Land of Shadows

As it emerges from isolation, the nation of Myanmar is caught between repression and reform, dark and light.

This story appears in the August 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It's the magic hour in Yangon, when the last rays of sunlight, softer, cooler now, bathe the crumbling downtown in a golden glow, beckoning residents out into the streets. Giggling children race to buy fresh sugarcane juice. Women with cheeks daubed with a paste made of bark—the alluring Burmese sunblock—haggle with a fishmonger. In the street, bare-chested teenage boys in a circle play a rowdy game of chinlon, a sort of acrobatic Hacky Sack, while potbellied men in T-shirts and longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, sit on the sidewalk chewing red wads of betel nut.

The carnival-like atmosphere doesn't last. Night falls fast in the tropics, and the power shortages that plague Myanmar give the sudden transition a spooky edge. A decaying colonial-era government building goes black. The alleyway next door emits the bluish glow of television sets powered by portable generators. Under the trees the vendors are invisible, but candles illuminate their wares: circles of silvery fish, clusters of purple banana flowers, stacks of betel leaves. And lined up in a blue wooden case, pirated DVDs of American movies and music.

"Welcome to the Hotel California," calls out a voice from the shadows in perfect English. Three young men sit on plastic stools in the street, laughing at the greeting. The DVD vendor, a skinny 29-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and a pink button-down shirt, leaps up with a smile. Though his schooling ended in fourth grade, he speaks English in an eruption of phrases gleaned from Hollywood movies and 1950s grammar books. Meeting an American, he says, makes him feel "over the moon, on cloud nine, pleased as punch."

The three "bosom buddies"—Tom, Dick, and Harry, as they call themselves—meet almost every evening to practice their English idioms. Tonight, over cups of milky tea, they will banter for hours, showing off new expressions like nuggets of gold. Now, in the dark, the three friends hesitate for a minute, puzzling over the lyrics of an old Eagles hit. "Hey, maybe you can help," Tom says. "What do they mean when they say, 'We are all just prisoners here of our own device?'"

Myanmar is a land of shadows, a place where even the most innocent question can seem loaded with hidden intent. For most of the past half century this largely Buddhist nation of some 50 million has been shaped by the power—and paranoia—of its military leaders. The tatmadaw, as the national military is known, was the only institution capable of imposing its authority on a fractured country in the wake of independence from Britain. It did so, in part, by pulling Myanmar into a fearful isolation, from which it is only starting to emerge.

This isolation, deepened by two decades of Western economic sanctions, may have preserved the nostalgic image of Myanmar as a country frozen in time, with its mist-shrouded lakes, ancient temples, and blend of traditional cultures largely unspoiled by the modern world. But it also helped accelerate the decline of what was once referred to as "the jewel of Asia." Myanmar's health and education systems have been gutted, while the military—with some 400,000 soldiers—drains nearly a quarter of the national budget. Most notoriously, the tatmadaw's brutal suppression of ethnic insurgencies and civil opposition has made Myanmar a pariah nation, a distinction it now seems eager to shed.

Out of this tableau of darkness have come some fleeting rays of light. The country's first parliamentary election in 20 years, held last November, heralded the advent of what military leaders call "discipline-flourishing democracy." Though marred by widespread fraud and intimidation, the elections have given Myanmar its first nominally civilian government in half a century. Longtime military strongman Than Shwe officially retired in April, even though the new president is none other than his loyal deputy former Gen. Thein Sein, who has exchanged his army uniform for civilian clothes.

If one of the regime's election goals was to win legitimacy at home and abroad, another was to erase the memory of the 1990 elections. In those polls, held two years after the tatmadaw gunned down hundreds of antigovernment protesters, the junta denied the sweeping victory of the main opposition party, the National League of Democracy (NLD). Then for much of the next two decades, it put top opposition figures in prison and kept under house arrest the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Lady, as she is known, pushed the NLD to boycott last November's polls, which she, then still under house arrest, was barred from participating in. Joining such an "unfair" exercise, she argued, would give legitimacy to a regime that in 2007 again resorted to lethal violence—firing on protesting Buddhist monks—and a year later neglected the victims of Cyclone Nargis. That catastrophe left approximately 140,000 dead and nearly a million homeless. Not everybody agreed with Suu Kyi; some opposition figures believed that the transition to civilian rule, however flawed, offered their last hope to remain relevant.

