Reportage

Yangon in shades of grey

IN ONLY ONE South-East Asian city I have visited can visitors walk around without fear of crime. The streets are paved with classic restaurants and teahouses, but the ubiquitous sights of McDonald's banners and neon Coca-Cola signs are nowhere to be seen; corporate America is notably absent. The town centre is also the spiritual centre: a spectacular temple, said to enshrine the relics of the Buddha himself.

The markets are clean, odourless and well stocked. The hucksters are never aggressive, even smiling kindly when you say "no thank you" and wander away. Could you imagine such a scene in Kuta Beach or Hanoi?

The people must be among the world's friendliest. The streets are lined with attractive colonial architecture. There is no internet access, so you can't even read your email – a situation that, once you become used to it, makes the place even more idyllic.

Welcome to the ideal Asian city.

 

BUT, AS ALWAYS, there's a catch. This is Yangon. When I visited in December 2000, it was still the capital city of Myanmar (better known by its previous name of Burma), a nation run by a military dictatorship not renowned for quaint concepts like ethnic equality and freedom of expression. In my more cynical moments, I was reminded of It's a GOOD Life, an eerie short story by Jerome Bixby that became famous as an episode of The Twilight Zone television series. In that story, a town's population goes through life in forced bliss, terrified of what the most powerful resident will do if they so much as confess to a negative thought. Perhaps, I thought, that would explain the strangely cheerful people of Yangon. The state is trying to attract tourism, so it would be unwise to make Western visitors feel anything less than welcome. After all, they might complain to the authorities.

When I set foot in Myanmar, I knew about the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), that notorious group of faceless men who stand accused of terrible human rights abuses, and have the Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader under house arrest. Human rights groups, like the Burma Campaign UK, urge people to stay away – as does the imprisoned opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

So when I found myself visiting, I struck a deal with my conscience. While there, I would try to be appalled and disgusted by anything I saw around me, then write about it upon my return to Australia (where I could do so without being arrested).

Sadly, I had a wonderful time. That wasn't supposed to happen.

When I returned home, I tried to sell a travel story: "Another Side to Myanmar", or something like that. The reaction was more surprising than it should have been. Travel editors stated that their conscience wouldn't allow them to publish anything about Myanmar. It was a noble sentiment, but – as they would happily publish stories on trekking through China or the sights of downtown Beirut – somewhat inconsistent. Eventually, The Canberra Times published my story about the friendly people, the temples and the architectural beauty of Yangon (better known, thanks to colonial British mispronunciation, as Rangoon). Not everyone was happy. "Your travel writer Mark Juddery probably deserved his holiday," wrote one kind reader, "but it is a pity that he didn't take it somewhere with his eyes fully open. Burma – or Myanmar, as the military regime which 'runs' it calls it – is a place of pain and repression."

(Like the US State Department, the Australian media mostly refuses to toe the SPDC's line and call the nation by its official name. In the nation itself, however, nobody seems to call it anything else.)

Undaunted, I offered a story to a magazine that prided itself on its trendy and broad-minded readers. Something on Myanmar, I thought, would be ideal for their travel section. They agreed, and I sent them an article describing the food, the markets and the spiritual aspects in loving detail. They sent it back, asking me to rewrite to include more about the politics.

My second draft mentioned (as requested) that Myanmar was controlled by a despicable military dictatorship, and discussed this in some detail before getting to the point: a travel story, for the travel section (as assigned), explaining the reasons why – despite everything – it is still worth considering.

I was ordered to do another rewrite, with more of "the facts". My response was a polite email explaining that, while I often read about the evils of Burma, I saw very little of this on my visit. Perhaps this is due to the notorious secrecy of the government. Whatever the case, I had been assigned a travel story (as offered), and that was all that I felt qualified to write.

They sent the story back, saying that if I didn't want to condemn the government, they weren't interested after all.

