TheIrrawaddy w w w. i r r a w a d d y. o r g
June 2011, Vol.19 No.2
The Kachin Quagmire More Discipline than Democracy
A Town So Close, But Yet So Far
Et Tu, General?
Beauty Thatâ€™s More Than Skin Deep
More Discipline than Democracy
Cover Story Don’t Tread on the KIA Ba Kaung
Htet Aung and Stephen Bloom
Et Tu, General? Aung Zaw
Up the River, Without a Future Sein Htay
Book Review Filipino Fantasy, or Fact?
A Town So Close, But Yet So Far
Kyaw Zwa Moe
Culture & Society
Committed, They Survive
Beauty That’s More Than Skin Deep
Saw Yan Naing
26 Photo Essay
Women in Action Hseng Noung Lintner
56 cartoon Harn Lay
Cover: James Robert Fuller The Irrawaddy, published since 1993, was established by Burmese journalists living in exile. We are an independent, non-profit publication providing in-depth news and information on Burma and Southeast Asia. Editor: Aung Zaw Administrator: Win Thu Sales & Advertising: email@example.com Subscription: firstname.lastname@example.org mailing Address: The Irrawaddy, P.O.Box 242, CMU Post Office, Chiang Mai 50202, Thailand E-mail: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org Printer: Chotana Printing (Chiang Mai, Thailand) Subscription rates (1 Year)
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Up the River,Witho
A nostalgic visit to Myitsone, the source of the Irrawaddy River reveals that its natural beauty is already nearly a thing of the pa By SEIN HTAY
he fog over the Irrawaddy River was still thick. A cool, refreshing breeze stirred the air. As the rays of the sun were not yet visible in the east, it was chilly indeed. At this hour of the day, Chitthu Lan, which stretches along the bank of the mighty river, was nearly deserted. There were only a handful of people to be seen, walking or jogging and inhaling the early morning air. In the daytime and evening, however, Chitthu Lan, or “Lover’s Lane,” is one of the most popular areas of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State in Burma’s far north. Known as a gathering place for lovers and young people, with such establishments as Chitthu Café, Kiss Me Café and Chitthu Yinkhwin (“Lover’s Bosom”) Karaoke, Chitthu Lan was a busy place through most of the day. In a café that had no walls and tilted toward the edge of the river, my friend and I were the only customers as we sat drinking green tea, enjoying the view of the foggy river and breathing in the crisp, clean air. We were waiting for a friend who would accompany us on our visit to Myitsone, the confluence of Maykha and Malikha rivers, about 46 km north of Myitkyina.
A Kachin woman walks on stones in the Irrawaddy River in Myitkyina. photo: the irrawaddy
out a Future
and the birthplace of Kachin culture, ast
Villagers in Kachin State use tools to pan for gold from the Irrawaddy River. photo: REUTERS
Myitsone is very important not only to the Kachin people, who consider it the birthplace of their culture, but also for the whole of Burma. It is the source of the Irrawaddy River, which flows through the country from north to south until it reaches the Andaman Sea. The river itself is a vital lifeline that has supported those who live along its length for centuries. At the Y-shaped confluence of the Maykha and Malikha rivers, you can walk on the smooth, eggshaped pebbles and wade into the water, or simply sit on the riverbank with friends, chatting and sipping beer while taking in the whole, breathtaking scene. You can also try fishing here, and itâ€™s difficult
to imagine a more beautiful spot for taking photos. Itâ€™s no wonder that the Myitsone area attracts many visitors, both local and foreign. The romantic associations with this part of Burma are also easy to understand. For many who come here, the sound of birds chirping in the trees evokes powerful feelings of nostalgia. When you hear it, you may suddenly be overcome with longing to be together with your loved ones. This was my second trip to the area. I had many fond memories from my first visit, and it was with these memories in mind that I decided to return, as I realized that I might never have another chance to
see this unique corner of the country again before it was transformed beyond recognition forever. Despite its enormous potential as a tourist destination, the Burmese government has other plans for the development of Myitsone. Together with China’s state-owned Chinese Power Investment Corporation (CPI), the government is planning to build the country’s largest dam—and the 15th largest in the world—at Myitsone. The dam will produce hydropower that the government will sell to China, earning about US $500 million annually. Once the dam is in operation, the Myitsone area will be totally flooded, and all the beauty and cultural significance associated with it will be lost, never to be regained. Fearing the immense cultural and environmental impact of this project, including the dire consequences it could have for biodiversity in this relatively unspoiled area, local people and civil society groups have protested against it, but to no avail. The government isn’t listening. That is why I told myself I must return while I still had the chance, as there was no way of telling whether I would ever be able to see Myitsone as I remembered it again. After waiting for an hour, our friend arrived. We filled the tanks of our motorcycles and started out on our trip to Myitsone. The road to the Myitsone Dam—some parts of it still under construction—is broad and well paved. After riding the motorcycle for half an hour, we reached Aung Myin Thar, a new settlement area established by Asia World, a company close to Burma’s military rulers, for those whose villages, farms and orchards will be flooded by the dam. Shortly after we passed Aung Myin Thar, the road started getting bumpy. There is a new paved route, but it isn’t open to the public, so we had to ride over this rough, stone-strewn road. As we approached a cluster of houses occupied by Chinese workers, we had to stop at a checkpoint and show our national registration card numbers. We were also asked where we were going and why. About half an hour later, Myitsone and a nearby golden pagoda came into view. At this point, we were between Myitsone and the dam, which is just two miles from the confluence. As I stopped to take photos of the distant scene, I could hear the sound of
a generator—or perhaps more than one generator— coming from the direction of Myitsone. The closer we got to the confluence, the louder the sound of engines became. When I asked about the source of this noise, my friend told me it was the sound of generators being used at a gold mine. A gold mine? I was surprised to hear this, as I thought the government had banned prospecting in the Myitsone area to preserve its natural beauty. But my friend was right. Not far from the confluence, on the left side of the road, there was a deep pit as large as half a football field, with dozens of workers inside pumping water against its wall, while others were panning for gold. The muddy water churned in the pit and was finally pumped out into the Irrawaddy. As we continued our journey toward the confluence, we saw several more of these pits, each with generators and dozens of workers. Local people said that as this area was soon to be flooded, the government had finally decided to allow businessmen to exploit the gold to be found here. The banks of the river were being torn apart. Some houses that were perched just above the river now looked in danger of tumbling into it, as the gold miners ate away at the earth beneath them. The water that the miners spewed into the river was so muddy that I wouldn’t even want to put my foot into it. “Gone, gone… Myitsone’s beauty is gone,” said one local middle-aged man, lamenting the loss. “It will never be the same, even if the government stopped construction of the dam.” Nearby, a seven-months-pregnant woman with a three-year-old boy beside her was selling the last oranges from her orchard, which would soon be destroyed. But while many people expressed sadness at the thought of the dam’s construction, others doubted that it would ever be completed. There is a dragon that guards Myitsone and the Irrawaddy, they say, and it will never allow anything to destroy the confluence and block the flow of the river. They believe the dragon will break the dam one day, perhaps even while it is still under construction. There is a golden pagoda nearby, which is also believed to be guarded by the dragon. In fact, some say the dragon helped to build the pagoda. Monks
and Buddhist laypeople believe that nobody can harm it, and if they should try, they would face all sorts of disasters. But like a church that also stands near the confluence, the pagoda will vanish beneath the water when the dam is finished. I came here to enjoy Myitsone’s beauty while it lasted, but now my heart was heavy listening to people’s complaints and seeing with my own eyes how the confluence was already well on its way to destruction.
“Our state is being hungrily eaten by the Chinese government, too.”
When we remembered to have our lunch, it was around 3 pm. We sat in a restaurant on the bank of the river that offered a good view of the confluence. One of my friends ordered Kachin-style chicken and fish curries. Soon the waitress brought the dishes we ordered plus some packets of rice wrapped in leaves. Traditionally, Kachin people eat rice off of a leaf that is about the size of a plate. The rice, a local variety known as khat-cho, was delicious. Khat-cho is much valued in Burma for its fragrance and texture, and is grown only in Kachin State. The curries were also excellent. They were strewn with pieces of chili, and were as spicy as Thai curries. Anyone who can stand hot Thai food would surely enjoy chicken or fish prepared in the Kachin style (known locally as kyat
Kachin and ngar Kachin, respectively). When we finished lunch, we took pictures here and there, thinking it would be our last chance. It was nearly 4 p.m. by the time we prepared to go back, and just as we were about to leave I remembered something and rushed towards the water’s edge to pick up some smooth, egg-shaped pebbles. “Souvenirs of Mytisone for my friends,” I yelled to my companions. On the way back to Myitkyina, we all fell silent, immersed in our own thoughts. But occasionally we stopped to speak with local people about the dam, and to ask what they hoped for from the new government formed after last year’s election. Most had little to say about the latter subject, but were clearly unhappy about the dam and worried about what life would be like in the area they were to be relocated to. When we got to Myitkyina, it was already dark. We went to a restaurant overlooking the mighty river and enjoyed the fresh air. My friends ordered grilled beef, pork, some rice and sappi—a traditional Kachin homebrew made with glutinous rice. Unlike beer, sappi is thick and a bit sweet. But it goes down well, and once you’ve finished one glass, you soon want another. It doesn’t hit you right away, but after four or five glasses, you soon begin to feel heavy and sleepy. As one friend suggested, it would be just the thing for people who have trouble falling asleep at night. Before we left the restaurant, I mentioned to my friend how sad it was that the Kachin people were losing an important part of their heritage. But he pointed out that this was nothing new. The government has long exploited Kachin State, giving its people very little in return. And it isn’t just the Burmese government that is doing all the damage. “Our state is being hungrily eaten by the Chinese government, too,” my friend said. He went on to explain how Burma’s rulers and their cronies collaborate with the Chinese government and their state-owned companies to take teak, gems, gold and electricity out of Kachin State for their own profit, but have done very little for the development of the region.
The state’s infrastructure is still rudimentary, and travel even to the capital is an ordeal. The train from Mandalay to Myitkyina takes about 20-24 hours along a rickety track. It sways and bumps the whole way, forcing you to hold on tight to your seat. Even so, tickets are hard to get, especially for first-class seats, which are mostly taken by railway officials and the police for sale on the black market. Travel by bus is even worse. The trip takes about 40 backbreaking hours from Mandalay, and can only be done in the dry season. The only comfortable and reliable way to reach Myitkyina is by air, which is the means of transportation recommended by most tour companies. But for the vast majority of local people, this option is completely unaffordable. This lack of proper infrastructure, combined with government restrictions, has done much to discourage travel to the state, despite its abundance of attractions. Among the most captivating places to visit in Kachin State are the snow-capped mountain ranges and temperate forests of the far north, which are ideally suited for ecotourism. The pinnacle of a visit to this region, quite literally, is Mt Hkakaborazi, which at 5,889 meters is Southeast Asia’s highest peak. The mountain is located in Putao District, about 350 km north of Myitkyina and accessible by land or air, although only the latter is recommended for foreign tourists. Situated 409 meters above sea level and surrounded by icy peaks, Putao is cold all year round. One doesn’t have to be an intrepid mountain climber to make a trip to this northernmost tip of Burma worthwhile. The forests are full of unique flora and fauna, most notably orchids and butterflies, including some of the rarest species on earth. Another Kachin State destination that’s sure to appeal to nature lovers is Indawgyi Lake. Burma’s largest lake, it is surrounded by monsoon forests and wetlands and is home to more than 200 species of bird, including 10 endangered species. For those who want to become more familiar with Kachin State’s cultural diversity, Bhamo offers a glimpse of a way of life that stands in stark contrast to Burma’s reputation for ethnic conflict. Here, Lisu,
Kachin and Shan people come to buy and sell a wide variety of locally produced goods. And just five kilometers east of the city are the overgrown walls of Sampanago, the seat of a fifth-century Shan kingdom, serving as a reminder of past glory. Despite its tourism potential, however, experts in the industry say that frequent changes in government policy and delays in granting permission to foreign tourists make it difficult to develop tourism in Kachin State. They note that even to visit the town of Winemaw, on the opposite side of the Irrawaddy River from Myitkyina and just 20 minutes away by motorcycle, foreigners must get special permission. A Spanish friend who I met up with during my trip to Kachin State, and who wanted to cross the river to take some photos, soon learned what it was like to deal with Burmese officialdom. At the Myitkyina branch office of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, he was told that he should have applied for permission to visit Winemaw while he was in Rangoon. If he wanted to apply in Myitkyina, it would take about five working days. “Five days? I can’t wait here that long to visit a town that’s just across the river!” he exclaimed to the official, who was probably wary of letting him visit Winemaw because of its reputation as a town rife with illicit drugs. “There are a lot of things to see and do here,” said one local tour guide. “The government just has to decide whether they really want to see many tourists or not.” But it seems that the government has already made up its mind about what sort of future it envisions for Kachin State. According to a Kachin friend, Myitsone, the state’s most accessible and well-known natural beauty spot, is now completely off-limits to foreigners. And even Chitthu Lan, Myitkyina’s favorite haunt for the young at heart, is no longer the place that it used to be: its cafes and restaurants have all been cleared away to make way for housing for state officials. Nothing, it seems, is safe from a government that appears to be intent on erasing what’s left of Kachin State’s beauty and charm.
