By Jürgen Kremb in Burma
The residents of Pakokku have always lived on the brink of starvation. Indeed, the city has earned the dubious distinction as Burma's "rice cemetery." Otherwise, this city at the confluence of the Irawaddy and Chindwin Rivers has been a relative unknown until recently. But its anonymity is now a thing of the past.
"One day perhaps Pakokku will go down in the history books as the place where the fight for democracy began," says the old monk. "That, at least, is our dream." Then he looks around carefully. "Let's talk where we won't be observed. Otherwise I'll go to prison."
Foreigners have always been a rare sight in Pakokku, and that is especially true now. This was the city where the police's brutal treatment of protesting Buddhist monks in early September triggered a wave of demonstrations that eventually swept across the entire country. Not surprisingly, the elderly monk -- influential in one of the city's Buddhist monasteries -- is unwilling to be identified in print. Being seen in the company of foreigners would pose serious problems for him.
Burma's generals are firmly in control of the country once again. The mere act of listening to a foreign radio station is enough to land a Burmese citizen in prison. Government militias are still dragging regime critics and alleged demonstrators from their homes at night. Pakokku's three largest monasteries have become military camps, with parked trucks filling the spaces between the monks' quarters. The city's residents look sick and emaciated, and the city itself is little more than a poorhouse today. The once-magnificent steps leading up to the Shweguni Temple have been destroyed. Neighboring residents have removed stones from the structure to build fire pits, where they cook pancakes made of inexpensive rice meal. Few can afford rice.
Tensions began rising in the city in mid-August, when the government raised the price of gasoline overnight. Many people could no longer travel to work because the fuel hike led to a drastic increase in bus fares. "At first the monks took to the streets merely because they were hungry," says the monk.
Pakokku is second only to Mandalay as the country's most important religious center. The novices who come to its monasteries are generally from Chin State, a mountainous region in the country's far west. The Chin people are bitterly poor, and the region is home to local rebels who have long been fighting the military government.
In an effort to intimidate local residents, the government decided to make an example out of Pakokku. Police units entered the city, tied young monks in their red robes to lamp posts and beat them until they were bloody. "It was a violation of everything that is holy in our country," says the elderly monk.
What happened next -- the formation of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, the uprising in the country's commercial capital and largest city Yangon, the massacres and the arrests -- shook the world. How many victims the uprising claimed will likely never be known. The "State Peace and Development Council," as the junta calls itself, claimed that there were 10 dead and about 3,000 arrested. The only thing that is certain about these statistics is that the real number will never be known. On the same day the country's military leaders released the figures, 79 bodies of "unknowns" were cremated at the Yangon crematorium.
United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari traveled to six Asian capitals last week in an effort to convince neighboring countries to exert enough pressure on the 74-year-old junta leader, Than Shwe, to enter into talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, 62, the opposition leader who remains under house arrest. Gambari, though, was largely unsuccessful. Thailand, currently under military rule itself, is loath to get involved. China, although it voted for a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Burmese generals, has declared the resolution of the conflict Burma's "internal affair." India, the country's big democratic neighbor, remains reserved, anxious not to harm economic relations. Gambari himself was granted permission on Tuesday to see for himself what the situation is inside Burma and will be traveling there in early November.
And there are many questions that remain unanswered. Why the sudden price hikes? Didn't Than Shwe's spies let him know that the people are already starving? And why this brutality against the monks? Was Than Shwe truly convinced that the deeply religious Burmese people would forgive him the torture and killing of monks? What were the country's military rulers thinking in Naypyidaw, the newly constructed capital to which the junta withdrew in 2005?
Other than the generals, only 10 people in Burma know the answers to these questions. They are the members of an expert council of Yangon's chamber of commerce and industry. When the generals are unsure of what to do next, they consult the council. This panel of wise men includes two former cabinet ministers, as well as businessmen and scientists. Only one member of the group ignores the government's strict ban on talking to journalists.
