The first time I went to Burma was in 1998, traveling on a tourist visa despite the fact that I was intending to conduct research about the country's bloody 1988 democracy protests. An old friend had set up interviews for me, as well as a program of visits to tourist spots (where I was to wear loud Hawaiian shirts to assure authorities that I really was just a tourist). Establishing that I was a tourist, he said, was essential—not for my safety, but for the well-being of the brave women and men who agreed to talk to me. And then he told me the following story:
All of the universities in Burma had been closed for several years. Students are an important political force in Burmese society, and when things got restive, the soldiers simply shut down the campuses and sent everyone home. In this way, the decades following 1988 produced lost generation after lost generation—young people who came of age when schools were closed, students who went to jail and remained there for decades, and in consequence of both, a society without a reliable strata of educated youth.
"Subversive" Discussion In those moments, when schools were closed, teachers often gathered groups of young people and tried, outside the confines of any formal educational institution, to teach them, hoping in this way to strike some small blow for knowledge and enlightenment. One such student, my friend told me, had undertaken to write a history of the Burmese student union in the last years of the parliamentary period (before, that is, Ne Win’s dictatorship came to power in 1962). The key players in that movement were then in their late 70s and 80s, and the chance to get a full history of the period was fast drawing to a close. Under the teacher’s supervision, the student interviewed the old student union officials, and wrote a document with the heft and seriousness of an MA thesis. And then, he passed it around to the various informants (18, in all) to make sure that he got the facts straight. When they went to prison, it was for engaging in subversive and seditious discussion. The student and teacher went for producing the document. Seventeen of the 18 informants went because they read the document—that is, consumed what was judged to be traitorous writing. The 18th man was blind, and so never set eyes on the document. Rather, the person who read the work aloud to him went to jail. Nobody received less than 20 years, and most could never realistically hope to step outside the prison walls again.
Grave Risks It was a cautionary tale, one my friend passed on to impress upon me the grave risks that my informants would take to tell me their stories. I needed to be utterly committed to their safety and security: The punishment for political talk, once discovered, was devastating and certain. I would be forced to leave Burma, but I would be safe; my Burmese friends would surrender their freedom. It was as heavy a burden as I’ve ever carried, and I left the country greatly relieved to have it seemed to me than (as it does now) to have placed nobody in harm’s way.
Loosening Government Controls The story came back to me this past week, when news broke that the government of Myanmar (as I am now willing to call the former Burma) announced that it would abolish censorship restrictions on private writings. There are still government controls for some written work, and a thousand other ways in which Myanmar can slip back into authoritarian rule. Insurgency and ethnic violence are but the most obvious of these proximate dangers. Remaining economic sanctions are an important obstacle to democracy and development that should fall sooner rather than later. But hardly a week has passed in these last six months without producing some new evidence of a transition gathering steam. As planks supporting the old dictatorship fall, new structures of representative government and more robust rights and freedoms have risen.
And so I was drawn to think about the Burma of 1998, and the heavy weight of censorship and brutality it pressed upon its people. I returned to Myanmar in early July, and will be back in September. It is not yet utterly remade, neither fully free nor totally safe. But it is different, and changing and a place in which to vest some hope. And when in July I felt for the heaviness of my first visit, I didn’t feel a thing.
Read more about Vince Boudreau and our other contributors here.