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The barefoot magician twirls a rope around a volunteer's neck, and the audience hushes in anticipation. Rows of gaping boys and girls stretch back to the entrance of the dilapidated building. Across the street outside, men lingering in an open-air tea shop crane to see. Myanmar is a country infused with magic, a place where animistic spirits, called nats, inhabit every banyan tree, where astrologers are called upon to guide key decisions. The magician knows, even if the children do not, that some of the men standing outside are not part of the invited audience but spies for the police's Special Branch.

This, after all, is no ordinary magic show. Sitting in the front row, a ring of jasmine flowers in her hair, is the Lady herself, Aung San Suu Kyi. It is Children's Day at the NLD's Yangon headquarters, an event timed to coincide with the birthday of Suu Kyi's father, Burmese independence hero Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947. Images of father and daughter—strikingly similar, save for his military uniform—hang above the NLD's entrance, along side walls, and in laminated pins on the shirts of children in the audience.

But now all eyes are on the magician slowly weaving the rope around the volunteer's legs, arms, and torso, and even through his clothes. A young girl shoots a glance at Suu Kyi, who winks back in reassurance. This man is not a real prisoner, her smile suggests, even if the party elders flanking her have each spent more than a decade in the junta's jails. The magician barks out an instruction, and with a sudden yank, the rope snaps away. The prisoner is set free. Cheers fill the room, and Suu Kyi, tossing her head back, lets out an unbridled laugh.

If only it were that easy. Even with her freedom restored, Suu Kyi still seems bound by invisible tethers. The global icon is not simply burdened with high expectations. Her party is in limbo. Banned for boycotting last year's election, the NLD now runs the risk of violating the country's restrictive association laws with every gathering it holds. Even with the Children's Day event, says Win Htein, one of Suu Kyi's closest confidants, "we're defying restrictions."

From her office on the second floor of a building overlooking a busy street near the heart of Yangon, Suu Kyi can see the Special Branch men in the tea shop across the way. "I don't know why they bother," she sighs. Despite a trace of nostalgia for her privacy—"I keep wondering when I'll have time to read and think again," she says—Suu Kyi has thrown herself into a whirlwind of meetings with diplomats, journalists, ethnic groups, civic organizations. So far, though, the men she needs to meet most—the generals—have ignored her overtures. "We keep the door open," Suu Kyi says. "Nothing will be accomplished without dialogue."

Over the years cartoons in the state-run media have depicted the elegant Lady as an evil ogre with fangs, feeding on Western handouts. The attacks ceased for a few months after her release. But when the NLD issued a statement in February defending Western sanctions against the regime, an editorial in an official newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, warned that Suu Kyi and her party would "meet their tragic ends." A rhetorical threat, perhaps, but few can forget the attack on her convoy the last time she was free, in 2003; it left at least a dozen followers dead.

Sanctions may be one of Suu Kyi's last cards. A wide spectrum of international observers—including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—has judged sanctions ineffective in Myanmar, largely because other countries, such as China, have no qualms about doing business with the government. "We're willing to compromise," Suu Kyi insists. But after two decades of sacrifice, she won't call for an easing of sanctions unless there are serious concessions, starting with the release of Myanmar's more than 2,000 political prisoners. "If sanctions are not effective," she asks archly, "then why are the regime and its friends so desperate to see them disappear?" It seems that the government covets the one thing the Lady has that it has never possessed: legitimacy in the eyes of the world.

If you come to Nay Pyi Taw looking for clues about Myanmar's leadership, the first thing you'll find is an unsettling void: smooth ten-lane roads with manicured roundabouts but scarcely any vehicles, clusters of color-coded government housing complexes with no children in sight, a copy of Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda with not a single Buddhist monk chanting prayers. It all feels like an abandoned movie set until you drive toward the military zone, an off-limits area where Than Shwe keeps his home and secretive high command. There, beyond the rumbling army trucks and the vast parade ground, stand the symbols of the regime: massive statues of Myanmar's three most revered ancient kings.

