Reportage

Another Country

By SALIL TRIPATHI | 1 June 2012
ALEXANDRE MARCHAND FOR THE CARAVAN
NLD supporters celebrating their by-election victory outside the party’s headquarters in Yangon on the evening of 1 April.

IN ANY OTHER COUNTRY, the scene would have seemed normal. Hundreds of noisy people had gathered at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Bahan, a prosperous township of Yangon, the city formerly known as Rangoon, to celebrate the party’s likely victory in Parliament by-elections. When I arrived at 3 pm, NLD candidates—including the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi—were reportedly leading in 35 of the 44 constituencies they had contested.

For an opposition party that had won an election 22 years ago but had never been allowed to form a government, whose leaders and members had spent long years in jail, this was an impressive showing. But NLD supporters knew it would not amount to much: in a Parliament with 664 seats, 25 percent of which are reserved for serving military officers, the NLD’s new presence would be tiny. What was significant was less the result than the fact that it had even been possible: that largely fair elections took place, that the NLD participated (they had boycotted the 2010 polls) and most of all, that the government seemed likely to accept the results.

On that warm evening in April, men and women of all ages could be seen in red T-shirts outside the party office, smiling, hugging their friends, with tears in their eyes. Before long, the scene resembled an impromptu street party: a few NLD workers were shuffling disc after disc of hip-hop into an overworked music system placed precariously on a wobbly wooden table. When the exiled singer Lashio Thein Aung’s popular song ‘Daw Suu Is Coming Back’ came on, the crowd began to twist and dance.

A man standing beside me began sobbing, even as he had a smile on his face. “Daw Suu Kyi, Daw Suu Kyi,” he kept repeating, shaking his head. He was in his 70s. He could not speak English; a young man standing nearby said, “Uncle is happy.” He hadn’t thought he would live to see this day, the young man translated, when I asked if he had ever expected to see Daw Suu Kyi elected—daw being the honorific the Burmese add as a sign of respect. Those who speak English refer to her simply as “the lady”.

The scene was unusual precisely because it was happening in Yangon, once the capital of Burma, the country renamed Myanmar by its ruling generals in 1989. Since taking power in 1962, the generals had transformed a resource-rich nation that many thought would feed Asia into a poster-child of poverty. Their misrule had kept millions of Burmese in poverty, even as the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines had begun to prosper.

After pro-democracy student protests erupted in Rangoon on 8 August 1988, thousands were killed in a brutal crackdown that failed to stamp out public discontent; when the generals made a surprising call for elections in 1990, the opposition NLD swept to a massive victory—and then the regime ignored the results, jailed all its opponents and continued to rule.

To claim homegrown authenticity, the generals began changing names—Burma to Myanmar, Rangoon to Yangon, and so on. And because the generals did the name-changing, the NLD opposed it, even if it meant that the NLD was defending names with colonial connotations. The international community has grudgingly begun to call it Myanmar, after years of declining to do so out of reluctance to grant the generals even a shred of legitimacy.

Much of the Western response to the events in Myanmar over the past two decades has been shaped by Suu Kyi’s attitude towards the generals. Sanctions were imposed promptly, and remained in place, even when some diplomats privately argued that some sanctions were hurting the poor more than the generals. Several leading British tour operators voluntarily did not market tours to the country until 2009, because Suu Kyi had called for a tourism boycott. It was only after she said in an interview that tourism might benefit the country’s economy that they slowly resumed offering travel packages. A leading oil executive had told me some years ago that his company was keen to invest “the moment the lady says it is OK to do so”. Many generals have therefore seen Suu Kyi as an enemy of the nation, holding it back from making economic progress, in spite of how implausible it sounds—given that they have jailed her and she holds no political power.

The Burmese narrative has been held captive by the stalemate between the generals and the lady. It is as if there is only one narrative about the country, which pits cartoonish generals, textbook examples of recalcitrant, incompetent military men, deaf to criticism and blind to the needs of the people, against Suu Kyi, viewed as the embodiment of purity: a saintly figure committed to truth, who has made enormous sacrifices for a noble cause. When I mentioned the genuine tears I had seen in people’s eyes after the election results were announced, one Asian diplomat told me this should come as no surprise: ordinary people, he said, understand Suu Kyi’s suffering as having been on their behalf. His own maid, he continued, had taken two days off to go to her village in Tanintharyi region in the country’s southeast, at considerable personal expense, so that she could cast her vote for the NLD. “The poor in this country know what she has gone through for their sake,” the diplomat said. My taxi driver told me he loved Suu Kyi and, with tears in his eyes, pointed to her photograph, which he felt confident enough to display on his windscreen.

That photograph was a revelation. Before my trip, I had heard many stories of customs officials confiscating any controversial material, and I had taken care not to carry any books which had Suu Kyi’s photograph on the cover. But when I arrived in Yangon her image was everywhere. Hawkers were openly selling T-shirts with her face; vendors on streets sold large posters of her in various ethnic costumes.

SUU KYI’S FATHER, Bogyoke Aung San—‘Bogyoke’ refers to his military rank, equivalent to general—was a leader of the Burmese independence movement, considered to be the “father” of modern Burma. The founder of the Burmese Army, he had first allied his forces with the Japanese, helping them eject Britain from Burma in 1942, before turning against Japanese rule and allying with the British to push Japan from the country.

In July 1947, six months before Burma’s independence, Aung San was assassinated during a meeting of the country’s executive council in Rangoon; Suu Kyi was two years old at the time. She spent her childhood in Burma before moving to New Delhi in 1960 with her mother, who had been appointed ambassador to India. After earning degrees at Delhi University and Oxford, she married a scholar of Himalayan culture, Michael Aris, and settled in Britain.

