Emma meets a man who was imprisoned by the junta. He spent no fewer than 20 years in jail for student activism, five of those in solitary. Despite all the hardship, there is a romantic twist in the tale.
Dazzled, after meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, we repair to a tea-shop where we meet two people who were imprisoned by the junta. They are inexpressibly moving – in 1988 the man (and we cannot yet use their names which speaks for itself) was studying English at University whilst running a car agency to support his studies. He was a student activist and was arrested and sentenced to 26 years in jail. He spent four days being interrogated in a military camp. I do not enquire about the details. He spent 5 years in solitary confinement. “I wrote poems in charcoal on the walls of my cells,” he says. After 20 years he was released, suddenly and without explanation.
His wife of five months was arrested in 1988 – she was a chemistry student. She was in and out of prison many times and each time returned to activism. These two knew each other by name but had never met.
Then on September 18th 2008 they were released on the same day. The man went to meet the woman at the prison gates and they fell in love. Ni Ni sits behind us, silently weeping.
They say the military is in fact tired of running the country. But they also know there are those who are watching the President carefully and do not want to see these reforms happen. He thinks the 2008 constitution was a fiction and it needs to be redrafted immediately.
Throughout this long and touching encounter (the woman has a frightful cold), their phones keep ringing. A friend of theirs has been released from prison toady and is on his way to their house.
The atmosphere is strange – elation mixed with grief.
The conversation moves onto trade. The couple thinks the government should be trading with everyone, especially the EU and US, China and India too.
Jo says that most trade liberalisation only benefit a very small group: the importers, exporters and shareholders. She says the majority of people in Burma will benefit little without powerful social policies in place to control the certain ravages of an untrammelled free market.
Much affected, we go to Shihab's house where his beautiful wife - Ratna has prepared a wonderful Bangladeshi meal. We eat, talk and go back to the Shwedagon Pagoda where hundreds and hundreds of families have gathered to greet the Buddha after his brief holiday in Heaven (I think it’s a bit more complicated than that but it’s a lovely idea).
As we stagger about in our sticky, gritty-eyed state, Jo points out that owing to the staggering expense no-one has a mobile phone. It is profoundly noticeable how much more aware of each other people are – how they look at one another, talk to one another and engage with what’s going on around them. I feel saddened by thoughts of home – our loss of connection. But then I am half a century old and am perhaps missing something. Perhaps people who walk whilst talking on the phone, drive whilst talking on the phone, travel on trains whilst talking on the phoneare connected but in a different way.
An annoying way.
I take a good look at the pagoda itself – it’s enormous, and covered in genuine gold-leaf. There’s a huge diamond at the top and lots of precious stones all over the summit. The glow of candle and fairy-light on the gold, atomized by the clouds of incense burning is indescribably beautiful.