The south Asian nation of Myanmar (or as it’s likely better known, Burma) is an almost impossibly complicated place.
And the woman at the center of its amazing, dizzying array of life and largely isolated activity and cultural richness—Aung San Suu Kyi— is both smaller and even more fragile-looking than you’d think.
And yet, as has been said of other things, appearances can be deceiving.
We’ll get back to that.
It was March 6, 2002, and I was about to discover just how long Suu Kyi’s shadow could be.
Her father, following British colonization and annexation of that land a century earlier, and now after World War Two and its Japanese occupation, worked tirelessly to have his nation ceded from colonial Britain, and he finally succeeded in doing it in 1947. He became the nation’s first free, democratic President. He was then assassinated along with several of his proposed cabinet members before taking office. His name was Aung San. And during World War Two, he was perhaps the most charismatic leader in the Burmese National Army. After his election, the country was to be overseen and run by him. He was brilliant, sympathetic, and ready to roll a free, democratic, and Parliamentary-ruled nation out to the world.
Then, due to this open-minded approach, he was assassinated: erased by political rivals. His daughter, young at the time, lived through it all. And she remained unafraid. Her name, at the time of her father’s killing, was Suu Kyi. She adapted her father’s name into hers— Aung San Suu Kyi—and carried that name with her as she was educated and grew up, in places sometimes far from Rangoon, like Oxford University.
Then she came home and began to push her father’s legacy forward, often with less than full support from the Burmese national government.
It’s like something from Euripides.
Her battle would not be easy.
As already stated, Burma is a complicated place. A nation bordered by India to the west and western China, Thailand, and Laos to the east, it is the largest nation in continental south Asia. It has the most mineral riches of any country in the region, and is largely tribal, with the former Tibetan “Bamar” people making up a slight plurality of its estimated fifty-five-million-person population.
After that, it is roughly 100 different tribes and language groups, living in isolated Himalayan foothill valleys, growing oranges and apples and opium poppies and goats and water buffalo and truly, amazingly good rice called kat cho and other staples … and they then use the proceeds from that richness to buy weapons to defend themselves against outsiders who want to take what they possess from them. Much as I respect and care for them, some of those tribes make the hardscrabble, gun-toting, “moonshining” people in my part of Appalachian Virginia look like social workers.
The tribal people are tough. Depending on where you are in the country, they may be Buddhists or Christians or Animists, but no matter what their window on existence is, they earn their lives every day. There is great respect in that statement. And then, as they know they have done another day’s work with care, you will not be able to take the benefits of their work from them easily.
This is part of the problem.
In Burma, particularly among the tribal people, they refer to their view of the world as “our mind hard … yes or no … no question … it is a one-time-thought; then the decision is made … the question is over.” This is was what a tribal Shan gentleman, living in Bhamo, near the country’s mountainous and jungled eastern frontier with China, once told me. Then, that night, he stood and sat outside my hotel, and watched to see if I’d be coming out onto the hotel’s balconies to use the satellite phone (cell phones are ridiculously expensive in Burma for visitors). For a long time, he sat on a bench and watched my balcony and sliding glassed doors. I walked to the window occasionally and glanced down to see him. He didn’t leave. I was unsure if he was part of Burma’s elaborate Military Intelligence system or not … maybe he just didn’t have anything better to do?
Eventually, about 9 p.m., I went downstairs, walked outside, and took him out for a beer and some food at a local tea-shop. When I asked him to join me, he smiled. We had a small plate of diced chicken with some dried red peppers and cashew nuts and veggies in sauce—all cooked in a wok and ladled over rice.
That nation is beautiful, terrifyingly fierce, mysterious, largely impenetrable for Westerners, and magically and memorably soft at the same time.
That is Burma.
