Against Aung San Suu Kyi's insistence, I visited to Burma about 10 years ago.
At the time, the Burmese military dictatorship had been suppressing democracy in the nation for almost 4 decades, using ongoing civil war, imprisonment and torture, and forced labor to keep dissent in check. Aung San Suu Kyi -- the face of the National League for Democracy (NLD), a political party that in the 1990s nearly triumphed in replacing military rule with a democratically elected government -- had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her unwavering nonviolent resistance and had subsequently been placed under house arrest for what was to be 15 years.
In 1996 the Burmese military junta identified the tourism industry as a way to generate revenue to expand their military, which it infamously used to suppress internal dissent.
State-run hotels and tours lined government pockets, and foreign tour companies paid the government to bring in cruise ships and bus tours. The junta ran the all the sites popular with tourists, charging entry fees many times the typical daily salary of a Burmese person. Visitors were mandated to exchange money for Foreign Exchange Certificates at an artificially inflated exchange rate -- I'm talking 8 kyat to the dollar for a Foreign Exchange Certificate in the airport, versus the street value of 800 kyat to the dollar.
Because of all this, Suu Kyi called for a boycott of the tourism industry in Burma. But I didn't listen.
I wanted to go and see what it meant to live under the level of oppression dished out by the Burmese government. How did people survive -- not just physically in the impoverished country that was once the shining hope of post-colonial Southeast Asia, but mentally and emotionally?
In Thailand I had met many Burmese activists who spoke out against the Burmese government and by doing so forfeited any chance of legally re-entering their homeland. Their horror stories -- of family in the notorious In Sein prison, of 20 years of trekking through endless jungle as guerillas to fight the national army -- shocked me. I met a monk who studied at a Thai monastery - both Buddhism and the writings of Ms. Suu Kyi, which were banned in Burma. I spoke with refugees on the Thai-Burma border who had lived in camps for decades, were denied schooling and opportunity in Thailand but had no chance of surviving in Burma.
So I went, trying to avoid supporting the junta as much as possible. I got around the airport exchange rate by slipping the money changer 10 dollars, and for once I felt that bribery was justified rather than corrupt. I found some hotels and hostels that evaded the state-run system, and, being able to pass for Burmese with my skin tone, I snuck into sites that were free for Burmese.
Soldiers were everywhere, thin men with big guns. We drove by an entire hillside on fire at one point, slash-and-burn by the government to claim the land. The New Light of Myanmar, the state-run English newspaper, reported only the accomplishments of the government and the love that the people of Myanmar had for them. Billboards -- in Burmese and English -- shouted about the people's love for the government and its military, and announced that "The People's Will" was to oppose external elements interfering with Burma's national project. And yes, there were many people I encountered who either drank that Kool-aid or were too afraid to say anything different.
There were also people who spoke quietly about how they wanted the government to change. About how they kept hoping for the day that Aung San Suu Kyi would be free and there would be a chance at democracy again. There were people who took correspondence courses in English and were eager to practice, since the government had shut down all the universities for fear of revolutionary movements starting on campuses. There were people asking for news from the outside world, who figured out how to listen to the banned BBC and VOA radio stations, and who had dozens of questions about what the rest of the world thought of Burma.
This was the everyday of living under a government who routinely dragged people to prison for months or years of torture, just for the faintest whiff of dissent. There was hope that existed at the core of Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi was the living symbol of that hope -- under house arrest, unable to watch her children grow up or to go to her own husband's funeral, she has never given up the hope that Burma would someday see democracy. And since she didn't give up, many others kept hoping too.
I was inspired. When I returned home, I volunteered for Burma Centrum Nederland, working to persuade companies to divest from Burma and raising money to keep our organization and many others fighting for Burmese democracy afloat.
Only recently has Suu Kyi's political party changed its stance on visitors like me. NLD leader U Win Tin said: "We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral -- everything."
Just a few days ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. She stepped out of her doors to greet thousands of her supporters cheering and taking photos. She reached out to the current government to negotiate for the freedoms her people have been waiting on for generations.
It's an electrifying moment for Burma. May it be the moment where that core of hope I observed 10 years ago becomes a long-term reality.
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