By Lesile Scrivener

 

In Rangoon, a short distance from the city hall, there is a street of bookshops set back in faded arcades, a remnant of the British colonial past. The shops are not big enough to hold all the books and shoppers weave between the orderly stacks that line the sidewalks. Forty-year-old yellowing technical manuals are laid neatly out on ancient tarps. New books are photocopied and bound and laminated in little stalls crowded beside other curbside enterprises: umbrella repairers, sellers of chilis, mangos, neon- coloured plastic toys and pirated DVDs.

 

I was here shopping for books with a slight, scholarly looking Buddhist monk, whom I'd met on the steps of a monastery. He had looked intently at me to engage me in conversation.

 

"I want to tell you about my country," was one of the first things he said. "We go from crisis to crisis."

 

He turned this way and that to see if he was being overheard. "I am afraid of spies," he said in a low voice. "I could be put in jail."

 

Perhaps he had reason to be nervous. It wasn't clear where the tall man in the brown shirt and sarong had come from, but he stood resolutely about a metre away. Despite the drowsiness brought on by a monsoon afternoon and the jasmine-scented air, I felt anxious and a little chilled. Like the young monk, I started to look around.

 

Since 1962, a military dictatorship has ruled Burma, which the generals renamed Myanmar in 1989. During that time, this country of lush teak forests, tinkling temple bells and golden pagodas has been neglected and largely forgotten by the world. The regime governs like a Mad Hatter's tea party — laws are capriciously applied and policy changes introduced without notice. In a country once the rice bowl of Asia, one-third of the children are malnourished.

 

"The government is like the weather," a Burmese doctor told me. "Inconsistency and change every day." It has both neglected and terrorized its people; 700,000 refugees have fled in recent years, many to camps on the Thai border.

 

Surveillance is a part of daily life. The names of every member of every household are recorded in a ward council office, and even visiting relatives must register. "The government assigns an intelligence officer to each neighbourhood," a taxi driver said. "They study the families around them and if they go against the government, they will know."

 

The mysterious man in the sarong could merely be waiting, or he could be an informer. You're never sure. Monks, who played a leading role in the 1988 uprising in which several thousand were killed, are still not above suspicion. Hundreds of them are still in prison. Perhaps with this in mind, the young monk, with his perfect teeth and intelligent eyes, suggested we move on to the busy bookshops of Pansodan St. in central Rangoon.

 

Some of the shops are just stalls set along the crumbling, potholed streets. Some are more formal, with cashiers and service staff. But something of the character of a city and its people is revealed in its bookshops, and Rangoon's tell the story of a nation of readers. In the 1970s, Burma won UNESCO prizes for literacy development. More recent statistics are ephemeral in a country where the last official census was in 1983. Reports of literacy vary — most outside sources say the rate is 83 per cent— but the sense is the rate is declining as access to education plummets.

 

In a UNESCO list of 80 countries, Burma ranks at the very bottom, with Bangladesh, of library books per capita. "We need public libraries," a magazine editor said. "We have some, but nobody goes." It's no wonder. "If you want to borrow a book," he said, "you need a letter of recommendation from authorities."

The bookstores, on the other hand, bustle with activity. The oppression of the regime has not diminished Burmese appetites for ideas and the written word. Even the most weathered, dog-eared volume that might be thrown in a bin of discards appears to still have value and is carefully displayed for purchase — old Ladies' Home Journal magazines, nautical texts, Around the World in Eighty Days, A Tale of Two Cities.

 

A foreigner described giving copies of Reader's Digest to his night watchman, who reads them cover to cover then sells them for 1,000 kyat, about $1, each, about a day's wage for a trishaw driver. I noticed people reading all over the place — a soldier wearing plastic flip flops, standing guard on a Rangoon street held his gun in one hand and a book in the other, a waiter in a tea shop, a young boy, sitting on a stool lost in a book. My monk companion was drawn to a Buddhist text with a shabby cover, which he bought on the sidewalk. In a nearby shop, he chose abridged editions of War and Peace and Gone with the Wind. They were recommended by his English teacher, who told him the latter is one of the most popular books in the Western world.

