Myanmar’s race to respectability

On her journey to speak with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Amy Hughes uncovers an evolving nation keen on making up for lost time

Amy Hughes

As I board the flight from Bangkok to Burma, now known as Myanmar, I’m seated next to an attractive Israeli who owns a garment business in Hong Kong. He’s on an exploratory mission to find out whether this small, South Asian nation under strict military rule for the last 50 years is as lucrative as many think. If so, he’ll consider moving his manufacturing from Bangladesh to Myanmar, taking advantage of cheaper labour. He’s not alone. Just two weeks prior, a US diplomat led a delegation of American businessmen representing major companies, also giving this emerging market a look-see.

New... the impressive Uppatasanti Pagoda in Myanmar's new capital Naypyidaw

US economic sanctions are still in place, but Secretary of State Clinton has more than hinted they will be lifted with the progression of democracy. And as further proof, the State Department is hosting a few members of the NBA who are here running basketball clinics, a sort of “soft diplomacy.”

If an Israeli in Myanmar seems out of place, he’s not. Myanmar’s capital had a strong population of Iraqi Jews who enjoyed religious tolerance, and great success as local merchants. But when the military came to power in the early 60s and took over all private businesses, the Jews left for the US and Israel. A beautiful synagogue remains, attended by eight local families.

Between 1962 and 2011, the country was ruled by a military junta accused of gross human rights abuses, including keeping Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), under house arrest for almost 15 years, until her release in 2010.

While I am interested in Myanmar as an emerging business market and tourist attraction, the real reason I am here is to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. Though she has refused major interviews, I have been sent to try to secure one for an international network. My gut tells me I won’t get it, but meeting her will at least up our chances in the future.

My first stop is NLD headquarters. Outside, volunteers hawk Suu Kyi souvenirs. Her face and the red NLD logo emblazons t-shirts, mugs, bags, you name it. Inside, it’s a hive of activity and I’m led up a steep staircase to meet one of Suu Kyi’s two fellow NLD co-founders, Tin Oo. He is in his 80s and speaks perfect English, explaining he would love to help make the interview happen, but that Suu Kyi keeps a busy schedule. He recommends I try to meet her in Myanmar’s new capital and sends me on my way.

A meeting is organised with Win Tin, former journalist, and the third co-founder of the NLD. He’s happy to meet me, but carries no cell phone and has no home. He is an 80-something year old bachelor who prefers the life of a nomad, staying with friends; makes it difficult to pin him down. I’m driven to a hilltop village on the outskirts of the city, amidst the monsoon rains slowing everything down.

I worry we’ll be late, only to arrive and be told he’s delayed. I’m shown to an outdoor, sheltered reception room where everything is tinged green from the fluorescent lights. Mosquitoes buzz circles around me as I bide my time with the English books on the shelf above.

Old... Myanmar's former capitial Yangon

He eventually arrives, three mosquito bites later, and encourages me instead to follow Suu Kyi’s motorcade to a remote village where her constituents live. She’ll be there at the weekend and will be surprised to see a Western journalist in the crowd.

Though Aung San Suu Kyi is now free, and spends five days a week in parliament, Myanmar is far from a democracy. A half-civilian government led by President Thein Sein was installed last year and elections will be held in 2015, but under the current constitution, there is no way any other party beyond the current one, can win.

More than 75 per cent of the vote is required to proclaim victory, yet the military is reserved 25 per cent of the seats in both parliamentary chambers. And the government has actually moved the capital to a new city, Naypyidaw, 5 hours north of Yangon. It was built with the sole purpose of housing parliament and government employees.

I mention to my fixer and guide, Tokegyi that Naypydidaw feels like a ghost town. He warns me not to repeat it in public. A local journalist was scolded for describing the new capital of a place filled with ghosts. Even in Yangon, once the clock strikes eight o’clock in the evening, it too becomes a ghost town. Tokegyi explains its all part of the very conservative local culture. Young men and women are under a self-imposed curfew of 9pm, latest. Dating consists of a walk around the lake, a light meal, or the movies. There’s no pressure for men to come up with creative outings in Myanmar. Bollywood films are shown, but even those are considered risqué.

Interestingly, this is the first place I’ve ever visited where I don’t have to worry about being taken for a ride. Tokyegi says it generally goes against the culture to cheat. He says it’s connected to the religious tenets of Buddhism.

Sure a taxi driver may try to overcharge a bit, but no one here will rip you off - it’s considered dishonourable. And it’s a relief, given the fact there are no banks in Myanmar and while VISA is taking steps to enter the market, no credit cards are currently accepted, and won’t be for some time.

That means every visitor is carrying oodles of US dollars, the only other currency accepted here, and only crisp, preferably large bills. Try pawning off crumpled, tattered, or torn singles or even hundreds, and they will be refused. The best rates are at a moneychanger with offices in the Summit View hotel.

At present, there is hope a rising tourism sector will spread wealth more evenly, at least in Yangon. There are a handful of 4-5 star hotels, which attract Westerners, and several smaller ones as well as guesthouses. Service is not yet on par with major Asian cities, but it’s not far off. Staff are warm, and attentive. And the food is fantastic.

A mixed population of Burmese, Thai, Chinese and Indian creates a culture of all four cuisines served up separately in restaurants, and at the local hotels. Burmese is a combination of Chinese and Indian food, with curries; stir fries, and sautéed vegetables as well as heavy use of pork and lamb.

Freedom fighter... Aung San Suu Kyi

I taste Szechuan dishes not found in the West, with tofu so soft it melts in my mouth. And every morning at breakfast I try a different Indian curry, each one authentic and delicious. At the Park Royal, the buffet serves American, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Burmese food every morning.

One of the real treats is outside the hotels, at the small cafes where they make fresh juice. The avocado juice catches my eye and quickly becomes my daily cocktail. Creamy avocado is blended with ice and a couple of spoons of sugar, creating a wonderfully smooth health drink.

Yet while Yangon’s culinary treats are a diversion, I’m still no closer to speaking to Suu Kyi.

We wait, in a van, outside her home, with its high walls, set against the Inya Lake. We’re informed she will drive two and a half hours outside the city, on rough roads, to meet her constituents. Here, it’s normal to follow the motorcade, no security detail to battle with. Finally, we spot movement. Three four-wheel drive vehicles emerge and we’re off.

It’s impossible to read, sleep, or do anything except talk on this bumpy road and when we reach the last ten miles; our car gets stuck in the monsoon mud. We hitch rides on the back of mopeds from locals turning out from tiny villages to make the trek to the jungle where Suu Kyi will meet her supporters. It’s a hilly final stretch before we arrive at the Buddhist temple in the middle of a bamboo forest.

For many, this is a day to remember. I am among them. Aung San Suu Kyi, in her typical elegant dress, arrives on this hot, humid day looking as though she’s just entered the Ritz Carlton.

While the rest of us drip in sweat, swatting away mosquitoes, she remains cool and collected. She spends an hour sitting on the floor, surrounded by a handpicked group of constituents who voice their concerns about all aspects of their lives, including how to improve the quality of their basket-weaving.

All the while, she is patient and generous with her time. I find a moment to introduce myself, my heart beating so loud I worry she can hear it. After a brief and curt hello, she passes me off to her personal secretary telling me she doesn’t deal directly with the press, before making her way downstairs to warmly greet young school children waving the red flag of the NLD. I spend time talking to her personal aide about how hard she is working to reverse some of Myanmar’s archaic legislature and her travel plans for the rest of the year.

My mission has been partly accomplished … I have met Suu Kyi and I have been left with the memory of a lifetime.

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