Don’t Tread on After more than a decade of creeping Chinese domination of its followed by the recent encroachment of government troops on Independence Army said “enough is enough” By BA KAUNG 8
Cover Story New KIA recruits run the assault course during basic training. photo: James Robert Fuller
AIZA, Kachin State – “When we were young, we stepped on jade stones when we walked, found gold nuggets when we panned the rivers and saw tall teak trees when we passed by the forests,” said the Rev Lazum Tuja, a middle-aged ethnic Kachin and Christian priest, in a March sermon. “But now, all of this is gone from Kachin State, mostly to China,” he told his congregation. “Since we are being looted of all our possessions, this is the dark age of the Kachin people.” Lazum Tuja’s emotional sermon reflected the frustrations of his flock in the resourcerich Kachin State of northern Burma. Over the past two decades, the Kachin people have seen the depletion of their natural resources due to the growth of massive development projects conducted by Chinese companies with the support of the Burmese government. They have also experienced the consequent displacement of large numbers of local people and negative environmental impact on their communities.
the KIA state’s natural resources its territory, the Kachin
Most of this has occurred since 1994, when the Burmese army signed a ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the second strongest ethnic armed group in Burma with an estimated 4,000 troops. The KIA has been engaged in an armed struggle for Kachin autonomy since 1948, when Burma gained independence from Great Britain. During the ceasefire, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, put its emphasis on infrastructure development in Kachin State and temporarily set aside its aspirations for autonomy at the request of the former military regime, which argued that political issues could be resolved once the new “civilian” government was in place. On the surface, the ceasefire brought relative peace to a region previously scourged first by fighting between the Allied forces and the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, and later between the Burmese army and the Kachin rebels, who are renowned in Burma for their fighting skills. But it was peace without a meaningful political solution, and so the Kachin people were in a powerless position when the Burmese government began forcing them to relocate en masse without any proper compensation—leaving behind their livelihoods, culture and ancestral homes—to make way for Chinese state-owned companies such as China Power Investment to build massive hydropower dams across Kachin State. To make matters worse, much of the electricity generated from these dams will not be for the consumption of the Kachin people, but for export to neighboring China, and the revenues from the projects will to go into Naypyidaw’s coffers. As a result, there has been widespread local resentment against the Chinese-led dam projects in Kachin State, the most prominent being the Myitsone Dam—one of the largest hydropower dam projects in the world which is currently under construction at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River. To add fuel to the fire, there has was has been escalating tension between the Burmese army and the KIA since 2009, when Naypyidaw issued its order for the KIA to join the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF). The BGF plan was intended to place ethnic militias like the KIA and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the country’s strongest ethnic armed group,
under the central command of the Burmese army. The Burmese government set a number of deadlines for the KIA and UWSA to accept the BGF, but each repeatedly rejected the plan. In Kachin State, the expiration of the BGF deadlines loomed large not only on the military front,
Cadets attend a class at a KIA officer training school. photo: Ryan Libre
but also on the political front. Kachin political parties were banned from joining the election on grounds that their leaders were linked with the KIA, whereas the ethnic political representatives from Shan, Mon and Arakan States were allowed to participate and won seats in the new Parliament.
When the election brought forth a â€œcivilianâ€? government led by former military generals, it was clear to the Kachin leaders that the new government would not make the political compromises that the former junta chiefs had led them to expect. In addition, the mostly Christian Kachin population
“This has very much to do with territorial expansion and development projects by China and the Burmese army, which only represents the Burmese ruling elite, not the Burmese public.”
were saddled with a Buddhist Kachin chief minister in their state, a man who represents the governmentbacked United Solidarity Development Party that controls Parliament. Soon after the election, the Burmese government ratcheted-up the pressure on the KIA, forcing it to shut down its liaison offices in urban areas in Kachin State and then ordering the withdrawal of KIA troops from the area near the hydropower plant that Chinese interests are constructing on the Tapaing River, a tributary of the Irrawaddy, in Bhamo District bordering China’s Yunnan Province. KIA officials were indignant about being ordered to leave areas where they have been active for decades, and took it as a sign that the Burmese army was poised to launch an all-out offensive against its troops. On June 9, after the KIA refused to move away from the areas near the hydropower plant—which is also only a short distance from China’s strategic oil pipeline running from the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan Province—the two sides exchanged gunfire near the plant, effectively ending the 17-year-old ceasefire
and forcing Chinese workers to return home. Further armed clashes ensued in the following days, with bomb explosions reported in major towns in Kachin State. The Burmese government claimed through its state-run media that its military operations were only aimed at establishing the security of the dams, and the KIA found itself at war not only with the Burmese army, but also indirectly with China, along whose border the KIA’s military bases are located. But just as Naypyidaw’s new government has to balance its quest for legitimacy on the international stage with its dealings with the KIA and other ethnic armed groups, Beijing has to strike a balance between its energy needs and its desire for regional instability. The KIO rejected a ceasefire offer by intermediaries representing the Burmese government, and through those intermediaries asked the government for formal evidence that it wishes to end hostilities. In addition, the KIO announced that it would only accept peace talks with the Burmese government that were held in a “neighboring country,” meaning China, in order to hold the Burmese leaders accountable for any deals reached. Analysts believe, however, that this latest conflict—which occurred only a couple weeks after Burma and China announced the establishment of a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” during Burmese President Thein Sein’s visit to Beijing in March—could not have come as a shock to China, as happened in 2009 when the Burmese government launched a surprise offensive against a small Kokang ethnic militia that drove at least 30,000 war refugees into China. In 2009, there were not many Chinese investments in the Kokang area and China publicly reprimanded Naypyidaw for creating instability at its border. But this time, China seemed almost looking for a fight, or at least was not adverse to one, and a week after the conflict began it merely called for “restraint on both sides.” Dr. Zarni, a Burmese visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, described the conflict as “a war of business which transcends ethnicity.” “This has very much to do with territorial expansion and development projects by China and the Burmese army, which only represents the Burmese ruling elite, not the Burmese public,” he said. There have even been reports that the Burmese army planned to launch attacks against Laiza, where
the KIA headquarters is located, from Chinese territory. KIA leaders, however, said that they don’t believe the Chinese government would allow this to happen. In an interview with The Irrawaddy in Laiza, the KIA’s deputy military chief, Gen. Gun Maw, said that the Burmese army might have asked the Chinese government for such help during a recent meeting of Chinese and Burmese government officials in Mungshi, a city in Yunnan Province. But while not completely ruling out the scenario of China-based attacks by the Burmese army, he did not believe the Chinese government would permit such a move because it would have a substantial negative impact on border stability. Gun Maw said that one reason he doubts the Chinese government will let the Burmese army use the main trading route between Laiza and Yunnan Province to launch military offensives against the KIA is the fact that an estimated 300,000 Kachin people are living on the Chinese side of the border. “If the Burmese army wants to attack us from China, they can do so without the Chinese government’s permission. They can use the border pass cards to send commandos,” said Gun Maw. “But I think the Chinese government will not want to have problems with the Kachin community in China.” Before the recent clashes began, Laiza served as one of the main trading points between Burma and China. Although the current conflict has been centered mainly on control of Momauk Township, Kachin State, where the Chinese government has built hydropower plants, the previously busy road between Laiza and Yunnan Province has been mostly silent since the fighting began. Gun Maw said that if the Burmese army troops tried to use this road to enter Laiza, which is ringed by rugged mountains, it would find itself in “a killing field.” “We have spread out our defenses all over the area,” Gun Maw said, adding that he has received information that the Burmese government is now preparing to launch major offensives against Laiza and the KIA-controlled areas of Momauk Township. Although the Burmese government claimed that its attacks against the KIA were aimed at establishing the security of China-built dams in Momauk Township, KIA officials, including Gun Maw, viewed the move as having a broader military purpose.
“The Burmese army wants to cut off the logistics line between our troops in Kachin State and Shan State and weaken our position,” Gun Maw said. Col. Zau Raw is the KIA military commander overseeing the hundreds of KIA troops in Kutkai, Hhipaw and Theindi townships in Shan State—the townships where China’s strategic oil pipeline will pass through on its way from the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan Province. Asked what actions the KIA would take if the Burmese army launched attacks against his troops on the pretense of providing security for the pipeline, Zau Raw told The Irrawaddy, “We will launch guerrilla warfare. We have already obtained an abundance of small rockets with which we successfully resisted the Burmese army attacks in Momauk.” The day after the interview with Zau Raw, the Burmese army sent reinforcement troops to Kutkai and Theindi townships in Shan State, which Zau Raw said were coming in small groups dressed in civilian clothes. “All indications are that we are in for a major war,” he said. Although the Burmese and Chinese governments may believe they are fighting only to protect economic interests in Kachin and Shan states, they cannot control the larger motivations of the KIA and the Kachin people, who are fighting once again for the freedom to determine their own destiny and control their own resources. “If we get real state rights and a federal union, we will lay down our arms. It will be a clean and lasting diplomatic solution,” said Gen Gam Shawng, the KIA chief of staff. For the people of Kachin State, the civil war to achieve this goal has already been ignited once again, and the Burmese troops and Chinese workers are experiencing the consequences of having stirred up the KIA cobra’s nest. Shelby Tucker, a British author who has written about the KIA, told The Irrawaddy that the rugged terrain and the warrior spirit of the Kachin soldiers will transform the war in Kachin State into an Afghan-style quagmire. And listening to Lt Hkwan Nam, a woman from Myitkyina, Kachin State who holds an economics degree and is one of the estimated 800 female soldiers in the KIA, Tucker’s words may not be far off base. “I have no hatred for Burmese people,” Hkwan Nam said. “But I can shoot all kinds of guns to fight the Burmese army.”
Committed, They Survive An Irrawaddy reporter spends 10 days with villagers in northern Karen Stateâ€”where lifestyles are simple, but lives are complicated By SAW YAN NAING
t was already 5 pm when we reached a small village after crossing the Thai-Burmese border. As the sun went down behind the mountain, it became cooler, and we started to climb the barren mountain. After one hour of uphill climbing, we stopped to catch our breath. My shirt was soaked through with sweat. It was getting dark and the jungle was getting deeper. As we walked on, we chatted and shared experiences with our guide, a soldier from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). As night fell, I asked the Karen soldier about security conditions. I learned there were Burmese government army bases and landmines planted near the route we trekked.
KNU soldiers carry assault weapons during celebrations to mark the anniversary of the ethnic armed groupâ€™s rebellion against Burmese rule. photo: AFP
Stroking his wispy beard, the KNLA soldier said the government soldiers frequently ambushed travelers on this mountain. Several people had been killed. Talk of the devil! Gunfire suddenly reverberated just 250 meters away. The Karen soldier turned and grabbed his carbine rifle and listened intently. I asked him what was happening. He didn’t answer me at first. He stood motionless, listening. A few minutes later, he concluded that the gunfire may well have been hunters. But he couldn’t be certain. We continued walking. He could see the worry in my eyes. “It’s OK,” he said. “We will stop soon and sleep. There’s a hut in the jungle.” The mountainside cleared of foliage, and we were marching beneath a crystal clear sky peppered with bright stars. We reached a tiny hamlet where we slept, and continued our journey at dawn. After another five hours of walking, we reached the headquarters of Brigade 5 of the KNLA. Based in one of the most remote areas in Southeast Asia, the rebel Karen have their own way of life. Men, women and children bathe in rivers and streams; people make their homes from bamboo, wood and leaves; they travel only by foot; women cook creatures such as lizard and monkey on open fires, while the menfolk hunt in the forest and tend their rice paddies. Some breed livestock; others make a few simple handicrafts and utensils to sell at a village market. In many ways, they enjoy an unspoilt, almost primitive lifestyle. Modern technology is either nonexistent or contrasts sharply to the surroundings. Children use candles or lamps to read their school books at night, while sometimes the village headman has solar panels for electricity and a satellite telephone. There is no TV, a great disappointment to many villagers who adore Burmese and South Korean soap operas. However, every village has at least one radio—the Karen being all too aware that they need to keep apprised of the unfolding political and military situation in Burma for their survival. In the evenings, men gather in the headman’s house, chew betelnut, and listen to the news on Burmese exile news services Villagers invariably go to bed early and wake up with the roosters at dawn. Women cut wood and prepare breakfast while the men go hunting. They feed their pigs, dogs and chickens, and bathe in the stream.
