Hey everybody. I left Burma last night. I’m writing from Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, a short one hour flight but what feels like galaxies away from the decay, sadness and frustration of Burma. While I’ve been dealing with a serious case of culture shock twinged with guilt after leaving (something I heard from many foreigners on their way out), there does seem to be a bit of light coming through the cracks in the situation there.
Yesterday, Than Shwe, the head of the military’s ruling junta government and leader of the 56 million people of Burma, visited the devastated Delta region. The UN’s head of disaster relief was admitted to the country to talk to try and persuade the government to do more. And the Burmese government agreed to let some Asian aid workers into the country. All aid will have to be coordinated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which might still prove to be difficult, but at least there will soon be professionals in some number coming in to help. All of this comes seventeen days after the cyclone hit, killing an estimated 130,000 people and affecting 2.5 million in total, many of whom are still in serious trouble. Seventeen days.
I entered Burma three and a half weeks ago as a relatively clueless tourist interested in seeing a less traveled part of the world. I left shocked, with my perspective on social justice blown open. I picked the countries I’ve visited – primarily Morocco, Nepal, India and Burma – for a reason. Because I wanted to get away from the Western developed world for a bit. As I said before I left, I wanted to see how the ‘other half’ lived. I had an idea that the way we live in the West is different, a bit privileged perhaps.. I’ve learned a lot in each of these places, slowly getting an idea of what life is like for what turns out to be a hell of a lot more than half of the world – and how very different and hard it is for many of them. But the experience I had in Burma was unlike anything else I’ve encountered on this trip (or anywhere else) – more impactful even than the time in Kolkata in India. I happened to visit Burma during what is probably one of the most important times in Southeast Asian history in the last 10 or 20 years. And saw for the first time what people living under repressive regimes, not just difficult economic and political conditions, go through. All of it, because it seems so counter to the experience we have in the West and at times surreal and Draconian, actually made me laugh in frustration and has started to open my eyes to what social justice really means. For a while, I’ve been very interested in the environmental side of sustainability, not paying much attention to the social end of the spectrum. This experience has woken me up a bit and is bringing the social side of that equation more into focus. And it’s sort of a big side too..
Jesus, enough with the heavy shit already, Grady! What happened to the dude that used to do keg stands and dress up like a jackass for fun? Okay, okay. I’ll stop. For a minute or two.
In case you think I’ve I didn’t actually enjoy my time there, I should probably back up a bit and tell you about the experiences that led to all of this drama. I will tell you in advance, though, that I’ve never had such a hard time trying to put down into words the experiences I’ve had out here. Sorry if it lacks some tidiness but it just seems to be comin’ out stream o’ consciousness style. And if I wrote it all down here, you could bind it into a book.
I spent the first two weeks traveling through central part of the country, visiting villages and Buddhist pagodas, taking in the natural beauty of the place, and getting to know the people and learning how absolutely wonderful they are. And hearing from them in private conversations what has been happening in this country for the last 60 years and how difficult life has become for them because of the policies of the military junta government. What makes all of what I heard so hard to swallow is that the people are so incredible, so inviting, honest, generous and warm. And unfortunately, now often coupled with attitudes of resignation and defeat in the face of a government that is clearly more interested in the propagation of its control than the well being of its people.
