Published in the February 2017 edition of The Point Magazine.
Sun’s Burmese Kitchen is a homely, understated affair that sits within a line of shops in Blacktown, western Sydney. Its red and yellow walls are dotted with huge photographs of Yangon’s glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the ancient temples of Bagan and, like any proper Burmese establishment, a portrait of its iconic democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The restaurant owner Sunny Myint Aungis a quiet man of few words, but the pride he takes in serving up authentic Burmese cuisine five thousand miles away from Myanmar is evident.
“In Burma, there is a very famous dish called dan bauk [the Burmese version of biryani]. I met a Burmese chef in Bangkok who gave me his dan bauk recipe and taught me how to make it. So our dan bauk here is really special.”
Sunny is able to source all the ingredients he needs from a warehouse that supplies products of Myanmar origin, such as lapet thoke, a delicious tea leaf salad that’s used to relieve fatigue.
Sunny was already well-known in western Sydney’s Burmese community before he opened his restaurant in 2012. He was a regular fixture at community events, and cooked for large crowds at the local church.
“The Burmese community comes to the restaurant for meals and sometimes they bring their new friends, so that they can try Burmese food. And they like it, so they come again.”
Sunny opened his first restaurant in 1998, but was ultimately forced to close the business due to being unable to make a decent profit margin in the face of high overheads.
“Rents are so high – there’s a lot of hardships for small businesses,” he said.
He spent a decade working at a bakery before trying his hand at the restaurant business once again. He has set up a team comprising his Filipina wife Lyn, and their 23-year-old son.
“This is a family business – my, wife, son and I are hard-working and we started slowly, slowly,” he explained.
Sunny’s story of leaving Myanmar is unusual for its lack of drama. He left at the age of 30 to work as a sea merchant, rather than fleeing political unrest or persecution as many of his compatriots did during the eighties and following decades. He spent a decade sailing around the world and lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Papua New Guinea before settling in Australia with his parents and his wife.
Sunny’s preoccupations are the same as any small business owner in Australia: keeping his business healthy. When asked if he follows events in Myanmar, including the historic general elections of 2015 he said, “I’m really out of touch. I’ve only been back twice and I have no family left in my home town of Mawlamyine. My son’s been once and he doesn’t want to go again.”
When I told Sunny that I lived in Myanmar for four-and-a-half years, he didn’t seem particularly curious to hear about it. In that respect, he also struck me as unusual, as most Burmese will fire a volley of questions, wanting to know the parts of the country outside Yangon I’d visited, whether I could speak Burmese and what I made of the country’s politics. It wasn’t until at least 30 minutes into our meeting, when I was busy taking photos of the restaurant, that he turned to me and said, “How is Myanmar these days?”
“Not much different,” I replied.
He paused for a second and said, “It is different. It’s better than before.”
Sunny was right. Myanmar has undoubtedly entered a new era, one where students and monks are no longer shot dead in the streets and people can speak freely about their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – rather than speaking in whispers due to fear of arrest by military intelligence. I arrived in Myanmar in 2012, two years after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, where she’d spent a total of 16 years. Its government in 2012 was quasi-civilian, but many people still lived in fear. When I joined The Myanmar Times, its co-founder Sonny Swe was still serving what would be an eight-year sentence for breaching harsh censorship laws. These same laws were abolished later that year and Sonny was released, along with hundreds of other political prisoners, in a government amnesty in April 2013. I went with a large group of newspaper staff to meet him at Yangon Airport, where he’d been flown from a remote prison in Shan State. It was a joyous, tearful reunion.
Other noticeable changes included making SIM cards affordable, giving people access to mobile phones and the internet for the first time. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, took part in by-elections (and won their seats by a landslide). However the real test for Myanmar came in November 2015, when general elections were scheduled to take place. If held successfully, they would end half a century of military rule.
