At nine on a Tuesday morning, the neatly paved streets and wide, sixteen-lane expressways of Myanmar’s capital city are completely devoid of commutters. No rush hour traffic, no school busses, no angry nine-to-fivers leaning on their horns–just pristine paved roads, perfectly manicured topiaries in green medians, and streetlights standing in neat procession like a row of soldiers. Our truck is completely alone on an enormous highway. The effect is eerie, almost like being on a movie set. This morning, we are headed to see Myanmar’s new democracy in action at the Parliament building in Nay Pyi Daw.
After passing through various fences, extensive background checks, and an actual moat, our truck screeches to a stop in front of a building with a tiered roof squatting imposingly beside sprawling green lawns (though we are in the middle of Myanmar’s dry zone). We pile out and are greeted by a number of smiling tour guides.
We are ushered into an enormous room supported by jade-encrusted columns the size of tree trunks. We’ve been told that Kachin State, in the north of Myanmar, is home to some of the world’s largest jade mines, allegedly making $31 billion a year. However, we’ve also learned that the area is the site of viscious armed conflict between the government and Kachin rebel groups, mainly over the control of the jade mines. The walls of the room are paneled in various varieties of teak wood, ranging from a sandy blond to a rich, chocolate brown. In the days of the British Raj, teak was one of Burma’s most coveted resources, though few of the old teak plantations and sawmills are in operation today. The most striking decor element, however, has to be the 30 foot tall golden structure that sits squarely in the center of the room. It is studded with gems, some as large as my fist, and perches on a pedestal made of honey-colored teak.
“What is it?” I ask one of the guides. She gestures to the object and replies, “Ah, that is a large rice bowl.” Of course. In a country plagued with widespread malnutrition, a giant, jewel-encrusted rice bowl is painfully ironic. Finally, we are permitted to go through the metal detector and into the place where the country’s decisions are made.
As we follow our guides through a maze-like series of grand hallways, our footsteps echo eerily on the cream-colored marble floors. Gesturing towards some enormous glass windows, one of our guides gleefully announces that the window panes are so large that a construction worker was killed when one fell on him. I muster an “Oh,” in response, trying to hide the horror I feel and failing miserably. She then explains that she will take us some of the more impressive rooms in the Parliament building, rooms that just recently opened up to tourism. In one room, oil paintings depict various sanitized scenes of life in Myanmar: cheerful-looking villagers launching colored lanterns into a pristine mountain stream, men in traditional costume dancing surrounded by smiling, rosy-cheeked children. The next room is a high-ceilinged banquet hall, with tall, tufted velvet chairs and silk tablecloths. Our guide mentions proudly that foreign dignataries like then-secretary Hillary Clinton have eaten here. Dominating the front wall is a mural featuring various historical dynasties in Myanmar. Nestled among lush painted jungles sprawl the powerful ancient cities of Bagan, Amarapura, and Mrauk U, ostensibly alongside a depiction of Nay Pyi Daw. Clearly, the designers weren’t aiming for subtlety.
We follow a group of young women up several flights of stairs, and are directed to a balcony that overlooks the whole Session. Below us, hundreds of MPs in a rainbow of brightly colored traditional clothing mill about. I can see men in green Shan pants chatting congenially with women who have paired their power suit jackets with graceful flowered tamein. Men sporting traditional Burman checked longyi scroll on their smartphones, pastel-hued silk gaung baungs covering gray hair. I see a cane Kachin hat and a Karen headscarf, Shan jackets and Kayah trousers and scores of other ethnic outfits I can’t identify. Some MPs tote black leather breifcases, some have NLD buttons pinned to their lapels, and a few have newspapers tucked under their arm. The air is electric and anticipatory, and one can sense the novelty of this legislative process. These are not the world-weary, suit-clad politicians I think of from home. These are people who are still excited to have a role in their country’s new democracy, and eager to help spur change.
