32 What Became of Jack
Miss Dulwich broke in on my thoughts. “The court martial didn’t take this into account, but getting those two wounded men back down the mountain, single-handed, in that fierce cold and that high altitude, in the face of the enemy, with no ammunition, was a tremendous feat.”
No, the court martial didn’t take it into account, though they did let Trooper Nyunt testify on my behalf. That was better than nothing, but as far as the panel were concerned, what I’d done to protect a wounded man under my command was no more or less than what I should have done, what any special forces officer should have done. But as to the fact that I’d also rescued Jack, what did they care? He was a civilian, and a porter. Nobody said it out loud, because nobody had to. But they thought I should have left him there. As far as they were concerned, it was my decision to go back and bring Jack to safety from the high plateau that had led to the deaths of Aung, Kyaw, Soe and Myint. The court martial panel made it clear they never really understood why I’d done that, and I’m not sure I understand it either.
And other than delaying the court martial for two weeks until I was fit again, they didn’t take account of the fact that once I’d gotten the two wounded men back down to the nearest village and left them there, I’d had to descend still further to find the nearest military post to report to. They didn’t take account of the fact that I spent those two weeks in hospital, being treated for dehydration and altitude sickness and exhaustion and post-traumatic stress disorder, which I still have, by the way, and undergoing a battery of physical and psychological tests they never did explain.
They debriefed me thoroughly, of course, and I told them about the sheer strangeness of the contact. That tactic the enemy had used to position the attack, by clapping and shouting and whistling in the mist to establish their firing positions. The fact that the attackers seemed to be teenage boys, that they spoke perfect Myanmar, and that they knew my name and the name of our unit. The debriefing officers took it all down, asked me more questions, most of which I couldn’t answer, looked at each other expressionlessly, and told me nothing. In fact, nobody ever told me anything. I was right in the middle of the whole thing, from first to last, and to this day I have no idea what really happened.
But, Miss Dulwich said, Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo knew what had happened.
I could not ask my senior officers to explain. You didn’t do that. But I could ask her, for all the good it did me.
“There are all sorts of things I can’t tell you,” she said slowly. “Things I myself don’t know, but which Edward would know. And maybe there are things nobody knows. I certainly don’t know who attacked you on the plateau, or how they knew your name. I’m not even sure Edward knows that. There are many remote and mysterious places in Kachin State, and so much that goes on.
“But when I said he knew what had happened up there, on the plateau, the reason is quite simple. Jack told him everything.”
Jack had not even been called as a witness by the court martial panel. They had little use for evidence from a civilian.
I must have looked surprised.
“All this,” said Miss Dulwich, “Edward’s interest in you, the fact that he hired you, that he had Daw Mae East bring you to his office to meet him and Ko Luka – they couldn’t resist teasing you a little, I hope you don’t mind – all this was because of what Jack had told Eddie about you. He gave you an absolutely glowing report, saying you’d saved his life, carrying him out of danger on your back, even though all your men had been killed and you’d been court-martialled and been drummed out of special forces and out of the army altogether. You did all that for him.”
“I never really looked at it like that,” I said. “We’re trained not to leave people behind. I know they don’t mean civilians, but I didn’t see what else I could have done.”
“Edward thought you’d been very badly treated, and wanted to do something for you. That’s why he wanted to offer you some kind of job, to help him in the transition that we spoke of. He really does want to turn over a new leaf and become respectable. Well, he sort of has to, if he’s to be of any help to Jack in the future.”
I looked at her in some puzzlement. “You may know all about this, Miss Dulwich, but I get the feeling there’s something about all this that I’m not getting. Why exactly should Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo, the crime boss of Southwest New City and one of the country’s most prominent gangsters, help young Jack, a one-time military porter who got caught up in some obscure fire-fight on the Diphu Pass ten years ago? What is the connection?”
“Forgive me, U Mar Lo. You’re quite right, of course. But you can’t call him ‘young Jack’ anymore, you know. It’s ‘The Honorable Jack’ now.”
“What? What do you mean?”
She smiled. “You’ll really have to spend more time following politics, U Mar Lo, if you’re to be of any use to Edward and his family. I was forgetting that there are basic pieces of the puzzle that you don’t know about. First, Jack is Eddie’s little brother. And second, last month, in a special by-election in Kachin State, Jack was elected to Pyithu Hluttaw, so he’s now a Member of Parliament.
“And third, and this is where you will come in, Edward thinks it would be rather fun if we could all help Jack to become President of the Republic.”
33 Golden Boy
MP he may have been, but young Jack, the Honorable Jack as I now had to think of him, was in many ways still the same kid as he had been up in Kachin State, on that high, haunted mountain where he and I and my men had encountered – well, whoever it was.
Miss Dulwich filled me in on much of the story that I knew nothing about.
The injury Jack had sustained in the killing field high up in the Diphu Pass had been minor, just enough to keep him from walking for a couple of weeks. Back down in his village, his ankle had healed quickly and he had resumed his former life.
Or he’d tried to. Miss Dulwich, explaining all this to me in my shabby living room in South Okkalapa, with my half-made marionette looking woodenly up at us from the table, freely admitted that what she knew, she knew at second hand, having heard it from Jack’s elder brother, the gangster Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo. Anyway, it seemed that his experience on the mountain had transformed Jack, brought out in him something that maybe had always been there, but waiting undetected until some event should trigger it. He found he could not go back to his old carefree life.
He decided to go into politics. And he was a natural.
His easy manner, his boyish looks, that bright, quick grin, even the lock of hair that kept falling over his eyes, none of it did him any harm. Older men, the big bulls of the party, felt protective toward him and, more important, never saw him as a threat. He made a good protégé. A fast learner and a hard worker, he was good for legwork, street-level organisation, interminable late-night meetings in drafty party headquarters, putting together issues and policy papers, first at the village level, then the township level, then up in Myitkyina he came to the notice of men higher and higher in the party.
Most of them were men, anyway. Rule by women is fine, we’ve been ruled by a woman and it worked out pretty well. But these days, it’s mostly men.
Jack learned to speak in public. Later, after I’d gone back to Southwest New City and told Tough Eddie that I would work for him, I took the time to go over all the old local newspapers – Eddie had saved them all – reporting on his meetings. The applause. The elderly ladies talking to the reporters afterwards, saying what a nice young man he was and how they were going to vote for him.
