© Chiara Luxardo

Ma Thida’s latest work in progress is a novel set in the spooky cityscape of Naypyidaw, the sprawling but sparsely populated Myanmar capital purpose-built by the country’s then ruling military and inaugurated in 2005. The author, doctor and former political prisoner sees it as a warning of how a different kind of alienation risks setting in now Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led administration is in power.

The working title of Thida’s book — which translates roughly as Sinkhole City — suggests how Naypyidaw is an emblem of remoteness of government from the people even now the darkest days of repression have receded. “The atmosphere will swallow you,” Thida says of Naypyidaw’s empty highways and brutalist official buildings. “You can easily fall into the sinkhole.”

Like other Myanmar artists, business people and diplomats, Thida lives not in Naypyidaw but Yangon, the former capital. Her house — for the last two years while the main family home is under renovation — is in an apartment block to the north of the crowded downtown area. Magazines from a printing company run by the family friends who own the block are piled in the garage.

The apartment is modestly-sized, with a rack of clothes lining the long hallway. The roof gives a view of rich Southeast Asian greenery, nourished by prodigious wet season rains. In the distance shimmers the golden stupa of the Shwedagon pagoda, a holy Buddhist site that has also been the site of political drama. Aung San Suu Kyi gave a famous speech there in 1988, at the start of her political rise that climaxed in a landslide 1990 election victory. The junta over-rode those polls, cracked down hard and put her under house arrest instead.

Now, 18 months after the country’s first civilian-led government for more than 50 years took power, the realities of the country’s forbidding problems — and the new administration’s growing pains — loom larger. It’s a point brought into horrific relief some weeks after our interview by the brutal military crackdown in Muslim Rohingya areas, in response to attacks by insurgents on 30 police posts and an army base.

Street view of Ma Thida’s apartment © Chiara Luxardo
The kitchen © Chiara Luxardo

“For more than five decades the country has been destroyed,” says Thida, who was born in 1966, just a few years after General Ne Win’s military junta took power. “That cannot be corrected in a short period.”

A tour of Thida’s apartment reveals in the kitchen two objects of personal resonance. Both a clay drinking pot and a solid dark Burmese teak table are from Mawlamyine, the southern homeplace of Thida’s mother. It was here in the 1920s that the British writer George Orwell served as a colonial police officer, an experience he recalled ruefully in his essay “Shooting an Elephant”. The area is also the source of a teak bed that belonged to Thida’s grandparents.

A picture of Thida’s grandfather is among objects in the front room that tell a history of both family and country. “He was such an influence on me,” she says, describing how her grandfather was dismissed from high school in 1920 because he was involved in a student strike. “He read a lot and listened to the BBC World Service every night. He knew traditional medicine and carpentry. He knew everything. He was very influential on me. That’s why when I got involved in politics my parents said: ‘He will be happy to learn this.’”

A table with her degree and awards © Chiara Luxardo
A Buddhist shrine with fresh offerings © Chiara Luxardo

Thida’s intellectual awakening led her to start writing books as a teenager, often examining the interactions and power relationships in groups of young people around her. Her decision to study medicine is commemorated by a stethoscope on a side table. This work, too, had a wider resonance in military-ruled Myanmar, which at the time was becoming notorious for ruthless repression. “Health is truly political because it’s connected to everything,” Thida says, noting how her patient’s conditions often revealed the poverty gripping the country. “We need to treat not just the patient, but their environment. And we need to dig deeper into their symptoms.”

Her political convictions led her to join Aung San Suu Kyi’s growing National League for Democracy movement and travel around the country as an aide and medic to the leader. It was this — as well as her literature — that led eventually to her arrest and sentence in 1993 to 20 years in Yangon’s infamous Insein prison. An image of her with her parents after graduating from medical school is symbolic of a young life interrupted. “My father told me: ‘When you are released, we will take a graduation photo of you,’” she recalls of the picture, which was taken less than a week after she left jail.

