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Southeast Asia


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Southeast Asia


Burma impressions - spies, slaves and paw paw girls

27 June 2005

I wrote down these impressions as I toured round Burma in May 2005. They were for an story for The Irrawaddy which never eventuated. I rather like their random, digressive quality, so have left them as "impressions" rather than rationalising them into an article.

Given the number of times they have invaded each other over the centuries, it’s astounding that Thai and Burmese have almost no words in common. (‘Boom-boom’ was the only one I heard. Though the Burmese share the Thai sound, Ohhhh, to denote ‘I understand’.)

The entire Shan hills between Hsipaw and Maymyo - hundreds of miles - have been denuded by logging. It’s a dismal sight, and results (naturally enough) in the occasional mudslide which wipes out a village. Near the village of Nam Samp they’ve beaten the problem by terracing the hills in concrete.

There were two power cuts before I had reached the front of the Customs queue at Mandalay Airport, and perhaps half a dozen during the Moustache Brothers’ nightly performance. Reading a book in a Mandalay hotel room is an episodic experience, with up to three power cuts before you get to the bottom of the page. The power cuts created an entire new dance form - the Power Cut Rock - in Mandalay’s beer gardens.

Halfway through the gyrations of the ‘dancing ladies’, the music would stop, and they’d be frozen in mid-dance-move. The girls would titter among themselves under the yellow emergency lighting, then suddenly the lights and music would resume and the act would leap to life again. The power cuts have been built into the act.

In Hsipaw there weren’t power cuts as such: it was off most of the time, and the only uncertainty was when it would come on again.

In Rangoon I didn’t experience any power cuts, though other reports in the Irrawaddy suggest my experience isn’t shared by all.

After a year in Thailand, I half-expected Burma's ‘dancing ladies’ to be less than seemly. However they were all fully-clothed, and only in the final act did a hint of raunchiness emerge. Burmese sexuality has yet to be corrupted by the mystery-stripping infiltrations of the West, and I found the fully-clothed ethic to be highly agreeable. Neither did it detract from the importance the Burmese place on a well-rounded bottom, for even tradtional Burmese clothing is sufficiently tight to show the contours. Most Burmese poster girls are angled in such a way as to accentuate the wonders of rear ends.

If you pay 3,000 kyats, the girl of your choice will be obliged to sit with you, and talk for a few minutes.

3,000 kyats is also what a member of the slave labour crew near the Ava Bridge is paid for a month’s work. These people toil in the mud at the edge of the Irrawaddy, hauling out basket-loads of river stones for use in road-building. The gang had about fifty people. They were (my guide explained) dragooned from local villages. The adults had no choice but to work; however they could choose whether or not to bring their children. Many did, as the child brought the family an extra K3,000 per month, and that money made the difference between survival and starvation.

Slave labour has been taken out of the cities now (bad for tourism), but the gangs can still be seen in rural areas. I got a photo of one gang eventually, while the soldiers were distracted, and it went onto the front page of the International Herald Tribune.

It all made me meditate on what a few well-placed Silkworm missiles would do in this part of the world.

I was particularly interested in finding out a little about U Khanti. The brother of Scott Hicks, an Australian friend, had recently discovered the only surviving photo of the legendary northern monk - their father had known him in Burma in the 1930s, when serving as an engineer with the Raj - and had sent it to Burma, to the delight of his surviving fans.

I asked in Sagaing when he had died. ‘I’m not sure if he did,’ my guide replied. ‘He might have levitated, and flown away to the mountains to live. People say so. I’m not sure.’

Mandalay’s railway station is aswarm with hundreds of people sitting, sleeping and eating as they wait for trains. Beautiful girls with trays of paw-paw on their heads weave in and out of the crowds providing refreshment.

Against the station’s outer wall, dozens of families live - on raised wooden benches if they’re lucky - under pieces of plastic. I chatted to one family of six that must have slept so close together that when one turned over in his sleep, another might have been ejected from the home.

In Mandalay I was told that, if I looked around in Ping Oo Lwin (formerly Maymyo), I might find evidence of a nuclear facility now in the planning between Burma and Russia.

