I arrived in Burma calling the country by its old name and left calling it by its official name, Myanmar. In seventeen days I was convinced that the name given to the country by a military dictatorship was indeed the correct one. Perhaps I’d inhaled propaganda like second-hand smoke in my conversations with ‘Myanmar people’, as they call themselves. They told me over and over again that the name better represented all the minority nationalities in the country. Burma, they said, was only for the Burmese – the dominant ethnic group. Critics of the government have argued that the name change to Myanmar was something of a ‘unite and conquer strategy’ by the military, and it did seem something of a flawed logic that Burmese (the language) is also now referred to as ‘Myanmar language’.
But what would I know? I went to Myanmar as a tourist – and perhaps the worst kind of tourist, the political change tourist. The kind that announces at dinner parties that they ‘need to go to Burma/Cuba/insert country on the cusp of democratic reform here before it changes.’ The line is stated with a paradoxical wistfulness, as though the would-be traveller feels a certain romantic nostalgia for the totalitarian state.
History is filled with foreigners making quick judgements about Myanmar. Rudyard Kipling wrote ‘The Road to Mandalay’, the best-known English-language poem about the country, despite only spending half of one day in its borders, and – as historian Thant Myint-U points out – never actually went to the city of Mandalay.
I’d been looking for a comprehensive book on Burmese history to read before travelling, and found Myint-U’s excellent The River of Lost Footsteps. In it he quotes the French scholar and consul Joseph Dautremer, writing in the early 20th century: ‘The Burman…is usually very lively and overflowing with high spirits…he had no idea either of discipline or perseverance.’ Myint-U explains that these caricatures are not benign. Myanmar’s first dictator Ne Win used similar arguments to claim that the Burmese did not suit democracy.
Half a century later, and it appears that something like democracy is creeping into Myanmar. I am travelling with two friends, a Finnish journalist Eeva, and another Australian, Andrew. Before we’ve left the airport we’ve drawn up a hasty thesis on the state of country, with the help of a dog-eared Lonely Planet. We ask strangers to confirm our suspicions. Some Myanmar people we ask say that something has changed in the last three years, since general elections were held in November 2010. One man, drinking at a bar, looks up and says:
He savours each number as he rolls it across his tongue:
2 − 0 − 1 – 5.
Myanmar’s next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2015 – and presumably, maybe, hopefully – will be held and not tampered with.
Aung San Suu Kyi turns up occasionally on stalls and t-shirts, her name dropped as an opener for conversations by taxi drivers keen to practise their English. These small pictures and small talk validate my understanding of ‘Burma’ as I had come to understand it as an outsider: an oppressed people finally able to revere ‘the Lady’– and relish a tiny bit of freedom – as they’d always wished to.
And so I am shocked when I am told things that don’t fit neatly into this political folktale. We take a guided tour through the traditionally-known ‘bicycle city’ of Myanmar: Mandalay. Now, our bike guide complains, it is smoggy, and filled with cars and motorbikes. Since strict government import taxes were lifted in 2012, ordinary Myanmar citizens – and not just wealthy government officials – can actually afford to buy motor vehicles, and have loaded up the city with them. I’m not convinced our bike guide thinks the trade-off was worth it.
He is young, fit and charismatic. Before being a bike guide he worked as a waiter at the five-star Mandalay Hill Resort, where Suu Kyi stayed. He says he was chosen to serve her personally.
‘That must have been a real honour,’ I say. ‘Yes,’ he smiles politely, and then pauses.
‘The people love Aung San Suu Kyi, we love her,’ he says. ‘But now she focuses too much on human rights.’
He goes on to talk about the Rohingya − the much-maligned Muslim minority ethnic group who have lived in Rahkine state, in the west of the country, for generations.
‘Our government says that they can only have two children, and Aung San Suu Kyi fights this,’ our guide says. ‘But they are not from our country. They are from outside.’
Local government regulation allows Rohingya couples to have a maximum of two children, and imposes heavy fines and imprisonment for those who break the law. President Thein Sein − a former military bureaucrat turned quasi-civilian politician − had until recently remained silent on the issue.
The issue, our guide tells us, is now ‘about national security, not human rights.’
