Bangkok’s Deadly Bomb Blast

First published in Vice News August 17

A bomb blast ripped through the center of Thailand’s capital Monday evening, killing at least 20 people and injuring over 80 others. The bomb exploded by the Erawan shrine, a popular religious site located in the heart of Bangkok’s teeming shopping district.

“Those who have planted this bomb are cruel. They aim to kill because everyone knows that at 7pm the shrine is crowded with Thais and foreigners,” Somyot Pumpanmuang, Thailand’s national police chief, told reporters. “Planting a bomb there means they want to see a lot of dead people.”

Located at an intersection between two major roads and almost directly underneath Bangkok’s aboveground train system, the shrine is wedged amid several huge shopping centers and a five-star hotel. Thousands of office workers, tourists, and shoppers pass by the immediate vicinity on a daily basis, while hundreds pay their respect at the shrine itself.

First responders and military personnel cordoned off the area shortly after the blast, placing white sheets over the dead. Crime scene investigators and medical staff immediately began scouring the area for evidence and placing markers around suspicious items, while a team of forensic photographers captured every detail of the harrowing scene.

A number of motorbikes were strewn across the street, two almost completely burned by the blast. Chunks of the shrine’s walls littered the intersection, and pools of blood marked with white chalk could be clearly seen from 50 meters away. Body parts were continually being found all around the area, signaled by a rush of police and forensic investigators.

Confusion and chaos still surround the blast, and several medical and military personnel on the scene were unaware of the details and unable to answer questions put to them by VICE News.

“We still don’t know for sure who did this and why,” Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters shortly after the attack. “The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district.”

Rumors quickly spread on social media claiming the explosion was the result of a car accident, a motorbike bomb, a car bomb, or several bombs in the area. “It was a pipe bomb… placed inside the Erawan shrine,” the national police chief later told reporters, calling the latest official death toll of 16 “unprecedented.”

Near the Erawan shrine, incredulous Thais and unaware tourists peered past the crowd of police, military, and medical officials toward the blast site. One cordon was positioned so close to the shrine that people in the crowd accidentally kicked evidence markers. Nearly three hours after the explosion, investigators discovered a human foot about 40 meters away from the shrine.

A long-running insurgency in Thailand’s “Deep South” escalated in the early 2000s, but the violence has mainly been contained to that region, and attacks in the capital are incredibly rare. The last major bombing attack in Bangkok occurred in 2006, when a series of bombs killed at least three people shortly after a military coup ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Thai government has cautioned against speculation about who is responsible in the immediate aftermath of the attack, though fingers are already being pointed at loyalists of the former prime minister, and at “ethnic insurgents” in the Deep South.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reportedly plans to set up a “war room” to coordinate the country’s response to the attack.

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Malaysia’s Scandal Plagued Prime Minister Just Purged His Cabinet

First published in Vice News July 29

Under mounting pressure over his alleged role in an escalating corruption scandal, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s effort to stifle criticism led him to make sweeping changes to his cabinet on Tuesday, replacing his deputy premier and attorney general among a handful of other officials.

It emerged earlier this month that investigators had reportedly traced almost $700 million dollars in deposits from a government fund called 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) to personal bank accounts that they believe to be connected to Najib. He created 1MDB in 2009 to help attract foreign investment and spur development, but the fund has been constantly plagued by corruption allegations in its short life and is now more than $11 billion in debt.

The prime minister has lately endured persistent calls among the opposition that he resign over the fund’s management, which he oversees as both the head of the Finance Ministry and as the chair of 1MDB’s advisory committee. But on Sunday Najib suddenly found himself being taken to task by none other than his immediate subordinate.

Uneasy about the scandal’s potential impact on the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which is dominated by Najib’s United Malays National Organization party (UMNO), Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin delivered remarks on Sunday in which he suggested that Najib personally explain the issues surrounding the 1MDB scandal for the benefit of the public.

“We cannot explain properly because even we don’t know the facts. So who is going to tell us the facts? It should be the prime minister, true or not?” he said before a meeting of UMNO delegates.

