There are a few things a visitor will notice right away when he arrives in Kalaw. First will be the beautiful surroundings. The town is set in the Hills of the Shan States, roughly 4,500 feet above sea level. There are wonderful old mansions and villas, leftovers from the time when Burma was part of the British Empire. Some are built in the Tudor style, while others look like houses in the Scottish Highlands. A visitor will also notice: The local headquarters of the NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is right on the main road, decorated with her party flag and posters of her likeness. Still a rather unusual and stunning sight. I am in town for no more than one hour and I am already told that SHE was here—just last week, campaigning for her party’s candidate for the April 1 election. More than eight thousand people came to her rally, half of the population of Kalaw. Nothing compared to her next stop Mandalay: There were almost 200,000, I am told.
Even in this remote town there is excitement in the air like I have never seen. In the tea house there is a calendar with pictures of her. The waitress wears a sticker for the NLD. Just a few months ago, she could have been arrested for this and sent to jail for many years.
Sellers on the market wear t-shirts with images of her. I see the party flag all over town, in teahouses and shops.
Change has many faces. “Real estate prices have skyrocketed,” a friend tells me over a shan noodle soup. “My neighbor just sold a small piece of land for 350,000 US Dollars to a General. The military is laundering its dirty money.” $350,000 for a small piece of land, in a country where a school teacher makes less than a hundred dollars a month? And that General isn’t the only one. There are plenty of new houses in Kalaw, nice, big villas, all owned by military men or their friends. There will be a day when people start asking questions…
I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of barking dogs. There are many stray dogs in Kalaw, and they tell the story of how corruption works in this country. I lay awake, thinking of the dogs and the expensive houses.
There is a military academy in town, and the headmaster raises dogs. Three hundred officers attend this academy each year, and it is strongly recommended that they each buy a dog from him. The price tag is hefty: one thousand dollars per dog. You do the math.
But what shall the officers do with the dogs? They have no use for them and let them go. That is why there are so many stray dogs in town.
The next day, I walk the streets of Kalaw, visit old friends, spend hours in tea houses listening and chatting. Maung Zhaw tells me about his sister who works in a shoe factory in Yangon. The pay was poor and they went on a strike. They got a raise. Absolutely impossible just a few months ago. “And the press wrote about it,” he says shaking his head as if he cannot believe it himself. “We are allowed to have labor unions now.”
A friend of his works in a restaurant. He tells us how an inspector from the health department came in, checking the hygiene of the kitchen. He asked for a glass of wine and got it. Then he ordered a whole meal, and wanted to leave without paying, just as he always does. This time the owner demanded that he pay like everybody else. The inspector thought he was kidding, but the owner did not back down. “We become less fearful everyday,” Maung Zhaw believes.