‘We love Aung San Suu Kyi,’ he says. ‘But this is a good president. We like our president. But when he goes overseas he has many problems with visas, and Aung San Suu Kyi can go anywhere. This is not fair.’
‘So,’ I ask him, ‘if an election was held tomorrow…’
‘I would vote for our president.’ And he adds that he hadn’t really started thinking about these issues until foreigners had started asking him about them.
I’d like to say the sounds of Yangon, the former capital city, are quaint and melodious, but the most common sound is that of a generator roaring in my ear − the power has gone out yet again. But there are other sounds − the chatter from road-stalls, the plashes of people eating noodles, the hiss of unidentified meat being fried. Yangon is said to have no nightlife − at least to Western tastes − but all around are the sounds of laughing women by the roadside, cradling crying babies in slings. Further back from the curb, young men watch the football in dimly-lit bars. To call over the waiter for another beer, they suck in their cheeks, and smack their lips together, another order taken with the sound of a kiss.
In the morning we wake to the mumble of monks, cloaked in red and reciting prayers as they come and collect rice from our hostel. A silver pot stands waiting to be offered to them.
We ask the young sassy manager running our hostel how to get to Inya Lake. It’s where Suu Kyi was held under house arrest, and where American John Yettaw swam to her, ensuring she stayed there for another fifteen months. We want to know exactly where the country’s reclusive former dictator Ne Win had his residence until his death in 2002. It’s supposedly located on the opposite side of the lake to Suu Kyi’s house, like the last two pieces on a watery chessboard. The manager looks confused for a moment before she asks: ‘But didn’t he die?’. I can’t decide if this kind of apathy should be celebrated or mourned: that the man who locked Burma away from the world for half a century now barely rates as a tourist attraction.
We decide instead to visit the museum of General Aung San, the independence hero who wore down the British until they quit his country. Our 2011 Lonely Planet warned us that it would be closed − presumably to avoid drawing attention to the inconvenient fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is his daughter. The property was actually once Aung San’s family home, where Suu Kyi lived as a child. But the house turned museum is now wide open and decorated with General Aung San’s most famous speeches – ‘Destroy all enemies of Burma! Search and fight the nearest enemy! That’s all.’ − and his library collection. Locked away behind glass the library has among it The Jewish Question, Health and Longevity through Natural Diet and D.H. Lawrence’s Selected Short Stories. The house is cool and quiet as I stand in front of Aung San’s family portrait. I would probably have treated this moment more reverentially but I had just read about his quick flirtation with fascism in the 1940s, and choose to stew on that instead. Aung San was an ex-student leader, seeking support from the Japanese to fight British colonisers in Burma when he wrote: ‘What we want is a strong state administration as exemplified in Germany and Japan. There shall be one nation, one state, one party, one leader…there shall be no nonsense of individualism…’ In his portrait he stands solidly alongside his little family: with his wife, his sons and Suu Kyi. It occurs to me that there’s another reason why the government might be eager to avoid displaying these family mementos: the physical likeness between father and daughter is incredible. She looks like a carbon copy of him, as though the symbol of a country has been passed down a generation.
We head to the Shwedagon Paya, the great golden stupa holding so much political history: where Aung Sang Suu Kyi called for democracy in 1988, and monks marched in protest against the violence of the military junta in 2007. We’re taken through security and up a lift, to the Pagoda’s main floor. We sit on the cool floor of a side pavilion. The wood is smooth, and at this elevated platform, a breeze blows between the Buddhas. Is there something about Buddhism that evokes such an at-home feeling at these religious sites? There are those prostrating before a Buddha, sure, but just as many people in this pagoda are prostrating before their iPhones, sprawled out on the floor, headphones in ears, working their way through exercise books and nodding away to songs. An older woman lies sleeping with her knees up.
We look up and a smiling monk is there. He carries his phone − an old Nokia model wrapped in a black leather case. It is decorated with Angry Bird stickers.
‘You like Angry Birds!’ I say, amused − shocked even − is that allowed?
The monk nods enthusiastically.
Each of us arranges English verbs and adjectives together like prayer flags on a string, and we hand each other stringy sentences to interpret.
