When I arrived in Rangoon in 2008, I felt as though I stepped into the pages of a forgotten colonial story within a musty old book. As I looked around Rangoon on my daily walks outward from central Rangoon, I saw the city was fully developed but neglected and abused by a lack of electricity and repair. Staunch British colonial architecture often sat behind rusted barbed wired fence pinched by wild-grown landscape and tall cackled trees. Absent in the decayed city was an overabundance of cars on the streets. Generators on curbsides everywhere belched exhaust into sweet jasmine air and shot power into buildings. Still, most people had no generators, and for them, the Dictatorship doled out stingy amounts of current late at night, usually between one to five in the morning. Burma’s people lived without basic necessities everyone in the modern world took for granted. Life moved slowly among street markets and sidewalk teashops that edged into the road, occasionally across two full lanes. Specialized markets appeared once or twice a week, such as the infamous Thieves Market on Shwe Bon Tar Street, where you could bargain for unique items with your hands protecting your own bag or pockets.
Information from outside Burma was then often spread through conversations and rumors. Broadcasts of international media were received by illegal satellite dishes, but the Dictatorship cut signals when news about Aung San Suu Kyi or Burma appeared. Most people used transistor radios at night to listen to Voice of America or Radio Free Asia. Mobile communications were terrible. If you had the extra cash and wanted a mobile phone, the cost was around thirty thousand Kyat or roughly thirty US dollars. A SIM card to go with it, however, cost over five million Kyat.
One could easily imagine the Burmese people were spiritually broken from the dictatorship’s oppressive habits. No doubt some were. In Burma, I saw how people lived inside a dystopian nightmare in which General Aung San’s request that the Burmese develop “discipline” as a guiding cultural trait was twisted by the Dictatorship into a brutal concept that actually preceded its rule. The Colonial British practiced “discipline” with totalitarianism as explained so well by none better than George Orwell, who served the British Empire in Burma as a policeman. From Orwell’s days until even as late as 2011, no one was safe from undercover police, military intelligence, and citizen informants. An utterance overheard by the wrong person could lead to harassment by a conniving local street or area boss seeking tea-money in exchange for silence, or a worse outcome if one seemed obtuse or apparently fearful. Without electronic surveillance, privacy was snatched away by word of mouth or prying eyes noticing you pass – your trail was easily traced no matter where you went. Notes on you were kept. Your movement was monitored rather than digitally recorded as it is today; it just took more time for police to learn your habits then, and inside pre-reform Burma time was an abstract concept. If you stepped out of line politically at any point in your life, years later, at any time, you could be investigated by dutiful authorities who would make no mistake sizing you up.
Once I got past my newness as a stranger in a strange land and past the requisite fawning period over everything new and unusual to me, I began to see the multiple layers of life and living habits in Rangoon. So rare was it to meet a non-tourist foreigner to most locals to talk with for an extended period, it soon became evident to me that when local people got comfortable with me, they could barely contain their anger about the dictatorship and their need to tell me something about their life. More importantly, many people I met needed to talk about the horrors and hardships of living under the world’s most brutal military dictatorship in modern history.
By January 2010, as an English Language Fellow under the US State Department’s English Language Programs, while at the US Embassy sponsored school in Rangoon, called the American Center, I was well grounded in Burma. I was accustomed to the local language, social nuances, and cultural norms as much as I could be. I was also well versed in local politics, for an outsider.
The American Center on Tawin Street in 2010 was a sort of ground zero for the Burma democracy movement in Rangoon. It was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural hotbed of intrigue complete with spies from various military and police agencies. Most of the students were political, faith, and social activists, many were ex-political prisoners or from political families, and a few claimed to be apolitical. Most students from outside Rangoon were granted from political, cultural, and religious organizations, and finally, there were the sons and daughters of the military and crony classes. The American Center Library was busy and open to anyone with a library card. Dozens of patrons visited the library each day. I taught language and literature classes and quietly taught journalism students in an old basement level broom and file cabinet closet that we converted into our office space. I volunteered when requested at every opportunity and gave as much time as I had to the students. It was the sort of experience for a serious and genuinely dedicated teacher that one would be thankful to have.
