Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay again …

That is nearly the famous opening line of Daphne du Maurier‘s haunting novel Rebecca. But no, I am not talking about Manderley but of Mandalay, the last royal capital of Burma. Built on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River and at the foot of the Mandalay Hill, it is the seat of Burmese culture.

The origin of the name Mandalay is unknown but is speculated to derive from a Pali word – either Mandala, meaning, circular plains,  or Mandaraa mountain from Hindu mythology.

A city was founded by King Mindon in 1857 as the new royal capital on the 2400th jubilee of Buddhism. It was built to fulfill a prophecy of a metropolis of Buddhism standing at the exact same location. The city was named YadanabonCity of Gems, or Lay Kyun Aung Myei meaning Victorious Land over the Four Islands. King Mindon’s royal palace was named  Mya Nan San Kyaw.

The king also commissioned the Kuthodaw Pagoda, the Pahtan-haw Shwe Thein hall, the Thudhamma Zayats or public houses for preaching the Doctrine, and the library for the Buddhist scriptures. In June 1857, the former royal palace of Amarapura was dismantled and moved by elephants to the new location at the foot of Mandalay Hill.

For the next 26 years, Mandalay was to be the last royal capital until the British conquered Burma and incorporated it into its Indian empire. The British administered Burma as a province of India till 1937 when it was briefly a self-governing colony until its independence in 1948.

Independent Burma started life as a parliamentary democracy but beset with strife as warring ethnic groups struggled under the dominance of the Burman majority. In 1962, following a military coup, General Ne Win came to power. In the fledgling democracy now there were no free elections and freedom of expression was almost completely denied. Student and worker protests were brutally suppressed and the Burmese people were tortured and imprisoned at the slightest suspicion of dissension.

Under General Ne Win’s isolationist policy and his “Burmese Way to Socialism” , the country faced an acute shortage of  rice that sparked widespread popular discontent amongst the people. By August 8, 1988 or 8-8-88, university students were  joined by monks, civil servants, workers, and even policemen and soldiers. They  took to the streets in cities and towns all over Burma to demand that General Ne Win and his BSPP regime be removed and replaced by an elected civilian government. Thousands of unarmed protesters died when the military fired on them.

Finally after 40 days the army responded to protesters and staged a coup to remove General Ne Win to replace him with a ruling military junta. Then the new military junta turned their machine guns on the people in Rangoon and a few other cities … It is not known how many people actually died. It is estimated at least 10,000 people were killed in the carnage. Thousands more were imprisoned and tortured.

The military junta pledged to hold elections once “peace and tranquility” were restored in Burma. But the Burmese people saw little to be optimistic about. In September 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi – daughter of the Burma’s founding father and assassinated independence hero, General Aung San– in her first political move, joined the National League for Democracy as its secretary-general.

Aung San Suu Kyi is seen here aged two, with her parents and two elder brothers in 1947.

Aung San Suu Kyi gave numerous speeches calling for freedom and democracy but in July 1989 she was placed under house arrest. She and other NLD officials had no access to media and few resources to fight an election as compared to the ruling junta.

To most observers’ surprise a free vote was allowed to take place in May 1990. Out of the 485 parliamentary seats contested, the NLD won 392, the ethnic minority parties opposed to miilitary junta won 65 more and the army-backed NUP won ten seats, a resounding rejection of military rule!

Undeterred the military junta refused to relinquish power. More NLD leaders were arrested, some died in prison and many members “resigned” under the pressure of continued intimidation. Meanwhile with only brief respites, Aung San Suu Kyi continued life under house arrest or in prison. It became increasingly clear that she was being held to prevent her from running in the multi-party parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in 2010. New laws were enacted which gave proof to this belief. One law disqualified anyone who was married to a foreign national from running for office.  Suu Kyi is a widow of Michael Aris, a British citizen, whose funeral she was not allowed to attend in 1999.

The NLD boycotted the elections so the government parties won easily amid widespread allegations of voter fraud. Suu Kyi was released and a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein – former general and prime minister in the military junta – was sworn in.

However a series of reforms followed and a first ever visit from a US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton in December 2011 seemed to set the stage for a change in Burma’s destiny.  Most political prisoners are now free, there is semblance of a free media and, crucially, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have rejoined the political process.

Two days ago, in a by-election in which Ms Suu Kyi ran for political office for the first time, she and her NLD party won 40 out of the 45 seats contested. This is the first election that could be called free and fair in Burma.

It’s a baby step towards democracy for a nation that has seen so much violence, oppression and bloodshed. It’s time to lift the sanctions imposed on Burma that have kept the country poorer than Haiti. It’s time for Burma to come out of political and economic isolation.

And it’s time for the world to know about Mandalay again.

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