My gaze drifts to the other, more subdued side of the room. In stark contrast to the diverse rows of excited, chattering MPs, the fourth section of the room is occupied by men sporting drab, olive green military uniforms balefully staring straight ahead. They somehow seem physically larger than the sprightly MPs, and their obvious presence adds an ominous, “Big Brother” feel to the scene. Because the military by law occupies 1/4 of the seats in Parliament and a bill needs more than a 3/4 majority to pass, the military can effectively veto any bill, even if the members that are actually elected pass it unanimously. Seeing the eager, diverse MPs so ready to make change, and yet always under the watchful eye of the military made it clear to me that the Myanmar government is democratic, but only as democratic as the Tatmadaw wants it to be.
Suddenly, the room falls silent, and heads turn to a door on the right side of the stage. A slight, elderly man in a velvet robe struts out, preceeded by a scurrying assistant of some kind carrying a long golden mace. The two parade around the stage for some time before the assistant reverently places the mace in a golden stand at the center of the stage to much fanfare. This, apparently, is the signal for the session to begin. The robed man slowly settles himself in an intricately carved teak throne behind the scepter, and the assistant scampers back out the door. Presently, the meeting is called to order, and an MP begins to speak in rapid Burmese accompanied by a PowerPoint. He flashes a picture of a small bridge in Chin State, followed by another small bridge. Then, another MP speaks, and more images of small rural bridges appear on the screen. For a moment, I’m confused. I had expected the Parliament to discuss some of the many problems Myanmar faces; something like the multiple ongoing ethnic conflicts, an abysmal educational system, increasing threat of international sanctions, environmental degradation, lack of healthcare, drug trafficking, or any number of productive topics for discourse. Instead, I watch for two hours as members of the national parliament suggest that there should be a comission who oversees the timely construction of road projects, and then agree with each other that yes, there should be such a commission. Isn’t this more of a departmental issue? I thought to myself. Shouldn’t road quality assurance be something that comes after solving your decades-long armed ethnic conflicts and your mounting tensions with the international community? Later, Siang explained that the Myanmar government is reluctant to decentralize power to its regional governments, even the power to build roads within their division, because it fears another coup. This paranoia results in a painfully inefficient government.
The Parliament building, as well as Nay Pyi Daw itself, is the perfect manifestation of the inequality and corruption in Myanmar. Just days before my visit to Parliament, we had been in rural Chin State, where most people live in three or four room houses with no electricity or running water, sleep on thin plastic mats, send their children to crowded, underfunded government schools, and regularly die of treatable conditions like appendicitis and infections because they can’t get to the hospital on the treacherous mountain roads. The jade pillars, the gargantuan rice bowl, the oil paintings, and the other trappings seemed ludicrous things for a government to splurge on when nearly a third of its population lives below the international poverty line. I found myself wondering where the country might be had they skipped the frivolous decor and used the money to support peace-keeping efforts or improve the quality of the educational system.
After an hour or so, I need to use the restroom, and slip out one of the doors in the balcony. It opens onto a long linolium hallway and I step down it, hoping there might be a bathroom at the end. Through the open doors, I can hear the clicking of computer keys, a printer working, and slightly muffled voices. The cubicles I can see through the windows look like those in any American office building. Though the Parliament room was bordering on chilly, this hallway is stifiling. As I pass the second door it strikes me that maybe I’d be better off just asking one of the guides that were stationed at the top of the balcony, and I’m about to turn around when I notice the signs. Above each door is a sign which includes the Burmese and, for some reason, the English purpose of each room. “Speech-Writing Department” “Technology Department”and the oddly on-the-nose “Propaganda Department”. Feeling a profound sense I’m breaking some sort of rule by being here, I speed-walk to the end of the hall and turn in what I think is the general direction of the lobby. When I finally make it back to the approved area, I ask a guide where the toilet is and am appointed a brigade of three longyi-clad ladies to escort me to the “guest” restroom. As three pairs of eyes are trained on me as I wash my hands, I fight the urge to laugh.
Nay Pyi Daw may look new and shiny, the pristine capital of a newly democratic nation poised to take its place beside its neighbors as an economic powerhouse, but the “City of Kings” fails to disguise the undercurrents of greed and malfeasance that permeate the country’s politics. Until recently Myanmar has beens seen as a international success of the triumph of democracy over tyrants. But, as I saw today, all it takes is one wrong turn to unmask the ugly workings that still lie underneath.