But despite the rural, isolated nature of these Karen hamlets in the mountains—some might imagine a “paradise” of sorts—there is no getting away from the extreme poverty, the constant fear and the danger that these people live with on a daily basis. Hunger is a constant problem in the jungle. Most Karen villagers in this region live on less than US $1 per day. Poe Deh, a young Karen soldier, asked me on the first day: “What kind of curry do you want tonight? Deer, monkey or bird?” I just shrugged uneasily, telling him anything would do. Later, I saw him pick up an old rifle and head off into the forest with his dogs. He smiled over at me: “Hey! I’ll go and get our meat now!” He didn’t come back that night. We ate rice and fish paste, with bamboo shoots and leaves for dinner. Poe Deh turned up the next morning just after dawn. He had two large birds in a sack, one of which was an owl. The birds were plucked and cooked for breakfast. Grilled with chillis, they tasted really good. Poh Deh told me that he prefers to hunt at night. He said he usually gets a deer, a wild pig, monkeys, some fowl or large jungle rats. “We take along three or four dogs,” he said. “Not only for hunting, but to guard us in case the Burmese army is nearby. The dogs are smart. They can smell Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] soldiers a mile way.” Every house in the jungle has dogs. They usually live alongside the pigs in a muddy latrine beneath the stilted houses. Without refrigeration, the Karen villagers salt their meat before drying in the sun, either on their rooftops or on a rope or bamboo washing line. Poe Deh is short but strong. He told me he was one of the KNLA’s elite Special Force soldiers. Recruits are chosen from any of the seven KNLA brigades and put through a strenuous six-month training program. Poe Deh said they were woken before dawn and made to run through punishing assault courses in the deep jungle while assembling their weapons. They invariably emerge hardened jungle warriors. Compared to the enemy—the Tatmadaw—which has some 400,000 armed men deployed across the length and breadth of Burma, the KNLA has an estimated 4,000 soldiers concentrated in Karen State.
KNLA Brigade 5, located in the Papun District of northern Karen State, has 1,300 fighters, 200 of whom have been through Special Forces training. My colleague and I spent 10 days in the northern Karen jungle, and—despite the warmth and hospitality of the village folk—we never got the impression that this was anything other than a war zone. Armed men and teenage boys walk the paths between villages. Most wear the uniforms of the KNLA—the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), which was founded in 1947, and has fought the Burmese government for independence or autonomy since shortly after independence. Unlike most ethnic armed groups, the KNU has never signed a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese government. It has long been at the heart of the revolution, and its headquarters has hosted many anti-government organizations over the years. Without salaries, most of the soldiers have only one other change of clothing apart from their uniforms, so they wear their rugged fatigues almost every day, changing into vests and shorts when they finally bed down for the evening. During our journey, we spent two days at a KNLA base on the bank of the Salween River. Despite its strategic location, there were not even a few stalls or a small marketplace selling vegetables. Without international financial support, the KNU and the KNLA rely on taxation and border trade, mostly in logging. Despite the hardships, and the unceasing civil war that has dragged on and on for more than 60 years, most Karen I spoke to believe that one day they will have victory through armed resistance. That feeling is echoed by Maj. Eh Doh Htoo. We sat on the bamboo step of the military barracks one quiet night and watched the spectacular starspangled sky as he told me war stories. He said he had fought more than 1,000 battles over the past 30 years. Now a military trainer, he counted off the most intense Burmese army offensives he had faced. “1980, 1990-95, and 2006,” he said. “During those times, it was really tough. The government troops implemented a policy of ethnic cleansing. They killed almost every Karen they came across. They burned down our villages. They shot at us from jet fighters. It went on and on every day and every night,” he recalled. “I still have a piece of shrapnel in here,” he said, indicating his left shoulder.
Eh Doh Htoo said many of his friends joined the exodus and walked to the Thai border to shelter at refugee camps. With more than 140,000 refugees now in camps, many Karens are resigned to the fact that they cannot go home and have applied for resettlement to a third country. We went inside the wooden hut—or “Brigade 5 headquarters” as Eh Doh Htoo called it—and I was surprised to see a satellite phone and a computer on a table. Old magazine pictures of Burmese singers and Angelina Jolie were tacked to the thin walls, alongside a clipboard listing all the Burmese army defectors and rescued porters that were currently being sheltered at Brigade 5. I was introduced to Saw Tender, the chairman of Brigade 5. We quickly got on to the subject of Aung San Suu Kyi. “As far as ethnic Karen civilians in frontier areas are concerned, they don’t expect much from her,” he said. “If she stays in the limelight of mainstream politics in Rangoon, she may very well be assassinated.” “Every dictatorship in the world finally collapses,” he said after a long pause. “No dictatorship can survive forever. We will fight on until they collapse. To give up now would be a betrayal to the thousands of soldiers who fought and died for our freedom.” At that moment another KNLA soldier is brought into the room. I had asked for a rank-and-file soldier to interview, and this young man had been chosen. He lost his left leg and right eye after he stepped on a landmine—a KNLA landmine—several years ago. The rest of his body, from the waist up, was covered in tattoos. He had an M-16 rifle and several rounds of ammunition slung over his shoulder and a hand grenade pinned to his belt. I took out my notebook and asked his name. The soldier smiled and pointed to a homemade tattoo on his neck: “OKO.” OKO said that his injury does not prevent him from carrying out his duties. He proudly states that he is committed to the Karen cause and will fight for the KNLA for the rest of his life. “Life is meaningless if you sit around and feel sorry for yourself,” he says. “Nowadays I cannot fight, but I can cook, hunt, clean and do many things. That is my contribution to the Karen resistance. “I lost a leg, but not my heart,” he says. “ As long as I live, I will fight on behalf of my people.”
A Town So Clo
ose, But Yet So Far Mae Sot, Thailand is a border town where most of the inhabitants are Burmese and where Burmese language, cuisine and culture predominate. But for those longing to return to Burma, it is still a long way from home By KYAW ZWA MOE
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illustration: harn lay/the irrawaddy
photo: the irrawaddy
la Phu sits in the middle of his five-by-five-foot shop in Mae Sot, Thailand, among discarded old clocks, battery-less flashlights and rusty pots and pans. Everything is for sale, he tells me with a smile that reveals a missing tooth, even a pair of bamboo chopsticks—the kind they give away for free in noodle shops. With his wispy white hair that reaches below his shoulders and “vermicelli” beard that dangles from his narrow chin, the short and thin 84-year-old resembles the stock hermit character in an epic Asian film. But in real life, Hla Phu has been a pioneer, patriot and physician. He is one of the Burmese migrants who made the border town of Mae Sot what it is today—the closest thing to Burma one can find in Thailand, complete with shady characters, danger and intrigue. Mae Sot sits on the banks of the Moei River in western Thailand, opposite the town of Myawaddy in south-eastern Burma. To reach Mae Sot from the Thai side, it is necessary to navigate a snaky road through the mountains where sharp turns are frequent, errant drivers don’t keep to their side and heavily-loaded trucks often roll over on the steep slopes. Caution must be exercised. You should expect the unexpected when approaching Mae Sot, beginning with the three checkpoints manned by the military, police and border patrol along the road leading into town. If the checkpoint personnel think you look suspicious, you will be stopped. Whether that means you’ll be asked a few brief questions and sent on your way, or be told to pull over and have your car and belongings searched, depends on the instincts and mood of the officer on duty. Normally, there is a higher risk of getting pulled over, and the searches and interrogations are more severe, when traveling away from the border because the authorities are looking for drugs and illegal immigrants coming into Thailand from Burma. But smuggling goes both directions, and shakedowns take place on both sides of the highway. Upon arrival in Mae Sot, you’ll know you’re in the right place when you start seeing males and females of all ages wearing longyi (Burmese sarongs) walking by the roadside. On the cheeks of many women and girls will be a beige paste called thanaka (traditional Burmese makeup), and the signboards of many vendors, shops, restaurants and guest houses will be written in Burmese. When you stop and get out to stretch your legs after the long drive through
the mountains, chances are you will hear people conversing in Burmese rather than Thai, because over 200,000 Burmese live here, and only 80,000 Thai. If the Burmese community were not here, it wouldn’t be Mae Sot. In a sense, Mae Sot seems to have assimilated into the Burmese community, rather than the other way around, and depending on which Burmese resident you ask, Mae Sot will be dubbed the town of exiles, the town of dissidents, the town of rebels disguised as civilians, the town of migrant workers or the town of refugees. Hla Phu, who was one of the first Burmese to arrive here forty years ago, could be considered a member of most of these categories. He was born in Rangoon in 1927, when Burma was a British colony, and grew up a patriot like many of his era. He was schooled in a Rangoon monastery and never went to college, and when Burma was occupied by Japan during World War II, he participated in anti-fascist political activities. When Burma gained independence from Great Britain, Hla Phu was a fire department officer in Kamaryut Township, and at 4:20 a.m. on Jan. 4, 1948, he and his colleagues hoisted Burma’s flag to mark the historic event. “You know, when I was pulling the rope to raise the flag, I had conflicting feelings—joy and sorrow,” he says. “Seeing our new flag being raised, I felt joyful. But I felt sad seeing the Union Jack flag being lowered, because I grew up with that flag. But my happiness was so strong that I felt as if I was walking on air above the ground.” After independence, Burma appeared to be on the road to democracy when U Nu became the country’s first democratically elected prime minister. But in 1962, Gen Ne Win and his socialist comrades overthrew U Nu in a military coup. After being released from prison, U Nu fled to Thailand and in 1969 formed the Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP) to stand against Ne Win’s military regime. Several hundred people, including prominent politicians, became members of the PDP, and in 1972 Hla Phu left Burma and came to Mae Sot—which at the time had only around 50 Burmese residents and no newspaper—to join the PDP in its fight against dictatorship in his home country. At Hla Phu’s invitation, we leave his tiny shop and drive to Ho Paing Village, the place where he lived while serving the PDP. The trip takes about 10 minutes by car—but Hla Phu says it took much longer four decades ago, when there were no paved roads to
the village. When we arrive at Ho Paing, he appears overcome by nostalgia and mutters under his breath, “Oh what has brought me here again after ages?” The village sits in the middle of emerald green paddy fields and is camouflaged by large shade trees. Wrapping a red scarf around his head, Hla Phu explains that it was here that he and the other PDP troops made camp in the early 1970s. “One of the barracks used to be there,” he says, pointing to a patch of empty land under a tree. “I lived in that barrack. It had 14 beds.” He shows me a well, now covered by bushes, which they had used for drinking water, and while we walked along a small path between paddy fields, he continues to point at different places and recall life as a PDP foot soldier. “Our troops were several hundred in strength, so for lunch we had to start cooking at 2 a.m.,” he says. “We used four or five very large woks.” Life was simple then, Hla Phu says, explaining that their houses were built with bamboo and thatch and they bathed in a creek. But this was apparently too simple for some of his comrades, as Hla Phu tells me that 50 to 60 percent of the troops he served with had not joined to sacrifice for their country with genuine revolutionary spirit or conviction, but rather because they heard that U Nu’s army was rich and paid in gold coins. Eventually, these sunshine patriots ran away when faced with having to live in the jungle and wake up at 5 a.m. to go through military training. Seeing this, Hla Phu realized that the revolution would either take a long time to succeed, or would be short lived for lack of properly motivated troops. So he prepared for both—soon after arriving in Mae Sot, Hla Phu began studying under a senior medical student, both with the aim of serving the troops as a medic and earning a livelihood if the army disbanded. “I saved several lives here,” he says when we arrive at the creek. “One incident involved a former monk in our troop named Than Myint, who we called Phone Gyi (monk) Than Myint. He took poison after feeling depressed about his relationship with his girlfriend. We had no medicine, so I told my colleagues to catch a duck swimming in the creek. They had no idea how a duck could help with the poison, but I knew that a duck’s blood can make a person vomit—it’s a traditional method. I cut the bird’s throat and threw the blood into Than Myint’s mouth, and he immediately emptied his stomach. We sacrificed one duck to save one person’s life.” Prior to 1979, when he moved into Mae Sot, Hla
Phu was the only “doctor” for many villagers in Ho Paing, and he personally won over the hearts of Thai villagers by treating their medical ailments. “Having compassion and sympathy, I think I became a good medic,” he said. “Those qualities are the foundation to become a good professional in every field.” When he moved to downtown Mae Sot, Hla Phu made a living providing medical care to Burmese, including many ethnic Karen, and some Thai people. “My patients used to wake me up in the middle of the night. I lived on that profession until 1992, but it was illegal as I held no certificate. There was only a clinic run by a Thai doctor and he charged 100 baht at that time. I just charged about 20 to 40 baht, and earned roughly 12 baht per head,” he says as we drive back into town. In one incident, Hla Phu was almost arrested after police officers found him treating a Thai patient. Fortunately, a Thai businessman intervened with the police and convinced them not to arrest him. After that, Hla Phu gave up his secret profession and opened a teashop, which he ran for many years with the help of a friend. But the teashop business eventually failed and he became a vendor of used items.
“My patients used to wake me up in the middle of the night. I lived on that profession until 1992, but it was illegal as I held no certificate.”
