Myanmar: Watchdogs and the Watched

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A few days before my trip to Myanmar, I was made to browse through the U.K. edition of Travel + Leisure while waiting for an appointment in Bangkok. Coincidentally, I came upon a dreadful article about tourism in a country the author preferred to call Burma. I won’t go on at length about what was in the article–if you’ve read the Wikipedia entry on Myanmar, you’ve heard most of it already — but allow me to be frank: if you can’t make the call about whether or not to visit Burma on political grounds until after reading a borderline-plagiarized editorial by a too-dry-to-be-patronizing British journalist, what I’m about to say will probably go over your head.

“Henry,” he said, “is my Christian name. Ki nom lei in Myanmar language.”

“Nice to meet you Henry.” I reached my hand out in hopes he would exchange one of his, the left one clutching the June 1969 issue of Spectrum, a magazine I presume is now out-of-print. “My name is Robert.”

Without missing a beat, he continued reading, his finger guiding his sight as he went along. “Industrial output in 1946 was only 16 per cent of the 1944 peak. For nearly seven years the country lay under occupation, regaining full independence only on April 26, 1952.” He closed the book and held it down and to his side. He looked me in the eye. “Japan is now the largest economy in the world, right?”

I nodded. “One of them, yes. But China’s catching up.”

“And what about China?” He became frantic. “China is like Myanmar?”

I shook my head. “No. Not at all like Myanmar.” I raised my hand and splayed my fingers out in the direction of the moat we were standing in front of (and the partially-destroyed city wall behind it). “Myanmar is beautiful.” I pointed straight up. “The air is clear, it’s clean.” Then down. “The water isn’t black.”

“So Myanmar is better than China?”

“I guess you could say that.

“Henry, what do you think of Myanmar?” At once, I hoped for and against the monk going into a political diatribe. On my way to his tiny village of Inwa, so many apparently ordinary guys turned out to be road toll collectors working for the military junta, the ruling regime of Myanmar we hear so much about in Western media–but that seems to be confined only to a handful of arbitrary checkpoints throughout the country. I kept my fingers crossed that my prodding wouldn’t land him in jail.

He granted my wish, sort of. “I think it is better now than it was. Before, it was under the rule of English King, you see. Then, we became free and I began working for a factory years later in 1971. I had to work to feed my family–it was all I could do. This is when I was living in my home town, in Shan State, before seven years ago. Myanmar is very poor country, but it gets better.”

“And the young people now,” I said, “do you think they care about making it better? About voting?”

He quit obliging me. “I think Myanmar will get a little better and a little better.” And then a change in topic. “But America,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to go to America. The most fascinating country. You know, I love listen to American music — Elvis Presley, ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ So interesting your country, I would love to visit.”

As the token “jaded American traveling in a third-world country looking for something more in life,” I wanted to school him on the folly of his thought process–but something made me step back. “You do?”

He smiled wide, his teeth red and decayed, apparently from the substance nearly all men in the Burmese countryside — and a good proportion of city dwellers — seem to chew as if it’s tobacco. “One day, I go.”

“But you’ll go back to your hometown first?”

“Yes, and then to America.”

The monk (whose age I didn’t have the heart to ask) returned to his periodical long enough for me to ponder what, really, it might take for him to come to the United States. The previous week in Bangkok, I scoffed at the 45 minutes I was made to wait at the Myanmar embassy for my visa. But would such an old (and, in spite of his remarkable intelligence and articulateness as compared to his fellow villagers, uneducated in the grand scheme of things) man from the nation of the world my own–for better or for worse–seems to revile more than almost any other stand a chance of being let in to America at all?

I remember the horror stories friends of mine from China and even Thailand would tell me about simple requests for single-entry tourist visas, denied in spite of income and pressing evidence that they would return to their respective home countries. I can’t imagine even patriotic Henry, who readily laps up late 60s pop culture and pro-America propaganda, getting past the process.

And Henry wasn’t the only crimson-sashed Burmese monk to inform me of his desire to visit my country. While climbing Mandalay Hill the evening before, I’d met with 14-year old David, who was working on learning Japanese to supplement his near fluency in English. I want to be an aircraft mechanic, he informed me, categorically, when I asked him what he’d study if given the opportunity to attend an American university. I’m fascinated by airplanes. In my head I concurred with him, out loud I lauded him and in my heart I hoped there would be a way for it to happen some day.

“Are you interested in me?” Henry had gotten distracted from his reading, presumably thanks to the clicking of my camera shutter. “Why do you keep taking pictures of me? Can you stop taking pictures of me?”

If you’ve ever read this blog — or, better, if you know me personally — you’ll know that my favorite travel book (and one of my favorite books in general) is A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. Perhaps better classified as an overlong essay, Kincaid’s second-person narrative frequently adopts an accusatory tone as it takes the reader through her home country, the Carribbean island of Antigua. The volume poses a number of foundational questions over the course of its 80-someodd pages–and some of them are being answered (and, in some cases, asked) of me only now, in spite of my having read the tome the first time nearly a half-decade ago.

