Burma: Orwellian state, with teashops

People waiting for the bus near Sule Pagoda, Rangoon
In central Rangoon, life goes on regardless of the politics
The BBC's Kate McGeown has just returned from Burma, where she talked to people about life under its repressive military regime. In the first of a series of articles, she gives her impressions of a nation the international community seems at a loss to know what to do with.

As I stepped down from the plane onto Burmese soil, my head full of warnings about spies watching my every move, I was pleasantly surprised to find friendly faces rushing to greet me.

"Thank you so much for coming," said an elderly man, smiling through betel-stained teeth.

Where was the Orwellian nightmare I had been warned about? Where were the police ready to cart me off to jail because they had found out I was a journalist?

The sun was shining, the people were open and friendly... it seemed like any other Asian country. I found it hard not to wonder what all the fuss was about.

But it did not take long to find evidence of Burma's darker side.

Even in rural areas, no one can be sure who is spying for the military

Barely 20 minutes along the main highway from the airport, I saw a road leading off to the right that was completely shut off by heavily-armed police.

The tight security was not surprising, given that the road led to the home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose term of house arrest had been extended just days before my ar*****.

Local people never mention Ms Suu Kyi by name - they just call her The Lady, a term of deference towards a woman whom many Burmese, probably the vast majority, believe is the rightful leader of their nation.

Despite spending more than 10 of the last 17 years as a prisoner, she remains the main symbol of resistance against the military regime that has ruled Burma for four decades, and which often uses fear and intimidation to keep people in line.

Gossip

Against this backdrop, Burma's 50 million citizens carry on with their daily lives as best they can.

Down the road from Aung San Suu Kyi's house, the people of Rangoon queue for the city's crowded buses, huddle in shops with working generators during the frequent power cuts or play their own version of the Thai national lottery.

Then they do what all Burmese do, and stop in one of the many teashops to gossip about the weather and the football.

But that does not mean that their anger at the military regime has disappeared. If you talk to someone about their life, any veneer of contentment will usually evaporate.

BURMA FACTFILE
Population of 50 million
Largely made up of Bamar people, but there are many other ethnic groups.
Coup led by General Ne Win in 1962 heralded the start of military rule.
Opposition won 1990 election but never allowed to take power.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.


One day, as we drove past a peaceful rural scene of villagers ploughing paddy fields with their oxen, I asked my taxi driver for his views on the political situation.

He had been singing a song to himself, but his face suddenly turned red and angry, and he said: "I hate the people who rule this country. My hatred of the government knows no bounds."

In fact he got so upset that we had to stop the car so he could calm down.

Another man became equally animated when I asked him about the secret military informants who lurk around ever corner.

"They're like a virus - a disease ripping this country apart," he said. "They are everywhere, and they see everything we do.

"So many of my friends have been caught and jailed over the years - some for doing hardly anything. So many lives have been ruined."

Speaking out

It is hardly surprising that emotions run so high.

I was only in Burma for a short time, but I quickly found out how uncomfortable it is to be under surveillance - albeit by a somewhat amateur spy.

Teashop in Rangoon

Drinking tea is a way of life throughout Burma
On my first day, a man walked into the lobby of my hotel and pretended to read a newspaper near where I was sitting.

He did not turn the page for 20 minutes, but the real giveaway was that the paper - a week-old copy of The Straits Times - was upside-down.

Despite the obvious personal risks of talking to a foreigner, many Burmese people were still willing to put aside their fears and share their lives with me.

They told me about their healthcare system, their schools, their views on the government and the extraordinary decision to move the country's capital to what was, until a few years ago, a rural backwater.

One day a tour guide showing me round one of the Burma's many pagodas turned to me and whispered: "Please let other people know what it's like for us here. We need the outside world to understand."