Silent life of a people who have only ears

Living Silence
April 11, 2003

Burma under the generals is not as repressive as Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but it is nonetheless a land of fear, especially since the army - now some 400,000 men strong - moved against the democracy movement of 1988. "Those who would oppose the generals, be they students, monks, elected members of Parliament or ethnic nationalists, face harassment at best, and prison sentences, torture and death at worst," writes Christina Fink. "So many people in Burma talk of living in silence and talking in whispers." Then she quotes a Burmese writer: "We have no mouths, only ears." She comments:

"This should be understood in the active sense. It is an effort to keep thoughts to yourself and to stop words from spilling out." However, she warns: "Without realising it, people serve as instruments of the regime each time they decide not to talk."

Fink trained as an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and it is clear that she is a good listener to her many Burmese interviewees - named and unnamed. Aung San Suu Kyi, the much-harassed democratically elected leader of Burma, praises the book for its insight into the lives of ordinary people: " Living Silence is particularly valuable for its study of the psychological effects of military rule on the people of Burma. The real struggle in Burma is the struggle between the desire to opt for the easy option of submitting to the demands of the powers-that-be and the commitment that leads to the hard road of resisting the threats and blandishments of a ruthless regime."

The first four of the 13 chapters explain the historical background to the political, economic and cultural stagnation. They take the reader from the British colonial period through to the end of the 1990s, when the regime changed its name from the Slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council) to the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council). Then comes the heart of the book, seven chapters covering the regime's influence on various communities: the family, the military, prisoners, students and teachers, artists (writers, illustrators, singers, actors and film-makers) and the religious, notably the Buddhist monks. The last two chapters deal with the international reaction to the regime, and possible scenarios for "A different Burma". Each chapter echoes with the voices and feelings of tough Burmese survivors imparting information, history and anecdotes. The book captures what life is like in Burma for all but the most privileged.

The author stresses two key political issues in Burma today: the restoration of democracy, and the resolution of the political rights of ethnic nationalities. She identifies the main reason why democracy was finally lost to the military in 1962 as being the various conflicts since independence in 1948 between the ethnic minorities (such as the Karen) and the ruling majority Burmese. Then General Ne Win took over and entrenched the rule of his Burma Socialist Program Party, which reduced Burma to silence until the eruption of the democracy movement. The epigraph to this chapter from a labour organiser sums up the Orwellian experience of those decades: "One energy minister said, 'To spare the wood, use charcoal.' But you see charcoal is made from wood. Those kind of people were governing."

The chapter "Breaking the silence, 1988-90" is a comprehensive account of the six-week nationwide protests in 1988, the emergence of civil society and the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Suu Kyi, and the NLD's election victory in 1990. But instead of honouring the result, the regime held a futile National Convention designed to retain the generals' hold on power. Here, Fink gives much detail on the different points of view of elected and non-elected members of National Convention, and the way that the regime attempted to suborn the members. She also describes the struggle of Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders to be heard by the people before and after her release from house arrest in 1995.

In writing about the pressures to conform, Fink sketches with light strokes but deep tones the different types of family: "activist families, split families and ethnic minority families". Here, there is more to be said that would have made the chapter more representative, but she was probably limited by not being able to interview several prominent people. However, her pages about shifting family values hit the psychology of the younger generation with palpable accuracy. And her picture is made all the sharper by her contrasting case studies of those who have supported the regime, whether as a result of habitual obedience, bribery, rational fear or irresistible pressure, including military demands for forced labour. What she makes clear is that the fundamental origin of the corruption endemic in Burma is the totalitarian nature of government intrusion into virtually every aspect of life. Even for the military, in the lower ranks things are no better. The chapter entitled "The military: a life sentence" explains why the soldiers cannot leave the army, despite the extreme hardship and brutality many experience from their superiors.

Education, needless to say, has been badly damaged. Fink notes that only per cent of children in Burma finish primary school. As for higher education, between 1962 and 1999, the universities were shut down 13 times, for periods ranging from a month to more than three years. When they do function, state interference in teaching, poor salaries, acute lack of textbooks, corruption in the examination system and a general atmosphere of insecurity discourage learning and the critical spirit. Some students have taken their education into their own hands by forming study groups and floating libraries; others learn most from being in prison, known as "life university", to which Fink devotes a fine chapter packed with prisoners' anecdotes.

For me, the most interesting chapter is the one on religion. Pagoda donors in Burma include the richest generals and the poorest of the poor. The book ably conveys how Buddhism is not incompatible with democracy; the way in which many Buddhist monks took part in the pro-democracy movement; how monks relate to and influence the rest of society; and how other religions such as Christianity and Islam are both directly and indirectly suppressed and exploited in Burma. Nor is the regime's extraordinary fascination with numerology and fortune-telling neglected.

Living Silence 's conclusion is realistic, rather than optimistic, and since its publication there has been no significant move towards democracy. It is not yet obvious what might force the generals to the negotiating table with the leaders of the NLD. But we may be certain that, at some point, the silence of Burma will once again yield, as it did in 1988, to the sound of "universities, markets and teashops teeming with people comparing experiences and sharing ideas".

Ataran is a doctor and writer living in Burma, who has spent time in jail.

Living Silence: Burma under Military Rule

Author - Christina Fink
ISBN - 1 85649 925 1 and 926 X
Publisher - Zed
Price - £44.95 and £14.95
Pages - 286

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