I’ll give you an example of the sort of kindness I regularly encountered in the country. As I was wandering down a dirt road in a little village outside Amarapura near Mandalay, a young guy approached me, timid but smiling. After shyly making his way through the usual list of foreigner questions (Where are you from?, How old are you?, Are you married? How long have you been in Myanmar?), he asked if I’d like to come back to his home to meet his family. Um, yeah. I wasn’t three steps into the dirt courtyard area of their very modest bamboo and wood home before his mother was pulling out the one very comfortable plastic chair they owned for me. No sooner had I sat down, than she placed a small table next to me and then added a pot of tea and two little ceramic cups for us. A minute later, as her son and I were talking about his English classes at the nearby university and his family’s work as peanut farmers in the nearby fields, she came over with a plate of pickled tea leaf and fried nut salad (traditional and tasty) and insisted that I eat. As I was sitting there smiling at all of them and marveling at their hospitality, I started to feel a cool breeze on the back of my neck (I arrived in April, the hottest month of the year in Burma when it’s over 100 degrees nearly every day). I turned around to see his father sitting on the bench behind me with a massive smile on his face as he waved a reed fan in my direction. He was fanning me. As I sat and ate food and drank the tea that his wife had served me. And he continued to do it for a while as he sat there and sweat. I started to feel a bit silly and wanted to take the fan from him to return the favor but he seemed to be enjoying it way too much. It was probably the closest I’ll ever get to knowing what royalty feel like. As I got up to leave, thanking them profusely in the only Burmese word I knew (cheyzutinbade – thank you!), the father handed me the fan and a bottle of water and made it clear that I had to take them with me. It was hot after all and I was their guest. All this from a family that probably had barely enough to get by on their own. The son then insisted on walking me 15 minutes back to the main road to make sure I didn’t get lost. I sensed a little bit of pride as we passed his friends. Yep, the white dude came back to my house!
In Bagan, rival to Angkor Wat in Cambodia for its 1000s of ancient awe-inspiring Buddhist temples stretching over miles of picturesque green and red landscape, I met a man near the village market one afternoon. He invited me to his tiny tailor shop (a space barely big enough for a few sewing machines), sat me down and introduced me to his wife and sister-in-law and again insisted that I accept tea and food . We talked about his sister-in-law’s desire to get out of Burma, how he’d met an older man in Canada who’d offered to be her sponsor (read: husband) to get her out. And, like a lot of the Burmese men I met, once he sensed I was interested in what was happening politically and socially in Burma, he opened up the floodgates with information and opinion, all of it in opposition to the the Burmese government. That ended, though, when a very drunk member of the military rode by on a scooter and, after seeing me, doubled back to stop and talk. He was interested in the idea that someone from the USA was in his town and seemed to take pride in being able to speak some English with me. It felt very strange to sit there and force conversation with him as he stunk of booze, all the while the people I’d been sitting with seemed to change their tune, quickly ending our previous conversation and now seemingly forcing laughter and smiles at all of the stupid comments the guy made, appeasing him in a way. That was my first experience with the military and it became clear then that everyone in Burma seemed to live in fear or suspicion of them, forcing them to act in ways that would minimize trouble they’d receive.
Once the drunk military officer left on his scooter (why shouldn’t he be driving drunk and in uniform??), the tailor then invited me back, along with two Swiss friends I’d been traveling with, to his home to meet the rest of his clan (10 people living in one bamboo house area). We sat in on the English class he held for locals every evening (young students and monks mostly), helping some of them with their first experiences in conversational English. They were all incredibly shy but did well.
After the class ended, the family gathered around, little girls smiling and giggling at us and, again insisted we have tea and food (they would together eat later but wanted to be sure we left full!) and tour their home, meeting every member of the three generations that all lived together there.
They were all big fans of the West in general and loved throwing out what they knew of our homes – “Golden Gate Bridge!, Arnold Schwarzenegger!”. My friends and I left amazed and warmed again by the incredible generosity of these people. I had many more experiences like this throughout my time there, with old men, monks of all ages, young students, taxi drivers, tour guides, cooks and waiters, you name it. All thrilled that I’d come to Burma and proud of their country and people.
In Mandalay, I spent a lot of time riding around the city with a trishaw (a bicycle with an attached sidecar that holds two customers) driver named Myint Kyaw.
We met on the sidewalk one afternoon and again, after sensing I was aware of and interested in Burma’s political situation, he opened up to me, but always speaking in hushed tones and often reminding me to “keep it in your heart, keep it in your mind” after telling me what was going on. He, like every person in Burma, had to be cautious. He had to be cautious because it’s illegal to speak negatively of the government (which he called ‘the G’ for fear of being overheard). It’s also illegal to talk to foreigners about the government. Both offenses can land you in prison. Communication within and with the outside world is also forcibly discouraged. Personal email services are illegal and banned (Gmail, Hotmail etc) as are many many news websites and other sources of online info. (Thankfully, the savvy young progressive people of Burma have figured out how to get around all of the blocks and filters in place, keeping the lines of communication with the outside world in both directions and foiling the governments efforts to keep its people in the dark about their situation.) While cell phones are cheap, the SIM cards you need to make the cell phones operational have been purposely priced out of the reach of 99% of the Burmese people by the government (somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $2,000 for a card that costs $5 in Thailand) to limit communication both inside and with the outside world. As a result, the very few cell phones I saw in the country were owned by government employees or the wealthy Chinese people. As a side note, the Chinese, as citizens of Burma’s largest trading partner, are granted special privileges allowing them to come in and out of the country freely, making gobs of money trading in Burmese goods and, reportedly, the massive opium/heroin trade that persists in the North of the country, all of which has fueled major animosity by the Burmese who must sit by and watch as their government allows the Chinese to get richer, buying businesses and building huge homes all over Burma while the Burmese stay poor.
