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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How I Spent My Winter Vacation: A Few Notes on Burma/Myanmar

Posted by on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 4:56 PM

(Note: This song by Burmese hiphop artist Snare was in heavy rotation on our trip, especially by kids playing it on acoustic guitars in groups at night—electricity can be dicey around there, and the kids seem to love to sing, even when they're just walking down the street. So it might make an appropriate soundtrack to this post.)

On Christmas night, Bethany Jean Clement and I flew from Seattle to Thailand to get ourselves organized for our trip to Myanmar/Burma—we had to get lots of crisp $100 bills for changing (no ATMs for US cards), submit a slightly doctored work history for our visa (journalists are not welcome there), adjust to the time change, etc.

The long line for visas at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok.
  • bk
  • The long line for visas at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok.

Because the country's military dictatorship has recently held elections and seems nominally interested in honoring their results (last time they had an election, many years ago, they were surprised by now many non-cronies got elected and threw the winners in jail), the National League for Democracy, the pro-reform party with Aung San Suu Kyi as its figurehead, recently called off its travel boycott to Myanmar/Burma.

We wouldn't have gone otherwise. But Suu Kyi has gone on record saying that individual travelers should go to Burma, meet the people, patronize independent businesses, and see what's going on. (Package tourists and staying in the country's few huge resorts and hotels are discouraged, since that money goes to the military cadres.)

First question: What to call the country?

When Britain conquered the area, which had been a series of competing kingdoms with different languages and ethnicities for thousands of years, they called it Burma. So Burma is the colonial name. But in the mid-20th century, the military dictatorship switched the name to Myanmar, without consulting the populace (of course). So neither name is exactly precise, but Suu Kyi and other reform-minded people tend to call the country Burma, in a slight nod against the dictatorship's arbitrary name-change, so that's what I'll call it here.

We flew into Yangon on New Year's Eve. From the roof of our hotel, we could hear some kind of concert, so we walked through the streets—sometimes lit, sometimes not, sometimes pockmarked with craters that a person could disappear into—towards the noise. Turns out, it was a giant concert: the first public New Year's celebration the government had allowed in many, many years. (In past years, we were told by locals, students used to gather at a big lake/park on NYE and the police would often show up and break up/beat up the festivities.) It was, in fact, only the second major public gathering allowed in recent history, the other being a pop-music show a few months prior.

Drunk NYE revelers play hug-the-foreigner.
  • bjc
  • Drunk NYE revelers play hug-the-foreigner.

People at the concert were super-drunk and super-happy—we had no idea we'd be stumbling into a national-historic event that made international news. It was sponsored, ironically, by a wine cooler company called "Spy." When I went to have my photo taken beneath one of its posters, I was joyfully tackled by some exuberant partygoers.

Being accosted by Burmese people wanting to talk became a theme of the trip. In big cities, in the countryside, in farming villages, by children, by adults, by monks—people seemed very eager to practice a little English and talk to a foreigner. It wasn't like the constant come-ons I've experienced in North Africa or other Asian countries, where most of your conversation-initiators are touts working some kind of angle. People seemed genuinely curious (and, for the kids, sometimes shyly fascinated) by outsiders.

I predict that won't last—as more tourists show up, and with them the inevitable entitled jerks, the charm and novelty will wear off. But as of January 2013, everyday Burmese citizens seem like the friendliest people in the world. Burmese folks seemed especially happy that President Obama had recently visited to endorse the military government's nods towards reform. Others speculated that it was just an economic ploy: If Burma is going to become another member of the wild, wild East, somebody's gonna get there first. Chinese industries are already heavily invested in the area, and some observers wondered whether Obama's visit was just about the Americans trying to carve out their sphere of influence.

More kids wanting to say hello.
  • bk
  • More kids wanting to say hello.

It's also a deeply, deeply poor country. We saw a lot of agriculture—mostly rice and the bamboo that rural folks use to weave into their walls and roofs—but very few farm machines. It was just people, oxen, and water buffalo sweating it out in the sun with pre-industrial tools. In fact, most of the tractor-like engines we saw were used to power delivery trucks.

Tractor truck.
  • bjc
  • Tractor truck.

As one of our taxi drivers put it, "My country used to one of the richest in Asia" (which was true at one point, as it has massive natural resources), "but it is now one of the poorest." He said he was trained as a geologist but was now driving cab in Yangon because it paid better. He'd like to get back into geology, he said, but he couldn't support himself on that salary.