The first chapter echoed in my mind as my “official” (as official as anything can be in Myanmar) taxi sped (as fast as any vehicle can go in Myanmar) away from the airport, making a bee line for downtown Yangon. Your driver is reckless. He is a dangerous man.

The book, however, quickly strays away from overtly negative characterizations of local people. In fact, for most of the rest of its length, it attempts to qualify the humbled-verging-blissful emotion we Western people tend to feel when we’re in close proximity to those who’ve never been burdened (or is it blessed?) by curses (or are they miracles?) like the new cars, fashion and consistent meals. And so, Kincaid narrates, you take a leap from being that blog stinking on a beach somewhere, like a boob in your amniotic sac, to a tourist taking in heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it. She concludes boldly: a tourist is an ugly human being.

When I entered into Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda on Monday afternoon, the first sight to attract my attention once I got past the literally hundreds of golden spires (and, of course, the namesake pagoda tower itself) was a group of monks huddled around the base of a gallery of Buddha images. Without thinking, I removed my camera’s lens cap, adjusted its settings to suit the lighting and began shooting away. As expected, the monks soon took notice and began pointing their fingers back in my direction. They didn’t seem particularly agitated or offended, but I finished my shooting quicky — to be sure, I did finish my shooting — and turned away to avoid causing further offense.

This is a paradox I’ve encountered often while traveling: people in developed countries get offended when you take their pictures; people in developing ones don’t say anything. That doesn’t mean third-world people like it or even don’t mind it when you photograph them; it just means you don’t know.

At the conclusion of Henry’s and my meeting two days later, the monk was kind enough to answer the question I’d originally posed to him: what exactly was the wall behind him and what lie behind that? He pointed me down a road — the only road there that went anywhere–and bid me farewell.

When I passed under what I assumed to be the main gate of a crumbling city wall, the pace of life became even slower than the tempered crawl it had embodied just outside the fortress. Barefoot children chased chickens through makeshift drainage ditches while women set their families’ clothing onto square stones, wet them and beat them senseless, presumably as a means of washing. A new mother dog stood perfectly still while her young nursed from her. I tried to get close enough to take a picture, but the growl she let out made her position on the matter clear.

As I continued on toward what I could now identify as the fabled Leaning Tower of Inwa, I came upon a number of locals, each likely as curious about me as I about them. While my recent reprimand lingered in my memory, my right hand was nonetheless on my camera, at the ready — I felt like a predator first, tourist second. I wouldn’t imagine any of these people had ever seen a foreigner before. I was on a back road that tourists, who generally take horsecart rides, would have no reason to walk. The man who’d just fetched his family’s water for the day; the woman with the basket of fruit, petrol and other goods atop her head; and the children now running the opposite direction, but still in hot pursuit of the same bird all flashed me the same slightly curious, slightly apprehensive smiles, expressions I either would have missed or never received had my face pressed up against my viewfinder. And so you needn’t let that slightly funny feeling you have from time to time about exploitation, oppression, domination develop into full-fledged unease, discomfort; you could ruin your holiday.

When I arrived at the top of the tower less than a half-hour later, I was less than surprised to find that a pair of local girls had set up shop there. Among the goods they offered up were a set of clearly contemporary Thai coins soiled and rusted, so as to appear antique.

“Four-thousand kyat,” she said, “or five dollar.”

“But these are new.” I reached down into my pocket, where I happened to have a two baht coin lodged. “You see? They’re the same?”

The other one held up a metal pipe. “Two-thousand.”

“I don’t smoke.” I began to walk toward the ladder that would take me out of the tower.

“Excuse me, Sir?” The first girl was waving two $1 bills in the air. “You change money for me?”

Why on Earth, I thought to myself, would they be trying to pawn off just two U.S. dollars? Surely, they must be fake. I headed back in their direction, if only to humor them. The moment I laid eyes upon them, I was at an impasse: If the bills were counterfeit, there were done meticulously enough that no one would have noticed, certainly not a non-U.S. citizen.

Still, I declined. “I’m sorry — I can’t.”

Without thinking, I pulled my camera up to my face and began snapping away, first taking pictures of the younger girl, who smeared the mud-cum-sunscreen on her face into a childlike, cat-whisker pattern and then of her friend (or sister). I then left, without having purchased anything — which is to say that, aside from an opportunity to practice English with a native for a few minutes, I gave them nothing. I did take something, however — and I know it exists only because of the black hole I felt tearing at me as I walked away.

The woman dangled her piece of cake in front of my face.

“I’m good.”

She returned it back to her plastic tray. “You ate yours so fast, I just assumed you were hungry.”

“I am,” I said, “but I’m trying not to overdo it. I haven’t eaten in about two days.”

“Why not?”

“I got very sick when I was in Mandalay and I’m just now getting over it.”

“With what?”

“Food poisoning,” I said. “The doctor called it ‘gastroenteritis,’ but the point is that I had something inside me that wasn’t meant to be there. And so I decided I wasn’t meant to be here in Myanmar any longer.”

She sighed. “That’s a shame. We’ve been here seven months and haven’t had a problem.” The man beside her — whom I was now pretty sure was her husband — grunted in agreement.

