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." 

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