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Lesley & Alistair Greenhill travelled on our Beautiful Burma Small Group Tour during Burma’s recent, momentous elections. Here, Lesley describes the atmosphere of anticipation ahead of the event. (All photos courtesy of Lesley and Alistair Greenhill)
Khin* was our guide in Bagan, a beautiful part of Burma spattered with temples – from large, imposing structures covered in gold leaf to tiny, crumbling temples no larger than a garden shed. Khin was very knowledgeable about the history of the area and these remarkable temples. He was also outspoken in his criticism of the military government, which I have to admit surprised me to begin with. He openly explained that Burma was once a rich country with many natural resources, but had been so mismanaged that the people were now very poor, the health and education systems ineffective, and the military leaders rich from exploiting Burmese jade, rubies, teak and oil. He frequently made jokes about their incompetence.
*False names have been used to respect the privacy of the subjects.
Khin was also deeply saddened by the desecration of local artefacts that has occurred in Burma (and particularly Bagan) as a result of a general lack of knowledge or interest. Bagan has applied for World Heritage status, but UNESCO have thus far withheld their support because of poor restoration work and maintenance. We saw two labourers painting carvings in a temple which had been originally covered in gold leaf and a unique green glaze. They had two tins of paint, one green, one gold, and were painting on top of the original pigments. Some of the temples had also been repaired with concrete rather than traditional materials.
And yet there are still many wonderful sights to see. Neglect is at least better than shoddy restoration.
We were in Bagan for a few days, with Khin as our guide for the majority of the time. Our last day with him was the day before the elections, and he opened up and told us his own story and his feelings about the coming vote.
Khin is a tour guide, but peak tourist season is only six months of the year, so he works in the shop for the rest of the year. In the past he has worked as a waiter, as a maker of lacquerware, and in various other local jobs. He learned English from tourists – who I’m sure are always happy to chat to him given his willingness to talk politics! Largely self-educated and very knowledgeable about Burmese history and politics, he is a great supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi and a party activist for the National League for Democracy (NLD).
As a young man, Khin was arrested and sent to jail for participating in a demonstration. He didn’t give us many details, but suffice to say that Burmese jails are pretty grim. After eight months, his parents paid a bribe to get him released, and he admits that he couldn’t help being grateful to them for doing so. Having spent all their savings to get him out, they begged him to stop his activities – but he told them he could not stop.
On another occasion, Khin was warned by a friend that he had been filmed taking part in a protest, so he went into hiding in the mountains for two months. Khin is such a gentle kindly man, with beautiful, peaceful demeanour. He is a devout Buddhist and spends some time every year in a monastery. We felt very humbled by his bravery, but he just smiled and said: I’m not afraid anymore.
While we were in Burma there was a great feeling of optimism about the elections, and people were talking more openly than I expected. A young Burmese-Indian waiter in a restaurant told us how, in the past, the election process was purposefully made difficult. The election paper was waxy so that a vote could be rubbed out, and the stamps were often too full of ink so that they smudged and the ballots could be declared spoiled. He told us he would be up early to wipe the excess ink from election stamps and explain to others what they needed to do with the voting cards. He was so excited, and so sure the NLD would win and democracy would prevail.
Khin was more cautious. He had lived through the 1990 election, when the NLD swept to victory but the military leaders refused to acknowledge the result. But although he was wary that the same might happen this time, he was resolute in his determination that democracy would come to Burma in time.
On the day before the elections, Khin was wearing a fetching tartan longyi with a smart, collarless shirt. I asked him about it and he explained that it was a Kachin design from the north of Burma, not a Scottish tartan! I only discovered later, when I was reading Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma, that this collarless shirt and indigo, purple and green design of longyi was the uniform of the so-called “democracy men”, and at one time you could be arrested for wearing it. Everywhere he went, Khin was making a political statement. On the day of the elections he would be acting as an NLD monitor, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day he holds a position in government.
Almost everyone we met openly supported The Lady – Aung San Suu Kyi. The only exception was our tour guide in Yangon, a woman of 23, who spoke out in favour of the president. But she had not lived through the worst times. She had been swayed by the changes of recent years, seeing the country open up to the world, loosen its restrictions, and spend money on improving infrastructure. She had never suffered at the hands of the police and the biased justice system.
The next day was Election Day and we saw queues of people at local schools waiting to vote. We met two international election monitors from Australia who seemed delighted with the way things were going. The ink was good and the paper was not waxy.
As we now know, the NLD won a landslide victory with 77% of the vote. Of course, the military retains 25% of seats in government, but it seems as if this time the old guard know their time is up. The current President, Thein Sein, congratulated Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party on its success, and the former president, Than Shwe, has declared that he will support her. I certainly hope that there is change ahead for Burma. The only fear we heard expressed was that everyone loves The Lady so much that it will be difficult for her to meet their expectations.
I’m sure there are challenges ahead and Burma won’t change overnight. There is terrible corruption at all levels and that will be difficult to eradicate. But the Burmese are such lovely, friendly people with a beautiful country, I hope they have a better future in store.
Many thanks to Lesley for sharing her experiences in Burma! If you’d like to read more about the Burmese general elections, we covered the events in several blog posts: