21 June 2009

Past, Present, Future - Thoughts while Traveling Burma

I have been to many cities that have survived unspeakable atrocities: Auschwitz in Poland, Dachau in Germany, Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I have backpacked through countries formerly stifled and beaten under brutal regimes: Czech Republic, Hungary, Laos. Places whose very names are synonymous with the wars that rocked them and nearly bled them dry: Vietnam, Punjab, Northern France. Though the horrors and devastation are mostly over, hints of it remain permanently etched onto the faces of the old, the sick and the poor.

The main thing that these places have in common is that their brutal dictatorial regimes and crippling wars are things of the past. Sure there is strife in Laos, crooked politicking in India and some forms of free speech repression in Thailand and Vietnam, but on the whole things are improving. People have a way out - something to look forward to, better lives for their children - opportunity. I travel to those places, the places with haunted pasts and talk to locals who have smiles and hope. I visit monuments to the “Never Again.” No matter how terrible and bleak and evil it all was – now it's safely in the past, tucked away in the realm of implausibility.

This, Myanmar, is different.


After my one day trip to the tribally administered region of Myawaddy eight months ago, I arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) expecting Soviet-era expressions of hopelessness and despair, bleak grey faces with downcast eyes. Screaming babies wrapped in rags held by weaving drunk mothers. Dreadlocked children pawing at my taxi window for a few kyat - a depressing mix of Mumbai and Moscow. But it's not like that at all – people are smiling broadly, children are in clean school uniforms, and though the streets are dirty they are friendly - absolutely everyone wants to say “Hello!” It seems so....happy. To a point.

Things get weird almost instantly, and you realize where you are and that you are standing in a country that is presently mired in the same type of hellish political system that Cambodia was in under Pol Pot, Yugoslavia under Milosevic. Currently happening in military junta-controlled Myanmar, right now as I type this: militarily enforced rape, genocides against tribal people, forced work camps, human de-mining of landmine fields, and suppression of all free speech. Of course, what the tourists see is beautiful and pleasant – but the knowledge of what is happening to these earnest, friendly people hits you in the chest sometimes.

“This was University, now - not now.” We were in a van making our way to the Motherland Guesthouse in Yangon, having just landed in Myanmar. So-So, the guesthouse representative,was pointing out sights along the way.

“Why not now?” Someone at the back of the van enquired.

“2 Years ago, when government shoots the monks, then they shut down all Universities in Yangon. No more.” That means that Yangon is a city of 6 million - and there are no Universities. That is bewildering. (The next day Sean and I passed a beautiful colonial building that once was a college. It was ringed with 2 barbed wire fences.)

For a city of its size, Yangon's streets are quiet and traffic free.“Very little traffic jam. Very expensive to have car – 45,000 US dollars.” So So announced. I could not believe my ears.

“45,000 US?!” I repeated. This is a country with an average annual income of 1900 USD (mean).

“Yes,” So So confirmed sadly, “and now no more bicycles or motorbikes in Yangon. Very hard to get around.” Bikes of all kinds, the basic mode of transportation in Asia, have recently been banned unless you are a government crony – and they all just drive SUVs. Clearly, average people here are not meant to have the means to organize or congregate. Even a Sim card for a mobile phone costs 1500 USD. The Generals are a canny bunch – they are making it harder and harder to stage more protests.


The crazy thing to me is how the Generals don't care that there is a fundamental problem with the country, and if they do care, why are they are not racked with terrible guilt? Everywhere in Yangon things are crumbling, pre-1948 British buildings sagging and rotting, sidewalks a checkerboard of neglect with all of their huge cement blocks topsy turvy. Even government offices and buildings are not exempt – with their broken windows and uneven foundations they are still in use. Not that this upsets or inconveniences the Generals too much - Yangon is no longer technically the capital. Three years ago, on the advice of astrologers, Than Shwe's junta picked up and moved the capital officially to Nay Pyi Daw, a backwater in a highly inaccessible region. They then spent 250 million bucks making it a modern city with wide boulevards, luxurious highrises and 24 hour electricity (despite the huge amount of oil that Myanmar produces, its citizens must have expensive generators or live in the dark; the oil is sold to China and India, at no benefit to the people). This is in a country where many people do not have food to eat and can only travel a maximum of 25 km/hr on the atrociously pothole-cratered roads. I know I have complained about India's space program (a colossal waste of funds in a country where 100,000 children die from hunger each year) but come on. This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

And I'm sure that the Generals sleep soundly at night, like the psychopathic babies that they are.

