Myanmar’s story, told one building at a time

This is the story of one apartment building, two stairwells, 12 tiny apartments and the 60 or so people who live in them. It’s also the story of a country wavering between an era of brutal military rule and the promise of a vague new future.

Residents look out as night falls, at an apartment building on 41st Street, Yangon. The 12 small apartments and 60 residents are a microcosm of the changing life and times of the capital. Below, longtime residents Round Namar, left, chats with U Tin Win, about the passing of time. Gemunu Amarasinghe / AFP
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YANGON, Myanmar // The little apartment building was graceful once. Maybe even beautiful. There is an elegance in the arched windows now covered with grime. It’s in the ornamental pillars, coated with paint so faded that it’s hard to say if the building is yellow or white. It’s wide windows are kept open through the endless hot months, bringing in the breeze from the Yangon River.

The building whispers of a past. Of middle-class lives. Of a cosmopolitan, colonial city that was once a great Asian crossroad, the capital of a country once called Burma. But that was a long time ago.

Now, in the late afternoons when the breeze starts to pick up, two old friends carry out plastic chairs to sit in front of a building battered by time, monsoons and history. They talk about the neighbourhood and their children. They worry about money.

U Tin Win has spent 67 years in the building on 41st Street, moving in when he was 6 years old. His friend Round Namar isn’t sure how long it’s been. Sixty-five years? Seventy?

“All I know,” Ms Namar says, “is my mother told me I was born here.”

All those years the two have lived next door to each other, in ground-floor apartments each a little bigger than a shipping container.

From here, they watched the birth of an independent Burma, the first coup d’etat and the rise of the military juntas. They watched as generals turned Burma into a poverty-battered international pariah, and as 2010 semi-democratic elections pushed out a few generals.

In the last two years they have seen construction cranes blossom across this city, long known as Rangoon.

This is the story of one apartment building, two stairwells, 12 tiny apartments and the 60 or so people who live in them. It’s also the story of a country wavering between a decades-long era of brutal military rule and the promise of a vague new golden age.

The handsome young man leans over a desk on the building’s ground floor, absently surfing the Web as presses clatter around him in his family’s printing shop.

Aung Phyo Win has a life that many young Burmese would envy. He goes to dance clubs at expensive Yangon hotels. He races cars. His family is well off. They come to 41st Street only to work, living in nicer neighbourhoods.

He believes fiercely in the new Myanmar.

His country is democratic, he’ll tell you. Look at the elections of 2010. Look at the protests. Small protests are now regular occurrences in front of Yangon’s city hall, with dozens of people railing against illegal land seizures or high electricity rates. A few years ago, those protests would have been met with arrests or even gunfire.

Yes, Mr Aung acknowledges, the army could end the protests anytime. It still wields immense power. “They just don’t want the bad publicity overseas,” he says.

Yes, he acknowledges again, some people are still too frightened to talk politics. But the young men he goes clubbing with offer him Myanmar-style protection: “I’m friends with the sons of generals.”

One after another, though, his neighbours turn conversations away from anything political. Because so much of Myanmar’s history has been steeped in fear.

During the five decades of junta rule, tens of thousands of people were imprisoned for political crimes. Torture was commonplace. Children were taught not to speak about anything sensitive.

But eventually, the junta became desperate for international respect and an end to crippling trade sanctions. Quiet discussions led to the carefully orchestrated 2010 elections, when former general Thein Sein was elected president.

Four years later, the country’s political culture may appear to have been upended.

Those protests are now regular occurrences, and a welter of independent newspapers have opened. Opposition parties are growing. Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed.

But despite all that, the military-backed party remains in control and the army can dissolve parliament. A mysterious circle of generals is widely thought to weigh in on all important government decisions. Journalists who wade into sensitive territory are sometimes arrested.

The confusion is evident on 41st Street, most often in what is left unsaid.

“We come out here to talk about everyday things,” says Ms Namar, her voice rising, as she and Mr Win sit in front of the building late one afternoon. “We don’t talk about politics.”

When Ms Namar isn’t around, though, Mr Win sometimes breaks that rule.

He’s a cheerful dandy, a former neighborhood playboy who carefully oils his combover before his gossip sessions. He flirts with passing women as his much younger wife rolls her eyes.

One afternoon, he points to the narrow but well-paved road that runs in front of the apartment. For decades it was little more than a swath of potholes.

But just before the 2010 elections, the military-backed USDP party came through the neighbourhood, announcing they would fix the road. The repair improved his neighbourhood, but he still sees it as a betrayal.

“They did it for the votes,” he growls. He spits out a final word disdainfully: “Elections.”

With each decade, gentility gave way a little more on 41st Street. The sprawling apartments were divided, and divided again. Poor Chinese moved to the neighbourhood, which in colonial times was almost exclusively Indian, then poor Burmese. Grass sprouted from the rooftop.

These days, there’s a tangled mix of ethnicities inside. At times, the building has witnessed profound tolerance, like when Ms Namar’s family hid Mr Win’s during waves of anti-Chinese violence in the 1960s and 70s.

But the building, like Myanmar itself, is no happy melting pot. The country’s divisions are byzantine, producing everything from nationalistic political parties to ethnic armies.

Now, years of ethnic distrust are magnified in Yangon by the city’s growth, as poor rural villagers flood in searching for work.

On 41st Street, that distrust echoes.

Ma Yi Win came to Yangon three years ago, moving into a top-floor apartment with her husband and two roommates. All are ethnic Burmese from rural villages.

“We don’t know the neighbours,” said Ms Win. “And the whole street is full of Indians, so I don’t want to be friends with them.”

A few months later, she and her roommates were gone. As was Aung Phyo Win, the print-shop manager, who left after a series of family arguments.

These days, change comes regularly to the building on 41st Street.

Or it comes to some of the building. Because when the hot weather arrives, Mr Win and Ms Namar can still be found out front, often sitting there deep into the night.

There are only a couple street lights on 41st Street, and those rarely work. So the only light outside is often what spills from the apartments.

But they don’t mind. The street is quieter then. And when they do go inside, there is electricity most of the time. They can change for bed without lighting a lantern. They can watch TV.

Just a few years ago, they couldn’t. It’s hard to see that as an accomplishment, they say, but it is something.

It’s one tiny change in a new Myanmar, shuffling awkwardly away from its own uneasy history, one building at a time.

* Associated Press