Less than a week after the 2010 election, as military-backed parties claimed an overwhelming victory, came another glimmer of hope: Suu Kyi's release. Then 65, the Nobel laureate had spent 15 of the previous 21 years in detention, and the world rejoiced at her freedom. The sight of the Lady thronged by young followers led some to believe that a new era was dawning. But Suu Kyi harbors no such illusions. "Society has changed enormously," she said, marveling at the ubiquity of mobile phones, Twitter, and Facebook when I interviewed her in February. "But politically, there is no difference at all."

It is tempting to see Myanmar as a simple morality tale, a battle between light and darkness. But the Lady and the generals don't represent the only poles vying for the country's future. Within the ranks of both the military and the opposition there are voices, still muted, pushing for greater flexibility and reform. Beyond this contest among the elites, there are the ethnic minorities, who make up about a third of the population and occupy more than half the territory. The question of how to govern this kaleidoscope of restive groups has vexed Burmese rulers since the time of the ancient kings, and any real progress will depend on their accommodation. "If the ethnic groups are left out of the equation," one foreign diplomat says, "this place could fall apart."

The stakes for Myanmar's future are higher than ever, in part because the country—wedged between China and India—has again become a geopolitical chess piece. Even as the United States and other Western governments continue imposing sanctions to punish the regime for its human rights violations, China, Thailand, and other competing Asian powers have poured money into Myanmar to exploit its resources—oil and gas, timber, gems, minerals, and hydropower. The foreign investment, worth billions of dollars a year, has blunted the impact of sanctions but inflamed tensions in some ethnic areas where resources are most plentiful. Nothing yet has shaken the government's grip on power—or the fear and paranoia it inspires. But Myanmar, finally, is coming out of hibernation.

The barefoot magician twirls a rope around a volunteer's neck, and the audience hushes in anticipation. Rows of gaping boys and girls stretch back to the entrance of the dilapidated building. Across the street outside, men lingering in an open-air tea shop crane to see. Myanmar is a country infused with magic, a place where animistic spirits, called nats, inhabit every banyan tree, where astrologers are called upon to guide key decisions. The magician knows, even if the children do not, that some of the men standing outside are not part of the invited audience but spies for the police's Special Branch.

This, after all, is no ordinary magic show. Sitting in the front row, a ring of jasmine flowers in her hair, is the Lady herself, Aung San Suu Kyi. It is Children's Day at the NLD's Yangon headquarters, an event timed to coincide with the birthday of Suu Kyi's father, Burmese independence hero Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947. Images of father and daughter—strikingly similar, save for his military uniform—hang above the NLD's entrance, along side walls, and in laminated pins on the shirts of children in the audience.

But now all eyes are on the magician slowly weaving the rope around the volunteer's legs, arms, and torso, and even through his clothes. A young girl shoots a glance at Suu Kyi, who winks back in reassurance. This man is not a real prisoner, her smile suggests, even if the party elders flanking her have each spent more than a decade in the junta's jails. The magician barks out an instruction, and with a sudden yank, the rope snaps away. The prisoner is set free. Cheers fill the room, and Suu Kyi, tossing her head back, lets out an unbridled laugh.

If only it were that easy. Even with her freedom restored, Suu Kyi still seems bound by invisible tethers. The global icon is not simply burdened with high expectations. Her party is in limbo. Banned for boycotting last year's election, the NLD now runs the risk of violating the country's restrictive association laws with every gathering it holds. Even with the Children's Day event, says Win Htein, one of Suu Kyi's closest confidants, "we're defying restrictions."

From her office on the second floor of a building overlooking a busy street near the heart of Yangon, Suu Kyi can see the Special Branch men in the tea shop across the way. "I don't know why they bother," she sighs. Despite a trace of nostalgia for her privacy—"I keep wondering when I'll have time to read and think again," she says—Suu Kyi has thrown herself into a whirlwind of meetings with diplomats, journalists, ethnic groups, civic organizations. So far, though, the men she needs to meet most—the generals—have ignored her overtures. "We keep the door open," Suu Kyi says. "Nothing will be accomplished without dialogue."

Over the years cartoons in the state-run media have depicted the elegant Lady as an evil ogre with fangs, feeding on Western handouts. The attacks ceased for a few months after her release. But when the NLD issued a statement in February defending Western sanctions against the regime, an editorial in an official newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, warned that Suu Kyi and her party would "meet their tragic ends." A rhetorical threat, perhaps, but few can forget the attack on her convoy the last time she was free, in 2003; it left at least a dozen followers dead.

