Story and photos by Michael Buckley
This is no ordinary gate. It is the tall gate that leads to the house where one of the great heroes of our times lives: Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. “Daw Suu” as she is affectionately known by the Burmese, was locked away here under house arrest for more than 15 years—”a prisoner in her own country,” as she once put it. In November 2010, restrictions were lifted, and suddenly her iconic image (previously forbidden) was plastered all over the place: on posters displayed outside shops and houses, on T-shirts, on calendars.
On April 1st, 2012, important by-elections include the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, for the first time in two decades. Two days before the elections, she has called a press conference at her lakeside home in Rangoon. Having caught wind of this, I show up–and am dismayed to find a long line-up of press people with big cameras–and press passes prominently displayed. I have no press pass. Indeed, I have no press ID at all. That’s a throw-back to the paranoid era, even a year earlier, when discovery of an unofficial visit by someone with any press affiliation would get you booted out of the country.
I am standing near the gate when it opens–and wave at the press officer, who recognizes me from a previous interaction when I donated some books to the cause. She calls me forward. And by this lucky turn of events, I am the first through the gate that morning. Gate-crashing! I sprint around the perimeter of the garden to stake out a position near the podium where Daw Suu will speak. In the background is the two-story house where she lives: it looks run-down, but I’m sure she has other things on her mind than painting the walls.
It is enthralling to be standing just a few feet away from a person whose courage–and perseverance in the face of extreme adversity–is legendary. A barrage of photographers and videographers home in on her, with camera flashes popping. “Just like Cannes!” says a French photographer.
Daw Suu speaks flawless English, with an Oxford accent. Responding to a question about the elections, she breaks into a smile and says, “We have unreasonable expectations. We’re going to be unreasonable.” She wants to win every seat in the by-elections. She’s been banging her head against a brick wall for 20 years and still she is unreasonable. Question: “On a democracy scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being idealist perfection, where does Burma stand today?”
“We are trying to get to number one,” she quips. As questioning wears on, she sits down, appearing tired. She is 66, and she has been on the road for the last few months, traveling the length and breadth of Burma, speaking at every opportunity, drawing massive crowds.
The Wrong Door
Let’s rewind a few weeks here. The normal mode of operation in Burma is when time is rolled back. Or turned upside-down. Burma is a classic riches to rags story. It was once the jewel of Asia, with a prosperous, thriving economy. Under military dictatorship, the last 60 years have seen the country isolated from the rest of the world, and battered economically with sanctions. Which has created Burma’s strange time warp; it’s out of sync with the rest of Asia.
One place you definitely do not want to experience a time warp is at an airport: as in riding some vintage Russian aircraft. I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted an ATR-72 turbo-prop on the runway: the flight to Myitkyina. I have decided to take a plane from Rangoon as far north as I can, and head down the map by boat on the Irrawaddy River.
But on arrival in Myitkyina, I discover I cannot get out of the place overland except by train. Fighting with Kachin rebels has flared up, making the river and roads to the south unsafe to negotiate. The fighting has been going on sporadically for the last 60 years. More recently, Kachin rebels have delivered an ultimatum, telling Chinese dam-builders to cease and desist from destroying the environment and flooding Kachin villages. That call has been ignored, and so the fighting has resumed.
I take a short hop by plane to Bhamo, to the south, and launch on the Irrawaddy there, heading for Katha. Next problem: dry season. The river is at a record low, causing boats to get stranded on sandbars–which requires everyone to evacuate to dry land so the vessel can be dislodged.
The scenery is nothing special: the trip highlight is actually rubbing shoulders with Burmese people: men chewing betel-nut, women with cheeks coated in thanakha (home-made sunscreen and moisturizer), cigar-smoking wizened old women. And youth experiencing the joy of acquiring their first cellphone. The price of a cellphone SIM card has plummeted from US$2,500 to just US$200. A bargain! For people poor as church mice, a SIM card is now a possibility, though the price tag represents over a month’s wages.
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