Take this for an example. It was 1989, after the military government had tried Socialism, strict militarism, and several other forms of governance to contain all of the different tribal groups surrounded by a national border. In a fit of historical revisionism and without public discussion, the army changed the country’s name from Union of Burma to what they said was a more historically accurate Union of Myanmar, claiming “Burma” was a vestige of European colonialism. (Say “Myanmar” quickly, and you’ll see how the British stumbled into the “Burma” version.) Rejecting the generals’ political claims, dissidents, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have always preferred to keep calling the country “Burma.”
But the name change was as much political distraction as a nod to a new and hopeful form of nationalism, since during the previous two years, the people of Myanmar (led by the moral authority in the country, its Buddhist monks aided by university students) started to publicly rebel, demanding true elections to depose of the nation’s military leader, General Ne Win. By May of 1990, due to outcry and national public pressure led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the military government assented, though not before relocating villages and redistricting voting areas in hopes of manipulating results.
Despite this effort on the army’s part, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (or NLD) won the election by an eighty-two-percent landside. In a lunge to retain power, the army nullified the elections, raided the NLD offices, arrested hundreds of its key operatives, and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she’d been incarcerated for more than a year already. When university students across Aung San Suu Kyi leaves a light on in the window of her house’s living room, which faces a lake. At night, she is a the country began to protest, the junta fired into crowds with impunity or simply closed several of the universities. That was the way they chose to deal with it.
Since then, and until recently, the army has rarely wavered. Across the last twenty-two years, it has exiled or jailed between 800 and 4,000 of Suu Kyi’s NLD associates, and has released Suu Kyi from house arrest three times. Ironically, her house, on Inya Lake in Yangon—the former Rangoon—is near the homes of many of the country’s ruling military Generals, not to mention right across the lake from the yacht club (another British vestige) along one of the city’s main roads. She always leaves a light on in the window of her living room, which faces the lake. At night, she is a symbolic light across the dark water.
The politics of the whole country, at times, resembles nothing so much as a knife fight inside a phone booth. But, in truth, it’s bigger than that.
To reinforce their power over her, Suu Kyi was neither allowed to leave the country to pick up her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, nor to attend her husband’s funeral in London in 1999. Consequently, and citing the spectrum of human-rights violations that can accompany repressive governments, most of the world’s nations locked Myanmar out. Over time, increasingly little diplomacy has been extended to Myanmar’s leaders. Hoping to strangle the dictatorship, the world (other than the ASEAN nations and Japan) denied all finance with Myanmar. This means non-Thai or non-Japanese credit cards were rendered useless there, and every transaction—from hotel bills to guide fees— had then to be paid in cash, with U.S. $100 bills being preferred currency in exchange for the local money called kyats (“chats”).
Of course, this strangulation has done nothing to hurt the Generals, who long-ago feathered their nests through the country’s mineral and related riches. Instead, these embargoes against Myanmar have starved its people. The average worker makes $3 to $4 a day as they wait for a better future.
Yet, because of this enforced isolation, the country has gained a companion victory: it may well be the least diluted, most authentic destination on Earth. And the Burmese people are wonderful. Everywhere there I’ve visited—and I have done so numerous times—intelligent, friendly, gentle locals treat me like the leading edge of a long-awaited tourist renaissance.
Whenever possible, I choose to stay in privately owned hotels (to pay the government no more than necessary), avoid government-sponsored shops and events, and reassure myself that by enjoying myself in their beautiful country, I am helping the people of Burma to a better life.
Anyway, back to Aung San Suu Kyi. For a long time—and despite house arrest— her stubborn presence has hung above the city, impossible for opposing political powers to expunge. But if she remained on everyone’s mind, her name was rarely invoked publicly for fear of government reprisal. Instead, everyone refers to her as “The Lady.” To say that The Lady overshadows Yangon (Rangoon), though, is to miss the city’s allure. A grid of broad, colonial-British streets and roundabouts edged by trees, Yangon sits on a protected harbor north of Burma’s coast on the Andaman Sea. Though it has a population of more than four million, it retains a peaceful sway unlike any other city in Asia. It’s sort of the anti-Bangkok.
