Tuesday, January 12, 2010


We arrived in Rangoon, Burma's biggest city and until recently it's capital, just in time for Independence Day. Some shops and schools had already closed down, and people in Rangoon seemed to be making the most of their time off. Even in the busiest streets, areas had been sectioned off for teenage boys playing soccer. The partying escalated the following day, and as we wandered through a neighborhood near our hotel we were delighted to find numerous themed block parties. On one block, people had set up a karaoke stage and teenagers and 20-somethings paraded on stage belting their hearts out to Bollywood and American pop songs. They were enthusiastically cheered on by an audience of over 100 people, in addition to many who sat and watched from their balconies. People on other streets played soccer and various spoon/egg type games. But we lingered longest around 46th street, where there was a serious tug of war competition between fifty or so neighborhood women who probably spanned 6 generations. We were particularly impressed that they were duking it out barefoot on a gravel road and yanking on the rough and very thick rope bare-handed. We were welcomed into the gatherings with curiosity, but also warmth, generosity and occasionally embarrassment, and were struck by the strong community and seemingly carefree environment.

Everywhere we went this past week deepened these first impressions and we spent a good deal of time puzzling over how to explain Burmese positivity in the face of tyranny. For while the people appear cheerful and friendly, their country has been ruled by an oppressive military dictatorship for almost half a century, and the Generals' “policies”—if they can even be called that—are transparently idiotic and cruel. We're not sure how to resolve the incongruence, but one taxi driver explained the phenomenon like this: “they smile because they want you to help them.”

With respect to why most cars have steering wheels on the right and also, usually, drive on the right side of the road, the same taxi driver informed us that the first Burmese dictator—Ne Win—had an astrological insight one day around 1970 that cars should switch from the left to right side so as to prevent accidents, and issued a decree at once. The roads were changed overnight, resulting in a large number of accidents, probably, but most cars have failed to follow suit. Other political decisions, too, have been based on astrology, including the temporary move at one point to eliminate existing currency in favor of new notes that were divisible by 9.

Unsuccessful attempts to ban gmail, yahoo and hotmail and other policies that reflect pure incompetence belie the truly oppressive and harmful effects of the Generals' rule. For the most part, these are hidden from public view, and the worst crimes take place in villages that are off-limits to foreigners. In a country where forced labor, indefinite prison sentences, and violence against minority groups is commonplace it is remarkable that a typical tourist visiting the major sights across the country could easily imagine Burma as a sweet and gentle country. In some ways, we did too.

One day, though, we took a trip to Twante, a rural village a few hours outside Rangoon which was off-limits for a time after Cyclone Nargis paid a visit, but was recently opened up to tourists who apply for special “permission to travel” permits. We were shocked by the small flimsy bamboo huts most villagers were living in after the cyclone, and it seemed certain that they will be destroyed again within the decade. Obviously, Twante is just the tip of the iceberg. But censorship, travel bans, and harsh punishment for citizens who criticize the government make it difficult to dig any deeper.

More on this later. Needless to say, the Burmese government did not figure out Jeremy was a journalist--though we were turned away from an internet cafe a day after we read the news and did some google searches about a retired Burmese Jewish general there--and we are back in Bangkok safe and sound.

Note: Although the military government changed Burma's name to Myanmar, the opposition still uses the colonial name. Same goes for Rangoon, which is now known as Yangon.

Click here to see our pictures, we took some good ones...

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