Autumn 2003

Street signs

The Burmese town of Pyay has government slogans on every lamppost

Since Pyay in Burma (Myanmar) opened to foreigners several years ago, it has become a convenient stopover on the road between Rangoon and Pagan. There is not much for tourists other than the Temple of the Golden Spectacles, with a Buddha who wears a giant set of gold-plated glasses. Nine monks are needed to remove them for their fortnightly cleaning. The most striking feature is its signage. Most Burmese towns display the odd slogan. Pyay has them on every lamppost.

As they walk or cycle past, Pyay’s citizens are exhorted to ‘Be Obedient’, ‘Be Patient’, ‘Restrain Oneself’, ‘Avoid Sexual Pleasure’, ‘Dwell in a suitable place’, ‘Avoid the Fool’, ‘Be Meek and Humble’ and ‘Render good service’.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962, when General Ne Win eliminated private enterprise, expelled foreigners and sealed the nation’s borders. Ever since then, the country has continued to slide further into poverty and ever deeper into the past.

In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrations broke out, but after six weeks the junta re-established control, promising multi-party elections. In 1990, the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory, but the military refused to transfer power and began arresting some of those who had been elected. Aung San Suu Kyi herself was put under house arrest. She was released in the spring of 2002 only to be arrested again on 30 May 2003, since when the world has not seen or heard anything from her.

It is oddly fitting that George Orwell was a policeman in Burma during the 1920s. Today, it is the place that most closely resembles the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Adam Deschamps, writer, photographer, London

First published in Eye no. 49 vol. 13 2003

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