I’ve come to the conclusion that you can tell a lot about a place from how it treats new arrivals; specifically at passport control. (It’s superficial, I know, but so far after visiting fifteen countries in the last fifteen years —not all of them blogged about—my theory holds true.)
Myanmar had been at war with itself for fifty years when I arrived in Yangon this time last year and I didn’t know what to expect. What sort of people can do that to each other for so long? Would they be fierce, argumentative, distrustful of foreigners?
The country was going to the polls, the first democratic election in twenty-five years. Some thought John and I were taking unnecessary risks visiting the country right then. I can’t pretend our timing was purposeful; it was coincidence but one we didn’t shy away from.
To my surprise at the airport there weren’t guns on display, or none that I saw. There were no aggressive officials. There was a small, efficiently processed queue and abounding kindness. Welcome to Myanmar, said the gentleman who stamped my passport and then kindly pointed me towards baggage claim.
Everyone: the cleaners in the bathroom facilities, customs officials, the woman who procured a taxi for us; they were all smiling, welcoming, and kind and gentle. What’s more, by the time we arrived at our hotel an hour later, the taxi driver had given us our first introduction to Myanmar political analysis from a local’s point of view. I was fascinated. I also felt welcome, and certain our decision to visit was the right one.
The world’s attention was on that election. There were concerns about whether it was actually democratic, about the extent of interference from the military, and others, in their attempt to control the outcome and to retain power. International observers, some from New Zealand, were present.
People we met shared with us their worries, their hopes, their dreams for their country. They told us stories of oppression, resistance, patience, and then after the election was over, of victory.
The citizenry so highly valued their right to vote that people queued for hours to exercise that right. The queues we saw were quiet, orderly, long. For days afterwards people proudly displayed their inked finger, a sign they’d voted and who they gave their support to. Suu Kyi’s NLD party had the sweet victory of a landslide. My post Election Day in Myanmar has more details of my impressions at the time.
In terms of progress towards democracy there was still a lot to be done but, nevertheless, it was a big step forward. It hasn’t been plain sailing since. It was never going to be. Myanmar’s political, social, and cultural challenges are complex and long standing.
The people of Myanmar were interested in us, too: in our lives; what we thought of their country and their way of life. Life is hard for the average person, ours is charmed by comparison, but their kindness shows—as does their interest in us. In almost every photograph of a crowd I took during that month someone is looking straight at me, never with suspicion, always with curiosity, usually with warmth and kindness.
This week, one year later, like so many all over the world, I’ll be watching the election in the United States. The contrast is stark.
I’m not filled with hope. I don’t see a big step forward, whatever the outcome. This time, from the nation that so many regard as the foremost world power, that considers itself the leader of the “free-world”, reports have emerged of overt interference—from other foreign leaders, from Wikileaks, from their own FBI.
This time, whatever the outcome, I am fearful for the USA, for democracy, for world order.
God Bless America. God protect the rest of us.