruthlessly killed by his loyal army as huge crowds marched through the streets, braving the bayonets and armoured cars, and coming close to overtuning the old regime. A general strike, widely supported by officials, police and clergy, brought the country to an standstill. Two leaders, Sein Lwin and Maung Maung, another henchman of Ne Win, seized power and ruthlessly imposed military rule.

Little optimism remains. It is clear that the "Old Man" still controls the country form his fortress-like villa, and that he lost control of events for only a few days in July. The nation now faces the prospect of a military-backed regime clinging indefinitely to power -- by shooting more protesters if necessary -- and of steadily worsening economic chaos.

According to the State-run television, the recent looting and violence, largely perpetrated by the army, has caused more than $A16 million damage to the country's industry. The army has also removed many of the more progressive civil servants and industrial chiefs in its purge of so-called "unsavoury elements".

Burma, the size of France and self sufficient in both food and energy, is as isolated from the outside world as it has been since Ne Win seized power in 1962. Few of Burma's 38 million people are allowed to travel abroad and foreign tourists have been permitted to enter only on seven-day visas. Tourists were banned during the uprisings and this is only now being relaxed.

This isolation has clearly worked in Ne Win's favour, for while his military crackdown attracts universal condemnation it has made it more difficult for outside powers to push Burma towards the democracy for which its people so obviously yearn. The United States has no power in Rangoon to persuade Ne Win to cut his losses and leave (as it did with Marcos and Haiti's "Boby Doc" Duvalier). The suspension of American aid is symbolic, for it amounts to a paltry few million dollars devoted almost entirely to eradicating the opium trade.

One of the saddest things about the "Rangoon spring", as it is nostalgically called, has been the inability of the opposition to produce new leaders capable of reflecting adequately the people's aspirations for democracy, or of giving effective support to the organisers of the uprising. The Ne Win era has seen many of Burma's finest talents leave the country, unable to find suitable jobs or positions, and in their absence it is the disenchanted members of the ruling elite who have emerged as the most prominent opposition figures.

Among them are U Nu, the former primer who signed Burma's independence agreement with Clement Atlee in 1948, and two former military colleagues of Ne Win, Brigadier Aung Gyi and General Tin Oo. All three still talk of the dictator in referential tones although at various times in the past they fell out with him and were jailed or exiled. U Nu, 82, argues that he still legitimately holds the premiership which was taken from him by Ne Win in his 1962 coup. The two military men have registered a new political party, the National League for Democracy, to fight the forthcoming elections that the army promises to hold.

Helping to give focus to their cause and introduce a much-needed degree of Western expertise is Aung San Suu Kyi, the 43-year-old wife of an Oxford academic. She is the new party's secretary-general. Her father was a dashing fighter for Burmese independence who was assassinated in 1947 and whose portrait was carried aloft by the marchers in Rangoon during the recent demonstrations. Aung San Suu Kyi's metamorphosis from Oxford housewife to Burmese politician is entirely accidental, but no less profound for that. She had returned to Burma from Britain last year to look after her elderly mother, who had suffered a stroke in Rangoon. but as the country erupted into chaos she was consumed by a sense of duty to her dead father which inspired her to stay on and become politically active.

Officially, the new military government that seized power in September is also committed to returning Burma to a mulit-party system. An electoral commission of five, the youngest of whom is in his 70s, has been created to make arrangements for the polling which is scheduled for early this year. In prepartation for the election the now defunct Burma Socialist Program Party has spawned the National Unity Party. It is easily the best funded and organised of the 50-odd political parties that have already been legally registered in anticipation of the poll. But, however genuine the desire of the commission to hold fair elections, both its legitimacy and authority are in question in the prevailing climate of military intimidation.

After so much bloodshed, it is difficult to see how the gulf of mistrust that has developed between the people and the military government can be bridged. Already hundreds of students have gone underground or are seeking military training from the ethnic minorities in the country's mountainous hinterland.

In the end, many diplomats say, the economy may bring about the military government's downfall. The country has not exported anything for months. Its key industries are in disarray. It has defaulted on its foreign debts. It is even finding it hard to pay the rent of its embassies abroad.

Economic liberalisation has been promised; but nothing can be achieved without the co-operation of the people -- and substantial foreign investment.

But following the months of political upheaval the people remain apathetic about the government and skeptical of its good intentions. The major aid donors, too, such as Japan and West Germany, outraged by the violence, have forzen aid until there is political reform.

As for Ne Win, who normally spends part of each year abroad, he has stayed at home, even forgoing his annual medical check. But his personal pagoda stands ready in the shadow of the Shwedagon. In the tradition of the Burmese kings, Ne Win has built it to atone for his misdeeds and case his passage to Nirvana.


::Home::Dr U Ne Oo::Dr E Wahlu::