Though Muhyiddin stressed that he supports Najib, he did not mince words.

“I want to give you a stern warning that if nothing is done now to manage these issues, Barisan will lose” in the 2018 general elections, he said.

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office instructed government officials to refrain from commenting on the scandal.

“All administrative officials including the deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, should wait for the results of the investigation,” it said in a statement. “Rationally, we should avoid making statements that can roil people’s perceptions toward the country’s leadership, government, and UMNO.”

But Muhyiddin found himself replaced the following day in a sudden reshuffle that included the attorney general, who is a key member of a special task force investigating 1MDB.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, speaks during a press conference on the reshuffling of his cabinet. (Photo by Pak Jek/EPA)

“I welcome vigorous debate, and accept and tolerate criticism or even dissent,” Najib wrote in a Facebook post announcing the changes. “However, this process should take place in Cabinet as part of the decision-making process. Members of the Cabinet should not air their differences in an open forum that can affect public opinion against the Government and Malaysia.”

At the same time, he promoted four members of a parliamentary committee that is also investigating the fund to ministerial positions, effectively removing them from the probe.

“The only thing we can infer is that the prime minister is derailing the 1MDB investigation,” Wan Saiful, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a local policy think-tank, told VICE News. “When he chooses to silence his critics rather than answer his critics, then of course people are going to ask even more questions.”

The cabinet shakeup has prompted more calls among the political opposition for Najib’s resignation. The prime minister took down the Facebook post after its comments section was flooded by commenters repeatedly pasting “#najibletakjawatan” (Najib resign), a hashtag that was also trending on Twitter.

It is a theme that influential former prime minister and UMNO leader Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has been regularly promoting in recent months, as he candidly noted again last week on his widely read blog.

“No conspiracy,” he wrote. “Just open declaration to the whole nation that I would like to see Najib cease to be Prime Minister.”

Yet while the government has not yet targeted Mahathir’s blog, other media outlets reporting on the 1MDB scandal have not been so lucky. Najib’s government suspended two publications last week over their coverage of the 1MDB scandal.

Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the Malaysian human rights organization SUARAM, is concerned that the enforced silence discourages scrutiny and risks misinforming the public.

“This is against media freedom, basic freedom of expression, and against democratic principles,” Sevan told VICE News.

Ibrahim Suffian, program director of the Merdeka Center, a Malaysian opinion research firm, told VICE News that most Malaysians remain unaware of or apathetic to the various scandals afflicting 1MDB. A poll of more than 1,000 voters in March 2015 found that about 70 percent of respondents admitted to knowing “not very much” or nothing at all about the fund.

Following the cabinet drama, rumors have abounded that opposition groups might unite with disillusioned Barisan members and advance a vote of no confidence in parliament — a development that would have been unthinkable prior to Muhyiddin’s removal.

Muhyiddin Yassin, Najib’s former deputy prime minister, waves at a press conference following his dismissal from the government. (Photo by Fazry Ismail/EPA)

Muhyiddin “is still deputy president of UMNO,” noted Wan Saiful. “This is someone who could still attract enough numbers if he wanted to.”

But Dr. Oh Ei Sun, who served as Najib’s political secretary from 2009 to 2011, thinks otherwise. The cabinet reshuffle, he told VICE News, “was an act of consolidation of power and support.”

“By purging the cabinet of those who harbor doubts on 1MDB and by extension his leadership, Najib has thus availed himself of a united front in countering the various allegations hurled by Dr. [Mahathir] and the opposition,” Oh remarked.

He stressed the importance of patronage in Malaysian politics, suggesting that votes can be swayed only by those who are already in power. UMNO has dominated Malaysian politics since independence, after all.

“The recent series of events surrounding 1MDB of course imprint themselves heavily on the political scale and on the social fabric,” Oh conceded. “However, it’s unlikely to affect UMNO’s grasp on power in 2018. As long as UMNO is in a position to disburse benefits and favours to its members and rural folk, its support base will remain rock solid.”

“Plus,” he added, “Malaysians have short political memories and forgive handily.”

