Inside Burma: A prison of silence

Editor's note: On Sunday, Burma, which is officially recognized as Myanmar, will hold its first general election in two decades. But with the main opposition party boycotting the vote, few political observers and human rights advocates believe the process will affect any change in the country. In this special report, GlobalPost goes inside Burma and the refugee camps along the Thai border to give voice to civilians who are often silenced under a repressive regime.

YANGON, Myanmar — “There is a mistrust in Burma. It is hard for people to tell you their real feelings because their life is in danger. They are not even loyal to themselves.”

A middle-aged Burmese man quietly told me this to explain the difficulties of reporting inside his country. “We are already in prison, a prison of silence,” he said.

Since a 1962 coup, the military-dominated government has held power in Burma, which is now called Myanmar. With the threat of imprisonment it has created a “prison of silence” by limiting freedom of expression and repressing human rights. 

Before leaving for Burma, a young Burmese man now living outside the country warned me that, “there are ears in public.” He said the government is listening and watching for any hint of dissention.

Traveling on a tourist visa, I was careful what I talked about with people on the street. Conversations were about everyday life, not politics. People kept many of their thoughts and feelings private, which helps the military leaders keep the spotlight off of their brutal regime.

A young college graduate I interviewed in Burma said that human rights were among the topics that he and friends talked about. He contacted me afterward, three times, to make sure that I would not use his quotes.

People I met through an introduction from a mutual friend would feel free to talk, but only off the record if it involved any mention of the government. This was understandable given what they would face for speaking out.

In 2008 Zarganar, a popular Burmese comedian was arrested and sentenced to 59 years (later reduced to 35 years). His offense was criticizing the government’s slow response to Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the Irrawaddy Delta.

The fear that is created by the regime, coupled with the severe restrictions put on journalists, make reporting inside Burma difficult. The international journalism watchdog, Reporters San Frontieres, recently listed Burma as one of the 10 worst countries in the world to work as a journalist. They stated, “Freedom is not allowed any space in Burma ... and the rare attempts to provide news or information are met with imprisonment and forced labor.”

As I traveled around the country I saw a quiet resilience among the Burmese. Many were reluctantly resigned to their plight; they have learned the limits to their freedom and they have learned to work around them.

Inside Burma, life’s daily struggle is hard, so thoughts of making a change in government are secondary. It is a country that is resource rich with gas and oil reserves but where one-third of the population lives in poverty. It is estimated that the GDP per capita is less than $500, ranking it among the lowest in the world.

Ninety percent of the population is Buddhist and the influence of Buddhism is immense throughout society. Stunning Buddhist pagodas dot the cities and countryside, every morning Buddhist monks and nuns are seen on the streets seeking alms from homes and businesses. Most children at some point will spend up to a year as a novice in a Buddhist monastery.

Some people use the Buddhist doctrine of karma to explain the political situation, believing that the military leaders must have been well-behaved in their past lives, creating good karma to achieve this level of power. But one Yangon resident described the regime’s belief system this way, “They don’t believe in the rules of karma, they believe in the rules of the jungle.”

On Sunday, Burma will hold its national election. There is concern that the elections are just for show and international groups have called for election observers.

Burma election officials have announced that they will not allow foreign observers and international media into the country for the election. Thein Soe, Burma election commission chairman, said there was no need for election monitors because "our country has a lot of experience in elections. We are holding the election for this country, it’s not for other countries."

This will be the second election held since the military-dominated government seized power in 1962. The only other election was in 1990 and the election results were ignored by the military regime when the National League for Democracy won 80 percent of the parliament's seats.

David Scott Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said "the elections are about transforming and solidifying military rule with a civilian front-parliament. They are about as far from democracy as can be imagined. This is the Burmese military changing everything just a little in order to keep everything just the same.”

When asked how the Burmese view these elections, he said, “Most Burmese view the elections with apathy and apprehension, the elections have very little to do with them and more to do with elite games: by the military, their cronies and the handful of genuine democrats who are running and have been permitted to participate. The elections have excluded large parts of the Burmese, but not all of them. Yet if this is enough to express hope, then it's hope based on very flimsy expectations.”

One college-age Burmese citizen recently told me, “The election is a step taken by the military government to legitimize itself as an elected body. I don't have any personal interest in it.”

When asked who will vote he replied, “Those who are civil servants will surely have to vote for the pro-government parties and also people who are pressured. But I don't see any public enthusiasm as in the 1990 election and many people do not look forward to real positive change.”

“What Burma needs is not an election, but a revolution by the people,” he added.

On the worn streets of the capital other residents are similarly pessimistic. They talked about “growing up in fear” and wondered what they could do after 50 years of a corrupt and repressive military regime.

“We wait for change, but everybody is waiting for someone to do something,” one Burmese woman said. Another stated that many in the country are “waiting for karma.” But waiting for karma in Burma might involve more patience than perhaps even the Buddha had.