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Recently I stumbled across an old travel log I wrote back in October of 2006 about a slow river trip in Myanmar. Much has changed there in the past decade, but the quiet riverways are still there for those who need a break from city stress.

Slow Boat Through Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar

 There’s not much to do on a slow boat trip up a long river in Myanmar.  There is no shuffleboard deck.  No waiters in neatly pressed white shorts to serve cold rum punch or garden salads, which is not to say there is nothing to eat or drink.  No reggae band to make the sweat feel worth it.  Thankfully, there is plenty to see even during the thunderous heart of monsoon season.  The landscape is an idyllic pastoral utopia of green, lush, fertile earth that literally erupts with life.  The river, its banks and surrounding paddies dominate the entertainment program.  Rice farmers work as they have for thousands of years.  Draft animals slop through the slough.  The only motor to be heard is that of our big rusty boat toiling upriver from Sitwe to Mrauk Oo.  The constantly reliable low churning drone of the engine distracts the animals and the farmers as they stop a moment to appraise the passing faces.  Then they are back to their task before our gentle wake even reaches their shore.  The hours tick away quickly as the passing view mesmerizes the passengers bend after bend.  Periodically the boat slows to a halt at a rickety wooden jetty where some passengers disembark and others hop aboard.  Chickens change hands and fish mongers ply passengers with salted fish on a stick.  Hardboiled eggs are just as popular. 

Occasionally a thunderclap introduces a fresh barrage of rain.  Passengers curl under umbrellas and raincoats.  The deck is covered but the tempest laughs at roofs and simply makes a sidelong approach.  Yet, a bundle of three opened umbrellas makes a rather effective shelter.  We are tightly packed and neighbors naturally form umbrella linked alliances.  Like the defensive position of a broad-shielded phalanx, we generally successfully repel the volley of water.  These frequent downpours set the schedule between eating, dozing and battening down under any available plastic.  After the rains retreat the people are enervated and activity swells into almost a carnival like atmosphere as people reposition themselves to share food and talk about anything and everything.  Burmese sarongs or longyis are retied around thin waists, wet clothes are flung over rusty side rails.  People laugh at seemingly everything. 

            After a while a lull sneaks aboard and the people begin to doze in heaps all about the deck.  One old man stands out.  He is moving about stepping over lazing families.  Almost frantically the old man worked, running worn wires round the roof beams and connecting them to an old scratchy speaker box on one side of the boat and an old recycled camp-style megaphone on the other.  The initial squelch from the speaker system roused even those most deeply dozing.  We positioned himself on the floor in the middle of the rousing crowd.  He held a bulging bag in his lap and a small portable cassette player on a knee.  Knowing most people were no fully intrigued, he pushed play and a sound spewed from the speakers that would have sent any cats aboard swimming home in fright.  The emanating incantations seemed to even scare the ubiquitous clouds away for a time.  The skies would not steal the old man’s thunder.  Everyone was awake now as the sounds of Buddhist prayer-chanting mixed with varied strings loomed over the entire boat.  The chants evoked auspiciousness and health.  Suddenly the man pushed the stop button and a silence hung in the air.  He took a moment to unplug the cassette player and replace it with a microphone deftly pulled from his bagful of tricks.  Another ear-splitting squelch underscored the anticipation, followed by a theatrical pause that had the crowd nearly pulling their hair out. 

