In May 2002, with Aung San Suu Kyi temporarily released from house arrest, I was doing poetry workshops and readings in Mandalay and Rangoon. It was just before the monsoon, and the dawn air was like a sauna as I walked round the Golden Palace, destroyed by the Japanese and rebuilt with forced labour. Restored, it feels like an emptied concentration camp, aggressively regimented and dead: the way the junta would like to keep the whole country. Above is Mandalay Hill, from which, at dusk, the largest lit-up building you can see is Mandalay Correction Facility, the city’s jail.
In Rangoon the monsoon broke. The swirling streets were ankle-deep. I talked to writers about how British poetry had been revived in the 1970s by translations from eastern European poets struggling with censorship – which Borges called “the mother of metaphor”. They identified instantly. I wish I’d had more books with me. They have no access to other writing, and drew straws for the books I had to give.
I asked Suu Kyi what she thought of tourists coming to Burma. “Let the junta know tourism is waiting to happen the moment they change on human rights,” she said. “But now tourists shouldn’t come; they won’t see the truth.”
“No,” said a writer friend. “Let tourists see for themselves.” “No, she’s right,” said another. “What would they see?”
I agree. On the surface you see poverty but not the misery: forced labour, surveillance, writers tortured for “distributing information regarding repression to international press agencies and western diplomats” or “spreading information injurious to the state”. Incessant power cuts illustrate the unseen truth. My friends got eight hours of electricity in 72. In hotels, the air-conditioning just switched to generator.
What tourists do see are “The People’s Desires”, painted on walls and prefacing all printed matter. “Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views; oppose those trying to jeopardise stability of the State and progress of the Nation; oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State; crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.” Writers have to pay to print this on the front page of their books.
Conservation is another matter. Burma has the largest tiger reserve in the world. Whether conservation is a Canute-like operation against relentless Chinese exploitation of Burmese timber or not, western conservation agencies, like welfare groups, have to operate there – or the animals will disappear. For that, I would go again. Otherwise not.
Ruth Padel’s “Tigers in Red Weather” is published by Abacus (£8.99)