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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Letter from Rangoon

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, May 6, 2004

As soon as I stepped out of the opposition headquarters in Rangoon, the military intelligence agent jumped up from his table at the tea shop across the road. He picked up his camera, with its long telephoto lens, and began snapping photos of me.

A colleague of mine, who happened to be sitting at the tea shop, asked him why he was photographing every foreigner who came out of the opposition office. He mumbled something about being a photographer from the New Light of Myanmar, the propaganda newspaper of Myanmar's military dictatorship.

This was a rather peculiar explanation. If he was genuinely a photo-journalist, he would presumably have been attending the press conference that was taking place inside the opposition headquarters at that very moment. Instead, he showed no interest in it.

In fact the well-dressed man was an agent of the notorious MI, the secret military agents who monitor and suppress any signs of dissent in Myanmar, including any signs of contact between foreigners and the democratic opposition party, the National League for Democracy, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

A day earlier, NLD members had warned me about the military agents who were sitting at the tea shop. The agents are keeping a close watch on the opposition headquarters, which was finally allowed to reopen last month, more than 10 months after the regime shut it down.

It's a little difficult to understand why the regime is so worried about the NLD. Most of the party's leaders are elderly and in poor health. Its newly reopened office is dusty and ramshackle.

After a brief surge of visitors in the first days after the reopening, only a few dozen opposition supporters were still at the office by last week. The party seems disorganized and almost haphazard in its work.

In fact it's not the NLD that the junta fears the most. What the generals really fear is the growing anger of Myanmar's people. Most people are fed up with the regime and wish it would go away, even if they don't yet dare to go onto the streets to protest.

They don't dare to protest because the MI agents are everywhere. Rangoon is enveloped in a climate of fear. When I asked a taxi driver to take me to the Ministry of Home Affairs for an interview with a senior police officer, the cabbie was too frightened to stop at the entrance. Instead, he dropped me off around the corner, at a row of food stalls, where the police could not see him.

After more than 40 years in power, the military regime is as opaque and mysterious as ever. Among diplomats in Rangoon, the main guessing game is whether the regime might actually take steps towards democracy when it launches a constitutional convention on May 17.

Some observers think the regime is finally getting serious about democracy, yet the evidence is slim. The regime's harassment of opposition supporters has actually increased in recent months, diplomats say.

Just as in the old days of Kremlinology in Moscow, diplomats here are reduced to making wild guesses from small ambiguous signals.

When a recent issue of Reader's Digest was allowed into Myanmar with an uncensored article about Ms. Suu Kyi, this was seen as a possible sign of progress, even though the lady herself remained under house arrest.

When a group of opposition supporters was allowed to walk together through the capital , diplomats debated whether it was a genuine protest march or whether it was merely a Buddhist procession that the regime had tolerated because it coincided with a religious holiday.

As one observer told me, this is a country where the reconnection of an NLD telephone line is considered a major breakthrough.

But while the regime keeps a tight grip on Rangoon, its dominance fails to extend to every region. Along the northern and eastern borders, insurgent armies of ethnic minorities have gained a large measure of independence. While the regime tries to manipulate the guerrilla armies with trade concessions and economic deals, the ethnic regions are largely beyond its control.

In the Wa and eastern Shan State regions, near the Chinese border, I found a relaxed free-market atmosphere that contrasted sharply with the severe restrictions in Rangoon.

In Rangoon, for example, it had cost me several hundred dollars to file a couple of stories and messages from my hotel room, because the Internet is so tightly controlled that you have to phone long distance (at $12 per minute) to send an e-mail message.

In the ethnic regions, by contrast, e-mail was a breeze, with high-speed connections at Internet cafes that are linked to the Chinese phone system.

The dominant authorities in the border regions are the tribal armies: the United Wa State Army and the eastern Shan State army, among others. Their soldiers are outfitted in crisp green uniforms, with grenades and ammunition belts strapped around them.

The Wa army proudly boasted to me that it was planning to execute drug dealers on June 26 during the United Nations international day against illicit drugs. This caused some consternation at the UN drug-control agency, which hastened to tell me that they would advise against it.

While the Wa are planning to ban the opium trade by next July, the real problem here is the abject poverty of the people. The drug wealth is concentrated in the hands of the Chinese merchants and the tribal army commanders. The ordinary opium farmers are dirt-poor and soon to get much poorer when the ban takes effect.

When I visited a family toiling to prepare a rice paddy, I found their 12-year-old son working beside them in the field. I asked how much it would cost to put the boy in school. They said the annual school fee is about five "old coins" – the silver Indian rupees that are used by opium merchants. It is the equivalent of just $16. But because they cannot afford it, their son is doomed to a lifetime of poverty.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.