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Afternoon Tea with the General's Da

Subject: Afternoon Tea with the General's Daughter

The Japan Times
November 28, 1996

Afternoon Tea with the General's Daughter

by The Observer's Sue Arnold

It was more a mercy dash than a fact finding mission. We had had a spate of
letters from Daw Mya--that's my Auntie May -- in Myanmar (formerly Burma ).
They were desperate, sick, starving. The money my mother had been sending
every month had mysteriously stopped. Taung-gyi, in the Shan States close to
the Golden Triangle --  which is where this side of the family lives -- was
heading for the cold season and they needed socks. 

My mother read her sister's letters and wept. Hold on, she wrote back, Sue
is coming. She will bring socks, sweaters, Yardley's apple blossom talcum
powder, Roses chocolates. What else did she need? Cash, just cash, replied
Auntie May. 

Nov. 13 saw the official launch of Visit Myanmar Year, with carnivals in
Mandalay, festivals at Inya Lake and fireworks in Pagan. Much has been
written about the ethics of visiting Myanmar as a tourist, but my conscience
was clear. I was not a tourist. I was doing my Red Riding Hood bit with a
basket full of good things, not just for Auntie May in Taunggyi but for my
wretchedly hard-up cousins in Sanchaung, a ramshackle suburb of Rangoon. My
itinerary consisted chiefly of visits to friends and relatives. It would be
interesting to see how the place had changed since my last visit six years
ago, but I had no plans for a John Pilger-style followup expose. 

Then, as these things always do, I met a young man on the flight out who
just happened to have Aung San Suu Kyi's telephone number. "Give her a
call," he said. "I'm one of the businessmen she disapproves of and I don't
agree with everything she says, but that doesn't make her any less
wonderful. I guarantee if you meet her, you'll come away inspired." Ring up
Aung San Suu Kyi? It sounded as unlikely as getting through to Joan of Arc.
Strangely, it wasn't. 

Turn the clock back 10 years, close your eyes and listen. We could be two
housewives chatting over tea in Suu's Oxfordshire home for, in true British
tradition, our conversation began with the weather. A monsoon downpour has
soaked my hair on the dash from the gate and it is now hanging in rats'
tails. Suu is sympathetic. She asks solicitously if I'm all right, adding
that I'm unlucky -- the rainy season is almost over. I give her my present
-- in Myanmar you never visit without taking a present. Had I known I was
coming, I would have brought something more suitable. This, after all, is
the woman whose principles, patience and courage won her a landslide victory
in 1990 in the first democratic elections in Myanmar for 30 years, six
years' house arrest, the Nobel Peace Prize and the respect of millions
around the world. But she thanks me for the box of Roses chocolates as
warmly as my Auntie Pyu and my cousin, Shweh Ohn Gyi, did for theirs the
previous day. "The boys will like them," she smiled, and returned to her
seat by the window. 

Ten years ago in Oxford, she would have been referring to her sons, Alex and
Kim, but it is eight years since she lived with her husband and children.
The boys she's referring to are the dozen young men wearing National League
for Democracy T-shirts and who risk summary detention by helping her promote
her cause. Their numbers fluctuate. If  -- when  -- one is arrested or
detained, a new one takes his place. 

There are other boys, too: the ones behind the desk at the gate who asked us
to sign in. They are from Military Intelligence. Like their uniformed
colleagues the other side of University Avenue who record the registration
of every car that stops or even pauses outside No. 52, they monitor every
visitor. Like the NLD boys, they wear T-shirts and lungis, but their
T-shirts don't have the party logo --  a chicken [fighting peacock] running
toward the rising sun and the motto My People Want Democracy Now. 

Suu doesn't discriminate between the boys. When well-wishers bring cakes to
the house, and there are few days they don't, they are shared between NLD
and MI. "Why not?" asks Suu. "They aren't the people who hate me." 

No one who meets Suu is immune to her charm or her formidable intelligence,
which is probably why military generals such as President Than Shwe, First
Secretary Khin Nyunt and my uncle, U Pe Kin, recently awarded the highest
civilian honor by SLORC -- the State Law and Order Restoration Committee --
refused to meet her. It is said Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt are scared to take
her on, one to one. They know she will outwit them. She's a general's
daughter, after all. Her father, Gen. Aung San, was Myanmar's first
independent leader until his assassination in 1947. He's the national hero
whose statue graces every town and village and whose picture adorns every
shop window and office wall. The only decoration in the room where we're
having tea is the floor- to -ceiling photograph of Suu's father. You can see
where she gets her stunning looks. 

We talked politics. No, she is not discouraged by the fact that SLORC,
despite its appalling human rights record, appeared to be gaining a certain
respectability -- among Asian nations, at any rate. The major Western powers
were behind her, she said, and outsiders might not appreciate it but things
were happening. "Burma is like an iced-over lake to observers but, I assure
you, there is a lot of activity going on in the water underneath." 

My uncle Pe Kin doesn't think so. "Suu is out of touch," he had told me the
day before, when I took him his quota of Roses. In 1947, my uncle was Gen.
Aung San's aide-de-camp during the independence negotiations and went on to
be Burmese ambassador in Cairo, Moscow and the United Nations. Surely, if
anyone could mend fences between the hateful generals of SLORC and Aung
San's daughter it must be him. Alas, no. If you play golf with those
generals, you do not take tea with this general's daughter. 

