“We have checked through the archives and are pretty sure that the Prime Minister’s visit on 13 April will be the first ever to Burma by a British head of government. The term “historic” is thrown around too loosely sometimes, but on this occasion it is truly warranted.
Historic and almost unbelievable. When I arrived here in July 2009, the prospect of such a senior visit was so far-fetched as to be absurd. One of my first engagements here was to attend the court hearing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She was there on charges related to the arrival at her house (where she was under house arrest) of an uninvited US citizen who had swum across the large lake which runs alongside the perimeter of her compound. She was sentenced to three years hard labour (later commuted to a further 18 months of house arrest). My appointments diary was a closely guarded secret to protect people who might face harassment or worse for being seen to meet me. Memories of the repression of the protests in 2007 were still fresh in people’s minds.
There has been plenty written about the changes in Burma which I won’t repeat here. But it is worth recalling on the eve of this visit, that as recently as last August, there seemed little sign of progress here. Then, apparently out of the blue, the changes began, leading to the by-elections on the 1st of April. Both the President and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have been quick to point out that much more needs to be done - the reform process is far from being complete. For example, the President himself has highlighted the need for ethnic reconciliation. Burma still has many difficult issues to resolve. But the Prime Minister’s visit - following visits in recent months by the Foreign Secretary and the DFID Secretary of State - is a clear statement of the British Government’s intention to support the President and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as they embark on the second phase of the process.
In terms of daily life, the opening up of political space has led to some very visible differences. Hotels that were at 20% occupancy are now full of tourists from the West and other parts of Asia; it seems newspapers can hardly sell a copy if they don’t have a picture of “The Lady” on the front. Postcards, t-shirts and all manner of items bearing Daw Suu’s image are freely available from street vendors. The same street vendors would have been arrested if they had tried to sell these products a year ago. It is a fascinating time to be here.
Even more so now with the Prime Minister’s visit coming as it does at the beginning of the Burmese Water Festival; a week long period of (to my eyes at least) collective madness where people across the country come together to soak each other with water at every possible opportunity. I got drenched at 6.30 in the morning last year in a fish market with a bucket of slimy, smelly and freezing water. I never saw who did it. I just hope that this new phase in Burma does not begin with me looking for a new job as a result of the same happening to the Prime Minister.”