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Thai Court Orders Release of Pro-Democracy Activists Who Rallied Against the Junta

First published in Vice News, 7July 2015

This morning, Bangkok’s military court ordered the release from prison of 14 pro-democracy activists who have been held since June 26 for rallying peacefully against the ruling military junta’s coup. Though the court rejected a police petition to extend their pre-trial detention, the student activists still face up to seven years in prison for breaking the junta’s laws against public gatherings and “sedition.”

Human rights groups have criticized the junta’s prosecution of civilians through military courts and had pressed for the release of the group, which is affiliated with the anti-junta New Democracy Movement (NDM). While the release order was a rare promising development, a board member of Amnesty International Thailand has also since been charged with sedition for showing support for the 14 students, while the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is also under scrutiny for its coverage of their demonstration.

The activists led a march through Bangkok on June 25. They stopped at landmarks to the country’s 1973 student uprising and the memorial to the 1976 Thammasat University student massacre before assembling at the capital’s Democracy Monument, where they delivered speeches denouncing the military junta, which is known as the National Council for Peace and Order.

“If we are to be punished by the NCPO, we are willing to accept it,” Rangsiman Rome, one of the activists from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, remarked to reporters at the time. “But our acceptance does not mean that we recognize that our actions are illegal.”

The following day, the 14 protest leaders were arrested, interrogated, and remanded in custody.

On the other side of Bangkok, Supinya Klangnarong and her colleagues at the independent National Broadcast and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) received a formal complaint from the military’s media oversight committee asking that they look into Thai PBS’s reporting on the NDM demonstration.

Speaking to VICE News over the phone, she expressed her initial surprise that Thai PBS of all stations had been cited.

“If you compare media, free-to-air TV stations already exercise a lot of self-censorship and won’t violate the law,” Supinya said, though she acknowledged that political pressure had increased the targeting of media outlets. “There have been a lot more complaints based on political reporting compared to before the coup.”

Authorities have cracked down harshly on dissenting voices since the country’s military seized power from the popularly elected government in May 2014. Hundreds of civilians have since been prosecuted in military courts, many of them university students.

The arrest of seven student activists who protested in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen in May drew the ire of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.

“The government should open up space for different opinions and expressions as a genuine democracy cannot be driven by force or suppression,” the organization’s executive director said in a statement.

The arrest and detention of the 14 NDM activists the following month helped prompt a wider backlash among local and international human rights groups.

On July 3, scores of ordinary Thais expressed their solidarity by writing messages of support on Post-it notes along a skywalk in central Bangkok. Days earlier, a group of nearly 300 academics released a statement praising the activists before declaring, “only a tyrant would react using brute force and enforcement of barbaric laws on students using their citizens’ rights to call for reinstatement of internationally-held values and governance.”

In statements released last week, the European Union’s office in Thailand called the arrests a “disturbing development” and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the junta to drop the criminal charges.

“The OHCHR is concerned criminal prosecutions for peaceful assembly and expression that carry long prison terms are not necessary or proportional,” it said.

Yet not everyone feels such sympathy for the activists or their cause. In Khon Kaen, where the seven student activists were arrested in May, some 100 people gathered for the second time in a week to denounce the students detained in Bangkok. Outside the courthouse earlier today, a crowd of pro-democracy supporters roundly booed a middle-aged man who appeared holding up a sign that read: “A good dictator is better than a bad democracy.”

The ruling NCPO has been fairly dismissive of both the international criticism and the activists themselves. Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukontapatipak, the official spokesperson of the NCPO, said that while he understood the objections of international bodies, they “lack a true understanding” of the political context.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former armed forces commander who was appointed prime minister last August by a parliament that he personally selected, also pushed back.

“Thailand has its own laws to follow,” he said earlier this month. “I’ve not abused my power, nor have I violated anyone’s rights, except for [the rights of] those who refused to play by the rules.”

Despite such bluster, the public relations aspect of the case appears to have had some effect on the decision to release the students from pre-trial detention. Expectations of this were raised after Prayuth himself was recently reported to have said that he had offered suggestions to the “judicial side” on how to manage the case.

