Our Myanmar guidebook instructed us against starting political conversations with locals, who have spent decades under the thumb of a repressive and occasionally vindictive military dictatorship. Tourists who visited the country a decade or two ago generally had to come through a government-run package tour that shuffled you from tourist site to tourist site and put you up in swanky government-run hotels and resorts. Some who did manage to do independent tourism reported being followed by a government handler to make sure they weren’t talking to the wrong people. Locals had to be careful what they said while shooting the breeze in the corner tea shops for fear of who was listening – more than 2,000 people were put behind bars for speaking out against the government. Despite several mass releases – goodwill gestures to appease Western governments – a handful still remain there.
Kaytlin and I’s experience in Myanmar was that you didn’t have to worry about bringing up politics – most people took it upon themselves with little-to-no prompting. Tuk-tuk drivers, guides, people in restaurants – pretty much everyone had an opinion and the desire to share it. And there was a nearly unanimous consensus on one thing – Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The Lady,” as she is simply known among Burmese, is a phenomena. For the uninitiated, she was the daughter of General Aung San, a hero of Burmese independence who was promptly assassinated when she was two years old. Educated out of the country, she returned and became involved in the burgeoning democracy movement that was brutally crushed by the military junta in 1988, with more than 3,000 people shot dead in the streets. (Think of it as Burma’s Tienamin Square.) She was placed under house arrest, where she remained off and on for more than 20 years, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her principled stand against the military government. To give you a sense of her commitment to her cause: Her husband, a British national suffering from terminal cancer, applied for a visa to come visit his wife, whom he had only seen sparingly for more than a decade, for the last time. The military repeatedly denied the visa request, suggesting instead that Suu Kyi could fly to Britain to see her husband. The Lady knew that if she left, she’d never be allowed back in the country and would go the way of countless exiled opposition leaders before her – out of sight, out of mind of the populace.
Suu Kyi’s continued imprisonment amidst the international attention she was attracting became untenable for the government. Add to that 2007’s so-called “Saffron Revolution,” in which hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets led by the country’s monks, and the writing was on the wall. This iteration of the military leadership, ostensibly more “reformist,” began acceding to the demands of the West. Number one on the list was of course the unconditional release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and “free and fair” elections. Suu Kyi was released in 2010, about a week after national elections took place. Since then she has been campaigning, with an eye on the next national election in 2015.
In one of those amazing moments of synchronicity that you’ll remember forever, Kaytlin and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. While we hemmed and hawed one afternoon about whether to leave Hpa-An, a sleepy regional capital in the southeast of the country, the next day or the day after that, we saw the owner of our guesthouse putting up a sign on the wall inviting all the guests to attend a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi the next evening. “Well that settles that,” we simultaneously said in the creepy and sickening way that only two people who have been traveling together for three plus months can say.
The event was just about as moving as a three-hour long political rally in a language you don’t speak can be. We spent the first half hour milling around the college soccer stadium where the speech was to be held. After a week or so in Burma we’d gotten used to posing for pictures, though we were still trying to ascertain their meaning. (“Look mom, I saw a couple giant white people!”) But in the run up to the speech, we felt like foreign dignitaries. We must have posed for 500 pictures, hugged 100 grandmothers and even held a baby or two. Our cheeks hurt from smiling so much. It was surreal, to say the least, but you could tell that people’s intentions were pure. The event attracted people from villages hundreds of miles away, so people’s English skills were lacking. Still a few were able to smile and say, “Thank you for coming.”
As the crowd grew and dusk came, you felt like you were waiting for The Beatles to land stateside. We made friends with an 18-year-old college student with good English skills who told us that The Lady was his “hero,” that he hoped she would push for a better education system and that he believed she could be a good leader for all of Burma – Buddhist, Muslim, Burmese or not.
