Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Conversations in Yangon, Part I

“I like George Bush.” 

The young Burmese man standing in front of me has a bright orange sculptured coiffure that makes his head resemble a matchstick aflame. I like it; it's his statement that makes me do a double take. 

It’s a scorching 100 degrees as I set up the camera in Maha Bandula Garden in the center of Downtown Yangon. Sweat is stinging my eyes. The humidity is oppressive, but I didn’t make it out early enough to catch the four minutes of coolness at dawn and now I’m paying the price. I just need a few quick shots of city hall and the surrounding historic British colonial buildings then I can find some shade. 

He’s got a thick lisp but the young man’s English is quite good. He and a friend have wandered up to investigate and chat. We cover the niceties: I make a travel show, they’re university students. 

Then he asks if I like Obama, a question I’ve gotten nearly everywhere I’ve been in the world since he was elected. On the night of President Obama’s first election, an Irish immigration officer at Dublin’s airport wanted to know why I wasn’t “back there votin’ for Obama?” He seemed satisfied to let me enter the country when I told him I’d voted absent tee. 

Yes, I like Obama, I tell Orange. I give him a few examples of his successful foreign policy, such as Obama being the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar. Usually, at this point each person who brings up Obama extolls the way he’s brought the image of the U.S. back from the brink of ridiculousness. But Orange remains thoughtfully quiet. That's when he professes his appreciation for Bush. This grabs my attention, since in all the years I’ve traveled no one from any other country has ever had anything positive to say to me about George W. 

“Why?” I ask. 

“Because he’s brave.”

I decide the best course of action is not to pursue a line of questioning. I’m only slightly less surprised to learn that Orange’s name is Jonathan. “My Christian name,” he says. That explains the Bush reverence. O.J. is a practicing evangelical Christian. Certainly a minority in Myanmar but not unheard of. 

Though this is a predominantly Buddhist country, Yangon has a healthy blend of temples, churches, and mosques. I hadn’t expected the diversity of Christian denominations I’ve seen. As it is, we're standing across the street from a Baptist church, something I only see regularly when I'm in my home state of Texas. I've got a sneaking suspicion that a conservative pastor told O.J. that George W. Bush was brave, seeing as how he's never been to the States. 

Since it's midday on a Thursday my next question is why aren't these university students at university? It's closed, they say. Been shut down by the authorities because of the student protests that have taken place twice in the past month, resulting in brutal beatings of protesters by the police and scores of arrests. 

Those protests were not at their school, nor led or even organized by students from their school as far as they or I know. That's just what the government does when the students march here. In 1988 when students took to the streets many were gunned down by the military, so as backward as it is, this is progress. 

The most recent round of demonstrations, two days ago, was 90 miles north of Yangon but it makes no difference to the pseudo-democratic government, still heavily controlled by the military. If one group makes noise, all the universities are shut down, they tell me. O.J. is confident that the campus will be closed for at least two weeks which is why we find ourselves sweating together in the middle of the city. 

As far as I understand the legislative bill that these people are protesting, it would allow the government to limit and censor curriculum. They're fighting for their right to unfettered knowledge. In a country that only stopped censoring the internet in 2011, this looks to be a long battle. 

But, Myanmar is used to long battles. Student-led movements that turn into expansive political pushes to overthrow the government have been going on for many decades. They are a large part of the reason that Myanmar has come as far as it has, though many here are expressing their frustration that democratic reforms have slowed, or even reversed, since the military let go some of its control in 2010. 

As we talk about the politics of education Jonathan mentions that he once worked security for "The Lady" Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party that has been fighting since the late 1980s for a democratic state. 

O.J. and I have moved to a small restaurant off the park for a cool drink and some shade. He's 26 years old, and as we talk, I begin to fully realize how significant it is that we can have this conversation about his political opinions and his work for the NLD in public. How fortunate I am to be able to experience this momentous point in Myanmar's history firsthand and share it for a split second in a personal way. Yes, the country still has enormous, and enormously serious problems, but to simply be able to travel here and engage in the act of free speech, openly, without fear, in the middle of a public place with a local is historic and awesome in the real definition of the word. 