Sanctions may be one of Suu Kyi's last cards. A wide spectrum of international observers—including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—has judged sanctions ineffective in Myanmar, largely because other countries, such as China, have no qualms about doing business with the government. "We're willing to compromise," Suu Kyi insists. But after two decades of sacrifice, she won't call for an easing of sanctions unless there are serious concessions, starting with the release of Myanmar's more than 2,000 political prisoners. "If sanctions are not effective," she asks archly, "then why are the regime and its friends so desperate to see them disappear?" It seems that the government covets the one thing the Lady has that it has never possessed: legitimacy in the eyes of the world.

If you come to Nay Pyi Taw looking for clues about Myanmar's leadership, the first thing you'll find is an unsettling void: smooth ten-lane roads with manicured roundabouts but scarcely any vehicles, clusters of color-coded government housing complexes with no children in sight, a copy of Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda with not a single Buddhist monk chanting prayers. It all feels like an abandoned movie set until you drive toward the military zone, an off-limits area where Than Shwe keeps his home and secretive high command. There, beyond the rumbling army trucks and the vast parade ground, stand the symbols of the regime: massive statues of Myanmar's three most revered ancient kings.

Welcome to the Abode of Kings, Myanmar's capital as of 2005, a strange utopia built on fear and hubris. A former mailman who honed his skills in the army's psychological-warfare department, Than Shwe self-consciously assumed the mantle of Myanmar's ancient monarchs—to the point where supplicants reportedly must use a royal form of Burmese to address him and his wife. Myanmar's kings had a penchant for building new capitals as legacies of their rule, from the pagodas at Bagan to the royal palace in Mandalay. Now there's Nay Pyi Taw.

The new capital may feel soulless, but for rulers distrustful of their own people, it could be a masterpiece of defensive urban planning. Worried about an imminent attack in Yangon, Than Shwe poured several billion dollars into building the city on scrubland in central Myanmar, safe from killer storms, foreign invasion, and domestic protests. In design, Nay Pyi Taw is not really a city but a series of isolated zones dispersed over an area larger than Rhode Island. Government ministries, once clustered in crowded Yangon, are laid out at wide intervals, accessible only by heavily patrolled roads. The military zone is a bubble within a bubble, forbidden to all but top officers—and reportedly honeycombed with underground bunkers.

In a city built by construction workers earning less than a dollar a day, the generals have splurged on some extravagances: an Olympic-size soccer stadium, a zoo equipped with an air-conditioned penguin house, a safari park, even a 480-acre "landmark garden" with miniature reproductions of Myanmar's most famous sites, including wooden houses inhabited, on occasion, by ethnic minorities in native garb—a sort of human zoo.

The generals' obsession with one legacy of British colonialism—golf—has spawned five new courses. The farmers whose village was bulldozed to build the City Golf Course now weed fairways on their ancestral land—and smile deferentially when officials play through. Beyond its elitist appeal, the golf course provides a refuge where business deals are quietly negotiated, with bribes purportedly masked as losing bets. A 26-year-old female caddy wearing bright red lipstick has learned the rules of discretion. "I'm only supposed to smile," she says.

The capital does have one concession to democracy: a parliament complex consisting of 28 gargantuan pagoda-topped buildings rising above two faux suspension bridges. When parliament opened in February—the first session in 22 years—the 659 new MPs were herded into this self-contained world and kept in isolation for weeks. No media or spectators were allowed; the MPs themselves were forbidden to use mobile phones or email. "It was sad and funny," a Burmese businessman in Yangon says. "Here were all these MPs launching a new democracy, and yet they were huddled there like prisoners."

Deep in the hills of northeastern Myanmar a young woman in a bamboo hat walks along a riverbank toward a sacred place: the convergence of two rivers that gives birth to the Ayeyarwady (known to the outside world as the Irrawaddy), the lifeblood of the nation. This spot is revered by Burmese of all faiths. But it is woven into the very identity of the ethnic Kachin minority, whose ancestors settled in this area centuries ago. At her wedding the Kachin woman and her husband (who asked not to be named) promised to emulate the union of the Mali and Nmai Rivers. Her family still comes to the confluence to make offerings on the first morning of each new year. "It's in our blood," she says.

All this will soon be gone. Around the Ayeyarwady's next bend Chinese workers are laying the groundwork for a 500-foot-tall hydroelectric dam, the first—and biggest—of seven dams slated to be built. Part of a joint venture between China Power Investment (CPI) and Myanmar's regime-friendly Asia World, the Myitsone Dam is expected to have a generating capacity of 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than the country as a whole now produces. By the time the dam is finished in 2019, it will flood an area larger than New York City, wiping out dozens of villages, including Tang Hpre, where the Kachin woman lives. From the riverbank she points to a white sign on a nearby hill. "The water will rise that high. Can you imagine living under that threat?"