After a couple false starts in which the crowd of several thousand pushed forward towards the barricades in front, The Lady’s SUV arrived and she was greeted to ecstatic cheers. As the speakers took to the podium, organizers encouraged everyone to sit. And that they did – thousands of people carefully sat down so that everyone could get a good view. Coming from an individualist culture where you can’t get 500 people at a concert to take their seats, this was refreshing. Looking around the crowd, you were struck by the sorts of things that are kryptonite to repressive authoritarian regimes in this day and age: youth (tons and tons of teenagers and 20-somethings) and technology (smartphones in the hands of even lower-middle class people, with access to social media outlets that can send anything viral.)
My Burmese is a bit rusty, so I can’t tell you what she said. But I can tell you that she had more poise, confidence and quiet dignity than anyone I’ve seen speak in front of a microphone. In an attempt to explain the significance of this to someone back home, I believe I compared it to a 2008 Obama speech, but that really doesn’t even do it justice. For some of the faces in the crowd – faces that have seen a military turn its guns on its own people and risked a life in prison by gathering together to form a political party – this was like watching Nelson Mandela speak in post-Apartheid Africa. This woman could have given up at any time in those 20 years of house arrest and gotten a one-way ticket to a posh life in Britain with her husband and children, but she put the future of her country first. It’s a selflessness that we can all find inspiring.
A few more quick observations about politics in Myanmar, with the caveat that things are far more complicated than can be quickly understood:
Despite the Hallmark nature of Aung San Suu Kyi’s story, this is still a volatile situation. The country’s constitution still contains a nasty little provision slipped in by the military in the 80s that forbids anyone married to a foreign national or with foreign children from being prime minister. Both the current prime minister, a former general, and Suu Kyi herself have said that this should be changed. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that this will be fixed this year, paving the way for The Lady to win in a landslide in 2015. We can all hope, but nothing can be taken for granted at this point. Even the current arrangement calls for the military to retain 25 percent of the seats in parliament, with no direct election, essentially giving them veto power over any changes to the constitution.
Just like it’s neighbors to the west, Myanmar has a race/religion problem. Our first political talk with a Burmese man ended in a graphic description of how a group of Muslim men in Rakhine state allegedly gangraped and killed a Buddhist woman. This province, which borders Bangladesh, continues to see some horrific ethnic violence, with refugee camps holding more than 100,000 Rohingyas, a Muslim people that straddle Burma and Bangladesh. These people are stateless (like the Palestinians without international attention) and often get on ships bound for Malaysia, the closest friendly Muslim-majority nation. Some make it, some are lost at sea, while others wash up into the hands of the Thai military, which allegedly sends them to a different fate. Not a week goes by without a new report of an angry Buddhist mob rampaging through a Rohingya area to avenge some slight. An interesting conspiracy theory we heard repeated a couple times is that the military stirs up these incidents in order to justify their continuing presence in government as a “stabilizing force.” The nation’s Buddhist monks (cute and cuddly as they may seem) have called for a law against inter-religious marriages between Muslim men and Buddhist women. The current government is hard at work ending the simmering civil wars with the hill tribes near the country’s mountainous borders. Ceasefires have been signed and honored, but the ethnic minority groups remain wary of the ethnic Burmese majority and want autonomy.
Given this ethnic tension and huge amounts of blood being spilled, you’d hope that the nation’s hero would speak out, but The Lady has been sadly quiet about the issue aside from typical platitudes. You’d think if anyone in the country had the political capital to affect the sort of change necessary to stop this kind of violence, it would be her. This has even led some of her Western backers to withdraw (or at least soften) their support. The justification from her supporters is that she is running for president of Burma. Unfortunately standing up for Muslims doesn’t play well at the polls. Some hope she’ll come out more strongly on the issue once she wins. This all reminds me of an American politician I once knew.
It’s one thing to talk about democracy and human rights in abstract terms from across the ocean – it’s one of my favorite hobbies actually. But it’s quite another to be in a place that is for the first time getting to experience something as simple as fear-free public political organization. To share that joy and freedom for a night is something I won’t forget for the rest of my life.
***Postscript: If anyone wants a good primer on Mynamar and its recent struggles, look up the documentary “Burma VJ” on Netflix. ***