Eddie had also kept a lot of video footage and, watching it, I noticed something strange. As young Jack’s career developed and he grew in confidence, influence and expertise as a politician, his voice changed. The Kachin accent weakened and softened, his use of Myanmar became more accurate and confident. He became slightly Burmanised. If I thought of Jack as a rock star, or an actor, rather than a public servant committed to the improvement of the lot of his fellow men and women, I would have said he was positioning himself in the market.
Like his fellow Kachin State friends, the crooner Ko Frankie Xin and the starlet, now star, Ma Norma Jin, both regulars in Eddie’s circle at the Spearmint Bullock in Southwest New City.
Jack could have lost the Kachin twang if he’d wanted to. I guessed he’d decided not to. It gave his speaking voice character and a hint of difference that verged on the exotic. That is to say, women liked it. Women voters liked it.
I know what you’re going to say, you who are reading this now, who know how the story ends. People these days say Jack made it because he had a wealthy and powerful ko ko who wanted his ni le to become president of the republic, and who played pretty fast and dirty in the dark to get what he wanted. Well, there was something of that in it, but Jack would have gone very far and very fast on his own account. He was a natural.
Look at the way he advanced his career once he’d arrived in hluttaw. Not much of this was reported in the press, most reporters don’t cover this kind of humdrum day-to-day stuff that goes on in the committee rooms, but it’s important to the way the country is run. Most freshmen MPs have to accept what they’re given by the party elders when they arrive in parliament. Some might have a strong preference – if they come from a big agricultural state or region, they’ll want to sit on Farmers, Workers and Youth Affairs, or maybe Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. The big-city MPs might plump for the Banks and Monetary Development Committee or the Projects and Financial Development Committee. Ethnic MPs, or men with a military or security background might prefer the committee on Fundamental Rights, Democratic Rights and Human Rights of Citizens or National Races Affairs and Peace Making. Policy experts in finance or law would try to get on Health, Education, Judicial and Legal Affairs, or Public Administration.
Whether they get those committees or not depends on how well they get along with the party leadership, which is a law unto itself.
The name of the power game in hluttaw these days, I came to know, is seniority. New MPs who had been prominent in some other sphere of life – a powerful state or regional MP, even a former chief minister, a big business tycoon, the occasional actor or singer – quickly find once they enter the marble halls in Nay Pyi Taw that the people who really run the place don’t care about their background. A freshman is a freshman, and everybody has to come up the hard way.
Jack was no different, except that he was different. His choice of committee assignments was unusual: Bill Committee and International Relations.
He got them too. How he got them was quite a story in itself.
34 The Marble Labyrinth
I’m no politician, or historian. I’m a private detective, when anyone wants to hire me. Before that, I was a soldier, until all my men got killed and they kicked me out of the army. But I’m good at finding things out, including things that people don’t want me to find out, and when I’m hired by someone I can work with, I stay hired until they fire me.
Would I have agreed to work for Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo if it hadn’t been for his brother Jack? Would I have resisted the charms of Eddie’s girlfriend, Daw Mae East, and the much subtler persuasion of Miss Dulwich? I don’t know. All I do know is that the combination of all four of them was irresistible. Between them, they managed to get me into something I never expected to get into. And sometimes never thought I would get out of. Maybe I never did get out.
Over the next couple of years, I spent a lot of time hanging out with political people and journalists and even some voters. I spent untold hours in Nay Pyi Taw, particularly the upper house building. I hit the campaign trail in Kachin State. I found out something about how political donors operate, and how much of it was legal. I gazed into the yawning gap between what happens in politics, and what the newspapers say about politics.
These are some of the things I learned.
They told us in school all about how we got to be such a great democracy. It all started back in ‘15, of course, but at that time it was only possible to go half the distance. We couldn’t move any further down the road until the great emancipation of the twenties and thirties, when the people really took power and bequeathed to us the system we have today.
Well, that wasn’t exactly wrong, but then what? You won’t find out from the press. I don’t mean they lie. It’s not what the papers say, it’s what they don’t say. And often they don’t say because they don’t know.
If the upper chamber of the late teens and twenties was the powerhouse of democracy, the people’s temple, the battleground of the fiery revolutionaries taking on the entrenched old guard, and winning, those heady days were now gone. The halls that had echoed to fiery denunciations of military privilege and clarion calls for reform were now solemn, hushed and often almost empty.
The upper hluttaw in the thirties and forties was hierarchical, somnolent, slow-moving, deliberate and respectful of its own traditions to the point of veneration. Outside those stately precincts, the life of the capital goes on at full tilt – the ever-honking traffic, the throngs in the streets, the bustling downtown shops – but for much of the past 15 years the lofty chamber has pretty much been a mausoleum, content to slumber and dream of its days of past glory.
That doesn’t mean nothing happens there, or that what does happen is not important. It’s just that so much of the action, the real, important action, has shifted from the plenary chamber to the back rooms. It isn’t the fiery young orators, the tribunes of the people, who direct the chariot of state, but the fixers and the wire-pullers in the committee rooms and the caucus rooms. Policy is made and deals are struck in little huddles in the corridors and the tea rooms. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But you could sit through a hundred sonorous debates in the hluttaw and not understand why or how the bills get written and amended the way they do, or why or how they get passed. Because all the courtly flummery of parliamentary procedure, the flowery speeches, the rhetoric, the theatrics of the members, who pride themselves on their oratory and their delivery, the dry technical interventions of the officials, the ringing questions, the detailed answers, all this is just a show. The MPs who send back to their constituencies and their local newspapers accounts of the fine speeches they made, demanding that the government build that dam or that road, or of the fearless and penetrating questions they ask that force the government to come clean – it’s all show. The deals have already been made, the paddy cut and dried and sold off. Oh, those MPs might get what they want. But not because they won any debate, or thrilled the public gallery. That’s just echo chamber stuff.
How do I know this? Because Eddie got me working with Jack on getting the 2044-45 State and Region Administration and Funding Bill passed, that’s how.
You haven’t heard of it? Who has? Nobody’s going to the barricades for a state and region administration and yawn, wake me when it’s over funding bill.
But it was the most exciting assignment of my life.