One day a small group of students who formed the Cultural Impact Studies Club asked me to help them. Zin Mar Aung, a 2012 Woman of Courage Award recipient and a current Parliament member, said to me inside a dampened taxi ride one rain-soaked night, “We want you to help us help our people.” All I could say is, “Of course, if I can,” and just like that, I jumped into the labyrinthine rabbit hole of the Burmese underground Democracy movement with only one condition. First, they could not tell anyone I existed because I knew they would be seen by other locals and authorities as controlled by a foreigner, which was certainly never the case. I adopted several Burmese names for various reasons, and I was prepared to be detained or deported at any moment every day for the next two years. The dutiful students kept a spotlight off of me so well that on the day my journalism students released the final issue of a yearlong monthly journal to the American Center Library, the Head Librarian, Daw Myat San, asked me, “Who is U Thiha?” U Thiha wrote a farewell piece for the final issue and was always listed as one of the co-editors. I told her with a satisfied grin, “I thought you always knew, it’s me.” We had a good laugh. Such was the nature of how people in Burma shifted names.
Upon joining the Cultural Impact Studies Club, I began two years filled with enlightenment, intrigue, tumult, observation, self-learning, and fulfillment. I quickly learned just how brave my students were. They laughed at the idea of going back to prison since they’d all been there for years. Such was the spirit of ex-political prisoners in Burma. Upon release from prison, political prisoners chose to resume their work as political activists or remain an activist but outside of political currents. They all followed the teaching of Aung San Suu Kyi and lived free from fear. We held Poetry of Witness and Art of Witness events, which were illegal public events attended by hundreds of people each time. Poets read poems for which they had been imprisoned for reading years earlier, and ex-political prisoners displayed art made while in prison even when such a display was also a crime. Another time we held a grand welcoming party for newly released political prisoners at the American Center with the help of a courageous Public Affairs Officer, Adrienne Nutzman. Outside the American Center gate, as many as fifty journalists protested because they were denied entry. We started a Self-Help Group for Ex-Political Prisoners that offered counseling and humanitarian assistance, the Yangon School of Political Science, the I-Nature environmental group, and the list grows longer though I’ll end it there. It was a glorious time, and we accomplished much despite the devious efforts at sabotage by a non compos mentis American Center Director who actions were eerily similar to the Burmese Special Branch police.
The Cultural Impact Studies Club was led mainly by Zin Mar Aung with Myo Aung Htwe and Ko Bo Bo. Myo was sentenced to serve life in prison at sixteen years old for unknowingly standing near a broken handgun during a protest in 1988. Ko Bo Bo, an Army Colonel’s son, saw his dominos fall in 1988 when his curiosity to see a protest got him arrested during the mayhem, from then began his road toward several periods of imprisonment for his commitment to making Burma free. Among others who were ever-present was Ko Sein, a brave man who now leads the Peoples Alliance for Credible Elections.
Suu Kyi Didn’t Lose Her Halo
By June of 2011, all was quiet. There was little or no noticeable progress regarding Burma’s political situation or Aung San Suu Kyi’s future. In June, the Cultural Impact Studies Club held a birthday party for Suu Kyi in the secure family home of a friend and supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, who secretly arrived alone as she had ditched her NLD handlers by declaring she was tired and needed rest. Suu Kyi spoke as a leader, an ex-political prisoner, an activist, or a mother, as the Burmese students called her. Suu Kyi’s spoken kindness toward all of Burma’s people was revealing of her nature. There was no press, no handler, no filter.
I know Aung San Suu Kyi. I was present many times when she met and spoke with so many different groups of people. I know she’s done everything possible, and impossible, to nurture the seedling to Democracy in Burma. Missteps not withstanding, no one is perfect, Suu Kyi took far too much criticism from far too many people regarding the military’s offensive on the Rohingya. It was easy for everyone in the world to point at Aung San Suu Kyi, accusing her, and say genocide was her fault. Her detractors will still say anything to hurt her. Oxford Tea Circlers canceled her awards, removed her portrait, and thousands of so-called journalists literally rewrote the exact same article about how Suu Kyi “lost her halo.” They all viciously attacked and weakened Suu Kyi. Such bitter and shameless acts are marks of low intelligence. All the while, Aung San Suu Kyi stood firm for Myanmar and Myanmar’s people, as she said she would. Now anyone can see, as if it matters to anyone now, it was the Military Dictatorship all along. The civilian government with a non-elected State Counselor was an illusion, a distraction, and now it’s gone.
