DOWN AND UP IN MYANMAR
Frustrated with both SLORC and Aung San Suu Kyi, people in embattled Myanmar say that what they really want most is to get in on Asia's economic boom
By Ron Gluckman /Yangon
AHORRENDOUS HOWLING ECHOES down the hillside from Shwedagon Pagoda, most sacred of all Buddhist shrines in Myanmar. At first I mistake the wailing for prayers. But moving closer I realize it is a woman's hysterical screams. The racket is coming from an escalator at the entrance to the gilded pagoda. An woman hugging a baby has fallen and is flopping around like a fish.
Slipping through the dazed onlookers, I lift and guide her to safety. There are smiles today, but my driver recalls a similar scene that did not end so well. "A woman's hand was caught by the metal and, by the time they got her up, there was blood everywhere."
Myanmar's mystification with a moving stairway is typical of any land exposed to new technology. In many ways, it is an apt metaphor for the direction of this formerly isolated socialist state. Clearly Myanmar is moving forward, but that raises the question: what happens at the other end?
At Shwedagon Pagoda, the answer is illuminating. After leaping bravely aboard the escalator, many riders fall flat on their faces at the finish. Others backtrack at the ledge, scared to take the final step forward. So it goes in many ways for Myanmar. "For too long, it's been one step forward, then two back," concedes a local businessman. "Of course, when we started our reforms, we knew there would be growing pains. But how much pain? And for how long?"
The growing pains have become particularly acute this year. In June, Myanmar's steady but slow motion forward seemed to be heading toward cataclysm. Everyone was anxiously awaiting a showdown between democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and the military government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).
Suu Kyi had seemed to be fading from view since her trumpeted release from six years of house arrest in July 1995. "There was a feeling of hopelessness," said a former member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which in 1990 won a landslide election that the junta refused to honor. "Everybody was so excited last year. We felt that change was coming, that democracy would win. But that feeling has passed as time went on."
Despite Suu Kyi's continued bravery in facing up to SLORC, the local elite is criticizing her more than ever for being out of step with the times. Perhaps there is no better explanation than this one offered by a young entrepreneur: "She's like an icon," he explains. "I supported her six years ago. But things were different then, and so was I. Now, we can do business and buy things. Nobody I know wants to go back to that time. We want to go forward."
Indeed, Myanmar in 1996 is miles removed from the xenophobic nation Suu Kyi escaped from during the political upheavals of the 1960s. Her return home from Britain, to care for her ailing mother, coincided with a democracy movement that was brutally suppressed by the military in August 1988. The timing seemed scripted for an epic fairy tale: the SLORC generals like Goliath pitted against this Burmese David, the daughter of assassinated national hero Aung San.
But the frustration with the way things have worked out can be felt on the streets of Yangon, in the countryside and most evidently around the compound where the Nobel laureate continues to defy authorities by speaking out weekend after weekend. As one student points out: "Talk doesn't count for anything; it's just talk. In the end, the generals are in control. They aren't going to go away." The sentiment is echoed by a seasoned reporter covering Myanmar: "A massive popular revolution here is unlikely, to say the least. And SLORC is not going to wake up one morning, slap its forehead and say, Gosh we forgot to allow Suu Kyi to take power."
The fact is that despite the massive coverage she gets in the international press, Suu Kyi has been increasingly marginalized. She and the NLD have maneuvered well for an opposition constrained by laws that ban even photocopying party material. But the tedious process has taken its toll. Confidantes say Suu Kyi, a methodical strategist, has grown bitter over her inability to force the generals to the negotiating table.
"Aung San Suu Kyi has definitely become more intransigent," says a Western observer. "Her charisma and influence over the people seem to have dimmed. Part of this is surely the time passing and the lack of results. SLORC just seems to get stronger, and she becomes less of a symbol of change by the day." Adds a former high-level NLD member: "She's really out of touch. She lives in isolation, in a dream world with her supporters and the media attention. Things have changed around her, but the NLD is still stuck in the past."
Meeting Suu Kyi is a shock. The slight woman seems more suited to tea parties and literary discussions than to a role as power broker with the junta. Suu Kyi, 51, glides across the room and settles gracefully in a chair. "She walks like a young girl, talks like a wise old woman and smells like a flower," I had been told. "That's the first thing I noticed; how nice she smelled," says a female diplomat.
Appearing with jasmine and lilacs in her hair, Suu Kyi quickly dispels any notion of frailty. "What we are trying to do is shape the kind of future that we want for our country. And that comes about through endeavor," she says. As to a more confrontational approach, she replies: "We're not just going to sit around and hope that the dialogue will come about."
Suu Kyi did elicit a dialogue of sorts by calling an NLD congress in May. SLORC responded with mass arrests of party members. Defiantly, Suu Kyi held the conference anyway later that month. In the following weeks, tension gripped the capital of Yangon, and crowds grew into the thousands outside Suu Kyi's house for her weekend talks. On June 7, SLORC dropped a bombshell: a new law that outlawed criticism, effectively banning the NLD.
