From the Edge of the Empire

A couple of messengers from the American Empire visited Myanmar recently. Both brought different messages and both got different reviews. Watching them work was like comparing a couple of men like to apples and oranges. If I had to choose, I’d take the orange in less than a heartbeat. That would be Senator John McCain. Not the apple. That would be diplomat Joseph Yun.

Mr. Yun has only a recent personal relationship with Myanmar. Mr. Yun was told in Na Pyi Daw by the Generals, now disguised in longy’s (traditional Burmese clothes) and business suits, that in order for America to make any progress with Myanmar you need to start respecting us by using the correct name of our country – Myanmar. Mr. Yun responded with conciliatory talk and stems of rose bushes full of thorns disguised as olive branches. In other words, he got nowhere fast with the Generals. Just as his boss, President Obama seems to muddle around with nice speeches filled with happy talk, but acts in opposition to his own words, so too the Generals must have assumed Mr. Yun was no one to take too seriously when it comes to words.

John McCain, on the other hand, has a history in Burma. He was not admonished for calling the country by its colonial name, Burma. He met the Generals and politely minced no words with them. He was firm, direct, soft-spoken and seemingly kind but in a masculine and strong in demeanor. He’s seen in Burma as man with courage and with a respectable instinct for survival. That last part is something the Burmese know much about. When I enlightened some of the Burmese men about Senator McCain’s past dalliance with the aircraft carrier Forestall, they laughed and actually seemed to like him more. Nothing really shocks the Burmese people. Not after they’ve lived looking down the barrels of guns pointed at them by their own people and spent dozens of years in jail being starved and mistreated by the millions.

Fifteen years ago John McCain visited Burma. This is a country of people so isolated from news of the world that some of my friends knew exactly where they were when he last visited and remembered in great detail what he did and what he said. McCain is seen as genuine and kind but strong and fatherly. He is seen as a protector of Aung San Suu Kyi and indeed, in his parting comments during this trip he reaffirmed his unwavering respect and support of The Lady and her ambition to see real Democracy take root in Burma. His tone about Burma, “its conservative tolerance for multi-culturism, traditions and its kind and gentle people” was observed as being spoken from the heart. Indeed, when he spoke those words his voice softened and his tone was genuinely emotional and reflected the words of a man who reflected his own character, and that he meant what he was saying.

Watching John McCain at that moment and throughout his tour in Burma made me wish that he were president of the United States. When he met with newly released political prisoners his compassion was expressly heartfelt and throughout his trip he was described as genuinely enjoying is presence in this great country of distraught, strife and beauty. The McCain of CNN, sound bites, and American political newsreels as spoken about by his opposers and the John McCain of Burma are not one in the same.

There was a moment of enchantment during his final press conference when a local government operative who poses as a journalist began a boastful performance and precluded his question to the Senator with a, “It is my opinion…” and the Senator raised his voice and steadied is tone and said, “I’m not here to listen to your opinion. I’m here to give you mine. Just please give me the question.” Many Burmese in the crowd were stunned and those who knew the so-called journalist smiled wide in approval of Senator McCain’s command. They could never dare take that tone with a government blowhard who walks amongst them. Later, many of my Burmese friends were gleeful and delighted to have observed McCain in such powerful a way. Their opinions of McCain are that a man like McCain – a warrior and war-survivor – is the only kind person that the generals will respect and fear. That opinion is shared by all of the Burmese people.

McCain also pointed out in his speech that Burma and America fought side by side to defeat the Japanese during World War ll, and he conveyed his knowledge and respect for Burmese history, culture, economics and social conditions. The Burmese know John McCain is a politician and, as such, that he carries the baggage of poor moral actions like his involvement in the long-ago Savings & Loans scandals. Not to mention his choosing a person with the brain of a 10th grade dropout who somehow got lucky enough to be in a position to quit a job as Governor of an entire American state. But they respect that he’s human, and that during his press conference he spoke from the heart and had a few jumbled words while trying carefully to say the correct thing diplomatically in a way that didn’t betray sincerity. John McCain is an admired and respected person in Burma.

Mr. Yun on the other hand, representing President Obama, was like a technocrat with talking points trying to find “common ground” and made a point of saying that he, “was not very used to this country.” The Burmese people that I asked hardly cared that Yun was there because they too seemed to understand that Obama and his administration of bankers is a convoluted labyrinth of hypocrisy and appeasement. They also know that John McCain is aware of exactly where he is standing on the ground. He didn’t use doublespeak and conciliatory gestures or use nonsensical phrases such as Yun used when he mentioned “principled engagement.” What does that mean anyway? That an oil company like Chevron can operate in Burma even though there are sanctions in place against other’s companies from doing so?

In the end, it’s hard to figure out what is really happening at the highest levels of policy making and diplomacy with regard to Burma – or Myanmar to Mr. Yun. But whatever McCain and Yun were doing, I trust McCain will not gloss over his ideas with abstract doublespeak. If John McCain hadn’t picked the dimwitted Sarah Palin as his running mate he would probably be the current American president, trusted (at least in Burma) and smartly engaged in world affairs. If only.

Ko Tha Dja is an educator and writer who lived in Burma for five years. His collection of stories about his time in Burma is forthcoming. Now residing in Vientiane, Lao PDR, he can be reached via his personal blog at Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.