Emerald cool we may be,
As waterin cupped hands
But oh that we might be
As splinters of glass
In cupped hands
-Aung San Suu Kyi
Around two hundred kilometers from Mandalay, in the war-torn region of north-east Burma, there exists an obscure town called Hsipaw which sits on an invisible border that does not appear on any map. The activities that go on in the thick jungles that stretch beyond the town are not amenable to tourism, so foreigners are forbidden to travel any further, and anyone caught doing so is subject to immediate deportation.
I arrived around mid-afternoon in a rickety train dating back to the time of the British Empire, and descended into a maze of dusty, shack-lined streets in search of a palace that had once been home to the last king of the Shan people. The man was named Sao Kya Seng, and he disappeared in military custody shortly after the coup d’état of 1962. The coup that made the country what it is today.
It took a while to find, since the town has almost no road signs. There are no road signs because, just like in most of the rest of Burma, there are almost no real roads, just dirt paths running between sparse uneven rows of deteriorating lean-tos. Asking for directions was also a challenge, because in spite of its old imperial connections, practically no one in the country speaks English anymore. Besides, it is dangerous to speak to bystanders. They might disappear if the wrong people see them engaged in conversation with a foreigner.
The old palace was overgrown with tall grass and weeds. The military had long since seized the farming and other equipment that had once maintained the property. The dilapidated royal residence would barely have passed in Canada for a regular middle-class house. Double-checking the map to make sure that this desolate landscape was indeed the place I was looking for, I let myself in through the untended gate. It was only a few steps to the front door, but before I could knock, it was opened wide by a diminutive white haired man of late middle age in a button-up shirt and white khaki pants. Vigilance can be a life-saving trait in that part of the world, and he had obviously seen me coming. He introduced himself as Sao Oo Kya, the nephew of the absent monarch, and invited me in with impeccable English, a testimony of his royal education.
Ostensibly a tour guide, he briefly guided me around the grounds telling me about the history of the palace and the dynasty. Historically minded tourists came by once in a while to get a tour of the place, he told me, and the revenue he derived from this was how he supported his wife and two small children.
His burnished round face lit up with nostalgia as he showed me dusty black and white pictures of the royalty of which he was the last remaining scion. He mentioned several books that had been published abroad about his family, explaining how his ancestors had overseen the public affairs of this region for nearly six hundred years. I listened attentively, then started in with some questions.
I had my notepad out, and could see that it made him nervous.
“Who are you,” he asked hesitantly, “and why do you want to know these things?”
I introduced myself, explaining that I had been directed to him by members of the underground resistance in Mandalay, and that I was planning to write about Burma after my trip was finished.
“Then you need to be careful,” he murmured quietly, sitting down. “Very careful. I’ve already checked the house for bugs and wiretaps this morning. We can speak freely, here. But if I see you in the street tomorrow, I will just walk by without saying hello. Make sure you do the same.”
I promised him that I would.
Now, before I go on, I feel a little elaboration is necessary for a full understanding of the situation. After all, Myanmar, as the country is now formally called, barely exists. It is certainly a nonentity in the cluttered mind of the western world. Almost no one from North America would be able to find it on an unlabelled globe. Say the name of it where I am from and many people will ask you what the word means. They will not recognize it as the name of a nation.
There are reasons for this.
The country has been under information lockdown for 49 years. There is next to no internet, and what does exist is restricted and monitored around the clock. There are very few books. Those that can be found are generally military propaganda, and those that are not are hidden from the authorities in secret caches of private collectors. There are no free newspapers and no real universities. Cell phones are prohibited, and possession of an unauthorized fax machine is a crime punishable by years in prison.
The country is a Buddhist one, and portraits of an avuncular general decorate all of its key pagodas and temples. This angelic warlord is Than Shwe, the senior officer of the current junta. He is the head of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is internationally renowned for promoting peace and development through torture, mass murder, rape and imprisonment without trial. He is also behind the “social welfare” organization called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) which is used by the military to attack political opponents and suppress dissent. It is the same organization that attempted to assassinate Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi on May 30, 2003, in an attack which resulted in 100 of her supporters being beaten to death. The People’s Power Group (PSAS) has also been organized by Mr. Shwe’s junta, composed of civilians who are paid about 3,000 kyat (approximately two dollars) per day to attack anyone who demonstrates against the government. They are also known to infiltrate peaceful demonstrations and commit mock-attacks on government officials, in order to justify military response.
General Than Shwe, who has ruled the country for the past eighteen years, never speaks to the Burmese people and never appears in public. He does not have to.
Sao Oo Kya told me about his younger brother, Hkun Htun Oo, who had been head of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and won 20% of the popular vote in the 1990 election. He would have been the head of the official opposition of Aung San Suu Kyi, if the election results had been recognized by the junta. He has now vanished into a military “insane asylum” somewhere deep in the northern jungle.
He told me how, two days before I had arrived, the police had raided his house and searched it top to bottom, finding nothing incriminating. Then he went in the kitchen and came back with a box of forbidden books that they had not found. God knows where he had hidden them. I picked through the contraband. They all looked like they had been read countless times. Every one of them had been smuggled in, sub rosa, by sympathetic foreigners. Every one was a dark simile of years in prison.
Since all writing about the country is critical of the current regime, almost all foreign literature about Burma is banned. Bags are purged at immigration so that practically the only books you can get in with are travel guides, and these are very restricted in the names and statements they can safely publish, because the writers know that whatever they say will be gone over with a fine-tooth comb by the military. Talk about the wrong person in the wrong context, and they just might cease to exist. This means that, ironically, all public writing about the nation must necessarily be limited to descriptions of the unmentionables like Than Shwe, while an invisible army of unnamables, like Sao Oo Kya, is relegated to backpacker word of mouth.