Not surprisingly, he doesn’t get many customers these days— in fact, during my several visits I see only one, an Indian-Burmese who buys an old electric water boiler that still manages to work if the cover is forced shut. The asking price is 150 baht, but the customer says, “Here’s 120, big brother. I had to pay some money to the police this morning, I’ll pay you 30 baht later. I promise.” Hla Phu nods okay, but when the customer leaves he smiles at me and shakes
“You know, it looks perfect. You can have your Burmese tea and food here like in Burma, prices are reasonable, you can wear a Burmese sarong on the street and have a conversation with your own people.” his head, knowing he may never see the extra baht. He’s used to this, he says, customers often owe him money. But when they delay payment, he must do so as well, postponing the 600 baht due to the shop’s owner for rent. When he first came to Mae Sot in hopes of helping to reclaim freedom and democracy in his home country, Hla Phu never imagined he would end up selling used items to survive, and neither did he imagine sleeping, as he does now, in a two-foot-wide space in the rented home of a Burmese couple. He was one of the first to arrive in what has become a minor boom town on the border, and could have set up a successful business. But he kept anticipating a return to Burma. “I always thought that ‘Maybe this coming Thingyan (the Burmese water festival), or that coming Buddhist holy day, I’ll go back,’” he says. “However, now, it seems I’ll be buried here with that dream.” “But who knows,” he adds with a smile. “I might get that chance to go back home one day, because my life will be long. I’m pretty sure I will live to be 120 years old.”
ae Sot wakes up early, especially in the markets. One of the liveliest is known as Zay Gyi (big market) among the Burmese, and as markets usually do, it paints an accurate picture of the town’s character and inhabitants. This morning, many Burmese teashops in and around the market are crowded with Burmese customers, including me and Moe Kyo, who in 2004 founded the
Joint Action Committee for Burmese affairs, which is mainly focused on protecting the rights of Burmese migrant workers. Sitting on small stools around a low rectangular table in Pho Htoo Teashop, we sip our tea Burmese style—taking a long time to finish a small cup and savoring each sip of the delicious brew, which is made using dry tea leaves and sweetened with condensed milk. Some of the other customers place lit cigarettes or cheroots in their mouth, and between sips of tea they inhale, then exhale the smoke through their mouth and nose. Tea shops are the place where many Burmese have their breakfast, and a variety of snacks such as nan, samosas and mohinga, a traditional Burmese fish soup with rice noodles, are available. It is also where the local Burmese meet to converse, share information or just relax by singing Burmese songs. It’s difficult to find such traditional Burmese teashops elsewhere in Thailand, and this is why many Burmese feel that only Mae Sot can make them feel “almost at home.” “You know, it looks perfect. You can have your Burmese tea and food here like in Burma, prices are reasonable, you can wear a Burmese sarong on the street and have a conversation with your own people,” Moe Kyo says, adding that he likens Mae Sot to his home township, Thingangyun, in Rangoon. Sometimes when Burmese people bump into each other, Moe Kyo says, they shout greetings and stop to speak and jest, not even caring if they block traffic. “This is the same style as in Burma. It’s one of the Burmese traits they can get away with here. I don’t think they can behave in such manner in other places or countries,” he says with a laugh. Mae Sot shares other traits with Burma as well, some not so hospitable. For instance, when attending ceremonies in Burma, there is a risk of sandals left at doorsteps being stolen or exchanged with a bad pair. Likewise in Mae Sot— if you go to a building populated by migrant workers, your sandals are likely to get stolen if you leave them unattended. Moe Kyo goes to Pho Htoo Teashop as early as 6:30 a.m. on some days, but he does so not only for leisure—keeping tabs on the Burmese community that populates the shop and the surrounding market is part of his job, and as construction workers and vegetable vendors come to the teashop for their breakfast, Moe Kyo keeps an eye out for any arrests or abuse committed against them. He tells me that early the previous morning, he saw seven construction
workers get off their bicycles in preparation to enter the teashop, but a police van pulled over and arrested them. They had no work permits and had to pay 500 baht upon arrival at the police station, but the incident did not cause any commotion, because in Mae Sot, even if 50 people were arrested it would be considered life as usual. Despite the risks of arrest and abuse by the powers-that-be, Mae Sot is much safer for migrants today than it was in the early 2000s, when dozens of Burmese migrant workers were killed. At that time, there was a saying that, “Burmese workers in Mae Sot are not worth more than three baht, the price of an AK-47 bullet.” One of the worst incidents occurred in February 2002, when 20 Karen were slain and dumped in the Moei River, blindfolded with their throats slit and bodies stabbed. There was speculation that they were victims of a human trafficking ring, but although local police reluctantly investigated under an order from the Thai interior minister, no one was ever caught. In those years, residents say, it was not unusual to find three or four dead bodies floating in the rivers and streams around Mae Sot every month. In May 2003, six Burmese workers were shot and their bodies burned on a pile of tires in a bamboo forest at Huay Kalok Village, near Mae Sot. The reason for their murder: they couldn’t pay off the local Thai authorities. Following the killings, I interviewed Moe Swe—a leading activist with the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association based in Mae Sot. He said at least one Burmese worker was killed every week, but no one was ever found guilty. When I returned to Mae Sot in 2004, I met Moe Swe once again. It seemed like a normal quiet evening in Mae Sot, and we chatted about migrant workers and his association. Soon after we parted, however, I received a phone call and was told that Moe Swe and his Danish colleague, Bent Gehrt, were attacked in a night market restaurant at the center of town. The two attackers, who managed to escape, attempted to stab them and injured Gehrt in the abdomen. The next day, Moe Swe told me they were attacked because his association had helped underpaid and exploited Burmese workers, educating them on how to demand their rights from Thai employers and sue if those rights were not honored. The previous year, hundreds of Burmese workers staged half a dozen demonstrations against their employers, demanding an increase in salary and better working conditions.
Such protests and lawsuits against Thai employers had previously been unheard of in Mae Sot, and as a result of the protests, several factories had to close temporarily and suffered losses. Moe Swe and his colleagues were targeted by furious factory owners, who secretly put a handsome cash bounty on his head. The rights activist went into hiding for months, and luckily the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and the Thai Labor Campaign pushed the Thai authorities to protect him and his colleagues. Fortunately, things have improved in Mae Sot over the last five years. Phil Thornton, a journalist based in the town, wrote a book that was published in 2006 called Restless Souls about rebels, refugees and life on the Thai-Burmese border. In his chapter on Mae Sot, he called it a “death town,” which at the time was clearly accurate. But today, he thinks that the town has changed: there aren’t as many horrible killings now as took place in the early 2000s, and migrant workers are able to do things such as walk up to an ATM machine and withdraw money while wearing uniforms, whereas in the past they couldn’t even possess an ATM card. For that, Thornton gives credit to organizations like Yaung Chi Oo, which is still run by Moe Swe. But that does not mean that conditions for Burmese migrant workers at factories are perfect. Thornton says that Burmese workers are still being exploited by employers, and not only Thai employers—Chinese, Indian, Australian and American companies have subcontractors in Mae Sot who abuse workers as well. As a result, the salary rate in Mae Sot is relatively low—around 100 baht per day, as compared to around 200 baht per day in Bangkok. But Mae Sot is still attractive to many Burmese migrants for its low cost of living: a pack of curry can be bought there for 5 baht, whereas in other parts of Thailand it will cost 25 to 30 baht. And despite the continuing exploitation of workers, Thornton believes there is more humanity in a place like Mae Sot than in the large cities of Western countries. He points to the Mae Tao Clinic, which has provided health care, maternity care and emergency operations since it was founded in 1989 by the acclaimed Karen doctor Cynthia Maung. The clinic offers free care to over 140,000 Burmese patients per year—some traveling from Burma and others living in Thailand. In Thornton’s view, despite all the facilities and equipment in big hospitals in cosmopolitan cities,
humanity seems to be missing. But in the Mae Tao Clinic, even when people have to sleep on rough wooden benches and line up to see a doctor, there are family members or friends looking after them.
here are two sides to every coin, however, and one can still find heartless cruelty in Mae Sot as well as heartfelt humanity. I’m reminded of this as I pass by the house of the late Mahn Sha, the former general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic armed group in Burma that has been fighting for autonomy since 1948. I used to visit Mahn Sha whenever I was in Mae Sot, and from a distance I gaze at the house where he lived and died, and where we had many lively discussions about our home country’s political and ethnic issues. Burma’s pro-democracy forces considered Mahn Sha to be a visionary and principled leader, and he was highly respected among the country’s ethnic and political communities. But the Burmese regime and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a group that broke away from the mostly Christian KNU and is now a junta ally, thought of him as a threat because of his strong leadership and influence in the KNU. Two weeks before Valentine’s Day 2008, the 64-year-old Mahn Sha attended a Karen Resistance Day ceremony in an area on the Burmese side of the border that was under the control of the KNU. Before the ceremony, a bomb was found beneath the chair where he was supposed to sit, and afterwards he received a phone call from an unknown person who threatened to kill him. Also present at the Karen Resistance Day ceremony was Mahn Sha’s daughter, Zoya Phan, who is a prominent human rights activist now working for Burma Campaign UK, based in London. In her book, “Little Daughter,” Zoya Phan recalled a conversation with her father after the death threat. “They are closing in on me, little daughter,” Mahn Sha told her. “And if they cannot get to me, they will try to get to you.” “Look, Pah, you have to recognize that Benazir Bhutto got killed because she didn’t take proper precautions,” Zoya Pahn told her father. “I’m worried the same might happen to you.” “I know. I know,” Mahn Sha replied. “The regime is trying very hard to kill me, so maybe I won’t survive for long.” “Pah–don’t talk like that!” Zoya Phan said. “Please.”
Zoya Phan flew back to London shortly after that conversation, and never again saw her father alive. At 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2008, Mahn Sha finished an early dinner and settled into a plastic chair on the veranda of his house near the center of Mae Sot. Shortly afterward, two uninvited visitors entered the compound. One of them climbed the few steps to the veranda, stood in front of Mahn Sha and said “Ha Ler Gay,” or good evening in the Karen language, while his companion waited at the bottom of the stairs. The visitor handed a bucket of fruit to Mahn Sha, and when the Karen leader reached out to accept the gift, the visitor pulled out a pistol and shot him twice in the chest. Mahn Sha died while the cold-blooded gunmen walked freely out of the compound. No one has identified who killed Mahn Sha, but it has been speculated that the killers must have been sent by the military regime or the DKBA. Soon after the assassination, when there were rumors that the murder was plotted by San Pyote and other DKBA officers, Thai police began an investigation into the killing and closed all border checkpoints leading to DKBA-controlled areas on the other side of Moei River. The police pledged that they would apprehend the murderers, but many Burmese observers were not convinced that the vow was sincere. “As neither the victim nor the gunmen were Thai citizens, I don’t think the Thai authorities will take this case seriously,” said then KNU spokesperson David Taw in an interview with The Irrawaddy soon after the incident. David Taw acknowledged that it would be difficult for Thai police to catch the cross-border killers even if they wanted to do so, and after three years and no arrests it appears that no one involved in the murder will ever be apprehended. “I was really sad when I heard the news that afternoon,” the Karen abbot of Mae Sot’s Taw Ya Monastery told me. “Mahn Sha was a very honest person. He always visited my monastery and we talked about Buddhism and his religious matters. I suggested that he move out of that house where he had lived for several years, which was near a paddy field and was not safe anymore. We all heard in advance that enemies were planning to kill him, and he also knew it, but I think he might have thought he wouldn’t be killed.” Mahn Sha was not the only rebel to be assassinated in Mae Sot. In the past decades, several extrajudicial killings of Burmese rebels and dissidents were carried out in the area. But the military regime and its allies
were not responsible for all the assassinations; some were carried out by rebel groups themselves. The reasons varied, but most were due to suspicions that the victim was an informant or a member of the Burmese government’s military intelligence unit. Today, with tensions heating up between the Burmese military and the country’s ethnic armed groups, all rebels and dissidents residing in Mae Sot are advised to keep in mind what happened to Mahn Sha, and take better precautions.
ae Sot’s nights aren’t as busy as its mornings: as most residents wake up early for work, the town sleeps early. But there are still a few places to gather with friends in the evening, and on my last night in town I join some colleagues at the Aiya Restaurant, where at exactly ten minutes before 8 p.m., Win Cho arrives to sing and play guitar. Win Cho was given the nickname “Mr. Punctual” by his friends because he places great importance on being on time, and after adjusting the strings of his guitar and placing his harmonica in its mount so he can play hands-free, he starts his first song at 8 p.m. sharp. With eyes closed and unkempt hair dangling on his back, he sings as usual to an audience that consists mainly of Western tourists and foreign volunteers working for Burmese rights groups and international NGOs. Playing at the restaurant for one hour per night, three times a week, earns him 4,000 baht per month. But Win Cho didn’t come to Mae Sot to be a singer. He was among the second generation of Burmese dissidents who left their home country in 1988, when a bloody military coup took place and the new regime cracked down on the nationwide pro-democracy uprising. At that time, an estimated 10,000 students and protesters fled for the Thai-Burmese border to fight for democracy, and Win Cho, then a university student, joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), a student activist army founded in 1988 on the border. In the mid-1990s, many members of the ABSDF and other rebel groups had to withdraw from Manerplaw, the headquarters of the KNU, when they lost battles to Burmese regime troops. But Win Cho stayed in the “jungle” until 2000, when he decided to join the hundreds of other dissidents and rebels living in Mae Sot, some alone and some with families. For former political prisoners and activists in Burma who fear possible arrest and flee to Thailand, Mae Sot has
“As neither the victim nor the gunmen were Thai citizens, I don’t think the Thai authorities will take this case seriously.”