In Yangon, everywhere you look you’ll find shimmering gold-gilded pagoda spires—called zedis—emerging through the green canopy of treetops, as people walk slowly on shaded sidewalks, eating ice cream and snow cones (two local favorites), carrying armloads of flowers, or putt-putting along with cars and (until a recent law made them illegal in the city) motorbikes.
During stops in Yangon, the first few days are spent acclimatizing. Often while visiting, I stay at the monolithic businessman’s skyscraper called Trader’s Hotel, plugged firmly into the downtown business district, or—when more atmospherics are called for—a hotel called the Pansea and now called The Governor’s Residence: a serene colonial mansion that was the old British Governor’s house, with sprawling teakwood porches and a fantastic swimming pool, on a quiet street a few miles from the city’s center.
Once arrived, the next stop is Scott Market (that’s its British-colonial name, it is also called Bogyoke Aung San Market: for “Lightning-Bolt Aung San” in reference to … guess whose father?). Either way, it’s an enormous warehouse maze of shops and market stalls downtown.
Inside the market, a shady gray light sifts down through the clerestory windows. You can exchange money and find locally made lacquer ware and rattan furniture. There are 1930s-vintage wrist watches, Burmese jade jewelry, gems, betel nuts, shoes, electronics, postcards, sandalwood necklaces and bracelets, antique British brass hardware, the green-tobacco cheroots favored by locals, souvenir T-shirts, the sarong-style longyi wraps worn by Burmese men and women, and tribal necklaces and spears carried in from the hinterlands (each tribe has their own style).
Perhaps my favorite gift item to be found at Scott Market, however, are circular bracelets of pale blue lapis lazuli: each hoop of stone uniquely pointillized by pyrite-incursion dots of orange and red and gold. Amid all the shops and the hustle, these bracelets are sometimes difficult to find, but they’re always worth the effort.
In fact, like all human transaction and life inside Burma, successful bargaining at Scott Market is a study in good-natured patience. As one of the few Westerners visiting, everyone will remember you, and they all want to do business. “How much you want for that?” I’ll ask, inquiring about a chunky brass padlock from colonial times that would make a cool desk paperweight back home.
“Twenty thousand kyats,” the antique-store salesman says.
“That’s $18!” I say. “I just saw you sell an identical one for half that to that local guy.”
“Sure.” He smiles. He shrugs.
‘Not today,” I say, waving my hands and wandering off.
You can’t blame the shopkeeper for inflating the price for a white guy from overseas, but patience may turn the deal yet. Tomorrow, I’ll swing back through to see if the price has fallen … even a little. If it has, a deal will be struck.
Outside, on sun-scoured sidewalks encircling Scott Market, the robust commerce continues. You can buy all variety of fresh fruits and juices, plus colorful green parrots on wooden perches or metal-caged finches, or fresh-fried doughnuts, or sweet corn that’s been cooked over smoking sidewalk braziers. The glary air around Scott Market’s custard-yellow exterior walls thrums with energy and barter and trade. So much for international excommunication; these people have moved on without it. The people of Burma are resourceful, and while their cash-flow may have been crimped by the Generals’ mismanagement of the economy, they haven’t been bankrupted, either.
After another $3 refuel at one of Scott Market’s white-tiled food stalls—a soft drink and a salad of diced chilies, fermented greens, onions, peanuts, and papaya in lime juice called thouq—it’s back to the hotel for a rest. Because, as has become tradition, every first sunset in Yangon rates a stop at Shwedagon.
Like I say, when you’re in Burma, it’s best to have some patience.
So keep calm. We’re getting to the ascendance of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Built sometime more than 1,000 years ago, Shwedagon—(Shway-da-gone), literally “Golden Pagoda”—is the world’s largest gilded pagoda spire, and it stands on a hilltop above the city’s center. Bathed in sunlight or flood-lamps, its gold leaf glitters day and night to a diamond- and ruby-encrusted pinnacle 300 feet above the smooth, marble platform on which it stands. More than anything, more even than the country’s rich stores of subterranean gold, Shwedagon is why Myanmar’s military leaders coined the national slogan: Golden Land.
