The Teacher and the Princess: Dissidence in Burma

BY HUW POHLNER
Jul 15, 2010

In this endless wash of global current affairs and political change, may we not forget Burma.

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Monks protesting against military dictatorship.

Monks protesting against military dictatorship

Photo credit: racoles on Flickr

 

I travelled to Burma with a friend for the first time this past summer, visiting the country as an inquisitive tourist with a layperson’s knowledge of its history and no Burmese language skills to speak of. Never before have I experienced a place of such powerful contrasts and reckless humanity.

Below are just two of the stories told to me by individuals whom I was fortunate enough to meet along the way. Their personal histories form passages in the history of the Burmese and minority struggles against oppression and violence; struggles that have been carried out by people of diverse backgrounds for far too many years. I will attempt to recount details of their stories as accurately as I can.

 

Brian, the English teacher

In a small town about five hours out of Yangon, we were walking along a main street on a sweaty afternoon when a young man pulled up beside us on the obligatory Chinese scooter. He explained that he taught English in the town and rarely had an opportunity to speak in his second tongue to foreigners. Soon we were all sitting round a table in a sleepy restaurant eating rich Indian curries. Brian (not his real name) did most of the talking and wasted no time before plunging into a frank and unforgiving account of his time spent abroad as a labourer in Thailand and Malaysia.

In order to gain a passport and visa to leave Burma, Brian spent thousands of US dollars in bribes for various government officials, the approval of whom was required to fulfill the requirements of his passport application. Government taxes allegedly owed by close and distant relatives needed to be paid before Brian would be allowed to leave the country.

These hurdles eventually surmounted, Brian arrived in Bangkok to start work in a factory job that he had arranged from Burma. He touched down on a Saturday and was illegally held by Thai airport authorities despite having paid copious sums of money to buy the right to legitimately leave the country of his birth. Suspicious of his claims of secure employment, the Thais refused to allow Brian to leave the airport, restricting his movement for 48 hours until his new boss came to the airport on Monday to vouch for Brian’s claims.

Later moving to Kuala Lumpur from Bangkok, Brian again worked in a factory, labouring long hours with hundreds of other migrant workers for low wages. In Malaysia in 2007, Brian told us, domestic events in Burma sparked violent riots at the offices of the Burmese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The Embassy was torched in the midst of the unrest as angry Burmese migrants collectively protested the grave injustices being perpetrated against their countrymen and women back home.

(Ironically, according to Brian, the embassy had also been set alight by its own employees at some point during his residence in Malaysia to destroy evidence of malfeasance when a high-ranking government official was due to pay an inspection visit to the offices.) Now back in his hometown, Brian is working to build a life for himself and his partner in a country he loves ruled by a dictator he despises. Tellingly, the English “reader” that Brian whipped out in the restaurant to show us, which he presumably carried around with him regularly, was a hefty tome chronicling the lives and feats of the world’s dictators. Brian gestured at General Than Shwe’s mugshot on the dust jacket with a mischievous grin.

 

 

Fern, the Shan princess

In the Shan State town of Hsipaw, at the end of a dirt road in a very quiet part of town, is the so-called “Shan Palace”, former residence of Shan saopha (prince) Sao Kya Seng, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances during the 1962 military coup, and now maintained by his nephew, Hkun Oo Kya (Donald) and Donald’s wife, Sao Zarm Phong (Fern).

 

 

shan state palace

Shan State Palace, Hsipaw, Myanmar

Photo credit: puppyeatworld on Flickr

 

Donald has continued the political activities of his uncle and was fortunate not to be arrested during a meeting of Shan political leaders in early 2005, a meeting he was supposed to attend, where several prominent Shan figures were detained, including Donald’s younger brother, Hkun Tun Oo, leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).

However, Donald’s luck did not last and he was arrested in August 2005, on trumped up charges of defamation and violation of the Library and Museum Law. Both charges stem from Donald and Fern’s practice of inviting foreigners into their residence to discuss Shan history, life in Burma and the realities of the junta’s rule – a practice pursued for many years without complaint from the authorities. That some visitors gave small donations for the upkeep of the sprawling property was said to contravene laws against operating as an unregistered tourist guide and accepting money for illegal museum services.

The greater irony is that the charge of defamation is said to have been justified by messages written in Donald and Fern’s guestbook, in which tourists thank the couple for telling them “the truth”. In a real-world Orwellian Burma, it seems that famous triumvirate of fictional propaganda, “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,” can be enhanced with the addition of a fourth slogan: truth is lies. This is not 1984; it is 2010.