I was a special forces officer. I know about testosterone, arm-wrestling, tough guys throwing their weight around, danger, fear, revenge, close combat. Being a private eye is not a dull job either. But once you’re hooked, nothing is higher than a political high, no devastation more haunting than a political loss. All this I was to learn at the feet of masters.
It started with what felt to me like a formal surrender. I allowed Miss Dulwich to take me back to Southwest New City, back to the Spearmint Bullock and up to Eddie’s office. There he sat, chatting to Ko Luka and Daw Mae East and one or two other guys I didn’t know, the betel spittoon by his stool. It was very clean. He didn’t use it while I was there. His teeth gleamed white when he smiled, and he smiled frequently, like he meant it. I was beginning to understand that Eddie was already quite well advanced along the road he’d decided to travel. And after the session with Miss Dulwich, which had left me drained and knocked all the fight out of me, I was ready to travel that road with him.
35 An Apprentice Speaks
“I want you to go to Nay Pyi Taw,” said Eddie. “You’ll meet Jack up there, he’ll tell you what to do.”
It looked like things had moved on since yesterday, when I thought he’d wanted me to help him establish himself across the Hlaing River as an honest businessman. I may have looked quizzical.
“I know,” he said. “We’ll need you in Yangon soon enough. But right now, the Nay Pyi Taw thing is urgent. Here,” he handed me a copy of that morning’s The Myanmar Times. “Read the story on page four. It’s not much – there’s never going to be much in the papers – but it will give you a start. Jack will explain the rest.”
I skimmed the paper in the taxi on the way to Mingalardon. Eddie was right – it didn’t tell me much, and what it did tell me was practically incomprehensible. What I did understand seemed less than captivating. So the administration had introduced a bill on funding the administration of the states and regions into Pyithu Hluttaw, which had duly sent it on to Amyotha Hluttaw with a few dozen amendments. The story next to it was about a teenager who’d been arrested after jumping out of the window of his house, having beat his aunt to death with an electric iron. Now that seemed more interesting to me, but the paper didn’t say much more about that either. It makes you wonder about news values.
The flight was smooth, and a car was waiting for me at the other end. When Eddie wants something organised, it gets organised. They drove me straight to Jack’s office in the upper house building.
Seeing him again, after ten years, was less of a surprise than I’d thought it would be. The most surprising thing was that he looked just the same, like he was about 18 years old. As he showed me round the parliament building, I half-expected one of the cops that was standing around to ask him why he wasn’t in school.
Jack laughed. “The first time I took the elevator from my office to the chamber, just after I was elected, the attendant told me to step aside, sonny, and let the MPs in first,” he said. “It took a while for me to get used to this place, and even longer for this place to get used to me.”
The place was used to him now, I thought – every few yards as we strolled down the echoing marble corridors, someone would come up to him and shake his hand or share a joke with him. They were all kinds – important-looking white-haired gentlemen with important-looking paunches, a couple of guys I could tell were army officers in civvies, a security guard outside one of the committee rooms who looked even younger than Jack and – it seemed inevitable from the first time I saw it happen – large numbers of young women. Jack had a glad hand and a ready laugh for all of them, sharing a story here, trading a quip there, assuming a respectful air of half-filial attention for the older men, an easy charm with the other guys. He seemed to know all their names. With the women, he was just Jack. That was enough. There were so many of them I thought the tour would never end.
He introduced me to everyone. They would look at me briefly, then turn all their attention back to him. I could barely remember one name out of four of five. How he kept track of them all, I cannot imagine.
“Eddie said something about the funding bill,” I ventured, during a brief lull.
At once, Jack was serious. “Everything depends on it,” he said.
“No, really,” he went on, as he saw my reaction. “Don’t be fooled because they gave it a boring name. There’s a huge amount of money involved in this, and it will make a lot of difference to the party’s prospects in future elections because of the changes that could be made to local power structures.”
I won’t pretend I understood all he told me the first time he attempted to explain all the issues to me. What did strike me was his ready grasp of the details of the finances and the local politics of all the states and regions he mentioned. It wasn’t just his fellow upper-house MPs whose names he knew. He seemed to know who the lower-house members were too, and even the state and regional hluttaw members who mattered. In a couple of cases he mentioned by name a few of the ward and village elders’ names and at least one of the 10-household representatives. His command of detail astonished me.
“I came here knowing nothing,” he said. “I knew how to campaign. That’s just the beginning. Not even the beginning. Some MPs can go through their whole career knowing nothing more than how to get re-elected. Well, that’s important. But what are we elected for?”
“To improve people’s lives?” I hazarded. The question had been rhetorical, but I’d given the wrong answer anyway.
“Oh, that, yeah,” he said, dismissing it with an airy wave. He corrected himself. “Obviously we have to improve people’s lives. And not just so they keep electing us. But the purpose of power is power.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added quickly as he saw my face. “Power has to be acquired legally and maintained through democratic means. But you can’t confuse the prey with the shadow. The study and practice of power, its uses, its risk and rewards, where it resides, who holds it, who wields it, how you gain and lose it – this is the stuff of political life.”
“Well, where do I come in?”
He grinned briefly at me. “Oh, I’ve got a lot of work for you. You’re going to have to learn fast. Are you ready?”
I shrugged. “I guess. If you think I can be of any use. When do I start?”
36 The Feather Duster
“When I got here, I knew nothing,” Jack said again, “And I knew nobody. The first day I took my oath of office, over there in the chamber, I went to the parliamentary records office and asked for the previous day’s copy of the verbatim record of proceedings. And a copy of the book of rules.
“Tedious? You bet. Night after night I would read those things, first going back week after week, month after month, tracing back each bill through each appearance before each of the two houses. I would look up all the words I didn’t know in the dictionary. Rice price bills, import-export bills, sewerage appropriations, foreign direct investment, armed forces pensions, rubber subsidies for Tanintharyi Region, the regulation of dredging vessels in the Upper Ayeyarwady, forestry conservation – I read all of them. I forced myself to understand them. Then when I’d read the records for the past six months, I started again six months ago and read the same records forwards, back up to the present. I would sit up all night reading that stuff. People would see me dozing in my seat in the house and think I’d been out partying. I heard them. They had a nickname for me. They called me ‘Feather duster’.
