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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 12, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 45

A Tale of Two Countries
Our correspondent goes on assignment to ASEAN's No. 1 pariah - and discovers that nothing is quite as it seems

Yvan Cohen for Asiaweek

I taxi from Yangon's Traders Hotel to the National League for Democracy headquarters to arrange an interview with Aung San Suu Kyi. It is the start of my fourth trip to Myanmar in 18 months. When I arrive, one of the party's daily meetings is under way and the crowded room is hot and sticky. Vice-chairman Tin Oo pumps my hand and gestures at all the supporters. "You can see we are still operating," he says. The interview tentatively arranged, I go outside and wait to be swooped on by military intelligence officers. I have a media visa so I am not overly concerned, although the stern questioning and repeated picture-taking is always unnerving. Nothing happens. I gaze around, somewhat surprised, then head down busy Shwe Gon Taing Road.

I stroll to the teashop across the road where the spooks station themselves. Still nobody approaches me. Over the next week, I return to the NLD offices, sometimes twice a day, and talk with party leaders and supporters flocking in and out. No official meddling. Later, I ask Yangon mayor, Col. Ko Lay, about the policy of allowing what is, in the regime's view, an opposition party to hold daily meetings (without a permit, it would be unheard of in Singapore, let alone Hanoi and Vientiane). "Oh, they can do that in the NLD headquarters," he says, blithely. "We don't bother them. They are a political party."

Myanmar: A Tale of Two Countries
Our correspondent goes on assignment to ASEAN's No. 1 pariah - and discovers that nothing is quite as it seems

Malaysia: The Leader in Waiting
Tengku Razaleigh could well be Mahathir Mohamad's heir apparent - if he can win his home state
• Claims, Counter-Claims: The new routine in Malaysian politics
• Meanwhile, at the Front: On the campaign trail in Kelantan
• ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Full Interview
'What Will Be Will Be' - That's Razaleigh's fatalistic take on becoming a future leader. Sure

Forum: Diplomatic License
An Asiaweek-PECC roundtable considers the regional impact of the East Timor situation

Indonesia: The Rise - and Rise - of Amien Rais
Is the MPR chief merely kingmaker, or the power behind the throne?

Thailand: The Politics of a Debacle
More fallout from the Krung Thai Bank affair

Myanmar: In Exile and Powerless
Still, Myanmar's dissidents keep up the fight (10/8/99)

'Suu Kyi Must Be Sincere'
Selling Myanmar's tough line to the world: ASIAWEEK's interview with Win Aung (09/03/99)

Who Rules on the Ground?
The power of Myanmar's area commanders (09/03/99)

The Asiaweek Power 50 1999: Aung San Suu Kyi
The Asiaweek Power 50 Online: Who are the most powerful people in Asia?

In case you hadn't guessed it already, a lot of nonsense is written about Myanmar. As a veteran colleague told me when I began covering the beat: "The first thing you must do is disabuse yourself of all your previous notions about this place. It is not what you think it is." That is an understatement. On my first visit, I wandered around Yangon in a state of nervous anticipation - looking for fierce, gun-toting troops on street corners and gaunt people cowering in doorways. But I couldn't see policemen, let alone soldiers. Now I am back to dig deeper - and bust a few myths. Among them:

- Foreign publications are unavailable.

On the drive from Yangon airport, kids run up waving copies of Asiaweek and other international magazines. In my hotel, I get the International Herald Tribune and the Asian Wall Street Journal delivered to my room (as well as the government's New Light of Myanmar). CNN and BBC World are on TV. I have no problem e-mailing from my room. John Chen of Eagle IT, Myanmar's only private e-mail provider, expects Internet service by year-end.

- The regime has banned condom sales to spread AIDS among the youth and sap their potential for rebellion.

Daft, you say. But in Myanmar I learn not to dismiss anything out of hand. Late one afternoon I visit a pharmacy. It is staffed by three young women. I ask for condoms. They giggle and direct me to one of Yangon's ubiquitous, open-fronted, all-purpose convenience stores. There, the jovial owner floods me with options. Onlookers gather as boxes and boxes of condoms shower around me: Malaysian, Thai, Korean, Japanese and the local Burmese brand, Aphaw, which comes in a spiffy four-pack, allegedly "Tested in the U.S.A." It carries clear, graphic instructions in Burmese, together with advice that condom use prevents the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. I buy a pack for 200 kyat (60 cents). There are murmurs of approval. "Yes, good. Burmese is best." (Don't bet on it.)

