By Ray LeMoine
Dan Pepper’s one of the youngest names to grace the Week of Review’s bylines in recent years—and he’s done it as freelancer. I met Dan in Baghdad, 2004, and have kept in contact since. Here’s his Times piece:
Aftermath of a Revolt: Myanmar’s Lost YearNEW DELHI — Myanmar is a country of uncommon beauty, full of dilapidated colonial structures slowly crumbling amid the damp swelter of the tropics, each surface and crevice losing ground to the organic pastels of mosses and molds. At night, on low stools beneath the crowded umbrellas of Yangon’s downtown teashops, men sit closely and strum loud acoustic folk melodies, their songs filled with tradition rather than protest. Usually, the only things exploding are the stall piles of papayas, pineapples and mangoes in the heat.
One year ago a social upheaval, sparked by a rise in fuel prices, inspired hope that a chapter would be closing on the world’s longest-running military regime. But the Buddhist clergy and common citizens were quickly beaten back with batons and bullets, and the world moved on.
Last week was the anniversary. During it, a bomb explosion in downtown Yangon wounded four; Web sites run by dissenters and exiles were attacked and shut down; and about 100 monks filed silently through the streets of a western fishing town to commemorate the crackdown. But this seems hardly dramatic enough to undo the disillusionment that set in after the defeat of the Saffron Revolution. In some ways, it only underscores it.
Two years ago — 11 months before the monks’ rebellion — I sat in one of the few, cramped Internet cafes in Yangon, the former capital, and glanced at my neighbors’ screens —all soft-core porn and foreign news Web sites. When I returned this summer, I found the cafes had become diverse and diffuse, packed with young people gabbing away on G-talk, checking out the social-networking sites Orkut, Hi5 and Friendster. Signs posted openly, even in small towns, explained how to circumvent government censors through proxy servers hosted atwww.yoyahoo.com and www.bypassany.com.
Myanmar is like that. Change perspectives and its lost-in-time quality suddenly shifts as well, with a lurch forward. As always against the backdrop of the 2,500-year-old golden Swedegon Pagoda, teenagers now post photos on Facebook while Korean soap operas compete with English Premier League soccer for people’s attention. Cellphone stores proliferate, despite the cost of new connections — $1,500 —from the single, government-owned provider, Myanma Post and Telecommunications. (Black market connections start at about $2,500.)
But the spirit of protest is almost silent.
In fact, the State Peace and Development Council, as the military government renamed itself in 1997, is stronger now than a year ago, having profited from high global food and fuel prices. A few signs of conspicuous consumption by the small urban middle class — satellite TV dishes, hip-hop music and fashions — are seeping down from the much smaller class of multimillionaire businessmen directly tied to the junta’s chairman, Than Shwe.
Meanwhile, the broad mass of 50 million people remain among the poorest in the world. Myanmar ranks 132 out of 177 countries in the 2007 United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index. Most experts, who doubt the government’s statistics, think the reality is worse.
Myanmar is also one of the only countries to be publicly denounced for human rights abuses by the otherwise confidential and neutral International Committee of the Red Cross. According to Amnesty International, more than 2,100 political prisoners languish in Myanmar’s jails, about 1,000 having been locked up in the past year.
But more than ever, satellite TV and the Internet are making people aware of their government’s glacial pace of progress. One young woman told me that during last year’s uprisings, she was on the streets one day, shouting antigovernment slogans, and the next day stayed in, fearing a stray bullet, as she watched the blood-soaked crackdown live on Al Jazeera television.
Democracy advocates in exile hold out hope that China, which is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and its ally on the United Nations Security Council, could become the linchpin for changes in the regime.
But most Burmese I spoke with on my two-week visit didn’t think China would ever yield to Western pleading for it to play such a role. Business with China is booming, in fact, partly because tighter Western sanctions have made the junta more dependent on China for diplomatic support, as well as arms and consumer goods.
Despite being awash in foreign currency, Myanmar’s government has yet to invest heavily in manufacturing. Instead, Myanmar’s big-ticket industries are based on extracting natural resources. Last year, sales of natural gas brought in about $3 billion, sales of jade an estimated $400 million. But the major enterprises operate in deep secrecy, and recently Transparency International once again listed Myanmar as one of the world’s most corrupt countries.
In essence, the country runs like a mafia, from the languid tea shops of Yangon to the remote jungle areas of Kachin state in Upper Burma, where the mining town of Hpakant provides much of the world’s jade. There I met Sai Joseph, a gregarious and entrepreneurial family man who manages one midsize jade company. “There are only a few wealthy people in Myanmar,” he told me, “those who get in with the political people, the authorities who have power.”
Hpakant is connected to the outside world by a single crumbling road, 16 hours through the jungle to the closest transport hub during the rainy season. Along the way abandoned wooden oxcarts litter the road between shuttered towns. Red road signs announce, like a cruel joke, “Government has arranged for road repair from each company in Hpakant.”Hpakant itself is set among denuded hills that are slowly eaten away by the mining town machinery. Green plant life bursts forth where it can among these scars, but most of the landscape is an excavation site, undulating for miles, with perhaps 3,000 separate mines. More than 450 private companies operate there, as well as about 100 joint ventures, most of them owned by Burmese of Chinese heritage. Like many once-illegal activities, jade mining now enjoys the full support of the junta, which takes a cut of the profits while leaving miners diseased and destitute. As I tried, without success, to confirm reports that jade miners are paid in heroin, I was quickly apprehended, marched back to the regional capital and eventually deported.
In one sense, things have improved in recent years. Once a scene from Dante’s hell — the few outsiders who visited sometimes described thousands upon thousands of half-naked men, women and children clawing into the rock in search of jade —the mining is now a largely mechanical process executed by industrial backhoes and dump trucks. A few mines still employ human diggers, and earlier this year one such site collapsed, killing 20.
Just before the Beijing Olympics, President Bush signed the Burma Jade Act, adding Myanmar’s jade and rubies to the long list of goods that cannot be imported legally to the United States. But jade sellers in Yangon largely shrugged off the ban, citing booming business with China, India, Thailand, Singapore and Arab Gulf states.
Late last month, Earth Rights International, a Thailand-based environmental and human rights organization, issued a report detailing the investments of 69 Chinese multinationals in 90 hydropower, oil, gas and mining projects. “The regime has successfully convinced these companies that nothing will compromise its grip on political power,”says Matthew Smith, an Earth Rights project coordinator.
So for now, Myanmar’s people struggle with their daily lives, negotiating the labyrinth of power and money. New gadgets and fashions filter through to a few people in the main cities, but even they, like the bulk of Burmese, simply work and wait, patient and passive.
Who, after all, could be expected to choose the immediate prospects of a firing squad over the distant promise of an MP3?