Orwellian experience

Today British politicians shed crocodile tears over the repression of the Burmese regime, but the terror of Than Shwe cannot equal the brutality and arrogance endured by the Burmese people under British colonial rule from 1886 to 1948. Emily Branson comments

The colony's history was one of constant repression, of torture, imprisonment and execution. The Than Shwe junta may be notorious for its ruthless suppression of protests and demonstrations, but it had many historical precedents to imitate. In 1938, for example, in the midst of a general strike, British police shot into a crowd of protesters led by buddhist monks, killing 17 people, while in Rangoon unarmed workers and students were baton-charged, resulting in one death and scores of injuries.

George Orwell's first novel Burmese days was a scathing attack on the British and as a result could not be published in Britain - potential publishers were warned of the likelihood of lawsuits. In order to finally have it published (in the US) Orwell had to make modifications - such as changing the occupation of some of the characters from civil servants to businessmen. This made the novel more palatable by softening its denunciation of the British colonial system

The story was written after Orwell left his post in the Burma police, part of the imperial civil service. In a job like that, he wrote, you get to see "the dirty work of empire at close quarters". Having been involved in the British colonial apparatus for five years, it seems that by 1927 Orwell had come to hate the social pretentiousness of the Brits in Burma, especially their indifference to Burmese culture.

He wrote memorably of what became known as the 'shoe question'. European visitors to Burma took it upon themselves to stubbornly refuse to remove their shoes upon entering a buddhist temple or other holy place. In October 1919 a group of monks attempted to physically evict some shoe-wearing Europeans from Eindawya pagoda in Mandalay. The leader was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder.

This is an example of the ruthless reaction to even minor attempts at resistance against the mighty power of imperial Britain. Challenges to British authority and a perceived loss of prestige drove the colonials to rule with a paranoid vindictiveness.

Burma had the largest prison in the British empire, constructed near Rangoon. It goes without saying that many of the 'criminals' it housed were in reality militant opponents of British rule - not least those of the Communist Party of Burma


Wide publicity for approved message

Simon Wells on the demonstrations staged in solidarity with the protestors against the Burmese military dictatorship

On October 6, "worldwide demonstrations" were organised to show solidarity for the protestors against the Burmese military dictatorship. Actually they only took place in Thailand, Belguim, Austria, Norway, South Korea, United States, Spain, New Zealand, Australia and Britain.

The demonstration in London, sponsored by Amnesty International, the Burmese Democratic Movement Association and the Burma Campaign International (BCI), was widely reported, despite being able to muster only a thousand or so people. Nevertheless, the protest was a lead item on BBC news and was prominently covered on its website. Although the organised left was present, here was one demonstration that had the official seal of approval.

A demand that featured both in the speeches and on the placards was for imperialist intervention, usually under the auspices of the UN - "Security council action now" was a common slogan. This was to be expected with such an input from organisations like the BCI, whose leaflet stated: "We provide analysis to the media and government, and we lobby and campaign to improve government and commercial policy on Burma." Virtually absent was the call for the Burmese people themselves to organise against the regime.

Some on the demonstration did correctly point out the new-found western concern for Burma following the military dictatorship's recent well publicised actions. Up until the Rangoon protests, Bush, Brown, Merkel and Sarkozy were silent on the suffering of ordinary Burmese people and not even prioritising the plight of the imprisoned bourgeois liberal, Aung San Suu Kyi. But to coincide with the demonstrations UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari delivered a message to the Burmese generals, calling on "the Myanmar authorities to cease the repression of peaceful protest, release the detainees and move more credibly and inclusively in the direction of democratic reform, human rights and national reconciliation". Indeed the demonstrations were portrayed as an endorsement of UN actions.

One of the organisers told the BBC: "The thing is making sure the news gets into Burma, which is always a difficulty, but it does have an effect on people's morale inside the country if they feel people outside are both watching what is happening and also showing support." In fact, irrespective of the organisers' intentions, the demonstrations were used by the media to send a particular message to the junta - fall into line, if you want to be part of the international status quo. Compromise with us and there could be a role for you.

That is why this particular demonstration was afforded such wide coverage - compared, for example, to the much larger demonstration (although still only around 6,000) put on outside parliament by the Stop the War Coalition two days later. If such events are covered at all, they usually merit a 15-second clip on TV news, hopefully featuring a clash with the police or some other such distraction. There is nothing conspiratorial about this - under normal circumstances the journalists' own compliance with standards of newsworthiness in line with establishment expectations acts as a kind of self-censorship. Their labour-power is bought and sold in the market and the safe option is to meet the needs of the proprietor.

The web can be an alternative medium to highlight struggles from below, but even that is controlled by the market and is highly regulated and monitored. We are free to criticise the slogans of the Burma demonstration - and its coverage. However, our views are lucky to get a hearing in the bourgeois media. The demand for media democratisation ought to be a working class priority.