- Suu Kyi is under house arrest.

She is not. Yangon people routinely see her out and about - at the supermarket, at the hairdresser's, at the pagoda, at embassy receptions, at party meetings.

- No one without official authorization is allowed to travel the streets of urban centers between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.

I stroll around all hours of the day and night. On a typical evening in Yangon I get a 200-kyat (60-cent) haircut at 8.30 p.m., and there are other customers waiting. After a beer at a nearby pub, I head for supper at the 50th St. Bar & Grill. The roads fanning out from the landmark Sule Pagoda are teeming. The cinemas are packed. It is much the same outside the capital - even at the Kyaikto Hotel at the top of the tortuous path to Myanmar's famous balancing-boulder stupa at Kyaiktiyo, 160 km southeast of Yangon. Despite the bucolic setting deep in the hills, the settlement bustles with people well after 8 p.m.

Of New Bridges and Closed Campuses
I have also heard that there are travel restrictions for journalists. I soon discover that this is another canard. When I tell the regime's main spokesman Col. Hla Min that I plan to travel outside of Yangon, he says: "Go where you want. If you need a visa extension, let me know."

I decide to hire a car and driver and visit the former capital Mawlamyine, a small port city 120 km south of Kyaiktiyo. We leave at 6 a.m., quickly clearing the almost empty streets (Yangon is a slow-starting city). The journey takes seven hours, and we do it with only one short break. The road is fine as far as Bago, then it deteriorates a little, then improves again - although remaining narrow. I see no other Caucasians during the whole of this trip, so I am bemused when, halfway to Mawlamyine, we pass a large sign in Burmese and English that says: "Please give all assistance to international travellers."

But it is surprise rather than bemusement that I feel when, in the final stretch, we pass over a couple of new suspension bridges, obviating the need to take the old car ferry at Mottama. Painted a pastel orange shade, they are long and sleek, and again beg the question: How do they do this? Forced labor? Surely not for such skilled engineering work? Certainly, the regime denies it; although Burmese exiles claim it continues. All I can say is that on my travels, the various road crews I see are invariably military men not civilians. On the drive, we pass squads of uniformed conscripts doing maintenance work and clearing the verges.

As for Mawlamyine itself, I suspect Kipling would find it little changed. They still smoke whacking white cheroots and the temple bells still call. Down in the sidestreets around the jettys, however, it is not so nice. There is an overpowering air of desolation and squalor, only marginally mitigated by the silent dignity of the people. Yet the bounty of produce in their market is astonishing: meat, fish, rice, fruit, vegetables and wonderful arrays of fresh flowers. People buy big bunches of them! It is hard not to feel optimistic surrounded by flowers. But before I get too intoxicated, I decide to visit the local university.

Perhaps the most telling thing about Myanmar is that the campuses remain closed. Even Foreign Minister Win Aung looks sad when he talks about this. And frankly it is an area where the regime has been less than honest. Last year, I was assured that the universities would reopen soon. Some departments have, but by and large most are still dormant. The campus of Mawlamyine University, a relatively new building, is in utter neglect. Lecture rooms are untouched since they were padlocked three years ago. Moldering papers and specimen jars gather dust in musty rooms. The quadrangles are littered with the ashes of open fires and dog excreta. The regime can talk all it likes about securing ceasefires with rebellious minorities, but if it can't risk opening the universities to allow its youth to get an education then there is no real stability.

Ne Win's Gun-Packing Grandson
One evening in Yangon, I unwittingly refute the assertion that the military police check residences for unauthorized guests staying overnight. I have been invited to the home of a Muslim family for dinner, and I walk across Yangon unchallenged. The family members are not fans of the regime and spend much of the evening castigating the generals. When I mention that the rule forbidding late-staying guests will now oblige me to leave, they burst out laughing. That hasn't been in effect for years, they say. So I stay and watch cricket on satellite television.

Eventually it is time to leave and they assure me that it will be safe to walk back through the dark streets. "That is one thing we have," says family patriarch Mahmud. "It has always been that way, even for women." When I ask mayor Ko Lay about this, he laughs: "You can walk the streets at night, no problem. Nobody gets harmed, no rape. This is not like Patpong or Hollywood." An American lawyer who has lived in Yangon for five years echoes this. "I think it is due to the strong ethic of the people," says John Pierce. "They will walk in and out of a bank carrying a transparent plastic bag full of money and not worry at all." But others tell me break-ins, pickpocketing and drug use are rising in urban centers, especially among the youth.