Her life changed in 1988, when she returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother, just as the student pro-democracy protests were gathering energy. On 26 August of that year, she delivered an address to a crowd of nearly half a million people at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the country’s holiest Buddhist shrine. Speaking beneath a portrait of her father, she declared: “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on. This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence.” As Emma Larkin, an American journalist who has made clandestine visits to Burma and written two books under that assumed name, wrote recently in The New Republic: “Burmese history and folklore is punctuated by millennial leaders and would-be kings who emerge at times of crisis to lead the people to safety. Here, in this modern era, a female version had appeared, seemingly by pure chance, during a catastrophic upheaval…. the crowd was instantly smitten.”

In the months that followed, Suu Kyi became more visible: she greeted people outside her bungalow at University Road near Inya Lake, spoke at street corners, in markets, in townships and near Sule Pagoda, the other large shrine in downtown Rangoon—calling for democratisation and supporting the students who had led the original protests. The generals responded by jailing her and cracking down on protestors.

And then, without any warning, less than a year after Suu Kyi had delivered her famous address in Rangoon, Ne Win, the general who had ruled Burma for 26 years, called for a nationwide vote based on a multiparty system to be held on 27 May 1990. Suu Kyi was jailed before the elections, so she could not run. But the outcome was nonetheless lopsided, demonstrating just how spectacularly the generals had misjudged the public mood: the NLD won 52.5 percent of the 15 million votes cast, and given the first-past-the-post system, it captured 392 of the 492 seats, controlling nearly 80 percent of the Parliament.

Instead of ceding power, the generals formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), jailed elected NLD parliamentarians, refused to convene Parliament and essentially proceeded as if the elections had never occurred.

The world showered Suu Kyi with awards—the Sakharov Prize from the European Union in 1990, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award from India, a country that had not yet turned its policy towards rapprochement with the military regime—but she remained in detention; the generals made it increasingly difficult for her sons and husband to obtain visas to visit her, and after her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, they refused to grant him a visa, suggesting that she could visit him instead. Suu Kyi knew that if she left Burma she would never be allowed to return; when Aris died in 1999, she had not seen him for nearly four years.

Amitav Ghosh, who interviewed Suu Kyi in 1995, recalled the moral force of her courage in his 1996 book Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma:

Her gateside meetings, I’d noticed, were attended by dozens of foreigners. Only a few were reporters and journalists; most were tourists and travellers. They were people like me, members of the world’s vast, newspaper-reading middle class, people who took it for granted that there are no heroes among us. But Suu Kyi had proved us wrong. She lived the same kind of life, attended the same classes, read the same books and magazines, got into the same arguments. And she had shown us that the apparently soft and yielding world of books and words could sometimes forge a very fine kind of steel.

BUT WHILE GENERALS CAME AND WENT, and the capital was shifted from Yangon to Naypyitaw, Suu Kyi remained under house arrest. In March 2011, General Thein Sein became Myanmar’s president, replacing General Than Shwe, who had led the country for 19 years and entrenched the country’s reputation as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. After Thein Sein took over, the political scenario changed, and he began releasing political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. Thein Sein, about whom little was known, appeared to be a fundamentally different type of leader. Embassy officials who have met him describe him as a quiet man, committed to continue on the path of reforms. Aung Zaw, a student activist who was arrested in the 1988 protests and later founded The Irrawaddy, a prominent Thailand-based magazine covering Burma, told me that when Thein Sein commanded troops against the student demonstrators, he spared many lives by handing protestors over to local authorities instead of letting the army take control. Suu Kyi and Thein Sein met soon after her release, and many diplomats and businessmen in Myanmar believe they have arrived at some tacit understanding.

Ma Thanegi is an author and painter who was Suu Kyi’s personal assistant from 1988 until 1995, when they parted ways after Suu Kyi called for the isolation of Myanmar, which Ma Thanegi felt would hurt the country’s poor. She made her criticism public, and they have not met since. Over coffee at a charming café in downtown Yangon, Ma Thanegi sounded optimistic. “This president is well-liked,” she told me. “It is wrong to see Myanmar in black-and-white terms—such a view of this country is uneducated. This President is a really decent person from the army and he will change things.”

Organising free and fair by-elections was part of those changes. To fill the seats vacated by parliamentarians who had become ministers, the government announced by-elections on 2 April this year. For the first time, it allowed election observers and media from abroad to report on the elections: at the Mingaladon airport in Yangon in late March, a special counter was set up to grant journalists visas on arrival.

In the days before the election, some diplomats felt the NLD would win up to 25 of the 45 seats. Some had predicted 30. One Burmese businessman told me that the NLD’s popularity had waned, and Suu Kyi herself might find it difficult to win: after so many decades, would people still remember her?

That night in Bahan, we found out; the NLD was winning everything, securing two out of every three votes cast in constituencies across the country. The military’s rejection was so overwhelming that its own party lost all four seats in Naypyitaw, the purpose-built new capital, where most residents are civil servants working for the government.

The crowd in Bahan roared when it was announced that Suu Kyi had established an unsurpassable lead in her own constituency, Kawhmu, a poor district south of Rangoon that was among the areas ravaged by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. When Suu Kyi emerged later that night, she looked tired after an arduous campaign (she will turn 67 this June and had to take two days off from campaigning in the last week before polls closed to rest). She thanked her supporters for their enthusiasm, and told them to be graceful in victory, and to go home quietly, without disturbing others who may have gone to sleep.

And the crowd fell silent, as if a popular and respected teacher had laid down rules. Later that night, we saw many NLD supporters driving back to distant parts of the city in crowded, open jeeps. The NLD flag fluttered lightly. But there was no loud music, no drums and no noise.

The road ahead was long, and the night was still young.

