Everything possesses an air of novelty in Yangon, even the
opening of a new bar. In the heart of the colonial downtown, journalists drink
with anthropologists, architects share popcorn chicken with development
specialists, and waiters serve drinks whose names they can’t pronounce. The
bar, named Father’s Office, is a tribute to General Aung San, father of modern
Burma (now Myanmar) and father to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It is also a tribute to
a new chapter in Myanmar, where the proprietor, the daughter of a political
prisoner, smiles for the camera instead of looking over her shoulder. This
comes just days after the face of defiance against oppression, Suu Kyi,
squashed the generals in an electoral victory heard around the world.
Myanmar is shining, and dazzling at the centre of the wooden bar, sipping a daiquiri is a young woman with very long legs and a very short dress. This is no ordinary dress. The Balmain × H&M “limited edition” black and white embellished dress has sold out in stores from London to Paris to New York within hours (and in some cases, minutes) and has even featured in an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians. By the time night coils up in the bar, a gaggle of women have surrounded the young woman in the dress, desperate for details. Hesitant to volunteer information at first, she eventually succumbs.
The dress came from Hlaing Tharyar, a satellite town on the outskirts of Yangon, where garment manufacturers reopened shuttered factories as western sanctions waned. In 2012, the US and EU moved to lift an assortment of sanctions—economical and political—but limited sanctions remain to ensure the military’s commitment to reform.
Among the new foreign arrivals in the industrial zone is H&M. The woman’s driver had squeezed past alleys, past bamboo huts thatched with palm leaves, past workers who squat around factories and pulled over opposite a water pump where children bathe on the street. In a small store on the other side is the dress that had Father’s Office abuzz.
Hlaing Tharyar, the place that makes dresses that set bars aflutter, thrives on the labour of low-skilled workers, often underage and mostly women, who don’t have a fixed minimum wage.
“It was cheap,” the woman says of her dress.
“It’s obviously a fake,” someone whispers.
That dress in a bar, shimmering and short, made by the poor for the rich, a product of Myanmar’s hesitant transition to democracy, is full of promise and unreal—much like the country Suu Kyi inherits from the generals.
yanmar lies in the centre of South Asia and Southeast Asia, sandwiched between India and China while sharing borders with Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. According to the 2014 census, its population is more than 51 million with 135 distinct ethnic groups that are recognised by the government.
In a historic election on November 8 last year, the people of Myanmar voted in the Lady (as Suu Kyi is often called) and her National League for Democracy (NLD), both once considered a pariah and persecuted for decades by iron-fisted military rulers.
The journey to the election, when thousands in red took to the streets across the country, was years in the making. Its roadmap was laid in August 2003 when the junta announced the “Roadmap to the Discipline-flourishing Democracy” with the explicit aim of writing a constitution, electing representatives to the Hluttaw (legislative body) and, finally, holding parliamentary sessions.
Twelve years after the proclamation, 25 years after the last election—an election that the generals didn’t honour—and four years after they swapped their uniforms for civilian suits, Myanmar took to the polls as dictated by the constitution written in 2008. Though some 90 parties registered only two mattered: the NLD led by Suu Kyi, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a party of the military.
The election was largely peaceful and unlike 1990, the junta didn’t renege on its promise. Instead they conceded defeat in a Facebook post as President Thein Sein, a former general, congratulated Suu Kyi for “winning the people’s approval”, while the powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing vowed “cooperation with the new government”.
NLD won 77 per cent or four-fifths of the contested seats in the lower house of parliament. But a quarter of parliament’s 664 seats are set aside for the army to ensure the survival of the military in politics. However, the 2008 constitution gives NLD the power to appoint the president. Clause 58 states that the president “takes precedence over all other persons in Myanmar.”
But the constitution also ensures that despite being loved by the public—who call her Amay Suu, Mother Suu—Suu Kyi will never become president. The law prevents those with foreign children from taking office. The three most powerful bureaucracies—military affairs, border affairs, and home affairs—will remain under the control of the military and their budgets are not open to civilian scrutiny.