A few days later in Maymyo, en route to a teahouse by motorbike, my giude pointed to a tall, striking blonde crossing the road: ‘Russian lady,’ he said.

We positioned ourselves near the woman in the teashop, whilst I studied her. ‘She looks like an English backpacker to me,’ I said at length. He shook his head. ‘Russian. She’s a nuclear technician. She’ll tell you she’s a language teacher.’

I ambled over to the woman’s table and knelt beside her. ‘Excuse me Miss, would you happen to know what time the next train to Lashio leaves?’

She looked at me carefully. ‘Nyet,’ she said.

‘Oh, you’re Russian. What are you doing here in Maymyo?’

‘I’m a language teacher.’

The language teacher hypothesis is plausible. There are two academies in Maymyo - the main military academy, and the Defiance Service Academy, where soldiers receive technological training. Between 2000 and 2003, 2,500 Burmese soldiers from the Maymyo military academies went to Russia for training, in IT, military and nuclear-related subjects. Another comparably-sized cohort has gone off since. Learning Russian in advance of these extended trips would not be an unreasonable preparation.

There are fifteen of these Russian language teachers/nuclear technicians in Maymyo: ten men and five women. They’re housed at the Defence Services Guest House, a luxurious building behind a high wall on several leafy acres along Maymyo’s Kandawgi Road, an exclusive residential area for senior military officers and their families. Every evening the Russian women can be seen drinking tea at Maymyo’s Day and Night Teashop.

One day a Russian Civic jeep went past me on the street. I asked my guide who was in it, behind the reflective glass. ‘General Thu Shwe Mann,’ I was told. ‘Second in command of the Mandalay Division.’ The jeep had been given as a token of friendship between the two alleged nuclear partners.

I asked about this new facility wherever I went in Burma, and usually had the story confirmed - except everyone placed it somewhere different. My Mandalay source said it was to be in eastern Shan state near the Chinese border, a Rangoon journalist had heard it was to be in central Burma on the Irrawaddy, and a friend of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt said it would be in Maymyo itself.

I ran across some evidence of Burma’s nuclearisation elsewhere too. In Mandalay I met a nuclear technician who worked on a ‘secret nuclear project’ in Rangoon, in which he and his colleagues were forced to handle uranium without any protective gear - save for cloth face masks.

Most of the country’s junta-watchers don’t believe the country is heading toward becoming a nuclear power. Apart from anything else, they believe, the generals simply lack the competence to effect such an important leap forward. But no-one can be sure. As Burma’s new best friend, North Korea, has proven, a nuclear capability is a great equaliser against the United States.

Yahoo and Hotmail have been banned.

The bus between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw was so full that the conductor hung out the door, waving in the breeze. Only his hands were visible, at the edges of the throng crushed into the doorway. Every time we passed another bus this throng was jammed inward, amid groans and complaints. It was the conductor, compressing everyone inside, to avoid being sideswiped.

Military officers, poilice and local officials collected ‘tolls’ five times on this route - K200 here, K1,000 somewhere else.

The road from Mandalay to Sagaing runs alongside the Irrawaddy for much of the way. About half an hour outside Manadalay, we came across people living and working on the river bank, carting stones off dredges to be piled riverside, to be taken off in trucks for road-making. These people were covered head-to-foot in river mud. They’re paid K2-3,000 a day. Many of them live by the river with their families, under pieces of plastic.

Further west, five kilometres before the Ava Bridge, we came across another gang, this one containing about fifty people. This was a slave labour crew. They, too, were carting stones out of the river - only they were doing it under military supervision, and they were getting K3,000 a month for their work: not enough even for food.

I asked one of my guides if I could quote him, without naming him, for a story. He said he couldn’t take the risk: ‘My wife would lose her government job, my daughter would be expelled from college, and I would go to jail.’

There is the sense of an entire people forced to mark time, simply to facilitate the greed of a handful of men with rocks for hearts, and rice pudding for brains.

Thus the wasted opportunities are, in their way, as heartbreaking as the massacres, the slavery and the forced relocations. Burma is surely one of the few places in the world where you’d be handed a business card like this one:

       Khin Maung, B.A.
       Trishaw driver

Official paranoia is another hallmark of totalitarian rule. A leaked notice circulated among government agencies describes the 30 ‘destructive elements’ that have been in the country since last December - including the Burmese Communist Party (which most observers thought had imploded years back), the Muslim Solidarity Organisation, the Karen National Union, and of course the NLD.

