National Geographic : 1995 Jul
omitted names. This is most necessary in the case of former political prisoners. One person tells me: "Before you are released, they say to you, 'You will not be arrested again. If you criticize SLORC, we will come and kill you.' " One evening I arrive unannounced-my usual practice because Rangoon's telephone service is unreliable -at the home of someone I believe to be a successful businessman. A man appears at the door. Several people crowd behind him. He looks relaxed in longyi and sleeveless undershirt, but shouts, "Who are you? Why have you come?" My answer makes servants and family disappear. The man hesitates, then invites me in. Within minutes I realize he is a key leader of the democracy movement. SLORC recently freed him from prison, he explains, because of family connections and because he promised not to discuss politics. "I should not be here," I say, standing. "I'm leaving." But he insists, and we keep talking. I dare not ask about the widespread torture-condemned by the United Nations and brought to life by Wendy Law-Yone in her 1993 novel, Irrawaddy Tango-andhe volun teers only one story. Shortly after his release he met a diplomat who said, "I see no scratches." "The scratches are all inside," he replied. My host is magnetic, irresistible, modest, soft-spoken, and believable when he says, "I am not afraid to die." Maybe he already knows sadness that only death can relieve. I leave at 1 a.m., reluctantly. As I step off the back porch, I touch his shoulder. The flesh feels puffy. He remains alone in the moonlight, his eyes fixed on something beyond me. ORTURE seems out of place in a coun try so imbued with the Buddha's compassionate teachings. Buddhists believe it is wrong to kill, because it hinders a being from reaching nirvana. When I was a young boy, our gardener once shouted "Stay away!" He pointed to a small bug and said, "That's very poisonous." Then he gently lifted the bug with a leaf and placed it in the neighbor's yard. Full of such memories, I return to 21 Uni versity Avenue, the house where I spent happy years. Still surrounding the house is the drain age ditch where I sailed wooden ships during monsoons. When we lived here, water buffalo wandered among thatch huts, wild dogs chased us kids past piles of trash, and I Burma, the Richest of PoorCountries once encountered a python. All are gone. The area is called Generals' Village. Rents are high, because the homes of generals always get water and electricity while the rest of Rangoon experiences daily cutbacks. I stroll to 54 University Avenue, home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader. Her father, Aung San, founded Burma's army and negotiated the country's independence from Great Britain. He was assassinated only six months before independence and has since been Burma's most venerated figure. Suu Kyi campaigned for democracy and human rights even after SLORC threatened to shoot her. In 1990 SLORC conducted an elec tion in response to international pressure. The party led by Suu Kyi won 80 percent of the seats, even though she was under house arrest. SLORC effectively nullified the election. SLORC has held Suu Kyi in custody even though she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Persistent rumors say she might be released, but she vows she will accept no conditions that compromise the pro-democracy movement. Outside her house signs say, in Burmese, "No U-turn" and "No Slowing Down." Behind a high fence and trees, Suu Kyi awak ens at dawn, meditates, listens to the short wave radio, exercises, does chores, and reads. No guards are visible. SLORC would not let me see her. Now, standing here, I want to leap over the gate, but behind it are armed guards. After I cross the street, Suu Kyi's gate opens, and a truckful of soldiers drives out. I ask two shop clerks, "Why so many soldiers?" They look through me as though no words have escaped my lips. People walk and drive by, pretending one of the world's preeminent political prisoners is not a few feet away. SLORC counts on this. It uses troops to stifle dissent and tries to placate people with economic opportunity and foreign goods. This opportunity represents a major change. Until 1988 the government imposed a harsh "Burmese Way to Socialism," which impoverished what had been Asia's leading rice exporter. Now military leaders say they welcome marketplace economics. The present SLORC policy, make-money but-shut-up-about-politics, is also being applied in China and Vietnam. No one knows how it will work. History suggests that long term prosperity produces a middle class that insists on freedom. But for now SLORC seems to be successful.