Voices from Taipei's Burmese community

Over spicy ginger salad or fish and tomato curry, the Burmese community can freely discuss their views and concerns, and trade news about what is going on in Burma.

By Trista di Genova
The China Post
See article on China Post website

Tucked away in a bustling area of Chunghe City, Taipei County is a “Burmese ghetto,” a collection of Burmese eateries that’s a meeting place for Taipei’s estimated 30,000 Burmese.

And there is much to discuss about Burma. In 1988, Nobel Peace prize winner Aung Sung Suu Kyi’s party won elections which under normal circumstances would have made her prime minister, but the military has kept her under house arrest off an on ever since. Two weeks ago, the Myanmar military opened fire on crowds of protesters led by monks. The brutal suppression that followed was not detailed in the ensuing media blackout, but witnesses spoke of house raids and bloodied monasteries. No fewer than 1,000 monks disappeared.

Here in Taiwan, over spicy ginger salad, fish and tomato curry, coconut noodles, pickled vegetables, and Indian chai, views and concerns can be freely discussed.

One restaurant owner, “Miss Wu,” arrived 20 years ago. Like many other Burmese, she was drawn by Taiwan’s prosperous economy of the 1980s. It was easy to emigrate, she says. But no one wants to return to Burma now; there are curfews, people can’t go out at night. There’s the worsening living standards, rising inflation, and “the flies everywhere.” She can hardly read Burmese anymore.

One of her customers, a security guard, has a son there, a hotelier. He visits Burma once a year and says the schools are all closed now. “Only if you’re a businessman can you enjoy the usual amenities.” He spoke of the wealth of national resources: gas, oil, jewels, timber and fishstocks “like Taiwan in the 60s.”

It’s a police state, he says, and very unsafe to talk about politics — “gambling and prostitution are okay, everything except politics.” Most people don’t dare protest, he said, because of the cameras. Even military generals are “arrested and taken away” if uncooperative.

As for politicians, “The only person that doesn’t make false promises is Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said. As for freeing her, “Forget about it. It will never happen. Only when she’s dead or 80 will they let her escape.”

His five sons all wanted to “to get the hell out” of Burma. Three went to the U.S. He compared overseas Burmese to Taiwanese living abroad: “Burma’s always in our hearts,” he said, “We Burmese are good-hearted.” And, “We don’t care about democracy.” In his view, the real danger is minority groups pursuing independence and the country falling into chaos.

Another man at first declined to speak. Third generation Fujianese, he also arrived in Taiwan 20 years ago, and compared the occupation in Burma to Suharto’s Indonesia or the Philippines under Marcos: “Everyone is very rich or very poor.” The country’s resources have been swallowed up, he said, nationalized and prey to nepotism. The average salary is US$30 a month “unless you’re in with government circles,” he said, citing the “leader’s daughter’s husband” owning Asia Burma airlines. His elder brother is in the military and doing well in the hotel business, catering to Southeast Asian tourists.

To “invoke good luck,” he was a monk three times — at age 7, in high school and after university. Entering a monastery is also common when parents can’t afford to raise or educate their children, he explained. He described the recent crackdown as “the government irresponsibly suppresses the monks.”

The 1988 uprising was about democracy. “But this time what bothers people is living conditions, rising prices,” he said. Gas prices rose 600-fold, bringing transportation to a halt. Further, “People are unhappy because they have no influence on what happens. North Korea-style sanctions do nothing.” And if groups in society resort to violence, “there will be slaughter.”

He described two military factions. Neither is promoting democracy or liberating Aung Sang; one is just more tolerant of the monks. He said “The government is afraid she would open the markets to America and Europe — and China would be unhappy, too.”

He compared the military to the Taliban: “If you protest, you’re arrested and your family targeted. The only solution is military intervention, using advanced weapons to assassinate people in the military. It worked in the 1960s in America.”
Additional reporting and translation by Nicholas E. Veitch.