Suu Kyi has on several occasions spoken out against the constitution, enacted after a referendum. “As you all already know, I believe the 2008 referendum didn’t really reflect the true desires of the public,” she said at a public rally in the Kachin State during the campaign.
group of people have gathered outside the Royal Rose Restaurant in Yangon awaiting her arrival, but there is no certainty that Suu Kyi will turn up. Inside diners slurp bowls of khow suey until a black Toyota with tinted windows pulls in. Suu Kyi emerges, erect in posture at the age of 70.
Chopsticks drop. Waitresses stop taking orders. Out come the
mobiles with their cameras and people rush. A ring forms and, within it,
another ring. Men in crisp white shirts and green and blue longyis
manage the excited crowd. Myanmar is still a country where
minders and informers operate. Suu Kyi walks up the stairs and assumes her position at the head of a table, seated next to U. Tin Oo, a trusted confidant and chairman of the NLD, as he speaks to victorious MPs in their first meeting since the election.
Suu Kyi is not without her critics. She has been labelled “autocratic” by some members of the 1988 generation who led the first protests against military rule. Her ratings as a human rights champion have fallen given her silence over the Rohingya crisis while U Yan Naing, a former Muslim member of the NLD who joined in 1988, has been left “deeply disappointed” by her failure to appoint a single Muslim candidate for the elections.
Suu Kyi, however, remains untouchable: daughter of a martyred national hero who negotiated Burmese independence from the British, wife to a man who was denied access to her during his last days because she was under house arrest, and a mother to two sons who have grown up without much mothering. She has “paid a high price for being a participant in political life,” she told me in a 2010 interview.
For this she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 in absentia, made the cover of Time magazine several times, and at one time the world’s most famous political prisoner. Suu Kyi has attained the status of an icon and possesses as much star power as Angelina Jolie. In an August 2015 visit to garment factories in Hlaing Tharyar, Suu Kyi and Jolie created media frenzy while international tabloids heralded it as a union of two of the most powerful women in the world.
In this period of openness, Suu Kyi is everywhere. In bookstores, shelf after shelf is dedicated to her writings and biographies. Street vendors sell Suu Kyi calendars, children sell Suu Kyi postcards, and outside on the pavement of the NLD office, volunteers sell Suu Kyi T-shirts, satchels, magnets and stickers.
With the perks of being a revered figure come the drawbacks: Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 years over a 21-year period in house arrest, is much like a doll in a glass box, aware of the realities, but restrained. “Don’t for a moment think that the best minds and resources aren’t guiding her,” says a senior Western diplomat in Yangon.
Indeed, a political attaché at the British Embassy, has quit
his job and is now a full-time member of her team. In a historic visit in 2011,
Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state visited Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa
to talk politics. Clinton was the first secretary of state to do so in 57 years
and carried two books on Eisenhower and George Marshall as a present for Suu
Kyi. Both men were former soldiers who got into politics. “There’s a lot of
guiding behind the scenes,” a diplomat at a Western
She has on several occasions said she will be “above the president”, which is at once a lofty goal and vague ambition. Despite this, there is no denying that the power she wields is questionable: does she have the political capital to act or is she just a puppet in the hands of the generals who own the stage on which she performs?
The generals were in disarray anyway. Bitter struggles
between the reformists who hadn’t gained enough and the henchmen who were
loaded, had shaken the army. Two generals—both former protegés of the dictator
Than Shwe—Shwe Mann and Thein Sein had already faced off. In what much of
Yangon calls a “putsch”, Thein Sein had Shwe Mann booted out and assumed the
presidency when the army remodelled themselves into a civilian
Shwe Mann got the position of speaker of the assembly, a body which many had called ineffectual. He made it a place for serious debate, no matter how doubtful its relevance in a country that is “devoid of the Rule Law”, according to Suu Kyi. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, as the saying goes, and Suu Kyi struck close ties with Shwe Mann. It was he who appointed Suu Kyi to chair the Committee for Rule of Law and Stability and Peace in 2012.
