Public blitzes junta with letters

A handwritten letter to a military dictator may sound like an ineffective and risky way of conveying defiance especially in this Internet age, where e-mails, blogs and websites have combined to threaten political authority in a number of countries. But in Burma, where a strict censorship regime is in force, and where access to information technology is limited, the good, old-fashioned letter is taken recourse to by the country’s long-suffering people to express growing dissatisfaction with Rangoon’s junta.

A letter-writing campaign, launched in the first week of the new year, saw tens of thousands of people in and around Rangoon seeking the special envelopes and sheets of paper meant for this drive, say the organisers, a highly respected group of former university students, known as the ‘88-Generation Students’.

“This is an effort to break the silence. To get people to openly write about their grievances to the military government,” adds Naing Aung, secretary-general of the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a group of Burmese political exiles who work closely with the 88-Generation. “It is not enough to just complain. This is to get people to show their courage by standing up and openly identifying themselves as critics.” The month-long letter-writing drive, known as the ‘Open Heart’ campaign, is the latest effort by the 88-Generation to “raise the people’s voices,” Naing Aung explained in an interview.

“It is a peaceful way of expressing the public’s views, because protests are banned, the media is censored, and there are no elections.” Yet this effort, where the people are encouraged to directly address Burma’s strongman, Than Shwe, with the problems they face, comes with a high personal risk, including a jail term, if it provokes the ire of the junta. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, currently holds over 1,100 people from various backgrounds in jails for expressing their thoughts.

It is an emerging political undercurrent that has also struck journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a radio and television station that has its headquarters in Oslo and is run by Burmese political exiles. “More and more people inside Burma are voicing their anger through our programmes,” Than Win Htut, a Democratic Voice of Burma senior reporter said. “Some have even walked for half a day to get to a telephone from their village to criticise the SPDC’s inefficiency or abuse of power.” Such momentum has been taking shape over the past two to three years, he adds. Among the factors that have triggered this rising tide of discontent is the arrest of the country’s former intelligence chief and Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt and his allies, say Burma analysts.

“The economy has shrunk noticeably since the purge of Khin Nyunt,” Debbie Stothard of the Alternate ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Network on Burma, a human rights lobby, said.

“The business people who had benefited lost out. And the sense of dissatisfaction grew wider, with many becoming fed up with Than Shwe, who has diverted money to his own small clique.” “The sense of outrage and anger is growing,” she added. “There is a feeling that change is very possible and that is why more and more people are taking risks to speak out,” she said. — IPS