After having a meal at one of the street-side stalls, a group of teenaged kids sat down and decided they wanted to talk. After going through the nicities of life in Myanmar and in Australia, I took the conversation toward discussing politics, a risky subject and the best of times and potentially dangerous in a place like this. In trying to provoke a response, I quietly mentioned the name of a particular democracy leader under house arrest, and before completing the second syllable had been given the fiercest Shhhhhhhhhhhh I had experienced outside a classroom with Mrs Soccio. All of them turned to me and put their finger to their lips, librarian style, and stared without blinking. Even amongst kids who have lived all their lives under the current regime, the political importance of that one figure is fully known. In Yangon, that name is not one to mention. Instead, apparently, the local euphemism is The Lady.
The Lady is almost universally admired and respected amongst Myanmari people, but her name and her photo appear no where. She is a ghost figure who seems to exist only in the consciousness of people who have lived through her struggle. Whilst there is much hissing resentment at the current regime, there seems to be little attempt to actively undermine it. Instead it is recognised as a fact of life, yet another hardship to be dealt with along with all the other things which have afflicted the Myanmar people.
There are many touts who linger on street corners indiscreetly targetting cashed up Westerners with offers of dollars, tours, taxi or pussy (their words, not mine), and it is usually best to ignore them. I was lucky enough to meet one guy who was a little more charming and worldly then the rest. Determined to get to know me (and possibly my wallet) he joined me at a park bench as I was reading a greying late 60s book I'd bought at a stall, which, given the heavy censorship, passes as a new release and a gripping read.
The two of us sat down and started talking, and he was fascinated by me studying political science, a subject which is generally banned here. Through talking in discreet code about the G and the M and the P and The Lady (work em out, it's not too hard) he told me plenty about life in this place, and how much it has changed over the 15 years since the suspension of democracy. Then he asked me if I was interested in seeing the Lady's home. The potential for ambiguity aside, this was an offer that couldn't be refused.
To get there would be a challenge. The road itself is heavily policed, and there are boomgates 50 metres either side. The street is a couple of kilometres north of the city, near Yangon University. Vehicles with red number plates are banner (these are generally taxis) so it is necessary to have a black number plate (private vehicle), and it is absolutely forbidden to stop when between the two boomgates. It is generally unwise to tell the world of your intention, so the two of us came up with a cover story that saw us desperately keen to visit a hotel just the other side of the street we were keen to visit. After several attempts, we finally found a driver who was willing to take us to the hotel. With some appalling Myanmari pop music blaring through the sound system to drown out our conversation, the two of us in the back seat talked about the streets we were passing through. Though the site itself is rather unremarkable, to have a chance to go past and see the house was a great honour. And so begins my life working undercover.
More thoughts when on safer ground.
Over and out.