Myanmar First Takes

December 19, 2019

I walk down colonial era streets that course with cosmopolitan energy. My WiFi runs on a mesh network, but is powered by a grid that goes dark one quarter of the year. Old and new seems to blend fluidly into an altogether indescribable phenomena.

Politcal ScienceHistory
Yangon, Myanmar

It's a busy time. The President has finally been impeached (I predicted it would be less than a year, but hey first term still feels within the margin of error), the holidays have arrived (bringing either respite or anxiety depending on who you ask), and the last Star Wars (at least for this decade) is about to be released! All the way out here in Myanmar, I've rediscovered my appreciation for these small American cultural touchstones.

Yes, for those I have not updated, I am now in Myanmar (occasionally called Burma, a topic we can broach at a later time). I've been here for almost three weeks, based in Yangon, the largest city and de facto capital (why it's no longer the actual capital is another interesting conversation). I've found Myanmar so fascinating precisely because these conversations are so fresh. Myanmar was ruled exclusively by military dictatorship from 1962 to 2010. They had their first (not really) real election in 2010, and only had a (slight more) real election in 2015. This political history creates a jarring duality that permeates almost every aspect of Burmese life.

In my first weeks in Myanmar, I am constantly struck by a barrage of paradoxes. I walk down colonial era streets that course with cosmopolitan energy. My WiFi runs on a mesh network with custom coded load balancers, but is powered by a grid that goes dark one quarter of the year. Old and new seem to blend fluidly into an altogether indescribable phenomena.

One the one hand, not too much has changed since 1962. I've already spent entire days walking along Yangon streets lined entirely by British colonial-constructed buildings. Insurance does not really exist here. I've read reports that some government offices still forgo computers. And every morning on my way to work, I pass by a CD shop, and while I know CD's are supposedly a modern technology, this above all else makes living in Yangon feel like time travel.

But on the other hand, debates that feel strangled by their own history in the U.S. are violently alive here in Myanmar. Not than all of this liveliness is necessarily hopeful. The transition from military rule to civilian-led democracy is certainly not going according to plan. In many ways is going calamitously wrong, like last week when Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winning civilian leader, went in front of the International Court of Justice to defend that same military against accusations of genocide. Such moments feel so consequential, however, precisely because the nation has only existed on the global stage for such a short period of time.

Every decision (the name of the country and location of the capital only the first among many) takes on the importance of a nation defining itself for the first time. I don't just mean this metaphorically either. Declaring independence from the British Empire in 1948, it only took months before the country had fallen into multiple civil wars. Depending on how you cross your T's and dot you I's, you can even argue that some of those wars are still ongoing. But no one disputes that democracy was killed on March 2, 1962, when General Ne Win staged his coup. From that day until November 8, 2015, the country's existence was defined exclusively by the generals.

The person tasked with bringing democracy back, of course, is "Daw Su," an honorific that literally translates to "Auntie Su." Keep in mind that Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the revolutionary who is credited with freeing Burma from British rule back in 1947. Murdered six months before independence was formally declared, he is still considered the father of the nation. To be fair, America has had three sets of father-child rulers. But the irony remains that Myanmar's hope for true democracy is predicated on continuously electing their founder's daughter. Again, here in Myanmar, old and new seem to exist within one another.

Trying to describe this feeling to my roommate, an American who has been based in Myanmar since 2013, he came up with the phrase "time-warp of anachronisms." I'm not quite sure what it means either, but we both agree it feels appropriate.