Suu Kyi showed herself to be a cunning politician when she began talks with Thein Sein after he assumed presidency, and talked of serious reform. Thein Sein engineered reforms that transformed the country, reforms which were approved by the military. He released political prisoners, allowed NLD into politics, and as a result western sanctions on the country, businesses and individuals with close ties to the junta eased.
A couple of years into it, reforms stalled and soon the army threatened to return to its old ways, where journalists were chucked into prison, constitutional amendment remained a distant dream and hardline Buddhist monks threatened to hijack politics. “In a way the two military men have used Suu Kyi in this power struggle,” says a senior general. He later adds, “Maybe she’s used them both. But the real question is who is controlling them all?”
Towering over the country is Than Shwe, the patron saint of injustice, a sharp dresser with red betel-stained teeth, a man who still wields enormous power despite being out of office.
After the election, Suu Kyi met president Thein Sein, and commander-in-chief of the Army Min Aung Hlaing in separate meetings. Then she held a third meeting with Than Shwe on November 19 last year. Multiple sources who had information about what went on behind the scenes spoke to me about the importance of this meeting.
The good-looking poster boy, Than Shwe’s grandson Nay Shwe Thway Aung, managed to sit the “Beast” (Than Shwe) down with the “Beauty” (Suu Kyi), an incredible feat given that Than Shwe’s superstitious aversion to Suu Kyi is a matter of jest in Yangon. The meeting ran well over an hour and a half, and with predictable measured statements emerging from it.
The real prize was a Facebook post from Nay Shwe Thway Aung.
He posted a 5,000 kyat bank note on his wall signed by three of the most important figures in Myanmar’s recent history: Than Shwe signed it in 2009, Thein Sein in 2012, and Suu Kyi on November 19, 2015. He claimed the signatures were collected when the person was to assume leadership. Both army and NLD have kept quiet on the nature of the succession, and Suu Kyi hasn’t forgotten 1990 when the election was just ignored, and is hesitant to speak. So while people desperately seek answers, they rely on symbolism and read between the signatures on a crimson bank note.
hen the history of Ngwe Saung was being written, Achogyi was one of its first victims. Achogyi was a fishing village with about 30 houses in Ngwe Saung—a coastal area with a stretch of beach—on the western coast of Myanmar. Local superstition claimed the black rocks in the sea that gave birth to large waves would one day wash away the village. But it wasn’t the waves, it was the junta that erased the name. Over the course of three years, even the birds forgot Achogyi but one man’s memory did not allow him to forget. This man was U-Hla Tham.
When the first trucks arrived at Achogyi, no road sign existed so the locals just pointed with their fingers. When the bulldozer flattened the houses to make way for new buildings, U-Hla Tham wept under his coconut trees. The trees and banana plantations were uprooted soon after. It was then he started recounting the story of Achogyi to his grandchildren, desperate to preserve the place even when it didn’t exist.
“Your great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather and grandfather were born in a house where the swimming pool stands today,” he told them. Materials the people had never seen—brick, cement, glass and tiles—created “new villages” across Ngwe Saung. Achogyi became the Bay of Bengal Resort, while other villages morphed into fancy hotels too. Despite the Ngwe Saung Tourism Development Authority’s attempt to bring together Ngwe Saung as an organic beachside community, the truth would remain: nobody belongs to Ngwe Saung and nobody is buried in Ngwe Saung.
The people who called the coast home have been inadequately compensated and pushed inward into a new village called Zee Hmaw from where they see shiny cars drive in and out of Bay of Bengal Resort. Five metres of dusty road, lined with stores selling wind chimes made of shells and “I love Ngwe Saung” T-shirts, separate U-Hla Tham’s old life from his new.
Anger and desperation led him to volunteer as a monitor during the elections. One month before the elections, he hung the NLD sign on the second floor despite complaints from his neighbour, a “crony” who owns one of the three concrete houses in Zee Hmaw.
