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Proof That Burma Is Changing—Fast

As the country, also known as Myanmar, prepares for Sunday's historic elections, a local shares his perspective. While stuck in traffic. Fascinating traffic.

Mr. Than Lwin and I sat in traffic. On our side of the road, two lanes had been reduced to one. After too many minutes slid by without movement, taxis and buses had begun to peel out to the left, first into the closest lane, then careening into both lanes of oncoming traffic. Now Than Lwin and I were boxed in and still not moving. Bus drivers’ assistants leaned out of front doors of buses and waved directions as the drivers veered toward the nose of our van. The traffic around us had an air of fevered paralysis. Than Lwin laughed.

All around us, white sedans bore bumper stickers with Aung San Suu Kyi’s face and the slogan of her political party, the National League for Democracy. It was a month before the elections, the first since 1990, and taxi drivers, more than any other group, had taken to partisanship with gusto.

Inside the car, Taylor Swift was playing. Than Lwin’s radio was broken, so he’d borrowed his college-aged son’s smartphone for music. We listened to American pop and to Myanmar Idol star Phyu Phyu’s renditions of Celine Dion songs. In front of us, in the bed of a pickup truck, three workmen sat atop an unruly stack of two by fours and looked at another smartphone. Three songs passed and we did not move. Then, suddenly, the cars began to roll forward, and Than Lwin passed through the intersection, his bumper just an inch from the two by fours in front of us.

Everything about this scene was new: the cars, the traffic, and the roadwork, the current American pop, and the smart phones. The open and vehement support for a political party that was outlawed until just five years ago was not only new but omnipresent. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that NLD signs festooned everything that moved, from a cluster of trishaws, each with a red tailfeather flag, to a wooden water delivery cart with the party’s “Time To Change” stickers slapped on its sides. Cars wore stickers not just on their bumpers but on windows and doors, which seemed fitting, because cars were at the very center of a major change in Burma.

At the end of 2010, there were just over 200,000 registered cars in Yangon, and most were quite old. When it rained, passengers sometimes had to slam their feet over the rusty fissures in foot wells to keep water from splashing in. Even so, cars zipped through the grid of colonial downtown and sailed along the graceful, winding roads in the low hills outside the city. Burma was among the most isolated and politically repressive countries in the world, but the driving was easy.

In 2011, Burma’s new nominally civilian government undertook a number of sweeping reforms. Political prisoners were released, media censorship loosened, and restrictions on car imports lifted. Within three years, the number of cars registered in Yangon more than doubled. These days, the drive from the airport to a downtown hotel can take longer than the flight in from Bangkok.

That same year, Than Lwin, who had been working as a cook on a cargo ship, bought a small used Toyota for $15,000 and became a driver. He took a hefty pay cut—he was making nearly $2,000 a month after twenty-odd years on the water—but he had two kids whose childhoods he’d mostly missed out on. A year and a half ago he traded up for his 2004 silver Hyundai van.

I stumbled into Than Lwin’s van on the first day of a reporting trip to Yangon. It was the middle of the day, and I was among the tourists wandering the sticky-hot streets around the Shwedagon Pagoda, haplessly waving at occupied taxis and glaring at the insides of the air-conditioned cars. Than Lwin was outside of the national museum, sitting in his van, and I hired him to take me to the university. On the way, Than Lwin gave me a full rundown of the history of Burma’s struggle for independence from England in the 1940s and drove me past Aung San Suu Kyi's house. I had asked if we could see the estate—where the Nobel Prize winner and political hopeful had spent fifteen years under house arrest—but only the gray walls and razor wire were visible from the road. Afterward, we took a detour and drove past the memorial to her father, national hero Aung San, who was assassinated just before independence was achieved. Upside to the traffic: it didn’t matter if we took the circuitous route or the straight-ahead one; either way would take an equally long time. And the delays meant that Than Lwin had time to tell me about his country’s history. (Later, when I read a few history books, I found that his lectures had been startlingly accurate.)

Than Lwin had studied physics at the university but quit after his second year to work on the ship. Really, he told me on our second day together, he was interested in history. He was in his 40s, portly but not fat, and he wore pressed button-down shirts neatly tucked into his dark

longyis, the skirt-like cylinder of fabric worn by Burmese men and women alike. When he smiled, which was often, his teeth were perfectly white under his thin mustache. He had never chewed betel nuts, which stained teeth burgundy and left Jackson Pollock-like splashes on the white doors of most of the city’s taxis.

