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Plan B-urma
December 2015

Aung San Suu Kyi: The Lady is free but can't afford to cross her former captors (photo: Htoo Tay Zar via OpenMyanmar Photo Project)

When did you last go out to your local for a Burmese, or race to catch a Myanmar thriller, or slip a CD of Burmese rock into your player? Unlike Thailand, China, Japan and India, the culture of Burma since post-colonial independence has remained hidden and insular during 50 censored, often brutal, years of military dictatorship.

All that most people know is the fame, trials and repression of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was democratically elected in 1990, won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 and lived under house arrest or, on and off, for 16 years.

You may also know that after regime change in 2010 she was suddenly released, elected as an MP and even given leave to travel abroad. She was allowed to canvas for the presidency in the recent election but not for the constitutional changes necessary to accept it, for in the constution is a clause excluding anyone from the presidency who has foreign children. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British academic and she has two British sons.

When she appeared in London after her years of house arrest it was, for those of us who had followed her campaign for many years, as if Elvis had never died and John Lennon had been in hiding. I was rendered dumb when she spoke to me as she passed down the aisle of a Westminster hall. My articles, she said, had made her laugh many times during her captivity. It was enough praise for me for one lifetime.

The election in Burma last month meant Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won, as it did 25 years ago, a landslide victory and a mandate to form the next government. Freedom and democracy comes to Burma and five decades of military oppression ends.

After years of harassment, house arrest, student repression, cat-and-mouse promises and conditional inching forward and jumping back, the country could open up to trade, tourism and step out of fear and darkness into freedom and light.

Or could it?

Friends of mine can’t wait to book their passage to this beautiful and historic Asian jewel. They cite temples and trips down the Irrawaddy. They talk about the beauty and hospitality of the people, the delicate fragrance of the food. Doors are opening, they say, and they want to be the first to say they have seen change as it happens. The Lady herself has suggested tourists would be welcome.

Seasoned Burma-watchers, however, are shaking their heads sadly, not shaking up the Krug in preparation for the party. Not yet. Not quite. The jolly old generals, under Thein Sein, seemingly reformist leader of the country, renamed Myanmar, carefully constructed a new constitution in 2008 which allows them to retain control over the country at every level of government. They have a council of 11 which can overrule changes made by the government, and they retain the right to retake military control in any “national emergency”.

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