I wonder if Thar Thar could have imagined he would one day dine with kings and presidents, ride on private jets with pop stars and sleep in the fanciest hotels in many nations. Would he have imagined being on TV all over the world, of riding in limousines and being escorted by lifeguards? Was this the outcome he had envisioned while he was playing cat & mouse with the secret police in Rangoon? He must not have dreamed of such privileges at the times when he did not dare to visit his friends because his presence would endanger their lives. When he, as a young boy, received the message that his dad had died in prison (the prison officials said he died from asthma. Thar Thar and his family knew that political prisoners seldom die from asthma) he most likely felt like his life was doomed.
Thar Thar is a political activist from Burma. I first met him at a coffee shop in Rangoon. He called me and asked if a meeting at 10.30 pm would be OK. “I don’t sleep much,” he explained. “When I was running from the secret police, I had no place to go to sleep. I would move from Internet café to Internet café and try to catch some sleep in the chairs there.”
I was so moved by his passion and of his story. His whole life he had been living like a spy or like a fugitive in order to work for freedom for his country. “Most of my friends were arrested, some died, but I was always smarter than the police and managed to get away right in front of their noses.” He is one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest friends and aids. “I communicated a lot with her while she was under house arrest,” he explained. “But how could you do that? She had no access to phones and could not have visitors.” “Oh, but we were able to communicate anyway. Did you not hear of the doctor who went to check up on her? Do you think he went to check her health only? No, he was our messenger.”
Two days ago I met Thar Thar in Oslo! I could not believe that the t-shirt-dressed, poor and unknown guy I had met in Rangoon some months earlier now was wearing a suit, and was treated like the most prominent of VIPs. I commented on his new suit and haircut when I met him. He just laughed.
He was one of the four who got to travel with Aung San Suu Kyi on her tour of Europe. I met him after she had given her Nobel’s Peace Prize lecture. He had had busy days of meetings and fancy dinners. “I met the king yesterday, but who was the king again?” He said chuckling. We were at a fancy restaurant and the courses kept coming. “What am I eating? I actually just wish somebody would give me some rice. I have not had rice since I left Burma.”
He said that he would meet Bono the next day, and would go to Dublin in his airplane. I sighed a very jealous sigh. “Not fair, Thar Thar! All my life I have wanted to meet Bono, and now you are going to ride an airplane with him!”
But Thar Thar has not lost his head to the instant luxury and special privileges he has received over the past days. He knows that what he is experiencing now is just a parenthesis of what his real life is. The smartly dressed politicians and famous people he meets don’t impress him much. Not unless their lives have proven that their words are sincere. I was nothing less than flattered when he said: “OK, so you are my friend, so can I ask you anything I want?” “Go ahead.” “Last night we went to a very fancy dinner with the king and the queen and the government. There were so many important people there. But I looked around and I wondered: Why are these people here? What have they done for Burma? I asked people: Where is Oddny Gumear? Why is she not here?”
And, although I did not feel worthy to dine with the king, I have wondered why all of a sudden everybody has become a Burma friend. Where were they when Thar Thar was hiding from the police, afraid of getting arrested and killed like his dad had been? Where were they when the villagers in Karen State were burning and thousands were running for their lives? Where were they when I tried to get them to write about rapes and pillaging in their newspapers? Where were they when we asked for money to feed thousands?
Thar Thar sees through the outer shall of pretend concern and into the hearts of the many who are not genuinely concerned about people like him and his countrymen and women. For a few days it has been trendy to care about Burma. Will it still be if there is nothing to gain for it for them? That is what I wonder, and what Thar Thar wonders too.
“All these people want to invest in our country now. Why? I think that they mostly want it for themselves. I am not so sure that allowing them all to come before we have the right laws in place is the right thing to do.”
The next day Thar Thar called me again: “Oddny, can you help me?” I thought he had gotten himself in trouble. “Sure, what is it?” “I have not had dinner, and all I want is for somebody to take me to an Asian Restaurant where I can get some rice!”
He, who could have called on room service at the most expensive hotel in Norway, wanted to go to a place where he could eat some rice and talk about things that really mattered, such as how to teach the grassroots in Burma about real democracy.
There is hope for Burma. Not because of rich investors from the West, but because of people like Thar Thar.