I couldnt believe my good fortune. United Nations envoy, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, was on my flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Rangoon, Burma. The Malay diplomat was making his sixth trip in 18 months to pursue negotiations between the military junta and Aung San Suu Kyis democratic party.
Ismail told me, "Change doesnt mean elimination, thats our message to the junta."
"Is there hope?" I asked.
"If I didnt think there was hope I wouldnt be here," he said. "I have many other things I can do with my time."
Burma is one of the most brutal and corrupt military regimes in the world, with of course, competition from China, North Korea and Iran. There is a big social debate over ethical tourism to Burma. Several activist groups outside the country advocate boycotting any travel and foreign investment. They argue that the generals who ruthlessly rule the land use the hard currency to buy arms and theyre right. I was fully aware of the political situation; however, informed travellers provide vital information in and out of the country, and for me, that was the lure to visit. I chose to go and write.
In 1989 the military government changed the nations name from Burma to Myanmar. Myanmar had been the name of the country since the days of Marco Polo; the British changed the name to Burma during the Raj. Officially the United Nations uses Myanmar, but most Burmese will not accept Myanmar because the name was changed under the junta.
Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps the most courageous and principled person of our age, encompasses the hopes and dreams of her people. In May 1990 her party, the National League for Democracy, won 392 out of 485 seats. The junta ignored the results claiming that the election had not been held to chose political leaders, but to elect representatives to a national convention that would draft the countrys constitution. Eleven years later there isnt a new constitution and several NLD representatives are still in prison.
Burma is also a land of water buffaloes, golden-topped pagodas, marooned robed monks, and busy tea shops. I wondered how I would feel travelling among the betrayed people. My answer came within 24 hours of arriving in Rangoon. I faced the desperate need of two former journalists wanting outsiders to understand the horror of their situation.
A shifted gaze. "Will you meet us?" they asked.
Without any hesitation I answered "Yes." And so began the start of our clandestine meetings.
Travelling can be risky, but I never thought of my travels endangering my life. Ive always been an advocate for basic human rights, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been my hero for years. The risk factor was never an issue, I would have made whatever contribution to the cause that I could.