These days, Myanmar’s fearsome generals have largely returned to barracks or are wearing longyis. During a five-day maiden visit this month, I witnessed a country in the middle of a transformation as momentous as the post-apartheid transition in South Africa.
The trip began in Yangon with a tour of Shwedagon, the towering Buddhist pagoda, its golden stupa gleaming against the night sky. Then to a roof terrace dinner party downtown. Everyone spoke English, disco music thumped in the background. We could have been in London or New York.
Western illusions exploded with the arrival of the menu: Yangon chicken curry, chargrilled fish, sheep brains and “fighting balls” (goat testicles). This may well have been an insider’s joke by our host, an affluent youngish Burmese market research executive named U Moe Kyaw. Actually, he prefers to be called Peter Thein, having grown up in London with a thick Cockney accent still miraculously intact.
Peter is part of the Burmese diaspora who trickled back to the country from the early 1990s, sensing that the military dictatorship’s days were numbered. They had to wait many more years but their patience has now been rewarded with the rapid opening of the country. Press censorship has been lifted; hundreds of political prisoners have been released. But Myanmar’s challenges remain daunting. Ethnic and religious tensions are still tearing apart local communities and poverty is deep-rooted – one-third of the population lives on a dollar a day. Nevertheless, the sense of optimism around our dining table was palpable.
Why did the generals opt for reform? In three words: fear, shame and pride. Fear that backward Myanmar was becoming a client state of China. Shame that Myanmar was being treated like a pariah, as reviled as North Korea or Zimbabwe. Pride in Myanmar’s glorious imperial past and rich cultural heritage – enough to earn the country a seat at the top table in southeast Asia.
We saw that proud tradition in Bagan, the ancient capital southwest of Mandalay and once home to more than 10,000 temples, mostly built in the 11th and 12th centuries. A guide took us to several stunning edifices on Bagan’s dusty plain. My favourite: Ananda Pahto, with its Karmic influence from India and the stern Buddha metamorphosing, thanks to a trick of light, into a smiling Buddha at a distance. Memo to editor: beware first impressions.
Next day we hired a driver to take us 230km southeast to the capital Naypyidaw, via a diversion to the town of Meiktila, where 50 Muslims were killed and 1,300 homes and shops ransacked in religious violence just days before. Meiktila was tense but quiet. Soldiers patrolled the streets. A local MP took us to the spot where he said he had watched a Buddhist mob beat and burn at least 15 children to death as the police stood by. A lone sandal lay on the ashes.
To arrive in Naypyidaw is to suffer acute culture shock. There is the immediate sensation of shifting forward 10 centuries to the city’s 20-lane highways, where little is visible beyond the odd car or sentry in olive green uniform wilting in 40-degree heat. Then there is the architecture, a combination of Sun King grandeur and Legoland. The Burmese parliament alone is a 31-building complex (the number is said to represent the 31 planes of existence in Buddhist cosmology) surrounded by a giant moat, apparently designed to deter would-be invaders.
Our interview with President Thein Sein took place in a palatial residence inherited from his predecessor, General Than Shwe. We ascended to the first floor via an elevator marked VIP, to be greeted by five aides, each of whom offered me a military-style salute (a first in 35 years of journalism).
The president, a mild-mannered man in dotted silk longyi and black sandals, promised to accelerate political and economic reform. He also had a firm message. It was time for the west permanently to lift sanctions in recognition that the military has made a clean break with the past.
I am inclined to agree. Sanctions have hurt ordinary people. They have also created a class of crony businessmen who, as agents of the government, have made millions circumventing the sanctions. The human rights lobby has made a living vilifying Myanmar. It has not caught up with the speed of change on the ground.
One reason is the west’s image of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition MP and Nobel Peace laureate.
Foreign visitors, male and female, swoon in the fragrant, imperious presence of Ms Suu Kyi, known simply as The Lady. She spent nearly 15 years under house arrest but is now playing an active political role, albeit largely behind the scenes. This involves co-operating with her former captors, the generals. Western pundits sometimes talk as if she is suffering from Stockholm syndrome. The reality is that she is preparing for power ahead of national elections in 2015. One top western diplomat said she was hell-bent on becoming president (though that will require changing the constitution, which bars people who married foreigners from holding the highest office).
Our final evening included one more surreal experience: Naypyidaw International airport, a vast terminal built by the Chinese. Fewer than six passengers were visible at any one time. TV screens broadcast Spurs v Swansea in the English Premier League (I caught that Gareth Bale goal!). We flew out as CIPs (“commercially important passengers”) in a propeller aircraft with no air conditioning, accompanied by a boisterous delegation of farm lobbyists.
We touch down in Yangon – and straight to dinner hosted by Andreas List, the EU representative, at his modest private residence.
The guest list was stellar: leading Burmese intellectuals and activists, Robert Cooper, the British/EU diplomat, and George Soros, philanthro-capitalist, informal adviser to The Lady and member of a consortium bidding for a Burmese telecoms licence. All are agreed: this is the moment that will determine whether the country will become a sham democracy or a beacon in the region. I reflect that I have never met so many people who have spent so many years in prison. For their sake alone, I hope Myanmar makes it.
Lionel Barber is editor of the FT