Thida was ill with tuberculosis in jail and became an international prisoner of conscience. Like other long-term political detainees, she found Buddhist meditation became an important tool for survival. A small shrine in the sitting room has offerings including mangoes and a eugenia tree — a symbol of victory.

Earthenware drinking pot © Chiara Luxardo

Once out of jail, Thida could return to writing and travelled abroad for the first time — though it took her another five and a half years to get a passport. While she waited, she resumed her medical work and started a distance learning diploma in health systems management at the University of London. “Even though I was released from Insein prison, I could not be released from the prison of Myanmar,” she says. She was based in the US between 2008 and 2010, spending time at the University of Iowa, before returning to Myanmar to edit a news journal once the junta formally stepped down in 2011. Her memoir, Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps through Insein, was published last year. She also received the inaugural “Disturbing the Peace” award from the Václav Havel Library Foundation in 2016.

One figure who has not featured in her post-prison life is her former boss. Thida says she, along with other former colleagues, wrote asking to meet Aung San Suu Kyi after she was released from house arrest in late 2010, but didn’t receive a reply. Thida insists she is not upset, adding that the still-popular leader, known to many as The Lady or Mother Suu, is not as personally chilly as some suggest. Thida recalls her kindness in gathering warm clothes and blankets for her when she was ill.

Medical school graduation photo, staged years after Thida finished because she had been in prison © Chiara Luxardo

But Thida has long warned against a cult of hero worship around Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Thida wrote in the 1990s that the leader had become a “prisoner of applause”. Asked about her feelings now, Thida takes off her tinted glasses, rubs her eyes and gives an answer that blends sympathy with something grittier: “She truly needs to get rest from her very long endeavour . . . She said she needs to work until she will no longer be needed. But in 10 years’ time, will people still need her or not? Her ambition is very high — and big.”

I called Thida in October to ask her views on the Rohingya crisis and Aung San Suu Kyi’s handling of it. Thida spoke cautiously, referring to the Rohingya as “oppressed” but also raising concerns about the rise of militants such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army Militant group. She criticised Aung San Suu Kyi for not taking more time to address the Myanmar people directly on the troubles (the leader delivered her main speech on the crisis, in September, in English).

But Thida also expressed concern about how the overwhelming focus in the west on Aung San Suu Kyi as a fallen idol of human rights was little help in solving a terrible problem of which she is only one — important — part. Most analysts agree that Aung San Suu Kyi has little influence over the still-powerful military — whose commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, has been hosted in the past year by several European countries and the EU.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon © Getty

“I have been a little bit surprised — why should she be the only person who has been blamed by the international community?” Thida says. “I won’t do that, even though I am not a big fan of hers any more.”

Thida’s house and words reveal a peripatetic soul with a writer’s insistent gnaw for the truth — including the answers to the big questions facing her cosmopolitan but conflict-plagued country. She points out how well served Naypyidaw is for electricity at a time when many parts of the nation, including some residential areas like hers in Yangon, suffer power shortages. The capital’s gleam may be too dazzling for its new government occupants, she suggests, as they and the rest of the population grope for an escape from a stifling history. “You can be lost, even under the light.”

Favourite thing

Ma Thida takes visible pleasure in all her awards and mementoes, but she cherishes one in particular. She plucks a big card that has names and birthday greetings scrawled over it. “This is a very good one: I really love it. It was for my 29th birthday,” she recalls. “I was in prison, so they made me a birthday card at a UN world women’s conference in Beijing.”

© Chiara Luxardo

Thida says she’d always wanted to write a prison memoir. Other colleagues had been jailed for a short time and she wondered what it was like, although she admits the length of the sentence came as a shock. She speculates wryly that the authorities released her early in 1999 because they were infuriated by her open resilience, culminating in thanking her jailers for helping her to nirvana.

Michael Peel is the FT’s European diplomatic correspondent. He covered Myanmar as the FT’s Bangkok correspondent between 2013 and 2017

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Photographs: Chiara Luxardo; Boy Anupong/Getty Images

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