/ 29 September 2007

Come play water pistols, the colonel said. It’ll be fun

In repressive Burma, the festival of Thingyan or New Year is the only time residents can let their hair down, dousing each other with water pistols as temperatures soar. With windows tightly closed, in the midst of a military convoy, we were hurtled through it, having being handed an extraordinary invitation to attend one of the junta’s Cabinet meetings.

It was 2003 and beside us was Colonel Tin Hlaing, then home minister, who turned to face us and said: ”I’m having a party at home later. Come over and play Thingyan [water pistols]. It’ll be fun.” This seemingly affable figure was the same colonel who had led the suppression of the 1988 democracy movement in which thousands were killed.

This was one of many days of surreal encounters with a regime that had decided to take us off a visa blacklist reserved for journalists who had been critical of them, and lure us back with an invitation to question its leaders. Our reception demonstrated the difficulties in dealing with the regime. As soon as we landed we were held for seven days by military intelligence.

There is no cohesive Burmese government, only pools of influence that frequently drown each other out, some backed by senior generals, others leaning towards the Military Intelligence (MI) faction, and yet more clinging to the vestiges of power retained by military commanders with postings in the strategically important border region or mineral rich states of Upper Burma.

The daily New Light of Myanmar newspaper offered clues to how this power struggle was playing out, as the order in which the generals appeared in its front page reflected who momentarily had the upper hand, the only permanent faces being Senior General Than Shwe, chairperson of the State Peace and Development Council, the official name of the regime; Khin Nyunt, the SPDC’s Secretary One and MI chief; and Maung Aye, Burma’s army chief.

Finally, our sponsors in the home ministry regained some leverage and whisked us to a hall arranged with heavy teak thrones. The Cabinet trooped in, Col Tin Hlaing the first to come over: ”Isn’t this strange, us meeting like this?” he cackled in perfect English.

The Foreign Minister, Win Aung, the junta’s sole civilian member, spoke next. Since 1998, he had defended Burma’s record to the West. ”We are constantly misrepresented,” he said. ”You only ever read that we’re a narco-state but we’ve made a commitment to be drug-free and you can shoot me if we don’t comply.” Colonel Thein Nyunt, the Border Affairs Minister, stood: ”We are always described as dictators. But we are not power-hungry people — we’re just human beings. We are not here to stay. Democracy is not in question.”

It went on for hours, as one after the other read from statements. Democracy was described as an objective, for when the country had matured.

Within 18 months, Win Aung had been sacked before being jailed. Next to fall were the agriculture minister, transport minister and deputy foreign minister. In October 2004, Khin Nyunt, recently appointed prime minister, was arrested too. A month later, Col Tin Hlaing, a Khin Nyunt loyalist, was gone.

Khin Nyunt’s rise had been ensured by his close relationship to Burma’s greatest contemporary dictator, Ne Win, who had seized control of the country in 1962. However, in 2002 Ne Win died, leaving Khin Nyunt vulnerable. In October 2004 the military arrested him, accusing him of taking bribes.

Khin Nyunt’s MI headquarters were raided. With him gone Than Shwe and Maung Aye became paranoid. Watching regime change in Iraq, they moved the government to Pyinmana in 2005. They began to fight each other as corruption soared and the economy collapsed, driving monks on to the street, an arc of events that could be torn from the pages of not so distant Burmese history.

When the monarch King Mindon Min lay dying in 1878, his wife began jockeying to secure the throne for Prince Thibaw, her stepson, perhaps the least impressive of 82 possible successors. She placed a discreet order for velvet from a French weaver who worked at court. On the night of February 15, assassins chased down Thibaw’s fraternal rivals, bagging them in the sacks and beating them to death. It was sacrilege to spill the blood of Burmese aristocrats but the velvet absorbed it, allowing Thibaw to ascend to the throne.

Today, the military is beginning to do the same to its people, coming by night and at dawn to take an unknown number of protesters to places where we will never see their blood being spilled. – Guardian Unlimited Â