It was March, in lower Burma, when the hot season only started; we came here to see Aung San Suu Kyi.
Downtown streets in Yangon reflected sharp white lights; dry dirt flew in the air, more than 20-meter-high coconuts palms that were standing along the streets bore bunches of sweet juicy fruits. We were sitting in a rare AC-equipped ice-cream shop watching women in dress and men in longyi (looks like dress) walking in shadow, monks in wine robe with opened umbrellas in hand passing by. Never an elephant ran into me in Yangon like George Orwell’s works. But I was told that two white elephants were being raised in Naypyidaw in central Burma, 5-hour coach from here. I noticed almost buses and taxis in this city didn’t have air conditioners. Those new Chery QQ taxis imported from China were AC-equipped, but their drivers wouldn’t turn them on. Sitting in these taxis for 20 minutes under the scorching sun, our butts would have been burned through. I was also disturbed about my safety when my life was at the hand of these second-hand-Toyota taxi drivers, who steer wheels on the right, and they should run on the right lane. When these right-wheeled cars were turning left, drivers were stretching out necks hard to look at left side.
There is an old Chinese story in Three Kingdoms that Liu Bei dropped by Zhuge Liang’s house three times to invite him and at the last time Zhuge agreed to be Liu’s military advisor; for us, we dropped by Daw Suu’s house three times, too. Interviews with her can be impossible, even if we made an appointment; since we were told by NLD’s Communication Officer, only media interviews can be entertained; her interview schedule was completely full all over March. A Swedish journalist told me that it took her nearly one month to wait for her turn. The Communication Officer held out the campaign schedule of the lady saying, “ 5th March Naypyidaw, 6th March Mandalay, 7th March Sagaing, 8th March Lashio…” “This is not fixed; transport is very bad in Burma, her schedule can be changed if needed.” He added, and an overnight coach to Naypyidaw might catch up with her public speech at 6 am next day, but no tickets could be spared for us, as we have asked all bus companies in Yangon. Uncertainties existed that Burmese still inform each other about her campaign by word of mouth.
Burma’s lousy inter-city transportation hindered our last effort to catch up to her. Only one expressway linked upper and lower Burma shuttling between Yangon and Mandalay, and passed through the new capital. It was estimated nine hours would take us from Yangon heading north to Naypyidaw, by train. None of ticket conductors at Yangon railway station could guarantee us to catch her speech in time. The estimatedly 9-hour train meant broken wooden benches, hot air, toilet smells spread, shaking up and down, swinging left to right coaches when it was speeding up. Inside big cities, like Yangon, Mandalay, buses only shuttled in downtown whereas bus stops were hard to find along streets, bus drivers can stop to any waving. Obsolete Japanese buses with Japanese words on the body were the most common type; pickup trucks with wooden bench on its deck, iron shelter on its back top, were good alternatives for Burmese. When benches were full, extra passengers clung to the iron shelter. We never dared take one of them.
Staying in Yangon waiting for her to return was the only choice that we had. The history of Yangon is displayed in its architectures. The former capital’s urban structure radiated from Sule Paya to the south delta in the British colonial period. Pure white City Hall, red yellow High Court, white blue Inland Water Transport, deep crimson General Post Office, grass green Customs Head Office popped up in the downtown Yangon. Each of them looked like a mini “Big Ben” in various colors, with a high tower on one end, either a western watch was embedded in it, or a Burmese national flag was plugged in its top. After the junta had moved its capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw, Customs Head Office and High Court were discarded. Empty buildings gave out a spooky sense; no one took care of their paint-flaked walls. Walkways along the buildings have been turned into markets, where vendors were selling pineapples, water melons and Burmese salads. Small stalls with a desk holding two or three telephones and a woman collecting fees, usually were beside telecom poles caught my attention, like pickup trucks, these telephone stalls gave Burmese a means to get in touch with others, in this poorly-telecommunicated country.
Religions in Burma are mirrors of its people. We met the Sule Paya at the downtown center that connected two main roads; around it there was a religious “Disneyland park". A Chinese Christian Baptist church, a Jewish Moseah Yeshua Synagogue, an Islamic mosque, and a small residence area called “Little India” spattered all around the crossroad. About 90% Burmese believe in Buddhism that was delivered from Sri Lanka more than two thousand years ago. From 8 o’clock in the morning every day, tall, short, young, old monks in their deep wine robe, holding alms bowls, started to beg alms along streets. Burmese monks are bald head and feet as usual, their right shoulders were tangled with wine ropes while left ones were naked. Some of them were in a queue, some begged individually; when monks were walking in a queue, two samaneras in white robe beat brass gong in front of the queue, to tell alms givers that they are arriving. Giver would hold plates or boxes of rice, food (unnecessarily vegetables) at their house gate waiting for monks.
