YANGON—Well, it took a quarter of a century, but I’m finally here. Finally seeing a country that, ever since that certain famous uprising in 1988, has captured my imagination, altered my thinking about things like freedom and dissent, and even gifted me my life partner—all without the benefit of once having visited.
Myanmar is a country whose history, politics and ethnic makeup I knew more about—with the exception of the United States and England—than those of the dozen or so other countries I had actually been to before this week. A country that, for reasons related to the long-term consequences of the so-called “8.8.88” pro-democracy protest, and the implications of tourism, I felt better not visiting—even while I was living right next to it for nearly four years. But now the time is right, so here I am.
Like most foreigners with an interest in human rights and an abiding respect for the pro-democracy movement here, I would rather be calling this place “Burma” and the former capital where I’m staying “Rangoon.” However, it seems that part of the New Deal—an unwritten agreement, you might say, between the string-pullers of the regime and the people at large, if such a construct is possible in this multi-ethnic state—is that the army’s willingness to retreat from its half-century grip over the daily lives of its citizens (and, you know, see how this whole democracy thing works out) is directly proportional to the people’s willingness to let go of certain things. That’s a pretty tall order for a regime which, before November 2010, stood accused internationally of ethnic genocide, extrajudicial killings and rape, forced labour and forced relocation of entire villages, not to mention the worst child labour record (and the most child soldiers) in the world.
Of course, it’s not like all of those things have stopped with the elections. For one thing, the continuing concern about ethnic violence—including a monk-led, Buddhist campaign against Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state—is particularly disturbing, as is NLD leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s perceived inaction on the issue as an elected politician. However, while the army still has ultimate control—it claims more than 80 per cent of the parliamentary seats, with 25 per cent of those reserved for unelected military personnel—there appears to be a genuine desire on the part of the more reform-minded in power to transition into some kind of a civilian-led, and ultimately democratic, form of governance. But everyone here knows it’s a delicate experiment that could go sideways the moment the military feels threatened. So, calling this place “Myanmar” instead of “Burma” and the city “Yangon” instead of “Rangoon” (the junta always argued, with some cleverness, that “Myanmar” was more ethnically diverse, linguistically, than “Burma”) seems the least important compromise to make. It’s more social than political, in any case; a way to smoothen relations with the locals so as not to raise hackles. One exception for the old usage—a helpful distinction followed by Lonely Planet and other Western observers—is when referring to events prior to 1989, when the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) renamed the country and several cities.
Because (a) I am a foreigner who is hoping to remain in this country for longer than the standard, 28-day tourist visa period; (b) this country has a longstanding distrust of foreigners (especially writers) who are perceived to be meddling with its internal affairs, and (c) I assume that this blog can be read by just about anybody, there is a limit to what I will say about politics on this blog as long as I remain in the country. What I can do is offer my impressions based on observation, and cast some of that observation against the preconceptions of Myanmar that I developed over time. Of course, the notion that one can “know more about” a country than places one has actually been to is strictly theoretical. Really, it does not matter how many books one has read (by locals or foreigners) or how many academic or journalistic articles one has written about a certain country, or even that one has married one of its nationals. One still needs direct experience to “know” a country, and I’ll be getting some of that by working for a news organization which, for various reasons, shall remain nameless.
For now, I am getting my bearings. Having only arrived on Sunday afternoon (Lune, my spouse, arrives on Saturday), I wasted no time dismissing my first preconception: that Yangon, as the former seat of a British colony, is filled with native Burmese who also speak English. Apart from a few tourist hotels, that does not appear to be the case at all. In fact, I am thanking my lucky stars that I was met on arrival by a generous Burmese friend, who I shall henceforth refer to as “Kay,” who not only arranged our place to stay but presided over the renovations in time for my arrival. On Sunday, Kay showed up at Yangon International Airport with members of her family, and a hired driver, to take me to our apartment. We all piled into the car—four women, the male driver and myself—getting acquainted very quickly. After dumping my belongings at the apartment (about which, more next time), we drove a few blocks until we arrived at a very busy seafood restaurant.
As we got out of the car and proceeded to the restaurant for dinner, I felt the stares of every local on the block, including the ten-year-old boy who instantly approached me to beg, and the young wait staff, many of them with thanakha moisturizing powder smudged in small circles on their faces. At first, I was mortified that Kay insisted on paying for dinner—I had no idea how much a massive seafood meal for six would have cost—but was reassured when she told me later it was $56. Quite a bargain, for such a fabulous introduction to Burmese food. The soft crab curry, in which one eats the entire crab, shell and all, was a particularly tasty revelation.
Back at our building, I said goodbye to my hosts and took the six-flight walk up to our apartment. After entering, I shut the iron gate and locked it with a giant padlock before engaging the deadbolt as well. Kay had advised me to keep it locked at all times, even when we’re home, and not to open the door to any stranger who knocks. Even if we leave the apartment for five minutes, she said, the place could be cleaned out if we don’t lock it. It is simply a reality of life in Burma, she explained; one of the many sad consequences of five decades of military rule. Despite this sobering thought, I slept well.