Magazine article The Spectator

The Sweet Cotagion of Freedom Will Outlast the Bloodshed in Burma

Magazine article The Spectator

The Sweet Cotagion of Freedom Will Outlast the Bloodshed in Burma

Article excerpt

Where the monks have led by inspiration, the younger army officers - who know the present horrors are unsustainable - will follow. Fergal Keane reports from a nation that is slowly waking from a nightmare of military repression and sickening greed

Mae Sot, Thai-Burma border

The family had come from one of the villages along the border and their story of life and death came from the heart of Burma's tragedy. They had crossed to Thailand because they did not have the money to buy medicine in Burma.

Under the Generals' rule healthcare in Burma exists only for the rich or the friends of the regime. The country has more malaria deaths than India, whose population is 20 times bigger. The lack of medicine and hospitals is but one of the impositions which helped to spark the popular demonstrations that shook the regime.

By the time the family arrived in the Thai town of Mae Sot the youngest child was already dangerously ill with malaria.

Still they hoped that in Dr Cynthia's clinic there might exist some cure to coax the two-year-old out of his fever. They hadn't had the money to buy medicine in Burma.

The clinic is a simple collection of concrete outbuildings run by Dr Cynthia Maung, a Burmese exile who fled the last big crackdown in 1988. She has become a mother figure to tens of thousands of political exiles and migrant workers who have fled the corrupt dictatorship of the Generals.

But on this occasion there was nothing Cynthia's doctors or nurses could do. The child died two days after arriving at the clinic. His body now lay wrapped in tarpaulin in a small room at the rear of the building. Two hours after he died the parents were still sitting at the entrance to the children's ward.

The father sat slightly apart from the mother and two little girls. His eyes glistened and were red but I had the strong impression that he did not want to weep in front of the children. The mother cradled the younger of the two girls. She was three years old, a year older than her dead brother. Mother and child trembled together. The other daughter - who was seven - showed no emotion but stared out into the yard where some other children were playing.

I noticed that the father had an artificial leg. Five years before he'd stood on a landmine in the forest. The army has sown thousands of mines in its war against ethnic minority rebels along the Thai border.

Along with the mines the Generals' troops have carried out a campaign of murder, rape and forced labour against the minorities, among them the Karen whose men fought so bravely alongside the British in the second world war. The family were not remotely political. They expressed no opinions to us. But their story was the narrative of Burma itself.

There isn't a crime in the international law-book that the Generals haven't committed. Still they have managed to trade and travel, sending their looted wealth to foreign bank accounts and their foreign minister to make speeches at the UN. The junta lives by slogans that come straight from the Chairman Mao lexicon of political thought.

'Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy, ' the propaganda machine declares. And that is one of the more inspired outpourings.

The Junta leader, General Than Shwe, recently spent a small fortune on the wedding of his daughter. The happy couple's present list was said to be worth around £26 million and sparked a run on precious stones as guests hurried to cosy up to Burma's de facto royal family.

The couple poured lavish quantities of champagne and posed for photographs in front of an ornate golden bed. Like most kleptocracies, the regime in Rangoon has a relaxed attitude to matters of taste. Back in the 1990s, when foreign firms were heading to Burma in search of lucrative contracts, the businessmen I lunched with in Rangoon would argue that 'constructive engagement' was the way forward with the Generals. …

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