“The court’s decision today is just window dressing to reduce pressure,” Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told VICE News. He sees Thailand continuing to sink further into dictatorship despite the NCPO’s promised “Roadmap to Democracy.”

“Prayuth declared that his orders are the law and violators will be prosecuted in a military court,” Sunai said. “There are rolling repressions on fundamental rights and freedom. Nothing has changed.”

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The Glorious Number One Dish Of Burma

First published in Roads and Kingdoms 19 June 2015

The Glorious Number One Dish of Burma

A trip to Burma can be as expensive or as cheap as you want. To get around the city you could pay a few dollars for a taxi, or just walk, if you don’t mind the crushing humidity.

If you’re traveling further afield, you may want to look at flights, around $100 one way, or perhaps just take a bus for $15. Don’t take any long train rides if you value your sanity/ribs/a linear progression of time. And finally at night, when you’re looking for somewhere to rest your head, you could always stay at the Sule Shangri La for just $355 a night. Alternatively, you could spend $4 a night and sleep in the infamous “Hobbit Cave” of Mahabandoola Guest House.

Choices are a-plenty, and the same divergence applies to food. Yet whereas the others tend to follow some correlation between cost and quality, the same cannot be said for culinary matters.

In my last trip to Yangon, budgetary constraints, which is also just what I call my bank account now, imposed a certain curtailment of my options. I had to eat for cheap. Thankfully, this meant that I was able to enjoy the rather wonderful breakfast option of mohinga.

Wondering around the streets of downtown Yangon in the early morning, it’s hard to miss the mohinga sellers. Almost every corner has a little food stall, and almost any stall with a large metal pot will have it. This is probably because mohinga is cherished as Burma’s national dish, and demand in the morning is high.

“It is number one of course…” This was how one young man sternly responded to my question of where it ranks in Burmese dishes. He seemed genuinely shocked that I had even asked, and I was half expecting him to add “…you idiot.”

A smooth, comforting noodle soup, mohinga is, I recognize, not for everyone. The base, the most important aspect of the dish, is a fish stock that may be too pungent for some. However, the stock varies from stall to stall as each person adds or omits that little something that makes every new plate of the stuff prompt just a flicker of anticipation for the nuanced differences.

At its most basic, mohinga is served with some thin rice noodles, casually grabbed from a large tangle next to the pot of soup, and plopped into the bottom of a small bowl. Next is the soup itself, a mixture of the fish broth, rice powder, onion, and chopped banana stems, which surprisingly retains a touch of its fruitiness. Together, the flavors are delicate and light, perfect for breakfast and thoroughly fulfilling. Oh, and I should add it costs 30 cents a bowl.

So while I may have resorted to Mohinga out of fiscal prudence at the start, that’s not the reason I continued to eat it every morning for a week. The stuff is glorious.

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Saving Rangoon: The Battle for Burma’s Ancient and Colonial Heritage

First published in the Guardian 4th May 2015

For more than two decades Moe Moe Lwin watched helplessly as Rangoon, her home city, transformed beyond recognition.

Pavements vanished and the streets became clogged with cars. Beloved cinemas fell to bulldozers and green spaces slowly disappeared.

“We had walked, played and worked all around these beautiful areas, and they had become totally normal, just a part of daily life,” remembers Lwin. “It’s only really when you start seeing these changes [that] you begin to appreciate what you had and what you have … we have a long history of architecture in Burma and a lot of history attached to these streets and buildings.”

With Victorian and Edwardian buildings still punctuating much of downtown Rangoon, the city serves up a dizzying array of buildings; a decaying reminder of Burma’s unique history of colonial occupation followed by decades of socialist isolationism.

Many are more than a century old, their age written in the fading colours, filigrees of damp, and decades of creeping mould that envelop most exteriors. Some maintain the glorious porticos that provide shelter from the rain and sun, but most were destroyed when the streets were first widened in the 1990s.

Between 1990 and 2011, an estimated 35% of downtown Rangoon was destroyed to make way for new development projects: shopping mall and overpriced condominiums and hotels.

