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The treatment accorded to the eighteen foreigners -- six Americans, three Thais, three Indonesians, three Malaysians, two Filipinos and myself -- who had handed out innocuous pro-democracy cards, was not in accord with the brutal realities of Burma, but it does reflect the deteriorating state of Burmese political life. Our six days detention in Rangoon and the treatment we received shows that not only is this regime responsible for countless violations of human rights and the destruction of the economy, but it is also inept and idiotic. Our captors were at best clowns, running around sprouting the most offensive antiquated totalitarian gibberish that should have been confined to the dustbin decades ago. The idiocy that we were subjected to during our detention is a tragedy for Burma, as it indicates that there is no rule of law and the underlying ideology of the regime is without substance and nefarious. This idiocy is part of the very real human tragedy that permeates Burmese life and the cultural experience of a nation. It should not be taken lightly since its implications, as in many totalitarian regimes, are dire.

The distribution of the cards was organised and supported by Burmese pro-democracy groups and ASEAN human rights groups. It was designed to support the call for the convening of Parliament on 21 August by the elected representatives of Burma, who have been denied their right to govern by the military regime. We managed to hand out 9,000 pro-democracy cards in a country where the mention of Daw Aung

San Suu Kyi's name is dangerous, where Burmese regularly receive long prison sentences (which are served) and where they are treated like animals for the most routine of political actions. We were protected as we were foreigners.

After my arrest I was searched and manhandled into the back of an army truck. I was never told who had detained me, where I was going, where I was, or the reason for my detainment. To my knowledge I was never charged. There was no lawyer. In fact it was intimated that to have a lawyer was detrimental to my case. It took the military more than forty-eight hours to allow consular access. The Australian Embassy in Rangoon (and the other embassies) knew no more than we did, which was absolutely nothing.

Individuals in the group, though receiving different treatment at the beginning of the incarceration, were predominantly not physically maltreated. This is not consistent with the routine treatment of Burmese political prisoners, who upon detainment are either blindfolded or have a hood placed over their heads. Torture is an integral part of the interrogation, intimidation, intelligence gathering and punishment procedures of the Burmese Military Intelligence Service. However, the invisible military authorities in some distant space did not know how to respond to the disruption eighteen foreigners had created in the streets of Rangoon. Despite their protestations to the contrary, they were frightened of international pressure, yet our action was something that the military could not tolerate.

This is a regime that cannot cope with even the mildest form of dissent. However, our guards and interrogators went out of their way, after the initial day, to ensure our physical well-being. Our schizophrenic treatment reflected both their fear of international pressure and the military's need to intimidate and humiliate.

I was interrogated on three separate occasions. The first interrogation started at the time of arrest, 3.30 p.m., and did not end until the next morning. Much of the questioning was designed to gather intelligence information about Burmese democracy groups in Thailand and Australia. Their questions were an indication of the intellectual disease that has infected Burma. My interrogators were products of the United Solidarity Development Association (USDA) propaganda courses. This is the `civilian' political wing of the military. This organisation dispenses favours and resources to those exhibiting allegiance to the regime. Indeed the USDA is integral to the spy system that operates in Burma and is instrumental in the divide-and-rule policy of the regime.

The interrogation in retrospect seems farcical, despite the serious intentions of my interrogators. Often the interrogation would become lodged in long arguments over semantics. This was partly because the English skills of my interrogators were not up to the task. So much time was spent (and this helped avoid the real issues that interested the military) on arguing about the differences between concepts such as `organisation' and `group'. It was impossible for my interrogators to understand that much political activity in Australia was undertaken by groups of people who did not formally join an organisation. They seemed to believe that individuals belonged to underground organisations that were orchestrated with military-like precision.

Another sign of the crippling impact of repression on the understanding of my interrogators was their inability to grasp that much knowledge was publicly available. In my third bout of interrogation I was questioned on the Burma Support Group, which is a small group of people, Burmese and Australian, who work at a grass-roots level on issues relevant to the democracy movement in Burma. I was questioned as one of the `leaders' on the `operations' of the `organisation'. Some time during the interrogation another man came into the room and spoke softly in Burmese to one of my interrogators. I then heard, `we have found the email address of the Burma Support Group'. It's not hard to imagine the surprise I felt upon this revelation, as anybody with pedestrian Internet experience would have been able to access such public information. However, the police station where I was being held would not have Internet access, as email, Internet and faxes are illegal, and access to the outside world is not tolerated by the regime. Even military intelligence is not exempt from this type of curtailment. Ownership of such facilities is punished with long prison sentences.

