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The War Nerd May 20, 2003
Burma: They Ainít Like Us
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 2 of 2
He and the BIA took over, there were parades, everybody cheered, and everything went to Hell like it always did in these third-world guerrilla dictatorships. Like every other tropical Big Guy, Ne Win went from smart guerrilla leader to total loony. From 1948 he shared the top job with some other Army brass, but in 1962 he staged a coup and became uno. That's when these dictators get really weird, and Ne Win lived up to the stereotype. He had the Burmese currency issued in bills of 45 and 90, because nine was his lucky number. He took baths in dolphin's blood because some witchdoctor told him it would help him handle the royal concubines better. He tried to turn the place into a quiet farm country, banning all foreign influence -- sort of like a softcore Pol Pot. Naturally, all that happened was that Burma ended up poor, isolated and pissed-off.

Meanwhile, all this "national liberation" talk sifted down to the other tribes, and they started thinking about liberation from the Burmese. In the South, there was a long, slow, bloody war between the Karen tribe and the Burmese Army. The Karen had a lot of handicaps, starting with the fact that their tribe has a girl's name. They're a small tribe, about six per cent of the population, with no weapons or allies. But the Army managed to piss them off enough to start fighting. Naturally they used the "national liberation" tag to name their little club: the "Karen National Liberation Army" or KNLA. The Karen are mostly Christian, and the Burmese mostly Buddhist, so it was sort of a religious war. The KNLA was never strong enough to fight the Burmese Army openly, so they slunk around a strip of jungle on the Thai border, moving from one side of the border to the other to keep the heat off.

The other tribal rebels, the Shan (eight per cent of the population), live in northeastern Burma, and grow a little opium. More than a little in fact. The Burmese Army doesn't like that -- they want to corner the Opium market for themselves.

Up in the northwest, where Burma meets India, there's another slow bush war between the Nagas and the Burmese and Indian Armies. The Naga are classic "hill tribe" material: they slink around the little bits of jungle still left and try to live the old ways. Since they started fighting in 1954, 200,000 people died in this war, and nobody even heard of it. The war in India finally ended a few months ago, when a new Indian government actually bothered to notice the Naga. Turned out that was about all they wanted, and it was settled fast.

Nothing that sensible is going to happen in Burma. When Ne Win finally resigned in 1988, Burmese students rioted out of sheer relief. They thought things would get better fast. Instead Ne Win's comrades killed thousands of students. By the time Ne Win died in 2002, this bunch of shadowy generals was in complete control.

These call themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the kind of really boring name SE Asian groups pick. It's a real SE Asian thing, keeping everything quiet and staying out of the spotlight. Pol Pot wouldn't even let people take pictures of him.

The only political celebrity in Burma is the famous dissident lady Aung San Suu Kyi. Like a lot of female third-world heroines (Megawati, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi), she comes from a big political family. She's had it easy so far, under house arrest. Before she was freed (May 2002), all she had to do is stay home and look pitiful. Now everybody's expecting her to sweep in and turn Burma into a happy land full of strip malls and SUVs. But the more you look at the history of the place, the less likely that looks.

And you know what? The world doesn't need another Fresno. Believe me.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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Save The eXile: The War Nerd Calls Mayday
The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

Scanning Moscowís Traffic Cops
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We’re happy to introduce a new column in which we publish Moscow’s raw radio communications, courtesy of a Russian amateur radio enthusiast. This issue, eXile readers are given a peek into the secret conversations of Moscow’s traffic police, the notorious "GAIshniki."

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Everybody complains about celebrities, but nobody does anything about them. People, it’s time to stop fretting about whether we’re a celebrity-obsessed culture—we are, we have been, we’re going to be—and instead take practical steps to clean up the celebrity-obsessed culture we’ve got...


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