I wondered why some people didn’t just leave. They told me that while they can get their hands on a passport, and even a visa to a place like Thailand, the government makes it nearly impossible for them to use them. A Burmese citizen must show a round trip ticket and $500 (a year’s earnings for many people) in cash before they will be allowed to actually use the visa. No one I met could do that. That’s why many end up in the back of refrigerated trucks like the one that killed 54 people on its way to Thailand last month. As more than one Burmese person pointed out to me, “it’s sorta like the Mexico/USA thing”.
Another crazy fact: the Burmese government still occasionally uses ‘coirvee’, the term used to describe the practice of gathering involuntary labor crews to build public structures. They pick people off the street and force them to do manual labor instead of paying construction teams. Human Rights Watch reports that the military also still ‘coerces’ young people (some as young as 12 years old) into joining the military by forcible means.
As if living under the thumb of the military government weren’t enough, the Burmese aren’t doing to well on the financial front either. As I mentioned in my email to everyone the other day, the average Burmese person makes $3 per day. Most people I befriended in the country told me they work every single day of the year. No holidays or weekends. Unless there’s no work to be found. Myint Kyaw and his wife both work every day yet they can only afford to rent a single room in the city. A room with no windows and no fan. No fan because it requires electricity which would be too expensive. He told me this as I contemplated upgrading to a room with A/C to get some relief from the 100+ degree days.
These are just a few of the many examples of the hardships the Burmese people face in their daily lives. But what most Burmese wanted to talk to me about was the upcoming referendum. For fourteen years, the government has been telling the people they are working on a constitution that will eventually bring democracy to the country. They are now finished and have broadcast to the international community that they are allowing their citizens the opportunity to vote, finally, on a referendum to approve a draft constitution, showing the world how ‘progressive’ they are. The problem is that the constitution is not at all what the people wanted. Every single Burmese person that I met called the constitution a joke. Most quietly laughed when they talked about it. The government has successfully written a constitution, but one that will ensure that they stay in power FOREVER and be immune to prosecution for anything illegal they may have done. But most of the poor and uneducated Burmese will never understand that because in order to read the constitution, you must buy it! It costs $1. Again, out of the reach of most of the people struggling to get by in the country. Imagine being told you must pay $30 to read about the changes in government that will directly affect you. (In a surprising moment on a train, these two military men actually asked me if I’d take a picture of them. Was amusing when the one on the right puffed up before each shot.)
What’s worse is that the government is not at all shy about it’s campaign to coerce the people into approving the constitution for them. We’ll give you the right to vote, but you must vote in the affirmative.
There are signs posted all over town telling people it is their ‘duty’ to vote yes, approving the constitution (along side permanent signs with directives like the one here printed in the government-run newspaper.
Since you are not allowed to speak out against the government, there is absolutely no dissenting propaganda allowed. Trucks cruised the streets in Hsipaw, a small town in the East, on the days leading up to the referendum there, blaring the call to people to vote yes through huge speakers. While I was trekking in the nearby area, my guide pointed out a government official who’d just left one of the small villages where she’d gone door to door telling people how they should vote – yes. Why not just vote no, if it’s what you want? First of all, all adults are required by law to vote. Every person who told me they wanted to vote no, told me they were afraid to. Because of what the government would do to them if they did. Afraid to vote the way they wanted to, afraid of what would happen to their families if they got carted off to jail, or denied their registration cards that would allow them to travel freely inside Burma. Afraid in general. After the May 10 vote in Mandalay, one of the men I met who’d planned on either voting no, adding a “?” between the yes and no boxes or just boycotting in general, told me, in a defeated tone, that he’d voted yes. Because, in the end, he was too afraid for what might happen to him or his family if he voted the way he wanted to.
