Not far from where I live in Yangon (Rangoon), a giant Buddha, shaded under an open pavilion, reclines languorously on his right flank. From the inscribed soles of his feet to his golden crown, he measures more than half the length of a football field, and when he gazes down at me with peaceful eyes accented by blue shadow, my daily cares seem inconsequential.
I like to take my time and walk slowly around the figure, stopping for reflection nearby at the shrine for the Sunday born. Myanmar’s unique mix of Theravada Buddhism, nat worship (a folk religion), and astrology places great significance on the day of the week a person was born. I was born on Mother’s Day, so I easily remember that Sunday is my day.
It was beside the Buddha one day that I struck up a conversation with Kyaw, a thin, middle-aged man wearing a tattered longyi and carrying a worn briefcase. Like many people in this former British colony, he had enough of a handle on English to get his points across. Kyaw explained to me my sign (a mythical bird) and my “planet” (the sun). Then, as I like to do, I directed the conversation back to him.
With little prompting, Kyaw told me he participated in the student protests of 1988. Although he escaped the bullets that killed more than 3,000 of his fellow students, he was later arrested and sent to the notorious Insein Prison. The torture he endured there left a scar still visible on his face. Kyaw was unemotional as he told his story, not looking for pity but wanting me to know. After eight years in prison, he became a monk for a while. He didn’t say exactly what it is he does now.
Just three years ago, talking to foreigners in this way could have landed Kyaw back in prison. Why is he willing to be so bold? My guess is that he wants to make sure foreigners, like me, understand how deeply people in Myanmar suffered under military rule. Is he confident that it’s safe to talk now, or naïve? I’m not sure.
Nearly a year has passed since I moved with my husband and two middle-school sons from Seattle to Myanmar. This country of 51 million people is proximate to 40 percent of the world’s population, with China to the north, Thailand and Laos to the east, and India and Bangladesh to the west. It was a battleground during World War II and continues to occupy land of outsized strategic global importance.
There are easier places to be expats. Yangon, the former capital, is a disheveled city of five million, thick with traffic, mosquitoes, and foul smells. The power goes out often, and to my sons’ horror, the Internet is slow. During the four-to five-month monsoon season, rain seems unrelenting. The constant moisture layers the walkways with a green slime that makes your feet slip out from under you.
Despite the inconveniences, I have grown attached to my new home city and its messy street markets, rusty trishaws, and crumbling old buildings, as well as the grand golden pagodas that tower above everything. Most of all, I am moved by the warmhearted and emotionally generous people. I frequently find myself in encounters with people like Kyaw who lack the pretenses and privacy screens of most westerners.
Such openness is unexpected in a country with such a tortured history. Burma, renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the ruling military junta, may conjure up images of an Orwellian gray-scale world where poor, oppressed people seldom smile or venture out. The reality couldn’t be more different. The Burmese, as they are still called, exude a laid-back, almost islander mentality. No one seems hurried; people are quick to make eye contact and chirp, Mingalabar (a polite hello). Women show off their beauty with brightly colored htamein and matching tailored tops. They laugh and smile easily, walk hand in hand, and frequently sing. On several occasions at night, I have heard men bellowing what can only be love songs as they amble down my quiet, winding street.
My family moved here because of one small part of a larger transformation under way in this country. Starting in mid 2011, leaders of the notoriously repressive regime signaled an interest in change, after 50 years of world isolation and a quixotic and poorly executed “Burmese Way to Socialism” had taken its toll. Grand buildings from the British colonial era (1885–1948) lay in ruins, with nothing to take their place. Global socioeconomic and demographic indicators ranked Myanmar near the bottom. China, Myanmar’s only remaining ally, was extracting the country’s natural resources at a rapid pace, providing little in return.
A series of uprisings—the student protests of 1988 that Kyaw participated in, the 1990 victory of the National League for Democracy followed by the continued house arrest of its dissident leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” of 2007—all failed to shake loose the generals’ grip on power. And then quite suddenly in 2011, things started to open up. It’s very unusual, of course, for a military government to step back voluntarily. Perhaps the generals feared that the country’s continued decline would lead to their overthrow and thought that embracing change would bring an end to crippling economic sanctions and reopen relations with the West. They affected civilian dress, established a quasi-civilian government, and began a series of headline-grabbing social and economic reforms.
