Big Brother watches, inspects Danish students’ notebooks


Friday, 22 April 2011 07:59 Line Skovlund Larsen
(Feature) – The sun was up high in the sky when our group of Danish students and teachers walked into the People’s Park in Rangoon to chat about the many meetings we had had over the previous few days.

We took out our notebooks, sat down in a circle on the grass and started talking and writing, trying to ignore the heat.
After meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, the group of Danish students found themselves being photographed wherever they went, as seen here. Photo: Line Skovlund Larsen
After meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, the group of Danish students
found themselves being photographed wherever they went, as seen here.
Photo:
Line Skovlund Larsen

I was traveling with a group of 11 students and two teachers from my Danish folk high school with our focus on international politics.
We had studied Burma in class looking at different political subjects like sanctions, exile media, the military junta, the opposition parties and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Now academic knowledge was being checked with reality on the ground on a 10-day visit to Burma, to experience ourselves a country known for military repression since 1962, one that made international headlines with the ‘Saffron Revolution’ against military rule in 2007 and when Aung San Sun Kyi was released in November of last year.

Sitting in a park and writing would not elicit a second glance in Copenhagen where we are from. But this was Rangoon, or Yangon as the military junta now calls it, and we were soon to find that publicly scribbling in notebooks draws attention.

After 30 minutes, a car with black tinted windows drove up close to our circle, stopped and waited there for a few minutes before driving off. Ten minutes later, somebody using a camera with a large telephoto lens started to take photographs while trying to stay out of sight round the corner of a house. The camera would appear and then discreetly disappear every time we looked in its direction. 

It could almost be described as comical, but I was starting to get nervous. Does the government have our photographs on record? Will they check our belongings when we leave the park and look at our notebooks to see if we have jotted down the names of Burmese people we might have met and spoken with? 

Then two surly men approached and stood behind us and tried to look at our notebooks. Luckily our notes were all in Danish and our conversation too. They sat down a few meters from us, not saying anything, listening, trying to pick up some of our conversation. But we were cautious not to mention any names. 

Our teachers at the folk high school, a gap-year school between high school and university that teaches about international politics, had warned us to take care.

From the days we had spent in this smiling land of gold, both in Rangoon and Mandalay, we had been struck by how friendly people were. But there was also a palpable feeling of fear that affects the daily life of many people.

Big Brother is really, truly watching.

We had done our homework before we came, but it was only when we were in Burma that we could understand the difficulties people face. The military authorities cause many problems for the people, we learnt. Burma has 2,073 political prisoners, censorship rules the media, and all political activities and even talk of politics are in danger of being monitored. To criticize the government in public risks a long and harrowing prison term.  

This presents a huge problem. The surveillance means that people are afraid, even though informers do not lurk on every street corner and there are limits to the extent of the surveillance.

A young Burmese activist told me about the consequences of living with this surveillance day in and day out.

‘Ordinary people are not being watched, but they feel like they are, they don’t know who is there, even in their homes’, the activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘They don’t dare talk about human rights. We feel like we are being watched, but we are not. Not the ordinary people’.

All this insecurity often leads to gossip and rumours. In Mandalay, our group went to a comedy show performed by the Moustache Brothers. The three brothers have been performing their show of anti-government jokes and dance for more than 40 years. One of them, Par Par Lay, has been a political prisoner. In 1996, the government banned them from performing in public, so now they regularly perform in their own home.

Their goal, they say, is to spread the word about the bad government in Burma through communicating with tourists. Reaching out to their fellow Burmese is out.

‘Journalists and the media can’t talk freely, therefore we must get the message out through the tourists’, said Lu Maw, one of the brothers. ‘And with this show, we kill two birds with one stone. We make money, and we achieve our goal’.

On the way back to our guesthouse from the show, I talked with our taxi-driver, who claimed to have a theory about one of the brothers who now only dances a little. He claimed he had an agreement with the government in order for the show not to be shut down.

As we rattled along in the taxi, the driver claimed one of the brothers was afraid of the government and because of that he had promised them to hand over the names of any tourists who ask political questions during the show in order to prevent them from writing critically about the government when they leave Burma.

Such is the feeling of paranoia. We asked the comedians political questions during the show but nobody came to question us. But the incident told us a lot about the feeling of insecurity and suspicion.

We raised the issue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, telling her of our experience when we met her in Rangoon.

‘I think one of the big problems about the Burmese people is that there is little sense of security, and when people are insecure they are not nice about each other’, she said in explanation. ‘If you are insecure, you are jealous. And because you are insecure, you will start being paranoid’.

She also said jealousy may explain why the taxi driver had come up with this theory. He had said he was a former dancer. The Moustache Brothers were dancing for a living, whereas he was just driving a taxi.

Another explanation was provided by a journalist from a local newspaper, who we met in a secure location on a rooftop.