EARLIER THAT MORNING I was in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, the heart of downtown Yangon, with its crowded markets, busy railway station, and mosques and Hindu temples revealing the country’s multireligious heritage. NLD officials had alleged earlier in the week that there were electoral malpractices in this district, including a sudden increase in the number of voters. But the government denied the charges, and The Hindu reported that election workers had confided they were under orders not to cheat this time.

In the afternoon, I walked to the office of Ma Thida, a journalist and doctor who was imprisoned by the regime for her role in the student protest movement. She is now the editor of Myanmar Independent, a new online newspaper, and her reporters were beginning to return from the field with their reports on the voting. Most were young, and many were women, wearing plain shirts with short sleeves and elegant longyis. The reporters walked about revealing no emotion while their colleagues called other reporters in various constituencies, writing notes by hand, and going to Ma Thida, telling her what they had heard. One reporter mentioned how some ballot papers had wax on them, which would make it hard for voters to tick the right box. If someone had tried to mark their vote several times, it would give the returning officer the excuse to reject the vote. In some areas, people were complaining that their names were not on voters’ lists.

Most such reports were matter-of-fact and lacking drama. Almost every voter the reporters had interviewed, at least among those willing to reveal their votes, said they had supported the NLD. When a reporter would arrive from a constituency, other reporters would huddle around her, listening eagerly to what she had found, and make their own calculations about the electoral outcome. None of the reporters had known a free and fair election, and none seemed excited to be reporting a historical change. And yet, the scene was unusual: a year ago, there would have been no independent reporting, and none of these conversations on cellphones would have taken place.

Ma Thida listened to her colleagues quietly. I asked her what the reporters were saying. “The NLD is leading everywhere, but it is still too early to tell.” If she was thrilled, she wasn’t showing it on her face. Her circumspection in part revealed her maturity—unlike her reporters, she was old enough to have voted in the last genuine elections in the country—and partly, there was a nagging uncertainty, for nobody knew what would follow if the NLD swept the by-elections. She had learned the hard way to be patient, to tamper her expectations.

SHE WAS 22 IN 1988, and she got interested in politics. “I saw that the socialist government had not been good for the people. I wanted freedom and a better society,” she said. The only outlet for her was to join the political demonstrations that were spreading on the campus of Rangoon University and in the city. The university had already closed. She joined the information section of the NLD. She travelled with Suu Kyi and prepared news bulletins. The government began banning her stories.

They were constantly under surveillance. In her novel, The Roadmap, which Ma Thida wrote under a pseudonym, she describes secret service agents, wearing dark glasses and smoking, sitting in a corner, keeping an eye on young people having conversations over endless cups of green tea. Those agents were called “snakes”, and they were always on the lookout for “peacocks”, the young students out to change the world. The novel gives a day-by-day account of a seminal but horrendous moment in the nation’s history, when hopes rose, only to crash.

In 1989, Ma Thida began working at the Muslim Free Hospital, run by a relief society, as a general practitioner in the surgical ward. The following year, after ignoring the elections they had lost, the generals produced a “road-map” for democracy, which gave her the title for her novel. She circulated anti-government material among friends, and soon enough, she was arrested. Her trial, which was not open to the public, lasted six weeks; she was sentenced to 20 years in prison—seven for endangering public security, three for contacts with illegal organisations, and 10 for distributing illegal materials. She was sent to the infamous Insein Prison in Rangoon.

Her experience of that jail, and the way she coped with the conditions, is instructive. The stoicism with which she dealt with her condition, and the forbearance she showed are qualities that are almost a metaphor for her country, which has similarly suffered for decades under military rule.

At the time of Suu Kyi’s release in November 2010, human rights organisations pointedly noted that nearly 2,000 political prisoners were still jailed in Myanmar—including writers, cartoonists, and comedians—in conditions far more harsh than Suu Kyi’s most recent house arrest—although Suu Kyi, too, has spent years in prison. (Current figures are disputed, but by most accounts the number has fallen to between 250 and 600.)

Ma Thida spent five and a half years in prison; she said she was not physically abused, but that there were long sessions of interrogation. “They tried to deprive me of sleep,” she recalled. But they had no idea of her strength: she kept replying politely, and while the interrogators wanted to stop, she said she was willing to continue. When an officer shut his notebook at 2 am one morning, saying she could take some rest, Ma Thida said: “We have started this, we must finish.” At which the officer, in a resigned tone, pleaded: “We are humans, we need to sleep.” But she wanted to go on, and she recalls, “One of the officers told me, ‘What are you doing? Are you torturing us?’”

Ma Thida had a simple technique of dealing with her inquisitors. She would speak the truth; she would not lose her temper; she would smile. “In the end, they had to give up,” she says. “They didn’t expect how I would respond.” When I asked what had given her such courage, she paused for a moment and then spoke of her Buddhist faith.  In Buddhism, she said, there is the idea of dukkha, or suffering, imperfection and impermanence, which she must endure in her journey towards nirvana. “I had to be creative in dealing with my dukkha, in all aspects of my life,” she said. “If there was an obstacle, it was a challenge, and I had to face it. I never thought from my side alone. I thought of what they might expect from me. And if I thought hard enough what to expect myself, I would be prepared, and be able to protect myself. The logic is simple. If you respond to them in a way they cannot expect, they will not be able to protect themselves, and I will be able to overcome the obstacles they place in my path.”

She also kept herself busy by treating the sores and wounds of other prisoners, including sex workers, whom many in the jail shunned. But Ma Thida’s resistance took its toll. Her body weight had fallen to 80 lbs and she was running high temperatures. She could not eat, drink or walk; she could not even stand up without support. Her liver was reacting abnormally. Being a doctor, Ma Thida was able to understand her body was weakening. She was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis and endometriosis, but the prison doctor was a stern woman unwilling to listen to her.

