Personality Cults

Joshua Kurlantzick

  • Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin Wintle
    Hutchinson, 450 pp, £18.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 09 179651 8

For the first time in nearly twenty years, Burma has burst into open protest against the military junta, captivating the world with its ‘saffron revolution’. Across the country, monks have led massive demonstrations, joined by civil servants, prominent cultural figures and tens of thousands of ordinary people. Throngs of red-robed monks have marched through the streets of Rangoon, waving banners and religious flags. When Burma’s military surrounded the city, the monks crouched in front of them, defiantly reciting odes to loving kindness, chanting prayers, and singing the national anthem. Their courage has rallied terrified citizens in the face of troops who have stormed monasteries, jailed thousands of protesters and killed at least ten and possibly hundreds more. The UN Security Council met on 26 September to consider the crisis, the day after President Bush had announced tougher US sanctions on the junta’s leaders.

If much of the world was surprised by the protests, Burma hands were not: the country’s political and economic crisis has deepened considerably in the past few years. When I reported from Burma in the 1990s, it was unusual to see homeless people in the city streets. On a trip last year, I saw emaciated women sleeping rough on Rangoon’s rutted pavements. I passed children sleeping inside mesh cages like those wealthy Westerners use to transport dogs. There were frequent blackouts and parts of the city were in darkness for hours at a time. With the economy stagnant, and as much as 60 per cent of the population in some parts of the country living below the poverty line, many people could not even afford rice. Things are only likely to get worse.

The junta’s response to the uprising – shooting at unarmed demonstrators, defrocking monks, shutting down the press and internet servers, and accusing ‘neocolonialists’ and ‘political opportunists’ of secretly engineering the protests – makes clear how isolated and paranoid the regime has become. Ten years ago, many Western diplomats dismissed the junta’s titular leader, Senior General Than Shwe, as an uneducated thug who hadn’t even finished secondary school. Surely he couldn’t last at the head of the army; in-fighting would crack the regime and provide an opening for political change in the country he and his men had renamed ‘Myanmar’ in 1989. But the thug proved the diplomats wrong. Than Shwe has dismissed the few generals willing to engage with the West, and has built ties with North Korea, which is now selling him arms. There were more than a thousand political prisoners in Burma’s jails even before the recent demonstrations began. Apparently an admirer of Burma’s ancient kings – at his daughter’s wedding, supplicants bowed and scraped before her – he has created a personality cult in the state media. Over the past few years, the regime has closed the few semi-open publications in Burma and forced out even the most benign international NGOs, leading the Red Cross, normally slow to criticise governments, to blame Burma’s generals for causing ‘immense suffering for thousands of people’. The regime has also created its own version of the Brownshirts, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a mass movement of young people who travel around harassing government opponents. Two years ago, reportedly on a day selected by astrologers, Than Shwe moved the seat of government from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a small town in the jungle heart of the country, installing the generals far from their miserable and angry people. Burma has the worst HIV/Aids problem in South-East Asia; its healthcare system is ranked second worst in the world. There are as many as 650,000 internally displaced people in the east of the country as a result of government campaigns against ethnic minorities.

In the early 1960s, when the military seized power, the West took just enough interest to give tacit support to the junta, which positioned itself as a bulwark against Communism, but not enough to lavish funds on the country, as was the case with Thailand. Over the following decades, Thailand’s military leaders allowed significant trade links with the West; the Burmese junta, by contrast, became increasingly xenophobic and isolated.

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