But you wouldn't know the poverty by the country's temples, which are often covered in gold leaf and serve as places for worship, commerce, and general meeting. They also are a stage for some political theater. Many of the temples have different displays for paying obeisance to one's astrological sign, depending on which day of the week you were born. At the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon—an enormous, technicolor explosion of hues and activity and light—the military government installed a conspicuous closed-circuit camera at the astrology-shrine that marks Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday.

Shwedagon Pagoda
  • bk
  • Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda
  • bk
  • Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda
  • bk
  • Shwedagon Pagoda

Even though the reforms look like they might have some real steam, the challenges are immense. We visited a monastery school—an alternative education system to the military government's heavily politicized, rote-learning "public" school systems, which are actually prohibitively expensive for poor folks because of all the fees for books, registrations, etc., etc.

Some monastery schools are trying to teach "critical thinking," a term the teacher-monks we talked with used in italics in their voices. The idea of encouraging students to ask questions, to absorb lots of information and then come to independent conclusions, is still an exotic idea to many educators there. Because of the historic respect for monks, the clergy has been the only reliable form of civil society, and some of the monasteries are trying their hardest to set up good schools near squatters' villages (one we visited, accompanied by some monks) and pay for themselves however they could—growing mushrooms to sell, making plastic bowls, and soliciting donations.

Kids getting out of monastery-school class.
  • bk
  • Kids getting out of monastery-school class.

(If you're interested in US-based nonprofits working with education reform in Burma, check out Banyan Tree Reading Center and Educational Empowerment.)

But the headmaster monk, an old man who had not much education in his own life beyond Buddhist seminary school, yet was doing this work because he wanted the shantytown kids to have more opportunities than he did, was very clear about the dangers of relying too much on foreign influence. "Foreign donations are very important, but we must," he said (I'm paraphrasing), "not lose our own identities and our own community's way of doing things." All the education-reformers we talked to were acutely aware of the delicacy of their situation—if the military government lives up to its promises of reform, they are on the cusp of real, new nation-building. And if they get it wrong, it could have bad consequences for generations to come.

Some rambunctious kids on the beach of a fishing village on the west coast.
  • Some rambunctious kids on the beach of a fishing village on the west coast.

As we left the school, one of the monks—the new school librarian—was eager to show us something. He's also a traditional folk healer and fetched us a jar of pickled cobras, vipers, scorpions, and other venomous beasts that he mixes with alcohol and herbs to make medicine. We asked how he got the poisonous animals (none of them seemed beheaded or shot or damaged in any way) and the monk said he just found them around the monastery. Then he showed us some tattoos on his hands that, he said through the education-reform man who was translating, gave him a magic power to "kill" poisonous things. He said using it every day had cured him of two strokes. He rubbed some of his literal snake oil on our hands—it smelled great, like menthol and cedar wood chips—and wished us good health.

The rest of our trip was stroke-free.

The librarian/folk healer.
  • bk
  • The librarian/folk healer.

There's much more to tell—about American micro-finance people helping young people set up bike-rental businesses, about ghost stories and abandoned temples, about me getting stranded in an arid plateau with a faulty bike lock and pleading with two very happy monks living in a two-man monastery to not try and fix it by smashing the lock to smithereens with a stone. ("Buddhist monks very helpful!" one of them chortled.) But I'll just include a few more photos and call it good.

A woven bamboo house with a first-floor bodega/shop.
  • A woven bamboo house with a first-floor bodega/shop.

Soon we'll get back to our regularly scheduled coverage of grand jury resistors, drug prohibition, and local theater. It was good to go, but it's good to be back.

Oh! One more thing: Perhaps the strangest thing I've ever seen on a stage, besides a man being sodomized with a 12-foot pole in Texas. Dig if you will, the picture: a nightclub in Bangkok designed as a German/Bavarian brewpub. It's a restaurant with a Vegas-style floor show—acrobats, singers, etc. The live band begins with a flourish that sounds Egyptian. A bunch of Thai performers come onstage in spangly, ancient Egyptian/pharaoh costumes.

Then they perform a very earnest, long version of "Hava Nagila." The cascade of cultural ruptures—Thai people dressed as ancient Egyptian slaveowners singing a Jewish folk classic in a Bavarian-styled brew hall???—was mind-bending.

I wish we had this game—a cross between shuffleboard and snooker—in the US.
  • bjc
  • I wish we had this game—a cross between shuffleboard and snooker—in the US.