Welcome to the Abode of Kings, Myanmar's capital as of 2005, a strange utopia built on fear and hubris. A former mailman who honed his skills in the army's psychological-warfare department, Than Shwe self-consciously assumed the mantle of Myanmar's ancient monarchs—to the point where supplicants reportedly must use a royal form of Burmese to address him and his wife. Myanmar's kings had a penchant for building new capitals as legacies of their rule, from the pagodas at Bagan to the royal palace in Mandalay. Now there's Nay Pyi Taw.

The new capital may feel soulless, but for rulers distrustful of their own people, it could be a masterpiece of defensive urban planning. Worried about an imminent attack in Yangon, Than Shwe poured several billion dollars into building the city on scrubland in central Myanmar, safe from killer storms, foreign invasion, and domestic protests. In design, Nay Pyi Taw is not really a city but a series of isolated zones dispersed over an area larger than Rhode Island. Government ministries, once clustered in crowded Yangon, are laid out at wide intervals, accessible only by heavily patrolled roads. The military zone is a bubble within a bubble, forbidden to all but top officers—and reportedly honeycombed with underground bunkers.

In a city built by construction workers earning less than a dollar a day, the generals have splurged on some extravagances: an Olympic-size soccer stadium, a zoo equipped with an air-conditioned penguin house, a safari park, even a 480-acre "landmark garden" with miniature reproductions of Myanmar's most famous sites, including wooden houses inhabited, on occasion, by ethnic minorities in native garb—a sort of human zoo.

The generals' obsession with one legacy of British colonialism—golf—has spawned five new courses. The farmers whose village was bulldozed to build the City Golf Course now weed fairways on their ancestral land—and smile deferentially when officials play through. Beyond its elitist appeal, the golf course provides a refuge where business deals are quietly negotiated, with bribes purportedly masked as losing bets. A 26-year-old female caddy wearing bright red lipstick has learned the rules of discretion. "I'm only supposed to smile," she says.

The capital does have one concession to democracy: a parliament complex consisting of 28 gargantuan pagoda-topped buildings rising above two faux suspension bridges. When parliament opened in February—the first session in 22 years—the 659 new MPs were herded into this self-contained world and kept in isolation for weeks. No media or spectators were allowed; the MPs themselves were forbidden to use mobile phones or email. "It was sad and funny," a Burmese businessman in Yangon says. "Here were all these MPs launching a new democracy, and yet they were huddled there like prisoners."

Deep in the hills of northeastern Myanmar a young woman in a bamboo hat walks along a riverbank toward a sacred place: the convergence of two rivers that gives birth to the Ayeyarwady (known to the outside world as the Irrawaddy), the lifeblood of the nation. This spot is revered by Burmese of all faiths. But it is woven into the very identity of the ethnic Kachin minority, whose ancestors settled in this area centuries ago. At her wedding the Kachin woman and her husband (who asked not to be named) promised to emulate the union of the Mali and Nmai Rivers. Her family still comes to the confluence to make offerings on the first morning of each new year. "It's in our blood," she says.

All this will soon be gone. Around the Ayeyarwady's next bend Chinese workers are laying the groundwork for a 500-foot-tall hydroelectric dam, the first—and biggest—of seven dams slated to be built. Part of a joint venture between China Power Investment (CPI) and Myanmar's regime-friendly Asia World, the Myitsone Dam is expected to have a generating capacity of 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than the country as a whole now produces. By the time the dam is finished in 2019, it will flood an area larger than New York City, wiping out dozens of villages, including Tang Hpre, where the Kachin woman lives. From the riverbank she points to a white sign on a nearby hill. "The water will rise that high. Can you imagine living under that threat?"

Anger about the dam reverberates far beyond Tang Hpre. "The dam has become a rallying cry for the Kachin people," says Brig. Gen. Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group whose 17-year-old cease-fire with the Burmese government began unraveling late last year. Along with soldiers from other ethnic groups, the KIA has resisted the regime's demand that it re-form itself into a border-defense force under Burmese military command. The dam controversy only fuels the rising tension. "For months we've been asking Burmese authorities to clarify where the electricity will go, but we've received no reply," the 49-year-old rebel chief says. "I think we all know. China is very hungry for electric power." Indeed, according to a CPI document, most of the electricity will go directly to China.