I met a man in Rangoon the other day who told me that the government is also engaging in ‘pre-voting’. He told me that on May 2, military police showed up at his home (he wasn’t there) and told his mother that the government had ‘commanded’ that her family vote early. And that she should vote on behalf of everyone. Scared and uneducated about what it all meant, she voted yes for all 5 of her family members. The man returned home later and was distraught, his vote having been effectively stolen from him. He said he had been determined to vote no. Before I left, I heard from others that this was a common practice.
Because of their tactics of intimidation, the government claimed success with the referendum vote the other day after the North had voted on 5/10, a week before the cyclone-affected areas were set to vote on 5/24, the postponed date set for them by the government. The government said they’d already gotten more than the 50% they needed to pass the constitution and that Rangoon and the other cyclone-affected areas votes no longer mattered.
The 59 year old man I paid to be my trekking guide in the villages near Hsipaw in the East of the country, told me that when he was a boy, he was told not to step on the shadow of a monk. That’s how revered the Buddhist monks were in the country. In September, monks took to the streets in Rangoon to protest increasing food prices on behalf of all Burmese poor, turning their alms bowls (the collection bowls they take out every morning to ask for food and donations) upside down in a symbolic message to the government of their disapproval. Many of those monks were killed and many disappeared. Times have changed in the last 60 years. Now seen as dissidents, monks have been stripped of their right to vote by the government. I met one young monk who’d left Rangoon recently saying it was too ‘inconvenient’ and dangerous to stay there, as he and other monks were regularly followed by members of the government. When things become unsafe for the religious leaders of a country (Buddhists especially), you know things are going wrong.
In another famous protest in 1988, 4,000 people were killed by the military. Four thousand people. That’s a lot. A few years later, after the first successful democratic election in the country, the government refused to give up power when they lost to the National League for Democracy’s leader, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, instead placing her under house arrest where she has remained for majority of the time since then (she’s there now). While all of the Burmese I spoke with see her as the one to lead them out of the darkness, the government will never allow that to happen. Here’s a not so good shot of the roadblock out in front of her house (shot from the hip from a passing taxi..)
Exasperated by all of this and wondering what could be done to change things, I asked a few people why they didn’t take to the streets to protest. They told me that history has shown how that will end and that, after so many years of suffering, no one wants to die anymore. They’ve given up. They’d rather live like this than risk losing each other. Many told me that the only thing that will change the situation is God. Those in the cyclone-affected areas around Rangoon, where many expected protests before, are now more concerned with survival than making their voices heard. The weather seems to have taken care of the problem the government thought they might have.
I titled this entry ‘The Perfect Storm’ because the referendum vote, the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis and the subsequent lack of action by the government seem to have come together now for a reason. I can only hope that the attention being focused on Burma by the international community, the stories being spread, the word getting into the Burmese about how much people care about their plight, and the outrage over the government’s showing that they are more interested in passing their fate-sealing and constitution than the fate of their own people (Than Shwe, who makes very few public appearances, made one to the ballot box a week after the cyclone came through and a full ten days before he would visit the cyclone-affected areas for the first time), will encourage some sort of change in the country. How, I don’t know. But it seems to me that the people of Burma have suffered enough. There is a path to peace and prosperity in the country but it does not include the people in power now. It’s clear now that the deluded government is the only one that thinks that the propaganda they’ve put out into the world is actually being accepted as fact. The people of Burma are not fooled and now, nor is the rest of the world.
My final thought. Much has been made about whether one should visit Burma. If you are considering it, go. Travel smart – in a way that will put most of your money into the pockets of the locals and not the government. Talk to the people. Help them get their message out. They want and deserve change.
P.S. This post doesn’t do justice to the beauty of Burma. If you want to see more, check out my other photos.
P.P.S. And for some great but sad pics of the aftermath of the cyclone, check out those from an Italian documentary film-making duo I met in Rangoon right before I left.