The city as Lwin knew it was at risk, so in 2012 she and a number of like-minded conservationists came together to form the Yangon Heritage Trust, which she now directs.

Over the past three years of preservation and advocacy, the group’s aim has evolved from “focusing just on the old buildings to judging the overall liveability of the city – to inform and have more of a relationship with it.”

Earlier this year Rangoon hosted the country’s first-ever Art and Heritage festival.

With the theme “My Yangon My Home”, the festival gave Rangoon locals the opportunity to visualise their city’s future by looking closer at their history and heritage.

“We wanted to show a different side to [the city]. We used public spaces, old heritage sites for the events, so everyone can see,” says Htein Lin, a Burmese artist and activist who co-curated the festival.

And considering the rapid changes the city has already undergone, Lin also notes the timely nature of the inaugural festival.

“With all this construction and demolition of buildings and public spaces, [this] is such a good time to be sharing information about these things – to let people know what they were and what they can be.”

In a small alley dwarfed by the bright red brick of Rangoon’s supreme court, a steady stream of hungry punters order breakfast at a simple street-food stall.

Hidden in the cool shade of the one-hundred year-old neo-baroque edifice, a 22-year-old engineering student polishes off a bowl of Mohinga noodle soup before contemplating the city’s future.

“We think we need to be New York, or Tokyo, or Bangkok,” says Kyaw, echoing the sentiments of his nodding classmates beside him. “But look around you. Why would we destroy this? We could be like a Rome or a Prague instead.”

While such feelings to preserve Rangoon’s heritage are spreading, they are by no means universal.

An older man at the stall is in favour of development. He points out that Kyaw and his friends are too young to have experienced the stagnant years the country spent under the xenophobic “Burmese Way to Socialism” policy.

“He thinks now we need to catch up with the world,” says Kyaw. “Like this is a race or something.”

Back in her office, Moe Moe Lwin understands the different opinions. “Some people have argued ‘this is British, this is not us’. Even some architects think this, but we have been using these places since the British left us over 60 years ago and we have been using it as we wanted. This is a part of our life – we can’t say this is British or Indian anymore.”

With Rangoon’s infrastructure decaying to a level of near collapse, most inhabitants of the city believe that some serious development is necessary. However, the priorities and degrees of development remain in dispute.

“You need to find a balance between developing and saving what’s important. Your pride in the city should be maintained. The people will love it, and the younger generation will feel pride,” says Lwin.

“This is the balance. If you don’t take care of what you have, then you’ll end up with just another big city.”

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Yangon’s ‘Pork on Stick’

First published on Vice Munchies 27th April 2015

For Aye Min Win, the day starts early—very early. A good 45 minutes before the sun even threatens to break the horizon, Aye Min Win is already up, dressed, and out of the door.

In the pre-dawn dark, he rides his pushbike towards the local market, an easy journey before Yangon’s rush hour traffic and almost enjoyable when the oppressive heat has yet to surface.


A Yangon street market.

For the past 16 years, Aye Min Win has worked with his father and brothers to provide the people of Yangon with one simple street dish: Wet Thar Dote Htoe or, literally, “pork on stick.”

And that’s exactly what it is: pork offal (that includes anything from pig lungs and intestine to tongue), cooked with soy sauce, and skewered onto a bamboo stick. But Wet Thar Dote Htoe’s appeal isn’t in the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin simplicity of its recipe, it’s how you eat it.


Offal used to make Wet Thar Dote Htoe.

Gaining popularity from near-obscurity 20 years ago, the food can be found almost everywhere in Yangon, vying with mohinga (a kind of fish noodle soup and easy contender for national dish of Burma) for popularity in the former capital. Almost always on the streets, it’s hard to not notice the vendors’ huddle of mini-stools, skewered meat, and bubbling black sauce.

It was Aye Min Win’s father who picked up on the Wet Thar Dote Htoe’s  potential some 16 years earlier. At the time, the family lived near Yangon’s Chinatown, where the “pork on stick” concept is rumoured to have been conceived. In a single downtown street in Yangon, the extended family now runs 12 different Wet Thar Dote Htoe stalls.


