In the wake of Burma’s historic elections last week, Rory MacLean, author of Under the Dragon reflects on his first visit to Burma, where he met opposition leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi…
When I first visited Burma in the 1980s, the country was a place out of time, unable to progress, racked by rebel insurgents and impoverished by the military dictatorship’s disastrous ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. Paddy fields lay fallow, majestic buildings had been left to rot. Everyday goods were unavailable. Once the rice bowl of Asia, the country had to import food to feed its children. Milk was too scarce to be left in jugs on tea-house tables. A single bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky sold on the black market would finance a week’s travel, including flights, accommodation and food. Burma was ranked among the world’s ten poorest nations.
On that first visit in 1988 I’d dropped by a busy Rangoon night market, stepping over displays of second-hand Thai denim and cheap Chinese imports, into a noisy biryani bar illuminated by car-battery lamps. In those days visitors were a rarity in Burma and so the owner himself served my meal.
‘You are welcome here,’ he said to me, pleased that I had chosen to visit his restaurant, his country. ‘It is good that you see our life,’ he said, choosing his words with care. His three sons paused from cleaning dishes to stare at us. ‘To us you tourists are like the stars in the night sky. We hope a little of that light will shine on us.’
This year in early November, Burma – or Myanmar as the country is now known – went to polls, and Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are now on course to form the country’s first democratically elected government in fifty years. The scale of their victory is staggering, with the NLD winning around 80% of the popular vote.
It is a heady time, an optimistic time, and a time of huge challenges. Despite the size of the win, the military – which automatically retains 25% of parliamentary seats — will continue to control one vice-presidency and three government ministries including the home ministry which runs both the police and local administration.
And then there is the challenge of the economy. Over the last few years, foreign investment has soared in Rangoon. Prime land in the capital can be more expensive than comparable property in Singapore. The city bristles with new hotels and luxury developments. But outside the city little has changed: the electricity supply is erratic or non-existent, roads and railways have hardly improved since the days of Empire. The Burmese people voted for change, and material improvement of their lives, but have they the patience to wait for it?
Whatever role is played by Aung San Suu Kyi, the weight of the people’s expectations will be on her shoulders. Over the coming months and years she must balance the influence of China and the United States, advance peace negotiations with dozens of ethnic organisations and criminal militias, embrace disenfranchised minorities like the Muslim Rohingya and – perhaps most important of all — delegate responsibility to a new generation of Burmese democrats.
When I first met Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996, she was under house arrest. As I had just spent a month travelling around Burma to research my book UNDER THE DRAGON, and she was forbidden from leaving her home, I took the opportunity to tell her what I had seen on my journey: that the people needed her, that they felt her love protected them, and that she was the embodiment of their hope. I tried to tell her that she upheld the only force, apart from fear and greed, strong enough to bind the diverse Burmese into one nation. She knew all this, of course, though she was too courteous to say so, but it was all that I had to offer.
‘Concepts such as truth, justice, compassion,’ she once wrote ‘are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.’ Her kind, determined eyes were set in a slim, delicate face. ‘We will get there in the end,’ she told me, the good mother convinced that the family would prevail, ‘but it will take time.’
Twenty years on from our first meeting, her time – Burma’s time — seems to have come at last.
Rory MacLean, one of Britain’s most expressive and adventurous travel writers, is the author of ten books including top tens STALIN’S NOSE and UNDER THE DRAGON, both now published by IB Tauris.