As an amateur cameraman films a hazy blur of people, commotion, blood and fear. We hear a man’s voice ask ‘Where do we go?’ ‘What do we do now?’ Another man stares at the camera, being jostled by the panic stricken protesters swarming past, he looks up and says ‘Nothing, keep on filming till they shoot us.’
Truth is hard to come by in Burma. It’s a place where the barrel of a gun jams closed the songs of free speech. If you find yourself in this South-Asian travel book paradise, you might find the local Burmese people hurried and disengaged. Do not mistake silence for rudeness. The truth is if any of these slight and devoutly spiritual people were to be heard speaking too freely with you, then it’s likely that they would be sentenced to ten years hard labor.
In 1962 Burma was taken over by a military junta. Total power was reigned in to the hands of dictator Ne Win a Stalin like figure who turned Burma, a nation founded on Buddhism, socialism and democracy into what Amnesty International calls a ‘prison without bars’. Since then the military regime behave like a corporate body and regard themselves as separate from and superior to it’s people who had not, nor will ever have, a say in their countries actions both domestically at home or abroad. It is the remnant of the British Colonial mindset, a regime separate and superior to it’s people. Yes, truth is hard to come by in Burma because of the very fact that truth and all its freedoms are illegal. Freedom of expression, books, films, free press, anything that would inspire one of the most literate societies in Asia have been banned. Nothing that can hold a threat or indeed hold the regime accountable for innumerable human rights violations are altogether banned and are illegal.
Foreign radio are crucial sources of information here, the Burmese whose very thoughts are a struggle have to search for other means to express their disenchantment and anger. But heroes are borne from constraints such as these. Aung San Suu Kyi is the democratically elected leader of Burma and was put under house arrest for twelve of the last eighteen years, forbidden visits from her husband and children, holding firm to the hope that the people’s will for democracy will prevail. Things came to a head when in September of last year Buddhist monks held a peace protest in Rangoon only to be shot at by military tanks and soldiers. Pictures of these rallies held a spot on corporate media for a few weeks until it gave way to images of the protest being scattered and stamped out by the tanks and the soldiers. Thus out of mind. But heroes prevail. Poet Saw Wai was arrested this very day for embedding a message into a love poem overlooked by censorship authorities and was published in a journal to commemorate Valentines Day. The poem called ‘February Fourteen’ was written in such a way that when arranging the first letters of every sentence together spelt ‘Power Crazy Than Shwe’ referring to the country’s military leader. What did he gain or accomplish? This small message garnered world attention. BBC NEWS, AL JAZEERA and SKY all reported it. It got the message across to people like you and me and inspired many – including this writer – to share their thoughts. Aung San Soo Kyi received a Nobel Prize for a commitment to what became a twelve year non-violent silent protest from inside her home. Things people do inspire others to do something to help. To act for others who cannot act themselves. Saw Wai would walk past the house of Soo Kyi just to hear the sweet sound of her playing the piano, the distant melodies the closest he or anyone could get to a rallying cry. This was enough for him to be inspired, to keep his hope alive.
Burma it seems has become yet another sad CNN story about a country far far away whose people are being subjugated and silenced by an authoritarian and militaristic regime. Just another one of those stories. Something is happening. But it’s out of sight. It’s out of mind. The less we hear, the less we see the less we remember and the less we care. But you know, we shouldn’t mistake silence for peace. This, it seems is our tendency to move to a less exotic world to more familiar stories; Heath Ledger is dead don’t forget. But soon even that tragedy we will have moved on from. There will always be poets, and there will always be messages snuck into the mainstream from people like Saw Wai. It’s the only way the voiceless can be heard without our help. We do not live in a society where books, music, films, even the internet is censored and kept on a leash. We don’t face a death sentence for speaking freely nor would we tolerate such a society. The people of Burma have no choice and they are doing their best to let us know.
So let us respond.