Rudyard Kipling called Shwedagon “a golden mystery … a beautiful winking wonder.” But it was the first Westerner to describe it, Ralph Fitch in 1586, who got Shwedagon’s allure perfectly: “It is the fairest place, I suppose, that is in the world.”
Even with his antiquated locution, Fitch nailed it. Every time I enter Shwedagon—paying $5 and removing my shoes for the privilege— the thing knocks me silent. But then, Shwedagon has that effect on pretty much everyone. As I remove my shoes and climb the stairs to the pagoda’s tiled platform, its sun-warmed marble warms me through the soles of my feet. Then, entering the platform, the 300-foot zedi glitters and gleams in the last of the day’s sun: sometimes with a raucous brashness, other times with a sense of complete, peaceful contemplation at majestic scale. Encircled by sixty smaller gilded zedis and fifty-two shrines, pavilions, and prayer halls— each also gilded and festooned with mirrors— Shwedagon’s imposing brightness is offset by the silence, sitting as it does inside a ten-acre park. Occasionally you may hear a bird’s cackle or the ringing of a gong or bell in a prayer hall, but most humans at Shwedagon never speak.
As is tradition at all Buddhist structures, Shwedagon should be walked around in a clockwise way, and to catalyze good luck, visitors are encouraged to find the marble shrine that corresponds to their weekday of birth (your day of birth is the Burmese version of a horoscope sign), stopping at that day’s shrine to leave a small donation near its base. Following the alms—one by one—you then lift thimble-sized cups of water next to the shrine and pour them over the shrine’s marble sculpture. This is done either five times (to honor parents, family, brothers and sisters, and teachers) or the same number of times as you have lived in years.
It’s a lovely tradition. And standing beneath the evening sky and the huge gold spire of Shwedagon, the scene leaves you feeling like anything on this Earth is possible. Which on May 6, 2002, it was.
That day, when I arrived at the airport, Yangon was rejoicing. Thanks to increased social stability, Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest. As sunset approached, after celebrating over coffee and pastries with friends at the hotel, I’d arrived at Shwedagon and was at my particular “Tuesday-born” shrine—dumping forty-three cupfuls of water over the Buddha to mark my age—when, from over my shoulder, there came an uncharacteristic human murmuring.
I turned, and directly behind me was another of the Tuesday-born: Aung San Suu Kyi. I was there, working on a book and with The New York Times and National Geographic. She’d obviously slipped out of her home on the shores of nearby Inya Lake, and had come over to drench the Tuesday Buddha with five small cupfuls of water. There was no other international media present, no cameras or microphones. She had no bodyguards with her, not even a member of the National League for Democracy to provide interference should it be necessary. It was just The Lady: tiny and fragile-looking and beautiful and black-haired and just there, standing alone.
When she’d finished pouring her five cups, she bowed to the Tuesday Buddha, pivoted to her left—smiled and said “hello” before giving a small bow—and she began her clockwise circuit around Shwedagon’s huge gilded pillar. That anyone thinks she didn’t know who we were is to underestimate the intelligence and the social networks of the people of Myanmar. She understands the power of a memorable moment.
As she walked off, smiling to herself, Suu Kyi was immediately (and maybe instinctively) followed by perhaps a dozen people.
Fifteen minutes later, by the time she’d circled Shwedagon’s golden spire—a symbol of both repressive Myanmar and the ancient culture and history of Burma— she was being trailed by a silent crowd of between 800 to 1,200 people. They were all walking behind her, their eyes fixed on her every step. A few months later, while traveling in the countryside farther north, she would be taken into custody. It was alleged she was inciting riots.
The Generals then placed her back under house arrest.
But here’s the increasingly complicated part. Because of my work in Myanmar over the last almost 15 years, I also know a lot of the ruling Generals and others in the military government that have ruled—and still do, despite the recent April 1 Parliamentary elections. Admittedly, it was a small election for less than ten percent of the total number of legislative seats, but it was a symbolic one. And Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues won overwhelmingly.