The fucked up thing is that like most regimes, we in the West are kind of letting this happen by giving our tacit non-condemnation. While there are EU and US sanctions on Myanmar that has not stopped China or Thailand from sopping up all of their cheap timber and oil and turning a blind eye to the trafficking of opium and women over their borders. The UN, not wanting to pick small battles with China, refuses to do anything about the problems here.

The UN Security Council has no formal opinion on the matter.

I would like to think that I live in a world where the most powerful International policing force can give a fucking public condemnation to a country that rapes minority women as policy. Maybe I am naïve.

Like most things in life, screaming and shouting won't solve anything – yelling at the Burmese elite certainly isn't going to make them say “hmm, you're right, strange White Lady.” If you go to the very root of it, Western colonization got Burma into this situation – I don't purport to have the answers to get them out, and to claim I do would just be another form of “White Man's Burden” mentality. At the very least, jumping up and down with a placard on the streets of Yangon is just going to get me arrested and thrown in a Myanmar jail for 6 months.

I was asked, on this trip, by a fellow traveller, “Is it really so bad here? The people seem so happy – maybe it's better than you think?” And he had a point – the people are so, so kind and always keen to have a laugh and share a tea. Are we imposing our own Western need for 'democracy' on people that may not want it?

No, I don't think we are. They do want it. The kind people of Myanmar may not want exactly the kinds of democracy that we have in the West, but the do want their legally elected president, Aung San Suu Kyi to be released from jail (her crime was getting elected) and allowed to take office. They want to share in the profits that their natural resources rake in. They want NOT TO BE RAPED BY THE MILITARY, forcibly resettled or used as brute slave labour. They keep protesting, and keep getting shot at and imprisoned and even escaping as refugees to Thailand and Bangladesh (if you are escaping to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on the planet, you know there is a problem.) To quote Sean and his thoughts on Tibet, “People do not flee their ancestral homelands for no reason.” It's true – there have got to be some pretty major problems to get you to walk away from everything you love and risk your life for nothing more than freedom.

So that is the difference. When I was in Laos, Vietnam, Poland, and even Cambodia I was sheltered from the grim realities of the past by a thin curtain of time and its wound healing abilities. I was aware of the painful histories, but often amazed by the many wonderful things that have happened since due to the people's unbreakable spirit. But now, here in Myanmar I have come full circle and I am literally standing in that grim past, but this is not history – this is the present. If it is up to the all powerful Generals, it will also be the future. Having this perspective is a nauseating feeling.

I can only imagine how it feels to the Burmese.


tanya said...

You've really got to admire their spirit. They were, in general, some of the friendliest, most welcoming people I've encountered yet. The kids at Bagan nearly brought me to tears...

Violet Dear said...

I have honestly never met friendlier people - they were amazing!

Lucy said...

wow. this was really eye-opening

yoga ninja mama said...

this was heart wrenching, englightening, and very humbling to read. thank you for writing about the tragedy that persists, but for also writing about the people and their strength of spirit and their bright faces and voices.

the photo at the end of the entry, the little girl with the umbrella, is so gorgeous. you need to frame that and put it on a wall somewhere in your home when you return :). it speaks volumes.

Anonymous said...

WOW! I randomly clicked on Burma in your "tag cloud"...WOW! Thats got me thinking. Thank U. Seriously. Its one thing to be all "witty" and smart and flippant...its another thing altogether to be conscious and aware...and thoughtful...and wise.Thank U.