 

If there is a patron saint of books in Burma, it should be George Orwell, whose first novel, Burmese Days, was drawn from his experiences as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police Force in the mid-1920s. There's a Burmese joke, that Orwell didn't write just one book about the country, but a trilogy, beginning with his first novel, Burmese Days, followed by Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

While you can buy Burmese Days almost anywhere tourist knickknacks are sold, his later novels about totalitarian states are not on display. But, according to Emma Larkin, the pseudonym of a Burmese-speaking American journalist and the author of Finding George Orwell in Burma, they make the rounds anyway. In the course of talking to historians and scholars and book lovers, Larkin found herself presiding over an unofficial Orwell Book Club in the teahouses of Mandalay.

 

She writes about asking an elderly man about George Orwell. He doesn't seem to know the name. G-e-o-r-g-e O-r-w-e-l-l? she asks. Nineteen Eighty-four?

 

"The old man's eyes suddenly lit up. He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his forehead gleefully, and said, `You mean the prophet!'"

 

Larkin's curiosity was roused when she learned that, on his deathbed in 1950, Orwell sketched an outline for a novella set in Burma. What led him to return there in his imagination, she wondered, and how is it that his novels of soulless autocracies mirror the country that Burma has become in nearly half a century of military dictatorship?

 

Like Larkin, I had travelled in Burma first as a visitor. To tourists, Burma can seem like a fairy tale, a dream-like kingdom locked in time, where they can visit ruined Buddhist temples by horse cart and stay in wide-porched bungalows along the Irrawaddy River.

 

Burmese still wear traditional sarongs, called longyis. Walking barefoot on the cool marble of temple floors, you'll pass pagoda upon pagoda covered in gold, one of them the 2,000-year-old Shwedagon, which holds emeralds and rubies in its shimmering crown. The air is perfumed by garlands of jasmine, frangipani and cheroot — scents so powerful they overwhelm the acrid smell of traffic exhaust. Fast food chains, ubiquitous around the globe, have no place here.

 

But unseen by tourists, and often unknown to them, are the human rights crimes, the ethnic villages burned to the ground, the military's tacit use of rape as a weapon of war, the far-reaching intrusions of government intelligence, the fear and demoralization of 50 million people living in one of the world's harshest dictatorships.

 

Life in Burma can easily seem an illusion. But this is not limited to Westerners. "Often, even we Burmese do not know what is real here," an editor says. All news is state controlled. It is unlawful to criticize the government. Billboards exhorting citizens "to crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy " serve as a warning against dissent. Few Burmese have access to email. Many Internet sites are censored and cellphones, which cost more than $1,000, are the luxury of the very wealthy.

 

There are those who argue that tourists should visit Burma because they bring with them their experiences of democracy, which they can share with Burmese people. But in dozens of conversations with Burmese, not one asked about the freedoms of a Western democratic state. They are aware of life outside their borders; it's the life within that's secret and unknown.

 

They would never learn of crises in their country from the press or television. During the time I was there, Burma bowed to pressure from other member states and declined the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Not a word of the decision was reported in the Burmese papers. The Myanmar Television listings included "healthy exercise, nice and sweet song, international news, martial songs, dances of international races and songs to uphold the national spirit."

 

Yet journalists do their best. "I know they may be watching," one middle-aged editor told me over hot lemon tea. "But do I care? I am speaking the truth. I keep expecting intelligence people will call me, but they haven't, so I get bolder and bolder."

 

Every word he publishes passes through a government censor alert for any negative reporting on the regime or evidence of undue Western influence. "They delete what they do not approve of," the editor of another magazine says. He says his magazine features innocuous articles on beauty and he occasionally tries to slip in informative stories on HIV/AIDS.

 

Even covers and graphics are submitted for the censors' review. Once, they complained there was too much red in a cover, " the colour of leftists," he says. "They are mercurial. Most of the time, there are no written rules."

 

Everywhere I went in Burma I saw signs of a country searching for understanding. Driving in a rundown white Toyota, a democracy advocate who had been watched by military intelligence for many years held a shortwave radio up in the air from his car window to hear the BBC news. At night, the young monk secretly listens to the BBC, the Democratic Voice of Burma and the Voice of America, which are broadcast in Burmese.

