(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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Shwedagon Pagoda
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Did I mention the beaches on the west coast?
- Houses along a canal.
- Temple ruins in the north.
- 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 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.