            The man stood slowly placing his bag at his feet, straightening his neatly wrapped longyi and flattening his neatly tailored though slightly threadbare Burmese waste coat.  Suddenly he unleashed a barrage of phrasings that tested the parameters of the speakers’ range.  He was indeed animated.  He pointed at children, he pointed at old ladies.  He swept a thin over the heads of the crowd.  They smiled and laughed drew in quick short breaths as he jutted a pointed finger in their collective face.  He was a modern day medicine man hawking his magical cure-all:  Dr. Doe Thon’s 8-Herbs Tooth Powder.  This was to be used as a toothpaste for of course, clean healthy strong teeth.  The benefits don’t stop there.  Usage also increases hair growth, general virility and especially aids in the preservation of internal organs.  He constantly referred to himself as a proof-positive example of the powders powers.  It was clear that he had his own teeth.  With all the rattling of his jaw and jowls it seems his teeth were quite strong indeed.  His hair was jet black suspiciously with no streaks of gray.  It couldn’t be described as luxuriant but not as sparse as the hair on most 70-year-old heads.  He was a bit on the thin side but his overt enthusiasm belied vim and vigor.  The powder came in small sachets with a conventional label featuring a black and white photo of a much younger Dr. Doe.  Each packet cost 200 kyats or around 15 cents.  Dr. Doe passed a number of samples around the audience.  Many of the mesmerized masses eagerly perused the packet and sniffed at the powder inside.  A few tasted a pinch to discover a not-unpleasant flavor.  Alas, only a few were sold.  After interest in his pitch waned and another lull was imminent, the old man at down again.  He carefully replaced the samples in the big bulging bag of packets.  The speakers were taken down and the worn wire wound in a neat bundle.  He replaced his microphone in the same bag.  He patiently rewound his introductory cassette tape with a long fresh cheroot, before patiently and contentedly smoking it. 

            After a time, the boat was silent again as people lounged and lazed across the deck.  The old man laid down with his head pillowed by his bulging bag of powder sachets.  A thunderclap again forewarned of looming rain clouds.  Dr. Doe Thon didn’t have an umbrella.  He woke and began to look for a dry haven.  Suddenly a number of people nearby invited him to join them under their broad shield of umbrellas.  He disappeared under the protective dome.  He was sure to bring his bag within as well.  A few more sales were made there under those umbrellas.  When the rain finally cleared those folks came out with bright fresh smiles, firmly convinced in the veracity of Dr. Doe Thon and his 8-Herbs Tooth Powder. 

            A slow moving meandering boat trip upriver is a momentous way to see the best of Myanmar.  There is very little to do but eat, sleep and see.  Fortunately, the food is good, the rest is sound and the sights are surreal.  After many hours the boat reaches Mrauk Oo and the passengers slowly disembark and begin walking home.  Dr. Doe Thon walked away slowly along a muddy road.  He carried his heavy bags and tucked under a thin arm was a new umbrella someone had given him.  The sun was shining momentarily but there were other clouds that would have their way.  Dr. Doe was well prepared with a proven cure-all and a sound umbrella.   

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If you want to discuss politics in Myanmar, even far-away American politics, you don’t meet in a popular restaurant for a chat over lunch. You wouldn’t pick up a phone and call a friend for an engaging discussion. If you did, you would probably find yourself being followed, monitored and, if you kept it up, arrested and thrown in prison for four to seven years. To discuss politics in Myanmar is risky business. It is mostly done outdoors, at night, sitting at low tables, on tiny stools at street corner tea shops. This is where people gather to talk about politics and any other issue that you might not want overheard by the wrong person – namely a government informer. Tea shop proprietors set up large speakers that blare heavy metal and hip hop tunes – the perfect din to conceal any questionable conversations. This is the reality of living in Myanmar, where it is believed one in five “citizens” is informing for military intelligence or M.I. as it is ubiquitously known.

Usually these closely-guarded conversations focus around local, national and personal questions. Who is M.I. and who is not? What sort of power structure shifts might be stirring among the countries ruling generals? Which underground market has the cheapest gas this week? A trio huddled around a tea shop table might be trying to distinguish rumor from fact. Are rebels in Shan State really beating back Burmese forces? Are the monks really organizing for another round of protests next month? Is Aung San Suu Kyi really on a hunger strike? Is your brother really still in prison? Was General Than Shwe really secreted out to Singapore for another emergency surgery? Is electricity really going to be out the rest of the week? These are the sort of issues that are most often discussed at the tea shops – after they’ve finished discussing the international soccer leagues, of course. American politics doesn’t much raise an eyebrow here as it once had. However, if there is a little extra time and another pot of tea to finish or a couple extra cheroots to smoke, a few people might make time to discuss America’s latest presidential election circus that has permeated even this oft-forgotten corner of the world.

