The day before I left Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi had been released only two days before from nearly fifteen years of imprisonment. I had deliberately avoided the scenes of jubilation and fervor that had greeted her at the gates of her house on University Avenue on November 13th, and again during her address at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon, just near the Shwedagon Pagoda, on the following day. The few dozen international media who had until then perhaps ambiguously maintained cover as tourists, would be exposed for their real identity on Myanmar TV and by government scrutiny alike. (It is always easy to spot a journalist: they wear baseball caps, camo gear and sometimes weather-inappropriate clothing – one young woman I saw dressed entirely in black and with a woolen cardigan and vast shading black hat that might have suited the onset of a Parisian winter.)
I was only an occasional journalist, but I felt it behooved me to visit the NLD office myself, as it was where my real political sympathies lay during those heady and exhilarating days of ‘the Lady’s’ release – only a week ago yet somehow surmounting an age of political and human oppression, itself resisted in the iconic image of ASSK herself – noble, feminine, infinitely fragile yet strong at once. I wanted to see her in person at least once – as a living figure who has inspired me perhaps more than any in the current time of world upheaval and crisis.
I waited along with a couple hundred others in the crowd outside the gates, largely made up of Burmese sympathizers but also a handful of Westerners – journalists, curious tourists, passersby with perhaps only a passing interest. I was soon absorbed by a group of Burmese women into their entourage at the threshold of the office entrance, offered food and iced drink in celebration of U Tin U’s wedding anniversary being held that day. The NLD was also meeting in a session that ASSK herself was addressing, and the media hoped for access to this. But as an hour, then two, passed in the sweltering heat, it seemed unlikely any would be allowed to enter that day. We all stood and grinned and frowned and perhaps at certain points wondered what we were doing there. I left my camera in my bag, unconcerned to maintain any pretensions to touristhood at this late stage of my visit. I could also see likely government agents on the other side of the main road with cameras and videos documenting as much of the crowd as they could. I stood discretely behind a wall, speaking only to Burmese and Hong Kong media reps nearby.
Then I was approached by a Burmese woman wearing dull black clothing who claimed, in very broken English, some affiliation with a women’s association. She seemed a part of the NLD members who dominated the group, organized people and sent food around to people from the makeshift kitchen that had been set up just inside the wall. I was taken up by these NLD women also, offered small gifts of ASSK portraits, and generally cared-for. I felt privileged and unwarrantably well-treated. The woman who approached me was the most attentive of all.
She also wanted to know everything about me, and on my last day in Burma, after weeks of travelling all over the country, on the verge of seeing ASSK for the first time, I chose to let my guard down, trusted her and told her almost everything she wanted to know. This included wanting to know where I was staying in downtown Yangon. This seemed odd, and I dissimulated for awhile; she was so insistent that finally I caved in and told her this as well. I also presented her with the card of the Burmese exile organization I had been working for, both in Thailand and Burma – an enemy of the Myanmar military state, as I well knew, and a document I had kept well-hidden during my travels. But to this woman, who offered me food and generosity and the famed warmth of the Burmese people, I divulged almost everything.
She copied it all down, every last detail, with a barely-concealed alacrity I should have understood at once. Only one thing I withheld – information that here too I can only allude to. She now knew my affiliation with the exile organization, with Western Burma-democracy activists, my public-domain name under which I’ve had articles condemning the regime published, and the street and name of my Yangon hotel. Then she disappeared, presumably to aid others. I assumed I would see her afterwards – she spoke of introducing me to U Tin U and other members of the NLD.
We waited for what seemed another hour or two, legs growing numb and stiff. I was closer to the entry-door now, a privileged position, in the full rays of the fierce Yangon afternoon sun. Suddenly the crowd stilled and hushed and Aung San Suu Kyi was there, directly in front of me, I hadn’t even noticed her approach, speaking to an aged Burmese man standing right in front of me who was imploring her in distressed tones. She humored him, lightly teasing him for his near-tearful state, as if encouraging him to perseverance and strength. Despite her 65 years, Daw Suu was herself much as I had seen in photos, TV and internet footage over many years – compassionately gazing at the man with remarkable, luminous, curved brown eyes, her unlined face quietly radiant with a depth of calm seeing and also sorrow for the man when he seemed to morally collapse in front of her. I couldn’t understand their Burmese, but I understood the human context, and the effort it took the old man to tell his story, the concern Daw Suu Kyi herself felt to prolong her stop with him and talk with him at greater length, and with the Burmese people on both sides of him.
