A rather jetlagged Emma, her son Tindy and ActionAid's CEO Joanna Kerr arrive in Yangon/Rangoon, capital of Myanmar/Burma and notice immediately that it is not just the names that are a-changing
Tindy and I meet our friend Joanna Kerr (ActionAid’s blisteringly bright and witty CEO) in Terminal Three before an 11½-hour daytime plane trip that lands us into Bangkok in the morning which means, presumably, we’ll have to stay awake for two days running.
During the flight, Tindy [Emma's son] watches Top Gun and pronounces it “unadulterated propaganda”. Jo does 7000 emails and I stare into space wondering how I’m going to stay awake for two days running.
On the way to Rangoon (old name) or Yangon (new name) we read many articles about Aung San Suu Kyi, or The Lady as she is known.
I wonder about the possibilities for development under a military dictatorship. The human rights record in this country has been so appalling for so long, none of us can quite imagine what or how anything gets done.
The reason ActionAid is welcome in a country which admits far fewer international charities than most, is on account of its excellent work in 2008 after a cyclone called Nargis hit the country, killing 150,000. ActionAid had been working in Burma (old name) Myanmar (new name) since 2006, developing young leaders through what they call the Fellowship Programme. These young people were able to get into devastated communities and help to rebuild them.
The question of what to call this country is a vexed one. Exiles, not wishing to accept the name given to their beloved home by the junta, call it Burma. But we are told everyone who lives there now calls it Myanmar.
We arrive in the ex-capital at 9 AM, all of us in tatters from the journey.
Rangoon is exquisitely reminiscent of some parts of Borneo, a country I spent a month in earlier on this year. Very colourful, rambling, alive with street-vendors and full of bright green and gigantic foliage, like house-plants on steroids.
I blink through the jet-lagged eyes at the ancient Toyotas that flood the streets, passing the lake that lies before the Lady’s house. I feel like I’m in a tropical Camelot. Shaven-headed monks in red togas cross the roads under wooden brollies. I expect one to turn and be Yul Brynner. It’s that sort of place.
A vendor approaches our car and waves a magazine at us. It is called The Future and has a big picture of The Lady on the front. Shihab, the beaming, chatty Bangladeshi who is ActionAid’s country director here waggles his finger at it excitedly. “You see, this is very new!” he says “Even a month ago you would not have seen this being sold on the street!”
Indeed, he says, up to two weeks ago he would probably have been too nervous to sanction our trip. But since The Lady met with President TheinSein two months ago, everything seems to be loosening up. The vendor, excited by my purchase of his magazine, now proceeds to unfurl a gigantic poster of Aung San Suu Kyi. He must know she appeals to Westerners.
Behind some rundown sixties buildings rise the golden turrets of the Shwedagon Pagoda. There are a million celibate monks here, and half a million nuns.