Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi Released from House Arrest

For many years I've been following the political events in Burma (now called Myanmar, but I choose not to acknowledge anything the current military dictatorship does).  A nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years.  Before writing this blog I had an import business and a small store in the east Village called LaoLao Handmade and it was on my trips to SE Asia that I became aware of the situation in Burma.

After many years of debate with myself about what was the right thing to do I decided to go to Burma. A crusty old British man who I met in a swimming pool in Siem Reap (the northern second city of Cambodia and home of the Angkor Temple complex) finally convinced me.

We got to chatting and he told me he'd just come from Burma and that he'd been a "Burma watcher" for many years.  Indeed he'd had a career in the British Foreign service and had been posted to the embassy in Bangkok for many years.  He convinced me that there were many ways to go to Burma and help the people living there and that isolation only benefits the generals who run the country.  The Lonely Planet travel books have a wonderful essay in the front of their Burma edition discussing all the pros and cons of travel in Burma.

Traveling in Burma was one of the great trips of my life.  From the minute I landed in Yangon to the time I left a week later, it was like I had gotten into a time machine not an airplane.  Phone calls home were nearly impossible; at the very upscale hotel I stayed in there was a sign by the phone saying that the cost was so prohibitive and the quality of the connection so dubious that they recommend people not make phone calls.  Yahoo mail was blocked so even if you could get to a computer with Internet you couldn't send an email.  International sanctions and isolation have taken a tremendous toll on the country, so being there it was like time had stopped.  All the old colonial buildings were in varying states of decay and the only new high rise building downtown was the Traders Hotel.

I easily managed to fly on airlines not owned by the government and stay in foreign owned hotels.  I hired a driver in Yangon for $25 a day; he was a very sweet man who spoke good English and drove a car so old and dilapidated it was amazing that it still worked.  Like so many of the people I met during my stay, my driver spoke out about the military and how poorly they treated the people.   Yet even though despair was pervasive people still had hope that something had to change...as someone watching the situation for years, from the outside, I can only say that I am shocked, though not surprised, by just how slow this change is to come.   I hope that today's release of The Lady, as Suu Kyi is known, will start a new, brighter chapter in the dark, cruel and sad story that has been Burma's plight for the last 40 years.

My most vivid memory of my stay was during one day of sightseeing.  I'd asked my driver to let me off at the Sule Pagoda.  I was just going to do a quick walkabout and get back in the car and on to whatever the next destination was.  The pagoda is an odd sort of thing as it is basically in the middle of a traffic circle; it's very beautiful and filled with Burmese people who were either working there cleaning or selling souvenirs or praying.  A young man sitting on a stoop who was reading an incredibly large book called me over.  I am, as a New Yorker, naturally wary of people calling me over, since I always assume they want money or a favor or something.  Anyway, this young man just really wanted to talk to me; the book he was reading was an English dictionary.   He spoke excellent English, and was very excited to be speaking to someone from the States.  Rather quickly the conversation went to politics and he pointed out a woman sweeping the floors across from us.

"Did you notice how that woman has walked by us 3 times since I started talking to you?"

I had not. He pointed to a group of 3 or 4 people sitting across from us.

"You see them, they are watching us, the Government puts them here where tourists come to spy, to make sure Burmese people don't talk to foreigners"

Of course now I was paranoid; this kid was very smart and this was a country notorious for its spies and repression.  Then he said something that in all my travels in Asia I had never heard anyone say:

"I hate this fucking government"

This after pointing out all the spies seemed particularly brazen.  I'd never  heard the word "fucking" said by someone ins SE Asia before.  It made me wonder where he'd picked it up?  Then it didn't take long for me to wonder was he a spy?  Was he put here by the government to see how willing tourist might be to help out a young revolutionary?  Paranoid maybe, but in this context perfectly reasonable.

He wanted me to come to his English class and then asked if he could join me as my guide for a day of sightseeing.  I wanted to go to his class and I would have loved for him to join me even though I didn't really need a guide, as my driver was doing such a wonderful job. The point is that a simple transaction, a simple gesture of kindness by an eager young man can be so easily twisted and questioned.  I wondered if I were to be caught with him would I be imprisoned or expelled?

He made it very clear he didn't want money, he just wanted to talk.  In a country so filled with fear and repression the idea of a free conversation was radical.  Of course my own fear got the best of me and I excused myself and hurried off to my car, but I will never forget this man or this day.  More then anything it made me incredibly sad as I was so aware of how powerless I was, how caught in the web of paranoia and fear I was and how frustrating and painful it must be to be this young student.  If indeed he didn't work for the Junta...

Here's the link to the BBC coverage for more information.

1 comment:

Kurt Brown said...

Thanks for that recollection, Mark. Vivid, as usual.

Her release is actually something I'd never thought I'd see. But to quote an economist whose name I never remember:

"What cannot be sustained, won't."

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