Biking in Burma: The Lady, Big Changes and A Mystery Guest in Rangoon

By Htoo Tay Zar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Lady By Htoo Tay Zar

So, how goes it in Burma these days?  RICHARD LUTZ  put on his lycra and biked through this country famous for its iconic leader just out of house arrest after 20 years.

It makes sense to have a flashlight when walking at night in Burma. Motorcycles, cars without headlights, stray dogs, buses rammed with passengers make a road an obstacle course.

Pavements buckle and are pitted with crevices, sudden holes yawn and the ever present spit-stains of betal juice splat the broken walkways. Sidewalk stalls sell food, newspapers, clothes and, if you want to get someplace, it seems, it’s fair odds you will stub your toe in the dark, stumble into someone’s outdoor shop or  break a leg from tripping on something you really don’t want to trip on. Or simply get lost in the tangle of streets without lighting.

In the town of Bagan, a riverside city studded with 2200 Buddhist temples, I am manoeuvring through the dirt and dust streets past tearoom after tearoom. I have my flashlight.

The tea shops are a circus of life, many packed tight with customers. They love their beer here- local brands include Mandalay and Myanmar- and their  whisky- local favourites are Columbus, Royal Grand and, my alltime stand out, Hero. Top of the whisky scale is Johnny Walkers.

I pass one large tearoom that is especially noisy. And so it should be. The room, open to the hot blanket of the night, is split in half, each served with a big flatscreen.

The 2 tvs are next to each other and banging out the sound. On one is the inevitable football. Burma loves the English Premiership. Just say Man U or Chelsea to almost anyone in this country and a smile sparkles. A row of monks, drinking water, sit in a quiet row among the footie fans.

On the other screen is a new Burmese satellite station that covers the rising fortunes of the National League for Democracy, led by the saintly international superstar Aung San Suu Kyi, known here in Burma as The Lady.

This channel gives wall to wall coverage of NLD rallies, conferences, and impromptu interviews. It is free speech on the airwaves in this country on the cusp of change.

Tonight, in this noisy tearoom, the coverage is of a street interview with Ms Suu Kyi, now 67 and a backbench member in  Burma’s fledging civilian Parliament. She is surrounded by reporters and she carefully, slowly answers each question. She launches into long involved answers.

There is no doubt this international star, this Nobel Peace prize winner, this  victim of a house arrest for 20 years and now free, likes talking.

But maybe she needs to. Now that she is no longer a semi-beatified prisoner, she has to take the shots like any other politician. She refused to back demonstrators who are being kicked off their land because of a new mining venture by the Chinese; she backs the heavyhanded army in its fight with borderland rebels; she’s been criticised for not allowing younger party members to take more responsibility; and, she is learning about power and compromise.

Lord knows what the subject is tonight as half the tearoom listens in despite the football clamour from the other screen. Everything is in Burmese, geared to the locals, not Europeans, the Chinese nor the Americans.

But it really doesn’t matter what Suu Kyi is saying. The fact is she is allowed to say it on local tv, that her comments are obviously unedited and directed towards  the  voters, the farm workers, to the students, to dissatisfied Karin rebels on the borders. Once you give freedom of speech in the media, the genie is out of the bottle.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s  is everywhere, not just on the tv.  In the two weeks I spent on a bicycle careening  through the central part of this awakening nation, I saw her attractive but aging face on posters, wall paintings, coffee mugs, cell phone covers and sides of cars and taxis. T-shirts with her iconic face are worn by little kids, lorry drivers, waiters, students, shop owners.

In bold contrast to her omnipresence, the forces she opposes, the hardline military with its standing army of up to 3 million according to some estimates, is nowhere to be seen. If not fighting rebels in the north, they are back in the barracks, off the streets, off the roads, out of the city neighbourhoods where they so many times violently crushed opposition.

Soldiers are simply not to be seen.

Burma is changing. But so many questions arise. Even the name of the country creates debate. It is formally now called Myanmar. The generals changed it because the name Burma smacked of the detested British colonial era. But Aung San Suu Kyi said it should stay Burma because no decision should be imposed on a nation.

It is the right of a democracy, she said, for people to decide what to call their own country.

But a man who shared tea with me in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) disagreed. ‘Myanmar is a better name. It includes the ethnic states which have not been happy. Burma is a name for only one ethnic group- the Burmans.’

So, the disagreements continue, even about what to call the country.

The next day, after the multi screen extravaganza in the tearoom, I take to the bike again with friends. The city soon melts away and the quiet roads, the villages that are strung along dirt and sandy paths, drift by.

Many of the rural communities have their own NLD offices now. They are small buildings, proudly waving the Burmese flag and definitely not prone to siege, strict control or damaged by unknown forces. They are a part of the little towns we pass though, the villages where we stop to get out of the intense heat or the farming hamlets where we sit in shade to have a cup of Chinese tea or a canned drink.

On the sides of buildings, alongside the inevitable picture of Ms Suu Kyi, many times there is a photograph of a young soldier, in uniform with a quiet intense expression looking out on the passing scooters, buses and ox carts.

