"Fear Is Very Much A Habit"
-Aung San Suu Kyi, 1996
She's 21 and speaks English very well. She studied in the university that is now closed. They all are. Closed for more than 18 months and no one knows when they will open again. The government is afraid of student unrest. She lives in New Bagan with her parents and ten sisters and brothers. Like many other families, they were relocated seven years ago by the government.
"I miss the light, the mornings near the temples. I am Buddhist. It was so good for meditation." Her family was compensated 250 kyat (pronounced chat) or about two dollars, but it cost them 900 kyat to truck their dismantled home the five kilometers to dusty New Bagan.
Her father spent two years in jail. " I really have to be careful what I say. I don't want to go to jail, I am too young to be raped by the soldiers and my baby would have no father. What would I do?" Her story isn't exaggerated. Her friend has been in jail for almost five years now and she was raped many times. She has a small child. "I am Buddhist, I do not lie." She is believable. This may be difficult to fathom even though there are many such accounts in the western press. I really couldn't believe these truths until I got to Burma and asked over and over, person after person. I heard the same response: "We have no human rights."
My guide who I will call Zaw, because just as the guidebooks warn, "You must be cautious about talking Burmese politics with the locals, not for your safety but for theirs."
I would be very sorry if he got into trouble because I'm writing this account of our trip.
"No please don't send me a package, I'll have to go to the
police station and open it in front of them and pay money and I could get into
trouble. One American fellow I know sent a few dollars carefully taped between
two photos, well disguised, he thought, and his recipient got the photos...
Zaw and I spent ten days traveling by car across Burma from Mandalay to Kalaw to Inle Lake to Pindaya in the Shan State and finally to Bagan. He wasn't entirely forthright. Decoding what he said in response to my pointed questions about the government was difficult although he told me the stories I heard were true. He's heard many but is afraid to lose his income from the tourist business, so he didn't say much about politics for our first few days together. My persistence'and his consumption of two fingers of rum with every meal (that's two fingers measured from the index to the pinkie)'finally got him talking. "Zaw, tell me true, should tourists come to Burma?" I ask one evening. "Yes, but only a few" was his surprising response.
It's been a bad year for tourism. It is way down from the hey-days prior to Aung San Suu Kyi's pleas that no tourists come because "The dollars go into the government's pockets to buy guns and the military are not accountable." Suu Kyi (the Nobel Peace Prize laureate)'s Democratic Party was supported by eighty percent of the people in the last election. The military government ignored the results and continues a repressive rule. I heard that there are talks going on with Suu Kyi, I tell my young friend. "Oh sure, they want to sit in the chair, but they don't want to move it!" comes her response.
Dare I ask why...that in 1990, the Bagan residents who had lived on their land for generations, were made to move? "The Lady" as Suu Kyi is referred to'no one dare mention her name any longer'had come to Bagan to give a speech and following that there was a vote. The incumbent mayor sat between the boxes where the ballots were cast...mostly for Suu Kyi, who was not even present. This made the mayor very mad and the next morning everybody was told to move. Helicopters hovered above with loud speakers saying: "YOU MUST MOVE, YOU CANNOT BE HERE BY THE MORNING." Those who asked why were noted and the following night removed from their homes and jailed.
Can this all be true? I ask my taxi driver as I am leaving Yangon for the airport. We cross over a bridge called Ther Phyu (white bridge)..."The students call this bridge Ther Ni (red bridge) because hundreds were gunned down by the government in 1988. Murdered!" I ask if he personally knew anyone who was killed or who is in prison. "Oh yes, my cousin is in jail and I had friends who were killed." It seems everyone I spoke with had personal contact with the stories they told...not just hearsay.
Burma, the land of Buddha, monks and soldiers. It's been said: Every man must be a monk for at least a while in his life, but once a soldier, always a soldier.
It's not what it may appear to be. This close-up image of just-dyed silk shimmering in the sun looks like the peaceful ocean waters glistening in a late afternoon sun. Moe Moe and Suu Suu's smiles belie the reality of the Burmese people's plight. Theirs is one of no human rights. I never thought about being "proud to be an American", I was born one. I never much thought about our country's democracy, it's always been that way for me, but my journey to Burma certainly got me thinking about my freedom as a human. My rights as a human and how those rights are inalienable. "We have no human rights!" I heard it from just about everyone I spoke with. And believe me I had to listen closely, because whenever I spoke of Burma's military and the repression, everyone looked over their shoulder and lowered their voice. They are afraid. Afraid of spies. Afraid of imprisonment. Afraid of the rising prices and the corruption and the soldiers.
"No, I don't believe in the Nats!" Thu (Mary) my Yangon guide responded to my question. "No. I'm Buddhist, some believe, but I don't." The worship of the Nats preceded Buddhism in Burma and still exists side-by-side with Buddhist practices by many. Thu sat enjoying the Nat ritual while I worked the crowd with my camera trying to get a sense of whether these people believed that the nat-kadaw or spirit wife who was dancing in a trance-like state, inspecting and partaking in the offerings of food, cigarettes and booze, could truly bless them with good fortune.
Lucky for me, Thu's home happened to be across the street from where a Nat ritual was held once or twice each year to thank the spirits for good health and good fortune. Judging by both the size of the house owner's diamond earrings (at least two carats) and her size (at least 300 kilograms), she was indeed blessed with both. She and a few other spirit wives tossed back gulps of Johnny Walker Red Label and tossed out fistfuls of kyat (pronounced chat), Burma's ever-fluctuating money. On arrival in Yangon I bought mine at 300 kyat to one US dollar and four days later, following a police crackdown that jailed many money sellers, the price had dropped below 200 kyat.
The first spirit wife gave Thu and me a wad of kyat and told us to go to the lottery: "Very lucky for you, Michael, don't mix this up with your other money." But Thu doesn't believe, I thought... Coincidentally, all of the money I received was in five-kyat denominations and only a few days before, at a temple in Bagan, I was told by a fortuneteller that my lucky number is five. But, then, I don't believe either...following the Nat ritual Thu and I rushed to the nearest lottery seller careful to choose tickets with the number five in them.
"Thu, you get 20% of our winnings and the rest goes to charity," I told her, not really believing we'd win the lottery but knowing that if we did, she'd be more likely to give some to the poor than to this American photographer she'd met only days before. Earlier she had wanted to take me to where the rich people live and where the poor people live, so I could see for myself how tragic her country had become under Ne Win's military rule. "We don't know how people are getting so rich but we know how the rest of us are getting so poor. The government and soldiers are lining their pockets and there is nothing we can do about it."
Thu wants to support Aung San Suu Kyi's call for no tourism, but she is a guide and she worries how she will survive. That said, it was amazing to me that the people in the tourist business (restaurant owners, guides and drivers) were all in support of the idea to boycott the government's "Year of Tourism in Myanmar." Thu showed me her large home built by her grandfather in about 1915. It had been divided into two homes (they needed the money), but its former grandeur was ever present from the 16-foot ceilings, giant wood beams to the large rooms, now chopped into smaller living quarters for her mother, sister and a few others. "Will the government take your home and your land?" I asked. "Of course, if the military wants, they can take it." A sad look overcame her. "We have no rights."
Published on 11/1/98