One of Aye Min Win’s family Wet Thar Dote Htoe stalls.

Around 3 PM is when Aye Min Win begins selling at his street corner. Under the shade of a large umbrella, he chews blood red betel while gently shepherding his infant daughter away from the busy road and tending to the food.

Acting as nucleus of his stall, a deep cauldron filled with a black, treacly liquid slowly bubbles away. Underneath, a gas stove or white-hot coals maintain heat while air pockets break the thin layer of oil above, disseminating the almost sickly sweet soy smell with every mellifluous “pop.”


Around the cauldron, small bowls of fresh garlic and chillies are provided as condiments, and a halo of skewered pig parts circles the bubbling vat. This is where Aye Min Win distinguishes himself from the other vendors.

“I only buy the best pork,” he explains before pausing to baste the meats sitting above the pot. “That’s why people come to me. They see I charge more [than the others] but that’s because I use better ingredients.”

From most vendors, a single skewer can cost as little as 50 kyats (around $0.05) making them a prime snack affordable to one and all. At Aye Min Win’s street stall however, he charges four times the amount for a similar piece of pig.


Pork offal used in Wet Thar Dote Htoe recipes.

“They still come. Some days, people will eat around 50 skewers and spend as much as 10,000 kyats ($10) in one sitting.”

You won’t find bits of pork loin, ham, or jowl on Aye Min Win’s skewers.  Instead, the prized parts come in the shape of intestines, cartilage, tongue, eye, heart, liver, kidney, appendix, and oesophagus. This is the point where most Westerners turn away and I struggle to think of friends who would be open to eating such a dish without fetishising it as “an experience.”

“It’s all pork!” says Aye Min Win, who knows all too well the Western bias against recognising what you eat. “These are basically all internal organs because the people are used to eating it, they love it. It’s easier to prepare too.”


Small bowls of fresh chilli and garlic are provided as condiments to the “Pork on Stick.”

Aye Min Win’s concept of easy preparation is questionable. From visiting butchers at daybreak to setting up stall in the afternoon, most of his waking hours are spent diligently preparing and cooking the day’s dishes.

“It’s pretty simple,” he says of the seemingly time-consuming preparatory work. “The first thing you do is you must clean it all very thoroughly.”

Aye Min Win’s hands begin mimicking his morning cleaning sessions and he suddenly skewers a bit of lower intestine. Holding it up to the light he adds, “Sometimes these will still have poo in them so we are very careful.”

Once all the parts of the meat are cleaned, the next step is boiling. Aye Min Win boils the pieces for a specific time to ensure they are completely clean. He then adds a touch of sugar, seasoning, and soy sauce to the boiled water before steaming the offal until it is cooked to tender perfection.


A customer enjoying Wet Thar Dote Htoe at a Yangon street stall.

“I keep the steam liquid too,” Aye Min Win explains. “That’s what makes up the sauce. You add a bit more sugar and soy and let it reduce.”

A friend of mine from Kachin State in north Burma happily digs into Aye Min Win’s fare.

“Oh yeah,” he says with a slight nod of the head. “This is a good one.”

Thanks in part to Aye Min Win’s family street vending empire, Wet Thar Dote Htoe has popped up in cities outside of Yangon. However the dish remains a relatively new phenomenon in the country as a whole.


Aye Min Win’s stall stays open well into the night.

“We don’t have this in Kachin,” my friend tells me. “I actually didn’t know you guys [Westerners] didn’t like the internal stuff. It seems like a waste. What do you do with your internal organs?”

I pause for a moment, before meekly responding: “Uh… sausages?”

Aye Min Win continues to baste his pork skewers as we talk. From 3 PM until well after midnight, he will keep his stall open to anyone who feels a need for skewered pig parts. As we prepare to leave, Aye Min Win stands and wrestles in his pocket for a green business card. His stall’s name is printed in bold at the top: A Tall Guy.

I look back quizzically at the 5-foot-8-inch vendor and he sheepishly responds, “Yeah, that’s actually my brother’s nickname. He’s taller, I guess.”