Later, as he drove me to the home of a woman I needed to interview, Than Lwin pointed out more landmarks. We passed the reclining and sitting Buddhas, the NLD national headquarters, the racehorse track, a famous bakery, a crocodile farm, the boxing auditorium, and the bridge that the Japanese were building over the river. According to legend, this was the same spot where Prince Min Nandar had been swallowed by a crocodile. In Burma, contemporary politics and pop culture cohabitated with history and myth. Neither one was more important than the other.

In addition to the landmarks, we passed campaign posters with photos of candidates looking dourly out at the traffic. Below the photos, each candidate listed his or her qualifications—previous jobs as lawyer, ambassador, school headmistress. The ruling party’s green posters also bore the slogans touting change, but here it was their own: “We have been changing. Vote for Better Future.” Than Lwin was cynical: “They speak bla bla bla for the voting, like the Americans.”

I hired Than Lwin to be my driver for the rest of my trip. At each traffic jam, his stories and opinions expanded, and over the many hours we wound up spending together we discussed not only history and myth and politics but also money, travel, religion, and family. Than Lwin learned English from Reader’s Digest and John Grisham, Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart, Scorpion and the Beatles. His patience was endless, both with the traffic and with me, as the stories we exchanged got more complex. When there was room to move, his intersection strategy involved slapping on his hazards and barreling in, waving at the drivers facing him. And then we waited, talking about yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Any first-time visitor to Yangon will notice a shift between an oft-alluded to “then” of privation and seclusion and a more open and connected “now.” There are superficial ways in which the immediate slam into everything that changed during Burma’s decades of isolation becomes evident, like the ongoing popularity of Phyu Phyu’s cover of “My Heart Will Go On,” or a salon Than Lwin and I sat in front of for two songs’ worth of time that was called Facebook Beauty Studio, complete with the blue F logo on sliding glass doors. But there are also more intimate ways.

A 50-year-old man showed me a studly photo of himself, taken, he said, fifteen years ago. His fashion—puffed-out hair in a perm afro, aviator glasses, shirt—looked like it was lifted out of 1970s New York. The easy thing for an outsider like me to do is laugh at these surface-level differences. Than Lwin kept me from resting too easily on those facile comparisons, subtly directing my attention to where more challenging tensions lay. When we drove past a Chevy dealership where life-sized decals of players from Manchester United danced across the glass façade, I commented about the cultural mashup of an English soccer team representing an American company in Burma. Than Lwin exclaimed, “Yes, maybe it should be the L.A. Galaxy!” Then he pointed out that the driver of the truck in front of us must be Muslim, because a large spray of blood bloomed down the back of the white pickup truck. It was Eid, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which Muslims commemorate by slaughtering livestock, and government offices were closed in recognition of the holiday.

The irony of new legislation in Burma is that laws have both increased and decreased mobility in a variety of ways. The day I met Than Lwin, a law was passed forbidding Buddhist women to marry outside of the faith—89 percent of Burma’s population is Buddhist—without a government-issued permit. Phones are now connected to the internet, but according to Than Lwin (and foreign NGO workers and the local intelligentsia) Burma’s education system is so abysmal that it does not teach the analytical skills required to wade through it. So many cars now clogged Yangon’s roads that social gatherings had thinned. At a Tuesday night gallery salon, founded 14 years ago as a forum where intellectuals and artists could talk freely, the gallery owner told me that friends who lived a certain distance away had stopped coming.

But for Than Lwin, the indicators of change, both tangible and intangible, were heartening. There needed to be less cronyism, but things were improving—during the two decades of military rule following the thwarted 1990 elections, he told me, there was no trusting anything from cooking oil to medication, because deals were struck with whoever a fickle general wanted to please. Now, his son was in medical school and his daughter led tour groups to Singapore. Not only could he buy a car and a cell phone (privileges previously reserved for the very wealthy and the well-connected), he could even dip into once unattainable daily luxuries. “Before, there was only Black Label, Red Label, and Coke for the rich people. Now you can see cheese in the market. Now you can find Coke in 7-11,” he told me.

This was symbolic. Than Lwin didn’t drink alcohol and he didn’t love cheese. He cared about history and his family and his country, though he had no interest in slapping NLD bumper stickers on his van. “I’m not a politician!” he said, laughing, when I asked him why. “I’m not so serious.” Than Lwin had a natural distrust of partisanship and political machinations just as partisanship and politics were overtaking Burma. But he, like what seemed to be every other taxi driver in Yangon, would vote for the NLD on November 8. The election would, he said, end what had begun two and a half decades ago and open a new chapter. If Yangon’s traffic was any indication, it would be a landslide.