The military regime changed the name of the country to Myanmar (Myan = quick; Mar = strong) after suffering a resounding defeat in the 1990 election. Maybe the military are scared that the name change will be forgotten, because everything possible was prefixed by Myanmar -- `Myanmar food', `Myanmar noodles', `Myanmar rice', `Myanmar people', `Myanmar language'. The propaganda courses seem intent on creating a people that is xenophobic and fearful of any sort of change. The irony is that during the week of my detainment `Burma' slipped back into usage and the term `Myanmar' began to fade into obscurity, as feared by the military. One of the Americans related the following story. When they were at the police station, in good American fashion they demanded to see a lawyer. The response of the official was to scream loudly, `This is not the United States, this is Burma!' This was quickly followed by an embarrassed and softly uttered, `Myanmar'.

The military attempted to counter the `damage' done by the distribution of the cards by directing a barrage of propaganda against us in the local press. Care for our physical well-being was a propaganda exercise designed to circumvent international pressure and to show the internal population that though dissent inside Burma would not be tolerated, the foreigners were well looked after. To this end we were subjected to continual videotaping and photographing. The highly offensive nature of this intrusion would involve continual rearrangement of the furniture to show our `good conditions'. At the beginning of my detention I was not provided with a bed or bedding. I was not allowed to mix or to talk with any of the five who were held at the same police station. This would all change for the cameras. Beds would be brought in with bedding, which was promptly removed after the cameras or the embassies left. We would be allowed to mix at dinnertime for the cameras, then shuffled off, to our respective `quarters'. Mealtimes were the real show. In a country where many people are increasingly finding it difficult to feed their families as prices rise and incomes decline, we were filmed before a range of dishes, with our captors serving us. These ludicrous `dinner parties' were designed to disguise the idiocy of detaining people for distributing innocuous pamphlets.

The regime is intent on keeping the people of Burma in a totalitarian time warp. How can Burma succeed economically and culturally when it is ruled by a small military elite, bent on destroying the intellectual fabric of a nation? The universities are closed, the schools are closed. All dissenters, writers, academics, professionals and artists are silenced mercilessly. How can this be acceptable? There are no real books available and the bookshops are only stalls on the footpath. The books on Burma were published before the 1962 military coup and even these are old and irrelevant in the present struggle. There is virtually no literature available, either Burmese or foreign. What is available is trash, and it gives a distorted picture of Burma and the rest of the world. All the newspapers are full of the most inane propaganda -- soldiers opening some meaningless seminar or making a donation to a Buddhist monastery. There is no substantive political news about home or abroad. The curtailment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's movement about her own country is presented as a picnic on a bridge which the military is helping to arrange. The news about the West includes bare bums (we all go about naked), paedophilia, children who kill and Leonardo Di Caprio. We have our rubbish news but the military has ensured that there is nothing but rubbish.

My own reading material was continuously perused and inspected by my military guards. They asked me lots of questions about books. How many did I own? What sort of books did I read? I couldn't help pointing out that I had read many books on Burma that they would never see, let alone read. My intellectual freedom had an obvious and disturbing effect upon my captors. There were many questions about Burma, about the economy, the cause of the Asian economic crisis (something they were only vaguely aware of). According to military propaganda, good economic management had meant that Burma had escaped these problems. There were questions about healthcare, plastic cards, the ever-present kangaroo. Much of the answers were unsettling to my `interrogators' as they didn't correspond to the sex-craving and bare-bum version of the West that is presented by the regime. My impression was that many Burmese are desperate to understand the world outside the insular enclave that the military has fostered. The curtailment of the intellectual life of a people who respect learning and education is a crime that should be added to the long list of crimes inflicted by a regime on its own people.

In Australia we debate multiculturalism with all its limitations. In Burma the military is actively propagating the racial superiority of the Burman ethnic majority (40 per cent of the population are non-Burman). While being interrogated I was told, `You must understand that the ethnic people are simple people who cannot rule themselves'. When I pointed out the irony of Burmans directing the `simple folk', when they couldn't even make the electricity work, the officer from military intelligence seemed little inclined to continue the propaganda charade. The state of the country was highlighted when at about 2.00 a.m. during the interrogation, the lights went out. Two of the military intelligence officers left the room to look for candles, only to reappear with one birthday cake candle. The interrogation had to proceed in darkness. The guards attempted to explain to me that there are no refugees, there are only insurgents. This dialogue ended in silence when I pointed out that the world had better things to do than make up false human-rights reports about Burma. There were many times when my captors would lapse into confused and often sad silence, when confronted with unknown information.