become a haven for some and a stopover for others, where they can register and stay in refugee camps along the border for as long as they need. Currently, Win Cho is a singer by night and a teacher by day. His school, which has about threedozen students and is named Sue Bote Chan, consists of a small bamboo classroom near the Friendship Bridge, which spans the river between Mae Sot and Myawaddy. It is one of approximately 70 schools in Mae Sot which serve the thousands of Burmese students residing in town. Despite having many of the comforts—and less of the discomforts—of Burma available in Mae Sot, Win Cho still doesn’t feel at home and definitely does not want to remain here for four decades, as Hla Phu has done. He says his life here is temporary, and in no way comparable in spirit to his homeland of Burma. But he thinks Mae Sot is the best place in this world for him until the day he can go back to Burma. “My goal is just to go back to Burma. I have many things to do over there. But I don’t know when. Singing and teaching here is my contribution to the Burmese community in Mae Sot, and to Thailand as well. I’m doing my best, and as much as I can. Mae Sot is a place where our Burmese people can at least survive.” For the people from Burma like Win Cho who live in Mae Sot, the town is simultaneously haven and hell. Here, they can be with their fellow countrymen, speak their language and eat their comfort food— Burmese culture and traditions are everywhere. But all they have to do is look across the Moei River to realize that even though all the trappings are here, Mae Sot is not their homeland, not their soil, not their country. Burma is so close they can taste it in every sip of tea, but they are so far away from being able to go back, having it in plain sight every day can be torture on their exiled souls.
in Action By THE IRRAWADDY
omen have traditionally played a leading role in Burmese society; so it is not surprising that Burma’s democracy movement is led byAung San Suu Kyi. But women in Burma have been subjected to a wide range of human rights violations, including political imprisonment, torture and rape, forced labor, and forcible relocation during the six decades of civil war and oppression in the country. Nonetheless, women continue to play an active role in the political and economic life of the country. Today’s women leaders at all levels are playing an important role in supporting and encouraging more women to engage in political activism, promoting the belief that women have to take joint responsibility for Burma’s development. At the same time, there are countless Burmese women who manage their family’s finances and work alongside their male relatives in their businesses. Burmese photographer Hseng Noung constantly travels with her camera. The following photo essay recalls some of the domestic scenes along Thailand’s turbulent border with Burma—as seen though the eye of a women’s rights activist.
Hseng Noung Lintner began working as a freelance photographer in 1983. She is also an activist who cofounded the Shan Women’s Action Network in 1999 and the Women’s League of Burma. She remains an advisory team member with both groups.
Women soldiers of the Shan State Army salute while on parade at Loi Taileng, on the Thai-Burmese border.
Top left: With 60 years experience as a teacher, Mary now works at Piang Luang, an unofficial refugee camp for Shan people in northern Thailand. Bottom left: Children play while their parents work at the rubbish dump in Mae Sot, Thailand. Top right: Young Burmese migrants study at the Dear Burma School in Bangkok, which offers courses in Thai, English and computer skills to migrant workers on Sundays. Middle right: A sex worker reads a “Bad Girl’s Dictionary” published by EMPOWER, a women’s NGO based in Thailand. Bottom right: Young Burmese migrants study Thai language at the Migrant Workers’ Rights Network in Mahachai near Bangkok.
Top left: An IDP family from Shan State collect grassy reeds which they sell to broom manufacturers in Thailand for 10 baht (US $0.30) a kilo. Top right: A shopkeeper sells household goods from a small stall in Mae Sot. Bottom: A Shan woman sells dry snacks around the Piang Luang refugee camp.
A former weaver who became one of the founders of the Womenâ€™s Rights and Welfare Association of Burma, which is based near the Burma-India border, displays one of her groupâ€™s textiles. June 2011
Far left: A volunteer from the Women’s League of Burma takes part in a traditional Burmese “a-nyeint” dance performance. Top center: An interviewer from the Karen Women’s Organization takes testimony from an elderly Karen woman who was shot by a Burmese soldier while working on her farm in Karen State. Middle center: Members of the EMPOWER Foundation in Thailand hold a workshop. The group works to prevent HIV/ AIDS and protect the rights of sex workers. Bottom center: Volunteers from the Women’s League of Burma act out a comedy sketch as part of an “a-nyeint” performance. Above right: A puppeteer entertains an audience at a performance organized by the Women’s League of Burma.
than Democracy Junta Chief Than Shwe and the SPDC have been replaced by President Thein Sein and a new Parliament, but has there been any meaningful change in Burma? By HTET AUNG and STEPHEN BLOOM
he new civilian government structure enshrined in Burma’s 2008 Constitution is now in place—the Parliament has held its first session and, at least on the surface, the country’s two-decade-long military rule has ended. But despite the facade, the Burmese people’s desire to live in a free democratic nation is still far from being realized, as evidenced by what has taken place since the election last November.
In January, before the MPs ever arrived at their shiny new Parliament building in Naypyidaw, SnrGen Than Shwe and the other top generals that made up the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) took several steps to undermine the power and authority of the elected officials. First, Than Shwe signed a “special fund law” that gave the commander-in-chief of the armed forces unlimited and unrestricted access to funds for the vaguely defined purposes of national defense and
Burma’s new president, ex-Gen Thein Sein (center), receives Australian Ambassador Bronte Moules (far right) at the Hall of the President’s Office on May 24. photo: the irrawaddy
security. Next, the SPDC preempted the Parliament by meeting behind closed doors and determining the country’s budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, allocating 23.6 percent of the budget to the military (before “special funds” are added) but only 5.4 percent to health and education. With these decidedly undemocratic maneuvers as a backdrop, Burma’s first session of Parliament under the new Constitution began on Jan. 31, and the ensuing meetings of MPs displayed anything but
the type of freewheeling debate that takes place in most open democracies. Even with representatives from the government-backed United Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and the military jointly controlling more than 75 percent of the seats in both the Upper and Lower Houses, the ruling elite still saw the need to tightly control everything from the length of Parliamentary meetings to the MPs’ ability to propose legislation to the permitted subject matter of debates.
Thanks for the Suggestion … But the Answer is Still ‘No’ According to The New Light of Myanmar, SPDC ministers (and current USDP heavyweights) being questioned by Parliament before the junta’s dissolution summarily dismissed or rejected suggestions by MPs with respect to ongoing issues in Burma: • Minister for Home Affairs Maung Oo ruled out the possibility of an amnesty law for political prisoners, saying that the Constitution only granted Burma’s president the power to grant amnesty to prisoners. • Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Htay Oo claimed that the existing laws were “the most appropriate to safeguard peasants’ rights.” • Minister of Electric Power-1 Zaw Min said that the Myitsone dam project, which has resulted in massive displacement and loss of livelihood for local residents, “cannot produce any negative effects at all.” • Minister of Education Chan Nyein said that teaching ethnic nationality languages in schools is “impossible” because “there are many national races in Myanmar [Burma].” • Minister of Information Kyaw Hsan blamed Thailand for the ongoing conflict in Karen State, saying “If the neighbor [Thailand] would stand as a friendly nation, problems of Kayin [Karen] State would soon be solved.”
Not surprisingly, their ability to do so was enshrined by the SPDC last October, before the election was even held, when it secretly adopted draconian parliamentary rules and bylaws that were not announced until January, just prior to the first session of Parliament. Under these rules, for example, the speaker of the Lower House has absolute authority to ensure that parliamentary sessions are held “in a disciplined nature.” As a result, Parliament’s first gatherings were limited to a series of highly stage-managed meetings, some as short as 15 minutes, with prearranged schedules and agendas. Opposition MPs were
restricted in their ability to introduce legislative proposals, and debate on those proposals that were introduced was extremely limited. At the end of the session, no major legislative proposals had been debated, voted on and passed by the new Parliament. Some SPDC ministers did eventually appear before Parliament for question and answer sessions, but as Dr Myat Nyana Soe, an MP from the National Democratic Force, pointed out, “This Parliament took place during the rule of the SPDC. Only in the last days of the session was the new president sworn into office. There has still been no parliamentary session held under the new government. Therefore, the discussions on the questions and proposals happened under the rule of the SPDC and the answers were given by SPDC ministers.” Other opposition MPs said that although the junta ministers responded to all of the questions and proposals with long explanations that included a large amount of statistical data, in the end they either rejected the proposal, demanded it be withdrawn, or gave a vague promise to address the issue when the time was appropriate. [See Box] The restrictions on what could be discussed and with whom did not stop at the doors of Parliament. Although there are no specific regulations on the country’s press in covering parliamentary activities, the SPDC-issued rules governing Parliament were used to make the censor’s job easier by restricting the access to information by independent journalists. The Lower House rules state that, apart from members of Parliament, no one is allowed inside the Parliament building. They also say that no one shall speak of, write, print or distribute, by any means, Parliament-related documents, information, statistics, drawings, charts or other references, which shall be kept in secrecy. “Under the law, private media groups are not allowed to enter the Parliament building and report about meetings unless the Parliament chairman permits them to do so. It means we can be jailed if we approach the Parliament building without permission,” said an executive editor from a Rangoon-based news media group. “Even an MP cannot speak freely to the media about the country’s administrative, legislative and economic issues,” said an independent candidate who contested the November 2010 election. In fact, foreign and domestic journalists were barred from the first session of Parliament, and in the official invitation sent to the elected candidates to
Article attend the session, the junta included a notice saying that various items including cameras, recorders, computers and lighters cannot be brought to the Parliament building. “It will be very difficult to report about the government and sessions of Parliament,” said a news editor from a private journal in Rangoon. “I am not sure if the censors will allow us to carry even the information we receive from government officials. Criticizing the government will be taboo.” The one duty that the new Parliament did perform to its utmost under the new Constitution was to elect the president, vice-president and speakers of the Upper and Lower House (although they were not allowed to investigate or debate the merits of any of the nominees). The line-up card of nominated top officials had Than Shwe’s fingerprints all over it: ex-Gen Thein Sein, who was also the former prime minister, was nominated and elected president; exGen Shwe Mann, who most observers believed until recently had been slated to become commander-inchief, became the speaker of the Lower House; and ex-Maj Gen Khin Aung Myint, Than Shwe’s trusted culture minister, became the speaker of the Upper House. The nominee for the first vice-president slot was also no surprise: hardliner ex-Lt-Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo, the former Secretary 1 of the SPDC and head of the Trade Policy Council, who is known to be corrupt and unpopular among the rank-and-file soldiers but has the respect of Than Shwe. Possibly to balance this out, Dr Sai Mauk Kham, a 61-year-old ethnic Shan physician and member of the USDP, was nominated as the other vice-president. But his appointment was largely viewed as a token gesture to the ethnic minority communities, and this belief was confirmed in the eyes of many when Thein Sein announced his list of cabinet officials, which was stacked with exgenerals and former junta ministers. Then on March 30, Than Shwe officially dissolved the SPDC, transferred power to the new government and disappeared from public view. His last appearance in the state-run media came a few days before, on Burma’s Armed Forces Day, during which the regime held a dinner reception in Naypyidaw in place of its usual elaborate military parade. There was no farewell for Than Shwe and no official celebration of the incoming government, and Than Shwe didn’t declare the completion of the “road map to democracy” or make any other public statement when handing over power to the new government. Everything was done in a secret, disciplined, military
fashion, and true to form, Than Shwe kept everyone guessing as he slowly slipped into the shadows. But few Burma observers believe that Than Shwe has actually retired and left the political stage entirely. Most feel he continues to pull the strings from behind the scenes, leaving it to his trusted front-man Thein Sein to sell the international community on the idea that things in Burma have actually begun to change. Even the general secretary of the USDP, Htay Oo, alluded to this when he told reporters in May that the 78-year-old Than Shwe had retired but had not been sidelined. And military sources said that Than Shwe is still making key decisions for the regime. The resounding silence of the Burmese populace is probably the best indication that they also believe the country’s ruling government has changed in form but not in substance. If indeed a new era of freedom was at hand, most would have expected that the era of Than Shwe—who ran one of the most ruthless and oppressive military regimes in modern history— would have ended with enthusiastic celebrations across the country. But Than Shwe’s resignation, the dissolution of the SPDC and the transfer of power to the new government were met mostly with indifference by the general population. “Nothing has changed—this is the first impression of the people towards their new government,” said Wun Tha, a veteran journalist who is currently serving as an adviser to the Rangoon-based Pyithu Khit Journal. “Regarding the people’s trust in the new Parliament, they don’t support it enthusiastically and their voice is silent,” said Wun Tha. “After the obvious flaws of the election in November, the people feel discouraged and not interested in the Parliament that emerged as a result of it.” Yet despite the unproductive first session of Parliament and the seeming indifference of the Burmese people, there is still an ongoing and much-heated debate among members of democratic opposition groups, analysts, journalists and diplomats as to whether the new Parliament and government can promote a political agenda that will in the future lead to genuine democratic reform and improve the living conditions of the people. And some see the possibility, if not the actuality, of meaningful change. In its latest report on Burma, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group argued that it would be a mistake to say that nothing has changed in Burma and urged the international community to encourage the government to move in the right direction.