But I hadn't come to Myanmar to talk politics. I hadn't come on a
journalist, tourist or business visa. Mine was the fourth and last visa
category available in the new open-door, come-in-and-see-that-
we've-nothing-to-hide Myanmar. My visa entitled me to see only friends and
relatives. Had I not run into Paul Strachan, the engaging young Scots
businessman on the flight out with Suu's telephone number in his pocket, I
wouldn't be having tea with her now. I would probably have joined the crowds
outside No. 52 University Avenue on weekend afternoons to hear her speak and
left it at that. But although Strachan had led me here, to Aung San Suu Kyi
he and his like were part of the problem. 

Strachan, you see, had just relaunched the famous Irrawaddy Flotilla Company
title for his new business venture -- tourist cruises from Prome to Mandalay
via Pagan. Aung San Suu Kyi wants to keep tourists out of Myanmar since she
believes they help to shore up a corrupt regime. I had asked Strachan on the
plane how he squared his admiration for Suu with his business venture. He
argued that tourists not only helped the economy, but acted as unwitting
peacekeepers. In 1988, when tourism was strictly controlled, the army didn't
hesitate to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. Last June, when Suu Kyi
defied the regime by holding a proscribed NLD rally, there were as many
tourists as demonstrators and SLORC deemed it an unwise PR move to stage
another massacre. 

Suu's answer to Strachan's argument was uncompromising. Revenue from tourism
was negligible, she said. Myanmar was a naturally wealthy country. There was
more than enough money to go round, but it was being mismanaged by a corrupt
regime. Of course, certain people were better off now, there were more cars,
more consumer goods, but what about those who were not involved with
tourism? Inflation was soaring, rice had quadrupled in price, the villagers
were starving. Like poor Auntie May, I thought. 

The next day I flew up to Taung-gyi with the socks stuffed with dollars.
Auntie May, 85, shriveled, arthritic and even  more baleful than I
remembered, met me at Heho airport with her granddaughter, Ay Ay Mo, the
family's sole breadwinner. Ay Ay Mo has a mathematics degree from Mandalay
University and used to work for the civil service. But a family cannot
survive on 1,000 kyats ($6) a month, even if it includes free electricity.
Now she runs a teashop in the Indian quarter of town, where you can get
samosa for five kyat and tea for nine. 

Friends in Mandalay spoke of poverty in the villages, too, and thanked God
they were doing all right. City folk appeared to be thriving in the newly
developed Myanmar. Six years ago, when I stood on the top of Mandalay Hill
looking over the city beyond the royal palace moat, all I could see were
pagoda spires rising above the tree tops, and all I could hear were
monastery gongs. This time, it was different. Standing beside the giant
golden statue of Prince Siddhartha, I could make out the shells of dozens of
half-built high-rise hotels, with the accompanying clamor of drills and
hammers. "The Dream Hotel on 28th Street offers a welcome haven of peace
from the bustle of downtown," says the guide book. Not any more, it doesn't.
Some 200 workmen (you can count their bicycles) are feverishly working on a
new 10-story luxury hotel beside it and an office block behind. 

Back in Rangoon, I went to see Uncle Tin Kyaw, who is building an
eight-story apartment block in his front garden. "You must be happy, Uncle,"
I said. "Not today," he replied. His neighbor, an elderly dentist, was
detained yesterday. A patient came to him for a filling --  it was Aung San
Suu Kyi. That evening the police arrested him. The dentist's wife said: "My
husband is old, take me instead," but they ignored her and took the old
dentist away. 

My last duty visit was to my niece, Shweh Ohn Gyi. Last time I saw her, she
had a shaved head and saffron robes. She had made a deal that if she
received her physics degree, she would spend a year as a nun. Meanwhile, she
wrote us letters begging for a ticket to England. This time she looked
different -- expensive silk shirt, high heels, white patent vanity case, the
sort Soho strippers carry between clubs. "Do you need to change money,
Auntie Sue?" she asked, flicking open the vanity case. It was like a scene
from The Lavender Hill Mob, wads of 100-kyat notes and dollar bills wedged
inside. My niece has swapped meditation for black market foreign-exchange
dealing, and does very nicely, thank you. 

I left Myanmar with mixed feelings. One Rangoon hotelier -- all set to
benefit from the Visit Myanmar tourist boom --  reckoned SLORC was by no
means the worst, as dictatorships go. No one suggests tourists boycott
China, he pointed out. He used to work in a Beijing hotel 
and could vouch for the savagery of the regime. A tourist once reported his
watch missing. The police were called, found the missing watch in a waiter's
room, took the waiter into the yard and shot him. "They don't do that here,"
he said. Maybe not, but in July last year, the 65-year-old tour operator in
Mandalay who works for Jim Sherwood's Road to Mandalay luxury cruise company
was sentenced to seven years for talking to two Western journalists. And the
latest Amnesty report on conditions in Myanmarese jails does not make cozy
bedtime reading. Myanmarese hospitals are recording increased cases of TB
among children. But, says a Mandalay doctor, it isn't TB, but
straightforward malnutrition. 

Confused images crowd my memory  -- soldiers with fixed bayonets blocking
the entrance to University Avenue one night, barefoot children pinning paper
butterflies on to American tourists' shirts in Pagan; Gen. Kyaw Ba, minister
for hotels and tourism, assuring a room full of journalists that the
activities of a certain Mrs. Michael Aris, alias Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were
of no consequence to the government's five-year plan; my niece Ay Ay Mo, in
Taung-gyi, supporting the family with samosas; my niece Shweh Ohn Gyi, in
Sanchaung, supporting the family with black-market dollars. 

Only one image remains crystal clear -- that of a slender woman seated by a
window with fresh jasmine in her hair, asking: "Is it too much to ask people
to stay away just for this year to register their disapproval of an
oppressive regime and their support for a democratically elected assembly?
Burma, after all, will always be here." 

And so, please God, will the general's daughter.