“I was bleeding. The doctor noted that my illness was serious. She was married to an army officer, and she asked for cash. I refused to pay her—I told her I might not be in prison if I were corrupt. So she denied me treatment. I had acute liver shutdown, and I was vomiting. I suggested they should feed me through infusions—she refused,” Ma Thida recalled.

As her illness worsened, the prison authorities grew alarmed and sent her to a public hospital, but then pulled her back 20 hours later out of fear that her ill treatment would be revealed. Her condition continued to deteriorate, and she told her jailers, “If anything happens to me, all consequences will be on you.” She had managed to bring back medication from her brief stay at the hospital, but the prison doctor demanded she surrender it. Instead of complying, Ma Thida went on a hunger strike. She told the prison’s director that she wanted to keep her medicines. The director said that the doctor feared that she would take all the medicines at once and attempt suicide.

“But I don’t want to die,” she said. “I want to survive, and that’s why I want my medicines. If I want to die, I can hit my head on the wall tomorrow to kill myself.” As her medicines were returned to her, she asked for another favour: she wanted a different doctor to treat her. When the prison director wanted to know why, she said that the doctor had given her six months to live. “When a doctor tells you that,” Ma Thida told the director, “what would you do? You’d ask for a second opinion. I want another opinion.”

She got her way. “My hunger strike lasted only 45 minutes,” she recalled. As he left her cell, the director said to her: “You are free, we are not.”

“How dare you call me free,” she replied. Ma Thida typically spent 23 hours each day behind closed doors; she was granted 30 minutes for a short walk. The rest of the time, she was back in the same cell. She could meet her parents for 15 minutes every two weeks. The director looked at her closely and said, “We are government employees. You are free in your thoughts and in your world—we are not.” 

In the months that followed, Ma Thida treated herself and continued to meditate. “I had become more determined to face any obstacle. I did not care for anything happening to me.” During the time she was in jail, her brother died, and she could not attend his funeral.

By now, her situation was known among activists outside Myanmar. Human rights groups had taken up her case, calling for her release. The generals, who still sought international respectability for Myanmar, bristled at such criticism. In 1997, the country had joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and two years later, when ASEAN requested that Myanmar be allowed to take part in a summit between European and Asian leaders, the Europeans demanded Myanmar first take positive steps on human rights—which led to a release of some prisoners, including Ma Thida. When she was released, she told the prison director, “Thank you for keeping me in prison. It gave me the time to practice vipassana meditation.”

After her health recovered, she returned to the Muslim Free Hospital, continuing to treat patients. She wanted to go abroad to study, but the government refused to give her a passport. So she undertook advanced studies at London’s School for Tropical Medicine as an external student, and was allowed to go for her graduation, during a brief period of thaw in politics. She had invitations from universities abroad, but it had taken her six years to get a passport. In 2005, she travelled to 11 countries over a period of 10 months, and between 2008 and 2010, she spent time at the University of York in Britain, then at Brown University and later on a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University in the United States.

She enjoyed her time abroad, but decided to return to Myanmar. “I had fought hard for my personal freedom. But it was not only for me,” she said. “I could have compromised and avoided prison. I kept asking myself after my release—what do I want? I wanted to be free, but I also wanted to free my society. So I have to stay here, I have to work for my people, not for other people. That’s why I came back. My life is here. People want me to get more political, but I want to be a good citizen.”

While in prison, she won the prestigious Reebok Human Rights Award, and her writing was published abroad. Prison authorities learned about her fame, but when they mentioned it to her, she said: “I am not responsible for being well-known. I never intended any of this.” Editing the newspaper, she said, would give her a ringside view to observe politics and society. Now, she said, “I want to write.”

She sees herself as an editor who can train a new generation of journalists and editors. “The young reporters have their own way of thinking, and I will use my authority to help others become free in their thoughts.” Ma Thanegi, who knows Ma Thida, told me she would make an excellent health minister. Ma Thida laughed at the suggestion, and said she wanted to stay firmly outside the political process. Her experiences at the hands of the government have been deeply unpleasant. And as a young student activist, she made considerable sacrifices for the NLD. And yet she didn’t support the party uncritically: “I have a lot of regard for Suu Kyi, but that does not mean I will support any NLD candidate in my constituency.”

While abroad, she began writing her memoirs. Last year, under an assumed name, Suragamika, she published her novel in English with a Thai publisher. In early May, on a visit to Oslo, she revealed publicly that she was Suragamika. I asked her if she feared any political consequences. When there is openness, she said, you should test the openness. “Let us see,” she added. “I don’t know how they will react but I have to do this.”

The roadmap has changed.  

MYANMAR IS NOW IN UNCHARTED TERRITORY, and no analyst can provide a real explanation of why the generals have decided to take these steps: if parliamentary elections take place as expected in 2015, and are conducted in a free and fair manner, the likeliest outcome could very well be a resounding defeat for the military and its party. If a future government decides to pursue cases against the leading generals, they will have a very unhappy retirement indeed. One former political prisoner told me that prosecuting generals wouldn’t serve any purpose; pragmatists now hope the government and the NLD can reach a peaceful accommodation. But several businessmen who I interviewed in Yangon independently expressed fears that the hardliners inside the government—who can see the inevitable approaching—could easily act to destabilise the reforms if they feel their safety or wealth will be endangered.

