Another Side of Yangon (Yangon, Burma)

Out the door – Monks, tea and serenity – Hide and seek – History Lesson – Excerpts of Propaganda

After a sleepless night I shook the paranoia from my mind and set out determined to resume my discovery of Burma. I still yearned to hear the opinions of Burma’s silenced citizens, but I would now speak more cautiously to avoid endangering anyone else.
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I flew down the stairs, onto the street, to the bus station and onto some random bus. I didn’t know where I was going, but it was all the same to me. Luckily, the bus started heading north away from the city center and towards the massive Shwedagon Pagoda that towered above the Yangon skyline. About a half mile from the pagoda I jumped off the bus and started to wander the back streets of Yangon, eager to catch Yangon without her makeup on.
I meandered down a small alley lined on either side with open drainage ditches full of the gray water present in almost every developing nation. I have never understood what makes the roadside water from Delhi to Yangoon this disgusting gray, but I took it as a good sign that I was miles away from the Ritz Carlton.
I was practicing my newly acquired Burmese phrases when I was greeted by a red-robed Buddhist monk who beckoned me into his monastery. I followed him into the courtyard and spoke with him and the other monks for a while. I envy the simplicity of their lives. They all live communally in a five story building, surrounded on all sides by lush gardens. The atmosphere was tranquil; monks occupied their days with simple tasks like sweeping the courtyard, praying, laughing and studying.   I spent half an hour with the monks, thanked them for their time and continued wandering.
Jays Photos 052.jpgI continued toward the pagoda and had tea at a small street-side joint where the tables were only raised 8 inches off the ground and the patrons sat on 6 inch high plastic stools. The tea was hot, sweet and cheap. A whole pot was only 50 cents.
After a morning of Zen-like tranquility, I eventually got around to sightseeing.   I made my way up to the pagoda and was instantly awestruck by the superfluity of stupas in the massive circular complex. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most famous religious site in Burma, supposedly housing eight of the Buddha’s hairs. Over the years the complex has grown from a small shrine to a 98-meter golden stupa surrounded by hundreds of smaller stupas and shrines. It was stupa-fying. Wow, are you really still reading after that cheesy joke? Jays Photos 124.jpg
I thought I managed to circumvent the government ticket collectors until I felt a hand on my shoulder. Damn. Like most of the other backpackers here I am trying to minimize the amount of money I give to the government and trying to spend it at family-owned enterprises instead. I want my dollars to buy food for families, not bullets for the Burmese army.  The government knows this so they try even harder to collect their entry fees. It seems like the government is playing a game of hide-and-seek with the backpackers: we hide from the ticket checkers and they hide behind the stupas and sneak up on us by surprise. If that’s how it is, game on. You might have won the battle but you haven’t won the war!
I begrudgingly handed over the entrance fee – payable only in US dollars! What type of government doesn’t even accept their own currency? Furthermore they will accept nothing but the most immaculately clean bills with no tears or folds. Meanwhile their currency notes (the kyat) are some of the dirtiest things I have ever put in my pocket – they are valueless, torn, smelly, and oily and they look more like a used piece of toilet paper than a currency note.  One dollar equals about 1000 kyats, but the official rate is only 4 kyats to the dollar. Delusional? Yes.
After circumambulating the stupa for an hour or so, I cut out of the pagoda and went to go find the house of the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been put under house arrest by the military. Unfortunately tP4010512.JPGhe government prohibited us from going anywhere near her house.
Ok, so how many of you did your homework as I asked? Hmm…not as many as I’d hoped. For those of you that didn’t read up on the political situation here in Burma, here is a quick summary of Burma’s history.
Modern history starts in the mid-nineteenth century when the British entered into the scene. They were occupying India at the time (which is directly west of Burma) and were feeling restless, so they decided to invade Burma. They used commercial disputes as a pretext for invading the south, and then took over the remainder of the country in two more moves.   British companies entered Burma and began exporting her raw materials, namely teak and rice.
But the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire and the Japanese ousted them during WWII. They people of Burma soon kicked out the Japanese and demanded independence. The leader for independence was Bogyoke Aung San, father of the current pro-democracy leader,Aung San Suu Kyi.
In 1947 he won the first election but was assassinated before he could take office. Despite the massive cultural divisions in this diverse country, democracy lasted until 1962 when General Ne Win took over in a coup. In the name of socialism he nationalized every business and subsequently destroyed the economy. The country has been ruled by the military ever since.
As I mentioned, Burma is a diverse country. The “Burmese” people comprise about 2/3 of the population while the country is fringed by separate ethnic groups, all of whom began fighting the central government for independence shortly after the coup. The borders of Burma remain wild to this day, with warlords and rebel groups financing their war with Yangon by smuggling heroin, jade and rubies into Thailand. The government responded to their resistance with force and has subsequently been accused of ethnic cleansing. The borders with Thailand, Laos, China and Bangladesh are warzones and the government does not want tourists to witness what it does in these areas. Foreigners are essentially restricted to the center of the country.
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For the last half century the military has suppressed ethnic groups and kept their people hidden from the outside world to maintain their hold on power while the country has sunk deep into poverty. Nationalization of Burma’s industries has made the Generals rich while the people are abysmally poor.
Then in 1988, the people took to the streets and demanded free elections. The military responded violently and killed 3,000 people over six weeks. Burma’s Buddhist monks used their moral authority to condemn the government and demand General Ne Win’s abdication. He obeyed and promised free elections the next year.
In 1989 the military formed its own party in anticipation: The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Unsurprisingly they declared martial law in the name of Law and Order.
SLORC was challenged by the National League for Democracy, led by Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. She rallied the people against the SLORC and they retaliated by putting her under house arrest and postponing the elections. Nevertheless, the elections were eventually held and the NLD won 85% of the vote but she was prevented from taking power. The military re-asserted its control and put her under house arrest where she remains today. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and has been in and out of house arrest since 1989.
I have only been here for two days, but you can feel the fear people have. They refer to Aung San Suu Kyi as “The Lady” for fear the secret police will overhear their conversations. They are not allowed to talk to foreigners about politics and they state-run media is essentially propaganda. I picked up a copy of the New Myanmar Light and flipped through pages of pro-government anti-western articles. The front page was headlined with the government’s Four Political Objectives, Four Economic Objectives, and Four Social Objective.  They were even courteous enough to outline the “People’s Desire” on behalf of the citizenry:
People’s Desire
·         Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
·         Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
·         Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
·         Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy 
Being in a police state is a sobering experience. The television shows nationalistic images of the army marching and whole battalions of soldiers saluting their leaders. We are not allowed to take photos of soldiers and one local told me I was probably being followed by the police because I am an American. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant; this is how the people think and act every day.
My second day in Burma had shown me another side of Yangon: quiet tea stalls and monasteries, cultural monuments, and a glimpse into life in a police state. I liked Yangon but I knew I would inevitably return to fly to Bangkok so I decided to depart the following morning. I spent the evening poring over my maps and considering my next destination: north to the famous temples of Bagan? South to the unspoiled beaches along the Indian Ocean? Or should I follow the Buddhist pilgrims east to the holy “Golden Rock” at Kyaiktiyo?
Decisions, decisions.
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