As “encouragement,” it has called on the West to rethink its sanctions and restrictions on development assistance. It also said that a new generation has taken over as Than Shwe and his deputy, Vice SnrGen Maung Aye, have stepped aside. In addition, some opposition MPs expressed cautious glimmers of hope after sitting through the first session of Parliament. Aye Maung, an Upper House MP and the chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said that although the SPDC ministers blocked all of his party’s proposals during this session, “At least we have been able to begin a good tradition in Parliament in which all the government ministers have to come to answer all the questions in this new system.” He said that the opportunity for change may come by building confidence between the civilian and military MPs in Parliament. Before the session began, he thought that the 25 percent militaryappointed MPs would include some high-ranking military officials such as major generals and brigadier generals and many colonels. But in reality, he said, they are young majors and captains. “During the Parliament sessions, we were able to build a relationship with them to some extent, based on some commonalities such as coming from the same birthplace, ethnicity and education background,” Aye Maung said, adding that he met some of the military MPs outside the parliamentary sessions, and although he knew that they were ordered not to speak out in Parliament this time, he hoped to hear their voices in the next session. Myat Nyana Soe, an Upper House MP representing the NDF, also saw potential in the Parliament. “Some people might think that they didn’t see any significance from the previous parliamentary discussions. But for me, I saw a shift in there. As their representative, I spoke out for the people’s desires in Parliament and saw some responses from the government in return,” he said. On the executive branch side, many observers and stakeholders were also pleasantly surprised by a series of speeches that new President Thein Sein delivered during his swearing-in ceremony and meetings with cabinet members and the chief ministers of states and regions—although many remained doubtful that his words would translate into action. In the address to his newly formed government, Thein Sein called for cooperation in fighting
corruption and urged the country’s authorities to respect the rights of citizens. “The most important task of the new administration is to work together to create good governance and clean government,” Thein Sein was reported as saying by The New Light of Myanmar. To achieve this, he said, all levels of government must be “transparent, accountable and consistent with the Constitution and the existing laws.” Excerpts were carried in Burma’s state-run newspapers, which are generally available in Burmese prisons, and even some of the country’s most prominent political prisoners were said to be impressed by Thein Sein’s inaugural speech, even if they remained skeptical that the new government would bring about any real democratic changes, according to family members. Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group who is currently serving a 65-year prison term, was quoted by his elder sister, Kyi Kyi Nyunt, as saying: “It was quite a good speech. But there is no hope of any reality coming from it.” Other observers responded by pointing out that Burma remains one of the world’s most corrupt and oppressive nations. Aung Thein, a prominent Rangoon-based lawyer, said that corruption and lack of transparency remain the norm in Burma. “It exists in every government department, and will take a lot of effort to solve,” he said, adding that every new government decries corruption when it assumes power, but few actually do anything about it. In his address to his union-level, region and state ministers, Thein Sein seemed to urge greater government decentralization while at the same time admonishing lower-level organizations to stay within the policy framework set by the central government. “Now, a new system and new era have emerged. So it is required to make changes in ideas and procedures,” said Thein Sein, according to a report of his speech by The New Light of Myanmar. “Duties and responsibilities have been assigned to the respective ministers of states and regions,” said Thein Sein. “The centralization has been reduced and states and regions have been entrusted with rights and powers. They will have to take charge of their own duties.” But no specific areas of decentralization were mentioned, and for many politicians and observers, Thein Sein’s words about decentralization have little hope of becoming a reality.
“He [Thein Sein] can do nothing without the knowledge of Snr-Gen Than Shwe. It is not easy for his words to take shape because they have many changes to make in the ministries,” said Phyo Min Thein, a politician based in Rangoon. In fact, as a notable example of Than Shwe’s continued influence, military sources said that the supposedly ex-junta chief gave Thein Sein direct orders on what actions to take at the Special Projects Implementation Committee meeting held on April 22. He even instructed Thein Sein to backtrack on his less-than-two-week-old proclamations about decentralization. “U Thein Sein planned to give more authority to the chief ministers of the 14 states and regions. However, the plan was revised by the senior general when he learned about it,” said a military source. “Snr-Gen Than Shwe reportedly said giving more authority to the chief ministers could backfire if the positions are taken by other parties in the future, and therefore ordered more centralization by Naypyidaw. U Thein Sein then dropped his plan.” However, in his comments before the Special Projects meeting, Thein Sein still said that his government “will share the nation-building tasks” in its move for “national development through the practice of the new system.” “As each and every nation is trying their utmost for their national development, Myanmar [Burma] also needs to strive for development in order not to fall behind others,” he was quoted as saying by The New Light of Myanmar. In May, the government hosted a national workshop on “Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation” in Naypyidaw, which some Burma analysts viewed as a sign of progress because it was the first time Burmese authorities listened to the views of the different stakeholders. But others have doubts about the potential for success of the Thein Sein administration’s economic reforms, noting for example that the president did not address the fact that for the past half-century Burmese farmers, who make up 70 percent of the population, have been deprived of the right to own their farmlands; the right to choose the crops they wish to grow; and the right to sell their agricultural products freely in markets that set prices according to supply and demand. Reviewing Thein Sein’s speeches and first actions as a whole, some dissidents said that while some of his comments were promising, his omissions spoke louder than his words.
“He intentionally missed the opportunity to offer a message to the domestic opposition and international community about reconciliation,” said Aung Moe Zaw, a leading member of the National Council of the Union of Burma, an umbrella group of armed and exile groups. In particular, opposition activists point to the fact that Thein Sein completely ignored the issues of political prisoners and ethnic minority rights. Many had hoped that when the new government assumed power, it would release many if not all of the more than 2,100 political prisoners. But the “clemency” announced by Thein Sein in May merely reduced the sentences of all prisoners by one year and resulted in the release of about 50 political prisoners, far short of the expectations of those in the domestic and international community who had repeatedly called for the unconditional release of political prisoners as a first step towards national reconciliation. In addition, they say that Thein Sein has yet to show any commitment toward initiating a new round of ceasefire talks with the ethnic armed groups or stopping the military offensives in ethnic areas, which the ethnic and opposition groups feel would go a long way towards reconciliation, peace and stability in the country. To the contrary, the government seems to be stepping up its military campaign against ethnic armed groups in Shan, Kachin and Karen states, and has re-initiated its brutal “four-cuts strategy,” which means cutting off access to food, funds, information and recruitment, often with devastating consequences. Thein Sein’s words and the new government’s first actions showed that they emphasize economic development over political change, individual freedom and national reconciliation—an apparent imitation of their Chinese role models. Taking its cue from the legacy of Than Shwe’s junta, the new government has portrayed itself in just a few weeks as an administration that believes that political liberalization only comes after economic growth—the opposite of what many activists believe. “So far, I haven’t seen any meaningful change,” Aung San Suu Kyi told the Germany-based DWTV. “I know there have been elections, but the government that has taken over since the elections are the same as those who were in place before the elections ... We are still waiting to see whether there has been real change.”
Et Tu, General? The careers of Tin Oo and Khin Nyunt, two former spy chiefs who had built intelligence empires, prove that no top leader in Burma is invincible By AUNG ZAW
n order to accurately analyze Burma and the players involved in running the government, one must understand the way that Machiavellian politics can lead to the dramatic rise and sudden fall of the country’s most powerful figures. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to Tin Oo and Khin Nyunt, the two men who successively led the country’s intelligence service from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s. Born in Mudon, Mon State, Tin Oo was an ethnic Mon. He studied until the 10th standard and joined the Burmese army in 1945 when he was only 15 years old—his tall height allowing him to get away with telling the recruiters he was 18. Tin Oo became a platoon commander at the time Burmese and Japanese troops marched into Rangoon after defeating the British troops.
Tin Oo during his days as the second most powerful man in Burma Illustration: Aung LaRt
Tin Oo ran a ruthless and efficient spy network in Burma, earning the scorn of the Burmese people but accolades from Ne Win, who had many enemies and didn’t trust anyone other than his new spy chief.
It is believed that Gen Ne Win met Tin Oo in Mudon after returning to Burma with the Japanese forces. Tin Oo’s parents, who were both involved in Burma’s struggle for independence alongside Ne Win, asked the general to take care of their sons, who had all joined the army. When Tin Oo lost two of his brothers during the war, Ne Win decided to keep the bright and talented youth under his watch and not send him to the battlefield. After independence, Tin Oo enrolled at Rangoon University, where he studied economics and history. He also studied Marxism at the university and met many students who believed in leftist ideology. One of his colleagues asked him to join the Communist
Party of Burma (CPB), but Tin Oo wasn’t interested. He eventually returned to the army and became the aide de camp to then chief of staff Ne Win, who asked him to shake up the ineffective intelligence service and build up a military intelligence unit. Ne Win sent Tin Oo to Saipan Island in the Pacific Ocean to receive training from the CIA, and he later received training from the Royal Military Police in England as well. After Ne Win’s 1962 coup, the new dictator assigned Tin Oo to take care of and interrogate VIP political prisoners, including former President Mahn Win Maung and former Prime Minister U Nu, who were being held in a special detention center called Ye Kyi Aing, located outside of Rangoon. Tin Oo made preparations to prevent any rescue attempts for U Nu and his cabinet members, and with help from the 4th Burma Rifles Battalion, prepared to respond to air raids or operations by a foreign country’s special forces. At one point, U Nu reportedly told Tin Oo, “You have to reap what you sow,” referring to Tin Oo’s role in punishing innocent people and elders. When Tin Oo’s wife delivered a baby daughter who was handicapped and could not walk, some believed this was U Nu’s prophecy come true. Tin Oo also flushed out several assassination attempts against Ne Win, which impressed the dictator immensely. In addition, he went into the field to confirm the death of Than Tun—a leader of the CPB’s Red Flag faction and a friend of the late Aung San—who in 1967 was killed in his jungle hideout by an assassin who claimed to be an army deserter. A bookworm, Tin Oo set up a publishing house within Military Intelligence (MI) to promote the regime’s anti-communist agenda and recruited disgruntled members of the communist movement who returned from their jungle hideouts to work for his MI-funded publishing operation. Tin Oo also published several of his own books, including “The Last Days of Thakin Than Tun” and “The Last Year of Zin & Chit,” which became primary resources for the communist movement in Burma. Despite his ever-increasing ties to the top general, Tin Oo was not yet head of the intelligence service, and at the time there was internal conflict in the department. On one side was Col Lwin, also known as “Moustache Lwin,” an old style soldier
who was loyal to Ne Win but jealously guarded his intelligence service. On the other side was Brig Maung Maung, who with Ne Win’s blessing received assistance and training from CIA officers at the US Embassy in Rangoon to revamp the intelligence unit. Ne Win was forced to settle the feud, and he finally fired Maung Maung, a move that soon allowed Tin Oo to rise rapidly to the top. At that time, whenever Ne Win went abroad Kyaw Zwa Myint, an Anglo-Burmese operation commander who served in the intelligence units, usually accompanied him. But Kyaw Zwa Myint didn’t like Burmese socialism and reports surfaced that he planned to kill Ne Win. The planned assassination did not work out, and before Ne Win learned of his scheme, Kyaw Zwa Myint fled to the Thai-Burmese border and then to Australia. Prior to Kyaw Zwa Myint leaving Burma, however, Tin Oo’s spy network in Pegu Yoma found out that he was in the area and sent news of his presence to spy headquarters with a question: “What is he doing there?” Tin Oo quickly queried the War Office, but he received no reply because Col Lwin was afraid of reporting the case to Ne Win. But Tin Oo went straight to his mentor, who subsequently summoned senior intelligence officers and told them from then on to report directly to him. Afterwards, Ne Win brought Tin Oo to the War Office and his career took off: he became head of the National Intelligence Bureau and openly displayed his political ambition by creating the new position of chief military assistant to the president—a position considered to be more powerful than commander-in-chief. Tin Oo ran a ruthless and efficient spy network in Burma, earning the scorn of the Burmese people but accolades from Ne Win, who had many enemies and didn’t trust anyone other than his new spy chief. Tin Oo soon acquired the nickname MI Tin Oo, the name most people in Burma recognize to this day. Tin Oo, however, lacked combat experience and knew his rivals in the infantry would use this to try and undermine his authority and influence. So he cleverly countered by convincing his colleagues that without sound intelligence, victory in the battlefield could not be achieved, and when the army launched several major offensives against
communists and ethnic rebels in the 1970s, Tin Oo and his intelligence unit helped provide intelligence information to army field commanders. At the time, Tin Oo would personally fly to Pegu Yoma, once a communist stronghold, to help army commanders in their attempt to wipe out the communist insurgency once and for all. In the end, the army’s ruthless “Four Cuts” campaign proved to be successful and the communists and pockets of ethnic armies were pushed out of Pegu Yoma. Tin Oo even initiated Naing Ngan Gong Ye titles, designed to honor Burma’s former politicians and Thakin members who fought against the British, and helped Ne Win award the titles. He also managed a secret fund for covert operations inside and outside of Burma, including the monitoring of Burmese living overseas such as embassy personnel and exile groups along the borders of Thailand, China and Bangladesh. As Tin Oo’s intelligence network rapidly expanded, Ne Win came to depend on him more heavily, which resulted in personal jealousies and tension between the army and intelligence. The spy chief knew where his bread was buttered and didn’t hide his admiration for Ne Win. Whenever he had whiskey with his colleagues, Tin Oo would say, “I have only one god—Gen Ne Win.” On the flip side, Ne Win heavily relied on Tin Oo and would usually consult him first before making any decision regarding who to appoint to the cabinet and top positions in the armed forces. Later, when Tin Oo was named joint general-secretary of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), Ne Win’s staff began calling him “Number One” and Tin Oo “Number One and Half”—behind their backs, of course. In the past, Tin Oo used to tell his colleagues: “If father gets upset, it won’t last long” meaning that if Ne Win gets angry with him, he will usually forgive him. But he also confided that he had a premonition of one day being purged, and Ne Win finally began to doubt Tin Oo as well. In 1980, when Thaung Kyi, the joint secretary of the BSPP, died of a heart attack while playing golf, Ne Win came to meet all senior party leaders at the hospital. Before his arrival, Tin Oo prepared a clever reshuffle that would have seen Gen Kyaw Htin, the army chief of staff, take over Thaung Kyi’s
A rift between Ne Win and Tin Oo began to appear, and Tin Oo’s rivals fueled the fire by feeding Ne Win information about him.
