Friday, April 17, 2009

In Burma, Fear and Suspicion Prevail

Some people are reduced to picking through garbage to survive.

Tyler Chapman returns to Burma and writes, in a new reporter’s notebook, that hopes for reform have been snuffed out by a ruthless crackdown leaving Burmese in debilitating fear of each other.

RFA/Tyler Chapman

RANGOON--The tentative hope for change that glimmered in Burma little more than a year ago has been snuffed out, replaced by the darkness of despair. Fear rules.

When I last visited Burma, four months after the so-called Saffron Revolution of September, 2007, people were wondering what would come next, how soon, and who would emerge to lead another wave of opposition to the military government that has ruled here since 1962.

“No more,” a friend told me this time. “The generals have built an empire. They’re not letting go.”

“Everything has failed,” another friend said. “We don’t know what to do now.”

What happened between my visits was a government crackdown so severe that human rights groups estimate the number of political prisoners doubled in that time to at least 2,100.

Among those arrested was Zarganar, one of the country’s most popular comedians. He had the temerity to organize relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis—it left 140,000 dead or missing in the south of the country last May-- and to tell foreign journalists that the government response was lacking. Among the charges: “inducing against state security.” Zarganar’s sentence: 35 years.

Others rounded up included members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), labor leaders, student leaders, monks, even the lawyers who represented them. Many have been dispersed to prisons far from their homes, making family visits difficult.

Informers everywhere

Burma’s best known political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD leader, remains under house arrest in her home on University Avenue in Rangoon. She was arrested shortly after being elected to lead the country in 1990. Five years later, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. That has made no difference.

The recent wave of arrests sent a chilling message to ordinary Burmese and intensified their fear that informers are everywhere. The fear is not new. The depth of fear is.

“You can’t trust anyone,” one of my friends said. “I don’t even tell my sister about what I am doing or where I am going.”

Government workers, from street sweepers to teachers to administrators, know to keep their opinions private lest they lose their jobs, or worse. The same goes for anyone whose job depends on a government license. That takes care of at least a third of Burma’s 50 million people.

“People are afraid of those above them and those below them,” a Westerner who lives in Burma told me. “The fear is pervasive.”

Foreigners not welcome

Even foreign tourists are seen as potential informers. I was shocked when a man to whom I had been introduced by mutual friends confronted me.

“Do you have friends in the military or government?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

Because, he said, people have heard that the government is recruiting foreigners to try to coax antigovernment comments from ordinary Burmese.

I witnessed, and heard stories of, government arrogance and disdain for its citizenry.

At Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, I watched government officials shoo away worshippers to make way for two Caucasian VIPs.

The generals prosper

I was aboard a scheduled government river ferry, waiting to depart, when five bureaucrats came aboard and decided they didn’t want to travel with foreigners. We were escorted off the boat.

Similarly, friends told me of passengers being taken off scheduled internal airline flights so VIPs could travel alone.

On overnight runs on the government railroad, foreigners in sleeping cars get sheets on their bunks, with blankets. Burmese passengers get only the blankets. Trivial? Not to the Burmese passengers.

These examples pale in comparison to the lack of electricity, health care and clean water available to the general public. Burma is one of the most impoverished countries on earth. Yet the generals and their cronies prosper.

Out of touch

The 400,000-strong armed forces flexed its muscles on national television April 27, with the annual Armed Forces Day parade from Naypyidaw, the new capital city built totally from scratch at huge expense.

The breakfast-time broadcast featured formations of servicemen standing at attention on a massive parade ground as the commander in chief, Sr. Gen. Than Shwe, reviewed them from an open-air stretch limousine. Then he spoke to the troops about the importance of preserving unity.

I watched for awhile in my hotel room and, with an hour to go in the broadcast, went downstairs for breakfast.

The television in the lobby was tuned to a Japanese soap opera.

Tyler Chapman is a pseudonym to protect the author's sources. This is his second visit to Burma for Radio Free Asia.

READ MORE---> In Burma, Fear and Suspicion Prevail...

Bangladesh raises Rohingya issue in Bali

by Siddique Islam

Dhaka (Mizzima) - Bangladesh has urged the Burmese junta to take back 28,000 remaining Rohingya, a Muslim minority, to their homeland.

Foreign Minister of Bangladesh Dr Dipu Moni, during a regional meeting in Bali on Thursday, called for a multilateral approach to solve the problem Rohingya people, who have in great number influx into Bangladesh.

"Bangladesh with its limited resources had done more than enough for the refugees from Myanmar over the last three decades. Myanmar [Burma] must now take back its own people," Dr. Moni said.

The foreign minister was addressing the 3rd Regional Ministerial Conference on "People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crimes" in Bali, Indonesia, a message received in the capital, Dhaka on Thursday said.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister strongly refuted the claim of Burmese Deputy Minister for Home Affairs and Chief of Police that Rohingya are not an ethnic entity of his country.

"The Rohingya are living in Myanmar [Burma] for centuries and many Rohingya even held high posts in the government of Myanmar [Burma]," Dr. Moni said.

“previous repatriation of quite a few hundred thousand Rohingya and acceptance of the list of further 28,000 Rohingya proved that they are very much part of the population of Myanmar [Burma]," she added.

She said Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslim residing in northern Arakan state in Western Burma, had national radio programmes in their language in Burma. And just dropping names from population list would not make them anything other than an ethnic entity of Burma, the foreign minister noted.

Dr. Dipu Moni said as a manifestation of friendship and good-neighbourly gesture, Bangladesh has always extended assistance to Burma for the early repatriation of Rohingya to their home country.

The delegates attending the meeting from other countries agreed with Bangladesh’s foreign minister and called upon the Burmese delegation to improve the state of affairs and develop basic facilities and resources in Arakan state of Burma.

About 41 member countries, 19 observer countries and 13 international organizations took part in the two-day conference, a press statement said.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister also raised the Rohingya issue in a bilateral meeting with her Indonesian counterpart Dr. N. Hassan Wirajuda.

"Both of them opined that Myanmar [Burma] should immediately take measures for repatriation of Rohingya without further delay and necessary steps should be taken so that Rohingya did not flee Myanmar [Burma]," the statement added. (JEG's: what would he suggest to make sure the Rohs do not skip town? prison perhaps? but they were already prisoners without cause...?)

Dr Dipu Moni also held a bilateral meeting with Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who expressed his utmost happiness that Bangladesh had returned to democracy.

Stephen Smith observed that there was still ample scope to enhance bilateral relations further. He also agreed that without citing any excuse, Myanmar should immediately act for repatriation of the Rohingya refugees.

READ MORE---> Bangladesh raises Rohingya issue in Bali...

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