Still, to be fair, the Generals and the Burmese army have a lot to handle.
To be painfully honest, the Generals have also never been anything but generous in my direction. Are they not nice sometimes? That answer likely would be “yes,” as I have heard the stories. They have ordered troops to fire weapons into crowds rallying against them. They have probably jailed opposition voices in an effort to silence them. On occasion, I’d bet, they are pretty brutal. But they’ve been the ruling leadership in a country that, even on its good days, is pretty fractious.
Still, have they also always been cordial to me, the polite Westerner? That answer is also “yes.”
They have charged themselves with holding a nation, with a placid central population and also an outlying roughly 100 well-armed tribal groups, into something that resembles a country. It is almost the definition of an impossible job.
Consider this: because it’s a horribly funny story that gets at the problem.
A few years ago, National Geographic photographer Maria Stenzel and I were headed for the little town of Nanyaung, up near Myanmar’s border with India. Nanyaung is the outermost area of Sagaing Division—a northernmost region of the country—and our host was to be Captain Kaung San Oo, who was the Burmese army’s commander of the region, which is probably the size of, say, New Jersey.
We’d been walking to get there for three days. In the region are dozens of insurgent tribal groups, wanting their freedom—and who are also heavily armed—a people who watch everything. It was not unreasonable that, as the army chief in that part of the world, Captain Kaung San Oo felt he had to keep control of everything—or it could all skid away.
In fact, when I’d arrived at sunset at the edge of town, a soldier had—at first—leveled an AK-47 on me as I walked in a few hours ahead of Maria who (as is the case with all National Geographic photographers) moves slower than do writers. Anyway, the solider, when he realized I wasn’t aggressive, grabbed my left wrist and effectively dragged me to a low, green-painted and cinder-block building at the side of swinging bridge over a small hka, or creek.
We walked inside the building. There, a large Burmese man was eating dinner at his desk by candlelight. He was wearing blotchy green Burmese Army cammo and a knit, black watch-cap to keep his head warm. The large, wood-walled room’s darkness flickered in the candlelight. The soldier let go of my wrist, made a statement to the man at the desk in Burmese, and then stood behind me, keeping the gun on my back. The man at the desk looked up. It was threatening, to say the least. The soldier then said something more to Kaung San Oo, and left.
Captain Kaung San Oo took a few more forkfuls of food from the pressed-metal plate on his desk. Then he looked at me. His eyes were hard. They were almost black. “So, you’re Webster,” he finally said.
He smiled. His teeth were perfect. And white. They looked incredibly bright in the candlelight and against the mocha-brown of his skin in the otherwise dark room.
“Well, sit down,” he said. “I have known you were coming for some time. You have been walking here for days.” Then, an hour or so later, after they’d gotten me a billet shed on the military base (I’d had a cold-water shower and was relaxing), Captain Kaung San Oo came to my little plaster room.
“They tell me that Maria Stenzel will be here, soon,” he said. This was a statement of fact. It wasn’t speculation. “You walk faster than her.”
I smiled back at him. “Yes,” I said.
He stood in the door frame. It was dark outside behind him.
In his hand, he held a large, green bottle of Myanmar Beer. As imposing and threatening as he was, he was smiling in a friendly way. “Today, you are a lucky, lucky man,” he said. “I understand that you like beer. And we have exactly one beer left in the camp.”
Then, he sat down in my room, in a desk chair, opened the beer, and we began to get to know one another.
In my experience, Kaung San Oo is a good guy.
So now we arrive at the horribly funny part.
After a few days at Nanyung, where Kaung San Oo took us almost to Myanmar’s border with India at Paugsau Pass—which is among the world’s most closely controlled boundaries—it was evening and we were sitting at his desk and eating supper (he was always at his desk … he was a busy man), and Maria Stenzel, the photographer, finally felt comfortable enough with Kaung San Oo to ask him a personal question.
