Aung San Suu Kyi speaking to the congregation after the award ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre at Encaenia 2012
By Richard Lofthouse
The Rebel of Rangoon by Delphine Schrank (Nation Books, 2015)
'Myanmar ruling party concedes as Suu Kyi heads for poll landslide,' read the headlines. As with everything else in politics of Myanmar, however, you have to wonder what this adds up to. The meekly resigning ruling party did not quite control the country before this election, and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will not quite control the country after it.
The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi was garlanded in Oxford three years ago does not make it all straight either. In fact that tour of celebration was a cause of confusion. The media, including Oxford Today, went into overdrive, comparing the moment to Nelson Mandela marking the end of Apartheid in South Africa, except that Suu Kyi went back to more of the same: the appearance of a democracy subverted behind the scenes by Than Shwe, Burma’s sometime tyrant.
We have desperately needed simple, reliable information about Myanmar, as well as alternative narratives, and on the whole we haven’t had either. Into this void arrives Delphine Schrank’s The Rebel of Rangoon. It is a most remarkable book. Schrank (St Hilda’s, 1997), a reporter for the Washington Post, went into Myanmar, under cover of darkness, before its half-turn towards the light in 2012, and this book is a celebration of ordinary, grassroots Burmese dissidents that she lived with for four years. Of these everyday heroes she says:
'Most remained anonymous. Together they formed part of a diffuse and ragged multigenerational movement, an oft-dismissed band of hard-bitten oddballs and dreamers, suspected double agents, and supposed incompetents whose quixotic posturing was so relentless, and ultimately significant, that it begins to explain how and why a military junta at the height of its powers suddenly and dramatically began in 2011 to crack apart a smidgen of political space.'
Suu Kyi with the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and the Principal of St Hugh's
At future seminars, as with raging arguments over 1989 and the end of the Cold War, there will no doubt be raging arguments over the true role played by the so-called Saffron Uprising of Burmese Buddhist monks in 2007; by the flattening effects of Tropical Cyclone Nargis the following year, which truly unmasked the regime; and by the broader truth that by then, Than Shwe and his predecessors’ thuggish reign of torture and repression had, over fifty years, reduced the country to a level of development below North Korea.
These arguments will rage, but Schrank’s narrative will also endure - a tale of ordinary folk who took incredible risks and who can rightly celebrate their victory today.
Suu Kyi having tea with the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor at the Clarendon Building
But the half-light of dawn is not a sunrise and this is arguably where Schrank’s narrative is strongest, around its epilogue, where we come forwards in narrative through the past three years, the period in which the Top Gear team flew in to laugh from the belly at the ridiculous caricature of a capital city erected by the bad guys, Naypyidaw; the period when Suu Kyi fell away from the headlines and no one knew quite how to report Burma; and the period in which ethnic cleansing against Muslim minorities took place in Myanmar in a manner that remains and will be dreadfully discomforting for everyone because it subverts all the triumphal narratives. Schrank captures it beautifully:
'The problem was that the spoilers had a vast ocean from which to draw their virulent armies. Hearts were cracked and fragmenting, retrenching into ethnic labels in ways that hinted at some amorphous disillusion, some terrible sense that they had been waiting for something, for redemption. But how it would take form, and what it was exactly, would never be. There were no easy answers. There was no sense of arrival.'
No one is saying here that the election of 8th November 2015 is a farce but the military’s National Defence and Security Council remains more powerful than parliament, and the constitution has been rigged so that Suu Kyi cannot become President. In short: Suu Kyi may be the undisputed leader, but she doesn’t control the army. History shows that if you don’t control the army you’re not actually in power at all. So no one knows how this narrative will end. Schrank’s book is an absolutely terrific contribution to understanding the narrative until now, and is a world away from the glib headlines. It is as sobering as it is encouraging, which is about right. Don’t get carried away by all the scenes of partying in Rangoon beamed out by the BBC.
Read more at Oxford Today:
Please note: The University of Oxford has no position on the correct name for the country referred to variously as ‘Burma’ and ‘Myanmar’ or for the city known as ‘Yangon’ and ‘Rangoon’. The choice of one name over another – or where both names are used, the order in which they appear – should not be taken as a statement of policy. In line with the University's commitment to work impartially with all actors, usage will reflect the nature and context of individual situations.