Michael Madoff is a senior in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He majors in International Politics with a concentration in Foreign Policy and is particularly interested in the societal mechanics of democratic transitions. Michael currently works as a research associate in the international division of The Moffett Group in Washington DC. In his free time, Michael loves to travel and talk to people about politics.
“My cousin says she’s been held up at immigration.”
“My aunty says she’s just talking to journalists and she’ll be here soon.”
Among the crowd of National League for Democracy leaders gathered on that rainy June day, no one seemed to consider the possibility that the government might not keep its promise. “Impossible,” each supporter told me, grinning with unwavering optimism as though they had practiced this response to such a question. So we continued to wait outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside villa for The Lady to return to Yangon with her Nobel Peace Prize in hand.
After hearing countless horror stories of life under the junta, “impossible” seemed like something the Burmese government was more than capable of. The fact that we could stand on her street at all represented major progress because the government had recently reopened the major Yangon thoroughfare after many years of closure. Even when Uni- versity Avenue Road was reopened, it was officially a crime to stop in front of The Lady’s house until last year.
Other manifestations of the shadow of totalitarian control emerged in forms that were at once horrifying and comical. At an Internet café I asked the waitress why my emails would not send, to which she calmly replied, “probably the censor is having his tea break.” I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the thought of a uniformed, semi-literate Myanmar intelligence officer combing through my inane office correspondence for some coded message of rebellion.
I had received my invitation to Suu Kyi’s house on the preceding day from Dr. Myint-Oo, president of the State Department backed Myanmar-United States Friendship Exchange. We dined at a restaurant in downtown Yangon, where he warned me, “Before, I would be arrested for talking to you like this. The walls had ears.” This was not a joke. As a prominent activist in Burma’s popular uprisings, Dr Myint-Oo had been imprisoned three times.
The situation in Burma was changing for the better he insisted, noting, “Previously, I used 4 separate emails. Now I don’t care if the government reads them because there are no arrests.”
George Orwell spent the better part of his 20s as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. His time in the country inspired his first novel “Burmese Days” which, like his better-known works, centers on the failure of the human spirit to overcome the faceless oppression of a dystopian state and society. He wrote of his protagonist, “Flory had been fifteen years in Burma, and in Burma one learns not to set oneself up against public opinion.” Orwell had perfectly predicted the ultimate character of a country that had not yet been born. While Orwell’s dystopian fears were never realized in the West, the stories of political life under the Burmese junta sound like a page out of 1984. Hearing about the unpredictable ebb and flow of brutality against Burmese political prisoners that dragged on for decades always struck me as more disturbing than short instances of mass atrocities highlighted on the evening news.
Looking into the eyes of men and women who had spent the better part of two decades as political prisoners without sensing even a shred of doubt was almost unnerving. I went around to ask activists, “Why are you doing this? Why endure imprisonment, tor- ture and death for politics?” Their lips formed words like “democracy” and “freedom,” but each longing glance up the road from the airport revealed the true answer: it was all for her.
It has become somewhat of a cliché among Western commentators to shower Aung San Suu Kyi with praise, and I arrived with some skepticism concerning the true nature of her powers. Nonetheless, it was tremendously heartening to see firsthand that her moral leadership is not just a construct of an idealistic international elite, but a deeply rooted conviction in the lives of her people. And they are truly her people.
I discovered images of The Lady plastered on every imaginable surface in Burma, from shop windows in Mandalay, to the side of an ox cart in a remote village in northern Shan State. A peddler on the street could recall the exact date he last saw Daw Suu as confidently as he knew his own birthday. Despite her best efforts to avoid developing a cult of personality, adoration of Suu Kyi rivals even the fervent idolization reserved for the Buddha among the deeply religious Burmese people.
The impact of such admiration on geopolitical outcomes is admittedly dif- ficult to measure. However, the results from the most recent round of parliamentary by-elections in April 2012 gives a striking quantitative confirma- tion of what I observed. According to Dr. Myint-Oo, “If you look at the elec- tion results, the NLD won in the districts around the new capital, which is only military and government workers.” Indeed over half the voters in Naypyidaw, the relocated capital of Myanmar, are directly employed by the govern- ment and were even offered incentives to vote for the Union for Solidarity and Development Party, the rival of the NLD. The voters of Naypyidaw proved willing to make a sacrifice against their own material interests to carry Suu Kyi’s party to a sweeping victory.
The League and the Union.
I visited the National League for Democ- racy headquarters in Yangon the first day I arrived in Burma on a tourist visa from neighboring Thailand. After reading about their decades-long underground struggle, I was expecting the NLD to be based in some kind of secret location. I imagined myself being blindfolded and driven around in the jungle like something out of a James Bond movie.