Myanmar has been so closed off from the outside world for so long that international news reports on television often seem more like a Hollywood movie than actual events occurring “outside”, somewhere in the world. The local street-side tea shops receive nightly reports from government scripted MRTV, but few people listen. A traditionally dressed young woman literally reads the news from the state run newspaper. Perhaps this is to demonstrate that any errors in the reporting are not her fault. Maybe she does not want to inadvertently let slip any subtle suggestions that the news is anything but factual. She reports each night that the country is enjoying record-breaking rice yields thanks to the oversight of such-and-such a general and his flawless ministry. The news of the bumper crop doesn’t seem to jibe with the high cost of rice and the hungry kids on the streets. But this is all the news on MRTV that is fit to report. They would superficially cover the American election, highlighting the candidates, their wives and the media circus. They might be quick to report any glaring scandals of corruption, but more often than not they merely gloss over the real political issues. The people don’t seem to mind. They have far more important things to worry about than the American presidential election.

Most people are aware of the two candidates’ names. Most know that McCain was in a Vietnam prison and that Obama is the black one. They are impressed with the former and too-quick to dismiss the latter. In Myanmar society, the dark-skinned are still disadvantaged. Darker-skinned Indians mostly comprise the labor force and are often discriminated against by Myanmar’s elite and middle classes. For Myanmar people, it is difficult to take Obama seriously as a candidate. One man asks “why would you want a black man for your leader”. I try to explain that we don’t care about race anymore. We look to the substance of the candidate. I believe this, but I can tell he knows there is more to it than that. After a moment, I admit to him what he’s already hears, that we have places in America where people would never vote for a black man. But I add quickly, they are becoming fewer and fewer. I remind him that Obama went to Harvard. This he knows and he admits he is very impressed as “Harvard is a very good school.” As for McCain his Vietnam legacy is less known than Obama’s race, but those who do know McCain’s story are very impressed by it. Myanmar people have a long torturous history that would compel them to be impressed by the story of a man held in a cage by enemies, only to survive and become a “big man” himself, even more powerful than his captors. This is the story they hope will come to be for their own national hero, Aung San Suu Kyi. They can appreciate McCain’s story far better than any American voter. Yet in reality they don’t have a vote of any kind, so they don’t bother speculating much. No one I spoke with realized that McCain had been to Myanmar in 1995. This is probably because he was there to visit with democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the government wouldn’t likely broadcast that information on MRTV. McCain in fact has been by far the most outspoken for Myanmar. In 2003, he called for then Secretary of State Colin Powell to boycott a trip to the region and encourage Myanmar’s neighbors to increase pressure on the regime to hand over power to the democratically elected party that won elections in 1990. He has since called for increased international sanctions. His wife Cindy is an even more out-spoken critic of the regime. In June she vowed to make human rights in Myanmar an issue if she were to become first lady. She then went on to call the ruling junta “a terrible group of people” who rape and starve their own people. She may be right, but this sort of name-calling is exactly what has forced the paranoid junta to dig in and cling to empirical, iron-fisted control of the country. This sort of threatening language is what has made them ignore outside pressures and violently maintain their hold on power. They have positioned themselves, uniquely protected by both China and India. They also maintain a valuable economic lifeline with their ASEAN neighbors. The threat of further sanctions by John McCain and the acerbic, albeit accurate, name-calling by Cindy is easily dismissed by the ruling junta. Until China, India or ASEAN starts making threats, they are sitting pretty. Here might be Obama’s opportunity to try a new tack. Throughout the presidential race he has been the candidate who has said that he will engage rogue states, not just shut them out of the game. He has said that he will “not only work with countries we like but also with those we don’t”. Engagement with the Myanmar junta might be the first step toward real change. After all it is worth a whole-hearted try, nothing else has worked for the last forty years.