“Seven months?” I was still forty-eight hours short of seven days. “I suppose you like it here?”

She laughed. “The country has been good to us, yes. But I’ll tell you one thing — the prices here are so outrageous for foreigners. We took a train from Yangon to Mandalay, a dreadful old thing, and paid $35 each for the journey. We got on to find out the two locals sharing our sleeper cabin, which was less than comfortable, had paid just three-thousand kyat a piece.

I mean, I understand wanting foreigners to pay more — by their standards, we are rich.” She paused. “But ten times? That’s quite absurd.”

Her husband broke his silence. “And the thing is, we don’t even act or look like tourists, really. We wear their clothes.” For his part, he had on a longyi, the long, skirt-like garment nearly every man in the country wears. I looked toward the old man’s legs — check. ”We even speak their language.”

(I have my doubts about that one–the book he was reading the whole flight seemed to consist of only the most rudimentary Burmese, with his focus on sophisticated concepts like “black” and “seven.”)

“Besides,” his wife continued, “we’re not here as travelers — we’ve done that, believe me. We’re here for work.”

“What do you do?”

“Well, we’re travel agents.” She looked at her husband. “Officially, anyway. We, erm, encourage other people from England to come to Myanmar on holiday.

But really — and don’t tell anybody — we’re teachers.”

A few seconds after she stopped speaking, I noticed the mechanical rattle our aircraft had been making since take-off had stopped and that the crew had resumed their service. The flight — my first, and so far only, domestic Myanmar flight — was easily been the most harrowing of my life, although that isn’t saying much. In spite of a sizable travel footprint, I’ve mainly flown first-world airlines in the past. The noise, however, began again.

So I distracted myself. “And what do you teach?”

“I teach English and my husband, he teaches the Anglican Bible. But we would never, ever say that aloud here. You’re not supposed to teach here.”

Her husband interjected. “That’s not entirely true.”

“Well, the problem is the policy changes so often. One day, teachers are allowed in, the next, everyone must go. This way is more simple. The travel agent who arranged our taxi when we arrived told us we could say we worked for her company for a small fee.”

“I see,” I said. Unsurprising for a country like this. “So you live in Yangon, I assume?”

She nodded. “Yes, so we’re headed home, in a way. We have a lovely home in the middle of town.”

“Right down the street from the Anglican church,” her husband said proudly. “But we only worship there.”

His wife picked up, in spite of him never having left off. “The last time we went — before our trip — the pastor pulled us aside and warned us. He said, ‘The authorities want to know why you’re coming here.’ Apparently, they’ve seen us there for a long time. As primitive as it seems here, they really have quite an intricate network of surveillance–especially since Aung San Suu Kyi got released.

“But we don’t dare get involved in any of that, even thought that happened just down the street from our house. Can you imagine what would happen if we were photographed there at that time? Do you know how damning photographs can be in this country?”

The man behind me — yet another monk — has his camera raised, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what he hopes to capture. The only thing in front of him is the glass partition separating the check-in area from the waiting lounge.

In front of the departure tax collection window, a young woman — very young, judging by her face–has just arrived. Bright eyes gleaming and bushy tail wagging, she gleefully removes her owed amount from the bag she no doubt purchased here. She clearly hasn’t washed her hair for weeks, isn’t wearing any makeup and has on a pair of athletic sandals beneath her flowered wrap skirt. It seems she’s completely lost touch with the Western aesthetic: in her own mind’s eye, she is one with the Burmese.

As far as what the Burmese think, I can’t particularly say. Although no one seems particularly offended that she or I or the British couple on my flight from Mandalay are here and raised only occassional, slight exception at having their photos taken, you must wonder what goes through the minds of people to whom we are much stranger — by default, since here we are “them” and they are “us” — to them than they are to us when they come upon us in their land.

One paradox inherent in international travel — and the visas, currency exchanges and linguistic barriers therein — is the notion that different parts of the world are different based solely on man’s declarations and classifications. In spite of the fact that citizens of certain countries (mine, luckily, happens to be one of such countries) can eat, sleep and shit wherever they want and, almost, whenever they want, we all still uphold national borders, agendas and identities.

But for what? I mean, if the rich of the world liberate themselves from the monotony of their own comforts by “ooh”-ing and “aah”-ing at people who don’t have running water like they’re designer mink coats, what’s the difference between a week in Burma or Bengal than, say, London or Paris Fashion Weeks? Are we watchdogs, capable of nothing more than watching? Are we simply voyeurs?

Some travelers are more hopeful than I am. In this article posted to the BootsNAll Travel Network, fellow wanderer Zoë Smith argues that traveling in developing nations can actually be an enriching experience.

Optimism and conjecture nothwithstanding, one thing remains perfectly clear: our evolution as we travel must transcend Pollyanna bullshit about how breathtaking sunsets over centuries-old temples can wash probably-misguided political opinions into the nearby river we cruised in on the day before.


Mandalay’s Crown Jewels: Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura
Machismo Gold and Grit in Mandalay
Yangon’s Solid Gold Theme Park
The Art of Touching Down Softly in Myanmar
Make a Run for the Border: Visas in Southeast Asia

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