The paranoia extends to external forces too: many Burmse hope for, and the regime greatly fears, an Iraq-style US invasion. Because of this, some believe, the Defence Department/Ministry of Defence is moving out of Rangoon - to Naypyidaw, 200 kilometres to the north, where command and control bunkers have already been tunneled into hills. Some sources believe that a portion of the defence apparatus is moving there, others say it all is; and others still say that the entire Burmese government will move there in time.

The underground journalist Aung Than says this place is actually Pyinma. “Pyinma is hottter than Bangkok, so the reason for the move isn’t climate.

[NB: The latter is what happened. Naypyidaw is now the Burmese capital. Pyinma is actually very close to Naypyidaw.]

Aung Than: Sources in the Health Department confirm that Burma had bird flu outbreaks throughout 2004. Though they say they will continue to officially deny it. In Rangoon the outbreaks were mainly in military-run poultry farms, but the outbreaks also occurred in private ones. It’s notable that the price of chicken went down last year in Rangoon.

[I tried to sell this story to several papers, with no success. Two years later Burma decided to come clean and admitted it had bird flu.]

Human rights abuses in Burma are nothing new. British jails housed dissidents from one end of the country to the other, and refractory “natives” were not uncommonly beheaded.

Then came the Japanese in 1942. The odd Rangoon bookshop will, on request, retrieve from a hidden cache a pirated copy of Aung San Suu Kyi’s book on her father, Aug San, the father of modern Burma - in which she writes:

Kempei (the Japanese military police) became a dreaded word, and people had also to live in a world where disappearances, torture, forced labour conscription were part of everyday existence."

Aung Than (the journalist): "US diplomats often say that Burma is not on the US ‘hit list'. But the Burmese govt is still aware that the US could invade Burma at any moment - that Burma’s number could also come up. If that happens, they have a feeling that the Chinese - not wanting a direct clash with the US - may not come to their aid.”

I've noticed I can move round the country unimpeded - have only been followed once, in Hsipaw. This is very unusual, people say - and is because of the recent coup against Prime Minister (and security chief) Khin Nyunt. As well as landing in prison, his whole security apparatus was taken down.

Aung Than: Major-General Myint Shwe, chief of the Rangoon military command, is also head of Military Affairs Security nationally. The MAS is now the strongest intelligence/security arm of the government, and they’re in the process of recruiting new officers and men to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Khin Nyunt and his men.

There is also police intelligence - called the Special Investigations Department. (Sometimes mistakenly called “Special Branch”, which no longer exists.) The eight branches of the SID are as follows:

1. Security
2. Politics
3. Foreign
4. Investigation and Interrogation
5. Area (local areas)
6. Passports
7. Prosecution
8. Administration

Previously the SID had a staff of 1,100; now it’s 2,600. Most of the increase has been since October, to handle the cases against Khin Nyunt’s men.

I met another long-serving Rangoon journalist this week, just as he was receiving news of the punishments decided on by the "courts" for the Khnin Nyunt team. Many of them received multi-century prison sentences.

The purge had been a rather thoroughgoing one. According to a source close to Khin Nyunt, the sons of Khin Nyunt’s former senior officers have all ben expelled from the military colleges at Maymyo.

The Khin Nyunt friend also believes there won’t be a nuclear plant ‘for ten years yet’, citing the country’s lack of funds, and the sheer incompetence of the present regime.

Things are just in the ‘research’ stage at present, he says. However Burmese officers are being schooled in Russian in Maymyo, and then sent to Russia for military, IT and nuclear-related training.

Khin Nyunt’s old friends regard him (thug though he was) as a man of vision, who would have taken the country in a distinctly different direction. But they now acknowledge that he’ll never be back.

