A nation in a chrysalis

Paranoia surrounding security isn’t palpable in Yangon. Passing the immigration counter at Yangon international airport, and with it the completely unfounded fear of being deported on arrival, I reach the Telenor counter for a SIM card. I am ready with my photo and ID-proof documents, but all that the teenaged boy at the counter takes is 15,000 kyats, my phone to set up the new connection, and 5 minutes: he is deft at this. No paperwork at all and I have a new number and 3G access to the world once again. Surprised and amused, I think of the cumbersomeness of the same task back home.

I also wonder about this apparent casualness surrounding security. What if a dozen untraceable mobile connections are linked to a coordinated security breach? Are the stakes not high enough yet for a security incident to be important? Or is it that people’s lives — ‘human security’ in academic-speak — still matter little in a country that is taking only baby steps to democracy?

This last question stayed with me as I tried to understand relations between India and Myanmar. While focusing on the bilateral picture, I nevertheless couldn’t resist being drawn to the unfolding story of Myanmar’s profound political transition: a military-ruled, closed, and impoverished nation galloping towards a civilian-governed, open society. And it might, with correct, coordinated steps and domestic and international luck, regain its prosperity. Its challenges are huge: democratic political culture is still in its infancy; civil society organisations are overworked and understaffed; core institutions of civil government are yet to come into their own; and great powers have made the country their playground. But there are signs of hope too.

To be sure, the city that hosted the country’s seat of government until a decade ago does not provide a window to every element of Myanmarese democratisation. But Yangon is the most open and resourceful of the country’s three major cities if you want to come even close to feeling the country’s political pulse. The sprawling new capital Nay Pyi Taw remains a maze to the outsider, and Mandalay, under the steady influence of Chinese money and populace, has a different story to tell.

Change in the air

They are ready for the landmark November elections and campaigning seems to be liberating Yangon’s political air, stifled since 2007 when the last big protests, led by Buddhist monks, against military rule broke out. The city has become gradually free since the military-backed civilian government took over. But you know how cities are. They need a big event to rediscover the life within. And I sense that these elections will be that era-defining event.

Drive across the city and the National League for Democracy (NLD) campaign offices buzzing with people are never far away at any point. It is Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party. The red ‘fighting peacock’ flags of the party jut out from balconies of apartments in the downtown area. Cabs flying the same red flag are common on the streets. You do see a few campaign vehicles of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military’s political front, every now and then. But there is no mistaking the NLD’s stronger presence in the city. I look for an NLD political event to attend and observe. But the star campaigner is away.

On an overcast afternoon, I visit the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s unassuming tomb, after which I walk towards the downtown area. Soon, I hit the arterial Bogyoke Aung San Road, named after Daw Suu Kyi’s father. It has a few NLD campaign stalls. At one of them stands an NLD campaigner, against the backdrop of a poster featuring the party’s local panel. I pause to see the candidates’ faces and as I move on, my eyes meet her stoic face. I nod gently and smile to convey my solidarity. My reward, a tiny NLD flag.

At Mr. Win Maung’s Ar. Yone Thit bookshop opposite the old Scott Market and next to Chuliya Mosque, I pick up a copy of James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. At the payment counter, Mrs. Maung shows me her sister’s photograph with Daw Suu Kyi that is hanging on the wall. ‘NLD win November elections?’ I ask. The couple smiles wholesomely and I am not sure if they understand me. I later discover that the book is an authentic bootleg copy. This should please Professor Scott, a legend for his scepticism of the attempts of the state and civilisation to tame human communities, I tell myself.

A family wearing ‘Mother Suu’ t-shirts walks into Titu’s Banana Leaf restaurant where I am having south Indian fare to the tune of peppy Bollywood numbers. Can’t resist acknowledging one among them with a smile. I trace an imaginary line across the front of my own shirt, gesturing to the words ‘Mother Suu’ printed on his, and then give him a subtle thumbs-up. Good democratic karma.

In this city, people are willing to speak freely of politics, and of the generals too. But few will go on record. ‘Until a few years ago, I could not have even met you without risk, so there is a real change. But we need to be careful,’ an academic told me. You sense caution, optimism, and a hint of residual anxiety. ‘Freedom from fear’ is a key NLD slogan; it takes after a famous Daw Suu Kyi speech. You sense that the election will be a gestalt shift in the city’s political consciousness, that there will be more courage, more openness in Yangon’s streets. But they may be not be as expressive as the Indian multitude. ‘Our people will remain dignified in protests and celebrations alike,’ an old India hand told me when I asked him to compare the two political cultures.

Mother Suu, the politician

There is no mistaking her tall stature. Daw Suu Kyi remains by far the most popular Myanmarese political leader for her countrypersons and for democracy and civil liberties supporters in India and around the world, including George Soros. But turn the pages of Yangon newspapers and you sense that she isn’t above criticism. Until a couple of years ago, criticising her was tantamount to strengthening the hands of the generals. But her so-called ‘authoritarian’ style of running the NLD and other reasons have drawn criticism from analysts and sections of the Myanmarese opposition alike. ‘She remains very popular among the masses, but among intellectuals her stature has come down,’ confirmed political analyst Myat Thu of the Yangon School of Political Science. The older generations remain unwavering in their support, but it is possible that the young and educated are less in awe of her, as I gathered from a chat with some students at Yangon University’s canteen.

