These days, they do it with a smile and wait patiently for you to finish your dinner. Well, at least the two young officers of Myanmar’s Special Police branch in Mawlamyinegyun did. They accosted us at the modest restaurant on the banks of the Irrawaddy within an hour of our arrival in the small, dusty town. They wanted to see our passports and write down our names, employer’s name and, most importantly, what we were doing in town. This, despite having been informed in advance of our visit to the ILO’s cyclone recovery infrastructure project.
I was told by my colleague from the ILO Office in Myanmar that they were probably just being cautious, wanting to make sure they wouldn’t get into trouble with their superiors.
The following day, we took a trip on a fishing boat down the river to Maeikthalinkune, one of the villages where the ILO has built footpaths and jetties. The village headman joined our meeting with former project workers and community leaders and took notes. He too asked us to write down our names and reason for visiting the village. And when a colleague asked the men whether they still needed permission to travel outside the village, (as was the case before the 2010 election), the headman jumped in and gave us a slightly non sequitur answer, saying that after the election every headman was sent on compulsory training on such matters as forced labour and told they faced prison if they forced people to work.
These two episodes reminded me of my first visits to Myanmar. When I first went there, back in the mid-90’s, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest; it was impossible to meet openly the members of her party, the National League for Democracy, and most student leaders and other activists were in exile in Thailand.
On the streets of Yangon, then Myanmar’s capital, passers-by eyed the few Western faces, (mostly tourists), with curiosity and, sometimes, gave the distinct expression of being eager to talk. But they dared not approach visitors for fear of being watched. Those brave enough to talk with foreigners were usually visited in the middle of the night by military intelligence or special police officers.
The international radio services of the BBC, Voice of America and others were jammed.
Yangon felt trapped in a time bubble, with its neglected colonial buildings, old cars and traditional tea shops where men in sarongs and flip-flops sat on small wooden chairs on the pavement and drank sugary tea, their grin revealing teeth stained red from the chewing of betel leaves.
I visited Yangon again in late 1995, after Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest. I was allowed to meet her at her beautiful, half-empty home by the lake. More importantly, she had been addressing crowds that would gather outside her gate on week-ends. They came in their thousands – old and young, Buddhist monks and activists or ordinary men and women, all in thrall of ‘the Lady’. You could feel the energy and the exhilaration in the air. And you could feel too the prying eyes and long lenses of military intelligence officers and plainclothes policemen.
Nowadays the media are free. The news channels from the BBC and other global broadcasters are accessible in hotel rooms.
And people in Yangon are no longer afraid to talk. But they remain cautious: “We’ve had false starts before,” someone tells me.
Yet, this time it does seem different. Since former general- turned- president, Thein Sein, came to power following the controversial 2010 elections, the speed and depth of reform has surprised even the regime’s critics.
At the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi recently declared her wish to run for president in 2015, (which would require a constitutional amendment). The Nobel Peace laureate is revered among the country’s Burman majority and considered a democracy icon around the world. But as she makes the transition from hero to politician, running for office, she’s begun to attract the first criticisms, not least for her reticence about the Rohingya – a Muslim ethnic minority group not recognised as Myanmar citizens under the country’s constitution.
The ethnic tensions can yet derail the democratisation process.
Much else could go wrong too, analysts say, from the commitment to democratic reform among the military and top leaders other than Thein Sein, to the country’s dire need to make up for time lost since the first military rulers introduced the “Burmese way to socialism” back in 1962.
But that’s for another day.
The Special Police officers who took down our names left with a hand-shake.
They may or may not have watched us discreetly while we went about town. For now, all that’s visible, whether in Yangon or Maeikthalinkune, is the sense of possibility that the future brings.
Read the special report on Myanmar in the World of Work special 2013 issue