‘Have you seen the pagoda?’ he asks.
The huge golden orb of the stupa glitters above us in the distance. We follow him, he in his red robes and brown umbrella. It’s raining lightly, and he walks calmly as we navigate the slippery tiles. He takes us first not to the main orb but a small hall containing photographic close-ups of it. ‘Rubies. Diamonds. Rubies. Diamonds,’ he says, pointing out its jewel-encrusted features. In the presence of a monk I’m not sure whether to act appropriately impressed about these earth-bound items, or simply stay quiet. I take the middle path − bobbing my head enthusiastically and widening my eyes without saying anything. Finally, I tell him we need to leave. As we walk out he points out the donation stalls: ‘Donation, donation!’ he says, but even after we drop 10 American dollars into a deposit box he follows us all the way to the door, down the elevator and to the entrance hall. We put on our shoes, and still he is there.
‘Donation?’ I ask him.
He nods and smiles. I give him 10,000 kyat (about AUD $10). Perhaps the taxi driver waiting out the front of the pagoda sees me do it (or perhaps my foreignness is enough), but he begins demanding a rather pricey 3000 kyat for the ride back to our hostel. The monk turns to me suddenly, and begins to teach me how to say ‘2000 kyat’ in Burmese. He walks over to the taxi driver. Suddenly, I am paying 2500 for the ride home. As the taxi pulls out from the car park, the monk smiles and shakes his finger at the driver in a headmasterly kind of way.
‘2500 kyat,’ he reminds me, and pulls out one of the two 5000 kyat notes he has pursued me all this way for.
‘Half of this,’ he says. And laughs.
On our political tour we are going to Myanmar’s curious, secretive capital city, Naipyidaw. The reasons for Naipyidaw’s existence are the stuff of legend; the Myanmar government has offered no clear explanations. There’s the story about the military becoming paranoid around the time of the invasion of Iraq. The Americans seemed to be overly enthusiastic about liberating countries from so-called oppressive dictatorships and Yangon was thought to be too susceptible to a sea invasion by American forces. There is also historical symbolism in setting up a new capital. Before British colonisation, the Burmese kings were known to relocate the royal capital to cement their own particular dynasty. In Myanmar language, Naipyidaw means ‘Seat of the King’. A cynic might say the move is a nice strategy to legitimise a questionably-elected government. For all that Myanmar people supposedly knew about it before its existence was announced in 2005, Naipyidaw could have sprung out from the earth, ready made. Located nearly smack-bang in the middle of the country, it feels less like a capital city and more like a fun park, modelled on a capital city.
‘This place,’ Andrew says, ‘feels like Canberra.’
We arrive at 3am, a scheduling quirk typical of the country’s buses and are dropped in the middle of a market. We’ll discover it again during the day, filled with fruit and its sellers, but now it’s eerily empty, apart from a few motorbike and car taxis. The hotel zone, as it’s known, is spaced out equally with properties, as though the place were a display village of hotels. ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles enters my brain and stays there for two days.
The hotel − the cheapest one we could find − is complete with a grand staircase. At 6am, the concierge mercifully lets us check in. We’re led to our room − it’s huge, with thick red curtains draping imposingly across two large windows. We slide them open and laugh, the laughter of the deliriously tired. Outside is a construction pit, a muddy hole. To the left, a half-constructed hotel.
‘What the hell is this place?’ I ask. But everyone’s too tired to analyse.
Every person we meet providing a service in this city is young, and moved here in the last two years − most in the last few months. No one is from here.
We ask our taxi driver where we can go. He laughs nervously and then says ‘English broken’. He tells us he’s just moved here. He doesn’t know.
‘Where are the cemeteries?’ my friend Eeva asks, scanning our map.
Along the empty highway, a billboard sign stands out, grassy nothingness behind it as far as I could see: ‘Mastercard: proud to be the first to serve Myanmar.’
We decide to see the parliament, and point the icon out on a map. Down we drive, down the highway, ten lanes in either direction on my count − the whole twenty lanes ours, save a few cars. In the distance, the parliament looks foggy in the midday heat. Plonked in the road, slightly off centre, is a shed-sized structure marked ‘Police’.