Did I mention the beaches on the west coast?
  • bk
  • Did I mention the beaches on the west coast?

Houses along a canal.
  • Houses along a canal.

Temple ruins in the north.
  • bjc
  • Temple ruins in the north.

Another temple with more bats and birds than people.
  • Another temple with more bats and birds than people.

In short, Burma/Myanmar is going to be a country to watch—it's facing enormous difficulties but has enormous potential. And it might be beginning the process of real, local nation-building. Whereas Iraq and Afghanistan have been a rocky and violent examples of forced national-building from the outside, Burma looks like it's poised to begin the process from within. (Though who knows what the military government will do six months from now, not to mention a year—there's still civil war and ethnic strife in the north, still lots of nervousness about how the government and civil society will interact in the whole of the country, etc.)

But ten years from now, as people look back on the nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan (that is coming, or failing to come, from the barrel of a gun) and the nation-building in Burma (that is slowly, tentatively growing from within), I'm guessing we'll have some deep and painful lessons to learn from both.

We dont have a real digital camera, only disposable Kodak ones. I gave mine to one kid in a village and told him to take a picture of whatever he wanted. This was the result—the street in front of his house.
  • anonymous
  • We don't have a real digital camera, only disposable Kodak ones. I gave mine to one kid in a village and told him to take a picture of whatever he wanted. This was the result—the street in front of his house.


Comments (25) RSS

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pg13 1
"People go to Burma?"
"People go."--Cory Kahaney…
Posted by pg13 on January 23, 2013 at 5:03 PM · Report this
seatackled 3
A lot to digest, so I'll withhold comment other than to say that I enjoyed reading this and wouldn't mind seeing some follow-ups. I'm hoping Bethany will also give us her perspective.
Posted by seatackled on January 23, 2013 at 5:14 PM · Report this
Are Brendan Kiley and Bethany Jean Clement married or did this just go to burma together?
Posted by Hosono on January 23, 2013 at 5:29 PM · Report this
25 years ago in college I presented on the peace process in Burma, and was criticized as naive for my optimism. Turns out the instructor was right.
Posted by neverbeenthere on January 23, 2013 at 5:30 PM · Report this
Wow, sounds like an interesting place to visit!
Posted by Gillian Anderson on January 23, 2013 at 5:44 PM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 7
I gather that's the American Embassy in the picture. You see this all around the developing world. The line for a Visa to America wraps around the block and starts in the morning. I have never seen a line in front of the Pakistani Embassy in any nation I've been to, as an example. America is where the world wants to live. As goofy as America can be at times, it's still a magnet.
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on January 23, 2013 at 5:44 PM · Report this
Thanks for this trip report. I visited Myanmar for a few days six years ago this month, and I agree about how friendly and welcoming the people were despite their poverty. Let's hope the government speeds up its liberalization (and stops its cruelty to ethnic minorities).

I only spent a day in Yangon to see Schwedegon Pagoda (impressive but a tad schlockly for my tastes). I preferred the Bagan's Archeology Zone, with over 2,000 temples and shrines crammed into 40 square miles 700-1200 years ago. Wikipedia has many good photos:

I used small guesthouses, restaurants and other services instead of the government-run ones (like Brendan and Bethany did) and I recommend others do as well. Tourism is a mixed blessing in poor countries, but I hope it will keep the Myanma government making progress.
Posted by KSea1 on January 23, 2013 at 7:00 PM · Report this

That is the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, where you have to apply in advance for a tourist visa. It takes four days so they can make sure you are not a journalist or human rights activist. Immigration visas to the USA are quite another story.
Posted by KSea1 on January 23, 2013 at 7:05 PM · Report this
Great read (as always) Brendan. Thanks.
Posted by gnossos on January 23, 2013 at 9:12 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 12
@7, #10 is correct. The US doesn't have an embassy in Burma. When I visited Burma several years ago, I too went to the embassy in Bangkok to get a travel visa. It is expensive and difficult to get a travel visa from the US; much easier to just fly to Bangkok and get your visa there.

If you travel in Burma any place that isn't government controlled, which is easy enough to do, they operate entirely on a black market economy. You ignore the official exchange rate, and exchange US currency for local currency on the black market, at a fraction of the official government rate. But this all has to be done with cash. No ATMS, no travelers checks. When I was there, there was no access to the internet at all. It was like going into a black hole, and completely losing communication with the outside world until I returned to Bangkok.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on January 23, 2013 at 9:17 PM · Report this
@12 dissapearing into an Internet black hole sounds wonderful, as did this trip.
Posted by wingedkat on January 23, 2013 at 10:36 PM · Report this
bleedingheartlibertarian 15're saying you went to Burma before it was cool?