Overnight, billboards went up at prominent locations throughout the city denouncing the "Western fashion girl" as a stooge of colonialist powers. This has been a common theme in past SLORC propaganda, but never before displayed so brazenly in English. "That's perhaps the most interesting development in years," said a Yangon-based diplomat. "The government has invested tremendous resources to try and attract foreigners to Visit Myanmar Year 1996. To attack foreigners in this way shows Aung San Suu Kyi has really gotten under the generals' skin."
The face-off became a battle of mobs, with SLORC touting its own rallies. "Handful of traitors fomenting trouble at the instigation of their alien masters," reported SLORC's New Light of Myanmar newspaper. The back page said: "Citizens will not stand nor forgive internal traitors' attempts at orchestration with outside masters' dictates to instigate anarchism."
Alien jokes circulated at the U.S. embassy. Even Suu Kyi chuckled: "It sounds like Star Wars, doesn't it? Forces of Evil, Alien Interference." One night, the local TV station aired an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in English. But few in Yangon were laughing. "The situation is very tough," a taxi driver told me. "No one knows what to think or believe. We have hopes, but we are worried."
At the time, Suu Kyi seemed nervous about the prospects of a showdown with SLORC. "They have been threatening to annihilate us for the last several months," she said, almost flippantly. "It's gone from 'annihilation' to 'total annihilation.' We're used to this." Despite the drama, nothing happened. Even more mystifying was the removal of the barbed wire and barriers near Suu Kyi's home.
Thus far, though, the government has been unable to turn public opinion against her. After all, among her many assets, she holds one trump card: SLORC. The horribly named junta is its own worst enemy. Though Suu Kyi's huge domestic support may have waned and entrepreneurs are all for progress, that does not mean anyone has a particular love for the ruling junta. "You can travel the entire country," says a Western scholar, "and the one thing you will find everywhere is that absolutely everyone hates SLORC."
The anger is not international. Publicly at least, investors profess great confidence in the military regime. "SLORC has brought stability to Myanmar," says one European hotelier. "Give me a repressive right-wing government over democratic anarchy any day," adds a British construction boss. "I can get one hundred workers on site, to do whatever I want, at a moment's notice," he explains. "The government here knows how to get things done."
Meet the same people in private, though, and the enthusiasm is not as keen. They talk about tapped phones, corruption, endless red tape and an ingrained suspicion of foreign management that inhibits business. The bulls of Burma, in fact, resemble the boosters years ago in China and, more recently, in Vietnam. With 40 million consumers and minimal labor costs, Myanmar is sure to be a place to make money. "But nobody is really making any," moaned one investor. "Not yet."
Once one of the richest Asian nations, Myanmar retains a treasure chest of untapped wealth. It has jade and rubies, oil and gas and abundant agriculture. Yet even the boldest investors say the stigma of Myanmar's political repression restricts the pursuit of profit. "Nothing will change around here, nothing will improve and there will be no big investment until the government changes," says one Westerner. "SLORC knows this, which is the only reason they put up with Aung San Suu Kyi."
One thing SLORC says about Suu Kyi is true: she is a symbol of outside interference -- it is her greatest weapon. "Nobody is going to rise up against the army here," says one Western diplomat. "Talks are the only way forward, and the only way to get SLORC talking [to Suu Kyi] is by forcing them through pressure. Engagement is the worst thing any country can do. It rewards SLORC and puts off the day of dialogue."
But few people aside from political activists think sanctions will amount to much. The U.S. is one of the only nations talking seriously about a boycott and President Bill Clinton is already on record against it. Southeast Asian leaders have repeatedly reaffirmed a commitment to engagement in Myanmar; ASEAN made Yangon an official observer at its annual foreign ministers' meeting last week.
Nor are sanctions generally popular with the Myanmar people. In the last five years, SLORC has loosened restrictions on the economy, resulting in some measure of free enterprise. Visitors arriving at the airport, for instance, are met by a line of people offering business cards and brochures, touting tour services and guest houses. The airport was deserted only two years ago, and few would have risked contact with a foreigner.
From Yangon to northern Myitkyina, shops are stocked with VCRs and televisions, and satellite dishes dot rooftops. The capital's tiny blue "laybay" trucks, until recently the sole means of private transport, now sport actual "taxi" logos, but offer little competition to the new Japanese cars for hire that flood city streets. Youths who faced government troops eight years ago now can spot a Honda import at 50 meters. A Bangkok car dealer recently opened a Volkswagen showroom in the capital. He hopes to sell 50 cars his first year, perhaps 100 the second. "Young guys come in and ask about tape decks, speaker systems, even CD-ROMs," he says. "They don't even have cars, yet they know all the models and specifications."
