Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Burmese are tuned-in with high hopes

This is the second post in a series based on information I gathered while inside Burma last week.

I sat down in a street side coffee shop and ordered some fresh orange juice.

Joseph, a construction industry supervisor, a Burmese Christian, joined me at my table.

“Burma has been the news,” I said to Joseph, attempting to broach the subject.

Joseph laughed. “The news? Yes. I’ve heard the news!”

“Lok Chen turn on the BBC!” His nephew grabbed the remote and changed the channel -- the kid was watching some kind of Thai soap -- to BBC World. Hardtalk.

I was a bit shocked. “You get BBC World?”

“Satellite.” Joseph replied. Then he looked at his watch. “Lok Chen, get us the shortwave radio. It’s time for VOA!”

Lok Chen produced a small shortwave radio. The boy fiddled with the dial. Lots of static.

At first I couldn’t make out coherent speech in any language. Joseph assured me that the radio was tuned to the Burmese language service of Voice of America. Lok Chen sat with us at the table and we all listened.

“Local news, all liars” Joseph said. “VOA, BBC – that’s where we Burmese get the real news -- real local news.”

What does the future hold in store for Burma?

“Smooth and easy. Smooth and easy.”

Not expecting this answer, I asked him to explain.

“The world will pressure the Burmese government to change.”

“What about China?”

“Bad, bad place. Burmese don’t like China.”


“India’s balancing. Not good, not bad. Balancing.”

His impression of the US, Japan, Europe and Thailand was very favorable. (“Thailand is a free country. . . Japan has factories, good business. . . .”)

A more good natured man than Joseph I have never met. But there was tinge of sadness behind his outward cheer. He had lost his wife only two years ago, and his teenage daughters were studying in Rangoon.

“BBC local Burma news – in Burmese -- is at nine. VOA local news is at 10pm.” He told me both networks offer twice daily news reports. “BBC and VOA are real news, not LIAR’S news of the Burmese government -- Burmese government LIARS.”

Then Joseph said, "Everyone in Burma is listening to BBC and VOA.”

“Do the soldiers listen to VOA and BBC?” I asked.

“Military listen with one ear. But the Burmese people listen with two ears."

On the way back to my hotel -- it must have been close to midnight – I passed a man by the side of the road. The sound of shortwave radio static. The muffled voices. The man held the a similar model of shortwave receiver to his ear, the radio gleamed in the moonlight. Sitting in the bushes by the side of a Burmese road at midnight, this man too was also listening -- with two ears.

The next day, meeting a monk, I said: “VOA, BBC?”

He smiled. “VOA. BBC. Yes!"

My talk with the monk is the subject of the next post in this series.

Photo: Jotman
Video: In the video clip Joseph says he's counting on the UN.

Commentary: What was unexpected to me was not only how media savvy Joseph was, but how publicly Joseph displayed his media. I mean we were seated in a cafe open to the street. Anyone who happened to be walking down the street could have seen that we were watching BBC World, or heard a radio tuned in to VOA. Perhaps, still mourning the loss of his wife, his daughters away in Rangoon, Joseph had reached a point of almost reckless indifference to his own security. Or maybe police don't care if Burmese listen to shortwave radios or BBC. Thinking of the man I passed at the side of the road, I'm tempted to think the police must not care.

. . . not LIARS' news of the Burmese government . . . LIARS. Joseph made this remark a number of times. Unlike the frightened boys I had spoken with outside the temple, Joseph had no hesitations about speaking his mind to me. I cannot forget the way he intoned the word "liars." I feel the printed fails to convey the depths of Joseph's contempt for Burma's junta; something his spoken word accomplished.

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