 

Listening to foreign broadcasts is seditious; Larkin tells of a 70-year-old man sentenced to two years in prison for listening to the BBC in a teashop.

 

Burmese turn readily to outsiders to vent their fears and frustrations in encounters in taxis, temples or on monastery steps. "I can see in Western faces how different you are from Myanmar people," says a taxi driver. "When you talk freely, your heart is cleansed. If you can't, your heart is closed." In a crowded bus terminus, where tourists pass regularly, moneychangers offer black-market exchange rates.

 

"Change money?" one asks as we pass. He adds, almost as an inducement: "I hate this government."

 

Walking through this city of decaying beauty, with mouldering colonial buildings and crowded arcades where leafy branches sprout from cracks in the stucco, the young monk unburdened himself. At times, it wasn't clear whether he was enjoying my companionship or troubled by it.

 

"I don't want to spend my life in jail, there is so much I want to do," he said, as we crossed a busy intersection.

Nonetheless, when we stopped in a teashop, he launched into a tirade about how the military government spends money on new American SUVs and gaudy, white-columned mansions, rather than on education and health care.

 

He dropped his voice as he looked out to the street with its roar of buses and diesel-choked air. "I want Aung San Suu Kyi," he said. When his English failed, he resorted to writing on an index card: "I want my country to be free from the army government." And then, clearly, he said: "I want to choose for myself."

 

Burma watchers have noted a discernible difference in the mood of the population over the past 10 years. Despite rosy forecasts for economic growth — figures disputed by outside sources — and the occasional release of some of the 1,500 political prisoners, things are getting worse in Burma.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, has been under increasingly punitive house arrest since 1989. In brief periods when she was allowed to speak, hundreds of Burmese thronged to her family compound in Rangoon, where she stood on a desk above her gates and answered questions. The curious can no longer drive past Suu Kyi's house; the road is barred by gun-bearing soldiers and a razor-wire barricade. She lives with two women relatives. Only her doctor can visit her, once every few weeks. Friends do the shopping and leave a full basket outside her compound walls. Intelligence officers take photos of the basket and search through every piece of food.

The state of the education system is abysmal. Stand outside a classroom anywhere in Burma and you hear the drone of students learning by rote — elementary and high school students alike.

 

Class sizes are enormous, with 80 and even 100 students and many attend after-school tuition classes. Only 40 per cent of Burmese children go to school beyond Grade 5.

 

After the 1988 uprising against the military, led by monks and students, universities were closed. In the intervening years, classes resumed, but universities have been decentralized — set up in provincial towns to prevent the likelihood of an organized mass uprising.

 

A technical school in Rangoon remains abandoned, overgrown with weeds and locked behind a barbed-wire fence. Most study is done by correspondence. Students attend only for a few weeks to prepare for exams.

"They are creating a population of young people unfit for work," says a woman with grown children educated in the United States. "That's why, as long as this government is in power, we do everything we can to get our children out of this country."

 

In conversation, it was not unusual to hear Burmese speak wistfully of what they called help from the outside to break the military rule. Democracy leaders, though beloved, are in prison or else in their 70s and 80s. "Lots of ordinary people, my friends and my driver, say they hope America attacks," said one foreigner. "They don't have a clue what that means."

 

A businessman dismissed the possibility of help from Western democracies. "Iraq has oil and we have nothing here," he said.

 

The government, though, is prepared. "The paranoia is such that they are sure the U.S. is going to attack by water," said the foreigner.

 

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she says, Burmese women were being trained by the government to fight. "They took off their longyis and put on trousers and were put through military drills. What did they think they were going to do? Protect their country with spears?"

 

These days, the talk in Yangon — as the junta renamed Rangoon — is about the government's plan to move the capital inland.

 

"They say the government is spending billions on a capital in Pyinmana — it's 400 miles north of Rangoon, but nobody wants to live there.

 

"All the shops and entertainment are here, but maybe there will be helicopters for the generals and their wives to come back here for shopping," says the foreigner ruefully.

 

Over dinner her gaze drifts toward the smoky vista of delicate pagodas and palm trees. "If you don't know what's going on here, everything looks so romantic," she says with a sigh.


Source: Toronto Star, November 6, 2005