Staring out from this back and white photograph is Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. And his story makes interesting reading and defines a conflict, a contradiction emblematic of the country’s inner problems.

In his youth, her father, Aung San, was part of the ever present anti British independence movement. The Empire was detested. Burma received nothing from the British except a stiff upper lip and a slap around the chops if things became heated.

When the Second World War erupted, the young student headed for Japan to be trained as a soldier to take on the British. He fought alongside the Japanese for 3 years until, in 1945, he saw the light and joined the Allies.

A bit opportunistic, some would say, as the Allies were rolling in anyway. Suu Kyi’s father knew he had to be close to power.  But, in 1947,  just two months before Burma was given its freedom, this young soldier with a two year old daughter called Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated, some allege with British connivance.

Now he is lionised alongside his universally known daughter.

So a young soldier’s wan face is there as a rallying point against…yes, the very military of which he was such a part.  Against the very military that he helped create that ultimately stepped on Burma’s population for so long. The very military that kept his daughter imprisoned and silenced.

The army, so menacingly invisible back in barracks, must eye up not only Suu Kyi’s emerging democracy movement but, also,  a second phalanx of change. And that’s the Buddhist monks.

They are a force unto themselves and an integral part of this deeply religious country.

Their nut brown faces exude calm and they glide through the streets in crimson robes. But their serenity can mask a steely determination, whether it is to get up every day at 3.30 to meditate or continually ask for alms for their monasteries with their silver begging bowls.

Or take to the streets when they know people are being brutalised by an iron fisted regime.

You can’t ignore this Buddhist influence in Burma. It is infused in  everyday life. I watch in Mandalay as a group of young monks- they must have been 6 or 7 years old – go from shop to shop in a small street asking for food. They weren’t brushed off or shooed away.

Food, small items were dutifully offered up to the boys as part of an everyday ritual.

The same goes when the nuns, bald and in their pinks robes, ask for alms. This is not begging. It is support for the local temple or monastery and it is part of Burmese life.

The army must carefully watch, from their hidden military camps, these two factions: the democracy movement and the religious orders.

But why let democracy take hold after so many years- more than 50- of ruling with a firm grip that caused so many sanctions to be imposed?

One man told me a young generation of army bosses simply saw that the country was going to wrack and ruin. It was all getting too tough. Burma couldn’t survive without trade outside of China and the few still-friendly neighbours. It was simply time to lighten up.

For me, one real change would illustrate a move forward. Mandalay, dirty, noisy, grindingly busy, commercial, is built around the green lung of the Palace Gardens. A 50 metre wide moat surrounds the enormous parklands. Towering walls hide the serene greenery inside and the pagoda-like palace.

You can only enter this massive park by the east gate. And it soon becomes apparent why.

It is not a park. It is a military camp.

A grid of roads head off to barracks, parade grounds, admin blocks and, I presume, arsenals and military storerooms, all there right in the centre of this sprawling city.

Once inside, you can only walk along one route to the Palace Gardens. I do. Army camp life quietly goes on as you amble down the kilometre long straight road towards the palace. I stop at a tearoom. Off duty soldiers smoke, discuss their beloved motorcycles, wash laundry in the barracks behind, the radio is on. Others sit, under awnings, drink tea, wait for orders.

To me, the day the army quits this potentially pleasant park, which sits in Mandalay city centre like Central Park sits in the middle of New York or Hyde Park sits in the middle of London, is when real normalcy will return.

Then the massive grounds can be where families come for a day out, lovers can stroll and friends meet lads play football. It can be a real part of Mandalay rather than a potentially ominous reminder of who still, unfortunately, rules this small poor country.

Later, in Yangon, I rest my weary legs after day upon day of cycling. I am no cyclist. Sir Wiggo has no worries about me creeping up on him on a 7 kilometre hill in 100F heat.

The bike trip, with its offroad bumps, its long tarmac climbs, its gentle push along quiet canals, is over. Bags packed, we head off for the poshest hotel in the capital to celebrate that we finished the trip.

The Governor’s Residence is out of a Bond film, greenery everywhere, a world away from the dust, dirt and clamour of Yangon. Trees and flower beds decorate the grounds.

In this oasis, discreet tables under awnings serve white wine, the pool shimmers in the heat, the sun loungers are filled with…well, loungers, waiters wait for customers in its open air upper verandah where a breeze magically drifts in, and Tony Blair takes in the heat of the afternoon sun.


Tony Blair?

There he is, blinking in the daze of heat, looking trim and tanned in a golf shirt, shorts and sandals.

He is being ushered to a quiet table under a spreading tree. Four secret service men in black suits with earpieces sit at a nearby table, in quiet attendance.

The visit has not been announced. It’s informal, under the radar.

The big guys are coming through, I would guess. To check out the contacts, the politics, the meetings with the quasi civilian government bosses and the obligatory chat with Suu Kyi.

Checking out, maybe, just what is going to happen next in Burma, in Myanmar, this country ready to change. If  it’s allowed.

4 thoughts on “Biking in Burma: The Lady, Big Changes and A Mystery Guest in Rangoon

  1. I feel I’m there.  Thanks for this adventure…free and  from my armchair. Great writing.  

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