(Presumably, they considered any pro-Myanmar story to be unethical. As a struggling freelance journalist, I knew a little about ethics. If an editor assigns you a story, and makes you rewrite it into something else, he is ethically obliged to pay you for at least some of your time, right? Perhaps not.)

A few months later, I was talking to some friends about the ethical concerns of the various editors towards the government of Myanmar. "As if we're any better!" snapped an American friend. So the SPDC refused to accept Suu Kyi as the democratically elected leader? The way he saw it, his own President Bush had done something similar. (Different method; same motive and result.) This particular friend, I can safely say, would never vote for Bush. Nonetheless, he had a point. If we refuse to visit a nation where the government is guilty of widespread corruption and human rights abuses, there is precious little of the world that we can visit. Luxembourg perhaps?

 

LIKE THE MAGNIFICENT ruins of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon provides a hint of the nation's past glory, enough to make a visitor forget – or at least momentarily ignore – its chequered recent history. Whatever the sins of the government, they have preserved the traditional culture so that, unlike the holy places in so much of South-East Asia, it is still an inspiration for spiritual pilgrims. Even the nation's leaders are allegedly devout Buddhists, raised on the philosophy of wisdom and morality. It has become their religion, their way of life. Perhaps it just isn't their politics.

Shwedagon is perhaps the closest thing to a Buddhist Mecca: the oldest and largest of its kind, said to enshrine the relics of Gautama Buddha and his spiritual forebears. According to legend, Shwedagon was founded during Gautama's lifetime – 2000 years after the Egyptians worshipped their rulers by building the pyramids, and 2000 years before Christopher Wren designed St Paul's Cathedral in London. After walking a long flight of stone steps, the traveller is confronted with hundreds of statues of the Buddha. Locals prostrate themselves at these statues, meditating in the lotus position. The odd tourist, clad in a bright shirt and sunglasses, snaps away innocently. As with the pyramids, or St Paul's, we see that spiritual reverence can inspire truly great exploits of engineering and architecture. It is tempting for Westerners to bring their cameras.

But visiting the pagoda at sunrise, while the surroundings are still meditative (and before the hot floor tiles can torture the required bare feet), one is left feeling that this experience is best not interrupted by cameras. Besides, photos couldn't possibly do it justice.

Admittedly, a camera would be useful to record the magnificent bell-shaped spire – the central landmark of the pagoda and, by extension, the city. This hundred metre structure of gold, marble and over four thousand pieces of diamond can be seen for miles down the street, identifying Yangon as readily as the Eiffel Tower distinguishes Paris.

Shwedagon leaves you feeling humble and serene, but it still doesn't allow you to visit Yangon with a clear conscience.

Something else does that. True, when you visit, you support a military regime. The moment you step off the plane, you pay a visitor's fee that goes straight to the government. (Disgraceful. In any other country they'd call it ... well, they'd call it a tax.) But then there are the other forty-three million innocent people, many of whom rely on tourists to survive. Perhaps the SPDC is aware of that, and hopes to attract the ethical visitors. (No such luck, of course.)

You can meet some of these people at the market. "The local market sells absolutely everything," said one seasoned traveller. I assumed she was exaggerating, until I wandered far enough – past the endless stalls of fabrics, jewellery and hand-carved statues – to find a stall selling collectors' movie magazines from the '50s and '60s. In a busy Yangon market, Doris Day's smiling face looked surreal. But then, it usually does.

Despite being dynamic and crowded, markets in Yangon are significantly cleaner than many Asian markets, without so many food smells. Moreover, the stallholders are not aggressive. Nobody in the market obliges you to part with your cash, save perhaps the young, shaven-headed monks, who corner you with begging bowls. When you throw in some money, they dash away excitedly, like a child who has been given a treat.

No nation in South-East Asia has a shortage of people who will greet you enthusiastically. The difference is that, in Myanmar, not all of them want to sell you something. Despite the five-star hotels that now colour the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, the nation has only recently opened up to tourism, and the local traders do not wish to cheat the foreigners. After buying a Buddha at Shwedagon, a fellow traveller was chased by the stallholder simply because he had not taken all of his change.