“Freshmen in this house aren’t considered to be very important,” he continued. “The power rests with the committee chairs. How do you get to be a committee chair? Through seniority. If you live long enough, and you keep getting elected, and your party is in the majority, you become a committee chair. You join the inner circle. You get to be one of the old bulls, the ones who make deals with a wink and a nod, who decide on the committee assignments and the calendar, which bills are reported out of committee onto the floor and when, in which order, which MPs get their first choice of committee membership, get sent on overseas fact-finding tours, get photographed with the president of the republic for the home-town papers.”
“And that’s what you wanted to be? I would have thought…”
“Well, you’re young. Why be in such a hurry? A handsome, dashing young MP. Weren’t there other things you could have been doing? You’ll get old eventually, and then you’ll get all that power anyway.”
He laughed. “Once I’d got a handle on the issues and the procedures and the rules and I knew better what made this place tick, and who was who, then, yeah, I did relax a little bit. There are compensations to being an MP. You can have fun. People turn a blind eye, up to a point. And having a reputation as a feather duster isn’t always a bad thing. People lower their guard if they don’t see you as a threat.
“But once I’d tasted the excitement, I knew what I wanted to do.”
“Get elected president?”
He looked around. We were standing on a broad expanse of marble floor big enough for a ballroom, not far from the 12-foot high carved teak double doors that led to the upper chamber. Down a broad corridor, a couple of older men were deep in soft-voiced conversation. The uniformed guard at the door stood immobile, a bored expression on his face.
Jack held up a warning hand. “Not here,” he said.
He took my arm and we strolled on as he resumed his story.
“When I’d done the reading – the parliamentary rules and the daily records, the history of the most recent bills – then I learned to read. Really learned.”
“What do you mean?”
“I learned to read people. Much harder even than reading rules and records.”
He paused for thought. “Maybe it’s something you can either do or you can’t. Maybe if you can’t do it, you can never learn how to do it. Even if you can do it, but you never use the skill, if you never do it because you’re never in a position where you have to do it, you don’t even know you can do it. Like if you have perfect pitch, but you never find out you have it, because you’re not from a musical background and you never learn to play an instrument. How would you even know? You could go through your whole life, bearing the gift of perfect musical pitch, but you can’t tell a grand piano from a hsaing waing.
“When I got here,” he continued, “Within a couple of weeks, I knew. I knew I could read people.”
He turned to me. “If, within five minutes of entering a room, you can’t tell who is going to vote for you and who is going to vote against you, you shouldn’t be in politics. A lot of people here can’t tell. But I can tell.
“After I’d learned to read,” he went on, “I learned to count.”
“You’re saying you didn’t know how to count?”
“I’m talking about counting the results of the votes.”
“Why would that be so hard?”
He sighed patiently.” I’m not talking about counting the votes after they’re cast. I’m talking about counting the votes before they’re cast. That’s the trick I had to learn. The next trick is to learn how to turn ‘yes’ votes into ‘no’ votes, or ‘no’ votes into ‘yes’ votes. You don’t do that in the cut and thrust of debates. You do it behind closed doors, just you and the other guy, except that you go in there with something he wants, or fears, and you use it to bend his will to your way of thinking. Not forever. Just for this vote. I didn’t know it was possible until I saw it done.”
We strolled a little further down the corridor. To our left was a row of imposing teak doors, all closed, to our right tall windows giving out onto a lawn, at the end of which was a tall white wall. Beyond that was the city. Here, it was quiet, restful, a place for contemplating the glories of democracy and revering the great figures of the past. I wondered what they were doing behind the closed doors.
37 The Wire Puller
By now we were back in Jack’s office, the inner office, protected from the importunate well-wishers and glad-handers who swarmed the marble corridors by teak double doors twice my height, and by his staff in the outer office.
He’d introduced me to his staff, and their names at least I’d remembered. Two very memorable-looking secretaries, Baung and Moe, and a balding, middle-aged speechwriter and researcher he introduced as Joe.
“These skills – reading, counting – I’ve learned and honed them here,” said Jack as we relaxed in easy chairs in front of his desk. “I’m good, but I’m just a beginner. I know my limitations. I knew I had to find a true master of the arts to learn from. Someone who would accept me as a protégé, even just a kind of parliamentary gopher, who would think it worthwhile to cast a few pearls of wisdom in my direction from time to time, but would never consider me a threat,” he went on.
“These old hluttaw bulls, they are jealous of their power – suspicious, ever on the watch for younger men who might challenge them, highly skilled in destroying careers, the careers of younger men that they’ve helped to make. There are men here who can slice and fillet you with a kindly smile and a warm handshake and a knife so sharp and fast you don’t even know what parts they’ve cut off you till you count the votes and realise you’ve lost.”
He stopped and turned to me. “That’s why I cultivated the ‘feather duster’ image. Who’s afraid of a feather duster? I come across as the young kid, the playboy, with his shirt-tail hanging out. I went to enough parties and got my name mentioned in enough gossip columns to maintain the image. But I never stopped reading the hluttaw record every night, every page of it, and studying all the precedents of the parliamentary rules. You know we have a cell here?”
“Like a jail, you mean?”
“In the third basement. Nobody knows it’s there, but I know because I went down and found it, and talked to the master at arms about it. It was put in the building at the beginning in case parliament ever had to exercise parliamentary privilege over recalcitrant witnesses. It’s never been used. But it’s there, and the maintenance staff have orders to oil the lock and the hinges every six months, just in case. I know where the print shop is, and where the junior interns go to play chinlone between sessions. I’ve been up under the eaves of the house, reading the copies of the bills for construction materials for when they first built Nay Pyi Taw. I know this house like nobody else knows
“But the trick is to know what goes on inside the house,” he continued.
There was a cabinet in the corner that looked like it contained drinks. He never offered me one, and didn’t take one himself. Later I was to see him drink, or thought I did, but it turned out I was mistaken.
“Like I said, the old bulls are jealous, suspicious and proud. But some of them are also lonely. They’ve spent their lives in the pursuit of power, and then they’ve found it, and it eats at them. They look around and realise they’re old, their lives are spent, they have no family, no real friends, just political allies, no children or grandchildren. Politics has consumed their lives. So when a young chap comes along, no threat, just a feather duster, and wants to know how they did it, they start to open up. Not at first. But if you do it right, they talk in the end. Otherwise, how will anyone ever know how smart they were, what risks they took, what terrible forces they overcome, to get where they were? Art conceals art. Part of the reason they were so successful was because nobody else knew how they did it.”