He must have been born within a year or so of the 1988 uprising that would lead to the formation of the NLD and the repeated imprisonment of its members, including famously, Aung San Suu Kyi's prolonged house arrest. Not long ago speaking openly could get you killed. A generation ago, if you were arrested at a political rally, beating and imprisonment were only the beginning. Many disappeared for good. 

There is so, so much more work to be done. The leadership of the NLD is aging. They need people Jonathan's age to continue to push. But there is will. 

A few days after meeting O.J. I find myself sitting in front of U Nyan Win, the NLD's spokesman and The Lady's personal attorney. He is soft-spoken and kind, but serious as a heart attack when he says: 

"We will not surrender." 

Monday, April 06, 2015

Yangon: New Millennium Dreams


British colonial facade, Caribbean colors, in Downtown Yangon 


In the late 1920s, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called Yangon, Myanmar “a city of blood, dreams and gold.” Almost 90 years later, his description is still apt. When he lived here the British Indian colony was called Burma and the city, Rangoon. 

Today, the dreams are different: new millennium dreams exhibited everywhere by high-rise construction shooting skyward at a break-neck pace between decrepit colonial buildings, the gold in the form of foreign investment gushing in since the military government let loose (some of) its iron grip in 2010. If one sits looking at the horizon for a length of time, a building will appear before one’s eyes like a blade of grass in a time-lapse video. 

A smoggy day in Yangon town -- once dominated by
Sule Pagoda (center),  downtown is now commanded by high-rise construction

As for blood, whatever he saw then, I wonder whether even Neruda, who would witness war in other parts of the world, could have imagined the kind of bloodshed that took place during the 50 years of military rule in the country beginning in the 1960s. For so many decades imprisonment without trial and the killing of of civilian protesters by the military was the norm. No one was safe, not even Yangon’s monks who are, as a whole, quite politically active. 

Even last month, peaceful demonstrations by students and their supporters against an education bill were met with violent police and vigilante force. Cynically, I could say that there’s been progress because this time no one was murdered, only beaten and arrested.

Although democratic reforms have been instituted, fought for during the last several decades by opposition parties like The Lady Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the military still has much control since the constitution guarantees it 25 percent of the seats in parliament. The military, of course, wrote the constitution. The dream of a true democratic state, complete freedom of press, and basic humans rights still a long way off but you’ll be able to live in a deluxe apartment in the sky. 

Neglected colonial buildings with plant growth cozy up to
modern glass and steel architecture downtown  

As I spend most of my days on foot going through neighborhoods for adequate coverage of the city for the episode, the streets produce a sometimes exquisite, sometimes nauseating oscillation of odors: aromas of wonderful street food one moment and clouds of fumes from open sewers and filth the next. But, block after block the sidewalks are ripped up and men are working in those sewers upgrading infrastructure in the smoggy, heavy, 100-degree heat. They wear no shirts and only flip-flops on their feet or no shoes at all. I notice at large building sites — the skyscrapers popping up — workers have on protective footwear and hard hats although workers on the fringes of these sites will still be in flip-flops, albeit with hard hats firmly in place. 

My couch surfing host, an American expat working as a school teacher, tells me that in the past six months or so he’s noticed things getting cleaned up. The smells are better. For all the political turmoil that still exists and the progress yet to be made in this, the former capitol city, the gold fueling the capitalistic rush is flooding the place. It makes me wonder whether on some subtle level it’s meant as a diversion from the coming year-end national elections. “Look what our reforms have given you,” I imagine the military saying.

Not-so-deluxe apartments, old and new. Downtown Yangon

In one of the 25 poorest countries in the world, it’s telling that at a big development site on the eastern edge of Inya Lake, in one of the more genteel neighborhoods which houses diplomats and international business people, there is no Burmese language whatever on the marketing materials around the site. Only English, extolling how luxurious, how “prestigious” living at this address will be once it’s completed. Blood, dreams and gold, indeed.