One theory is that the government wants international recognition. It waited for several years to enter ASEAN, and the generals resent the country’s pariah status. One Asian trader whose experience in the country dates back to the time it was still called Burma argued that the government is acting in good faith. The unveiling of the new constitution, the elections of 2010, the releasing of political prisoners, and now the by-elections all show that the generals are serious, he argued. “The world should be happy—the lady is now in Parliament,” he quipped. “You may not believe me, but this is one of the safest countries in the world, with no crime. Everything is peaceful, the people are pleasant and there are no problems. You can forget to lock your car or house, and nothing happens. People still respect traditions. Look at the men and women—they still wear longyis. The women still dress properly. But that is all changing now. Go to any five star hotel, and you will find young girls in miniskirts. The West wanted democracy, right? It will get democracy, but this place will change,” he said, sounding almost regretful.

Myanmar won’t be able to avoid international attention over the next few years. In 2013, the country will host the biennial Southeast Asian Games, which brings together the 10 ASEAN states and Timor Leste. In 2014, Myanmar will chair ASEAN, which means it will play an important role in several regional meetings, some of which Myanmar may have to host, including the 27-nation ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a strategic security dialogue forum, and the various dialogue partnerships ASEAN has with key trading partners, including India. These events will bring many foreign athletes, journalists, dignitaries and delegates to Myanmar, requiring the construction of new hotels, better infrastructure and a friendlier image.

And then the following year, 2015, will be the parliamentary elections, in which the NLD will likely contest all seats. The generals may believe that if these reforms generate sufficient goodwill they can stave off a crushing defeat in the 2015 elections, but the results of the most recent vote have shown just how hard that will be.

A second theory is that there is an economic compulsion. While Myanmar says it has approved foreign investment worth more than $20 billion in the past several years, actual inflows amount to roughly $756 million. The economy is run poorly. There are six different foreign exchange rates—the official rate is of six kyat to one US dollar, but unofficial rates peg the dollar at between 750 and 800 kyat. Then there are four other rates, including a hundi rate, a rate for imports, a rate for exports and another for financial transactions. Cheque payments are rare, credit card transactions rarer. One editor told me he has to carry wads of cash in handbags to pay his printers. Many people have given up using landlines, even though cellphones remain expensive and the coverage is spotty. (Until about two years ago, merely obtaining a SIM card could cost thousands of dollars.) Power outages are common. An aid worker remarked that he had seen cars drawn by horses in rural Myanmar—an astonishing sight in a country that is a net oil exporter. While the calm atmosphere of Yangon creates an impression of sedate life, the poverty in the countryside is worse, although visibly not as abject as in certain parts of India, and the devastation of the 2008 cyclone has left deep scars on the landscape. 

Third, there is the China factor. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who lives in Thailand and has written extensively about the region for decades, told me that the current military leadership doesn’t have fond feelings towards China. He pointed to an internal report from 2004, published by the country’s Defence Service Academy, which argues that the country’s reliance on China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron has created “a national emergency” that threatens Myanmar’s independence. According to Lintner, the dossier stresses that Myanmar should normalise relations with the West after a new Parliament is in place so that the regime can be made more acceptable to the outside world. Distancing from China is part of that package.

Myanmar’s thaw with China is relatively recent, dating from after China began to open its own economy. With its coastal provinces booming, China wanted to spread growth more evenly. For goods made in Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Myanmar, a journey to the port in Shanghai would take several days; exporting goods made in Yunnan out of Yangon was much quicker. China therefore began cultivating Myanmar, with an eye on its resources. Today, Chinese companies have won major concessions to exploit Myanmar’s natural resources, including minerals and timber, and construction has begun on the $29 billion Shwe pipeline, which will carry oil and gas to China through central Myanmar. (Two Indian companies—ONGC Videsh and GAIL—are partners in the project.) Walk through a supermarket in Yangon, and many products are Chinese. Shopping centres boast brands like Cora (fashion) and Wai Yan (electronics), while Chinese-made Chery QQ3 mini cars are on the roads.

A critical test of Sino-Myanmar relations is the fate of the Myitsone dam. The large hydroelectric project is being built by Burmese and Chinese companies, but has become highly controversial because it will cause massive flooding in Upper Myanmar, and the electricity it will generate will primarily benefit Yunnan in China, with only limited supply in energy-starved Myanmar. In a country where dissent is rarely expressed in public, many villagers have been protesting against the dam since 2001. In September last year, President Thein Sein wrote in a letter to Parliament: “As our government is elected by the people, it is to respect the people’s will. We have the responsibility to address public concerns in all seriousness. So construction of Myitsome dam will be suspended…” The decision stunned many, including environmentalists—who applauded the government—and the Chinese, who sought an explanation of the government’s intentions.

The controversy over Myitsone builds on long years of resentment the Burmese have harboured towards the Chinese. A Burmese trader told me that when China invests, their companies bring hundreds, if not thousands of workers with them. “They don’t transfer technology, they don’t create local jobs,” he said.

Finally, there is the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country in May 2008. As Emma Larkin described in her 2010 book Everything is Broken, “It was clear that Nargis had been a disaster of epic proportions. In the delta tens of thousands of people were dead and many hundreds of thousands were trying to survive without food, water, or shelter. As the horrendous scale of the disaster became apparent, foreign governments offered aid and assistance. Astoundingly, the Burmese government turned them down.” Myanmar didn’t let relief aircraft fly in; it restricted the movement of foreigners within the country; it denied visas to aid workers; and it turned back two of the four UN officials who came to conduct an initial assessment of the country’s needs.

The international community was shocked; ASEAN governments eventually intervened, and brokered a deal under which aid could be sent. One foreign aid worker told me that the government was surprised that countries who had been vocal critics of Myanmar’s human rights record were nevertheless at the forefront of the relief effort: the US contributed aid worth $47 million, while China gave less than a quarter of that amount.

Historic changes seem sequential in hindsight, and are not always dramatic; they are often accidental and incremental. In Myanmar’s case, the generals acted out of a combination of motives: to atone over the Nargis aftermath, to gain respectability, to prop up the economy and to keep China at some distance.