The taxi pulled up right in front of a concrete structure. It looked like an ugly suburban house with an oversized garage attached to it, but it had a large sign that read “National League for Democracy.” Not only did the supporters make no effort to disguise themselves, they were actually running a sort of gift shop out of the front door. Three toothless old women sat on the sidewalk in front of the office selling key chains, t-shirts and mugs with Aung San Suu Kyi’s face printed onto them. I stepped inside the office, and it had the flavor of having been recently transformed from a secret hideaway to a place not yet prepared to hold meetings or host visitors. The headquarters con- sisted of a single windowless room lit with two bare light bulbs and scattered with stacks of posters, flyers and party registration forms. A rice cooker sat on a lone table in the middle of the room. The walls were decorated with strategic- looking maps and life-size portraits of Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San. Other NLD offices scattered throughout the country appeared to follow the same organizational model. The office in Bagan, an ancient city on Burma’s central plain, did not have even have a building, it was simply a tent erected on the empty lot between two buildings and filled with filing cabinets of unprocessed party registration forms. Yet, despite their apparent lack of material resources, volunteers in that office assured me they had collected over 5,000 party registrations from the surrounding villages that week alone.
In Mandalay, a young NLD volunteer told me, “People here know about what is happening in Egypt, especially the generals,” she grinned visibly, perhaps at the thought of the Burmese generals squirming in the same hospital bed as Hosni Mubarak. “Now is our time, this is the Burmese Spring!”
I often found myself pleasantly surprised at the level of knowledge the NLD volunteers possessed. Even after they were released from prison, many of these activists barely had access to electricity, never mind the Internet or satellite television. Yet they were aware of not only the political situation in Burma, but of how their struggle related to something as far away as the American presidential election.
Out of some naïve sense of journalistic fairness I tried to secure an interview with a representative of the ruling Union for Solidarity and Development Party. Later that day I wandered in through the front gates of their ornately decorated main office in Mandalay. Unlike the modest NLD volunteers who had welcomed me with open arms to their offices, the three former soldiers guarding this entrance could not even begin to comprehend what I wanted from them.
I explained, in a combination of slow, deliberate English and hand gestures, that I wanted to meet with someone from the party and to interview them. I pointed to the structure behind them, a brand new office building painted the party colors green, yellow, and red. It was draped with flags, pictures of the president, and a large sign that read “Union for Solidarity and Develop- ment Party” in English and Burmese. At first I thought the men did not speak English, and then one replied with only a trace of an accent, “there’s no one in that building for you to meet with.” Upon closer inspection, the office did indeed look deserted, so I turned and went back through the gate.
Business Dinner in Yangon
Through mutual friends I managed to secure an interview with a prominent Burmese businessman, who, for obvious reasons, requested anonymity. Our meeting was set at a popular seafood restaurant in Yangon. When I arrived, I was informed that the Chinese national golf team had reserved the entire restaurant for a birthday party, and that we would dine in a private room.
The businessman spoke little Eng- lish and I no Burmese, but he brought his young son as an interpreter. I was offered a bottle of Jonnie Walker Green Label, which easily skirted EU sanctions to make numerous appearances through my journey as the drink of choice for Burma’s elite. With minimally functional Internet or cellular networks, the iPhone is primarily a status symbol in Burma; the business- man sported not one, but two iPhones tucked into his traditional Longi skirt, so as to confer twice the prestige.
After the conventionally Asian exchange of business cards, I inquired into the nature of his company. The card featured a rather generically named company that listed the businessman as “Owner, Operator.” Without translating my question, our boy interpreter replied, “import-export, it’s the family business.” I thought it an odd sort of business to occupy in a country that imports little and exports even less. I pressed for detail and the businessman blinked in agreement as his son continued, “we import cars from Japan, mostly Toyota.”
“So, you sell cars then?”
“No, no. Just import,” and with that the matter was dropped. I followed up with another contact later on, who explained that only someone connected with the generals could acquire an import license, a requirement to purchase a car. These import licenses could then be turned around and sold for as much as $100,000 per vehicle on the black market.
Continuing the interview, I asked, “when the sanctions are fully lifted, will you begin importing goods from the West? I see you’ve got an iPhone there.”
“Maybe, but we worry about too much competition.” He was understandably concerned about protecting his lucrative import monopoly.
It was evidently a subject he wished to avoid, so I approached from another angle, mentioning that I had been to visit Aung San Suu Kyi’s house earlier that day. The son was visibly excited, so I invited his opinion on the matter. “The Lady is making Myanmar famous and we will have democracy.” The boy was likely too young to understand the implications that political liberalization might have on his personal finances, but his father seemed to smile and nod in agreement.
This anecdote underscores the dilemma faced by the key stakeholders on whom the future of Burma hinges. The crucial segment of Burmese society in play is those with the influence to benefit materially from the status quo, but who are morally swayed by the charisma of Suu Kyi. The NLD has at least begun to grasp that the way forward lies somewhere in a compromise with this business class.
