When some villagers in Natmauk, central Burma, made a complaint last year that the army had illegally occupied land they had been farming, they probably hoped for a more sympathetic response than what they received.
The army unit concerned – which had set up an arms depot and allowed the farmers to return to their fields only upon payment of special fees – promptly detained and interrogated four of those who complained. After it got what it wanted from them, it illegally arrested another four, keeping them at its base and allegedly torturing them.
Two were also later released, while the other two were brought to court to be charged. One of them became a witness for the prosecutor, and in the end only one person had a case brought against him.
That person is Ko Zaw Htay, a 43-year-old who had previously been detained over an accidental death on a road being built with forced labor – in breach of a government agreement with the International Labor Organization to stamp out the use of unpaid conscript workers on state projects.
Evidently, the local powers-that-be had it in for Zaw Htay. What really annoyed them was not the new complaint, but the fact that he had supposedly sent video footage of the confiscated land abroad, two-and-a-half minutes of which were broadcast on an overseas news website.
For this, Zaw Htay was charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with approaching a prohibited place and making a record that might be useful to an enemy; or rather, with having someone else do that, even though the law is supposed to apply only to the person committing the act, not an accomplice or backer.
Watching the video (from the four-minute mark, narrative in Burmese) it is hard to see anything that might be useful to an enemy, other than for agricultural purposes. There are farmers tilling their fields, a couple of them describing what has happened since the army turned up, and a red-and-white signboard (above) marked “Army Land: No Trespassing.”
What mattered to the embarrassed officer and local authorities was not that some remarkable military secret may have snuck out from under the crops, but that the bubble in which their world is contained had been broken open, its contents made visible to the outside. A little bit of rural Burma, which no one who didn’t live there had known or cared about, had been projected around the globe without their prior approval.
This fear of enclosed spaces being penetrated and made knowable and understandable to people in other places is one of the features of the police state mentality. It is a fear in which that which is done is more disturbing than that which is revealed. Never mind what is shown or said, it is the fact of showing and saying that is offensive.
This fear has governed Burma for half a century. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s General Ne Win presided over what was characterized as a hermit state, where all types of movement inside and outside the country were extremely limited and any unauthorized contact with the world beyond could conceivably be punished.
When a young man was imprisoned for his role in anti-government rallies in 1974, for instance, the court handing down the verdict emphasized that his crime was to have sent a letter about it, in English, to the United Nations. If the act of protest was bad, telling someone in New York about it in a foreign language was worse.
Similarly, people who allegedly sent news abroad during the 2007 protests have been pursued and imprisoned with equal vigor as those who led the marches. And comedian Zarganar and human rights defender Myint Aye are facing long jail terms for talking too openly and too truthfully about the official indifference they saw in the wake of last year’s cyclone.
Some commentators who don’t know Burma have talked about it as if it is still sealed off, trapped on another planet beyond email, digital recording devices and the tiny objects on which people now store libraries of data. That land does not exist.
With thousands of Internet cafes around the country crammed with teenagers, periodicals full of news about the latest products from Japan or Korea, and even places like Natmauk coming onto computer screens, the bubble in which Burma is enclosed is psychological, not technological. It persists because of official fear about people like Zaw Htay.
As the authorities struggle to keep track of adversaries armed with new gadgets, there are certain to be many more cases brought to the courts in which all the prosecutor can say is that the accused is somehow to blame for sending something somewhere.
In Zaw Htay’s case, the police and army never found the video recorder that he allegedly gave to his friend to record the confiscated farmlands, and the CDs shown in evidence against him were not brought from his house but downloaded from a website. Still, for official fear, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his two-and-a-half minutes of video.
With technology and its users getting further and further ahead of the people responsible for keeping Burma’s official secrets, the struggle to contain them is going to get harder and more dangerous for everyone determined to break them. But they are going with the tide, and they will succeed eventually.