Aung San Suu Kyi is surrounded by supporters as she reaches Kawhmu on her election campaign trail for the National League for Democracy on October 24. ~ Photo: Reuters
Why this loss in stature? ‘Because she is acting like a politician whose eyes are set only on winning the November 8 elections, and her tough decisions have disappointed her compatriots from the 8888 movement,’ two senior Yangon University academics answered. I am reassured to learn she is a politician after all because it means that she is leading well the gruelling and degrading political fight for a very moral end. Gandhian political means are a good start, but you need Machiavellian resources in your kitty to secure your ends even if you are Aung San Suu Kyi. ‘She can reclaim her stature, however. Our Constitution prevents her from becoming president. Like Sonia Gandhi, she should appoint U Myint [an influential economist and Chief Presidential Advisor to the current president] to that post and run the country like a statesperson,’ one of the academics suggested.

The taxi driver

The Yangonese pidgin English is free of grammatical irritants like prepositions, while verbs dominate. The Yangonese tongue pronounces the last consonant of any English word with great difficulty: thraffie (traffic), gavamen (government) and so on. Picking up the tongue is no hassle if you practice it with everyone you encounter. Mr. Kyi Thein (name changed), who drives me around in his ‘air con’ taxi, is my pidgin partner. He is 47, Yangon-born and -raised, and a political animal. The NLD flag atop his second-hand Japanese sedan grabs my attention at first. But it is his political sense that has me hooked. ‘Daw Suu Kyi very very goo’. ‘Solja gavamen afray ov people, democracy gavemen no afray.’ ‘Eneldee win many many seats this elections.’ We get along well after a couple of rides. He senses my interest in politics and points out the city’s political spots as we drive past them. I’m more interested in the narrative of his life but the pidgin facilitates only profound one-liners.

The public intellectual

Dr. Khin Zaw Win served 11 years as a political prisoner because the old military regime wanted to stop his human rights activism. Over the past decade, he has emerged as one of Myanmar’s best-known public intellectuals — he writes prolifically, speaks with great warmth and clarity, and has a mind that embraces a dozen-plus national issues. Most importantly, he raises concerns of the marginal people — workers, peasants, women and the ethnic groups. Predictably, he keeps a busy international schedule, but when in Yangon he is training candidates, advising political leaders or writing columns. I ask him to help me find a resting place for the imagination from where I could see the country as an insider would despite being an outsider myself. He laughs at my use of the phrase that belongs to V.S. Naipaul. ‘You use Naipaul, I wonder what you think of the neo-Curzonians,’ he adds. ‘We have a few of them in New Delhi,’ I answer, delighted that a meaty conversation lies ahead.

We speak of the ‘Faustian bargain’ between the current government and the nationalist monks, India and China, the Myanmarese philosophy of history, the ethnic situation and several other topics. Myanmar’s ever-widening public sphere is an open space for ideas but there aren’t enough idea peddlers. The absence of a strong domestic intelligentsia bothers him too. ‘I’m having to speak on many topics because there aren’t enough experts. I shouldn’t have to do this but our domestic intellectual base is very weak.’ He is concerned that people only superficially familiar with the country may be setting the policy agenda as more reforms kick in. His 65 years, including the decade lost to prison, are no bar to his enthusiasm and infectious sense of humour. His advice as we part: ‘You are young but don’t exert yourself too much.’

The shifty tatmadav

It has withdrawn from the public but not from politics, and the tatmadav (the term for Myanmar’s armed forces) is part of conversations and general consciousness. It is known for springing surprises — recent examples: moving to a new political capital, setting the country on the path to a ‘disciplined democracy’ — and projecting itself as the state’s sole guardian. Its generals have assured the public recently that there will be no coups and the armed forces will become more ‘professional’. There is considerable openness — media is free and access to the Internet nearly universal. So is the tatmadav rolling back for good? Nobody can tell, frankly. ‘Democratisation seems irreversible at the moment but you can’t rule out surprises,’ was one response. ‘All the generals aren’t bad; those backing the current government are convinced of democracy’s value and they will leave a lasting positive legacy,’ was another. ‘They are either hand in glove with the cronies or are cronies themselves. They have developed deep economic interests and will not relinquish key areas of government so soon,’ was a third. The old India hand smiled throughout our conversation on the subject. ‘Don’t expect them to go out of politics and governance anytime soon. They will stay in one form or another.’ With 25 percent seats in parliament and a well-funded political party of their own, this is certain. But for how long? A decade for some; until the year 2040 for others.

The India example

I suspect that India is a world and not a nation-state to most territorial Yangonites who don’t have Indian friends. They talked of India in terms vague and delightful. A cab driver wondered if there were ‘many many Buddhists’ in India. He wants to know if India is a land of Buddhists, I thought, and replied no. A frown grew on his face, (perhaps he thought I was not being truthful?) ‘India very very bee [big]?’, Mr. Thein, the taxi driver, had asked me earlier, and wondered if the western part of my country was very cold. I wish it was, I muttered, for I live in Gujarat — hot and blindingly bright nine months of the year. ‘No, it is the north that is high and cold. But Bollywood is in the west.’ The frown gives way to a smile because he knows Bollywood. Your country must be massive if they think of it in geographical terms, I thought, and commended Mr. Thein for his geographical curiosity.

In Maung Htin Aung’s A History of Burma and Thant Myint-U’s Where China Meets India, this ‘world’ character of India recurs. It comes across as a vastly sweeping expanse of numerous communities, an old civilisation that has nourished Southeast Asia’s main landmass that abuts China as well as its islands for centuries. Of course, I agree with the description, and have long thought that nation-state is an unimaginative label for India, one that compels us to think of it in impoverished terms. But India in Myanmar’s political discourse is also the name for an exemplar political experiment in democracy — in management of ethnic diversity and relations between the centre and the provinces — that the Myanmarese believe they can learn a lot from. But I also wish India was keenly following this country’s national peace process that has just taken off. It might hold a few lessons for our own reconciliation efforts, given the similarities. And it bears reminder that as we become increasingly apologetic about secularism in this country, Myanmar has decided to establish a secular state.

Source: The Hindu

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