Anger about the dam reverberates far beyond Tang Hpre. "The dam has become a rallying cry for the Kachin people," says Brig. Gen. Gun Maw of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group whose 17-year-old cease-fire with the Burmese government began unraveling late last year. Along with soldiers from other ethnic groups, the KIA has resisted the regime's demand that it re-form itself into a border-defense force under Burmese military command. The dam controversy only fuels the rising tension. "For months we've been asking Burmese authorities to clarify where the electricity will go, but we've received no reply," the 49-year-old rebel chief says. "I think we all know. China is very hungry for electric power." Indeed, according to a CPI document, most of the electricity will go directly to China.

Of all the foreign countries rushing in to exploit Myanmar's resources, China has been the most aggressive. Part of its nearly ten billion dollars in direct investment is going to the construction of pipelines to carry oil and gas from the Burmese coast to the Chinese border—a shortcut that also hedges against the risk of shipping through the narrow and pirate-infested Strait of Malacca. In Kachin State, which shares more than 600 miles of that border, Chinese companies are rushing in to extract gold, jade, and teak, as well as hydropower. As one Kachin activist says, "The Chinese won't stop until they've sucked us dry."

For the past year and a half the Burmese government has been demanding that Tang Hpre's 1,400 villagers move to a new settlement ten miles away to make way for the dam. Defiance has been virtually unanimous. Last year a series of bomb blasts hit dam-related sites across the valley, forcing several hundred Chinese workers to evacuate and delaying the project. The authorities arrested 70 Kachin youths in connection with the bombings. The woman in the bamboo hat insists that her resistance is nonviolent. "The government tells us not to fix up our homes, to let them crumble," she says. "But no, that only makes us determined to make them more beautiful than ever, to show that we will not move, even under threat of death."

Down on the bank of the Ayeyarwady, she peers into a deep pit of sand and rock. Her mission today is not to pray or protest but to join the search for gold. "Try over here," she instructs a Kachin teenager blasting the sand bank with a hose, as youngsters shovel the loosened sand onto an inclined ramp. Over the past few months villagers have noticed more boats full of Burmese and Chinese workers heading upriver to dredge for gold. She wonders if Tang Hpre's forced resettlement is a ploy to let the Chinese control another of the Kachins' precious resources. "We don't want to lose our home," she says. "But we need to get as much gold as we can before the Chinese come and the waters rise. This is ours."

For a moment the loquacious DVD vendor is at a loss for words. Tom and his two young friends have been chatting in the dark about the glories of Yangon—its ethnic diversity, its hip-hop scene, its crumbling colonial architecture—when the subject turns, inevitably, to the future.

"I'm sweating bullets," Tom finally says. It's not just a new expression he's trying out. Recent power cuts have hurt the meager profits he brings in for his wife and daughter—about $50 a month—and having a black market job makes him jittery. Even with the protection money he pays the cops, he barely escaped a recent police sweep. Were it not for his fleet feet, he might have wound up in jail and lost his inventory, including a prized Tom Cruise compilation disk. The Top Gun star, he says, is "the apple of my eyes."

Later, chewing on a wad of betel nut, Tom confides his great ambition: He wants to go abroad. In this desire he is not alone. Each year tens of thousands of Burmese laborers head to Singapore and Malaysia, where they can earn upwards of $300 a month. Dick, an underemployed English teacher, says he may try to find a sales job in Singapore. Tom has the U.S. in mind. "It is the land of milk and honey," he says. "And Angelina Jolie."

Even with his ebullient English, Tom's lack of higher education and financial assets dims his chances for a U.S. visa. But he seems so intoxicated by the idea—or is it the betel nut?—that he loses his inhibitions. "Under this dictatorship we live like pigs snorting in the dark!"

The outburst unnerves his friends. "He's shooting off his mouth," Dick whispers when Tom goes off to deal with a customer. "He shouldn't be airing his dirty linens in public."

At the end of the evening, Tom packs up his DVDs, and the three friends walk down the deserted street to his bus stop. "Things are getting a little better here," Harry says. "We've all got mobile phones and email now, so we can keep in touch with the outside world." Tom doesn't seem to be listening. As he hops onto the bus, he offers—with a devilish grin—a seditious farewell: "See you after the insurrection!"