Yangon | An Election for Show

Despite the Junta’s promises that Burma will hold fair elections this year, the citizenry is skeptical

Despite the Junta’s efforts to limit free speech, tea shops in Yangon often host candid political discussions. © MITCH MOXLEY
01 May, 2010

He was beyond middle age, with glasses, a red golf shirt, and a plaid lungi, the sarong-like garment ubiquitous in the country formerly known as Burma. His black hair was parted perfectly to the side, not a strand out of place. I assumed he was going to ask me to exchange US dollars for the local currency, kyat, or offer me a guided tour of the city. Instead, he just talked—and talked—with animated hands and a big, toothy smile. He asked where I was from, where I’d been in Myanmar, and what I liked (the people, scenery) and disliked (food, lack of roads) about his country.

And then he talked politics.

“You know, we have an election in 2010. We want real democracy, but we’ll see. We’ll see!” He lifted his arms in the air like a V. “Buddha bless!”

I wanted to ask questions, but I’d been warned by Lonely Planet and others to tread lightly when discussing politics. Plus, I was a journalist and technically not allowed to even be there. I remained silent as he spoke about the 2007 protests against rising gas and food prices that left at least 31 dead (human rights groups put the number in the hundreds), and of Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the history of Myanmar. He lamented the government’s decision to condemn pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to another 18 months of house arrest after an American last year swam across a lake to meet her without her knowledge. “Stupid, stupid man,” he said, shaking his head.

This is what I came to Myanmar to hear, and it surprised me every time I did. I’d been travelling in the country for two weeks and throughout I found locals surprisingly open to discuss politics and criticise their government, one that routinely imprisons political dissidents. Not once did I bring up the subject; never did I ask them to volunteer more. “Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is the top party,” a cab driver in Mandalay told me. “But if you protest the government, you are arrested, sent very far away.” In Pyin U Lwin, an old colonial town, a Muslim man of Indian descent pointed to soldiers on a street corner and said, “Bullshit army. Bullshit government. I don’t like. Nobody likes.” These were fatalist statements, almost always concluded with a ‘what can I do?’ shrug and little hope for change.

I came to Myanmar not so much to report (I couldn’t) but to see, to experience a country largely shut to the outside world. This year will be a pivotal one for Myanmar, the country with the longest running military dictatorship in the world, where yearly per capita income is 54,096 rupees and the average citizen receives less than 180 rupees in international aid per year. The junta has promised to hold free and fair elections. This claim is dubious. These are the first elections since 1990, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming majority that was subsequently ignored by the generals. No date has been set, but the generals have already banned Suu Kyi from running; a new law announced in March requires the NLD to expel its leader because she has a criminal record. The NLD responded by deciding to boycott the polls because of ‘unjust’ electoral laws. Regardless, observers say the elections are pre-determined. “If [the junta] stay on the track they’re on, their elections in 2010 will be totally illegitimate and without any meaning in the international community,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in March.

Despite decades of international sanctions, foreign investment from resource-hungry countries such as China and Thailand continues to prop up the regime. In Myanmar, there’s a nearly total disconnect between people and government. Infrastructure is abysmal. In the places I visited, days were marked by staccato blackouts; many roads connecting towns and cities are barely passable. Education and healthcare remain a luxury many Burmese cannot afford. In Yangon, the decay of nearly 50 years of military rule is most obvious. It’s a city of majestic colonial architecture and centuries old pagodas, left to rot.

After speaking with the man with immaculate hair I made my way through Chinatown, where a rat scurried into a sewer as men sipped tea and appraised precious stones in streetside shops. I ended up near Sule Pagoda, where on 27 September 2007, the government fired into protesting crowds. There, I met Mien Khat Kyaw, an astrologer. Astrology is a national obsession in Myanmar, and the advice of astrologers can and does influence decision-making. In 1970, according to one story, an astrologer told dictator U Ne Win that he would be killed from the right side. The next day, the government declared a shift from left to right-hand driving on all roads. Senior General Than Shwe, the current leader, allegedly spent billions of dollars building Naypyidaw, the lavish and bizarre new capital, based on an astrologer’s words.

My astrologer—46 years old with glasses, a goatee, and a yellow button-down shirt and lungi—was perched under a tree with laminated photographs placed in front of him. One was a faded picture of the astrologer reading the palm of a ginger-haired foreigner. “Wayne Rooney,” he said, tapping the photograph, although it clearly wasn’t the star Manchester United striker. He asked for my birthday and other bits of information and began sifting through a notebook. “Your lucky numbers are two, three, four, zero,” he began. “Unlucky numbers are one, five, six.”

It was difficult to understand everything he said, but here is the highlight reel: I don’t like spicy food or sunlight (not true); I experience back pain and have poor eyesight (nope); I come from a broken home and am estranged from my father (negative). I have good luck with stocks, business, rice, oil, machines, wars, and soldering. I will meet women of dubious character. I should wait to marry until I’m 35 years of age and when I do marry it will be with an Argentinean, Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, or Saudi Arabian woman. “When you die,” he concluded, “your name will live on in other nations.”

Interesting, I thought, but perhaps not the best way to run a government.

The next day, my last in Myanmar, I took a taxi to the airport—a beat up Toyota that felt as if it might collapse at any moment. I stared out the window at the shops and tea joints, and soaked up the smells of a Yangon morning. The driver, an Indian with grey flecks in his beard and teeth stained black from chewing betel nut, asked what I thought of the country.

It’s fascinating, I said. Beautiful country. Wonderful people.

“But very poor,” he replied, hands gripped to the wheel. “Many problems.”

“Do you think it will get better?” I asked.

The driver turned, smiled, and offered a one-word answer with the certainty of an astrologer: “No.”