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Notes on a Fascist Disneyland : Behind Burma's Enchanting Facade, a Police State Tightens the Screws

May 20, 1990|ALAN BERLOW | Alan Berlow is a free-lance journalist based in Manila.

THERE IS A SURREAL and, at the same time, ethereal quality to Burma's capital city of Rangoon. At dawn, Buddhist monks in rust- or wine-colored robes fan out through the city, walking from house to house with shiny, black-lacquered begging bowls, silently accepting offerings of rice or fish. They pass through streets and parks where palm readers and astrologers unlock the secrets of life, where snake oil salesmen and sundry merchants of miracles patiently minister to their customers. Throngs of women and children--their faces decorated with smears of yellow makeup made from thanaka bark--and men in striped or checked skirtlike longyis press along crowded sidewalks covered with cheap black-market goods.

Rangoon--and much of Burma--has the look of an object that has recently been removed from a time capsule. Book stalls display texts dating back 40 years and magazines of only slightly more recent vintage. The satellite dish has yet to arrive, and neither has McDonald's. For a capital of more than 2 million people, there are relatively few automobiles and no skyscrapers.

Central Rangoon is a spectacular quilt of British colonial buildings painted from a dizzying palette of pastels. The tallest building, the 32-story Shwedagon Pagoda, looms above the city from Singuttara Hill to the north. A massive, bell-shaped, 11th-Century Buddhist shrine, the Shwedagon is said to embody the essence of the Burmese soul. It is surrounded by several acres of smaller stupas, pavilions and animist icons--man-eating ogres, lions, crocodiles, sphinxes and Buddhas too numerous to count--"glistening with its gold," wrote Somerset Maugham, "like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul." Amid such fantastical sights and against the country's overwhelming natural beauty, a visitor may at first be oblivious to the other Burma. But behind the country's exotic backdrop, there is a claustrophobic, enervating and frequently vicious police state. "This country," one Western diplomat observed, "is a fascist Disneyland."

Less than two years ago, Burma's military ruthlessly suppressed a nationwide pro-democracy movement that came close to toppling Gen. Ne Win's 26-year-old dictatorship. During seven months of demonstrations starting in March, 1988, an estimated 1,000 people died in Rangoon; as many as 5,000 perished nationwide. Thousands of civil servants, pro-democracy activists and students were imprisoned; many were tortured. Thousands more fled to Burma's borders with Thailand and China, where they joined about 25,000 armed ethnic insurgents waging an inauspicious war against the 200,000-member Burmese army.

Today, the unrest in Burma no longer boils up in massive public demonstrations but instead seethes in private. Nevertheless, the crackdown has not ended, and Burma--by government fiat now called Myanmar--is a country where people are arrested for imagined crimes and held without charge or trial, where it is illegal to criticize the government and its leaders and where nearly everyone is, privately, critical of the government and hence anyone is fair game.

Even the concessions offered to the pro-democracy movement do little more than divert attention from the tightened state control. Next week, on May 27, the government will sponsor a general election for a constitutional assembly--the first multiparty election in 30 years. Virtually everyone believes that it will be an unmitigated fraud. But even if the vote is fair, there is little doubt that the current government will stay in control since it has the power to ensure that any representative assembly will remain impotent.

Many Burmese may still hope that the election will lead to a new government, but the past two years of brutal repression have intimidated most people and left them resigned to the fact that little is likely to change. "People are very afraid," a monk told me in Mandalay, in central Burma. In Rangoon (now known as Yangon), a laundryman asked me what I thought of Burma. When I told him, lamely, that I liked it very much, he courteously but firmly admonished me. He said, "Here we have no freedom." And in a small confectioner's shop, a merchant whispered to me, "This country is very dangerous, very dangerous." As he spoke, he looked furtively about and politely asked me to leave.

AMID THE IDEOLOGUES, mass murderers, goons, kleptomaniacs and madmen, the pantheon of 20th-Century dictators surely will include 79-year-old Ne Win. Born Shu Maung, he took the name Bo Ne Win ("Bright Sun") when he became one of the so-called Thirty Comrades who were given military training by the Japanese during World War II. The Thirty Comrades were leaders of Burma's nationalist independence movement, which came into its own in the 1920s and '30s.

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