Kick-starting the economy is an urgent priority because the economic mess is real. Outwardly Yangon looks like a normal Southeast Asian city at the cusp of a major change: somewhat charming and quaint with its absence of high-rises and its tree-lined roads, its typically busy bazaars, its outdoor hawker stalls where you see families sitting on stools eating noodles, its monks crossing roads in a disciplined file, and its relaxed couples walking hand-in-hand by the lake. But it is an artificial economy. The imposition of sanctions has been a bonanza for well-connected local businessmen. Oligopolies abound. One businessman told me that a four-wheel drive vehicle, necessary in the countryside, which might sell for about $100,000 in nearby Thailand or Vietnam, would cost twice as much in Myanmar. Even then, it would be almost impossible to repair—the local mechanic would have to obtain spare parts sent from Thailand.

Sanctions have also forced Myanmar to abandon any specifications for cars that are imported: on the roads you see both left-hand and right-hand-drive vehicles. Traders buy any second-hand car they can obtain, because of the sanctions—left-hand-drive from China, right-hand-drive from Singapore. Adding to the arbitrariness, a few years ago the government changed the traffic rules, making cars shift from the left side of the road to the right side without providing any explanation. Journalists say it was because the superstitious General Ne Win, who ruled Burma from 1962 to 1988, was told by an astrologer that he was going to get attacked from the left.

IN SPITE OF THESE UNCERTAINTIES, several dissidents and activists who went into exile after 1988 have gone back to Myanmar; some have decided to return for good, while others have begun to regard their country with hopeful, but skeptical, eyes. To understand the thinking of those who had returned, I went to meet Soe Myint, the managing editor of a news service called Mizzima, which is Pali for “middle” or “moderate”.

In 1988, Soe Myint was an international relations student at Rangoon University when the students’ uprising began. He joined the protests and was arrested briefly. He left the country soon after, still keen to overthrow the regime. The 1990 elections excited him, but he was dismayed when the government refused to give up power.

In August of that year, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the Burmese story disappeared from newspapers and television stations. Frustrated, Soe Myint decided to do something dramatic to bring his country back into focus. On 10 November 1990, along with another activist named Htin Kyaw Oo, Soe Myint hijacked a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Yangon, threatening to blow up the plane with an object he claimed was a bomb. The pilots agreed to divert the plane to India, and the two students surrendered to Indian authorities after landing in Calcutta, at which point they revealed their “bomb” was a small statue of the laughing Buddha. No passengers had been harmed, and the Indian authorities allowed them to hold press conferences in which they demanded the immediate release of all the political prisoners in Burma, including Suu Kyi.

After a few months in custody, Soe Myint was released and allowed to remain in India: he began writing for magazines here and working as a stringer for Voice of America and the Democratic Voice of Burma. In 1998, he established Mizzima with a laptop and two colleagues in order to gather and disseminate news from inside Myanmar. In time, he had established a network of correspondents along the state’s borders, and eventually even underground reporters inside the country.

Mizzima has received financial support from foundations like the US National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros’s Open Society Institute; it now has about 50 employees, who produce a magazine, a journal and a widely-read news website.

And Soe Myint has shifted back to Yangon. In the week before the by-elections, he was busy helping a Philippine TV crew and giving interviews to foreign journalists, demystifying the country’s complicated recent history. Explaining his decision to return, Soe Myint told me, “We were surprised by the developments last year. In August they pushed open the gates. We noticed the changes and came to have a look. We studied the situation carefully and decided that the changes were positive. There was real space. So we decided to be part of it. We are going to keep pushing. All of us are at risk, but this has to be done.”

Soe Myint isn’t alone. The exiled social scientists who formed the well-regarded Vahu Development Institute, a think tank in Chiang Mai, Thailand, have returned on visits to Myanmar, and two of them have established a new think tank at Yangon University. Aung Zaw, who edits The Irrawaddy from Thailand, said he sees a media boom, with more newspapers and magazines being published—many of them carrying Suu Kyi’s photograph on the cover. “You have to remain cautious, but you have to be optimistic,” he told me recently. In mid-May, the government announced changes in the media law, establishing a press council and ending censorship.

But in a country where superstitious generals ask their astrologers about the next steps they should take, it is hard to predict what might happen in 2015, the year of the next elections. Analysts are grasping for clichés to explain the changes: there can be no turning back; a leopard can’t change his spots; there will be a win-win situation; it is a zero-sum game; it is the beauty and the beast.

To that, one could add a paraphrase of WB Yeats: the centre may not hold; things can fall apart. Placing the burden of a complex country on the shoulders of two individuals—President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, both about the same age—is hardly sensible. But there is little else to go by, until other narratives begin to be told.

ONE MODEL FOR A TRANSITION to democracy comes from South Africa, where the African National Congress sat with the ruling National Party to draft a new constitution, and apartheid ended peacefully, with Nelson Mandela winning the presidency in 1994, nearly four years after he was released from prison. There is also the less benign Soviet model, where Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), only to find Soviet bloc countries leaving the orbit one by one in 1989, the two Germanys uniting in 1990, and the Communist Party making a farcical attempt to remove him in a 1991 coup. At the end of that year, Boris Yeltsin ruled a country called Russia while the Soviet Union collapsed; Gorbachev had become an elder statesman sooner than he had planned.

The Burmese generals have long been known to admire the model of post-Suharto Indonesia—in which the army would loosen its control of the Parliament gradually and slowly, to make way for a democracy. (The current president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudoyono, is a former army officer.)