I'd be careful about throwing around that hipster label, if I were you...
Posted by bleedingheartlibertarian on January 23, 2013 at 11:35 PM · Report this

He's not saying he went to Rangoon before it was cool, he's saying "Burma" is a really disappointing title for Yangon's first album, and while he can see why newcomers like Kiley are drawn to it, he really prefers the singles.

For myself, I'm more interested in what Brendan is implying with this:

"Whereas Iraq and Afghanistan have been a rocky and violent examples of forced national-building from the outside, Burma looks like it's poised to begin the process from within."

I think what he means is "any foreign government the US supports is evil." But I suspect things won't play out exactly the way his magic decoder-ring has prophesied, what with the government of Iraq looking far more stable than it has any right to be, and the government of BuRaYaMyar looking like the very definition of "fluid."
Posted by robotslave on January 24, 2013 at 3:10 AM · Report this

You know, you're kind of making bhl's case there, rather than refuting it.

Your pickup-driving-real-authentic-redneck-who-nonetheless-lives-in-the-city identity collapsed under its own ridiculousness at about the same time Linda's Tavern opened.
Posted by robotslave on January 24, 2013 at 3:25 AM · Report this
pfffter 19
I love this post so much I want to marry it.
Posted by pfffter on January 24, 2013 at 7:43 AM · Report this
katrat 20
Wow look at those cool woven houses! And I expect the "Spy" photo will remain one of your happiest NYE memories your entire life. Fun, interesting. Thanks for sharing with us!
Posted by katrat on January 24, 2013 at 7:44 AM · Report this
Callie 21
@4 Yes, they're married.
Posted by Callie on January 24, 2013 at 9:12 AM · Report this
Why didn't you have a digital camera? Are there any restrictions? Thank you for the post. I plan to go to Thailand next month and perhaps over to Burma as well.
Posted by tedwardma on January 24, 2013 at 9:21 AM · Report this
treacle 23
My friend just went to Burma to assist with implementing a proper clean water situation for a hospital in Sittwe. The stories she's sending back are hilarious and amazing! Thanks for this story & history to fill in yet more of the gaps, and the photos too.

That game you are playing looks vaguely similar to a game called Carrom.
Posted by treacle on January 24, 2013 at 9:22 AM · Report this
@ 22 and 23:

I don't think the game was carom, but seemed like a variation on it. The name sounded like "la-tau-co," but I never saw it written down anywhere.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on January 24, 2013 at 9:38 AM · Report this
@ 24

I would second that the game looks like Carrom. Striker, men, corner pockets. Carrom originating in Burma. I'm sure they have a different name for it there but all signs point to Carrom. But then all I have is a picture to go on....

I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to let pickled snake liquid be rubbed on me :S
Posted by Dirk7 on January 24, 2013 at 10:22 AM · Report this
I read this article with lots of interest because my husband and I were in Burma/Myanmar during the same time as this author. I agree with everything he said about the people and about the country's future. I would add that if you plan on visiting, do some reading before you go. I read THE LIZARD KING by Karen Connelly and THE GLASS PALACE before going there and George Orwell's BURMESE DAYS while travelling through the country. There are many more books now available. We were glad we travelled to Burma/Myanmar but it was troubling to see so much poverty. However, the spirit of the people was inspiring and I hope their future is shaped by their dreams and reflects their spirit.
Posted by Chilliwack on January 24, 2013 at 11:12 AM · Report this
bleedingheartlibertarian 27
@16--Oh, so you're saying you're an asshole. But you repeat yourself.

Grow a sense of humor. And some fucking manners.
Posted by bleedingheartlibertarian on January 24, 2013 at 11:53 AM · Report this
w o w. that sounds magical. did you see any fun animals?
Posted by whiskeypony on January 24, 2013 at 4:29 PM · Report this
St. Beretta 29
I just returned from Burma last night. I think I stayed at the place with the snooker/shuffleboard. I also talked to a fantastic Burmese guy there who told me about families on the coast that were forced to sell their land to developers at gunpoint and mangrove forests that were destroyed, all in the last 10 years. I'm very excited about the progress being made but I worry about the developments and exploitation to come.
Posted by St. Beretta on January 27, 2013 at 7:52 AM · Report this

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