A group of schoolchildren in Burma were recently given a lesson on the inanity of their government and its officialdom. According to a report by the Thailand-based Yoma 3 news group, representatives of the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association came on June 6 to distribute free books to students at a middle school in Shwepyithar, an industrial area among Rangoon’s outskirts. They posed for photographs on the school grounds with the chairman of the local council, the books and the children. When done, they took the books back and left the children with nothing.
This little event speaks volumes about how dictatorship debilitates society. Whereas all ceremony is in part about something being seen to be done, it is in most places also about something actually being done: the awarding of a prize, the giving of a donation, the opening of an edifice. But in Burma, whether or not something is actually done has long since ceased to be of primary importance. What matters above all is the affirmation that it has been done, through endless public performances choreographed to demonstrate the benevolence of the state and wisdom of its agents, irrespective of reality.
Official observances are important to autocrats because they put everyone else in his or her correct place. In Burma, teachers, students, parents and members of the public are co-opted to witness and applaud the largesse of their self-appointed leaders. They are reduced to the role of silent passengers on endless bureaucratic voyages. Whether at a ceremony to hand out books that are never actually given, to open a hospital that has no doctors or drugs, or to discuss a chapter of a constitution that is never actually finished, the respective roles of all participants are predetermined and unchanging.
In a 1990 performance recorded on video that can be viewed via You Tube, Burma’s most famous comedian makes a mockery of these public rituals. Waves of laughter roll across the stage as Zarganar and his troupe hold their “Beggars’ Convention.” A man in rags formally announces the arrival of The Chairman to others squatting on the floor amid filth and bandages. Zarganar approaches regally and tugs at his national headgear, only to find a bit fall off. He opens his mouth to speak and even before the first sentence is finished the assembled delegates chorus agreement. This biting ridicule earned Zarganar four years in jail. Although continuing to joke, he has since been subjected to frequent bans and has been forced to be more circumspect in what and how he satirizes.
The tragedy of Burma is that it is a country full of brilliant and creative people, none of whom are welcome to contribute anything to the state. As in all dictatorships, it is the dull and mediocre who get ahead. Cardboard-cutout army officers parade nightly around the television news, followed by their untalented children performing bad MTV covers and selling toothpaste. Scholars and writers of dubious credentials are feted with literary awards while the greats of the 20th century fade one by one into the distance. Artists unwilling to compromise their integrity produce obscure works of hidden significance, beyond the comprehension of both the censors and the general public. And as for students, those who succeed are certainly not the ones waiting in vain for a free book: while in most countries money and privilege count in getting an education, in Burma these days they count far more than in most.
Dictatorship is bad not just because it permits abuses and perverts institutions, but because it willfully denies talent and saps enthusiasm. It obliges people to be champions of their own debasement. While a few openly resist, most unwillingly go along until it looks safe to do something else. Whatever else happens, the struggle for change in Burma will have to overcome the accumulated suspicions of these millions who have repeatedly had things put in front of them only to have them cruelly snatched away again.