In Darrell Roodt’s 1992 film, Sarafina, set in a black township school in South Africa during apartheid, there is a touching scene where a teacher asks students to think the unthinkable. When 16-year-old Sarafina gets up to say “Mandela is free!”, the students go wild. To which the teacher responds: “How nice! And then what?”

Myanmar faces a similar question: Aung San Suu Kyi is in Parliament. Now what?

SOME IN YANGON HOPE that the generals offer Suu Kyi a cabinet position, which would to some extent neutralise her influence and lend the government greater legitimacy. But if she accepts the office, she will have to vacate her seat in Parliament. While the NLD has shown remarkable resilience by persevering for two decades against the long detention of its senior leaders and harassment of its members, little is known about the party’s ability to function in Suu Kyi’s absence. Can Suu Kyi join the generals’ government? If she accepts, would she betray her supporters? If she refuses, will she be seen as uncooperative? Emma Larkin has written that she believes the changes in Myanmar are real, but warns that Suu Kyi “may have to relinquish to some extent her halo and her special status as an iconic figurehead.” Most serious observers discount the possibility of her joining the government.

Suu Kyi will have to make difficult political choices. During the recent by-elections, some of those decisions led to grumbling among her supporters: for example, in one constituency, the party offered its ticket to a former general who had spent years in jail, passing over a female activist who was popular in the area and had an unblemished record, and who contested as a rebel candidate instead. While she lost to the NLD candidate, many voters were confused by the party’s failure to work out a compromise and present a united front.

The party will also have to develop, soon, its thinking on a vast range of issues. One former prisoner, now disenchanted with the NLD, told me, “The only dynamic the Party knows is to say no to whatever the military says. But that isn’t enough.”

Another challenge is that the NLD’s leadership is overwhelmingly elderly, consisting of veterans who have spent years in jail, or were part of the so-called 88 generation (which still makes them 40 and over). An Asian trader in Yangon told me that the NLD is now reaching out to recruit young professionals, most of whom have remained unpolitical, into the party. But some of these young professionals, the trader continued, will expect to run for office and join a potential future NLD government—which may lead to conflicts within the party as older activists and former prisoners feel passed over. “Suu Kyi will have to use all her skills to keep these groups together,” he said.

Liberation movements, including the African National Congress, have long struggled with such challenges. When apartheid ended, the ANC consisted of those who had stayed in exile, lobbying for international support or fighting from the trenches against the South African army; those who had remained within the country and fought pitched battles with the government, sometimes by going underground; and those, like Mandela, who had been jailed for years.

Among the Burmese diaspora, many have supported Suu Kyi and feel deeply and emotionally attached towards the country. Those who lived in exile have developed a view of the country that may be outdated and frozen in time compared to the thoughts of those who stayed within; managing these differences will surely test Suu Kyi’s political leadership—among supporters of the NLD, there are many different agendas. Some Burmese groups abroad have supported regional ethnic nationalist movements within Myanmar, like the Kachins (who continue to fight with the army) and the Karens (who have signed a ceasefire agreement with the government). The army has long based its own claims of legitimacy on fighting against insurgencies to preserve national unity. How the ethnic minorities view Suu Kyi is largely unknown; she draws on the Panglong Agreement, which her father signed in 1947 with Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders, for a model of power sharing within a federal structure.

While the partial lifting of European and American sanctions is intended to bring fresh investment—in fact, the US recently announced it would ease its ban on investments in Myanmar—many investors will still be cautious. The opening of Vietnam, Cambodia and South Africa showed that while an opening brings a preliminary spurt in trade, serious investment takes time, because investors wait for uncertainties to diminish.

Set against that are the expectations of the people, who look up to Suu Kyi as their aunty, as amay, their mother figure, who can transform the nation’s future. Such expectations can be overwhelming, but Myanmar’s spiritual heritage may help. Suu Kyi’s politics is shaped by Buddhist philosophy. Soe Myint’s news service derives its name, Mizzima, from the Buddhist ideal of the middle path. (Recall that the fake bomb he carried was a laughing Buddha.) Ma Thida says she could absorb her suffering because of the strength she derived from meditation. While Buddhism does not explain everything about Myanmar—after all, even the generals claim to be acting according to Buddhism’s precepts—the faith’s central elements have helped countless courageous individuals in the country to face adversity with calmness, to remain steadfast in their core beliefs, and to continue their struggle without expecting instant rewards. In a lecture to the European Parliament delivered in absentia in 1990, Suu Kyi had said, “The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical beliefs. It is a man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilised humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer and to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.”

Suu Kyi, Ma Thida and countless other Burmese activists have suffered greatly and still persevered, and they will surely continue to do so, whatever may come—which may be one reason to be hopeful about the country’s future.

The day before I left Yangon, I asked Ma Thida, “What would you do if you met that prison doctor again?” She paused for a moment; she hadn’t been asked that question before. “She was a victim of a corrupt system,” Ma Thida said. “She asked the authorities to move her somewhere away from me. I feel sorry for her. How could a prisoner have authority over an officer?”

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London who is a contributing editor at The Caravan and Mint, and has written for publications around the world.

IN ANY OTHER COUNTRY, the scene would have seemed normal. Hundreds of noisy people had gathered at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Bahan, a prosperous township of Yangon, the city formerly known as Rangoon, to celebrate the party’s likely victory in Parliament by-elections. When I arrived at 3 pm, NLD candidates—including the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi—were reportedly leading in 35 of the 44 constituencies they had contested.

For an opposition party that had won an election 22 years ago but had never been allowed to form a government, whose leaders and members had spent long years in jail, this was an impressive showing. But NLD supporters knew it would not amount to much: in a Parliament with 664 seats, 25 percent of which are reserved for serving military officers, the NLD’s new presence would be tiny. What was significant was less the result than the fact that it had even been possible: that largely fair elections took place, that the NLD participated (they had boycotted the 2010 polls) and most of all, that the government seemed likely to accept the results.