Next day, over breakfast, I hear a rumor that former dictator Ne Win's grandkids have been involved in a notorious shooting incident on Maykha Road, where the despot lives out his dotage. Later, a government official relates a similar tale. A visiting Malaysian businessman had arranged to have lunch with him at the Nawarat Concorde Hotel (run by Ne Win's favorite daughter, Sanda, and her husband Aye Zaw Win). Gossiping in the car, they absently drove past the entrance and turned in the next driveway. It was the exit, so they stopped and began to reverse. Suddenly, another car, preparing to leave, drove straight at them before abruptly braking. The driver, a young man of about 20, jumped out and - assuming they were foreign guests - berated them. "Can't you see this is the way out! You people think you can come here and do what you like! Well, **** you!" He gestured with his middle finger, then pulled out a revolver and thrust it in the Malaysian's face, telling him to be more careful in future. Horrified, they apologized and decided to lunch elsewhere.

They headed to the Inya Lake Hotel - and were disturbed to see the gun-toting youth following and using his mobile phone. When they arrived, he parked alongside. Seconds later, a policeman on a motorbike roared up. The youth told the cop about the incident at the Nawarat. The cop chastised the Malaysian and took his license, telling him to collect it later at the police station on Pyay Road. Days later, when the businessman sent an assistant to get the license, the cop called the youth - who turned out to be none other than Kyaw Ne Win, one of the ex-dictator's grandsons. The cop asked if it was okay to return the license. Kyaw Ne Win said no, not unless the businessman collected it in person. So the cop refused to hand it over. "This is how it is in Myanmar," the official tells me. "You are a relative of Ne Win or some other general, you can do anything, even buy guns and threaten visitors."

It seems to me that this is an exception, yet such incidents help fuel perceptions about Myanmar. No one is immune; certainly not foreign reporters. Those who parachute in are predisposed to seeing spies under every bed. The Washington Post recently reported: "At the monthly happy hour at the Australian Embassy [in Yangon], a Burmese military intelligence officer sits at the end of the bar, watching and listening for hours on end without speaking to anyone." Having attended these functions and not seen this spy, I decide to try and spot him (although it is a given the world over that intelligence operatives attend embassy functions). I station myself at the bar of the Australian Club in Golden Valley, nibbling pâté and pizza and quaffing red wine. As usual, the place is full of business folk, diplomats, travelers and assorted expats. We chat about the regime, Suu Kyi, the Irrawaddy delta reclamation project, the difficulty of getting good beef, former drug baron Law Sitt Han. All the while, I look for the silent spook. When I mention him to regulars they laugh derisively and say: "Who cares?"

Not that the international media has a monopoly on distortion. One evening, up in Mandalay, I watch the news. It is almost entirely about outdoor rallies held around the country at which community leaders laud the regime and berate the NLD. I lose track of how many times the newsreader, in her droning monotone, relates how so-and-so praised this or that new achievement and castigated the foreign axe-handles, lackeys and stooges - a.k.a. Suu Kyi and the NLD.

Even amiable, level-headed foreign minister Win Aung joins the assault on Suu Kyi. He tells me: "She opposes whatever the government tries to do. She is always attacking, adopting a confrontational approach. This is really wrong." Yet his side does exactly the same. Myanmar's state-controlled media oppose whatever the NLD tries to do, relentlessly attack Suu Kyi and adopt a confrontational style of reportage about her party. The daily cartoon in the New Light of Myanmar shows Suu Kyi as a gap-toothed witch followed by a sour-looking maven of NLD cohorts. Until the generals stop such pettiness, they cannot expect balanced observers to give any credence to their contention that Suu Kyi does nothing but criticize.

Besides, she has a point. Even the generals admit their rule is not blemish-free. Crumbling power generation, paltry foreign-exchange reserves, near empty hotels, closed universities, a bankrupt national airline, lousy relations with the West (and, now, after the recent Bangkok embassy siege, with neighbor Thailand, too), insurgent skirmishes threatening to flare up again - and these are only at the top of the list. Bizarrely, all the military leaders I meet say they are making progress and contend that criticism from the outside hinders their attempt to bring stability and development. Col. Hla Min, one of junta strategist Gen. Khin Nyunt's most articulate officers, tells me: "There is too much barking from outside. We can easily get derailed."