He is a fairly affluent, retired businessman. "What else can they do to me? I am an old man and a patriot," he says. Nevertheless, caution is advised in a country where entire families can be arrested for one family member's supposed infractions. For this reason, the man refers to himself, during a meeting in a hotel room, as Maung Ye, or "Mister Right."
"The move to Naypyidaw marked the beginning of the end of the regime," Maung Ye says. The construction of the junta's jungle hideout consumed a sum equal to several annual budgets in this country of 57 million people, he points out. Moreover, to keep the government officials -- many of whom were forced to move -- in good spirits, the generals had to raise their salaries. Lower-ranking bureaucrats received a fivefold increase, while senior officials gave themselves a 1,200 percent pay hike.
Under Tight Wraps
In April 2006, the junta asked the council to provide it with recommendations on whether it could recoup its exorbitant personnel costs through gasoline prices. The council turned down the request, but the junta decided to go ahead with the plan anyway. Mister Right says that the experience taught him two things: "The generals couldn't care less about the condition of the country, and there are no consultations within the leadership, just the commands of dictator Than Shwe," he says.
"The country is completely broke," he says. "The only option now is a crash landing." All economic indicators suggest that Burma will face even more hunger and more impoverishment. An average family today already spends more than 70 percent of its meager income -- which is often no more than the equivalent $1 a day -- on food alone. Incomes are dropping and estimates put inflation at more than 90 percent. But there are no exact figures: The government has kept economic statistics under tight wraps since 2001.
The leadership, on the other hand, lines its pockets by doling out favors to its cronies and tightening the supply of goods. Junta leader Than Shwe and his deputy Maung Aye, for example, have complete control the importation of motor vehicles, driving up the market value of a 20-year-old car to an astronomical $50,000. The allotment of Internet and mobile phone connections is much the same story. In many cases, the wives of cabinet ministers, their drivers, officers and businesspeople loyal to the junta receive several mobile phone numbers, which they then resell or rent out at high prices.
Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said two weeks ago that the country is ruled by "rather dumb generals." It is a sentiment supported by facts on the ground. Concepts like financial management, tax policy, and fighting epidemics and poverty are like a foreign language to the officers. "There is no one who is capable of ruling the country according to halfway modern methods," says Mister Right, the member of the expert council. Fearing student protests, the junta closed the country's universities for years. "If there were a change in government, we would have to place the country under the guardianship of the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund for years," says Mister Right.
The generals, on the other hand, hope that neighboring countries will bail them out. This is already happening in Mandalay, 600 kilometers (373 miles) north of Yangon. Despite sanctions imposed by the West, the city of one million inhabitants is experiencing a modest economic boom.
'Before an Abyss'
Businesspeople from China congregate at the city's Great Wall Hotel. Two million Chinese have settled in Burma in recent years. Ma Danxiong, 32, sells inexpensive motorbikes and Chinese-made electronics, and he also operates a restaurant. He has built an opulent house for himself on Mandalay's 43rd Street. Like most of his fellow Chinese, he wears the longyi, the sarong worn by Burmese men, and has acquired Burmese citizenship. "You can buy a passport for cash," he says. Ma does his business in Chinese yuan rather than dollars or the country's national currency, the kyat. What attracts Ma to Mandalay, he says, are the city's "calm and stability."
To preserve this calm, the regime's thugs acted more quickly and brutally in Mandalay than in any other part of the country. In the night of Sep. 25, when monks were still taking to the streets in Yangon, agents from the country's intelligence service arrested Par Par Lay, a comedian with the group "Moustache Brothers" who had been a regime critic for years.
Police then occupied Mandalay's main monasteries. When the monks refused to leave their quarters, the officers threatened to burn them down.
Ludu Daw Ahmar, the grande dame of Burmese literature, is the only dissident still at large. At 91, she is apparently too old to be locked up. Nevertheless, five regime spies loiter near the entrances to her house on 84th street. She sits in a chair in front of shelves containing the more than 100 books she has written. Her voice is feeble, but she has retained her shrewdness and fighting spirit.
"This system stands before an abyss," she says. "But we can only push it off if we take possession of their weapons. They will not give up before then."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan