“If I go home, they will detain me,” says a Burmese exchange student. Terrified of state run information and spy networks, the student has asked not only that his name not be printed, but that even the country where he is studying remain secret.
“I have heard from other students. They meet you at the airport and detain you for about five to eight days. During that time, they question you about where you were, who you were with, what you did, while you were outside the country” said the student, who we will refer to as Chat. “If they found out you did something wrong, you may go to prison, or worse. One of my friends went home for semester break. He was arrested at the airport, and now, no one knows where he is. Even if they release you back to your family, they won’t let you out of the country again to finish your education.”
Freedom of movement is a right which the regime disallows the common citizen.
“Before, if we went home for semester holidays, we had to turn in our passport. We need special documents to travel within our country, just as you would need if you were crossing international borders.”
“Some students don’t even get a passport. They get a travel document with the name of one university and the address of one apartment. They can only go to their school, and cannot change the apartment. The regime finds out what day classes finish, and they want you to come back the same day. One of my friends missed the defense of his dissertation because at the last minute, the university postponed it till the following Monday. The regime said he had to come back on the day originally planned, or they would fine him thousands of dollars per day of overstay.”
“Obviously, we are very poor. If we can’t pay the fine, we have to stay in jail. So, he went back to Burma, and never received his diploma.”
The military regime which runs Myanmar (formerly called Burma), is one of the most paranoid in the world, utilizing a wide network of informants to keep track of the activity of its citizens.
“They have people in every neighborhood who spy. They will listen to your conversations and if you say anything against the regime, they turn you in. Later, you will be arrested.”
Even outside of the country, the government keeps its citizens under surveillance.
“Along side the pro-democracy students studying in (name of country omitted) there are also several government plants. They never participate in conversations or discussions in class, for fear of saying the wrong thing. When the teachers call on them, they just say I don’t know, or I have no opinion. But then, they report back to Burmese authority what the other Burmese students said. If we say anything which is anti-regime or pro-democracy, it could mean trouble for us or our families.”
Beyond the physical spies, according to Chat, the government also uses satellite photography and other modern technology as tools of repression.
“They clip photos out of foreign newspapers to see which overseas Burmese participated in protests. They also keep track of exile organizations and will know if we join or even meet with one of these dissident groups.”
Recently, it was announced that due to the protests, the internet has been turned off in Burma. But, even in the best of times, the government paranoia results in a near complete crack down on the flow of information.
“We have internet cafes” explains Chat. “But they are very expensive. Most people are so poor they can’t afford to use them. Sometimes, when you are using the internet and you want to download a document, a warning comes up, and you have to press your thumb against a finger print censor, so the government will know who was downloading what.”
Email is also censored.
“There is only one server in Burma, and it is owned by the government. When I receive email from inside of Burma, it takes at least one day. Every single email has to be read and approved by the government, before it can be delivered. When I open email from home, there are always pieces missing. And when I write, I am even afraid to say where I am or who I am seeing, because then the government will know.”
There is no freedom of the press and the state controls all the media. For the most part Burma is nearly as airtight as North Korea, but some news does seep in.
“If you speak English, you can tune in to the Voice of America radio. The government has no way of blocking the radio transmissions, but you have to turn down the volume. If your neighbors know that you are listening to VOA they may turn you in.”
Freedom of speech is another distant dream for the Burmese. In the wake of the September protests, an outspoken Burmese comedian, Zarganar was arrested for criticizing the regime. His most famous joke is. “I had to travel all the way to India to see the dentist because in Burma, it is illegal to open your mouth.”
Chat said that Zarganar is a hero to the people. “He says so many things about the government, but he gets away with it, because he is so famous. Every few years they arrest him and beat him. But they always have to release him because he is so popular. I really love him.”
For years, Burma’s ethnic minority peoples have been the victims of genocide, subjected to murder, torture, capture, rape, and slave labor. These atrocities occurred in remote jungle provinces, far from the capitol. Obviously, they were not reported on state run TV, but through the informal information networks, word still reached the pro-democracy camps in Yangon.
“We knew about the war on the tribal people. Many refugees come to Yangon seeking work as laborers. I have friends from various tribes. They told us their story, and we were so sad. But what could we do? It was good that we knew about there suffering, but how could we help? We could not even help ourselves.”
Chat believes that the government crackdown, following the September protests will help to galvanize the two freedom movements.
“Now the tribal people understand that life is not easy for ethnic Burmese either. And, ethnic Burmese have felt the same fear as the tribal people. We have a common enemy in the military regime.”
Last month, the world was shocked to see the regime arresting monks who lead the people in a peaceful pro-democracy protest. Official reports by the Burmese government were though to have downplayed the number of arrests and executions. But, through informal information sources, neighbors whispering to trusted friends, information spread through Burma and beyond, that the numbers were far higher and the abuse far more brutal than official reports would have the world believe.
“They beat the monks.” Said Chat, with tears in his eyes. “They hit them in the head with their rifles. There was blood on the monastery floor.”
In Burma, even young people are extremely devout. The image of a monk being disrespected, let alone beaten or murdered is a shocking horror, which goes against thousands of years of Burmese cultural norms.
“I think even inside the army the government lost support when people found out what happened to the monks.”
According to another anonymous source, a foreign military officer who gathers intelligence on Burma, one of the Burmese brigade commanders, a man who had always been loyal to the regime, drew the line at injuring the monks. When the orders came down, he took his family, and escaped over the border.
With all of their guns, police, and military, it is interesting that the military junta fears comedians, students, and monks the most.
“It was students who lead the pro-democracy uprisings in 1988. Most young kids didn’t even know about that. It has been erased from our history. Suddenly, after what happened last month, they understood what their parents had told them. And they believed.”
Part of the fallout from the 1988 uprising was a further tightening of the regime’s grip on its people. Burmese were denied the right of assembly.
“They even changed the universities” says Chat. “All student organizations, clubs, and unions were banned.”
In fact, they even tried to prevent students from meeting each other in school.
“They began distance learning programs. This way students wouldn’t come to the campus and meet other students.”
Burma, a former British colony, had one of the best educational systems in Southeast Asia. The curriculum was largely taught in English and mirrored the British school system. During one of the many government crackdowns, the English language was more or less stricken from the program and a government-controlled curriculum was taught. The quality of education plummeted as a result.
“Foreign trained professors were no longer trusted, so they were forced to resign. The distance learning programs were a joke. I earned my BA in thirty days and I didn’t learn anything. Some government officials earned their doctorate, and they know even less. But they had the money to pay the tuition fees.”
Approaching the final year of his studies, Chat has no intention of returning home until he graduates.
“Burmese people are kind, peaceful people. We want what everyone else wants, to have freedom of choice and democracy. We want information. We want the freedom to read books.”
Chat said that when he was attending school, as a youngster, the books in the library were strictly off limits.
“They were locked behind glass. We were never allowed to read them. They were there to be shown to the generals when they came to inspect our school.”
According to Chat, everything done by the junta is for show.
“They even had trees they would plant the night before a general came. After he left, they would dig them up and replant them at the next place he was visiting.” Chat shook his head, “When will the world help us? They think this is a new problem, but we have been suffering for decades. Most people hate the government but we are afraid to do anything. They know who we are, and they will hurt our family.”
Asked what his greatest dream in life would be, Chat answered without hesitation.
“I want to vote.”