Burma: Between paradise and a police state

Tourists will love it, says this picture. Tourists should avoid it, says the ‘Boycott Burma’ lobby. Christopher Hope, who lived in South Africa under apartheid, is well placed to comment on the issue

06 Apr 2001

I WAS in Rangoon, walking through the great Shwedagon Pagoda, listening to a Burmese friend. You might imagine, given the idiocies of military dictatorship – censorship, jail, slogans – for which “Myanmar” is notorious, that Burmese citizens shy away from foreigners.

Not at all. In 10 days travelling across Burma people bent my ear in bars and cars, on riverbanks, in villages; they talked so much I feared for their safety. They were funny, bitter, rueful and touchingly friendly. Totalitarian countries are lonely places.

“Thank you for coming,” people kept saying, “talking to oneself sends a person mad.” Burma is pitched somewhere between police state and paradise. An Orwellian land, governed by a cabal of generals from whom you wouldn’t buy a used cap badge.

Once upon a time they called themselves the SLORC, or the State Law and Order Restoration Council. But being dictators they soon gave Law and Order a bad name by locking up the opposition. So the SLORC rebranded itself, and now goes under the name of the State Peace and Development Council. Gentlemen may or may not prefer blondes; generals always prefer euphemisms.

The leader of the Burmese junta stands in a long line of Big Brothers: The Great Helmsman, The Number One Peasant, Dear Leader. The Burmese incarnation is known simply as “Secretary One”. He is everywhere. Photographs of the great golden stupa that caps the Shwedagon Pagoda show Secretary One – uniformed and watchful – after he has been hoisted up into the roof struts of the gilded umbrella that tops the stupa. The message is clear: not only do the generals run this world, they keep a sharp eye on the next.

“Old men should retire,” said my friend as we walked in the pagoda. Trouble was, the junta that ran the country weren’t simply old, “they think they’re immortal”. He sighed, the Buddhas watched us serenely. He brightened. It was rumoured that the generals were talking to the Lady – maybe they would strike a deal? What did I think?

I heard that phrase over and over again – “the Lady”; sometimes she was “the democratic Lady”. No one used her name: Aung San Suu Kyi. The Lady may have been under siege by the army since she was robbed of her election victory in 1990, but her presence is widely felt. And I heard again and again the refrain: “And Burmese people love her very much.”

Burmese Buddhism mixes the sacred and the secular with great equanimity. From the pagoda we went to the pub. The Strand Hotel in Rangoon is a good watering-hole for hot and thirsty travellers, and I’d collected a gaggle of thirsty friends by then, all of them wanting to talk about faraway places.

“Is it true that Buckingham Palace is infested with rats?”

“Is it true that the traffic roundabout is an art form in England? We still preserve a few roundabouts in Rangoon, to remind us of British rule.” You have to love a people who see the roundabout as an art form. Even the SLORC is not all bad – after all, it produces a Party propaganda sheet called The New Light of Myanmar. This is one of the great comic documents of our time and speaks the lost lingo of the old Stalinist regimes: “Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state/ crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”

In The New Light of Myanmar, the generals are seen tirelessly inspecting sewage works, pagodas, paddy fields and potting sheds; they arrive, they are photographed, they “issue instructions”, then they leave, and The New Light records their passing. Its other job is to attack enemies of state and army and people – those “ignorant sons of nymphomaniacs”.

No one believes any of this stuff. Not since I used to travel in the old Soviet Union have I been in a country where people were less persuaded by the stream of official propaganda. Everyone I met in Burma seemed to listen to the BBC or Voice of America – “because we need to know what is going on. `Turn it down!’ my Mother says – but she listens, too”.

I flew to Pagan next day with copies of The New Light of Myanmar in my baggage. Newspapers – even party newspapers – are hard to get hold of.

“I see you’re carrying the Nightmare of Myanmar,” said my next Burmese friend when we went walking through old Pagan, where medieval Buddhist stupas litter the baking plain like mushrooms after the monsoon. Still devoutly worshipped in Burma, the painted figures of the Nats – guardian spirits of hearth and home – stand on either side of the city gate. They are endearingly named Mrs Golden Fish and Mr Handsome.

Through new Pagan town, there came a long caravan of well-wishers celebrating the approaching enrolment of two small boys as monks. Their rich parents led a procession of dancers, archers, handmaidens, cannons, musicians and a pantomime elephant. Somewhere, a sign was held aloft which my Burmese friend translated: “Video now available! Manchester United v Arsenal.”