It was dark again. Candles were being used to light the night. The roof was held up by elaborate and perfect wooden trusses. Just before dark, we’d spent an hour swimming and playing with village kids who had never seen white people before. In fact, as I’d been told back in Shingbwuyang (“The Place of the Bamboo Shoots”), roughly fifty miles south of us by foot, I was the first “white person” that had been in these villages since 1945 and the end of World War Two.
Comfortable—eating pork and some bell peppers in a fantastic sauce over long-grain rice—Maria finally was feeling easier. She decided to get brave, and, doing so, asked Kaung San Oo, “So, have you ever killed anyone?” Looking up, Kaung San Oo—head of Sagaing Division in extreme northern and largely military or tribal Burma—was at first a little shocked by the question.
Then he decided to have some fun with his answer. He put down his fork. With his right index finger and thumb, he stroked his chin a few times. He looked pensive. He let the question dangle.
“Killing?” he said. “Killing? Kill-ing?”
He leaned back in his chair a bit.
“Killing?” he asked himself again. “Killing??”
He paused for a long time, and looked at Maria, his dark eyes now dancing.
“Killing?” he asked himself again. Then he smiled, with that big smile and those white teeth. Wearing his cammo in the office’s evening darkness, he held up his right hand—his thumb and index finger a few inches apart— and then held his fingers there, in the air as he regarded them.
“Yes,” he finally said. “Killing? Yes. A little bit.”
Then he belly-laughed maniacally.
Kaung San Oo’s laugh was not theatrical, or even really for our benefit.
Burma is complicated.
Here’s the thing. You can isolate the country. Or you can embrace it. But like everywhere else on Earth, Burma—beyond the politics and guns and tribes wanting their freedom and uprisings for independence—is populated by these creatures called people who continue, through resourcefulness and creativity, to do what they need to in their attempts to survive. And perhaps partially because of the international isolation, the Burmese people understand this better than most.
It was a Sunday in Rangoon, and I was summoned to the hospital room of Htilar Sitthu. He had been the winner of several international literary and musical composition awards, had been given the dubious honor of getting a “Merit Award” from Marshall Tito, and was a recognized artist in Burma. He was also one of Burma’s top Generals. And he was sick, and he knew he was soon going to die.
Now, with an almost permanent intravenous “hep-lock” needle taped to the back of his hand and standing up to greet me in his cold-lit, windowless and greenish-white painted hospital room in Yangon, he was wearing one of those blue robes that—mostly—tie closed in the back.
We shook hands. He began to shuffle over toward a chair. I was visiting him in the hospital, because I wanted to go to extreme northern Burma, a tribal area that has been off-limits for decades.
When I told him what I wanted—the towns and landscape I wanted to visit, the things I wanted to see—he smiled. Sort of sadly, actually.
“It’s beautiful, and I wish I could go with you,” he said. Then he smiled again. “We will do whatever we can to make it possible for you to visit there.”
A day or two later, I got my permissions to places where no Westerners had been since the 1940s, and was on my way.
He died not too much later.
Strange as it sounds, despite being part of a dictatorial military government, I was sad to hear the news that Htilar Sitthu had died.
But here’s yet another complicated part.
Due to a formerly repressive military government and Burma’s specific culture, slowly the job of policing the people of the country into submission has bled into the people themselves. They’re coming out of this paranoia—at, pretty much, warp speed—but it is still there.
Not too long ago, while there and yet again waiting for my paperwork in Myanmar’s gorgeously crumbling former capital of Yangon, it was Chinese New Year. At that point, there were signs all around that extolled the virtues of Burma’s “Golden Land” and also advised in white letters on blue or red backgrounds, that “Only when there is discipline will there be progress …” or “Anyone who is riotous, destructive, or unruly is our enemy …” or “Beware aboveground or underground destructive elements and their stooges… .”