Pagodas or Paya in Burmese, and monasteries beside payas are the hubs of Burmese religion, culture and education. Shwedagon Paya is the highest pagoda in Yangon. It is so high that we can see it at any point in northern Yangon where no tall buildings stood. Bare feet are a must for everyone who wants enter the paya. The golden pagoda housed eight strands of hair of Gautama Buddha, which attracts foreign tourists and millions of pilgrims. It also offered religious enlightenment to Burmese boys, most of whom must become a monk in their childhood. Buddhism’s practice is to bear suffering and violence; good delivers good, evil incurs evil. That’s how Burmese were taught since their childhood. I raised my head to stare at the shining stupa in sunlight, dizziness quickly seized me.
A monk, who was sitting down in front of a white niche for a statue of the Buddha, suddenly spoke, “AHAIYO!”
I didn’t get it.
He asked, “Japanese?”
“No, we are from China.” Seriously, I got used to being recognized as Japanese in Burma.
The monk wanted to talk with us. He still sat on the floor, and started to introduce us about this golden pagoda, its height, its origins, its structure, its significance… on and on. In Burma, not many monks can speak English as well as him. He was Burmese, looked young, strong and dark skinned. The word “monk” in Burmese means teacher, master, as Gautama Buddha once said he was not God, he was just a teacher. This monk was teaching children English and Pali in his monastery nearby the pagoda. Unlike Thailand which translated Buddhist Scripture into Thai, Burma kept using Pali scripture imported from Sir Lanka, instead of Burmese translation. His monastery started morning lessons at 7 am every day. He went out to beg alms from 3 pm once in a day. Monks usually eat one meal a day in the hot season.
“How long have you been a monk?”
“I have been a monk for 7 years; I am 23 years old now. I was born in a small village between Mandalay and Bagan. I came to Yangon just a few years ago.”
Monks were cracked down in the Saffron Revolution five years ago; participants were cleaned out of monasteries, organisers were detained in jail. Monks were gathering at Shwedagon Pagoda, sitting down on the floor like this young monk, protested peacefully for months. When Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, Burma seemed to turn to democracy. Facebook, Youtube etc. websites which can’t be accessed in mainland China are free to browse in Burma; News coverage about NLD and Daw Suu surged since then; book stalls in Yangon were selling pirate copies of Suu’s books; Burmese can buy her portrait to put up in their houses, or in their cars. Bizarrely, contrary to these changes, I didn’t see any campaign posters of NLD on Yangon’s streets, or any ads in Burma’s TVs. I also heard that NLD’s election campaigning was hindered in some way. It Buddhist scriptures, Gautama Buddha achieved the Great awakening after 49-day hunger strike and meditation, when some of his disciples stopped following him. Can Aung San Suu Kyi bring great changes to Burma, after 15-year house arrest and loneliness?
She’s back, unexpectedly, before her scheduled date. I kept disturbing the Communication officer and dig out this surprise. A meeting will be held at 10 am 8 March, the last day when we were in Yangon. Aung Sang Suu Kyi will meet NLD’s 47 candidates for by-elections at NLD Yangon main office. We waited at the main gate of NLD, where around 20 men wearing white shirts, longyis stood in two queues as temporary securities. Daw Suu was not here. Tourists, journalists, her fans were lingering in the main office. This 3-storey white office building on Shwegodine Road was modified from an ordinary house. On the top of its roof a NLD’s red party flag with a fighting peacock stood. The yard in front of the building was very small, a red iron main gate blocked visitors when the office was on leave. Next to the main office, one side is pink furniture shop; the other is a yellow residential house, whose owner, an old lady was selling NLD’s party badges, General Aung San, Daw Suu’s pamphlets, DVDs to foreign tourists. When we came here again on 7th, she told us with three easy English words “Daw Suu, home” that no one was working on a full moon day.