‘Everywhere (inside Burma) there are many rumours because we don’t have any freedom to share news and so forth’, he said.

This sense of Big Brother always watching suffuses everything. Anything that smacks of political activity or opinion gets censured. The universities are strictly controlled and have been closed on several occasions, the latest period during 2007.

Step out of line and the consequences can be severe. One Burmese activist told me that that you can get thrown into prison for between 10 and 60 years in appalling conditions, including torture, for carrying out political activities.

This threat does not stop the activists, however. It just drives them underground. All activities are hidden. Several organizations local and foreign do humanitarian work but, if they are politically active, it happens behind the scenes.  

Needless to say, it is not wise to mention the names of these organizations for security reasons. One foreign diplomat from an embassy to Burma, said these organizations have to be careful.

‘NGOs, the UN and embassies have to strike a balance between doing their work and being allowed to stay in the country’, he said.

One question that came to mind was why do Burmese work as informers and spies for the military junta?

A young Burmese activist proffered his view.

‘People become informers to gain power,’ he said. ‘They can make deals with the government, for example to open up a gambling house, even though it is officially illegal. To be an informer also means job security. It’s hard to get a job in the countryside’.

Surely, I asked another activist, they must have a conscience? Don’t they feel guilty?

The activist referred to George Orwell’s book, Burmese Days, and said that many Burmese people think that if they do something very good after doing something bad, it will in effect erase the wrong. 

Here we were, outsiders, young students from a European country where freedom of speech and real democracy is taken for granted. We wondered what could be done to end this culture of fear among these people who had so warmly welcomed us.

There is certainly talk of change for the better, at least in the media. Before we came, we had followed news of the 2010 Burmese election. A civilian government had been elected. The military junta had officially handed over power. That was the official story.

But will the new government loosen up on surveillance, stop the censorship and free the political prisoners?

We received a mix of opinions. Some think that the new government means change, some that it will make small improvements. But most people I talked to seemed to share the opinion of Moustache Brother, Lu Maw: ‘Our new democracy is not a real democracy. Everyone knows it’s the same generals. It’s like pouring new water on old tea leaves’.

All this offers is a bitter taste.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who knows what it is like to cross the generals after so many years of house arrest, calls for the rule of law.
‘I think that a healthier political system would help’, she told us. ‘We need to have rule of law. If you knew that you couldn’t be put away unless you really committed a crime, you wouldn’t be so suspicious of your neighbour’.

She does points out though that this will only change some attitudes. For real change, more time will be needed. She believes that the culture of fear has a lot to do with people’s social and cultural values. And this only can be changed over time.

‘For really radical changes, we will need time’, she said. ‘We will need time for the democratic culture to sink in and to take root’.

We got a sense that change was coming, if rather slowly. More and more young people are organized into youth groups, doing humanitarian and hidden political work. A promoter of one of these youth groups told us that the earlier generations didn’t talk about politics because of the harsh punishments meted out by the junta. ‘But we know it is possible to talk politics through the less risky work with the civil society’, he said, referring to the hidden dialogues that take place amongst the various youth groups. 

Our time was up. The 10 days had been packed with meetings with politically active people, journalists, aid organizations, school teachers, monks and, of course, The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi.

We experienced surveillance up close. We saw it with our own eyes and heard about it from the Burmese people we met. In the park, at the airport, and in front of the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, we had been photographed, often in a very blatant way. On the train from Rangoon to Mandalay I remember taking out a notebook to write down the e-mail address of a woman I had just met, and immediately a man in a white shirt came to ask me where I was going, noting it down on his notepad.

It was clear that we had been watched and recorded every step of the way after we had been to see Aung San Suu Kyi. We recognized that it was impossible to meet anybody after that due to the potential danger to them.

The day after our meeting with The Lady, our teacher received a call from a woman who said she was calling from a travel agency. She asked when we were leaving Burma, whether by plane, and at what time. Then she hung up without an explanation. This was one more strange incident to add to the list.

The surveillance continued right up to the last minute. As we went up the escalator in Yangon International Airport to leave for Denmark, a neatly-dressed man stood ready with his camera to photograph us. He followed us through the whole airport procedure, took group pictures, and single pictures. While we were waiting for our passports to be checked, he had the chance to take perfect photos of every single face.

But nobody stopped us from leaving. Nobody checked our bags.

We boarded the flight, glad that we did not have to give away any information to the government, and happy to soon be able to talk freely.

It was a strange feeling to leave this world where one always had a sense one was being watched. We thought of our new Burmese friends. Will they someday achieve their goal of living in a country where Big Brother is not watching all the time? Or will they end up being imprisoned for saying critical words against the regime?

What can we do? We are students from another world. We hope we can do something to support our new friends in their struggle for a free and fair society.


Line Skovlund Larsen was part of a group of 11 Danish students and two teachers who spent 10 days in Burma in early April as part of their international politics course at college.

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