We did not know we were going to `trial' until the day it was held. The `trial' was farcical. It is hard to imagine what the military thought they were doing. This sham of justice was conducted in Burmese, with occasional summary translations. What we heard would have been funny if it had not been indicative of the total lack of rule of law in Burma. We were accused of such crimes as attempting to instigate violence amongst the `peace-loving and tranquil people of Myanmar', being `axe handles' (agents of a foreign power), `saboteurs', `sacrificial lambs', making contact with `the hard-core underground' and `smuggling videotapes'. This language reflects the time warp that the military has forced upon Burma. Our predicament shows that there is the military leadership and not much else as it is clear in retrospect (I wish I had known this at the time) that the decision regarding our `sentence' had been made in advance by higher authorities who were not present.

Evidence was fabricated, including our alleged possession of photographs of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and notepads with the National League for Democracy letterhead. Statements were forged, signed with the wrong name, and the evidence in the hands of the `prosecutor' and the `judge' included the government's propaganda newspaper (there is nothing else). We had featured strongly in this newspaper, where we were `convicted' of all sorts of meaningless crimes. We were also the highlight of Myanmar television during the week. Despite our criminal celebrity status, the charade of identifying us was conducted in the `trial' room. Only some of us were identified as the trial was quickly brought to a close, as it was getting beyond dinner-time. Clearly they had much more `evidence' to present but the charade obviously had to be completed on the Friday as they had decided to get rid of us.

At the end of the trial we were finally asked whether we `pleaded' guilty or not guilty. This caused us all some confusion and led to immediate, uninformed and animated discussions about what would be the best plea to offer. We didn't have a chance to come to even a speedy response, as the woman representing `Myanmar Foreign Affairs' pleaded for us, announcing `guilty'. All this was conducted in front of six embassy officials and eighteen foreigners. They did not even have the sense not to display the inadequacy of the legal system in front of an international audience. The judge left the room, leaving us unsure of whether we were being given time to make a decision, or whether he was making a decision for us. We finally gave up and sat there rather uneasily and waited for the judge to re-enter, which occurred about forty-five minutes later. He proceeded to speak in Burmese for about fifteen minutes, making all of us increasingly uneasy. Finally the translation -- `five years in Insein Prison'.

Not long after this scenario, the real power, embodied in two military officers, lumbered onto the stage. The charade was over w we were to be deported. In the midst of this the lights went out, plunging the room into darkness. Just one of the blackouts that Rangoon experiences on a daily basis. All the resources that are devoted to the military ensures that the capital city of the nation does not have a functioning electricity supply. Burma is erroneously presented by the military as a country experiencing high growth rates and with great economic potential. However, nothing works. The only person who seemed to do a day's work in Rangoon was the typist at the trial (and the forced labourers we saw on the roads and building sites). He was kept busy typing out all manner of rubbish. Everything seems to be taken at least in triplicate with a continuous supply of meaningless information collected. The serial numbers of the unused film that was taken from me was written down on three separate forms, each in triplicate. When I made a short list of needed toiletries to pass onto the Australian Embassy it was promptly removed from my hand and the following items were copied into two books `shampoo, tampons and toilet paper'. Paranoia, fear and the pervasive bureaucracy have stifled personal initiative. Individual military intelligence officers cannot even dismiss a list of toiletries as irrelevant. The propaganda and intellectual isolation engendered by the regime mean that individuals cannot contemplate that a short list of toiletries does not contain secret messages.

Our detention, though not a reflection of the brutal reality of the military regime, does reflect a country in decay. Our `trial' shows once again that there is no rule of law, that there are no functioning institutional structures with any degree of independence, that there are only the upper echelons of the military. Burma is starved of real information and any opportunity for its peoples to debate and solve their problems in an open and democratic fashion. The bureaucracy that was evidenced during my interrogation, imprisonment and trial shows that fear and repression has destroyed personal initiative. No country can hope to interact economically and culturally in the international community when its own so-called `government' is making such an effort to ensure that its citizens have no opportunity to understand a world outside of the warped environment created by the military propaganda machine. The insular world fabricated by the regime is not the world inhabited by the many Burmese people inside and out who continue to struggle against their inept, idiotic and brutal `government'. The regime does not have the support of the people of Burma. No human being even for a week should be deprived of their basic human rights, and no human being should have to live a lifetime of fear and deprivation at the hands of a brutal and antiquated regime that has well passed its use-by date.

Alison Vicary works in the School of Economic and Financial Studies at Macquarie University.
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Title Annotation:detention in Myanmar
Publication:Arena Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 1998

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