“That’s why I voted for the Lady,” he says.“She will ensure I walk those five metres to what is rightfully mine.”
Porsche Cayenne cuts past the Strand Hotel, a colonial relic restored to its former glory as a five-star hotel. A young man in beige chinos steps out and strides into the lobby.
“Crony,” mumbles the local journalist as we trail behind. A fleet of cars—BMWs, Range Rovers, Jaguars, and Rolls Royces—roar through the streets day and night. The revving engines awaken people to an awkward truth: there is no middle class in Myanmar. Years of running the country into the ground have not only ensured centralisation of power but also of wealth.
The cronies are everywhere, in all industries, leaving no profit-making enterprise untouched. Most notorious is Tay Za, 51, who owns the Aureum Palace Hotel, the most lavish and pricey resort in Ngwe Saung. He is chairman of the Htoo group of companies that owns Air Bagan, Myanmar’s first private airline. He flies in his private chopper to his luxury mountain retreat and rips through the streets of Yangon in his Ferrari. The US Treasury has called him “an arms dealer and financial henchman of Myanmar’s repressive junta” and has imposed sanctions upon his companies, him and, until recently, his wife. His wealth is astronomical in a country where the majority subsist on an annual income less than $200 per capita, where 70 per cent of the average household expenditure is on food.
The list of cronies is long.
Aung Myat who is close to senior general Than Shwe, and a former minister of industry has heavily invested in the cement industry and construction projects. The EU has imposed visa restrictions upon him. The son of the USDP secretary, Nay Aung, has been awarded positions at the United Amaya Bank. Other cronies have cashed in too: Asia Green Development Bank was assigned to Tay Za, the Irrawaddy Bank to Zaw Zaw and Myanmar Shae Saung Bank to Chit Khaing, all military men. The son of General Than Shwe runs six gas stations in Yangon and Mandalay.
n a country that had become accustomed to speaking in whispers in tearooms, the diplomat seated in front of me at the newly-opened modern Rangoon Tea House dared to circulate what is a rumour. He leaned in, over a plate of tea leaf salad, and waited for the waiter to be out of earshot. The catalyst, he claimed, to the “Burmese Spring” had its origins in an incident involving a high-ranking member of the army and his aspiration to have his son educated abroad. However, the sanctions imposed by the west prevented this privileged child from reaping the benefits of decades of misrule by the army. It is more palatable for the world to deal with a lady with flowers in her hair than a general with stars on his chest.
Thus the “spring”.
It is an economic rebirth of sorts that has allowed hundred of billboards to bloom. Yangon’s street are gridlocked by cars because in 2012 the army lifted the ban on imports of foreign cars. Since then second-hand cars, mainly Japanese, have brought traffic to a standstill.
New shops line the streets where every third store sells mobile phones. Towering above the city are hoardings advertising the arrival of another game-changer: privatised telecommunication. Norwegian Telenor and Qatari Ooredoo sell SIM cards for less than $2 whereas two years ago a SIM card could cost about $2,000. Urban populations have connected to “The Facebook”, a term used interchangeably for the Internet.
Economic liberalisation has also regurgitated the same tired clichés: it is the “last frontier” in Asia, where a “new gold rush” has turned Myanmar into “the Wild West”. Special economic zones with preferential rates for foreign direct investment attempt to nudge the economy of a country which was considered the rice bowl of Asia, forward. Myanmar is among the least developed countries nestled in the fastest growing economic region in the world.
As it attempts to catch up, expats from around the globe have come to cash in. There is money to be made in construction, development, fisheries, agriculture, mining, a list limited only by imagination. Investment. Investment. Investment. The word is heard in the bar at the Strand where Orwell and Kipling once drank, and at the poolside lounge at the Savoy where lobster-red, sunburnt white men drink Myanmar beer and high-five each other.