So at night on Chinese New Year in late January, I finally see the darker side of the government and its power. I’d taken a taxi down to Yangon’s crumbling Chinatown district for a bowl of noodles and a ringside seat at the celebration. Arranged along the city’s harbor shore, Chinatown is one of Yangon’s oldest neighborhoods. It’s filled with century-old churches and temples and narrow, three-story Colonial apartment houses whose exterior plaster is painted pastel yellow or pink or beige, and which has since been water-stained on many of the houses.
On this night, though, the neighborhood’s usual placidity was gone. Instead, banners in Mandarin Chinese characters hung suspended above the streets from rooftops. Along the narrow sidewalks, two-foot strings of fireworks dangled from sticks, popping and sparking, as roving groups of drummers moved through, noisily “scaring off” last year’s demons and calling in a New Year of good luck. As I found a table in a pleasant-looking outdoor café, coming down the street was a long, red, paper-made Chinese dragon costume, rising and swaying and carried aloft by men underneath. It was followed by a smaller dragon costume, manned by children.
Up and down the streets, bottle rockets were being fired into the night sky. Beneath the smaller dragon, the children were carrying sparklers and noise-makers. After a few passes of the dragons, the kids carrying the smaller dragon noticed me—the only foreigner in the neighborhood, sitting alone at a planked wooden table outside the café—and they stopped. From beneath the costume, they began pounding tambourines and smacking small cymbals. It took a minute, but I finally realized they wanted a donation. I stood, reached into my pocket, and pulled out a small bill, perhaps a quarter-dollar in kyat. As the money was exchanged with the “kid dragon” leader, it triggered an avalanche of begging. Abandoning the long sequined dragon costume completely—leaving it to fall on the paved street—a dozen, and then two-dozen, children swarmed around me, smiling, with their hands out.
Before long, the commotion had attracted still other children, and I was in the midst of a full-blown incident. After giving away all my pocket change, even showing the kids the linings of my empty front pockets, they didn’t budge. In fact, they pushed closer, pressing up against my legs.
“I have no more money,” I said, lifting my empty hands in a pantomime, my fingers making a sifting motion. The kids, obviously, didn’t speak English. I looked inside the restaurant, hoping a waiter or someone would charge to my rescue, but not one did. Finally, from one of the crowded tables behind me, and older, gray-haired man said something to the children in a stern voice, and they begin to disperse. When he barked again, the kids departed for good.
As I sat back down to my meal, I noticed the older man who helped me had stood up and—leaning heavily on a walking cane—was shuffling in my direction. He was thin and a little paler than the usual Burmese citizen, with dark eyes and downy white hair that hung shaggy across his forehead. His brown trousers and white shirt were baggy but clean. He was smiling gently.
“Hello,” he said. His voice was so soft I could barely hear it above the street’s noise. “That was very nice, what you did for those children. Little gifts. Very kind. My name is Jameson Koe. I’m a Chinese national who was born here. I work for the British Embassy. Why don’t you finish your meal, then join me at my table? It’s so rare to see an American. I’d love to have a chat.”
“OK,” I said, then thanked him for the rescue.
Mr. Koe nodded. “Of course, I won’t bother your meal. Come by after you’ve finished eating.”
A few minutes later, having polished off a bowl of noodles, I joined Mr. Koe at his table. Around us, the night-time streets remained filled with celebrating people, clattering their noisy instruments and swinging lit strings of fireworks. Mr. Koe apologized for his slurred speech and palsied appearance. A few years ago, he said, he’d had a stroke. “I would like for you to come by my house while you’re here,” he said. “You can meet my wife, Lynn. She is a wonderful cook. Will you come by for a meal?”
Not quite knowing how much to trust in an environment like this, it was time to stall. “I can’t do it tonight,” I said. “I’ve got to get back to my hotel. I’m very tired.”
“Tomorrow then?” Mr. Koe asked. I pulled out my notebook, and asked him for his address and telephone number. “I’ll call you in the morning,” I said.
