Friday, August 18, 2017

Lady Don't Fall Backwards


A bigger, faster, grittier and more complex vision of Yangon. Photo: Todd WalkerA bigger, faster, grittier and more complex vision of Yangon. Photo: Todd Walker

Chapter 40: The Wire Puller

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.

Read more installments of Lady Don't Fall Backwards, or check out our previous series, The Chronicles of Bei Ka Street, below.