At the time I was working as senior consultant editor for the state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. The opportunity arose when a two-year partnership between it and Japan’s Kyodo News came to an end and they were seeking to keep a couple of foreign editors on the news desk. After a 20-minute explanation of the newspaper’s desire to become more “people focused” and being quizzed about my background for less than 10 minutes, I was asked if I could start work that same evening.
The newspaper had recently become a joint venture between the Ministry of Information and a little-known investor and was trying hard to improve its image. During the decades of junta rule it was a truly nasty rag. Aung San Suu Kyi was never mentioned by name, but crude sexual cartoons of her appeared regularly – she was depicted as being a whorish puppet of the West. The newspaper had drastically toned down its propaganda while maintaining something of a stranglehold on breaking news, because it received military and government announcements first via the state-run Myanmar News Agency. In the lead up to the election, Aung San Suu Kyi had said she would privatize Myanmar’s state-owned media – a promise she failed to keep.
I got a lot of flak from my fellow journalists when I started working for a newspaper that was nicknamed ‘The Dim Light of Myanmar’ and ‘The New Lies of Myanmar’. Some were a little more encouraging – as the editor of Democratic Voice of Burma wryly remarked on my Facebook wall, “Maybe they’ll publish today’s weather instead of yesterday’s.”
One of my colleagues was a highly intelligent, politically-minded, father-of-one, who’d worked there for more than a decade. When I asked him how he felt about having to translate the really nasty editorials and propaganda, he said, “I also teach English and I know that most teachers used the New Light as supplementary materials. There were other books and things in the market but they were expensive. I’d say to them, ‘Don’t listen to the content – just take the language.”
In the lead up to the election, the whisperings of my colleagues started to worry me. Some were adamant that a coup was looming while others had theories about the government trying to provoke the public to take to the streets so as to be able to indefinitely postpone the elections. They were justifiably untrusting; the most recent multiparty elections were held back in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory had been overturned by the military.
When I entered the newsroom that historic Sunday after the vote had taken place, colleagues proudly showed me their ink-stained pinkies and told me they’d lined up to cast their votes as early as 4am – just to ensure that they wouldn’t miss the chance to vote if lines were long. For many it was the first time in their lives they’d ever voted.
We rushed over to the newsroom’s TV to watch vote cards being counted, with cheers emerging onscreen and off when a vote went to the new government. It was clear that a landslide was taking place. We cracked open a bottle of Mandalay Rum and toasted the NLD’s emblem. “To the peacock!” we cheered. It seemed as though Myanmar had finally begun a brighter chapter as I penned the next day’s headline, ‘Dawn of a new era.’
In March, it will be a year since the NLD took office. However, progress in making reforms has been slow. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally barred from being president but is the nation’s de facto leader, has kept the media at arm’s length and according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017, the human rights situation in Myanmar hasn’t seen significant improvement, and in some ways is even worse.
The NLD released 200 political prisoners when it first entered office, however issues of concern to HRW include the lack of protection of free speech and the worsening situation for Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. There has also been heightened conflict between the Burma Army and several ethnic armed groups, despite the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015.
However while the government’s performance has been weaker than expected, Sunny was right in appreciating the changes that have taken place, and that people, including myself, may be too quick to forget how far Myanmar has come. It’s also difficult not to be optimistic about the future when one thinks about the people of Myanmar. Before leaving Sun’s Burmese Kitchen, I ordered dan bauk for my husband and my absolute favourite Burmese dish, Shan tomato salad, as take-away for that evening’s dinner. When Sunny smilingly gave me the food parcels and insisted they were a gift, I was again reminded how kind, warm and generous the Burmese are. Virtually every day that I lived in Myanmar, I was touched by an act of kindness, whether by a taxi driver or someone I knew. It came as no surprise to me when the 2016 Giving Index again ranked Myanmar the world’s most generous country (with Australia coming in at third). It’s hard not to feel optimistic about a nation of people so inclined to kindness, despite the many obstacles that remain.