Handing the notebook and pen to Jameson Koe, he opened it and began to write. As he did, two different men—one from out of the crowded street and the other from inside the café’s doors—streaked through the crowd toward us. They grabbed Mr. Koe by his shoulders and, pushing him backward in his chair, placed their faces between him and my notebook… . They were reading what he’d written.
Finding it to be only his address and phone number, they released him, without an apology or even a word, and went back to whatever it was they were doing.
“Oh, go away,” Mr. Koe said, adding something in Burmese to the men and women around us.
He finished writing, and handed me back the notebook. He flapped his hand outward.
“They are a nuisance,” he said. “We’re just having a nice chat. But there’s always someone watching, worried, even about a peaceful old man like me …”
Mr. Koe looked around us. People at all the surrounding tables were still staring. “Everyone knows we are not talking politics,” he said in a loud voice, assuring the eavesdroppers. “We talk only of friendly things.”
As it turned out, Lynn Koe was, in fact, a fantastic and generous and loving person—not to mention a good cook and a woman capable of negotiating lower dollar-to-local-currency exchanges than I could: the big white guy, wanting to cash a few $100 bills into huge bricks of kyats. Still, after my third or fourth visit to Jameson Koe’s house, just up the block from the café where we first met, my worry became that—after what had happened on New Year’s night—he might be being watched.
“Mr. Koe,” I told him. “Jameson. You and Lynn are wonderful. But I’m not sure I should come and see you anymore. I worry that eventually I might make trouble for you.”
Mr. Koe sipped his fresh cup of green tea, which steamed from a greenish-white porcelain cup. He was seated in a wing-chair in his living room; grayish late afternoon light was filtering in through the front windows. He looked at the room’s Oriental carpet, and then at his feet, which were sheathed in white cotton socks. He didn’t look up. “Yes,” he finally said. He nodded. “You are probably correct. Still, it has been a pleasure.” It had been. And, in the interest of his preservation inside what back then was still a military government with deep intelligence teams at work, our time together was over.
And Mr. Koe’s sadness is both the joy and horror of Myanmar—or Burma—or whatever you choose to call it.
In it, you have Aung San Suu Kyi’s bright light every night across the dark water of Inya Lake in Yangon, or Rangoon, or whatever you choose to call it. In there now, after the NLD’s landslide election victory that again destroyed the military government, there is a soon-to-be-somewhat quelled military, pushed to the side in favor of the new Parliamentary Democratic government. There are the beautiful hill towns, and the gilded zedis, and the fear and heart and good humor and tribal paranoia—despite the hardship—of all the locals around you.
The people, all across the country since the 1988-1990 putsch and the 1962 coup that came before it, have been tolerating life in that country because, by and large, they’re good Buddhists: a religion whose third tenet is that “life is about suffering.” Ironically, it’s their monks, their spiritual and social leaders, who serve as the moral authority. That is one of the thousand things about the country that makes it so interesting.
And yet, in the end, the monks and the Generals, Aung San Suu Kyi and Captain Kaung San Oo and the guy selling me noodles at the café on Chinese New Year and Lynn and Jameson Koe, are all simply people in a country that is effectively trying to find some sort of balance inside the nation’s boundaries. Sometimes this leads to limited success.
Still, they have decided together to exit a national life of enforced silence after a long period of isolation. And the Generals finally allowed it, to a degree. It’s fair to say that, during the long wait since 1990s nullified election, Burma’s people have decided together that they will re-enter the world, which has already led to not only global finance returning to the country, but a national Constitution and the allowance of Aung San Suu Kyi to join the elected Parliament (look for her to be appointed President sometime in the future), and also leave the country for global conferences in Thailand, and also to pick up her Nobel Peace Prize, and to visit her children in Britain.
Despite all this change and newfound fredom, the country remains a gorgeous and enormous and socially fractious piece of real estate, and nobody there quite knows what’s going to happen next. Yet among all of them, everyone who lives there—the Bamar and the tribals, the rich Generals and the poor fruit and rice farmers—one thing remains true. There still remains that inspiring light across the dark water. Waiting.