Daw Suu Kyi stood less than a metre from me, I had my camera in my pocket but its battery had just run out of power, and even if it hadn’t I would be unlikely to attempt a photo. I felt I was in the company of a rare, and wholly ordinary, human solidarity that took in epochs and unseen lifetimes of struggle and effort – not merely during ASSK’s own lifetime, but that of her famous father General Aung San, himself killed by his fellow countrymen after he moved mountains to secure the freedom of Burma from centuries of British domination. And now the story was still in train, the endless human karmic trail of retribution and false power-mongering, of the obtuse and amoral domination of the freedom of a people through a force that had no obvious cause or sense outside of sheer human greed for power and wealth. I had the small gift of a keyring with a double portrait of ASSK and her father on either side, tight in my hand. I felt no need to try to speak with the Lady as she spoke her last words with the old man, though everyone seemed to be importuning her.
Soon she was gone, though her image was distilled, acutely, in my mind. I heard her move on to the sounds of great cheers and well-wishing; I joined in their celebration of her long sacrifice, and that of all the unspoken others’, and raised my fist with them. I didn’t care who was in the crowd, photographing all of us there. I didn’t care that all during her stop to speak with the old man I had been in the full frame, under the lens of dozens of cameras, the booms of microphones. I didn’t care about the ominous and obscure men frowning on the other side of the road, obvious regime stooges with their pens in white shirt pockets, little tote bags and low-slung caps. Hard eyes largely hidden behind tinted glasses. I just didn’t care about them.
Of the woman I’d met not long before, though, I should have. She disappeared during this, and afterwards, when I went inside to speak briefly with U Win Tin about his work on behalf of political prisoners. I saw her again only afterwards when I went outside to see if I could spot her – still assuming she was an NLD member. I saw her distractedly crossing the main road, brows creased, and when I spoke to her again she seemed shifty and uncertain and copied out again her address on a tiny piece of paper, in full view of the men still lingering on the other side of the road. I soon got away from her, and caught a sluggish taxi back to the downtown area. (It seemed to take an aeon just to make a turn, and even stalled a little in front of the NLD office as if the car had engine trouble. I was annoyed to be kept there, and hoped it was only a paranoia that was beginning, for better or for worse, to become second nature.)
That night back at my hotel, relaxing with a good Burmese cheroot on my hotel balcony, government security came to the hotel to question its proprietor about me at length: where I had been, what I had done, what I had said. They called twice more afterwards on the phone to confirm more information. I retreated to the hotel toilet to burn all the paper evidence I still had in my possession. The next day a local, smaller-fry police inspector also paid a visit. That night and the next day it became abundantly clear I was being followed. Almost everywhere I went I noticed men eyeing me for too long a moment, giving me a wry, knowing smile, waiting for sometimes an hour outside restaurants and internet cafes. Some approached me when I sat with young Burmese friends and joined us as if in friendship, and eyed as if memorising the (decoy) e-mail addresses I’d written out for my friends. In the morning my e-mail access was repeatedly blocked and shutdown, while others around me enjoyed the new-found online freedom following the week or so of shutdown during the election.
That night, the day following my visit to the office of the NLD, I caught a broken-down old jalopy in the rain to the airport, crunching along with an engine that threatened to collapse every minute. I carried with me a suitcase not belonging to me, also, and though I was questioned at immigration, a special notice with my name on a pinned-up piece of paper by their computer screens, it was perhaps pure chance they had not looked inside the case when I checked my baggage in just beforehand. The young women at immigration merely laughed grimly and looked at me as at some foreign absconder when I thanked them in Burmese.
I was out of their hands now. I was able to leave, with my Western passport. But now I have some sense of how it must feel for those others who have no choice but to stay in Burma, with their freedom effectively locked up in the prison of an unforgiving – and unforgivable – total state control.
Bangkok, mid-November, 2010
Copyright © 2010 Martin Kovan
(Linked to New Mandala: new perspectives on mainland South East Asia: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/12/08/surveillance-in-burma/; also http://www.tourismtransparency.org/news-and-reports/lady%E2%80%A6and-black-shadow-behind-her)