"Torture seems out of place in a country so imbued with the Buddha's compassionate teachings." - Joel Swerdlow National Geographic.
I came to South-East Asia in 1990 but I did not travel to Burma, yes B-U-R-M-A, until a couple of months ago. I think I was scared I would have a good time, and my bleeding heart liberal consciousness couldn't justify that given the atrocities perpetuated by the heinous Burmese junta. Guess what? I was right. I did have a good time, I loved the country and I still don't like SLORC.
I set off on my journey with two fellow Canadians. Brad, an early fortiesh postie from Toronto who I had met backpacking through Costa Rica many years ago; and Wally a spry seventy-six year old retired Canadian Pacific Railway employee whom I had met on Khao San Road a number of years back.
We were told that we were going to have to cash US$300 on arrival into the equivalent of Burmese FEC's. But a friend of mine, John Hall, had been able to bluff his way past Burmese Customs Officials on his last trip and didn't have to change his money. So eager with anticipation we launched into our bluff. But we were all denied and sent to the currency counter. Sighing heavily Brad and I forked over $US300 each (we were able to get Wally in free under the `traveling with grandpa clause.') So much for our budget. Basically this meant that we had to take a domestic flight (I wanted to see P-A-G-A-N anyway) unless we wanted to buy a lot of lacquerwear.
Wally has one bum leg (he had recently been operated on for cancer). While on one hand I was happy he was coming along, on the other, I was worried that he was going to slow us down as we dashed through the country trying to see as much of it as we can in the limited time we had available. So we dropped off Wally at the Myanmar Holiday Inn (no relation to the chain) and headed for Pagan and Mandalay. While we were gone Wally drank to his heart's content and regaled the hostess Colleen with his stories of hither and yonder.
Burma is a crazy country. Think about it. The daughter of the guy that is revered by the guys who run the country is held against her will (she is house re-arrested so to speak) and not allowed to do much. There are independence monuments everywhere. But to what? I mean what are they going to do when they overthrow SLORC and really gain independence? Call them post-independence monuments?
Monks stealing a munch
One of the first things you will notice is the wacky money. General Ne Win (who ran the country between 1962-88) believed in soothsayers and fortune tellers. They told him that the number nine was a lucky number. So he changed the denomination of the Burmese currency to include fifteen, forty-five, and ninety kyat (pronounced chat) notes.
Mingun Temple in Burma (near Mandalay)
SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council) held an election in 1990 only to find out who its opposition was. The National League of Democracy (NLD) won the poll claiming 392 of 485 available seats (SLORC's National Unity Party won just ten seats) only to learn that SLORC then barred them from assuming power saying that a state-appointed constitution had to be passed by national referendum first. SLORC then, in their ever so democratic fashion, preceded to raid the NLD's headquarters and since then 111 of those elected in the '90 election have been either disqualified, imprisoned, exiled or killed.
George Orwell who served in Burma once wrote "The past belongs to the people who control the present," and as National Geographic's Swendblow recorded in his trip through Burma in 1995: "Amnesia has become a way of life here. One example: The records of dead students have disappeared from university files. Many do not have graves - the army often burned cremated victims. Witnesses report that some were still alive."
Many worship Aung San Suu Kyi and in its 24 Feb 94 issue Time quoted a Burmese shopkeeper as saying, "She is the only one who is not afraid! She has no gun, only her mouth, to fight 300,000 soldiers." She has her detractors though as some say Suu Kyi can't understand the Burmese minorities so she won't be able to pull the country together any better than anyone else could. Journalist Ethan Casey says, "Suu Kyi is Burma's Ghandi but they need a Nehru." The thing is though if Aung San Suu Kyi isn't the answer, who is? Ethan Casey's website is WWW.BLUEEAR.COM.
Oppression is the operative word in Burma. SLORC is everywhere but nowhere. Four police agencies govern, rule and watch over: The Secret Police; The Criminal Investigative Department (CID); The Bureau of Special Investigation (BSI); and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). The question begs, `Who's Watching the Detectives?' or `How Many Spies One State Have?'
Will she ever get to live in a democracy?
Asiaweek noted "If Burma's generals had a modicum of vision, let alone integrity, they would realize that the only way to diffuse the problem of the ethnic minorities, the only way to win respect at home and abroad is to come up with a genuine political solution and not a phony charter. The first thing they must do is free Daw Suu Kyi. She is the only person capable of forging an understanding with the ethnic guerrillas and uniting Burma. As long as she remains under house arrest, SLORC's pretensions of framing a constitution that represents the true aspirations of the people are unattainable."
Cafes are bugged with human SLORC antennae. You sense that at any moment Robin Williams in his best Good Morning Vietnam voice is going to come booming over the loud speaker and say "Don't Say That." You may, however, be able to drag a political opinion out of someone mid-intersection when no one is in either car or earshot.
The Lonely Planet noted "A report commissioned by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva describes systematic human rights violations, including: arbitrary arrests of anyone opposed to SLORC, torture of detainees, severe media restrictions, forced relocation of half-a-million urban dwellers, forced conscription of civilians to serve as porters and human mine sweepers for the military. The government also requests `volunteer beautification' labor from city, town, and village residents, requiring them to paint their houses, dig drainage ditches, build walls, and weed the roadside."
Female Burmese Monks trekking on down
Aw, but appearances are so deceiving. Happy smiling people hop and mill around everywhere. You are all supposed to be miserable - don't you know that? Stop smiling, put some dirtier clothes on, and grovel a lot. C'mon people get with the Indochinese program. In the non-strife ridden areas things look hunky-dory - for South-East Asia anyway. The mainstream Burmese are better dressed and better clothed than many of their neighbors.
When we were there, there was a 9 pm curfew in Mandalay as a result of a brouhaha between the Buddhists and the Muslims. Young teen gladiators with AKs guarded mosques and temples and we felt like yelling out, "Get thee to school and learn about world geography not random destruction you Spartan warriors." But all is not lost, SLORC permits the Simpsons to run on cable so shuffle off to your room and watch Bart, Homer, Marg and the gang.
It is so easy to hate SLORC but when you look into the eyes of many of these teen warriors you realize they are more likely to shoot you out of fear than out of anger. Many of them aren't conscripted but join the army because they are so poor and have nowhere else to go.
Traveling around - you must go to Pagan where they must have had the Olympics of temple building years back. Better known as `The Town of 5000 Temples.' They're everywhere, they're everywhere. Rent a bike and go nuts!!
One of the many temples of Pagan, Burma
What to bring: 1.) Clothes and Toiletry Items; 2.) Lonely Planet Guide & Orwell's Burmese Days, a must read (you can also buy it there - they sell it everywhere kind of like Graham Green's The Quiet American or Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War in Vietnam); 3.) Patience and some bucks - as mentioned you are going to have to cash US$300 just for the right of landing. Buy an internal plane ride and go somewhere (P-A-G-A-N), as you may have trouble spending all your FEC's unless as already said you have a take a real liking to lacquerware. What not to count on (told to me by someone at a busy intersection): 1.) The weather, 2.) Electricity, 3.) Airline Tickets, 4.) Democratic Conventions in major park areas.
Worst of all - lunchbag letdown. You can't stroll down University Avenue and chat up ASSK anymore. And if you are waiting for her to assume control - it can't happen - least not yet anyway. You see she's married to a farang (or whatever they call farangs in Burma), and they've created a clause in the Burmese constitution that says no one married to a foreigner can assume power. Sucks!!
Bogyoke Aung San said, "Democracy is the only ideology which is consistent with freedom. It is also an ideology that promotes and strengthens peace. It is therefore the only ideology we should aim for." Let's just hope they get it.