When a country transforms

'So has Myanmar changed a lot in the last couple of years?" My tour guide Khine pauses for a second, like he's weighing up his options, deciding how far he wants to take this.

I'm not trying to talk about politics because if there's one thing I know about Myanmar it's that you don't talk about politics. It makes people uncomfortable. In fact, talking about anything makes some people uncomfortable here.

Until a few years ago the Burmese weren't even allowed to speak to foreigners unless they had a licence. Tourism and hospitality staff had licences; most other people didn't. That's not a culture that goes away easily.

So for those reasons, I'm not trying to talk to Khine about politics. What I'm asking is about his country as a whole. Western tourists have arrived. Chinese businessmen have arrived. Tall buildings are going up. Old ones are being knocked down. It's a country in the grip of change.

But how much?

The two of us are dripping sweat as we pull up seats at a plastic table at the teahouse. It's a little neighbourhood place, a bustling, open area under a tin roof. The waiters, mostly boys in their early teens, shuffle through the crowds carrying cups of sweet, spiced tea, dropping them down in front of diners who talk among themselves or stare at TVs.

"We need tea," says Khine. We've spent the morning visiting a few of Mandalay's main tourist sights, fighting crowds and traffic and heat, and it's time for a break.

Until now, my tour of his native city has been accompanied by carefully selected recollections of Burmese history and current affairs. We've focused on the good stuff: Aung San Suu Kyi, the recent opening of the country's doors, and its long history of kingdoms and dynasties.

We haven't mentioned modern-day politics, the military junta that has held Myanmar in an iron grip since the '60s.


So when I lob an innocent question about change in the country once known as Burma, I'm not expecting things to get too deep. But they're about to.

Khine pauses over his tea. Then he opens up. "When I was a student," he says, subconsciously lowering his voice, "things were bad. Very bad."

It turns out this genial tour guide, this lovely young guy who has been showing me the ancient sites of his city, teaching history in a soft voice, was once something of a revolutionary. He attended student protests against the military regime; after a while he began organising them.

"But people were watching me," he says, taking another sip of tea. "Government people. Police."

He knew he was edging closer to arrest. You couldn't express dissent back then. You'd be locked up. They'd chuck away the key. So the day he was walking home and spotted policemen near his house, he knew something was up.

He watched as they walked into his building. His life, as he knew it, was over.

"From then, I was on the run," he tells me. "I couldn't stay in Mandalay. I couldn't see my family. So I fled."

Khine made it to Yangon, somehow, where he lived off the grid for the next three years. He scoured streets for food. He did odd jobs, cleaning houses for small change. He slept rough. He bunked down in abandoned houses.

Finally, things began to change in Myanmar, and the police offered an amnesty to any potential political prisoners who were still on the run.

"But we didn't trust them," he says. "So we stayed in hiding."

However, after seeing a few fellow fugitives turn themselves in and be pardoned, he decided to do the same thing. All charges against him were dropped, and he went back to being a student: this time, to become a tour guide.

It seems unbelievable that he is here in this teahouse now, sitting in front of me, a one-time political fugitive whose life has changed for the better.

Forget the monuments we've seen today. Forget the temples and the palaces. Forget everything else that's happened in Myanmar so far. This short tea break with my tour guide has taught me more about life in Myanmar than any of those edifices could.

It gives the tourism experience some perspective. There's beauty in Myanmar, but it has a dark present and past. For me, the country is a sight to enjoy. For this man and his friends, it's a battle to be won.

As we shake hands and part ways, I realise there's at least a huge positive to his harrowing experience. In the last few years, his country has changed.

The writer travelled in Myanmar as a guest of World Expeditions.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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