The citizens have given up on the idea that the US or the UN will come to liberate them like they did for Iraq. Even with their sparse news, they can eventually came to see that the US never went there to liberate. This is a popular topic because Myanmar people love to make analogies. In 2003, when the US invaded Iraq, many Myanmar people were elated. They heard George Bush say that we were invading to rid the peace loving people of Iraq of a terrible dictator. The Myanmar people took note, saying, “that’s us, too!” When it was decided that Saddam had to go because he killed his own people, they nodded their heads in approval, knowing their leader had done the same. If Iraq was due for regime change, Myanmar clearly had to be very close to next-on-the-list. Then lots and lots of time went by and they saw what was happening in Iraq, or rather what was not happinging. There was no blossoming of democracy. The tea shop scuttlebutt spun around rumors of “Americans getting richer and Iraqis not getting any freer”. Slowly they began to realize that no one was coming to liberate them. There would be no regime change. Unless they made a public, international demand for it.

In September of 2007, Buddhist monks and university students took to the streets en masse. The people joined them until the streets were filled with hundreds of thousands of citizens screaming Doyay! Screaming for democracy. Then the troops came. Just like in 1988, a bloody stamp down on these protesters put a brutal end to their uprising almost as quickly as it had emerged. On day three of the riots, a man approached me and asked where was the UN? Where was the USA? Didn’t they see all this on the news? I didn’t know how to answer him. I held his desperate eyes and all I could think to say was, “You already know.” His shoulders fell and I saw the hunger and hope fade from his eyes. He said, “They won’t come will they?” I shook my head. “They don’t care do they?” I shook my head again. Finally he looked up the street at the crowd of his people facing the soldiers and then back to me and he said, “We are all alone, aren’t we?” I nodded my head. He already knew the answers to all these questions, he just hadn’t admitted it until that moment.

For others the realization came later – in May after Cyclone Nargis devastated Yangon and eviscerated most of the Aywerwaddy Delta in the south killing 100,000 or more. As international aid agencies clashed with the government, French and American war ships closed in with humanitarian aid. The desperately paranoid junta government feared it might be a prelude to an invasion and warned them away. The people watched intently wondering if this might be the beginning of the end of their oppressive rulers. In a tea shop, of course, a man asked me if the ships had medical supplies or bullets? His question was hopeful for either. I admitted that I didn’t know. Either way, he said, they would do some good. As it turned out the ships were filled with both, but they dropped off their medical supplies and turned and headed away. Everyone knew at that point, if they didn’t already know, that there would be no invasion, no liberation, no Doyay!

So now that the US election cycle has come once again, they are understandably tuned out. For most of them, they have only a romanticized idea of what democracy is anyway. When they talk about democracy, they speak with almost a religious zeal. As if with Democracy (always capitalized) the skies will part and salvation will rain down over all. When asked about specific policies or programs, they shrug and dismiss it. “Democracy” will handle all that. A friend of mine “Mying Htun” told me that most Myanmar people didn’t have any idea what real democracy was. They didn’t understand what it really entails. He was well traveled and spent years in Australia. He knew what an active, living democracy looked like. We sat at his restaurant before opening, countless wait staff bustling about. Mying Htun gestured at them, “If they were given a vote tomorrow, you know who they would vote for?” I didn’t know. “Neither do they. They would come and ask me who I wanted them to vote for.” He went on to explain that they have never known anything but a strong leader telling them what to do. To all of a sudden ask them what they wanted, was expecting too much. He told me that if McCain and Obama were running for “leader” in Myanmar, McCain would win easily. I asked why and he said, “You name it!” He’s been in a military prison. He’s angry and mean. He a tough soldier. He’s not black. I let the last one go, but noted that many of those qualities sounded a great deal like their current leader. Myint Htun laughed at that notion and nodded his head. He supposed that was true. “Give us a choice and we will choose a strong, iron-fist leader again.” I pushed a little further, “A leader like Obama might offer something new. A new way to unify all the different groups. Move together and then move beyond,” I delicately suggested. “Yeah, but he’s black. We’d never vote for him.” Simple as that. End of discussion. I was left wondering if Myint Htun was talking about his country or mine.


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