“So you asked them. You became the sorcerer’s apprentice.”
“I would literally sit at their feet, gazing up at them with my chin cupped in my hand and an expression of profound admiration on my face. They loved it. You never saw a politer, more deferential, more biddable apprentice, more eager to learn, more respectful of his elders, more admiring of their accomplishments and victories. I sucked it all up. I listened, like a sponge listens. I know, sponges don’t listen. But if they did, that’s how they would look. I would make tea for them. I would fetch copies of the daily record and mark them up for them. I wanted to know. And every day, I learned more and more.”
He paused for thought.
“Within a couple of weeks of arriving here, I’d figured out who was the most important of the lot. A man whose cunning and skill are legendary, and whose power, at least in this house, can seem almost magical. At first, I kept my distance. I didn’t want to seem too forward. I knew my place as the freshest of the freshmen, the new kid on the block. If he wanted to talk to me, he would call
“Who are we talking about?”
“Oh, you’ve never heard his name. He rarely even speaks in the chamber, except on procedural motions – which, by the way, can be the most important of the lot. He’s the Leader of the Upper House majority party, and his name is U Lin Don.”
“You’re right. I’ve never heard of him.”
“Most voters haven’t. He’s a Shan State MP, been in the house for three terms now. He’s got his own district sewn up tight, by methods I can only imagine. He is the single most important person in hluttaw, far more powerful than the president, because he knows where all the bodies are buried, in some cases literally.
“So I decided to become U Lin Don’s protégé,” said Jack.
38 The Board of Education
“And did you?”
“Oh, yes. He likes me, as much as he likes anyone. He would talk to me four hours, just the two of us, telling me about this or that bill he got passed, or blocked, and how he went about it, what strings he pulled, what threats he made and favours he handed out. It was a real education. Speaking of that, he would even start inviting me to what they call here ‘the Board of Education’. They meet in a kind of large closet on the second floor, behind an unmarked door. All the most important hluttaw members gather there in the late afternoon or early evening, to drink and play poker and swap stories and gossip. You can’t get in without an invitation from a member. Most MPs spend their entire careers without setting foot in the place, and many don’t even know it exists. Most of those who do know it exists would dearly like to become members, but they never get the call.
“Some are invited, but just once. Maybe they said the wrong thing, or hit the wrong note, or somebody else there didn’t like them, and they aren’t asked back. There’s never any explanation. If you break some rule you don’t know about, you’re just out, and once you’re out, there’s no way back in.”
“And you’re still in?”
“So far. I’m not saying I’m a charter member. More like the mascot. I amuse the old guys, and flatter them, even get a little fresh sometimes, which I think some of them like, if it’s not overplayed. Done properly, a little cheek from a young whippersnapper like me makes them feel like wise old teachers. You can’t do it too often, of course. But I have found that, with people of a certain type, primarily powerful older men, you really cannot lay on the flattery too thick. You’d think they would detect it and think I was making fun of them. Certainly, any other MP, who was not a member of the Board of Education, would be able to see through me at once, and call me out on it. But I can get away with the most outrageous flattery with these guys.
“I was there when President Jimmy Htay died. The Mansion had been trying for hours to get hold of U Bein, who was first vice president, until someone thought of looking in the Board of Education. He was there, like he always was every afternoon, playing poker. When the clerk of the house finally tracked him down and knocked on the door and passed him a message telling him he’d become president, he wouldn’t leave until he’d finished the hand. He had a full house, queens over tens, and he wanted to take the pot. He did, too. He put his winnings in his bag – it came to nearly K2 million – and went off to be sworn in.”
“So you’re really in with the in crowd.”
“So far,” he said again. “I know I’m really there on sufferance. U Lin Don likes me, and a couple of the others do too, but for most of them I’m just a gopher, to be tolerated. They don’t dislike me, or I wouldn’t be there. But if I disappeared tomorrow, most of them wouldn’t miss me, or even notice I was gone. I’m not a fully fledged member in my own right.”
He paused. “But there’s a way I can become a member in my own right. Now I have to pass a test, and that’s where you come, U Mar Lo.”
That was the first time I came to hear about the 2044-45 State and Region Administration and Funding Bill.
“The first thing you have to understand is, this bill is not about the funding and administration of the states and regions,” Jack told me. “Well, it kind of is, in that once it’s passed, money will be allotted to the budget for the management of the states and regions. But that will happen anyway, no matter what the shape and size of the bill, and how much money is allocated to which states and regions. What’s important is to pass it the way U Lin Don wants it passed, that is, with the right amount of money going to each state and region depending on how much the old man wants to punish or reward the MPs concerned. Like any budget bill, it’s not about money. It’s about power. The whole bill, which entails ten trillion kyat, is a gigantic score-sheet. By looking at it in its final form, someone in the know can tell exactly who’s in favour and who’s out, which MPs know how to get what they want, and which ones are clueless or friendless. The SRAFB is a like one of those colour charts of paint, shading from extremely popular to the frigid outer circle of hell. It’s Lin Don’s way of telling the world, or at least those smart enough to read the signs, which MPs have clout and which do not.
“But that’s once it’s been passed. As you can imagine, the in-fighting and manoeuvring that go on behind the scenes are fierce. From the time the bill is first introduced in committee until the moment it’s signed into law by the president, through all the floor debates in each house and the back-and-forth of the reconciliation process between the two houses, the struggle is very bitter and intense. And almost entirely carried out behind closed doors, in committee, in the corridors, in the cloakrooms, at those swanky dinner parties those Pobbathiri township hostesses arrange. You certainly won’t be reading a blow-by-blow account in The Myanmar Times, or any other newspaper. But U Lin Don will have to know about every single move by every single member of both houses. That’s where I come in, and why I need your help. Are you ready?”
39 Getting down to Work
The first thing you have to do,” said Jack, “is meet U Lin Don.”
“The upper house majority leader? Why would he need to talk to me? I’m just here to help you.”