In hindsight, I wonder how Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi Gyi would have fared in the modern world with Twitter, cancel culture, and narcissistic attention-seeking know-nothings trying to get Likes and Follows for shouting negative disgusting slurs at great people for reasons they can barely explain on their best day.
No Return to the Past
As Suu Kyi spoke that day, there was one moment that stood out to me overall. Someone asked her when she would call for protests. In fact, many activists from the 1988 Uprising era were then eager to stage a nationwide protest. Student protest is a tradition in Burma that goes back at least to British Colonial rule. I’ve seen references to student protests in poetry, most famously references to Ko Ba Hein, a student activist who claimed that the British government’s crackdown on protests would “let the fire be ablaze in the entire country by one beat of the horse-hoof.” With that blaze in mind, Aung San Suu Kyi explained how she changed her mind about mass protests. She seemed to have a heavy heart when talking about the thousands of people killed by the dictatorship during past protests. Her regret was unashamed, her eyes watered. Suu Kyi explained why she was opposed to protests and said that the result would be the same and therefore futile, and, frankly, it was what the dictatorship wanted since it was an excuse to reject sharing governance with civilian leadership. She said there would be no return to past failures.
If only the Generals who forged the recent coup could agree with Suu Kyi about no return to the past.
With a heavy heart, I now think of the many, many people I know dear and well who have to relive with, yes, an Orwellian nightmare under the weight of the military dictatorship. It’s as if the recent few years of hyper-capitalism with personal freedom and unlimited opportunities were merely a dream state, and now it’s time for the people to wake up to greet the same past decades of literal enslavement inside of their own homes. When I saw U Mya Aye and Min Ko Naing’s names on the list of those detained by the Dictatorship several days ago, I stopped to think about them. They are two of the most sincere and genuinely nice people I’ve ever known. I met up with Min Ko Naing near the Berkshires in Massachusetts in 2018. He visited with a friend at my home, and I remarked how he seemed so happy and carefree. He smiled. His life was moving on in ways he’d never imagined it could have during the long years he spent as a political prisoner – for being a poet.
Myanmar, as Burma is called today, is not the same as in 2010. Technology and communications have brought Myanmar citizens into modernity, especially with the newest generation with smartphones in hand almost from birth. I thought that Myanmar youth would grow up to be immune from past generations’ hardships and the sacrifice made by tens of thousands of unnamed people whose one dream was for a better future for their children — and for freedom. I was wrong. On social media, it’s the tech-savvy youth organizing online campaigns, artful memes, and undoubtedly making plans for protests. Their vigor and energy on Twitter are spirited with talk about the sacrifice of their parents, relatives, friends, and the generations preceding their own. Growing up with abundance and technology has not made them politically aloof or spoiled. They retrieved the flags carried by student activists over the previous decades, they are bold, and they seem to accept political and social activism as their rightful duty in Myanmar society.
The Dictatorship seized total control and quickly shut down mobile communications, turned off the Internet for hours, banned Facebook, and now threatens to ban Twitter. But can they ban Twitch, Gab, Discord, and the many other social and content platforms easily accessible without cutting the Internet? I wonder if the Dictatorship knows that millions of people will take to the streets to demand Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. Maybe that’s what the Dictatorship wants. Time will tell. People are organizing protests by banging pots and pans – everyone in Myanmar at the same time while they sing protest songs. People are beginning to gather in the streets for demonstrations, all Myanmar people, all professions, work stoppages, stay home strikes, public statements, in all manners of civil disobedience. It’s only a matter of time before mass protests begin.
The question now is only, how will the Dictatorship respond? Everyone knows the Generals will kill a lot of people as they have the Rohingya, Rakhine, Kachin, Mon, Chin, Karen, Kaya, Shan, Wa, and Barma. Will they again kill protesters?
It’s 2021 in Myanmar. The Myanmar people will not stop being free. They will fight. That is what Democracy looks like.