According Aung Than, who has good government contacts, the government has three electronic “nets” to make sure troublesome email is never transmitted, and/or that its perpetrators are brought to “justice”. The three separate nets look for keywords in these areas:

1. Policy

2. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy

3. Banned words (Rangoon instead of Yangon, Burma instead of Myanmar, etc).

Another monk I was in search of was U Endika, whom Colin McPhedran had known as an 11-year-old named Alfie at school in Maymyo in the early 1940s. I spent an entire day visiting the monasteries of Sagaing in search of ‘Alfie’, who had an interesting history. An Anglo-Burmese, he’d left Burma after the War and got an engineering degree from MIT. He’d then returned to Burma and rebuilt the spans of the Ava bridge which the retreating British had blown to slow down the Japanese. He’d ended up as a senior aide to Burmese dictator Ne Win, but had fallen out with him over gambling debts - compelling him to retreat to the monkhood. Now he was a famous monk who, one abbot told me, ‘could foretell the future’.

I found the monastery where he had lived, complete with his photos all over the walls: but he was gone. No-one knew where. It was an interesting commentary on personal relations and attachment to individuals.

Eventually we got to Sagaing, where I got my first taste of sweet Burmese tea at a cafe where a TV set blasted out a rather fine version of Paint It Black by the Burmese band Kony Ny (pron. koe-nee).

Burma might just be the most beautiful country on Earth. Every time I told a Burmese how beautiful it was, they’d reply, ‘Thankyou very much.’

By now other visual impressions were accumulating: uniformed soldiers with flip-flops on their feet; TV ads for that Asian curse, skin-whitening cream (“Light-ex, the coloration of love”) and in the city’s few supermarkets, a variation rejoicing in the name Mayfair Pink Nipple (“Turns brown nipples pink in a week!”; the forest of umbrellas which keep Burmese ladies from the sun; single whiskers growing out of men’s moles; streams of betel juice expelled into the streets, and the ensuing red-stained smiles; dogs - mercifully fewer and healthier than Thai dogs - flat out in the sun, twitching. And endless pagodas and monasteries.

In most of southeast Asia Buddha gets the best real estate, but nowhere is this more true than in Sagaing. In Sagaing, indeed, there seems to be little else: the nats (ghosts) and spirits were so well-accommodated that I wondered where the humans lived.

Despite the usual panoply of Asian quackery such as “slenderising mud”, Burma is one place where round seems to be good. Female movie and pop stars are angled, in their PR photos, in such a way as to highlight their generally rather impressive bottoms.

Auditory impressions start to build too. In teashops your order is bellowed back to the kitchen by waiters with voices like foghorns. Tins rattle by roadsides as volunteers collect money for pagodas. Shop stereos belt out Tequila Sunrise in Burmese. And the 24-hour symphony of horns and bicycles bells. Honking is banned in Rangoon, but northern Burmese drivers use their horns the way bats use sonar. By a delicate series of reciprocal honks they feel their way through traffic, around bends, and down blacked out streets at night.

The religious layer in the Burmese psyche is not immediately apparent. The two friends I made in Sagaing, for example, were happy to engage me in every subject under the sun - life in the West, my hobbies, the dismal state of Burma under the military. But only when we found ourselves in the presence of a distinguished abbot did they really begin to engage - asking him a long series of questions about karma, loving kindness, samskaras, reincarnation and so on; and offering plenty of views of their own. It soon became clear that politics and small talk were the tip, but Buddhism was the iceberg. Unlike most people in the West, their religion still animates them.

Going north from Mandalay, you know you are entering remote territory. In Maymyo, one of the main methods of transport is stage coach. In the villages north of it, waiters in teashops no longer know the English word ‘tea’. In Hsipaw you could scarcely attract more staring had you arrived by flying saucer.

Myawaddy TV’s International News bulletin has a newsreader sitting against a world map doing her stuff. When she finishes an item, she discreetly looks at her notes for a few moments, then proceeds to the next. There didn’t seem to be any pictures.
MRTV, by contrast, had plenty of pictures - every one of them of Burmese military officers, interspersed with the occasional American disaster in Iraq.

Aung Than: “Aung San Suu Kyi does not move beyond her home. No-one can visit her but her personal physician. Two maids live with her. She can listen to the radio. She’s completely isolated. You won’t be allowed near her home. She has no phone, and is allowed to receive mail from family only.”

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