Jack shook his head. “U Lin Don is a guy who wants to know everything that’s going on, and to meet everyone who works for him, directly or indirectly. He doesn’t like secrets, except the secrets he keeps from other people, and he doesn’t like surprises. You’re going to be talking to MPs and their staffs, and some chief ministers in the states and regions, and your conversations will get back to him. You can be sure of that. I don’t want him calling me out of the blue and asking who you are because I haven’t told him.”
“I feel a little nervous about this. After everything you’ve told me about him.”
“No need. He can be very charming when he wants to be. If you screw up, it’ll be me he screams at, not you.”
Impressed by what Jack had told me, I’d read up on U Lin Don, one of the most senior MPs from Shan State. He’d been in the upper house about eight years, after serving in the lower house for five years. He’d switched to the Amyotha Hluttaw by running in a by-election that had opened up following the death of its incumbent and waged a vigorous and extremely expensive campaign against a powerful local politician considered unbeatable in his own district. But U Lin Don had beaten him.
From reading the newspaper accounts, it was not quite clear how he’d beaten him. All the polls had been against U Lin Don throughout the campaign. The outcome of the election had been strongly contested by his opponent, to the point that the courts had been brought into it and a flurry of injunctions and counter-injunctions issued. What was clear was that U Lin Don’s final margin of victory was very small – a couple of hundred votes, all of them cast in two or three remote village tracts along the border. So small was his majority that the unexpected winner would smilingly introduce himself to his new upper house colleagues as “Landslide Lin Don”. This was not a man easily embarrassed.
Nor was he one to let the grass grow under his feet. From the moment he entered the upper chamber, U Lin Don had set about, first, identifying its most powerful members, and then ingratiating himself with them. He had sought, not the limelight, but control of the back channels, making himself within one or two years the master of the maze of rules and procedures and precedents by which the production of legislation in Amyotha Hluttaw was regulated. Through a mixture of indirection and superior organisation, he had gradually taken into his own hands many of the powers held by the committee chairmen, “advising” them on the background research required for putting together a bill – this was at a time when very few MPs recruited researchers – “assisting” them with the timetabling of bills in their own committees, and “coordinating” their advancement through the legislative labyrinth. After about three years, U Lin Don had persuaded the chairmen to rely on him so thoroughly that no bill could be reported out of committee onto the floor of the full house without his agreement. Nor could any bill be kept back from the floor and retained in committee for very long if U Lin Don wanted it to be voted through into law.
Back in his own constituency in Shan State, U Lin Don also reigned supreme. Despite his razor-thin majority, he had rapidly consolidated his power, forging alliances with local business interests who saw in him a useful ally, who could protect their interests.
By now I was following political news on TV and in the papers, but there was surprisingly little information about U Lin Don. He made speeches, but they tended to be prosaic and almost deliberately designed to deflect attention. That was because, I was told, his true power lay in the face-to-face contacts behind the scenes. “Lin Don is no orator,” I was told. “But face-to-face, one-on-one, he’s the most effective salesman you’ve ever seen.”
Judging by his photographs, U Lin Don was in his mid-fifties, a big, heavy man with scanty greying hair, long arms and legs and the sharpest black eyes I’ve ever seen. His ears, nose and jaw were particularly large, his mouth a downturned slit, and he carried his head thrust forward in a way that looked pugnacious when his face was in repose. He was rarely pictured smiling, and often positioned himself toward the rear of the group in the picture, off to one side, often not even looking at the camera, as if he was carefully keeping watch on some process off-camera whose significance was apparent to him alone.
The meeting came earlier than I’d expected, the following afternoon. Jack led me from his office, through the marble halls of the hluttaw building, to a particularly imposing set of teak doors at the end of a short corridor in the east wing. He knocked softly.
A harassed-looking balding man in early middle age opened the door. He nodded briefly to Jack and shot me a swift, sharp, oddly furtive look.
“Hi, Latt,” said Jack.
Latt stepped back to let us through the door. “He’s expecting you. You can go right in,” he said.
U Lin Don’s office suite was very large. Three picture windows opened out onto a small lake. There were a dozen or so mahogany desks in the outer chamber, each occupied by staff busily typing at their computers or working the phones. They all had the same harassed look as Latt.
Jack led me to an inner set of doors, no less tall than the outer doors, knocked softly and opened the door. At his signal, I followed him inside.
40 U Lin Don
We were shown into the inner office, which was even more majestic than the outer office, even though it was occupied by only one man. But he was a big man. When we entered he was sat at his desk, which was not much bigger than the deck of an aircraft carrier, talking on the phones.
Not one phone. The man was carrying out three separate conversations on three separate phones. He held two, one in each hand, talking alternately into each of them. Every now and then he would detach both from his big ears and address the third phone, which was mounted on a small stand in front of him. There were three more phones on the desk, land lines, a red one, a green one and a blue one. I guess the guy just liked phones.
As he switched his attention from one phone to another, his manner changed dramatically. To the left-hand phone he was all charm, murmuring in honeyed tones, soothing, reassuring, almost wheedling. Turning to the right-hand phone, he would become abrupt, harsh, commanding and aggressive. His manner toward the third phone, the one in front of him, was cheery and light-hearted.
Having his hands full, he greeted us with a smile – without stopping the flow of talk – and gestured with his head to the two chairs before his desk. We took our seats.
“Now, Honorable Myint, I just know you don’t believe I could pull this thing off without your advice and your wisdom, and you’d be right. Why, you remember what I said to you the first time I met you, when I was just a freshman MP, and I would just pick up all those pearls of wisdom that you would scatter, every one of them. I still have them, Sir, I treasure them to this day.”
This reminiscence set the Honorable Myint off on what turned out to be an extended reverie about the old days in hluttaw, and how most of the younger members these days were not only unschooled in its ways, but naïve and disrespectful into the bargain.
U Lin Don laid down that phone carefully, even reverently, and turned to the other, his face setting into a grim mask, his eyes narrowing to slits, his mouth set.
“This is your last warning,” he hissed. “You get your boys into the chamber for the vote tonight, all six of them. I’ll be there and I’ll be counting. If East Sagaing wants flood relief come October, and it will, East Sagaing is gonna have to pay for it. I don’t care about the power plant. I’m through askin’, George, now I’m tellin’. Don’t make me tell you twice. You know me better than that. Gotta go now. Be there in time for quorum call, eight sharp!”
