A woman, middle aged, drinking coffee from a mug that says Nescafe. She talks with my ad hoc translator, who is going around seeing which of the gathered Burmese will speak with me. I want to know why they arrived at 7:30 in the morning to stare at the massive concertina-wire-lined gates of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house for two hours until Clinton’s convoy will come careening down the wide street and then disappear behind those same gates. The woman says something in Burmese and flicks her wrist in a way that seems to say she doesn’t want to talk.
I tell the translator that I don’t need her name, I just want to know why she came this morning. Without waiting for the translation, she says in clear, crisp English. “Because we want things to change, right?”
Agent Harris, we know who you are. At least by your last name. You are a big defensive lineman of a Secret Service (or is it State Department?) agent, twice the size of any of Burmese you might have seen in your two days in this country. You could probably eat a rickshaw driver for breakfast. You have a beard. Like the rest of the security detail at the Shwedagon Pagoda, you had to take your shoes off last night. But you had to leave your Washington-issue dark suit and tie on, your earpiece in. And then you went barefoot around the temple, with your suit and your scowl. You looked ridiculous.
But we didn’t say anything, because you were just doing your job. Right? Well. Now we are saying something. Because the next morning, in the midst of an actually quite manageable scene in front of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, you decided that Matt had taken a picture of you that he should not have. Never mind that you were in the street in front of the most famous home in this country, on a day where half the neighborhood and dozens of media were camped out taking pictures of that home. Something about Matt’s pictures distressed you, so you took his camera, looked through his pictures, and deleted some of them. “You take pictures of the secretary, not of me,” you said.
You did not do this with any Burmese. Perhaps you felt like Matt, clearly your countryman, exists in a little bubble in which you can be a dick to him because he’s under your jurisdiction no matter where in the world you happen to be. Need I remind you, this is not true.
Don’t think we’re losing any sleep over any of this, Agent Harris. We sleep deeply in Rangoon, mostly because of the mild narcotic in the betel nut we keep chewing here. But it’s worth remembering—and you reminded us—that one does not always have to point fingers at Myanmar to find out that governments can get heavy with their citizens or that security agents are the same around the world.
You should know that Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters, who risk repressions beyond number, recognize that the government and the people are not always aligned in America either. I had a long conversation about freedom and hope and oppression with a former soccer player named Po La Win, 60, who was there to show support for Suu Kyi and to see Clinton arrive. During a lull in the conversation, he suddenly brightened. “I was reading last week about America, this thing called…” He consulted his friend in Burmese to remember what it was called. “Wall, something about Wall. Wall Street,” he says. “Yes. Occupy Wall Street!” He laughed. “Very good, very good. But the police, they arrested a lot of people, didn’t they?”
Po La Win’s friend—many of these people gathered seem to be friends or neighbors—is named Soe Myint Oo. But everyone calls him Sanny, Burmese for redhead. That what his grandfather called him because he was born with red hair, he says. Po La Win’s own name means Bright Moon. “We are Redhead and Bright Moon,” he says, laughing.
These are not young men. Both in their 60s. They wear the longgyi sarongs, they have battered teeth and long face whiskers. Po La Win has a fanny pack and wraparound sunglasses. He says he grew up with another guy named Redhead, and that person is now Myanmar’s foreign minister. “Go ahead,” he says. “If you see the foreign minister, just call out Redhead. He’ll turn and look because that’s what his mother called him.”
Redhead had been on this knoll across from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house a year before, when instead of dozens there were thousands to greet her on her release from house arrest. He voted for the Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy in 1990. She won then, just as he thinks she will win next year (she recently announced plans to run for parliament). But back then, the military, faced with the choice of submitting to the will of the people or suppressing it, chose to annul the election, banish the NLD, and begin the long, painful isolation of its leader.
She spent her years under house arrest at her compound on Inya Lake. The government, which has done many horrid things in the name of “protecting” her (knowing that they were the only danger to her in the first place), sealed her off with a high, drab wall topped by an elaborate weave of concertina wire. It looks most like the fortress that is the U.S. Embassy, also on University Road just down the Inya Lake shore. And so Suu Kyi’s residence became a ghost building surrounded by spies; like the old temple grounds of Bagan, the most superstitious Burmese just try to avoid it. The first cab we hailed to get there drove off without a word, and even while speaking en plein aire on Burma’s freedom showcase day, the bystanders to Clinton’s arrival were convinced that state surveillance was still tracking them.
“Now that I am here talking with you, I am sure that someone is watching us,” says Redhead. “I am sure.”
Clinton’s convoy came fast and the security staff stiffened and the big gate opened up to Suu Kyi’s house, giving a glimpse of green palm and lawn and lake that lay beyond. And then, just as quickly, the gray gates shut again.
Po La Win has been to New York. He tells me that the first night he stayed in Queens, and then he went to be with family in Brooklyn. “One day,” he says, “I just crossed the river and I walked around. Just walked, all day!”
I say that Rangoon is sort of pleasantly sleepy by comparison with New York. This wording stirs something in Po La Win. “We are sleepy because the government closed our eyes,” he says. “They closed our mouths.”
We have to leave. More appointments. We say goodbye to the men, and then to some photographers we know, then we find a cab, arrange a price, get in and start to drive off. A look back, and Redhead and Bright Eyes are still standing on the knoll, talking.