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With Historic Elections Approaching, the People of Yangon Ponder Their Fate

Script from the hour-long PRI radio program on Burma, published April 23 2015

Yangon Mosque Pagoda 2

In the heart of downtown Yangon — formerly known as Rangoon — the 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda buzzes with the chants of monks and worshippers. Over the years, this iconic Buddhist structure has been a major attraction for both the pious and the political in Myanmar, serving as a rallying point for what was then called Burma’s 1988 student uprisings and again for the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

This country’s incredible diversity of cultures, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities are crushed together in the rapidly developing city. Yet many of its residents share the experience of decades of oppressive isolationism and military rule.

Meandering through gridlocked traffic below the Sule Pagoda, Muslims filter past their Buddhist countrymen and cross the street to the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque, just in time for sunset prayer. Down a small alley by the mosque is Mg Mg Nyunt’s electronics store. In a small, air-conditioned office at the back of his shop, he considers how the political landscape is changing.

“I haven’t seen any real democracy in my lifetime. But everybody wants to see something new, and they are eager to have democracy. We even have a common saying now whenever we go to a funeral, we feel sad for the person because they never had a chance to see democracy,” he says.

Nyunt has followed international affairs since childhood, and he’s now keen to analyze politics a little closer to home. And yet, even with his excitement, he’s quick to temper his positivity.

“I’m really not too optimistic, even though Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will win the election. I think these transitional problems will continue for decades,” he says.

A few blocks to the east of Sule Pagoda, Than Than Naing busies herself at her food stall, quickly loading plates with hot food and shouting orders to her family. For her, the politics of elections come second to surviving and the practical realities of making a living.

“The reason I’m not interested in the elections is we are running a business, so we can’t keep politics in mind too much. I have to care about myself, I have to struggle myself, whichever government comes in. I hope that something will change. It would be much better if the country had justice and rules of law. Everybody is struggling and I want everybody to be alright,” she says.

Just around the corner from her food stand sits a small newspaper shop. Inside, a worried Kyaw Wanna Soe seems overwhelmed with the myriad issues affecting the people of Myanmar.

“There are a lot of problems right now. The problems between the students and the government and the different types of people. There are problems here and there and it never gets solved. If one problem is solved, another pops up,” he says.

With his floors a mosaic of newspapers and his walls plastered with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, Soe feels torn between a desire for a stability that won’t threaten his livelihood, and a desire for a National League for Democracy (NLD) victory and positive change.

“I’m worried about whether the demonstrators will cooperate, or if the elections will be canceled, because I witnessed the Saffron Revolution and when that happened I had to stop my business for some time. If something like the 1988 demonstration happens again, I truly worry what the future of my business will be,” he says.

Another part of his anxiety lies in the constitutional ruling that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. For him, this is a sure sign that true change is not coming anytime soon.

“Everybody wants change, everybody hopes there will be change. But I have to say that the change that everyone hopes for is not really happening so far,” he says.

For many, Aung San Suu Kyi is the personification of change. And yet for others, her worrying silence on more recent human rights matters, such as the plight of the Rohingyas, Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim population, is concerning.

David Mathieson can see why people would feel this way. He’s an Australian in his 50s who’s been travelling to the country for 20 years and now works as the main researcher for Human Rights Watch. He says many people in the West — and in Myanmar — are oversimplifying the situation she’s in.

“I think the new disappointment with Suu Kyi is a convenient diversion for their own delusions for how complicated the country is,” he says.

Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former political prisoner and research assistant for Suu Kyi’s NLD party, agrees that things are more complicated than they appear to be.

“People still recognize her as an ideal, [the] human rights leader of the world, and at the same time they want to see her to be a successful politician. She is trying very hard,” he says.

While the international community and many within Burma place the spotlight solely on Aung San Suu Kyi, for the ordinary people of Myanmar the priorities are simple: A chance to enforce positive changes for others like them. Reforms have been a start, but with the elections just around the corner, too many feel there is too much at stake where too little is guaranteed.

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