He terminated the call just in time to catch Honorable Myint as he returned from his stroll down Memory Lane.
“Why I couldn’t agree more, Honourable, truly I could not agree more. Not a day goes by I don’t thank my stars that our great predecessors placed so much power in this house exactly where it belongs – on the shoulders of experienced men like yourself, the chairmen of our committees. As long as members like yourself are entrusted with the key positions of power in hluttaw, and can keep them to allow the whippersnappers like me enough time to dry behind their ears and wipe their mother’s milk off their chins and learn something about the way this house works, then I do believe our republic is in safe hands. I truly do Sir.”
U Lin Don took advantage of another extended reverie to pick up his conversation with the third phone, the one in front of him. He ignored the right-hand phone when it rang.
Jack and I sat there in silence, watching and listening. He didn’t look at me, but I had the feeling he had seen this performance before.
When U Lin Don had finished talking, he got up and came round his vast desk to greet us. As we rose, he stretched out both long arms, taking Jack’s hand in both of his and shaking it vigorously. “My boy! Wonderful speech you made on the railway bond issue. A little long. You had only three constituents in the gallery, I saw ‘em. If you talk for more than seven minutes, seven, mind you, you lose their attention. You want extra detail, you can have it read into the parliamentary record the next day, just have your staff take all the materials down to the records office and tell them you want it inserted into your speech. That way you don’t have to spend half the night reading it out, and tiring your voice. There’s other things you’re gonna need it for.”
He turned and looked at me questioningly.
Jack spoke. “Lin Don, this is the man I was telling you about, the former special forces officer I met while he was on duty up in Kachin State.”
Being subjected to U Lin Don’s full attention was like sitting too close to a roaring fire or standing in front of a battery of searchlights. Or both at the same time. With one hand he clasped mine – I have big hands, but his enveloped mine – and he wrapped the other round my shoulders. I have broad shoulders too. His arm went all the way across them, with his left hand ending up gripping my left bicep.
And there it stayed. He wouldn't let go.
I don’t remember what Lin Don said, so much as how persuasively and winningly he said it. Removing his arm from my shoulders after a few moments, he gripped my lapel instead, his face inches from mine. His eyes seemed to bore into me. To press home his point – I believe he was telling me the weather was particularly fine that day – he poked a long finger at my chest. In fact, he poked it right into my chest, several times.
This was not a man you could have a conversation with. It was like chatting to a Burmese python.
41 Background to the bill
“So, this bill. Why is it important again?” I asked.
“Important? It’s vital,” said Jack. “It could realign the power structure within the party. Directing funding to the townships is the best way of creating favors at the local level. Favors that will have to be paid back come the next election. If the local administrators in the most important townships – that is, the townships we consider the most important – get more money, and understand who it came from, they will repay us. Funding them is like watering and fertilising your own grassroots campaign, throughout the country.”
“So it hasn’t got anything to do with sending taxpayers’ money to where it’s needed, defending the nation’s borders, funding our space exploration program, curing sick people or educating children or anything like that?”
Jack looked at me reproachfully. “Of course that’s what the money will be spent on. Well, that and other stuff. The question is, who gets more of it, and who gets less of it, and who gets the credit for distributing it to the places that recognise its value? That’s where we come in.”
“We? What do I do?”
Jack stood up. “Time to see U Lin Don. He’ll tell you.”
Together we walked down the long marble corridor and into the majority leader’s palatial suite. Nodding and smiling to the harassed-looking staff – all of them, however busy they were, found time to smile back – Jack led me to the inner office door and knocked. At Lin Don’s shout, he entered.
The leader was at his desk, phones for the moment silent. He was poring over a long, narrow sheet of light-blue paper, a tally sheet. His office had had several hundred printed out in the parliamentary print shop in the bowels of the building, I found later.
Distractedly, he waved us into two chairs before his monumental teak desk.
“We’re close, but not close enough,” he growled.
Still glaring intently at the tally sheet, as if in it he might find the answer he sought, he patted his pockets absently.
“Jack, you got my tablets there?” he asked abruptly.
“You’ve had three pills already today, Lin Don,” said Jack.
“Well give me another. I want one.”
“You know what the doctor said, now,” said Jack. “No more than four a day, and three of them after meals.”
“Goshdarn it, Jack, gimme a tablet,” said Lin Don tersely. Without another word, Jack took a small bottle from his pocket and shook out a large pink pill, which he handed to Lin Don. Then he poured the leader a glass of water from a large jug on the desk. Without thanking him or looking at him, U Lin Don gulped down the water and the pill. His eyes never left the tally sheet.
“OK, here’s the deal,” he said at length, motioning us around the desk to stand behind him, on either side. “Look at this.”
It must have meant something to Lin Don, and it may have meant something to Jack. But the blue tally sheet meant nothing to me. I could see that it contained the list of upper-house MPs, in alphabetical order, and that by each name was a tick or a cross, to the left or the right of the name, or a scribbled, cryptic note in Lin Don’s crabbed writing. “Fishing”. “Vacation”. “Death’s door”, read some of the notes on the part of the paper I could see.
“We’re gonna have to box clever on this one. Very clever,” said Lin Don, as if talking to himself.
“How short are we?” asked Jack.
“A fair piece. At this point, we’re short nineteen votes,” said Lin Don gloomily. “Once it reaches the upper house, the bill needs only a simple majority. We don’t have one. But we will get one.”
Sighing deeply, he dropped the tally sheet on the desk and stretched his long arms and legs, yawning.
Eyes closed, slumped in his seat, he began to talk, again as if to himself.
“We don’t have enough votes for the recall petition in Pyithu Hluttaw to get the bill out of Hlaing Myat Pe’s local administration committee. But that’s OK. As soon as we’ve got 11 of the 17 extra votes we need to force him to report the bill out onto the floor, you can tell Jimmy Htike over at The Myanmar Times that we have 15 of the votes. That should be enough to scare Pe into reporting the bill out. He won’t want to risk the public humiliation of having the bill taken out from under him, so as soon as he sees the paper, he’ll announce he’s done with it. If we’re lucky, he’ll report it out favourably, too, maybe seven to six.
“When the bill gets to the floor of Pyithu Hluttaw, we will have to move very fast. OK, sit down.”
