PYIN U LWIN, Myanmar (Reuters) - With a twinkle in his eye and the cheeky grin of a man half his age, 84-year-old Taw Paya does what few in Myanmar are prepared to do: speak out openly against the ruling military junta.
But this is no gung-ho dissident, courting the wrath of one of the world’s most repressive governments.
Taw Paya is the sole surviving grandson of the former Burma’s last monarch, King Thibaw, exiled to India by the British in 1885. The blue blood flowing in his veins does not make him immune to recrimination, but it certainly helps.
“People are still respectful of the royal blood,” he told Reuters in the sitting room of his red-brick colonial-style villa, built in 1947, the year before the southeast Asian nation claimed its independence from Britain. A woolly hat is pulled low over his forehead and his jacket is buttoned up to the neck to ward off the early morning chill of Pyin U Lwin, a hill-station popular with British officers seeking escape from the sweat and dust of Myanmar’s central plains.
There is little else to cover his disdain for the 46 years of unbroken army rule that have transformed Myanmar from the rice bowl of Asia into a deeply impoverished international pariah. “There’s nothing good in Burma any more,” he said, recalling the apparent Golden Age of early independence in which food was cheap and plentiful -- in stark contrast to the galloping inflation and deepening poverty that sparked September’s monk-led protests.
“How will it change? That’s the big question,” he said. “Nobody knows how to unravel the trouble we’re in. There’s no answer as long as these chaps are in power. We have to hope for change, but I don’t think it’ll be realized while we’re alive.”
Taw Paya’s mother was allowed back to Burma in 1919, but kept under close watch by British imperial rulers fearful of the lingering respect accorded to the royal line. The military, which seized power in a 1962 coup, has been no less restrictive.
“I’d be mad to want to become a king now. With these chaps, I don’t think I’d get very far,” he said in understated Victorian English learnt at a mission school in 1930s Rangoon, long since renamed Yangon and superseded as the capital city.
Since 2005, the generals who replaced dictator Ne Win after a brutally crushed 1988 pro-democracy uprising have shut themselves away in a remote new capital, Naypyidaw, carved out of the bush.
The so-called “Royal City” is a clear sign of junta supremo Than Shwe’s regal pretensions, Taw Paya said, but it is also indicative of a regime which does not understand, and does not want to understand, the outside world.
“Even compared to Ne Win, they are burglars,” he said. “At least he had some general knowledge from traveling around countries overseas. He could see how the rest of the world and democracies worked. Than Shwe hasn’t even been to England.”
Despite international outrage at September’s crackdown in which at least 31 people died, the generals would kill again to put down any repeat, said Taw Paya, who likes to pass his days watching European soccer via a cheap Chinese satellite dish.
“If there is upheaval, it will be put down very drastically,” he said. “They don’t give a damn for anybody so long as their own skin is safe. They don’t give a damn about what others say. For them, any change is bad, so they try to cover it.”
Nor has there been any sign of the called-for relaxation of the junta’s grip on the lives of Myanmar’s 53 million people.
“If somebody farts in a house, they know who it is,” he said with a smile.
Editing by Michael Battye and Megan Goldin