Consumer-crazed youths long ago fueled a booming black market for foreign goods, largely smuggled in by tourists. Ten years ago, the trickle of visitors could finance an Asian holiday by peddling whisky, cigarettes and a few T-shirts. Nowadays, shops like "Uncle Sam" sell authentic U.S. goods. Even at $30 a piece -- over a month's wage for most in Myanmar -- imported rock & roll T-shirts outsell half-price copies from China.
And while the local lads have readily adopted hairstyles and dress from the West, few have as keen an appreciation for its politics. Navigating Yangon's increasing traffic with a foreign democracy activist, my driver received a crash course in political correctness. The activist was boasting about having pressured U.S. soft drink company PepsiCo into abandoning its stake in production here. "Do you drink Pepsi?" the activist suddenly asked my driver, to emphasize local support for the boycott. Startled, he replied: "Yes, of course. I like Pepsi very much."
"No, no, no," she scolded, then explained how people all over the world were switching to Coke to show their solidarity with Myanmar citizens, who should also stop drinking Pepsi. Unfortunately, such options are not available to residents of Myanmar, who savor access to any cola, not to mention the jobs at the bottling plant. "Pepsi supports SLORC," the activist said. "You should drink local soda." "Like Sparkling?" he suggested, brightening at her nod of approval for the locally produced beverage. But a minute later, he glanced in the mirror, perplexed: "But Sparkling is half-owned by SLORC."
That is only part of the problem of trying to influence change in Myanmar, as many well-meaning investors have discovered. While it may give satisfaction to college kids in Berkeley, California -- among a handful of U.S. cities to ban the purchase of goods from companies doing business in Myanmar -- to switch from Pepsi to another multinational brand, the impact in Myanmar is negligible.
A similar argument can be made for discouraging tourists from visiting this beautiful, beleaguered land. SLORC accuses Suu Kyi of attempting to sabotage Visit Myanmar Year 1996, an ambitious but poorly organized effort to boost tourism. Officials at first predicted 500,000 to 600,000 visitors, but have continually scaled down projections and would now be pleased with 230,000, according to Htay Aung, of the Directorate of Hotels and Tourism. Given current patterns of growth, he concedes, that is about the same number that would have come without the promotion.
A tourism boycott could hurt Myanmar, especially with a slew of new hotels set to come on line. Yet many question the point of such an action. "What boycott advocates don't seem to realize is there isn't a single indication that isolation will work in Burma's case," says Joe Cummings, author of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Myanmar. "Will isolation lead to democracy? Most likely it will turn the clock back, not forward."
Still, the political situation undeniably hampers development. And this provides Suu Kyi with the only strength the generals seem to respect -- pecuniary. Although by many accounts Myanmar is booming, some foresee trouble on the horizon. One local analyst says the economy is actually ailing. "The problem with understanding the economy is that all the figures are government figures, and they're lies," the analyst says. He is convinced the economy is growing at half the official pace of 6% a year. And despite all SLORC's publicity about investment pouring in over the last five years, the peak really came between 1992 and 1993. "Since then, it's been on a decline."
Others agree that SLORC is in a squeeze that will not be alleviated by short-term investments in tourism. "To really make a quantum leap, to keep pace with the growth around Asia, they have to do something about Aung San Suu Kyi," says a Singaporean investor. "They will have to make a deal."
Breaking the political impasse will not be easy. August could be a crucial month; it marks the military's bloody repression of the democracy drive, known in this superstitious nation as the "8-8-88 Movement." This will be the eighth anniversary. By then, the ASEAN meetings will be over and many are expecting trouble. "We believe in hoping for the best," says Suu Kyi, "and preparing for the worst."
That is not too reassuring to a group of students at Shwedagon, a favorite gathering place for local residents. While monks circle barefoot around the grand shrine, the youths beg my opinion about the future. Attempts at lighthearted encouragement do not satisfy. Nor does the truth: that change will probably not come quickly to this quiet nation of temples and tragedy; and that no matter how much outsiders wring their hands and hope to help, people here are just going to have to suffer through this national angst themselves.
Still, they press me for some opinion of the future and, surprisingly, I find myself sounding reassuring. It's strange; here, where it is dangerous to quote a source by name and impossible to send a fax about Suu Kyi without risking imprisonment, even death, I cannot help but feel optimistic. Unlike other lands at similar crossroads, there is a whiff of hope in the Myanmar air. Even amid the uncertainty at Shwedagon's escalator, I can savor the sweet smell of jasmine.
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Asiaweek, which ran this story in July 1996. When this piece appeared, it drew a rare public denunciation Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then in the midst of serious showdown with the SLORC military junta, which was stepping up the pressure on followers of Suu Kyi. To look at some of Ron Gluckman's other stories on Burma (or Myanmar), please click on Where have all the opium poppies gone, Tracking Myanmar or Visit Myanmar?