The hotel staff were exceedingly good-natured, even by the standards of an Asian hotel. After two days in Yangon, I asked a receptionist where I could buy a coconut. "You don't need to buy one," she said sweetly, in the perfect English spoken by almost everyone in Yangon. "My husband and I have some growing in our backyard. I will bring you one tomorrow." A day later, I was presented with two large coconuts. At her insistence, they were free of charge.

At no point did these people seem to be less than sincere in their friendliness. They were obviously grateful to have Western visitors, but it seemed authentic. Avoid Myanmar all you wish, but you would be no help to these people.

 

INDEED, THE ATMOSPHERE of Yangon was so relaxed and cheerful that one was almost willing to dismiss the reports of the government's infamous behaviour as a long-running Western conspiracy.
But then they had to spoil it. All it took was a casual read of the People's Desire, printed each day in the
local newspaper and in signs along many of the streets. It reads like a national duty statement, warning citizens to:

Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.

Oppose those trying to jeopardise stability of the state.

Oppose foreign nations interfering in external affairs of the state.

Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

Seeing this sign (printed in English) was a rude awakening. "Crush" ... wouldn't "scold" be a better word? The suggestion is simple enough: If you keep quiet, and keep smiling, you're safe. And as the people don't know exactly what goes on, thanks to this most secretive of governments, they appear to be both safe and happy.

But the more you meet, the more you hear. Just outside Yangon, I met a former petrol station owner who had survived by selling garments since the government took away his business. When asked about this, the otherwise outgoing tradesman replied with numbing silence.

Local Buddhist monks, revered by the government and everyone else, can afford to be more candid. One elderly monk told me of his mixed emotions: a life of prayer and meditation had given him peace, but he still felt sadness for his people.

He envied Western freedom. So, one assumes, does everyone else. Despite their differences, Myanmar (like most of South-East Asia) wants to mimic the West. The government has always refused to allow Western chains in, but across the road from my hotel were a faux Burger King, KFC and Star-bucks, comic-book versions of the originals, blatant imitations with similar names and logos. Despite America's trade sanctions against Myanmar, a nearby cinema was showing the awful Battlefield Earth (perhaps Hollywood's attempt to punish the government) and the more watchable delusion of Gladiator. "We are now crowded with cars," noted a cheerful concierge. He mentioned that, only a few years earlier, crossing the street was a casual affair. Not any more. Yangon was proudly edging Westwards.

At one function in Yangon, I caught a glimpse of Khin Nyunt, otherwise known as Secretary 1. Chances are you are unfamiliar with his name, and are unlikely to commit it to memory now. For the leader of a dictatorship, he is unusually obscure. He may also be less evil than you might expect of a SPDC member: he had signed ceasefire agreements with several rebel groups; in 2003, after talks with the United Nations, he oversaw the temporary release of Suu Kyi.

His party considered him dangerously progressive. He was demoted to Prime Minister in 2003, in favour of the more hard-line Than Shwe, and ousted completely the following year. Suu Kyi was thrown back in prison, where she remains to this day. One step forward, several steps back.

Much more has happened in the past five years. Idyllic Yangon has been shaken by violence, with a series of bomb attacks in 2005. A few months later, the government moved the capital to an obscure mountain compound called Pyinmanaa, officially due to "changed circumstances".

Why, asked the monk, are Westerners – with their security and allegedly stable governments – not more enlightened and fulfilled?

The answer was (and is) obvious. A Western lifestyle might be preferable to life under Myanmar's enigmatic junta, but it doesn't necessarily provide enlightenment. Meanwhile, the smiles of the Burmese are not simply due to their fear, but also their faith. It not only keeps them going, but it keeps them happy. Myanmar's rulers cannot – and don't even want to – take this away. After all, they want a nation of spiritual people.

It might be small consolation, but the people take what they can get.

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