The old man pulled out a well-thumbed copy of “Animal Farm.”
“This is my favorite book,” he said with a smile. “It was the first one I ever got from a tourist. He told me that immigration only let it in because they thought it was a textbook on animal husbandry!” He laughed morosely.
He showed me letters he had received from foreign governments. France had invited him to tour their country. Germany had summoned him to Berlin, and even provided a prepaid plane ticket in the envelope with the letter. I glanced over the documents, jarred to recall that the little man at my side really was an internationally respected potentate from an ancient royal family. He put the materials away, explaining that he could not get a passport from his own government to allow him to leave the country. No one unconnected with the military can ever get a passport.
We talked economics. He told me of the vast timber, fisheries, natural gas, jade, copper and other resources of his people’s land that were being exploited. He described how the properties of the old British “Burma Corporation Ltd.”, which used to be one of the richest companies in the world, have now become dismantled into a mad scramble for wealth between China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and South Korea. He explained how, in the Bay of Bengal, the Burmese military is drilling billions of dollars a year in crude oil, and piping it to all to Bangkok, reminding me that the average per capita annual income in Burma is just a little over one hundred dollars. He told me how the kyat currency had decreased in value by 1,500,000% on the world market since 1962, thanks to the mismanagement of the military regime.
He explained how the junta command was moving its government offices to a new administrative capital in Naypyidaw, a thick jungle area 300 kilometers from Yangon. This was being done at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, to reduce the effectiveness of a possible American military attack, as Yangon is right on the coastline and would be a much easier target.
He told me off the plight of his people. As bad as it is for the Burmese majority of the country (that is, the Bamar people), he declared that it was incomparably worse for the minority groups. From a military intelligence standpoint, Myanmar is divided into three classifications: black zones, where the Karen, Shan and other insurgent minorities maintain mobile villages and nominal control; brown zones, where land is contested; and white zones, where the SPDC troops, known as the Tatmadaw, have complete and irresistible dominance. In recent years, the white zone has coalesced into a roughly diamond shape, with one tip at Mandalay and the other at Yangon.
War is constant. Any brown zone community may be subject at any time to sudden and unprovoked Tatmadaw attacks. The soldiers often burn the villages, kill the livestock and plant land mines around the village to harm any who return. Rape of minority women is officially condoned as a weapon of war. Since Burma defines ethnicity through the father, children born through violation mean one less minority and one more Burmese.
He told me all this, and much more. He was angry, ferociously angry. Yet he was also very clear and deliberate in his speech. In spite of the whiteness of his hair and the wealth of his years, it was obvious that there was nothing foggy about his remarkable mind. It had been etched forever with a thousand unforgettable horrors. His family murdered and imprisoned, his people suffering from genocidal persecution, his house searched and possessions seized, his wife and children in constant mortal danger, and worst of all, the full knowledge the whole time that he was absolutely powerless to stop any of it.
We talked until three, and when I left the house, he deemed it dark enough to risk walking me to the gate. As we stood together in the overgrown grass at the threshold to his property he shook my hand and whispered in an animated voice, “Everything that we discussed, write about it! Write it down and let people know! You must understand how much your words can matter! Knowledge is the key!”
The weathered old gentleman smiled and waved to me one last time as I walked out the gate, before he finally turned away and shuffled slowly back to his house. I returned his salute and watched him disappear into the darkness, the solitary head of a dying ethnicity, long abandoned by everything but his own nightmares.
Two months after I met him, Sao Oo Kya was arrested and taken into military custody. On September 30, 2005, the 66 year-old man was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for “operating as an unlicensed tour guide, defaming the state and being in violation of the restrictions imposed under the Habitual Offenders Act.” The police had discovered that two tourists had written “Thank you for telling us about the real Myanmar” in his guestbook, and that was enough evidence to convict him. His wife is now alone, and the Shan palace has been completely shut off to foreigners ever since.
So another man disappears. A dynasty that had lasted eight centuries abruptly ends. Two years later Buddhist monks are shot down marching in the streets. The year after that a typhoon levels the capital city and hundreds of thousands die while the junta refuses entrance to international aid.
Nothing changes. Just one atrocity after another in an invisible country where so much happens without anything happening. People in armchairs squint at unpronounceable names and fold up the newspaper to go to work. World leaders tighten sanctions again and remonstrate against tyranny again. The United Nations sends representatives again, bickers between its members again.
I wrote the words that told the story, and the story passed through hands and screens and minds and faded away as newer and more photogenic disasters arose. It never made it into the newspapers. So the story died, perhaps with the man. Or perhaps not. Maybe, somewhere in a country we cannot find on the map, he is grinding out his last, unimaginable days in prison, waiting in a filthy cell to see if anyone can find the time to care.
 Compare the four ministries of the government of George Orwell’s “1984”: The Ministry of Love, that tortures and executes, The Ministry of Peace, that directs the war, The Ministry of Plenty, that rations the food, and The Ministry of Truth, that falsifies and retouches the media. It is also significant to note that Orwell lived in Burma for four formative years, where he served in the Indian Imperial Police. He knew both the Burmese and Shaw-Karen languages, and wrote his first novel there: “Burmese Days.”
 Note: Than Shwe recently died in March of 2011, and has since been replaced by his hand-picked successor, a similarly shadowy figure named Thein Sein. This was written previous to the changeover.