“Welcome to Burma,” they say.
yanmar is on the cusp of change. Between 1900 and 1990, average GDP growth of the world economy was three per cent, but Myanmar’s growth was only 1.6 per cent. While the global per capita GDP quadrupled during this period, Myanmar’s remained stagnant. With the country opening up for business, it remains a virgin land of opportunity, ripe for exploitation.
A McKinsey report states, “If current demographic trends continue and labour productivity growth remains the same as it has been over the past 20 years, annual GDP growth could be as low as 3.7 percent. However, Myanmar has the potential to achieve rapid economic growth equivalent to eight percent per annum if it taps the full potential of all seven key sectors of its economy. Expanding these sectors (manufacturing, agriculture, infrastructure, energy/mining, tourism, financial services, and telecom) could more than quadruple its size from $45 billion in 2010 to over $200 billion in 2030.”
Those in power and their cronies have most to gain.
When the juice had been squeezed from the economy, when Chinese hegemony started grating as they sucked the money from mineral-rich Myanmar, reform began. So cronies became businessmen, much like the generals who became politicians. Tay Za invested some of his income from the lucrative gem and timber trade and entered the white economy with hotels, planes and acres and acres of rice fields. Other cronies followed as they could be vulnerable to political reversals.
In this new Myanmar, Tay Za is sponsoring training for newly elected members of the NLD, many of whom are first time legislators at the Shwe San Eain Hotel in Naypyidaw, a hotel he owns.
“When did you hear of the oligarchs?” asks a senior member of the USDP and answers the question himself: “when the disintegration of the Soviet Union happened. That is what you will witness here soon, the rich are about to get much richer.”
“She’ll be held more accountable,” the USDP bureaucrat laughs and say, “Holding your first conference at a luxury hotel owned by a blacklisted tycoon, the Lady is not so different from us.”
n icon is a mascot, a rallying figure. A government is bureaucratic, a somnolent combination of the routine and the mundane held together in the spirit of compromise, of wheels within wheels, levers within levers, that are the nuts and bolts that can transform a country. A government does not have the luxury of an ideal situation. Great principled rhetoric can’t move a single file in the secretariat. Suu Kyi, the icon, now needs to become a leader who governs through a system best known for its cruel misrule.
A dedicated political movement like the NLD needs to transform itself into a body fit for governance. Many leaders of the NLD had been living in exile for years together and others went in fear of retribution for their political activities.
“This election, this moment is a dream. We don’t want to wake up,” says U Aung Thein, one of the oldest members of the NLD and its auditor.
At the NLD office in Yangon, senior party members try best to explain what “de-mo-kra-see” is, an idea for a revolution that they now have a chance to live. There is no word for democracy in their language nor is there one for the “rule of law”.
Elders explain foreign concepts and new ideas in the old office where cracks in the false ceiling expose the tin roof. Others file returns on campaign expenditure to ensure that the election process has been transparent. Papers, some as old as the patrons, brown with age, are piled on top of steel cabinets. There is only one computer under a large poster of Suu Kyi which has been made by small newspaper cut-outs of her face. At the entrance is a picture of Suu Kyi smiling with Obama, a signal of one of the major shifts in Myanmar’s international posture: a move away from China, that was an ardent supporter of the military regime, towards the West.
In the only prefabricated air-conditioned room big enough to accommodate a table, two chairs and a picture of General Aung San sits U Tin Oo, chairman of the NLD who is widely tipped to be the next president of Myanmar. In one of the few interviews he has given since the election, he speaks to Fountain Ink.
Why is the army willing to let go of some of its powers? I ask.
Tin Oo’s face breaks into a cautious smile. “Amnesty,” he says, his skin firm, his tone unwavering despite his age.
He had been a young man when General Aung negotiated the freedom of the country, and had gathered with the masses mourning the loss of the great hero a year later. For about a decade Myanmar enjoyed relative calm but the state slid economically backwards, wars disrupted large parts of the country, and Ne Win led a coup in 1962 to restore “order”. His was a brutal and misguided rule. Neither knowledgeable nor passionate about Buddhism or socialism, he put Myanmar on the Burmese Path to Socialism and thus began the country’s isolation. Brash and paranoid about the students who led protests, when Ne Win travelled to Austria and England for medical check-ups, universities remained closed.