position—which would move the general from a powerful army post to a party post. But Ne Win wanted Gen Kyaw Htin to remain in the armed forces, and after hearing about the reshuffle he stepped in and asked Tin Oo to become joint secretary instead. Political observers said that Ne Win, a clever political chess player, perhaps foresaw Tin Oo’s next move and preempted it. Afterward, a rift between Ne Win and Tin Oo began to appear, and Tin Oo’s rivals fueled the fire by feeding Ne Win information about him. After he was appointed joint secretary of the BSPP, Tin Oo promoted Mon culture through several state-sponsored projects, including the Burmese Broadcasting Service, and a rumor began to circulate suggesting that he was a “Mon Pretender” who
wanted to govern Burma after Ne Win’s passing. Several army officers including Sein Lwin, who is also Mon and received the nickname “The Butcher of Rangoon” after the 1988 massacre, were behind the smear campaign against Tin Oo. The campaign to discredit Tin Oo appeared to be paying off when, just a few days before Tin Oo’s son held a wedding party in Rangoon, many passengers at the Rangoon International Airport saw Ne Win board a special flight to Ngapali Beach. To many, this was a clear sign that Ne Win was unhappy with Tin Oo—all of Burma’s top brass other than Ne Win attended the lavish wedding, and after most of the guests had left, a drunken Tin Oo confided to aides that Ne Win was upset with him. Not long afterward, Ne Win summoned Tin Oo and reprimanded him. Then in 1983, Tin Oo was sentenced to five life terms in prison for misuse of state funds and property. The government published a series of articles accusing Tin Oo of corruption, citing his sons’ lavish wedding and the red carpet treatment he received at the Burmese embassy in Bangkok when he visited. Everyone knew that the corruption charges were untrue, and observers speculated that Tin Oo was purged because he moved to consolidate his power too quickly. The fallen spy chief was further shamed by being sent to Insein Prison, where he was kept in a small bungalow with many other prisoners. Tin Oo wrote a letter of appeal to Ne Win, saying that he feared reprisal and didn’t want to become a “monkey show.” And when a prison riot broke out in 1988, prison officers immediately relocated him to a safe detention center fearing he would be killed. After the 1988 coup, Tin Oo was allowed to return to his house in Rangoon, where until his death he took refuge in meditation and, like many old soldiers, studied Buddhism. He never betrayed Ne Win, and colleagues who saw him after 1988 said that the former spy chief still kept many secrets and stories about the dictator that went with him to the grave in 1998, when Ne Win showed up to mourn. This did not surprise many Burma insiders, as Tin Oo and Ne Win were known to meet often after 1988, and there was a persistent rumor that Tin Oo was helping Ne Win and some of his key socialist colleagues attempt a comeback after they realized
the new regime had no international legitimacy. Following Tin Oo’s removal, Col Aung Koe became the spy chief, but he soon fell from grace when North Korean agents planted a bomb at Aung San’s Martyr’s Mausoleum that killed several in a visiting South Korean delegation. “Where the hell was he?” Ne Win asked. The reply was that Aung Koe was playing golf, which prompted Ne Win to ask a second question: “Can we get someone who doesn’t play golf and doesn’t drink?” Brig Gen Tint Swe, the Minister for Industry (1), proposed his former personal security officer, Khin Nyunt, a young, charming and ambitious colonel who previously served in the War Office in the 1970s and was currently serving in the 44th Light Infantry Division in Karen State. Khin Nyunt was educated at Rangoon University before joining the army, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew once called him “The most intelligent of the lot.” Ne Win, who was then over 70, did not know Khin Nyunt, but he soon began to trust the young, efficient and loyal officer. Khin Nyunt became Ne Win’s gatekeeper and was seen accompanying the dictator on overseas trips beginning as early as 1984. When Ne Win received medical treatment in Cromwell Hospital in London in 1986 (Ne Win’s last visit to London), Khin Nyunt hid a pistol in his jacket and stayed in the hospital overnight. And when Ne Win went to meet Princess Alexandra in London, Khin Nyunt was seen sitting obediently in a Mercedes Benz opposite Ne Win and his daughter. Accompanying Ne Win and many top leaders on trips to the West allowed Khin Nyunt to learn the thinking of the regime’s inner circle and, just as importantly, the outside world. Ne Win resigned in July 1988 and a coup occurred in September, following a mass uprising led by Burmese students. The resulting junta called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Gen Saw Maung became the Chairman of SLORC, and Khin Nyunt—who had been well positioned ahead of the coup and helped create anarchy during the 1988 uprising that paved the way for the army to take over—was rewarded by being named Secretary-1. While Saw Maung took to the podium and gave speeches, the ubiquitous Khin Nyunt roamed
around the city meeting people, inspecting projects and issuing orders. Both the public and the international community thought Khin Nyunt was calling the shots, but the foreign press speculated that Khin Nyunt’s power was still based on Ne Win, who continued to pull strings after he left the political stage. At the Armed Forces Day dinner hosted by Saw Maung on March 27, 1989, Ne Win appeared together with top brass, all laughing and enjoying dinner. The photo of this gathering, printed on the front page of the state-run newspapers, provoked public anger by sending the dual message that the old man Ne Win was still a player and the generals were celebrating their victory in the bloody coup. The Armed Forces Day get-together between Ne Win and the SLORC elite was not an isolated event. Intelligence officers posted near Ne Win’s house often saw vehicles carrying Saw Maung, Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt arrive at his residence. When Saw Maung was asked by the now defunct, Hong Kong-based Asiaweek whether Ne Win was still in power behind the scenes, the general answered, “It is most difficult for us to explain these rumors and allegations… When people see me visit Ne Win, they think I’m going for instruction or advice. But he’s like a parent to me.” As Saw Maung slowly lost his grip both on power and reality, Khin Nyunt flexed his muscles and built his own empire—projecting himself as the hard-working leader of Burma. In contrast, officers recalled that Than Shwe would sit silently in meetings at the War Office, maintaining his sullen and expressionless face—unlike many powerful generals in the armed forces, “Bulldog” was never a fire-breathing dragon (although it would later would be discovered that his bite was much worse than his bark). But Than Shwe quietly accumulated power, and in March 1993 arranged to have Maung Aye, a member of SLORC, offered the still vacant posts of vice chairman of SLORC and army commander-inchief. As soon as Maung Aye reported to work at the War Office, tension between him and the powerful intelligence chief flared up. Maung Aye even set up his own intelligence unit and reportedly bought a powerful radio interceptor from a Western country
When Than Shwe appointed Khin Nyunt prime minister soon after the Depayin attack in May 2003, it was clear that he would be the fall guy and was now powerless to defend himself. Khin Nyunt being axed was just a matter of time ...
to counter Khin Nyunt and his growing intelligence empire. Than Shwe was now forced to keep an eye on the bitter fight between Khin Nyunt’s intelligence faction and Maung Aye’s military faction, and was bombarded by politically motivated reports from both sides. The hot-tempered and sharp tongued Lt Gen Tun Kyi, who was now trade minister, would come into Than Shwe’s office and complain about Khin Nyunt, calling the intelligence chief “Min Tha,” meaning movie star—it was rumored that welldressed Khin Nyunt wore makeup and perfume and regularly received a facial massage. Khin Nyunt knew his enemies, however, and took a different approach to battling them. He rarely entered Than Shwe’s room and always treated
him with full respect while working hard to prove corruption cases against rivals. Khin Nyunt’s sleeper cells in the ministries had done a great job of collecting first-hand information about Tun Kyi’s Trade Ministry, Kyaw Ba’s Tourism Ministry and Myint Aung’s Agriculture Ministry. But although Than Shwe had seen all the reports provided by Khin Nyunt and his intelligence services, he still didn’t trust him and so planted his own man in the intelligence chief’s inner circle. In 1994, Col Kyaw Win was appointed deputy chief of the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI) as part of the “checks and balances” system in the War Office. His prime purpose for being there, of course, was to keep a close eye on Khin Nyunt. Despite Than Shwe’s internal consolidation of power, the energetic and ambitious Khin Nyunt’s hard-working style still had international observers believing that he was the most powerful figure in Burma. In 1994, however, when US Congressman Bill Richardson came to Burma and met detained pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, the spy chief may have overplayed his hand. After the meeting with Suu Kyi, the congressman released a statement in Bangkok full of praise for Suu Kyi and saying Khin Nyunt “is a pragmatic individual who is sincere.” The congressman then went on to raise regime eyebrows by saying, “I think the future of Burma will be determined by two people: Khin Nyunt and Aung San Suu Kyi.” Richardson was unaware that the meeting with Suu Kyi, which was purportedly arranged by Khin Nyunt, was in fact permitted by Than Shwe as one of his carefully crafted publicity ploys designed to cause a diversion and create confusion. And in July 1995, when the regime surprised everyone by releasing Suu Kyi, Than Shwe took full credit. He sent a reconciliatory message to Suu Kyi informing her of her unconditional release, which his man Kyaw Win personally delivered to the prodemocracy leader at her home. Also in July 1995, while Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt were jockeying for power behind the scenes, former dictator Ne Win, then 84, expressed to his long-time close aides that he was losing interest in politics altogether. In traditional Burmese military style, however, the regime still listened to Ne Win
and his favorite daughter, Khin Sandar Win, who remained involved in the big picture of Burmese politics and was involved in the telecom business with her husband, Aye Zaw Win. Ne Win’s favorite grandsons also grew up and were seen roaming around Rangoon and teaming up with the powerful scorpion gang, who were allegedly involved in crime, murder, violence, drugs and other mafia-style activities during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then in 2002, Ne Win and his close relatives were accused of plotting to take state power. The regime removed Ne Win’s personal security officers and placed him and his daughter Khin Sandar Win under house arrest, and they put his son-in-law and beloved grandsons in prison on charges of high treason. On Dec. 5, 2002, Ne Win died quietly in his house and his body was unceremoniously taken to a small cemetery, where family members were waiting. There was no public announcement and no state funeral. With Ne Win now gone and Secretary-2 Tin Oo having been killed in a 2001 helicopter crash, Khin Nyunt was the only regime leader remaining who could claim a stature even approaching Than Shwe’s. The intelligence unit’s public relations effort to portray Khin Nyunt as a moderate who was exposed to international affairs continued to cause concern among Than Shwe and Maung Aye, who had not had the same early opportunities for education and travel as Khin Nyunt. In addition, the tension between the army and the intelligence service had gone beyond compromise, with the infantry officers and field commanders all behind Than Shwe and Maung Aye. Everyone in the military was waiting to pop the champagne once the intelligence faction was purged. And Khin Nyunt had an even more dangerous enemy than the army’s senior commanders—Than Shwe’s wife. Kyaing Kyaing never hid her hatred toward Dr Khin Win Shwe, the wife of Khin Nyunt, a medical doctor who attended many receptions and chaired several social welfare organizations. It was clear to most that in the eyes of Khin Nyunt and Khin Win Shwe, Than Shwe and Kyaing Kyaing were tasteless, uncolorful, uneducated people, and the angry and jealous Kyaing Kyaing fought back by bringing gossip of the Khin Nyunt couple to Than
Shwe and even employing black magic against Khin Win Shwe. When Than Shwe appointed Khin Nyunt prime minister soon after the Depayin attack in May 2003, it was clear that he would be the fall guy and was now powerless to defend himself. Khin Nyunt being axed was just a matter of time, and his protégé Foreign Minister Win Aung told his Association of Southeast Asian Nations counterparts that his boss was in danger and would need to flee the country. Burma’s neighbors, however, wouldn’t dare receive Khin Nyunt because of the diplomatic fallout that would occur. On Oct. 19, 2004, Khin Nyunt was arrested on his return from Mandalay, and within a few hours his entire intelligence unit had been raided and dismantled in an operation overseen by Than Shwe and Maung Aye to which there was no resistance. Charged with insubordination and corruption, Khin Nyunt was taken to Insein Prison, where he spent his time in a bungalow that he had ordered built to keep Suu Kyi. He later received a suspended sentence of 44 years in prison and was placed under house arrest, where he still remains. Following the purge, the DDSI was renamed Military Affairs Security and placed firmly under the commander-in-chief of the armed forces—Than Shwe. Both Tin Oo and Khin Nyunt had built muchfeared intelligence empires within their respective regimes that no one at the heyday of their reign would ever have believed would collapse. In the end, both were brought down not by activists protesting their ruthless methods, or by international pressure, but by others within the junta. In both cases, the spy chief had lost political support of many lower-level officers throughout the junta, and this made it easier for them to be deposed. This is food for thought for opposition activists looking for cracks in the foundation of the new government—in Burma, no leader is safe if those around him can be convinced they would be better off if he were removed. In every bunker may hide a Burmese Brutus that could help topple the oppressive regime. The trick is finding a few good men that love their country more than they love their emperor. Or at least believe everyone would prosper more without him.
