Published: August 2011


Burma police patrol

Land of Shadows

As it emerges from isolation, the nation of Myanmar is caught between repression and reform, dark and light.

By Brook Larmer
Photograph by Chien-Chi Chang

It's the magic hour in Yangon, when the last rays of sunlight, softer, cooler now, bathe the crumbling downtown in a golden glow, beckoning residents out into the streets. Giggling children race to buy fresh sugarcane juice. Women with cheeks daubed with a paste made of bark—the alluring Burmese sunblock—haggle with a fishmonger. In the street, bare-chested teenage boys in a circle play a rowdy game of chinlon, a sort of acrobatic Hacky Sack, while potbellied men in T-shirts and longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, sit on the sidewalk chewing red wads of betel nut.

The carnival-like atmosphere doesn't last. Night falls fast in the tropics, and the power shortages that plague Myanmar give the sudden transition a spooky edge. A decaying colonial-era government building goes black. The alleyway next door emits the bluish glow of television sets powered by portable generators. Under the trees the vendors are invisible, but candles illuminate their wares: circles of silvery fish, clusters of purple banana flowers, stacks of betel leaves. And lined up in a blue wooden case, pirated DVDs of American movies and music.

"Welcome to the Hotel California," calls out a voice from the shadows in perfect English. Three young men sit on plastic stools in the street, laughing at the greeting. The DVD vendor, a skinny 29-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and a pink button-down shirt, leaps up with a smile. Though his schooling ended in fourth grade, he speaks English in an eruption of phrases gleaned from Hollywood movies and 1950s grammar books. Meeting an American, he says, makes him feel "over the moon, on cloud nine, pleased as punch."

The three "bosom buddies"—Tom, Dick, and Harry, as they call themselves—meet almost every evening to practice their English idioms. Tonight, over cups of milky tea, they will banter for hours, showing off new expressions like nuggets of gold. Now, in the dark, the three friends hesitate for a minute, puzzling over the lyrics of an old Eagles hit. "Hey, maybe you can help," Tom says. "What do they mean when they say, 'We are all just prisoners here of our own device?'"

Myanmar is a land of shadows, a place where even the most innocent question can seem loaded with hidden intent. For most of the past half century this largely Buddhist nation of some 50 million has been shaped by the power—and paranoia—of its military leaders. The tatmadaw, as the national military is known, was the only institution capable of imposing its authority on a fractured country in the wake of independence from Britain. It did so, in part, by pulling Myanmar into a fearful isolation, from which it is only starting to emerge.

This isolation, deepened by two decades of Western economic sanctions, may have preserved the nostalgic image of Myanmar as a country frozen in time, with its mist-shrouded lakes, ancient temples, and blend of traditional cultures largely unspoiled by the modern world. But it also helped accelerate the decline of what was once referred to as "the jewel of Asia." Myanmar's health and education systems have been gutted, while the military—with some 400,000 soldiers—drains nearly a quarter of the national budget. Most notoriously, the tatmadaw's brutal suppression of ethnic insurgencies and civil opposition has made Myanmar a pariah nation, a distinction it now seems eager to shed.

Out of this tableau of darkness have come some fleeting rays of light. The country's first parliamentary election in 20 years, held last November, heralded the advent of what military leaders call "discipline-flourishing democracy." Though marred by widespread fraud and intimidation, the elections have given Myanmar its first nominally civilian government in half a century. Longtime military strongman Than Shwe officially retired in April, even though the new president is none other than his loyal deputy former Gen. Thein Sein, who has exchanged his army uniform for civilian clothes.

If one of the regime's election goals was to win legitimacy at home and abroad, another was to erase the memory of the 1990 elections. In those polls, held two years after the tatmadaw gunned down hundreds of antigovernment protesters, the junta denied the sweeping victory of the main opposition party, the National League of Democracy (NLD). Then for much of the next two decades, it put top opposition figures in prison and kept under house arrest the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Lady, as she is known, pushed the NLD to boycott last November's polls, which she, then still under house arrest, was barred from participating in. Joining such an "unfair" exercise, she argued, would give legitimacy to a regime that in 2007 again resorted to lethal violence—firing on protesting Buddhist monks—and a year later neglected the victims of Cyclone Nargis. That catastrophe left approximately 140,000 dead and nearly a million homeless. Not everybody agreed with Suu Kyi; some opposition figures believed that the transition to civilian rule, however flawed, offered their last hope to remain relevant.

Less than a week after the 2010 election, as military-backed parties claimed an overwhelming victory, came another glimmer of hope: Suu Kyi's release. Then 65, the Nobel laureate had spent 15 of the previous 21 years in detention, and the world rejoiced at her freedom. The sight of the Lady thronged by young followers led some to believe that a new era was dawning. But Suu Kyi harbors no such illusions. "Society has changed enormously," she said, marveling at the ubiquity of mobile phones, Twitter, and Facebook when I interviewed her in February. "But politically, there is no difference at all."

It is tempting to see Myanmar as a simple morality tale, a battle between light and darkness. But the Lady and the generals don't represent the only poles vying for the country's future. Within the ranks of both the military and the opposition there are voices, still muted, pushing for greater flexibility and reform. Beyond this contest among the elites, there are the ethnic minorities, who make up about a third of the population and occupy more than half the territory. The question of how to govern this kaleidoscope of restive groups has vexed Burmese rulers since the time of the ancient kings, and any real progress will depend on their accommodation. "If the ethnic groups are left out of the equation," one foreign diplomat says, "this place could fall apart."

The stakes for Myanmar's future are higher than ever, in part because the country—wedged between China and India—has again become a geopolitical chess piece. Even as the United States and other Western governments continue imposing sanctions to punish the regime for its human rights violations, China, Thailand, and other competing Asian powers have poured money into Myanmar to exploit its resources—oil and gas, timber, gems, minerals, and hydropower. The foreign investment, worth billions of dollars a year, has blunted the impact of sanctions but inflamed tensions in some ethnic areas where resources are most plentiful. Nothing yet has shaken the government's grip on power—or the fear and paranoia it inspires. But Myanmar, finally, is coming out of hibernation.

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