9 November 2023
I visited Myanmar (Burma) in December 2017.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prize winning daughter of the founder of modern Burma, who was immensely popular with the people had been elected in a landslide in 2015. She and her party had boycotted the 2010 elections as farcical, but the military dictatorship had allowed her to stand in 2015, where she had won with 86% of the parliamentary seats.
Despite this win, the military junta still refused to yield power and kept the critical portfolios in the Cabinet, so she was nominally in charge and trying to change the system but her hands were largely tied. It was hard to get anyone to talk about politics, and few spoke English, but I had enough contacts to let me in on the situation.
It was a third world country trying to develop tourism. It had some relatively modern tourist buses but few hotels of a reasonable standard. (This did not bother me as a lifetime backpacker). Most cars were old, but there were a significant number of modern ones. The only feature of these was that they were right hand drive in a country that drives on the right, so the drivers were on the wrong side when it came to overtaking. It was because Japan had made a number of recent model second hand cars available and these had been snapped up.
Yangon, the biggest city and historical capital had a building that should have been the Parliament and it was in quite good condition but mothballed and currently not used for anything. The city was third world, crowded and prone to blackouts, so many buildings had diesel generators in the street outside, which were turned on when the blackouts came, making pretty bad pollution worse.
The people were friendly and courteous, and keen to develop the new tourism industry that had opened up under the same pressure on the military government that had led to the elections. There was a palpable tension between the population and the military, who moved around with surly expressions as if they knew that they were hated, but were not going to give ground.
This was very evident in Mandalay, the second largest city, which has an old palace in a large fortified area, complete with a moat. The military have taken control of all but the central palace with signs forbidding anyone walking in the extensive (neglected) gardens. They have a large depot within the grounds and a surly military guard post at the gate that inspects passports.
The other major expression of this separateness was in Naypyidaw, the capital. This city was recently built with Chinese money and is in the mountains about 3 hours drive from Yangon, presumably to make it less vulnerable to possible revolution. It is very modern with 8 lane highways with absolutely minimal traffic. The foreigners were in a cluster of large modern hotels, again Chinese-built. The hotels were remarkably cheap for their standard, but I noted that at 9pm there were almost no lights on in any of the rooms and there were only about 20 people for breakfast in our large international-standard hotel. The foreign hotel area was a bus ride from where the people lived, and that was not a large area. The National library was a modern air-conditioned building, not partially large. We were about the only people in it apart from the staff. It was on a bus route, but nowhere near any population centre.
Four years later, in February 2021, there was a military coup and Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested on a number of charges related to national security. She has been in prison ever since on charges that the western countries have called politically motivated. It seems that her major crime was to use a two-way radio phone network that was not accessible to the military junta. Her economic advisor, Australian Professor Sean Turnell was also tried without an interpreter and gaoled. He was released in November 2022 after 21 months in detention and representations from the Australian government. There was some resistance to the coup and some people were killed. Resistance is ongoing and almost certainly widely supported, but it has had minimal publicity in the western or Australian media since Prof Turnell’s release.
The reason for this post is that a soccer team from Myanmar with strong junta connections is to play Macarthur FC in Sydney shortly. This looks like a sportswashing exercise to legitimise the government and lessen its isolation.
I suggest that you write to Penny Wong and ask that they not be given visas www.pennywong.com.au/contact/, and to Macarthur FC and ask that they not play them, email: email@example.com. Here is the request from the Australian Coalition for Democracy in Burma: