"Nukes in Burma": a traveler's report

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An email from a reader who was in Burma earlier this year. Background here and here, and generally on Burma here. FWIW, the reader's accounts of conversations on the streets in Burma resemble my experience in three trips there over the past 20 years:

"For me, the strangest thing about the news of nukes in Burma is that I first heard it in January -- from a seemingly average guy on the street in Burma.
 
"During my two weeks of travel around Burma, many people would come up to me when no one was looking, start with a few friendly words, then progress into a series of terrible stories about their government: beatings, arbitrary taxation, health care withheld from pregnant women, children forced into the military, monks who were taken by police and never seen again...
 
"A few stories seemed at first to be possible paranoia, but I eventually started believing them:

"Your rickshaw driver is a spy"

"That seemed unlikely since he was a very poor looking guy, and why would they care about me?  But a shop keeper pointed out-- That guy speaks some English, so why can't he get a better job?  I've lived in this town all my life, I know every rickshaw driver, and I've never seen this one until recently... I sometimes see drivers like this with radios, talking to the police... They are spies who report what foreigners are saying and where they are going.  They rotate between different cities so that people won't recognize them.  I would never speak to you while he is nearby.
 
"Many monks are spies"
"That also initially seemed like paranoia.  But one day a monk started walking along with me and told his stories about the government-- he was one of the protesters from August 2007 who the police were still searching for.  Anytime another monk walked by, he would immediately drop the conversation and wouldn't resume for several minutes.  He said that was because the government had installed spies all over the monasteries, to the point that a monk couldn't trust another monk-- what better way to squelch organized protest?
 
"China is teaching our government how to oppress"
"This seemed to be the general consensus.  But how could people have any information about this while being poor and uneducated, with no news sources? (Other than the VOA broadcasts which I saw several people listening to.)  Then I also heard that the government has sold oil to China at below market prices-- in exchange for what?  China has paid for the development of roads-- that lead to China.  Burma has oil; China needs oil.
(Apparently India, South Korea, and Japan are buying Burmese oil-- decreasing Chinese leverage, but giving more money to the government.)
 
"The government is buying nuclear weapons from North Korea"
"A guy in his 50's came up to me on the street and started telling some of the same stories of oppression that I had heard from so many other people.  He went on to say that the government is very rich from its monopoly on of the country's natural resources, and the money is used to buy weapons. "The government is buying so many weapons, but which country is their enemy?  The people are their enemy."   He went on to say that the government is now trying to buy nuclear weapons from North Korea.   How could a seemingly average guy on the street know something like that?  Wouldn't it be a closely guarded secret?  I dismissed it a paranoid rumor, until Hillary Clinton said the same thing six months later.
 
"Another unexpected thing I heard was "I like George Bush".  In January 2009 that was an unlikely statement anywhere in the world. I didn't hear it often in Burma, but more than once.  The reason was simply that he had invaded Iraq and taken out an oppressive government. Another person asked "Why can't America do that to our government?  You can just use those planes with no pilots that you fly over Pakistan."  (Of course, this could have the same result as in Iraq, since Burma is similarly composed of people with a history of fighting each other.)   I've traveled a fair amount and Burma is certainly the only place I've been where people would suggest, with a glimmer of hope, maybe America will attack our country."
 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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