After Ne Win, Than Shwe took on the task of running Myanmar
further into the ground. His outlandish decisions are unnumbered: paramount
among them was to move the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in order to create
an imperial city for the junta, miles away from anything. Elusive and paranoid,
he distanced himself from public view and had he been produced as a war
criminal, the average citizen might not even
For years the government has ruled this resource-rich country with such disregard that large parts of the population live at levels of desperation associated with Africa. For years the rulers have been so brutal that charging them with “crimes against humanity” is a distinct possibility. A UN inquiry into their deeds isn’t off the cards either.
“Just look at Cambodia,” he says, where members of the Khmer Rouge are under trial; many have died at the dock. “The army cannot stand the elements from inside and from outside. The country is degrading economically and Burma is becoming a failed state.”
Discussions between Suu Kyi and the generals started in 2011, a year after she was released from house arrest. Before that they had decided to move away from China and get closer to the west.
“There was a reconciliatory attitude even prior to Suu Kyi’s release,” he says, but the West was keen on talks between Suu Kyi and the president and she kept reiterating “‘I want to help you if you need help from me,’” he says.
Progress was slow. At least 10 rounds of discussions, mostly on the economic backwardness of the country, took place of which Tin Oo was privy to more than half but they yielded no progress. The icebreaker was a communiqué in the form of a letter passed over in 2011 with a clear message: democracy would be possible. The nature of this democracy remains vague as Suu Kyi and the generals continue to hold conversations behind closed doors.
New alliances have been struck but a tussle between moderates and hardliners isn’t too unlikely a prospect, says a high-placed source in the NLD. “Many are aware of the need for change but others live in paranoia. It may seem as though there is an opening but this is still a closed society,” the source says.
“We need to create a middle class,” Tin Oo repeats several times and attempts to explain the difference between “good cronies” and “bad cronies”.
All cronies stifle entrepreneurship, there is no good or bad, I say.
“Don’t be foolish,” says Tin Oo and for a moment the 88-year-old morphs back into his position of commander-in-chief of the armed force. Stern and sharp. “There are cronies everywhere, we welcome every good enterprise as we stand at the gates of democracy,” he says.
Just then his assistant storms in. Some Australians have arrived to talk business.
n another NLD office in a town called Myaungmya, deep in the heart of the Irrawaddy Delta, a couple lie on a mattress in the back room. They met a few months ago on the campaign trail. Strangers from different parts of this town, they travelled to far-off villages, 504 in total, in a region famed for its sweet fluffy rice, telling people how to cast their vote. The people they encountered, devastated by cyclone Nargis, were bitter with years of neglect. “This is what the NLD logo looks like,” she, Khin Sandar Aung, had said. While he, Ko Ko Aung, had shown people how to stamp the ballot just once.
Keen to tell the tales and encounters from the campaign trail, she drags me into a small tea house where people sit on wobbly wooden chairs and sip tea from white cups.
Myaungmya is the sort
of town where a foreigner stands out like a general at a NLD rally and my
presence catches the attention of a group of men, one of whom wears a tight
fitting T-shirt with Suu Kyi’s face on his back. He
Zani Tint used to work on a merchant ship and had spent days
at sea carrying cargo with logs of famed Burma teak. When they docked at ports
around Southeast Asia, he would often wander, captivated by the shiny buildings
of Singapore and appalled at Papua’s poverty. Over the course of 15 years, he
had seen just about every country in Southeast Asia and returned to a life
stuck in time, going nowhere. He took charge of his father-in-law’s jewellery
store, a shop that had neither grown nor shrunk
in 45 years.
The other men at the table, all small-time businessmen—a convenience store owner, a stationery store owner and another jeweller—too had inherited businesses that filled their stomachs but not their appetite. “We want opportunities, we want to grow,” one man says.