The barking, however, can damage both sides. At the time of my visit, almost every Myanmar watcher is pondering reports that Suu Kyi not only opposes humanitarian aid, but is critical of Red Cross assessment visits to nine detention centers (including Yangon's Insein Jail and the central prison in Mandalay), and has condemned Australian moves to set up a human-rights commission in Myanmar. It is a controversial and brave stand that draws flak from even her hearty supporters in the West; and it is one that the regime exploits. "She is the only politician I know," says Hla Min, "who lobbies against help for her own people, even humanitarian help."

This is one of the questions I plan to ask Suu Kyi when I meet her. But I have been warned that she is not an easy person to interview; diplomats and fellow journalists tell me to be careful posing "critical" questions. There is a sense with Suu Kyi (and with the regime, for that matter) that either you are with us or you are against us. Before going to see her, I visit three so-called NLD rebels. All party veterans elected in 1990, they wax indignant about how Suu Kyi runs the NLD in a dictatorial manner. When I ask one of them, Tin Tun Maung, about policy debate and decision-making, an acetylene anger flares in his eyes. "She told us our heads are not for nodding, they are for thinking. That we are supposed to question things. But when we question her decisions, she shouts at us and calls us traitors." I leave unsure whether they are sincere, or have been compromised by the regime.

Suu Kyi in the Dark
I finally interview Suu Kyi for the first time in Tin Oo's house during yet another Yangon blackout (this one caused by a storm that has brought down a tree across the power lines outside the house). We sit for 90 minutes in a corner of the big, darkened room, the candles flickering in the gloom and dogs howling in the lane outside (perhaps disturbed by the intelligence officers who have followed Suu Kyi and on this occasion are waiting to take my picture as I leave). I ask about her stand against humanitarian aid. She bristles. "What stand against humanitarian aid?" Even the candles seem to tremble.

I refer Suu Kyi to reports in staunchly pro-NLD foreign publications saying that the party under her leadership has opposed international NGO involvement in Myanmar. "No, we haven't," she retorts, angrily. "We have never said that all NGOs should leave Burma or not come in or anything like that. And we've never said that we are against humanitarian aid per se." She explains that her stance is that such aid should only come in "provided you make sure it is given to everybody in an even-handed way." Later, I bounce this off a Yangon-based NGO representative. "That is ridiculous," he splutters. "There is no developing country in the world where you can guarantee that some aid will not be misused by the government for its own purposes. If that was a rule, then no one would get any aid."

But if the pro-democracy advocates are to be believed there is ample evidence that the regime has exploited such assistance in the past. Whatever, the end result, as always, is that the people get screwed. Little aid reaches them because few Western governments dare go against Suu Kyi. Being culpable in the continuing impoverishment of the Myanmar people is a secondary factor in their considerations.

One of the most common comments you hear in Yangon concerns the futility of Western economic sanctions against Myanmar. I raise the topic with Suu Kyi to get her reaction to the increasing number of people - many of them scathing critics of the regime - who say sanctions are ineffective and hurt only the ordinary people of Myanmar. I blink in surprise when her reply comes out of the half-darkness. "Sanctions are not causing hardship to the people," she says. "That we can say. So to people like that, I would just say: Prove it, prove that sanctions are hurting the people of the country. And they can't really prove it. The U.S. sanctions are not such that they in any way affect the Burmese economy to a great extent."

The bottom line is that few people, even the most rabid anti-regimers, believe economic sanctions will precipitate change. For most Myanmar people, the economy is as it was 40 years ago, with some marginal improvements over the past decade. Even outside Yangon, where the power supply is woeful to put it mildly, there is not the slightest sign of discontent. Rather people demonstrate a fatalistic acceptance that this is how it is, how it always was, and how it looks like it will be for the foreseeable future.

At the end of the interview, I mention to Suu Kyi that I had been warned about her prickliness. She appears taken aback and affects surprise, saying that as a politician she has been interviewed by many journalists asking much the same questions as mine and never takes offense. I appreciate that and thank her again for meeting me, especially since Tin Oo has said she was ill earlier in the week. She looks well now, surprising given the stress under which she constantly lives. Frankly, I don't know how she endures it. I leave the house after her, smile for the intelligence officers' cameras, clamber through the branches of the fallen tree and head off down the quiet lane to catch a taxi back to the Traders Hotel. Tomorrow, I return to Bangkok. And already I am thinking about when I will come back to Myanmar. Where nothing is ever quite as it seems.

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