Rangoon Stories: No Win situation - how I failed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi's evil twin

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The Independent Online

Try as I might, I can't get past the barricades to visit Inya Lake in Rangoon. Burma's most formidable ladies are locked up on opposite sides of this tropical waterhole. Both are the middle-aged daughters of powerful Burmese generals who shaped the nation's history.

Try as I might, I can't get past the barricades to visit Inya Lake in Rangoon. Burma's most formidable ladies are locked up on opposite sides of this tropical waterhole. Both are the middle-aged daughters of powerful Burmese generals who shaped the nation's history.

You'd have to be a recluse to be unfamiliar with the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel peace laureate who has become an icon for prisoners of conscience after a decade of intermittent detention. But Khin Sandar Win, the daughter of the late dictator General Ne Win, is like her evil twin and also under house arrest in her family villa.

When I asked a rickshaw driver to drive past her home, he giggled nervously, then left me stranded on the roadside. Sandar Win has become a great unmentionable - no one inside or outside Burma seems to be bothered by the fact that she's been held for two years without trial for treason. Ne Win's favourite daughter, by his third wife, is accused of plotting to kidnap the ruling junta in order to set up a political/business dynasty for her three sons (who are held, alongside her husband, in Insein Prison).

Mt Olympus is the name of their elaborate lakeshore villa, where the superstitious old tyrant, Ne Win, died at age 92 after his "yadaya" spells could no longer cheat death. Three tiny effigies in military garb were said to be hidden inside with other soothsayer's paraphernalia. Ne Win was known to trample on meat and point a pistol at his mirror image to keep assassins at bay and to use his lucky number nine as a fetish, even basing the country's currency on his obscure numerology.

During Ne Win's 26-year rule, all appointments to see the supremo were channelled through his astute daughter, Sandar, a military-trained gynaecologist. She tagged along on state visits abroad and parlayed all these connections into a lucrative conglomerate of hotels, health care and telecoms. The ruling generals, perhaps wary of the dirt that might surface in a trial, have not yet pursued corruption charges against her, which involve mobile telephones and importing fleets of cars.

Few Western visitors secure appointments at the Ministry of Home Affairs, and I had difficulty convincing a Rangoon taxi driver that this was really my destination. Instead, he dropped me at a fruit stand around the corner, presumably to avoid surveillance by squaddies in flip-flops.

A young soldier led me through the ministry's inner courtyard, where a vegetable patch of cabbage and feathery carrot tops seemed to be getting pre-steamed in the garden. It was frightfully hot, and I'd forgotten to pack my new cap with a solar-powered fan installed on the brim. In an authoritarian country, it's best to avoid being an object of ridicule; while this gadget does keep me cool, I look anything but.

Once inside the police colonel's office, I was startled to see the wall map tacked up for strategic planning. Should we be worried that Myanmar's bureaucrats use the Daily Telegraph Map of the World (from where I was forced to stand, I couldn't tell if it persists in calling the country Burma)?

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