I wave at the two police officers. One ignores me, the other finally nods curtly to my hand-signalled request for a photo. Behind us, Myanmar’s parliament blurs in the distance, like some vague Land of Oz. We are not allowed to get within easy viewing distance. I thank him for the photo. Our little group of political change tourists leaps theatrically across the highway, posing for Facebook profile pictures, trying to gather the empty lines of lane, lane, lane in our digital frame. And suddenly, there is nothing left to do. We had come to Naipyidaw hoping it would be weird, and it was. We quietly get back into the car, and struggle to tell the driver where to go next.
We go to a restaurant in the city called Mau Khan Nong, said to be the hangout of local government workers. The food is typically Burmese: oil puddles in the curries like raindrops. Andrew is approached by a group of guys drinking at the next table. I am − not for the first time − jealous of the advantages of being a male travelling in a place where men congregate. Finally, I can overhear my friend talking to these men about religion in their country, and can’t temper my jealousy any longer. We take our seats over and join them. Beer and rain soak the afternoon. They are waiting for their friend − a public servant for the government.
One of them, an amateur photographer, begins philosophising unprompted on the nature of his country.
‘In Myanmar, if you are clever and poor,’ counting each attribute on his long fingers, ‘you’re not popular. But if you are not clever and rich, you are popular.’ He takes a swig. ‘I’m poor, and I don’t care.’ As an afterthought, he says ‘I’m a free thinker. I have no religion, but I’m Buddhist.’
I discover I’ve misunderstood the way to say, ‘How much is it?’ (Phonetically, it’s Beh-Lou-Leh.) Instead I’m saying something closer to Keh-lah-lay, which they tell me is the word for a bearded Muslim man in Burmese. The photographer begins stroking the long trails of an invisible beard, from his chin to his chest.
‘We,’ he says (stroking, stroking). ‘Hate. Muslims.’
‘Terrorists!’ adds his friend from the other side of the table.
‘The Rohingya, you know the Rohingya?’ he continues.
‘The Rohingya are like the Mexicans and Myanmar is like the US. The Mexicans want to enter the US. They cannot. The Rohingya come to Myanmar. They cannot.’
I tell them that I’d lived in Indonesia.
‘Ahh, full of Muslims,’ they say.
They also dislike China – ‘Grabbing! Grabbing money!’ − but love America.
‘America the best!’ the photographer says, with a thumb pointing enthusiastically up. ‘They have human rights, yeah!’
Their public servant friend arrives. He is tall and thin, with striking cheekbones, and is elegantly dressed in a crisp shirt and longyi, the traditional men’s garment worn instead of pants. His friend tells him that two of us work as journalists, and for just a moment his facial expressions tense, before rearranging themselves to their original neat beauty. He need not worry. We are tired of talking politics. Here, and everywhere. Everywhere we go, we tire out our new friends with our talk. We are insufferable, we even annoy ourselves.
During our last few days in Myanmar, in a mountainous tea-growing region of Shan State, our hiking guide sighs after yet another long line of questions about how his country has changed. He puts down his tea and looks around at the smokey wooden hut we are staying in for the night, the home of a local family. The fire in the middle of the room crackles and pops. It is 8pm and utterly dark, and we are the only ones still awake in the house.
‘People here don’t care about politics,’ he says. ‘People here wake up early, they eat, they grow tea, they sleep, and they start again.’
The constant, reverent revolution promised in headlines and news clips is a kind of pornography for the political change tourist. And so, the apathy, the bigotry and the audacity of ordinary people living ordinary lives, is always bound to be a disappointment.
As we land in Bangkok after our flight out of Myanmar, I notice an American man, sculptured and pretty, wearing an apple-red cap plugging the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. The acronym is lit up with glitter – audacious and unmissable. As a political change tourist, I recognise my ilk immediately.
‘I love your hat,’ I say, feeling slightly jealous. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘Oh, from one of the NLD offices.’
‘Oh right. I was looking for them everywhere. I emailed them but never heard back.’
‘Oh,’ he says, and looks at his friend. ‘I mean they had an office in every town we went to. You didn’t see them?’
‘No.’ I say, and smile at him. And wonder what else I missed in Myanmar.