Burma: The people wait ...

In September, Burma commemorates the crush of the uprisings of 1988. Twenty years later, the generals are still in firm control. Sue Tack travelled through Burma and stayed for a couple of months with Burmese refugees in the north of Thailand. She describes the powerlessness of the Kayan.
Taungoo, Burma. In a house of the Kayan New Land Party, one of many ethnic rebel groups in Burma, Aye Lwin proudly shows off his Belgian weapons and his gunshot wounds. With laughter he tells how easy it is to bribe the soldiers who work in the government’s weapon depots. Aye Lwin, almost sixty, dresses in a typically brown checked sarong with a white shirt underneath. He is unskilled and since the last cease-fire between the rebel group and the military junta in 1994, he is actually technically unemployed. This goes for the young Kayan volunteers as well. They hang around in front of the TV watching music videos. At least as long as there is electricity.
Aye Lwin is a Kayan, a minority group of about 250.000 people from Central Burma. In 1964 Shwe Aye, a university student of Rangoon, founded the Kayan New Land Party. Not unlike many others, he found his inspiration in the Chinese Communist Revolution. Later on the emphasis was shifted to the defence of the ethnic identity and the struggle for self-government. Great ethnic ‘revolutions’, such as those of the Karen and the Kachin, set the example in Burma.
With vigour he talks about fight trainings in China at the end of the seventies and about his hero Mao.
‘The French taught us how to sabotage, how to blow up bridges, but the Chinese taught us how to fight and infiltrate.’ He remembers how they undertook a long journey through the jungle with hundred young men, and how some comrades succumbed to the weight of the new shipment of weapons on the way back. The Chinese communists were against the Burmese socialism that General Ne Win installed after the military coup in 1962. According to Aye Lwin the reason for the helpfulness of the Chinese was to fight the remains of the Kwomintang, the Chinese National People’s Party, on Burmese ground. But that is all a long time ago.

The bank accounts of the generals

After the 1988 uprising of the people, many students joined the rebellions in the jungle, though the new general’s regime appeared to be very efficient in undermining the new youthful idealism. The experiments of democracy and capitalism didn’t lead to a more liberal society indeed, but for a while they fed the hope that the repression would come to an end. The generals made agreements with seventeen armed groups. That suddenly caused the rebel leaders – enemies of the regime - to be the new ‘great leaders of the national races’ and not so long after that they became the legitimate partners in the informal economy of the generals.
However, the economic vision of the regime didn’t go much further than the generals’ bank accounts. Armed forces from the north grew wealthy by trading opium, the most successful entrepreneurs are part of a Chinese elite and resources disappeared from the country without leaving behind any real profits. A Burmese middleclass barely arose.

The orchid trade

Than Soe Naing, the new leader of the Kayan New Land Party has to watch powerlessly how the regime represses his people and his organisation politically and economically. He’s barely granted access to mining concessions. They preferably go to the business contacts of the generals. New churches are destroyed, cemeteries are unnecessarily moved and the Kayan identity is brutally trampled on. Examples of this are name changes on identity cards, by which the chauvinistic Kayan suddenly become Karen or Burmese. ‘Like the sun sets, so will they fade away one day’, comments Than Soe Naing on the generals, although it is more likely to happen to the once feared and respected Kayan rebel army.

Not only the Kayan resistance is cripple. In west-Burma the junta singed a cease-fire in March 2007 with the Chin National Front. Since then the rebels make their living from the trade of orchids – an economic activity that is normally restricted to those who have a licence. For this purpose, the woods are illegally cut down, without care and with forced labour, in big quantities. The Chinese pay large amounts of money for those rare plants, which they use in their traditional medicine. According to the negotiator between the government and the rebels in Rangoon, the profits of this orchid trade go to generals more than to the Chin.

A farmer’s life

The youngest generation of Kayan ‘political’ activists whom I met in Burma and in Mae Sot (Thailand) are longing for more wellness, education and health service for their people. But admit it, this is very vague as a political program. Their neglected formal education, a lack of means and hope and a restricted comprehension of the complexity and the history of the conflict don’t armour them. They copy the claims for self-government for the Kayan region out of old documents and erect a women’s organisations because other minorities did the same.
The young Kayan no longer believe in armed fight. They only know about the street protests, like in September last year or in 1988, because they have seen the images on the Internet. They are afraid and don’t want to waste their lives on such a lost cause. Some of them study Kayan, a language that is only laid down in 2000. And they wait. They wait for the possibility to study or to go abroad to make money in the future to maintain their families. Meanwhile, time is ticking away and many of them eventually choose to marry and lead a farmer’s life, just like their parents, without any prospects of a new country or of more respect for their own dignity.

Bahan Than (25), son of the Party’s founder Shwe Aye and future leader of the New Land Party, speaks very poor English and he waits as well. He waits for training in Hotel Management in Singapore. While the generals cram their successors in special colleges, the people await the fall of the dictatorship.

Belief in change

Luckily not all resistance has got stuck in the brook of fear, hopelessness and cooptation by the regime. In different places in the country I met two very respected youngsters called Luigi (24) and Mister Crown (29). They do believe in change by actually doing something. They’ve got a political training in Thailand and they did an internship in Europe. After that they returned to their villages. They taught hundreds of youngsters how to work with computers and they also taught them English. They organised ‘underground’ discussions about their society.
Mister Crown even spoke once to people of the European Commission in Brussels. He changed that life for a small hut and some work in the field and fishery to feed his students. Luigi the activist was arrested on May 10th, the day of the referendum about the constitution, and was sentenced to jail and hard labour for twenty years. Mister Crown fled into the jungle. The generals know for whom they have to watch out.  

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