Of all the foreign countries rushing in to exploit Myanmar's resources, China has been the most aggressive. Part of its nearly ten billion dollars in direct investment is going to the construction of pipelines to carry oil and gas from the Burmese coast to the Chinese border—a shortcut that also hedges against the risk of shipping through the narrow and pirate-infested Strait of Malacca. In Kachin State, which shares more than 600 miles of that border, Chinese companies are rushing in to extract gold, jade, and teak, as well as hydropower. As one Kachin activist says, "The Chinese won't stop until they've sucked us dry."

For the past year and a half the Burmese government has been demanding that Tang Hpre's 1,400 villagers move to a new settlement ten miles away to make way for the dam. Defiance has been virtually unanimous. Last year a series of bomb blasts hit dam-related sites across the valley, forcing several hundred Chinese workers to evacuate and delaying the project. The authorities arrested 70 Kachin youths in connection with the bombings. The woman in the bamboo hat insists that her resistance is nonviolent. "The government tells us not to fix up our homes, to let them crumble," she says. "But no, that only makes us determined to make them more beautiful than ever, to show that we will not move, even under threat of death."

Down on the bank of the Ayeyarwady, she peers into a deep pit of sand and rock. Her mission today is not to pray or protest but to join the search for gold. "Try over here," she instructs a Kachin teenager blasting the sand bank with a hose, as youngsters shovel the loosened sand onto an inclined ramp. Over the past few months villagers have noticed more boats full of Burmese and Chinese workers heading upriver to dredge for gold. She wonders if Tang Hpre's forced resettlement is a ploy to let the Chinese control another of the Kachins' precious resources. "We don't want to lose our home," she says. "But we need to get as much gold as we can before the Chinese come and the waters rise. This is ours."

For a moment the loquacious DVD vendor is at a loss for words. Tom and his two young friends have been chatting in the dark about the glories of Yangon—its ethnic diversity, its hip-hop scene, its crumbling colonial architecture—when the subject turns, inevitably, to the future.

"I'm sweating bullets," Tom finally says. It's not just a new expression he's trying out. Recent power cuts have hurt the meager profits he brings in for his wife and daughter—about $50 a month—and having a black market job makes him jittery. Even with the protection money he pays the cops, he barely escaped a recent police sweep. Were it not for his fleet feet, he might have wound up in jail and lost his inventory, including a prized Tom Cruise compilation disk. The Top Gun star, he says, is "the apple of my eyes."

Later, chewing on a wad of betel nut, Tom confides his great ambition: He wants to go abroad. In this desire he is not alone. Each year tens of thousands of Burmese laborers head to Singapore and Malaysia, where they can earn upwards of $300 a month. Dick, an underemployed English teacher, says he may try to find a sales job in Singapore. Tom has the U.S. in mind. "It is the land of milk and honey," he says. "And Angelina Jolie."

Even with his ebullient English, Tom's lack of higher education and financial assets dims his chances for a U.S. visa. But he seems so intoxicated by the idea—or is it the betel nut?—that he loses his inhibitions. "Under this dictatorship we live like pigs snorting in the dark!"

The outburst unnerves his friends. "He's shooting off his mouth," Dick whispers when Tom goes off to deal with a customer. "He shouldn't be airing his dirty linens in public."

At the end of the evening, Tom packs up his DVDs, and the three friends walk down the deserted street to his bus stop. "Things are getting a little better here," Harry says. "We've all got mobile phones and email now, so we can keep in touch with the outside world." Tom doesn't seem to be listening. As he hops onto the bus, he offers—with a devilish grin—a seditious farewell: "See you after the insurrection!"

Beijing-based writer Brook Larmer is the author of Operation Yao Ming. Chien-Chi Chang’s most recent books are The Chain and Double Happiness.
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