Among the changes they adopted was allowing in competitors to the government-run telephone company, which is why my family is here. My husband, a telecommunications expert, works for a company that recently launched a new mobile phone service. Just a few years ago, mobile phone SIM cards were in limited supply on the black market for as much as $2,500 each. Now, with several companies vying for business, SIM cards are selling for just $1.50. Myanmar’s communications explosion has opened up a new avenue for opportunities, but it has also perpetuated complexities—including anti-Muslim sentiment. The ethnic Muslim Rohingya sect, now numbering 1.33 million, has been denied citizenship since 1982. Rohingya are forced to live in camps that a U.N. official has called “abysmal”; seeking asylum, many perish at sea in small boats or are captured and held by pirates for ransom.
The so-called opening up, taking Myanmar away from military rule and toward a free society, started with easy changes. For the first time in more than five decades, and generally without consequence, people could talk openly about politics, listen to and read news on formerly banned topics, and display pictures of Suu Kyi, a democracy icon. Undeniable progress, yes, but the shifting tide has generated back currents. There have been reports of a journalist killed while in police custody, a bar owner jailed for displaying a picture of the Buddha wearing headphones, and brutal repression of students pushing for education reform. Each is a reminder of the old way of doing business. And the growing anti-Muslim violence and rekindled ethnic strife may be warnings of worse times to come.
Underlying current events are the structural reforms necessary for people to live long and prosper. Most social progress to date has involved taking things down (abolishing the censorship board) and loosening things up (allowing greater freedom of assembly). Reforms that call for repairing broken systems (education, health care), building new things from the ground up (transportation, energy, and technology infrastructure), or cultural change (transparency, rule of law) will require a much greater and more unified effort. Until this tougher stuff is tackled, those who are struggling to improve their lot in life will continue to swim upstream.
To help me understand how all of this is affecting some of the people I meet, I ask the well-worn political question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” A few common threads are emerging, although, as you would expect, responses are influenced by the social and economic status of the people I ask. Some are hopeful about new freedoms; others are deeply troubled by the rise in religious intolerance or resentful of the new wealth pouring in. All but the ultra rich still aren’t sure they have the resources they need to get ahead.
Twenty-three-year-old Tun Tun embodies much of the above. I met him as I stepped off a small boat in Mingun, a small town an hour’s boat ride up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay. It’s common here for locals to assume the role of tour guide without asking if you want their services; they hope to receive a tip when you say goodbye. Tun Tun struck me as smart and genuine, so I decided to put an end to the ambiguity and asked him to guide my sister and me around his town.
Over the course of the next few hours, we followed Tun Tun along dirt paths, past monasteries and thatch houses like the one he grew up in, and around a famous unfinished pagoda and giant bell that draw tourists to Mingun. In our time together, I heard about Tun Tun’s 10 brothers and sisters, nearly half of whom had died from one illness or another, his deceased alcoholic father, his escape from hunger to a monastic school he attended between the ages of 10 and 15, and his recent experience studying history at a local university.
Tun Tun is a direct beneficiary of Myanmar’s threefold increase in tourism since 2012, yet he seemed annoyed that snapshot-obsessed foreigners were overrunning his town. He shook his head when I asked why the authorities decided to close off the steep climb to the top of the pagoda. “Last month a man toppled down the side and injured himself because he kept close hold of his camera instead of hanging on to the stairway rails,” he explained. “When I came to help him, all he could do was focus on making sure his gear was okay; he didn’t even say thank you.”
Tun Tun has never traveled very far out of his village or even visited Mandalay. He was curious about our lives and laughed in amazement when he learned that my sister and I were nearly as old as his mother. What about you, will you get married? I asked him. “Maybe someday, but I want to be like you, just one or two kids, not 10 or 11. It’s too much; there’s medicine to stop that.” I mentally stopped in my tracks, amazed at his clear expression on the value of family planning. Soon I bade him goodbye and wished him well, meanwhile hoping that he would finish his degree and find a way onward.
Back in Yangon, the tinge of resentment that Tun Tun expressed is more palpable. My standard question to Moe Pwint, my 28-year-old language tutor, elicited an immediate response. “People are worse off,” she said. “The traffic, the inflation, the impossibility of finding an affordable place to live—it’s frustrating people.”
