Making my way down a crumbled thoroughfare twisting through the first lush green approaches to Yangon’s splendid and iconic Schwedagon Pagoda, I recall the joke about George Orwell writing not one book about Burma, but a trilogy and in chronological order: Burmese Days, followed with Animal Farm, and 1984. Though conscious barely conspicuous video devices and camera equipment stalking me on my path, I wonder nevertheless whether the time is near for a fourth installment. After all, I have just left the Yangon headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), having met Aung San Suu Kyi, the party’s leader, and where a huge crowd was still gathered amid scenes of elation and euphoria.
None of this was imaginable three years ago - the last time I was in this beautiful but long suffering country, crushed as it still exists between the dual humiliation of poverty and cruel authoritarian rule. The day I meet Aung San Suu Kyi she is celebrating her 66th birthday. Only recently released from a period of house arrest lasting close to two decades, she remains a striking and elegant figure, in excellent health and spirits despite decades of confinement and hardship. She speaks in a calm, considered and erudite manner, with a passion and conviction that seems utterly bereft of resentment or malice. On learning my nationality she expresses her fondness for the Kiwi bird; "so incongruous, so improbable". I suggest that perhaps these are qualities she can identify with - she giggles before her answer "...maybe!"
I apologize for my attire; several hours among the large crowd in the heat of Yangon in June, along with a small stint linking arms with the NLD security team attempting crowd control, had left my shirt drenched with sweat. Suu Kyi, in an immaculate purple dress, the famous flowers in her hair, gave a reassuring look and assured me it was quite standard attire for this office. At that moment, I was reminded of the striking contrast between the image of the intelligent, passionate and courageous woman sitting opposite me, and the hyper-masculine, unimaginative and oppressive military machine that is bent on silencing her.
Our conversation quickly turns to the political situation as Suu Kyi sees it in her 66th year, and the strange new atmosphere the NLD finds itself in following last year’s elections and her subsequent release. She begins by telling me, 'if there is one message I would like those outside Burma to hear, it is to remain alert'. She brings up the fighting that broke out just a few days before our meeting between government forces and Kachin rebels - one of many minority ethnic groups ruthlessly exploited by the regime: ‘[The fighting] is the proof we have all been expecting, that the newly formed civilian government is neither willing nor able to work towards any form of national reconciliation. A government must firstly protect its citizens, and it is clear that this one doesn’t seem to be prepared to carry out this duty".
Elaborating her point further, Suu Kyi explains, "By ‘alert’, what I mean is that it is more important than ever to hold this regime to account and not to be fooled by its new guise." Acknowledging that her release is a part of this, she repeats the message given by her colleagues earlier in the day, that by releasing her, relaxing its treatment of the NLD supporters and its leadership, and by orchestrating the charade of an utterly flawed election, the regime hopes to buy enough favor from the international community to encourage further foreign investment in the country. She adds that nobody quite knows what to expect from the regime in response to her upcoming tour of the country, and in the future.
"The regime claims it acts against us in the name of stability.” She continues, pointing in the direction of the crowd gathered outside, "[however] we have never in 20 years caused any trouble. [The Regime] claims it acts in the name of stability, but it gets to define what stability and instability is. The trouble only takes place when they show up." We half-joke that it is the ludicrous manipulation of words like 'stability' that seem often to give authoritarian regimes the world over their own sense of vindication. I mention that when signing a visa application form to enter Myanmar, one also agrees not to 'interfere' in the internal politics of Myanmar. 'Yes!' Suu Kyi laughs, 'what is the definition of interfere?'; 'perhaps attending your birthday party might qualify' I suggest.
This issue leads onto the subject of Suu Kyi's interpretation of events currently taking place in the Middle East. Her response to comparisons with the Burma situation is emphatic; 'I don't think we can expect the so-called 'Arab Spring' to come to Burma'. While she believes these events are inspiring to many with access to outside information, the reality in Burma is that the majority of people are kept painfully ignorant about the outside world, despite the government’s efforts at censorship appearing clumsy and crude to visitors to the country.
Moreover for Suu Kyi, Burmese not only lack of technology infrastructure, and an understanding of international issues, but remain profoundly frightened by their leaders. ”The people know for sure that their government will fire on them if they take to the streets like in the Middle East. Burma is still governed very much by fear."
My time with Suu Kyi is not long; on this day as any other she has much to do and many people to see. I offer my gratitude in what feeble Burmese I know and after a small informal exchange I am ushered out by senior party members into the dank and derelict foyer where others wait to meet with the Lady of Yangon.
Before heading outside to negotiate the deluge of supporters still gathered below Suu Kyi’s office, I copy the photos and notes taken throughout the day onto several drives as a precaution against potential confiscation. My NLD pin and various badges collected throughout the day, I keep on.
The passion, joy and enthusiasm of the crowd that greets me finally as I quit the building is palpable, and, like Orwell in a different time and context, I reflect once again on the absurdity of such an affecting country of enormous antiquity and vast mineral wealth enduring the humiliation and degradation of a cruel and despotic gang of thugs. But on this day, those assembled in the shadow of the Schwedagon Pagoda – intensely effulgent in the late afternoon sun – experienced a small glimpse of a life free from fear; it seems more urgent than ever that the world take notice of Burma, and to the message of its most famous daughter.