Jack and I left his side and, like a pair of schoolboys, resumed our seats before his desk as he lectured us.
“We don’t have the votes for a simple majority in Amyotha Hluttaw either, but we’re close, and we can get it with a little juggling. The problem is not the bill. The problem is the killer amendment.”
Jack at least knew enough to look at him expectantly. I just sat there.
“It’s Ye Lone. He wants to torpedo my bill by having it declared a presidential prerogative. And what’s worse is, he’s doing it to curry favour with SB.”
Jack whistled softly. I tried to look sagacious.
“I can’t let this bill be taken over by the president, or I won't get any of the credit I need when the ward and village tract budgets are redistributed. It has to be my bill, not the president’s,” U Lin Don said. “I have to defeat the amendment, but then switch around and get the chamber to vote for the exact same bill. Members will be voting twice on the same bill, once against, and then, the same evening, voting in favour. How am I supposed to get them to do that?”
“But Lin Don, that’s not the worst of it. You can’t go against Standard Beans,” said Jack. “Nobody can go against Standard Beans.”
42 Standard Beans: International Juggernaut
These days, much more is known about the relationship between U Lin Don, the wily and calculating master of Amyotha Hluttaw, and the mighty international vegan foods conglomerate Standard Beans and its chairman. Police and newspaper investigations have revealed nearly all the secrets and plots that the two men hatched between them over the years, as well as the multifarious channels through which the money and the influence were distributed. But in those days, it was all still pretty murky.
Everybody had heard of SB, of course, even me. Based in Monywa, Sagaing Region, Standard Beans was by far the country’s biggest and richest company, with the most prominent international presence. Back in the early twenties, it had been little more than a hodge-podge of township-level local associations, often feuding with each other, trying their feeble best to set prices for their green gram and mung beans. Their only foreign customers, in those days, had dwindled to India and a handful of West African countries. Then two things happened.
The first was the viral worldwide spread of Buddhism, mostly in Western Europe and North America, but also in unexpected places like Russia and Brazil. Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world suddenly saw the light, and abandoned their former faith or faithlessness to embrace the Lord Buddha. Tens of thousands of them came to Myanmar for instruction and enlightenment, to meditate, to pray, or simply to be here, surrounded by their new co-religionists. They adopted the diet of their new way of life as they adopted its other precepts. In stock exchanges all over the world, beef and pork-belly futures plunged as millions abandoned meat-eating. The world, or much of it, went vegan.
Suddenly, people needed beans. And what they wanted was Burmese beans. Nothing else would do.
And then there was the phenomenon who called himself Rockefeller Nyunt. Born in a small village near Muse, he was not even from the true bean-growing heartland of Magwe and Sagaing regions. He was a Shan. But he was also a genius, in business, in agriculture, in organisation, in self-promotion and in money-making. He was a genius, too, in political insight and the wielding of influence. Entering the beans business as an apprentice with a minor exporter in 2018, within a decade he had transformed the industry, hammering together by sheer force of personality the ramshackle local associations into a unified structure he called Standard Beans. All of this I found out while working for Jack, who had learned it, in bits and pieces and cryptic asides, from U Lin Don himself.
Under Rockefeller Nyunt’s tutelage, and moving swiftly to satisfy the growing and increasingly strident world market for First Quality and Special Quality black matpe, green mung, chickpeas, pigeon peas, red kidney beans, velvet beans, soybeans and lentils, Standard Beans expanded rapidly, opening offices in London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Monaco, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing, Rio and Cape Town. Starting as a purveyor of agricultural products, it soon diversified into any field Rockefeller Nyunt thought would make more money and solidify his company’s power: solar energy, ladies’ fashions, rainwear, collateralized debt obligations, pagoda construction, soft robotics, teak and rattan furniture. Its overseas bureau chiefs were wealthy and highly-regarded people in their own right, often the confidants of the rich and powerful in the countries in which they worked. Collectively, they served as Rockefeller Nyunt’s eyes and ears on the world, a kind of shadow foreign service of agents of influence. “SB keeps its finger on the world’s pulse!” he used to joke.
Success transformed the once-shy Shan boy into a colourful and charismatic figure, first in Myanmar and then on the world stage. Known to newspaper readers across the planet as the Prince of Pulses or the Lord of Lentils or the Bean Baron, he would be pictured in the company of famous actresses and society hostesses, as well as conferring gravely with statesmen and tycoons. Presidents and heads of state sought his counsel.
But despite his international cachet, Rockefeller Nyunt’s main concern was always the situation back home, first in his native Shan State and his business headquarters in Sagaing, then in Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. He cultivated a wide array of political contacts, and SB offices throughout the country – SB Tower was invariably the most imposing structure in any Myanmar city center – were instructed to develop the closest possible links with local township and ward officials. This they did through a relentless program of philanthropy and public works, sponsoring local schools and charity drives, forging links with monasteries and civil society organizations, spreading their good works along with liberal handouts of free beans to deserving cases. Local newspapers were full of heartening stories about their good works. Local politicians were loyal and grateful.
Needless to say, the relationship between Standard Beans’ Shan State-born Rockefeller Nyunt and the state’s favorite political son U Lin Don was close, intense, opaque, complex and highly competitive. Though both were careful, for different reasons, to avoid being photographed together, they could often be seen, in Nay Pyi Taw, in Monywa, in Taunggyi or in Yangon, in their 10-gallon cowboy hats, whiskey glasses in hand and puffing away their cheroots, before Lin Don stopped smoking. Seasoned observers would note that, with Rockefeller Nyunt, Lin Don refrained from his usual conversational techniques of draping a long arm round his interlocutor’s shoulders, fixing him with his glittering eyes, and poking a finger in his chest. Nor did he affect the hail-fellow well-met glad-handing approach he deployed with other men to get his way. With Rockefeller Nyunt, Lin Don was restrained and, if not deferential, at least courteous. The two exceptionally powerful personalities seemed almost to cancel one another out. They were often seen deep in quiet conversation, a conversation spiced with Shan proverbs, Chinese border slang and American English business terminology; or so said those few who had gotten close enough to hear anything. But these two men, normally so apparently expansive and voluble, were mostly silent about the ties that bound them and the goals they pursued in common.