The price of eggs is a sensitive topic in Burma. Anger at the cost of an omelette, one Rangoon resident recently discovered, can land you in jail. But it could also land the government in hot water.
When U Thein Zan (right) in February learned from his daughter that eggs were selling at four for 300 Kyat, around 25 U.S. cents, he took some government propaganda articles from publications lying around the house and scrawled ironic comments across the top. Then the retired seaman impulsively stuck them to his suburban fence. Within a short time a crowd gathered. Then the officials arrived. They photographed Thein Zan’s handiwork, pulled it down, and took him for questioning. Nearly two weeks later he was charged with causing a public disturbance.
Thein Zan’s spontaneous protest came at the same time that a small group went into the street near a central market, calling for a halt to rising commodity prices, and for improved electricity and water supply: most of the city is dark at night, and residents of the suburbs and peripheries still depend heavily upon wells for their water. The persons involved were detained and interrogated, but apparently none have been charged.
The military government in Burma is acutely aware of the danger caused by inflation and deteriorating public services. The massive demonstrations that brought down the Ne Win regime in 1988 were precipitated largely by economic hardship. The cry for democracy on the lips of teachers, factory workers and farmers across the country was a cry for an alternative to ineptitude and poverty. That time, the army hung on by the skin of its teeth, through uncompromising violence. In subsequent years it has deployed stop-gap measures to prevent further upheaval, at times dramatically increasing civil servants’ salaries, and setting up tax-free markets for traders of meat and vegetables. This may explain why Thein Zan’s case attracted so much attention, and what happened thereafter.
The courtroom was crowded for the first hearing in March, and people around the country listened to the details through Burmese-language radio broadcasts beamed in from abroad. The accused was refused bail and transferred to the central prison.
Then something odd happened. After a few days, two strangers in a Land Rover appeared at Thein Zan’s house and told his family that they would act as guarantors for his release. Despite the court’s earlier order, they easily posted bail, not even producing documents to support their application. At the start of April, they went with him to the court, where the judge promptly declared the case closed. Thein Zan was free: but how, and thanks to whom? When asked which group they were with, the two bailors replied “the people.” A more honest reply would probably have been “the state,” although in truth this too raises more questions than it answers.
Judging from Thein Zan’s case and a number of others like it, there is conflict among the authorities in Burma about how to deal with public expressions of deepening resentment at the gulf between ordinary folk and the country’s small but increasingly rich elite. While the generals parade around the state media exhorting everyone to work “ceaselessly by day and tirelessly by night” for national development, citizens run risk of arrest for possessing VCD copies of video footage shot at the extravagant wedding of the supreme commander’s daughter. Meanwhile, more and more farmers are complaining of land being confiscated for thinly-disguised business ventures in the hands of senior commanders’ children, and villagers are speaking out in growing numbers against local bureaucrats’ corrupt dealings.
In Burma, a conventional political activist gets harassed and, if necessary, locked up either until they’ve learnt their lesson or they die. But what’s to be done about an old man who just wanted eggs for dinner? What’s to be done about a farmer who complains that his land has been stolen by village councilors? This is the persistent conundrum for the generals and their subordinates, and why Thein Zan and others like him are a greater threat to their authority than is democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
After his release, Thein Zan iterated that he wasn’t interested in politics; he just couldn’t accept how expensive ordinary commodities had become. “Try telling an old timer born in 1942 that eggs are 300 for four,” he told one interviewer by phone. “I got angry… it’s enough for me if prices go down and my family can survive.” But as he proved, in Burma the price of eggs is political, and the prospect of a wave of similar protests makes the authorities justifiably nervous. There is only one Suu Kyi, and she remains under house arrest. But how many more Thein Zans are there?