Burma on the Brink

The military junta in Burma has agreed to discuss democracy, but the pace of reform is agonizingly slow
After forty-two years of dictatorship and crippling Western economic and trade sanctions, change may finally be afoot for the people of Burma, one of the world’s most downtrodden citizenries. Last spring, a series of meetings was held between the ruling military junta and more than a thousand invited delegates. The purpose of the National Convention was to hammer out a constitution and usher in democratic reforms. While the gathering took place, on and off, from May 17 to July 9,there was considerable rancour and it produced little in the way of concrete results. Nonetheless, the governing generals promised the National Convention would continue at a second meeting,to be held sometime “after the rainy season,” perhaps in November.

If the next stage of the conference does take place, and if any meaningful measure of democracy is restored, the world’s governments and corporations may finally drop their debilitating sanctions and help bring Burma—or Myanmar as its military rulers have been calling it since 1989—into the international community. This is the general hope of the delegates to the National Convention and even of those who boycotted that first meeting, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (snld) and, more critically, the National League for Democracy (nld), which won the general elections of 1990 only to be denied power, and whose leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest.

Meanwhile, life in Burma remains precarious for most of its impoverished citizens. I met Rosie in the city of Mandalay at her Grace Café teahouse, where she employs thirty boys, aged thirteen to fifteen. She had worked as a nurse for years while her husband repaired old cars and resold them, before buying the teahouse with a loan from her grandmother. Teahouses are a Burmese tradition, a social institution where friendly gatherings and business deals can be conducted inexpensively.

“I believe God is love,” said Rosie as boys on her staff darted among the low teak tables that sprinkled onto the sidewalk. Born in the hill station of Taunggyi, northeast of the capital Rangoon (called Yangon by the government), Rosie is Shan, one of eight main ethnic groups in Burma, and one that was partially Christianized during more than a century of British rule, which ended in 1948. A sign on the rear wall of Rosie’s shop cites 1 Corinthians 13:4—“Love is patient, kind, without envy.”

Like any business, running a tea house has its risks, but for her employees the business of survival is even riskier. Her boys, she said, wander in from the streets or are brought by relatives, strangers, or occasionally by authorities. According to unicef, fewer than half of Burma’s children continue their education after grade four, so these boys have nowhere else to go. And yet, as I watched them speed between the tables, they chattered and laughed without reservation.

Contrary as it may sound, Burmese citizens seem to project an old-fashioned, almost uncool embrace of welcome. Maybe they’re obeying the government’s dictum to banish all “negative views.” Emblazoned upon public byways and national centres are the four commandments of the ruling military junta:

“People’s Desire—Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views; Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation; Oppose foreign nationals interfering in internal affairs of the state; Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”

Also in Mandalay is Mahamuni Paya, the city’s most venerated pagoda, where the devoted fold to their knees on cool tiles decorated with lotus blossoms. Watching the devotees in mid-afternoon as they prostrate and meditate, I wondered: Is it devotion or unemployment that brings them to this serene and golden site?

The focus of all the fervour was a bronze statue, four metres high, of the Rakhine Buddha, said to have been cast about two thousand years ago. Its veneer has vanished, replaced by gold leaves that countless male worshippers have applied with their thumbs. Delicate as butterfly wings, the tiny wafers of gold come in small stacks, like miniature packs of cards, each glistening leaf separated by a smooth square of hammered bamboo paper.

Some of the gold leaves come from Gold Rose, a factory on 36th Street where I was later taken by my guide. A pedal-rickshaw driver, his mouth a scarlet slash of betel nut amid a complexion white with thanaka, a sandalwood unguent used as a sunscreen, he pulled up alongside an inconspicuous emporium touting a medley of brocaded puppets with gilt complexions, lacquerware and, of course, gold leaf. Shaded by a tin awning and woven rattan walls, four bare-chested men without a gram of body fat among them used heavy mallets to pound out the gold leaves.

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