On the Chinese Road to Mandalay
Of all the corners of the British Empire explored in Rudyard Kipling’s writing, the route from the old capital at Rangoon to Burma’s second city of Mandalay has changed least in the century since he described it. The famous poem “Mandalay,” published in 1890, predates Orwell’s time in Burma by several decades, but both describe a culture and level of economic development that is consistent with the area today. However, Kipling likely would not have imagined that the real “Road to Mandalay” would come down from a Chinese Empire to the north.
The portion of the old “Burma Road” connecting Mandalay to the city of Muse on the Chinese border was revamped in 2011 with significant support from the Chinese government. Unlike the dirt roads throughout the rest of the country, this modern four-lane highway significantly expedites the truckloads of timber, minerals, and Chinese tourists that pass along this route.
To put this infrastructural achieve- ment in perspective I spoke to a tour guide who frequently makes the trip. “It takes me 10 hours to drive from Muse to Mandalay,” he said, a distance of 500 km, or 310 miles, “but it takes 8 hours to get tourists another 100 km to Bagan in the rainy season,” a distance only slightly farther than that between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. At present the road is sparsely populated, mainly with logging trucks, but many on the ground speculate that China is expecting a more substantial return on its investment.
This route will have major implications for China’s strategic presence in Asia. An effective U.S. naval plan in a hypothetical war with China hinges on blockading the Malacca Strait to cut off China’s key artery for oil imports. By diversifying its oil routes to bypass the Strait, China is looking to shore up its main strategic weakness. The route through Burma depends on critical investments in the country’s primitive infrastructure.
In July 2012, the Burmese government announced plans to “privatize” and modernize major oil refineries in the Irrawaddy delta. By no coincidence, the other major Chinese-funded road project in Burma now connects Yangon to these refineries. Chinese companies already have a stranglehold on much of the extraction infrastructure in this resource rich country. Luckily for the United States, not everyone in the country is thrilled with the Chinese monopoly on resource extraction in Burma. In fact, my NLD contact in Mandalay told me, “the reason the generals have softened in recent years is not because they’ve had a change of heart, but because they are so afraid of China. They need to attract investment from the West before they’re swallowed completely.” As the Obama administration debates the ethical implications of lifting sanctions on Burma, this major strategic consideration will no doubt come into play.
Conclusion. One of the great Buddhist temples of Shan State in northern Myanmar includes a small shrine to the local gods and spirits. Legend holds that the first Buddhist king who constructed the temple added this decidedly non-Buddhist feature to encourage the local elite in making the conversion to Buddhism. They could come to the temple to worship their old gods and in the process gain exposure to the glorious new religion of the king’s choosing. Within a generation, the elites who had previously been the most fervent animists and spirit worshipers had converted to Buddhism. Perhaps the emerging proponents of democratization could borrow from the playbook of their ancestors. The previous uncompromising stance of the National League for Democracy towards the military regime, although admirable, ultimately undermined decades of potential baby steps in the democratization effort.
To my surprise, Dr. Myint-Oo told me that, despite his vigorous pro-democracy activism, he has never actually been a registered member of the NLD. He explained, “The NLD used to be too confrontational, but now they’ve learned to compromise and I think it will be better.”
I had come to Burma prepared to write an article criticizing the NLD for a lack of pragmatism and willingness to stand up and fight. In 2011, political theorist Gene Sharp once somewhat controversially observed, “Aung San Suu Kyi, for all her wonderful qualities, and her heroism and inspiration for those who believe in democratic rights and the rights of Burmese people—is not a strategist, she is a moral leader. That is not sufficient to plan a strategy.”
I agreed until the moment I saw The Lady step out of her car and climb to the top of the gate in front of her house. After addressing the Nobel Committee, a joint session of the Brit- ish Parliament, and the international media, she waved to our gaggle of damp volunteers as though we were the first people she had seen after her 15 years of house arrest. The crowd surged forward around me in a wave of near religious ecstasy chanting, “Suu!” It is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi has managed the impossible task of shepherding her beloved Burma to the cusp of democra- tization without sacrificing her unparalleled moral leadership.
During the period of writing this piece, President Obama embarked on the first overseas trip of his second term to Southeast Asia. During this trip, Obama became the first president in U.S. history to visit the previously isolated nation of Burma. This visit, the result of an unprecedentedly rapid rapprochement between the US and Burma, presents an historic opportunity to underscore the administration’s pivot to Asia. If the president is able to pull this strategically vital nation of 60 million people out of China’s ideological orbit and into the international system, it will be remembered as one of the great foreign policy achievements of his time in office. This policy shift is precipitated by political and social changes occurring in Burma that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.