Most visitors to Burma (also known as Myanmar) these days, when the country is opening up, limit their trips to Yangon, better known in better times as Rangoon. They rarely make the five-hour trip to Naypyidaw, the site upcountry to which the ruling military regime has transferred the capital.
As a parliamentary delegation from different Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) governments seeking to make contact with opposition legislators, we embark on the road trip to the Burmese generals’ version of Brasilia, not really knowing what we’ll find at the end of the 230-mile journey.
Before we leave Yangon, however, we meet with members of Generation 88, people now in their forties who were leaders of the student uprising of 1988. Our meeting takes place against the background of fast-moving developments in Burmese politics: the triumphant European tour of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, universally referred to as Daw Suu or “the Lady”; the release of two dozen more political prisoners; and the opening session of Parliament on July 4. There is a widespread sense that the country is undergoing momentous change.
Having spent a large part of the last 20 years in jail, the Generation 88 leaders are hardened activists who know the mentality of the military regime to the core. So it is a bit of a surprise when one of them, Ko Ko Gyi, says that the country’s political opening is “irreversible.” “Of course,” he clarifies, “there might be setbacks, but the military knows it is in their interest, broadly, to reform. They know they can’t go on like this.”
How do they plan to engage with the current reform process? “We will mobilize different sectors around their legitimate demands such as wages,” says Ko Ko Gyi, “but we also want to make sure that things are resolved within the framework of the current reform process.” And yes, they plan to constitute themselves as a party and field candidates in the parliamentary elections of 2015.
The Military’s Shangri-la
The meeting with Generation 88 provides much food for reflection during the trip to Naypyidaw. Some of us had expected architecture and planning in the fascist style, but what we found bordered on the surreal: surreal fascism.
The place is linked by concrete roads that can be as wide as 18 lanes. The road leading to the Parliament building, for instance, is wide enough for the latest jumbo jet to land on.
A great deal of empty space separates imposing government buildings, upscale shopping malls, and pricey resort hotels said to be run by cronies of the top generals. These first-world structures coexist with miserable settlements of the poor found near construction sites, where they provide the workforce for ongoing projects.
Perhaps the most imposing structure is the Uppatasanti Buddhist pagoda, which is one of the tallest and largest structures of its kind in the world. The pagoda has a spire coated with 32 tons of gold, while its interior, which is patterned after Istanbul’s famous blue mosque, boasts pillars constructed out of jade.
All in all, Naypyidaw is, as one member of our delegation notes wryly, “a bizarre display of military intelligence.”
That this country is still far from being a democracy is something we are reminded of when soldiers barred us from visiting the parliamentary building, and no amount of arguing that we are a fraternal parliamentary delegation can persuade them to let us through.
We are not stopped, however, when we visit the residential quarters of the opposition members of Parliament, which they occupy during the seven months that the body is in session. These are small one-room habitations that share communal toilets.
The freshly laid barbed wire on top of the walls surrounding the compound gives the overall impression, as one member of our delegation remarks, of a “concentration camp.” Adds another, “Maybe the point is to discourage the opposition people from running for office.”
Since we cannot go to the Parliament, MPs belonging to parties representing ethnic minorities and the National League for Democracy (NLD) join us in meetings at a restaurant in one of the capital’s two malls. The session with the MPs representing the ethnic minorities reveals an upbeat mood, with one MP from Rakhain State telling us, “It takes some time before you can get pure water from a well.”
The MPs assure us that they belong to the opposition, though one of them says that only 70 percent of them can be counted on to be with the opposition, the rest being influenced by the military.
How to work with the ethnic minority parties and organizations will be one of the biggest challenges confronting the NLD. Burma has about 135 different ethnic groups scattered in seven states and seven regions, some of them with armed groups that have been battling the military regime for decades.
Will Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD succeed in promoting by peaceful means a comprehensive agreement that has eluded the military? The Kachins have been dissatisfied with her failure to condemn the military’s recent offensive against them.
Even more criticism has greeted her statement during her European tour that she was unsure whether the Muslim Rohingyas, who were victims of ethnic clashes in the state of Rakhine, were actually Burmese nationals.
Clearly, Daw Suu will have to tread carefully here, reassuring the country’s minorities that she’s on their side while not giving the military the opportunity to paint her as endangering national unity.
Continued on the next page: NLD and the Reform Process