On that warm evening in April, men and women of all ages could be seen in red T-shirts outside the party office, smiling, hugging their friends, with tears in their eyes. Before long, the scene resembled an impromptu street party: a few NLD workers were shuffling disc after disc of hip-hop into an overworked music system placed precariously on a wobbly wooden table. When the exiled singer Lashio Thein Aung’s popular song ‘Daw Suu Is Coming Back’ came on, the crowd began to twist and dance.

A man standing beside me began sobbing, even as he had a smile on his face. “Daw Suu Kyi, Daw Suu Kyi,” he kept repeating, shaking his head. He was in his 70s. He could not speak English; a young man standing nearby said, “Uncle is happy.” He hadn’t thought he would live to see this day, the young man translated, when I asked if he had ever expected to see Daw Suu Kyi elected—daw being the honorific the Burmese add as a sign of respect. Those who speak English refer to her simply as “the lady”.

The scene was unusual precisely because it was happening in Yangon, once the capital of Burma, the country renamed Myanmar by its ruling generals in 1989. Since taking power in 1962, the generals had transformed a resource-rich nation that many thought would feed Asia into a poster-child of poverty. Their misrule had kept millions of Burmese in poverty, even as the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines had begun to prosper.

After pro-democracy student protests erupted in Rangoon on 8 August 1988, thousands were killed in a brutal crackdown that failed to stamp out public discontent; when the generals made a surprising call for elections in 1990, the opposition NLD swept to a massive victory—and then the regime ignored the results, jailed all its opponents and continued to rule.

To claim homegrown authenticity, the generals began changing names—Burma to Myanmar, Rangoon to Yangon, and so on. And because the generals did the name-changing, the NLD opposed it, even if it meant that the NLD was defending names with colonial connotations. The international community has grudgingly begun to call it Myanmar, after years of declining to do so out of reluctance to grant the generals even a shred of legitimacy.

Much of the Western response to the events in Myanmar over the past two decades has been shaped by Suu Kyi’s attitude towards the generals. Sanctions were imposed promptly, and remained in place, even when some diplomats privately argued that some sanctions were hurting the poor more than the generals. Several leading British tour operators voluntarily did not market tours to the country until 2009, because Suu Kyi had called for a tourism boycott. It was only after she said in an interview that tourism might benefit the country’s economy that they slowly resumed offering travel packages. A leading oil executive had told me some years ago that his company was keen to invest “the moment the lady says it is OK to do so”. Many generals have therefore seen Suu Kyi as an enemy of the nation, holding it back from making economic progress, in spite of how implausible it sounds—given that they have jailed her and she holds no political power.

The Burmese narrative has been held captive by the stalemate between the generals and the lady. It is as if there is only one narrative about the country, which pits cartoonish generals, textbook examples of recalcitrant, incompetent military men, deaf to criticism and blind to the needs of the people, against Suu Kyi, viewed as the embodiment of purity: a saintly figure committed to truth, who has made enormous sacrifices for a noble cause. When I mentioned the genuine tears I had seen in people’s eyes after the election results were announced, one Asian diplomat told me this should come as no surprise: ordinary people, he said, understand Suu Kyi’s suffering as having been on their behalf. His own maid, he continued, had taken two days off to go to her village in Tanintharyi region in the country’s southeast, at considerable personal expense, so that she could cast her vote for the NLD. “The poor in this country know what she has gone through for their sake,” the diplomat said. My taxi driver told me he loved Suu Kyi and, with tears in his eyes, pointed to her photograph, which he felt confident enough to display on his windscreen.

That photograph was a revelation. Before my trip, I had heard many stories of customs officials confiscating any controversial material, and I had taken care not to carry any books which had Suu Kyi’s photograph on the cover. But when I arrived in Yangon her image was everywhere. Hawkers were openly selling T-shirts with her face; vendors on streets sold large posters of her in various ethnic costumes.

SUU KYI’S FATHER, Bogyoke Aung San—‘Bogyoke’ refers to his military rank, equivalent to general—was a leader of the Burmese independence movement, considered to be the “father” of modern Burma. The founder of the Burmese Army, he had first allied his forces with the Japanese, helping them eject Britain from Burma in 1942, before turning against Japanese rule and allying with the British to push Japan from the country.

In July 1947, six months before Burma’s independence, Aung San was assassinated during a meeting of the country’s executive council in Rangoon; Suu Kyi was two years old at the time. She spent her childhood in Burma before moving to New Delhi in 1960 with her mother, who had been appointed ambassador to India. After earning degrees at Delhi University and Oxford, she married a scholar of Himalayan culture, Michael Aris, and settled in Britain.

Her life changed in 1988, when she returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother, just as the student pro-democracy protests were gathering energy. On 26 August of that year, she delivered an address to a crowd of nearly half a million people at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the country’s holiest Buddhist shrine. Speaking beneath a portrait of her father, she declared: “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on. This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence.” As Emma Larkin, an American journalist who has made clandestine visits to Burma and written two books under that assumed name, wrote recently in The New Republic: “Burmese history and folklore is punctuated by millennial leaders and would-be kings who emerge at times of crisis to lead the people to safety. Here, in this modern era, a female version had appeared, seemingly by pure chance, during a catastrophic upheaval…. the crowd was instantly smitten.”

In the months that followed, Suu Kyi became more visible: she greeted people outside her bungalow at University Road near Inya Lake, spoke at street corners, in markets, in townships and near Sule Pagoda, the other large shrine in downtown Rangoon—calling for democratisation and supporting the students who had led the original protests. The generals responded by jailing her and cracking down on protestors.

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