Another who had spoken at the NLD rally on a stage assures people that the NLD would ensure all men had equal opportunity. A senior officer of the army, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, had said: “Suu Kyi will have to be more careful who she does business with. People are watching her.”
While sipping sweet tea, the elected MP passes by, wearing a green Hawaiian T-shirt with an unlit cigarette between his lips. “We want better teachers, we want better schools, we need to create opportunities for small businesses. Everything needs to change,” he says and keeps walking in a city where politics was all people spoke about.
Economic changes have already gripped Myaungmya with the arrival of the Myaungmya Industrial Zone, where chimneys rise as high
as the palm trees. Rice mill after rice mill is running in the lush forests and
a steady stream of cargo vessels pulls away from the banks. The merchants at
the tea shop didn’t get a penny out of this, and angry farmers hadn’t been
compensated for the land grab. We sip our tea in silence until someone
The white colonials who came to rule Myanmar, followed by
the generals who controlled it now made way for a group of people who would
pretend a free market economy existed. It was the colonial club making way for
The table has changed, the players are the same.
he reporter at Bi Mon Te Nay news journal knew
he should have not written the story on
July 7, 2014. Unlike the decades gone by, there was no restriction for free men
to congregate and a large crowd had gathered outside the court in Yangon for
the trial. He had gone only to observe after being invited through a Facebook
group, but the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), the group that the
accused had started, distributed a leaflet with a message from the man at the
dock. This was too big a moment
The people have appointed Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders to form
an interim government, it read. When the story landed on the editor-in-chief’s
desk, he knew there was no turning back. He authorised the publication of the
leaflet on the front page of the bi-monthly
This was the sort of story that would anger the doorkeepers at the Ministry of Information but unlike previous years, stories no longer went to the censors. Journalists were free to write and publish what they desired but the published paper had to be sent to the ministry. Writing the truth wasn’t without consequences, though. That hadn’t changed at all over the decades.
The night after publication, the editor sat on the wooden chair opposite the front door of his apartment, awaiting arrest. The reporter and the managing editor had already been picked up. Any minute now, he thought. No one came. He waited, growing impatient until around 3 a.m. after which he made his way to the Special Branch of police in downtown Yangon. The office, an unnamed but well-known building, was quiet. He walked to the officer on duty: “I’m guilty of publishing the truth,” he said.
An hour later, he was back at his apartment, where three police officers went through his drawers. His wife and child had been woken from their sleep while an officer looked under the mattress. After they’d searched his laptop and were satisfied, he was locked behind bars. The arrests rattled the press corps because the government submitted a complaint directly to the police, bypassing the Myanmar Press Council which was set up to handle complaints. He was sentenced to two years in Insein Prison, and ultimately spent one year and 22 days inside the notorious jail.
He was booked under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act that
bans content that can “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group
of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the
restoration of law and order.” There is not one law but several that ensure a
chained press. A 2013 Telecommunications Law allows the government to intercept
information that threatens national security or the rule of law while the 2004
Electronics Transactions Law prohibits the electronic transfer of information
liable to undermine national security and has been used to clamp down on
“What about all this talk of the freedom of the press?” I asked.
“We are freer, we just have to think twice before we publish,” he said.
t the offices of the Associated Alliance of Political Prisoners (AAPP), there hangs a board with pictures of people, young and old, who have been detained on dubious charges. There are people who have been arrested without warrants, there are student protestors who have been arrested as they demonstrate against the Education Bill which would prevent them from joining unions. A blogger, a poet, a rebel, and a student—all languish in prisons across Myanmar for acts such as posting a meme on Facebook which pokes fun at the generals, for writing poetry of sedition, and for demanding that ethnic languages be taught in school. “Compared to 2010, arrests have increased,” Moe Zaw of the AAPP, said.
didn’t vote,” said the Kachin leader and hung up abruptly. These were tense times and he was afraid to talk. We hadn’t spoken for many years but had met eight years ago in Mae La Refugee Camp on the Thai-Burmese border, in a cramped room where he showed me all sorts of weapons and explained the “truth” about Myanmar.
