Ko Paul had been warned that the old Yamaha piano in the upstairs sitting room of the dilapidated lakeside mansion was in bad shape.
Tropical climates aren’t great for pianos. Heat warps their sound boxes, humidity swells their pin blocks, reducing string tension, and termites savour an easy meal. But this one was worse than the piano tuner expected that day in 2009.
“Pretty much everything had to be changed, the pins, the dampers, all the hammers,” he said in a coffee shop in Yangon. “It was pretty bad off.”
Ko Paul spent a week scrounging for low-quality Chinese replacement parts — with Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, under crippling economic sanctions, they were the best he could find — and patched the Yamaha together before tuning it.
As he worked, he chatted with the slight woman in her 60s who owned the piano.
It was Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate, who had been forced to spend years in the heavily guarded mansion under house arrest.
“She wanted me to tell young Burmese not to be afraid, don’t live in fear, things will change,” he recalled. “And they have.”
Ko Paul’s contribution was a small footnote to an epic struggle, keeping the old piano alive and lifting the spirits of a brave woman surrounded by hard men intent on breaking her will.
During Suu Kyi’s decade and a half of isolation imposed by generals enraged by her opposition party’s victory in a 1990 election, the piano had become a symbol of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy.
A few brave people reportedly slipped past the roadblocks around the mansion on University Avenue to try to hear it, and reassure themselves that she was still alive.
The piano was also on occasion the object of her frustration. In 2004, after hearing that her friend and Burmese poet U. Tin Moe was also under house arrest, she reportedly banged it so hard that keys broke.
And in a 1997 interview, she told of bashing its pedals with such vigour in another moment of weakness that a string snapped.
“I told you; I have a hot temper,” she said to British journalist John Pilger. It wasn’t until 2010 that Suu Kyi would walk free from her home, to a rapturous welcome from her fellow Burmese and democracy activists the world over.
Her release ushered in a period of opening in a homeland that was one of the most closed societies on Earth. In recent months, a new civilian government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased media restrictions and opened the door to outside contact, paving the way for her election to the parliament.
But for years, the ruling generals waged a psychological war with the opposition leader. While she was kept in near-isolation, Suu Kyi’s human contact was limited to two female companions. Her few diversions included listening to BBC News reports, meditating, studying Buddhist sutras and playing a piano that even the generals didn’t dare take away.
She was particularly fond of Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon”, which she reportedly played for her husband, Michael Aris, on his last visit in 1997; he died of cancer two years later. Other favourites include Bach, Bartok, Telemann, Mozart and Clementi.
Ko Paul, 42, a portly man with an easy manner, was one of the small tribe of piano tuners called into service unexpectedly, struggling with inadequate materials under the watchful eyes of secret police, but treasuring their brush with Sui Kyi.
He remembers going to Suu Kyi’s compound three times starting in 2009 during what would prove to be the waning days of her detention. Decades earlier, his musician father, who had played piano in a jazz band at Yangon’s elegant Strand Hotel, had tuned the same piano for Suu Kyi’s mother, receiving coconuts in appreciation.
Security around her lakeside property was extensive, and the secret police had visited his house beforehand as part of a thorough background check.
When he arrived with his tool bag, security men inspected everything assiduously before waving him through.
He returned five months later to tune it again. By then, things were loosening up and a few of her friends were at the house. Catching some of the hope that things were improving, he played “Amazing Grace” for the group to a standing ovation.
Saw Sheperd, 70, another tuner who worked on Suu Kyi’s piano, fell into the business by accident. While studying the bassoon in Moscow during the 1960s, he said, he was required to learn piano.
On returning, he fell out with the regime and started giving piano lessons to survive. Local technicians were so bad that he started repairing students’ pianos himself, he said in the family’s austere living room as his granddaughter played a tinny piano nearby.
In the early 1990s, Leo Nichols, or “Uncle Leo”, an Anglo-Burmese supporter of Suu Kyi who would later die in jail at the hands of the regime, asked Saw Sheperd to fix a piano at his house.
During the two weeks he worked on it, cannibalising parts from other pianos, Saw Sheperd asked whom it belonged to. “It’s for my ‘daughter’,” Nichols told him, before adding with a smile, “My ‘daughter’ is Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Security was so tight at that point that the piano had been removed from her house for repairs and sent back, so Saw Shepherd never met Suu Kyi. “But I was shocked and delighted to realise who it belonged to,” he said.
For Saw Simon, 68, the call to duty came in March 1997. He had repaired pianos for a few years at a Yamaha factory in neighbouring Thailand, which left him more qualified than most in a country with little training for piano tuners.
During the darkest days of Western sanctions against the ruling generals, he had learnt to make his own parts using wood from packing crates, scrap metal and felt brought in by diplomats, he said, in a room filled with piano hammers, tools and resin cans.
He never saw Suu Kyi either. “I was very afraid; those were very difficult times,” he said. “I thought I might get persecuted for helping, but it worked out all right.”
The image of Suu Kyi pounding the keys in lonely isolation inspired songs and paintings beyond Myanmar. The Irish band U2 called her “a singing bird in an open cage” in its Grammy Award-winning 2000 album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which Myanmar promptly banned.
Five years later, Irish singers Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan released the single “Unplayed Piano” about her. On hearing about her decrepit Yamaha in 2007, a group of prominent British women, including the singer Annie Lennox, tried to send her a new piano, raising the money and mapping out possible shipping routes before hitting a brick wall with official approvals.
These days, with Myanmar opening up, the rush of VIP visitors and Suu Kyi’s growing responsibility as a lawmaker, she has little time to play, those close to her say.
“When the politics rise, the piano playing falls,” said a National League for Democracy party member who requested anonymity. One of her biggest regrets, Suu Kyi told reporters in 2011, was that she hadn’t composed anything during her years of quiet seclusion. “Music is much more universal than words,” she said.
Piano dealer Soe Thura Win, who sent her tuning forks and sheet music for Mozart’s sonatas towards the end of her detention, said word is that she has acquired a late-model Yamaha U3 in the capital, Naypyidaw, complementing her creaky Yamaha in Yangon.
She has also started playing more Schubert, “recommended by a pianist friend as the perfect companion to the later stages of life’s journey”, said Kit Young, founder of Gitameit, a Yangon civic group working to preserve traditional Burmese music.
As word of Suu Kyi’s love of pianos spreads, Soe Thura Win said, perhaps more young Burmese will take up an instrument that first came to this country in the 19th century, a gift to the king from the Italian ambassador.
Ko Paul drained his coffee and reflected on his brush with history. “I feel I contributed in a small way to the changes in Myanmar,” he said. “It’s been a huge honour.”