Moe lives downtown in a very basic and crumbling six-floor walkup, the best she could find in an upward-spiraling real estate market with prices starting to rival those in Singapore and San Francisco. Unlike most Burmese women, who tend to live with their parents until they get married, Moe lives with a German roommate in a spirited Myanmar version of Thelma and Louise. She is proud of her independence, rebellious at heart, and unafraid to provide unambiguous opinions.
“The taxi drivers are bitter,” she explained. “They spend hours sitting in traffic instead of catching rides. The price of gas is up, and foreigners want to bargain with them over a $2 fare.”
I wonder if Moe is also bitter. She speaks good English and has a university degree, but instead of a steady progression of positions indicating professional advancement, her résumé lists temporary jobs as an interpreter and local go-to person for international aid agencies and services organizations. All of those stints paid her at the “nationals” pay scale, which is always a fraction of the “expats” pay scale, even though the costs of living we all face are the same.
Moe recently needed an appendectomy. Like nearly everyone here, she has no health insurance and had to negotiate a rate with doctors before they would treat her. After she had covered her own expenses and support for her ailing mother, the surgery and three-day hospital stay wiped out the small savings she had put aside.
Although Moe is struggling a bit, her earnings potential is significantly higher than that of most of her countrymen, the majority of whom are farmers earning less than $200 per year in addition to whatever else they can scrape together. The superrich at the top of Myanmar’s ungainly economic pyramid reap the benefits of cronyism afforded to the military and their associates. Below them is a very small and slowly emerging middle class, which Moe may reach someday and which a friend of mine, whom I will call Soe Soe, has managed to climb into despite the system’s intensely regressive nature.
Born into a family of modest means, Soe Soe attended the local government-run primary school. In 1988, when she was a fourth-grader, the school shut down for an entire year in the wake of the protests against military rule and resulting political upheaval. That year, her father’s travel business ground to a halt and the family struggled to survive on her mother’s small government salary.
To ensure their daughter’s success in a broken education system, Soe Soe’s family did what many others do, spending the little they had on “tuition”—private tutoring that was provided primarily by low-paid, moonlighting public school teachers. At age 16, she passed a make-or-break “10th standard” exam and won admission to the University of Yangon, where she studied mathematics. Like many students today, Soe Soe was discouraged by the poor quality of instruction and found that she learned little in class. Against her parents’ urging, she took a job at a bank to help pay for the tutoring essential to prepare for the university exams.
After graduating, Soe Soe rose through the ranks at the bank for a decade, until the bank closed in fallout related to U.S. sanctions. Seeing this coming, she won the confidence of a successful Thai couple who were customers at the bank and worked with them to found a seafood export business. She continues to expand this endeavor and has also taken over her father’s travel business, along with a car rental company that she runs with her husband.
Today, Soe Soe and her husband do well but live modestly. Inhabiting the Yangon apartment she grew up in, they participate in family gatherings and hope to retire someday to Myeik, a beautiful coastal town in Myanmar’s southernmost region. But her real dream is to travel. “I want to see the U.K. and Japan,” she says, “because those countries were powerful enough to occupy Myanmar, and the U.S., because it is a country that has achieved so much.” By Myanmar standards, so has Soe Soe.
An election this fall will signal either a solidification of Myanmar’s move toward democracy or a U-turn back to full military control. Although the Lady, as Aung San Suu Kyi is affectionately known, is banned from the office of president because she has children with foreign passports, it is possible—some would say likely—that her party, the National League for Democracy, will make big gains.
If the winners, whether from the Lady’s party or the generals’ ruling party, build on reforms already initiated, unite the country, and repair broken systems, the everyday effect for the Burmese could be transformational. But if instead there is more backsliding and growing ethnic conflict, the country could turn quickly in the opposite direction.
Tun Tun, Moe Pwint, and Soe Soe are all smart and resilient. I have faith that they will get where they want to go in life, even if the political environment makes their journeys more difficult. The people I worry about more are those less gifted and motivated—those who are sick or struggling to support their children or elderly parents or who are physically or mentally broken, like Kyaw, whom I met at the reclining Buddha. They will be unable to swim upstream.
It’s unrealistic to assume that a “Burma Spring” will create a free and open society overnight. One step back for every two steps forward makes for slow progress, but eventually the unifying desire to strengthen the country will prevail. When that happens, I hope Yangon’s dusty charm is not paved over and that people will still smile at random strangers in the street.
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