By NBC News contributor*
When I told my mom I was going to Myanmar, her response was: “Myanmar? A lot of drugs there, right? Be careful!”
I wouldn’t call my mom ignorant. Most Chinese people know very little about their neighboring country, despite the long 1,242 mile border shared by northeast Myanmar and China’s Yunnan province. Chinese media doesn’t report much information on the country except occasional news stories on energy cooperation, the soon-to-be-built high-speed railway connecting Kunming (Yunnan province’s capital) and Yangon, (Myanmar’s largest city), the drug war skirmishes near the border area and about Burmese girls who are smuggled into China.
As the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy and a persistent champion for democracy and human rights, Aung San Suu Kyi is not frequently mentioned in Chinese media.
Which made me all the more curious to meet her when NBC News recently had the chance to interview her after her release from seven years under house arrest.
Given the fact that Myanmar’s military rulers appear to be taking a hardline against Sui Kyi and her opposition party just three months after her release in November, we were probably lucky that we interviewed her when we got the chance. Myanmar’s rulers recently said that she and her party could meet “tragic ends” if they continue to support international economic and political sanctions against the country.
What struck me most was that despite being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” and still being revered by many Burmese for being a voice of freedom in repressive Myanmar, she spoke with us like she was just a next-door neighbor.
Family steeped in Burmese history
As we waited for a while in the yard outside her house before the interview, I noticed her yard was fenced off by some very new looking wire; I wondered if that was to prevent anyone from swimming up into her yard again as the American John Yettaw had done in 2009 causing an international incident by violating the terms of her then-house arrest.
Birds chirped in the blue sky, a small white-and-coffee colored puppy played at our feet, sniffing our ankles and barking from time to time. Her colleagues and friends waited outside just as we did, all wearing the traditional Burmese longyis, chatting and smoking.
As we walked in, I immediately saw a huge painted portrait of Suu Kyi’s father, the late Gen. Aung San who is still widely admired by the Burmese people as a national hero who led the fight for independence from British colonial rule.
Just a few hours earlier I tried to visit the Bogyoke Aung San Museum, dedicated to honoring him, but was rejected by a big rusted lock on the gate. The museum, along with the Martyr’s Mausoleum, located just outside the famous Shwedagon Pagodas, is open for just three hours on one day a year: July 19. The date is the anniversary of Aung San’s assassination, along with six other cabinet ministers, and has been designated as a national holiday, Martyr’s Day. But, in line with the military regime’s effort to marginalize his daughter, Suu Kyi, the museum is usually shuttered.
When Suu Kyi, 65, finally arrived for our interview, she was wearing a buttoned-up orange Burmese shirt and a blue longyi with a pattern of purple flowers. She was wearing black flip-flops, with her toes painted in almost indiscernible pink polish. And, of course, there were flowers in her hair pulled back from her face.
During the interview conducted by my colleague, she was calm, quick, focused, and witty. With the occasional smile, she wasted no words, sometimes frowning in deep thought.
When we had finished, I thought she was going to leave since she was obviously very busy. But to my surprise she offered us tea and rice crackers, then sat down with us on her comfortable sofa.
Some words for China
She was a little bit surprised when I told her I was from China. “Do you think you can take a message back to your government?” She asked. “Tell your government…”
Please forgive my forgetfulness – I don’t remember the exact words she said. But I know what she meant.
For decades China has been Burma’s third-largest trading partner and provides the regime with extensive military and economic aid. PetroChina is investing heavily to build a major gas pipeline from the A-1 Shwe oil field off the coast of Burma’s Rakhine State to Yunnan. This pipeline would make it possible for China to bypass the traditional route of the Strait of Malacca to import oil from the Middle East.
The new route alone will save China 746 miles of transport once it’s finished, and it offers Beijing a strategically less risky channel than the Malacca Strait – much safer transport for the huge supply of oil and gas necessary to sustain China’s roaring development. Now a 1,200-mile-long high-speed railway connecting Yangon and Kunming is in the works and due to start construction within days.
Chinese influence is big here – and there are fears it may be growing too big. When I met local Burmese and told them that I am Chinese, their reactions were: “Chinese? Rich!” and “Chinese? What kind of business are you doing here?”
That’s why it’s not hard to understand China’s response to Myanmar’s election last November, saying that the government “maintains internal social stability and the election successfully served the fundamental interests of the Burmese people.” The rest of the world criticized the election as cheating and unfair.
But Suu Kyi may be surprised to learn that recently released WikiLeaks U.S. State Department cables suggest China may actually be fed up with Myanmar's foot-dragging on reforms, facing pressure from possible political turmoil that could hurt China's economic interests.
I had to ask her what she thought about Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize, just as she had. “I’d tell him, stick to your beliefs!” she said. Then he added with a smile, “I have to admit I had never heard his name before he won the prize. But I do feel a person to person connection, because when I won the prize in 1991, I wasn’t allowed to go [to the ceremony in Oslo] either.”
We even made fun of the China’s own “Confucius Peace Prize,” she joked about how it was too confusing and then offered us more tea and rice crackers.
I told her downtown Yangon greatly reminded me of my childhood in China, when people could sell everything in the street 20 years ago, and she opened her eyes wide. “So you are saying Burma is like China 20 years ago? Ah I didn’t realize we are so behind now!”
As she finally walked out of the door, she turned back to me and said again: “Tell your government…” then she stopped and smiled. That smile reminded me of what a taxi driver told me as I explored the city earlier, “I love Aung San Suu Kyi. She’s my mother. She’s so graceful because she’s always smiling.”
Due to restrictions on journalists in Myanmar, msnbc.com is not identifying the author of this post.