While hundreds of persons remain detained or are missing in the aftermath of the uprising that gripped Burma in September, and new sporadic protests emerge [and here], its national newspapers have consisted of the usual phalanx of army officers forcing their largesse onto Buddhist monks and attending an all-important performing arts festival.
On Oct. 20, newspaper headlines declared that the new prime minister, Lt.-Gen. Thein Sein, had the day before watched a performance of the Suwannasama legend, one of ten allegories about previous lives of Gautama Buddha that is known to the majority of people in Burma by way of religious homilies and primary school lessons.
Suwannasama, the story goes, is a young man who lives with his blind parents in a forest. One day a king on a hunting trip accidentally shoots him dead, but a sympathetic deity brings him back to life. The king is remorseful and devotes himself to the family, thereafter being reborn in a higher plane of existence. The elderly mother and father even regain their sight.
The choice of drama appears to have been intended as a message that with a little bit of compromise everybody in Burma, like the play’s protagonists, can come out ahead. A long-winded feature article belabored the point, concluding that it would be in the interests of all to heed the folktale’s lessons. And on the days before and after there were other equally gripping reports of senior officers watching the play.
But the spirit of compromise has itself quickly turned to myth.
On Oct. 24, a United Nations office in the country issued an unusually frank press release in which it acknowledged that the uprising was a response to severe economic hardship, and exhorted the government to heed the signs of dissent. “The average household is forced to spend almost three quarters of its budget on food, one in three children under five suffer malnutrition and less than 50 percent of children are able to complete primary education,” it read in part.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry quickly issued a strong rebuttal. A week later the government sent a complaint to the U.N. secretary-general, and has since made clear that it does not welcome the U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, Charles Petrie, any longer. Petrie has worked closely with senior figures in the regime and had been chary of criticizing them lest his mandate be adversely affected, but apparently this didn’t make any difference.
At a press conference on Nov. 2 the government unrolled a sheet of statistics to show that things are getting better, not worse, and that “poverty in Myanmar is not very different from the neighboring developing countries and the suffering is not to the extent as exaggerated by the U.N. country team.”
Here is a major obstacle to any sort of compromise between the junta and just about everyone else.
The gap between propaganda and actual conditions in Burma is so vast that there is no point at which it may be traversed. Every concerned international organization, including the World Food Program and the International Committee of the Red Cross, has openly stated at one point in time or another — and with increasing frequency — that military rule is the unparalleled cause of poverty there. Yet for its part the government cannot even admit to the existence of this poverty, let along accept responsibility.
In this also we find the gap between the propaganda of myth and the harshness of reality.
Suwannasama was brought back to life because he fed and cared for his blind parents. By contrast, the generals are starving their people, and inhibiting anyone else seriously trying to do anything about it.
The king who accidentally slew Suwannasama was ultimately rewarded because he was contrite. By contrast, Burma’s military remains unable to acknowledge even the most blatantly obvious damage caused by its decades of greed and incompetence.
Absurd data do not shield a government from the scrutiny of international groups and others based abroad; they just beggar belief and frustrate the efforts of even the most conciliatory parties to make things better. Nor do they shield it from what its people know for themselves; they just make growing demands for change all the more imperative. If it insists upon clinging to them then its compromise too can surely be nothing more than myth.
At the end of the grade four reading on Suwannasama, students are asked, “How does Suwannasama admonish the king?” The correct answer is: He admonishes the king to serve others with humility, just as he has his parents. In response, the chastened king earnestly pays his respects, acknowledging that, “To you who is without blame, I have done wrong.”
Someone should remind one or two of the generals that only then does everyone live happily ever after.
See further: Voice of the hungry nation, People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity & Militarization in Burma, 1999