Filipino Fantasy, or Fact? Using multiple stories and a “book within a book” technique, author Miguel Syjuco weaves a tale of intrigue that provides insight into the elite of Filipino society By Hnin Wathan
rispin Salvador, the main character in Miguel Syjuco’s complex novel, is an internationally famous but controversial Filipino writer. He has written essays, memoirs, actionpacked novels and a series of children’s fantasy books. But while living a reclusive life as a professor at the Columbia University, his name is on the verge of being forgotten. So with the help of his former student and protégé, a character bearing the author’s name, Miguel Syjuco, Salvador begins an attempt to restore his reputation by writing what is meant to be his final masterpiece, “The Bridges Ablaze,” a novel exposing the corruption and sins of the Philippine’s elite class of political families. “Ilustrado” begins with the discovery of Salvador’s body floating in the Hudson River, followed by the discovery that the manuscript of his in-process masterpiece has gone missing. Speculation arises about the cause of his death: was it murder or suicide? And rumors appear in the Filipino blogosphere and literary circles: some believe in the existence of
the manuscript, while others remain skeptical. But Miguel (I will refer to the real-life author as Syjuco, and the character having his name as “Miguel”), who now works as an editorial assistant at the Paris Review, believes the manuscript does exist because he saw Salvador typing it before his death. Miguel decides to write a biography of Salvador, and as part of the process sets about investigating the cause of Salvador’s death. While searching through Salvador’s belongings, he finds a list of names written on two pages of notes. He then journeys back to the Philippines and searches for links to these names, and in an attempt to puts the pieces of his dead mentor’s life together, he visits Salvador’s childhood home, interviews his sister and aunt and explores his circle of friends and acquaintances. In Spanish, the word “ilustrados” means “enlightened ones.” During the 19th century, when Spain colonized the Philippines, the educated young Filipino men who went to Europe to study and returned with new ideas that they used in leading the Philippine revolution were called ilustrados by their countrymen.
Book Review Syjuco’s novel is about the modern ilustrados of the Philippines—an elite class with rich, powerful and influential backgrounds. Both the two main characters in the novel, Salvador and Miguel, belong to this modern class of ilustrados. Both have broken away from their family’s legacy of politicians and chosen to live, or retreat, as migrants in the United States. And so has the real-life author. Ilustrado blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, so much so that readers will find it hard to differentiate between the two. Syjuco’s decision to give one of the main characters his own name, together with the inclusion of detailed and seemingly authentic—but entirely fictional—footnotes, blog addresses and email addresses, muddies the waters between real life and authorial imagination. As a result, the reader is left wondering: Is Miguel the author himself? Is Salvador’s father the author’s own father? Readers are informed how Miguel breaks away from the expectations of his family, which includes a long line of politicians. By comparison, both of the real-life author’s parents are politicians; he fought against his father’s wish that he enter politics; and he attended Columbia University. In terms of its presentation, “Ilustrado” resembles the movie “Inception”: dreams within dreams in the case of “Inception”; fiction within fiction, and perhaps non-fiction, in the case of “Ilustrado”. Multiple stories are told simultaneously, often jumping abruptly from one to the other, using excerpts from numerous works written by characters Salvador and Miguel. Some of Salvador’s notable works include an essay about his grandfather’s role during the colonial era and the 1896 Philippine revolution, his own memoir about his life under the Japanese occupation during World War II and an interview with him in the Paris Review about his perceptions of modern-day Manila. “Ilustrado” also offers numerous philosophical musings that can ignite a reader’s thoughts, such as: “The ideology of communism was an enticing potentiality in a society whose continuous attempts at renewal merely overlaid the old structure with fresh inequalities”; “Maturity is merely accepting the tally of all the disappearing options of life”; “It’s foolish to believe that we should be entirely honest”; and “I buy books… I don’t even get to read all of them. They’re more like the best interior decoration … That’s why bookstores have become so popular these days. Guiltfree consumerism.” Despite the complexity of his presentation, in a subtle way Syjuco brilliantly reveals the inner workings of Philippine society, using many voices
from various walks of life. Representing the elite class is Lena, Salvador’s sister, who thinks that half the Filipinos can’t even write their names and should not be allowed to vote. She comments that one of Salvador’s girlfriends died after suffering a hard life because she was never baptized. Miguel’s girlfriend, Madison, writes a thesis on the environmental impact of public bathroom air hand-dryers versus recycled paper towels, and yet insists on leaving all the lights on in her apartment when she goes out. Although “Ilustrado” ends with a sudden revelation—and a twist—and each one of the many stories in this novel stands on its own—intriguing and engaging—the manner in which they are woven together results in a less successful and powerful plotline than one hopes for when first begininning the novel. Though “Ilustrado” starts out looking like a mystery thriller with the discovery of a body and a list of names, the plot holding this storyline together eventually gives way to the author’s preference for presenting events in Philippine history and providing
Multiple stories are told simultaneously, often jumping abruptly from one to the other, using excerpts from numerous works written by characters Salvador and Miguel. insight into Filipino society, especially its elite class of ilustrados, and modern-day Manila. Syjuco’s prose is sophisticated and complex; certainly not light reading. Therefore, it will only appeal to selective readers. But the right reader will appreciate this novel for its overall insight into the Philippines and its society, and for its philosophical musings and impressive display of literary skills. Miguel Syjuco’s debut novel, “Ilustrado,” won the 2008 Man Asia Literary Prize, Asia’s top literary prize, and the Palanca Grand Prize, the Philippine’s top literary prize.
Beauty Thatâ€™s More Than
Skin Deep The use of thanaka by Burmese women and children is a truly unique custom; here we uncover the background to this tradition and why it continues to thrive even today By YENI
urmese women feel great pride when they are asked to explain the golden paste covering their faces. This traditional skin conditioner has been used in Burmese society for centuries and is a cherished part of the national identity.
A young girl in Pagan wearing thanaka photo: afp
Fragrant thanaka is truly a Burmese household tradition. Every day, after taking a bath, women, children and even some men paint thanaka on their faces. Burmese people believe that thanaka bark cools their skin, tightens the pores and controls oiliness. Women apply this cream in a variety of ways ranging from a casual smear to elaborate patterns, as a light coating or a thick mask. Especially those who work in paddy fields or toil outside for long periods of time will use thanaka as a protective shield on their exposed faces and arms, believing it protects their skin against the unforgiving tropical sunshine. But wearing thanaka is also a centuries-old method of female Burmese beautification. Some women writers talk up thanaka as a traditional Burmese beauty secret. “Thanaka liquid has the properties of making the skin cool and smooth, having a refreshing and chilled fragrance, beautifying the users. It also cures pimples and acne,” notes researcher May May Aung in an online article. Thanaka is made from the bark of a tree that has numerous uses. Thanaka wood is found in handicrafts such as combs, boxes and other small trinkets, and the tree’s roots are used as an “indigenous laxative,” according to May May Aung. Traditionally, Burmese women grind the bark of the thanaka tree with a little water on a flat, circular stone called a kyauk pyin. This produces a milky yellow liquid that dries quickly when applied to the skin, forming a powdery protective covering. The history of thanaka may date back to the earliest development of the country. Some believe that the legendary queen of Peikthano, an ancient Pyu city that flourished more than 2,000 years ago, was a lover of thanaka. According to historians, the Pyu people intermarried with Sino-Tibetan migrants who later became part of the Bamar (Burman) ethnicity. The earliest written reference to thanaka in Burma is in a 14th century poem written by a consort of King Razadarit (or Rajadhirat), the monarch who successfully reunified all three Mon-speaking regions
Burmese girls in Rangoon participate in a thanakagrinding competition during the traditonal Thingyan New Yearâ€™s festival in April. photo: REUTERS
of southern Burma. He ruled from 1384 to 1422 and fended off major assaults by the Burmese-speaking northern Kingdom of Ava (Innwa). According to the authoritative book Myanma Thanaka, written by Thar Hla in 1974, the revered novice monk and poet Shin Maha Ratthasara, who lived from 1486 to 1529, also referred to thanaka in his work. Further evidence of the antiquity of thanaka came following the destruction of the Shwemadaw Pagoda in Pegu, an ancient city located 76 km (47 miles) northeast of Rangoon, in the earthquake of 1930. Amongst the ruins was found a kyauk pyin used by Princess Razadatukalya. She was the eldest daughter of King Bayintnaung, who assembled the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia and reigned from 1551 to 1581. The valuable antique stone was later donated to the pagoda. Nowadays, thanks to modern scientific methods, thanaka is available as either a thick cream or a powder, making it easier to use. There are at least 200 brands in Nyaungbinlay Plaza, one of the biggest consumer markets in Rangoon. The best-selling brands are Shwepyinan, Shwebo Minthamee, Daw Thi, Taunggyi Maukmae, Natmimae, Phoe Wa, Papawaddy, Sanda and Sauntawku. Traders who sell thanaka estimate that daily sales of the bark paste are worth many millions of kyat. They also say that many of the thanaka products sold in the market lack the official Ministry of Health stamp of approval. Vendors claim that while user-friendly cosmetic products are more convenient, many Burmese women remain loyal to the traditional organic thanaka that has been used for generations because of concerns about the level of purity in the newer products. “Organic thanaka is more expensive, but it really gives you a cooling sensation and protects your skin from arid weather. Ready-made versions are cheap but I’ve heard they are mixed up with soil, so I wouldn’t dare to use them,” said Aye Mya Kyi, a retailer at Nyaungbinlay Plaza. The scientific name of the thanaka plant is Limonia acidissima. The tall, slow-growing tree is native to South and Southeast Asia and can grow
on dry, rocky soil in areas without plentiful water. While other nations use its bark, leaves, root, fruits and gum for medicinal and other purposes, only the Burmese wear thanaka as a daily cosmetic and skin conditioner. Burmese people believe that the best thanaka plants are naturally slow-growing, taking three to 10 years for the trunk to reach two inches in diameter. Due to increasing demand and a dearth of thanaka trees in natural forests, privately owned thanaka plantations and seedling-selling businesses are becoming more common in the Burmese dry-zone, particularly in villages around Yesagyo, Myaing and Shinmataung townships in Magway Division. Around 200 thanaka trees can be planted on an acre of land,
Women sell thanaka wood near Kyaik-Khauk pagoda in Tanlyin Township, near Rangoon. photo: REUTERS
along with seasonal vegetables such as beans and sesame, according to farmers. The thanaka tree is a perennial that becomes mature enough to put on the market after three to seven years of growth. Expert growers say that great care is needed when the tree is young due to its vulnerability to insect attack. They say that this, along with the normal expenses of the time-consuming plantation business, makes it is difficult to make much profit. Since 2006, thanaka has been approved for export, in particular targeting Burmese communities living abroad and for body scrubs in some spas in Thailand. But Burmese thanaka farmers say that the increased export prices do little to benefit them.
“The agents from companies pay us in kyat, and tell us that they are the only ones who can export it abroad, so we feel exploited,” said Daw Than, a thanaka grower at Yesagyo. “We know thanaka is a good business but the growers don’t make the money. They are only just getting by.” In the market, organic thanaka logs from the Shinmataung area of Yesagyo Township in Pakokku District, Magway Division are the most expensive. A log of 10-20cm in length is worth around 3,0008,000 kyat (US $4.00-10.70) while a ready-made product can cost 500 kyat ($0.67). Without doubt, thanaka in its natural state is, as the traders say, “pricey.” Than Oo, a thanaka trader, said that the scarcity of wild thanaka trees, increasing costs in thanaka farming and rising transportation fees are the main causes of a price peak in the business. “I bought thanaka from Yesagyo and sold it wholesale in Rangoon for 3,000 kyat ($4.00) per log, but Rangoon retailers will sell it for 5,000 kyat ($6.70) per log,” he said. An old Asian proverb says that the world’s most beautiful women have a Thai smile, Indian eyes and Burmese skin. Perhaps the Burmese have thanaka to thank for the glowing reputation of their complexion.
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“To our undying friendship.”
illustrations: harn lay/the irrawaddy