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Inside Burma: A prison of silence

On the eve of elections, fear and mistrust pervade the streets in Burma.

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.