“There are three Burmas,” he had said. “The white, the grey and the black.” The government controls the white, the grey may or may not be under a ceasefire, and the black belongs to whoever controls it. He didn’t view the government as legitimate nor did he recognise its authority.
In the months leading up to the election, the government in
Naypyidaw made a lot of noise about signing ceasefire agreements with armed
groups but the deal wasn’t all-encompassing. Though ethnic groups on the border
with Thailand had come to the table, long stretches of territory bordering
China remained out of government control. Two of the largest militias,
belonging to the Kachin and Wa, each with tens of thousands of soldiers, didn’t
sign the agreement. There was an uptick in violence immediately
after the vote.
Myanmar is home to many civil wars, and so deep are the fissures that Myanmar’s Union Election Commission which oversees the polls announced that elections wouldn’t be held in parts of war-torn Shan State.
The vote didn’t stand a chance in at least 42 villages in the Wa Self-Administered Division, an area that pledges allegiance to China. In spite of a ceasefire agreement, the vote had been cancelled in over 400 villages in Kachin, Karen, Shan and Mon states. Unlike the Rohingyas who had been denied the vote on the grounds that the people were “foreign”, the ethnic issue in Myanmar is one that has troubled the country since its inception.
The areas where the rebels fight are rich in minerals, and hubs of drugs, the trade that fuels the fight. Kachin state in northern Myanmar produces the finest quality of milky-green jade.
Cronies of the junta battle local rebel armies for control over the best quarries in an industry whose value, according to a Global Witness report, is placed at $31 billion in 2013, which is nearly half of the national GDP and 46 times the allocation on healthcare. But according to the Natural Resource Governance Institute, the value of the jade trade is a mere $374 million.
“Myanmar’s jade business may be the biggest natural resource heist in modern history,” says Global Witness analyst Juman Kubba in the report. Conditions are so dire in the quarries that miners have turned to heroin.
Myanmar is the world’s second-largest poppy grower after Afghanistan. The Shan and Kachin state are producers. Despite the drive to reduce poppy cultivation, there was a 13 per cent increase in cultivation, placed at 870 tonnes. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes,“Food insecurity and poverty in the rural areas fuel illicit opium poppy cultivation, which is reinforced by the armed conflicts and ethnic tensions in Shan and Kachin states.”
hen much of the world was busy slapping the country’s dictators on the wrist by imposing sanctions and restricting their travel, India remained dedicated to maintaining cordial relations with the generals. Officially formal ties began with the 1951 Treaty of Friendship but a meaningful economic relation began following Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1987. Trade between the two countries is currently $2 billion and the majority of the tur dal in stores in India is from Myanmar.
The current value of Myanmar’s exports to India in pulses
and beans is $800 million. Myanmar
meanwhile imports pharmaceutical products from India. With the preferential
rates and the presence of oil and gas in Myanmar, ONGC will soon enter the
market and Tata Motors has set up a heavy turbo-track assembly plant with
assistance from the Indian government. Sources at the Ministry of External Affairs say that the two countries will be moving towards defense cooperation in the near future.
A new government of the NLD, a product of the long and
brutal revolution, and a resounding electoral victory, is about to take charge.
It believes in the rule of the law, and inherits a system where the rule of the
few prevails. It believes in creating a middle class, where a cabal of the
cronies play capitalists. It believes in freedom, when the laws of the land
emasculate it. It wants factories, and
is willing to do business with “good cronies”. It has among its voters a man
whose house is now the swimming pool of a resort, and who wants it back. Its
mascot is an icon, long-persecuted and long-revered, who can’t be president,
but who has to run a country and keep her oppressors in good humour. It has the
hopes and prayers of millions, but the powerful men in uniform
control its fate.
This is Myanmar, the world’s newest democracy.