Britain’s dirty Burma secret

The military regime used to be our friend.

Whatever the official results of today's elections in Burma – the first in 20 years (the last, won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, were ignored) – there is no doubt that the military regime will remain in charge, as it has done in various guises since 1962. This is why the leading dissident U Win Tin, who until his release in 2008 had spent 19 years in jail, is calling for an election boycott.

"The military junta wants to claim this election as free and fair and so we have to reduce the legitimacy of that claim by not taking part at all," he told today's Observer.

Ever since the crackdown by the authorities in 1988, during and after which Aung San Suu Kyi came to prominence (she only happened to be in the country because her mother was terminally ill), most of the rest of the world has been united in condemning Burma's generals – if divided on how best to express its revulsion, given that sanctions will never work so long as countries in the region happily carry on trading with their pariah neighbour.

What we forget, however, is that for many years we were not at all bothered about the suppression of democracy in Burma. General Ne Win, who took power in the March 1962 coup and ruled until he stepped down in 1988, may have brought ruin to his country with his inept Burmese Way to Socialism and increasingly erratic behaviour, often related to his strong superstitious beliefs, but at least he kept the country out the communist bloc.

That counted for more than the fact that his regime was brutal, capricious and authoritarian. Right up until 1988, Japan was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into the country every year.

As Dr Maung Zarni, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and founder of the Free Burma Coalition, has put it: "No general in Burma's modern history was more exposed to the west than General Ne Win: even after his coup in 1962, the general was welcome at the White House and was reportedly sipping tea with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. He maintained a house in Wimbledon, played golf in Scotland, received annual medical check-ups in London, saw his psychotherapist in Vienna and stopped in Geneva to check his Swiss accounts."

One British connection is, I'm afraid, particularly embarrassing for the New Statesman – whose long-time editor Kingsley Martin turns out to have been on very good terms with the old tyrant. When Ne Win died in 2002, the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell recalled a visit that Martin arranged for him.

"Given letters of introduction to their friend Ne Win by the socialist editor of the New Statesman Kingsley Martin and his partner Dorothy Woodman, my wife and I were invited to a long and simple lunch of rice and mangoes by Ne Win and his wife Katie in June 1965." Dalyell wrote most sympathetically of the isolation Ne Win had chosen. "He had closed Burma as the only way of keeping his country out of the horrors of the Vietnam/Cambodia war.

"His friends Chou En-lai and the Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong wanted to use the Burmese forests as a haven for guerrillas, which would have invited American bombing and Agent Orange."

Calling on the Burmese dictator in the 1970s "at the modest house in Victoria Road, Wimbledon, which was his refuge", Dalyell said that Ne Win "was very candid about the mistakes that he had made" since his second wife, Katie, his favourite, became ill and died in 1972. Small comfort to the millions impoverished by his disastrous policies, one imagines.

It is entirely right that we should voice our opposition to and revulsion for Burma's generals. But it might also be appropriate to acknowledge our dubious part in that country's past – however much we might prefer not to remember it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.