Myanmar, Mandalay and the Lady

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Monks outside a pagoda on the outskirts of MandalayImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Monks outside a pagoda on the outskirts of Mandalay

After decades of military dictatorship, punitive Western sanctions, then the ravages of Hurricane Nargis, Mandalay, Myanmar's second city and emerging commercial hub, is undergoing rapid change, as the BBC's Leo Johnson discovered on a recent visit.

I'm expecting a scene of grinding poverty but what greets me on day one is the new Mercedes showroom, Mingalar Mandalay new city complete with private villas on sale for $2.5m (£1.6m) each and Unique Night Club, the clubbers beside me necking Johnny Walker Blue from the bottle.

Mandalay's economy never failed under sanctions. On the banks of the Irawaddy River, half way between India and China, it was ideally situated to keep on trading directly with some 40% of the world's population, but now there is a beginnings-of-a-boom-time feel.

On 8 November, Myanmar, also known as Burma, holds its first open and contested general elections in more than 25 years, with Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi standing for office as head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

So is the nation headed, after decades of military dictatorship, towards social economic and political freedom? Is this game over for the generals?

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mandalay's position on the Irawaddy River has helped the city's economy thrive over the decades

The government minder and me

I've come to Mandalay, the old Royal Capital, to see if there are signs of real change in store for the people of the city, and Myanmar as a whole.

Since the country set out on its reform path, press freedom may have improved, dissidents may have been released, but, for whatever reasons, we have been given the privilege of a government minder to monitor our activities.

He arrives, a small black notebook in hand. "Just call me U," he says, smiling, employing the Burmese term used to show respect.

And U is there, emerging from the van to brief each interviewee, noting down contact information and punctiliously making notes on what they say in the book.

U turns out to be a crucial addition to the team, a human Geiger counter for the issues that are politically radioactive.

Over the course of the week we tour Mandalay, keeping an ear open for any rise in tempo from the government-issue Geiger counter.

We visit a tattoo parlour with a specialisation in engraving images of Aung San Suu Kyi, or "the Lady" as they call her, on the arms of pro-democracy activists. U gazes appreciatively at the tattoos.

We visit May Yee Nandar, the sister of an activist beaten to death in the 1988 democracy protests. U sits politely, fanning himself.

We head to Masoeyein Monastery and interview Ashin Wirathu the Buddhist monk, featured on the cover of Time Magazine as "the face of Buddhist terror".

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Controversial Bhuddist monk Ashin Wirathu,

There are limits

Our minder asks us if we would give him time to pay homage to the monk.

We head, finally, late at night, to the moat. It's here, right opposite the old Royal Palace that became the headquarters of the military junta, that a local transgender scene has sprung up.

Two years ago, a group of men were arrested and allegedly beaten up for the crime of "dressing as a woman".

We approach a group that's standing, chatting. Warning them that we have a government minder in tow, we talk to "Molly" and two of her LGBT friends.

"What's changed?" I ask her.

"Now at last," she comments, twirling a bra strap, "we can wear hot clothes."

U eventually closes down the interview, but we're all standing in the moonlight below a giant billboard that reads "Tatmadaw (the army) and the people will join together to crush all opposition", so I can't help feeling that there is a measure of progress.

We're in Mingalar Mandalay's giant new mall, relaxing with a tea, when the Geiger counter goes off.

Sri, our local fixer, takes me aside. "We have got a problem," she says.

"The plan to visit the countryside tomorrow - U says it's not permitted. If we don't drop it from the schedule, he is going to confiscate the cameras."

Media caption,

Leo Johnson and his government minder

Rural contrast

The next day we borrow motorbikes, leaving U and the van stuck in rainy-season traffic as we head out towards the countryside.

As we leave the city, the gulf between rich and poor gets clearer. Some 70% of Myanmar's farmers live in poverty, with life expectancy, according to the UN, an estimated seven years shorter outside the cities.

But the real challenge may lie in the wave of development ahead.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Jade is one of the major economic activities in the city

Myanmar, the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world, according to the World Economic Forum, is rich in resources - from teak, rubies, jade and rubber to an estimated 10 trillion cubic feet of untapped oil and gas reserves.

But Myanmar ranks last, 58 out of 58 resource-rich countries, in the Natural Resource Governance Index, a rating of national capacity to mitigate impacts from resource extraction and share benefits locally.

And the strain is showing.

Upstream from Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River, plans for a Chinese-funded hydropower project bigger than the Three Gorges dam that would flood Kachin lands and deliver 90% of the power to China have been postponed in the face of local opposition and threats of conflict.

'Military monopolistic capitalism'

Passing a few miles from Mandalay, twin underground pipelines are being built to carry oil and gas from Myanmar's west coast direct to Kunming in China. The pipeline has military battalions stationed across the route, and was the object of mass protests in April around compensation for land acquisition.

I meet up with Thein Than Oo, one of the human rights lawyers leading the legal battle for compensation for Myanmar's dispossessed.

After 21 years in prison, 10 of them in solitary confinement, he's now representing some 500 clients.

"Land," he tells me, robed up between trials, is "the major issue in Myanmar, the century-long issue."

"What is Myanmar's current development model?" I ask him. "How would you describe it?"

He pauses in the wicker chair of the High Court tearoom. "Military monopolistic capitalism," he answers.

We turn to politics. "What are the hopes," I ask him, "for a victory for Aung San Suu Kyi that would address these problems?"

The problem is policy, not politics

Then the human rights lawyer surprises me. The problem is not just about politics, that she might not win, he suggests. The problem is about policy.

"They have no plan," he says, of the NLD. "They never show their face on this issue. The Lady just wants to be president, and so tries to avoid these critical and sensitive issues."

So what does the future hold in store? A change in the political structures, perhaps. Maybe even a post for the Lady.

But when it comes to the pressing challenges facing the people of Myanmar, it doesn't look as though the November elections are going to bring any quick fix.