Daw Suu’s house is at No. 54, University Avenue; my Lonely Planet marks it on the map and puts a specific address beside the map. We got there again directly from the main office. Her house is surrounded by high white walls with iron grills on top. The walls are too high to let us have a look to penetrate her the yard standing at a high point. The whole yard leans on Inya Lake in the north; US Embassy is its neighbor about 200 meters away; however, No.1 University Avenue is Suu’s arch enemy, the isolationist General Ne Win’s house. No one could get close to her house or the avenue before 2010. Now foreign tourists like to linger around it, take pictures of it, or stand on a little mound opposite to the house, try to find out what’s inside. Two sides of the grey main gate were pasted with NLD party flags; above the gate Slogans in Burmese and a big picture of General Aung Sang were hung over. We took a taxi, rushed here in a craze to see Daw Suu on the very first day when we arrived at Yangon. Taxis driver guaranteed it’s no longer dangerous to see her, or her house, but he never mentioned seeing her was not an easy piece. “Appointment first, please!” we were told by her janitor as always.
Aung San Suu Kyi is truly the leader of NLD. Securities stood tightly, hand in hand. Not long, Daw Suu arrived in a pale yellow Toyota from the 1990s. Car windows were closed, I guessed car was old but its AC was still functioning. Daw Suu was still that Daw Suu, violet purple blouse, deep purple dress with flowers embroidered on them, typical hair bun with a string of white orchids on it. She was thin and about 1.60 meter tall; her hair was still seemingly dark black; but wrinkles on her face and neck can tell her age. After 15-year home arrest, the death of her husband and close friends, separation from her sons, she still kept her composure. She was one of 48 candidates competing for the by-elections. Other 47 candidates were mainly men. Their apparels were quite universal, deep-colored longyis and white short-sleeved shirts on top. This is also Burmese intellectuals, white collars’ official outfits. NLD’s founding members joined in the meeting. U Win Tin, U Tin Oo, U Lwin, U Aung Shwe attended the meeting and gave speeches. The meeting was held at the back of main room on the first floor; NLD’s staffs brought AC fans to cool down the room; candidates were sitting in rows of chairs. Near the gate, other staffs were preparing grapes, tea, Burmese desserts for participants after the meeting. Journalists, photographers were shooting, recording, taking notes, interviewing; tourists were buying NLD souvenirs; a Japanese women and her young daughter were squeezing to the front of the crowd to take photos of their idol.
Burmese are lucky to have Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma’s government is still presided by a general; it’s said to have cost about 4 billion dollars to move the capital to Naypyidaw; whereas 32.7% Burmese are living under the poverty line; lines of slums that don’t have clean toilets and purified drinking water spread along its railway; beggars, nuns were seen begging money on street; electricity is not available 24/7, blackout happened at times. Capital movement increased burdens on Burmese economy since it was isolated and sanctioned for decades. The junta did everything opposite to the Buddhism’s creeds that tell people do good things and don’t do evil. Burmese love Aung San Suu Kyi and her father. Taxis drivers cling Daw Suu’s and her father’s photos in their cars; vendors said they would vote for NLD’s candidates; Burmese would smile at me seeing my T-shirt with Aung San Suu Kyi’s photo on it. They keep faith with NLD to change the country.
The meeting didn’t last long. Daw Suu spoke in a soft but forceful tone. I can hardly understand her words in Burmese. Sometimes, her “Bing bing bang bang” delightful jumping tone in Burmese teased us; sometimes, she made jokes that caused laughter among the candidates. Most of the time, candidates were taking notes when she was speaking, answering questions. We asked for short interview, but no time was left for media, tourists or us. Daw Suu took her Toyota heading home. Aung San Suu Kyi passed me by, stood in front of me from 10 meters away, spoke for a half hour in her soft, forceful, delightful tone, passed me by again closely, and gave her signature on my book, but I never got one minute to talk to her face-to-face.
There is an old saying in Chinese “Three and out”; baseball fans believe the rule “three strikes”. We were rushing to her house the third and last time. If no entry still, we quit. Packed up our baggage, held her book “Letters from Burma”, we took taxis to her house again. No entry again! I passed the book to her janitor and asked him to get her signature. And then we were sitting on a big stone on the grass, looking at various cars to-and-fro, a round after a round of tourists dropping by, skinny wild dogs back and forth, a postman delivering mails and newspaper. After an hour, the janitor got out of the gate and gave back my book, I turned to its second page,
“Mr. & Mrs. Peng,
With All Good Wishes,
Aung San Suu Kyi
8 March 2012”
We finally saw Aung San Suu Kyi in this way.