Some people believe you shouldn’t visit Burma because its regime is uniquely awful. But in south-east Asia, if you insist on being pure when you tour, where will you safely go? The student of rocky regimes newly emerged from the long night of the commissars is spoilt for choice. In Laos the revolutionary Pathet Lao starved the Royal Family to death and forced thousands of ordinary Lao into ghastly “re-education” camps. In Vietnam there is no opposition and little sign of one emerging. In Cambodia leaders of the present government were once close to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In China political and religious dissenters are routinely beaten in Tiananmen Square, in view of passing tourists.

Burma does a lot of banning. Burma bans books, newspapers, mobile phones, computers – and yet holds seminars on “e-business”. Nowhere is the perfume of the absurd more pungent. There are people who would ban tourists, too.

The official opposition asks foreigners to keep out. I remember in South Africa, under apartheid, the ANC asked people not to visit the country. It had a strange effect. Large tour groups still came, and sports teams, legal or not; insufferably self-important CEOs of large companies arrived with depressing regularity, and dodgy wheeler-dealers eager to invest. Those who did not come were visitors willing to ask questions, to speak up.

So it is in Burma. The normal double standards apply. The English Premiership visits every week, courtesy of state-run Myanmar TV. You may watch it just after the nightly propaganda news service, read in English. But no one has called for its banning. Manchester United is available in Burma, and DHL, and Lux Soap and Coca-Cola. Germans, Swiss, French groups come without qualm. British and American travellers stay away. And you seldom see individual travellers – those who might encourage people to believe they are not alone in the world.

In a village near Pagan, I got talking to a defunct socialist politician. If today’s military dictatorship is cruel and stupid, the socialist dictatorship it replaced was useless: “Ask me what I think of the government?”

I asked him.

He put his hand on his heart: “All governments are good!”

I was still smiling when I got on the boat to sail up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. The RV Pandaw is a rarity – a flotilla of just one ship. All 650 of the old flotilla that once plied the Irrawaddy were scuppered in 1942 to deny them to the Japanese. The Pandaw is a lovely ghost of its sunken sisters; she was built in Scotland in 1947 and she sails the great broad brown Irrawaddy as if she owns it.

This is by far the best way of getting to Mandalay. Despite what Kipling said, the road to Mandalay is dreadful. I think George Orwell caught the sharp, irreverent spirit of Burma far better. His little poem on Mandalay is worth giving in full: “When I was young and had no sense/ In far-off Mandalay,/ I lost my heart to a Burmese girl/ As lovely as the day./ Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,/ Her teeth were ivory, /I said, `for twenty silver pieces,/ Maiden, sleep with me’./ She looked at me, so pure, so sad,/ The loveliest thing alive,/ And in her lisping, virgin voice,/ Stood out for twenty-five.”

Mandalay . . . the poetry of its name outstrips its dusty streets. A modern town, built in 1857, it burnt down twice – most of its British colonial buildings are gone – and it is being sold off to Chinese moneymen. There is a very good new road out of Mandalay to the Chinese border, built, it is whispered, to speed the traffic of drugs, guns and laundered money.

Mandalay does have two things that stop the heart. The Maha Muni Buddha is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen anywhere. It is dressed in a bulky suit of gold leaf, inches thick, and new leaf is being added constantly by the visiting faithful. He looks like a gilded astronaut. Mandalay also has the Mustache Brothers who run a political cabaret in their front room. Some time ago, a good joke about the generals earned the elder of the brothers, U Par Par Lay, seven years in jail. The brothers don’t do much political joking these days.

I flew from Mandalay with some relief, heading for the Shan Province and Inle Lake. A large crowd of Italians stormed the aircraft and took all the best seats. I unfurled The New Light of Myanmar and cursed them for ignorant sons of nymphomaniacs.

Inle Lake is a great sheet of shallow water lying in a ring of serrated mountains like pale blue milk in a saucer. The leg-rowers of the lake are very beautiful. The fisherman balances one-legged on the prow of his boat, while curling the other leg around his oar.

Because the bottom of the lake is full of weed, the fisherman must hunt the catfish by its bubbles. He lifts his conical net, like an inverted shuttlecock, and drops it into the water. Then with a long trident he begins stabbing the mossy carpet to flush out the fish. Often he catches nothing but catfish bubbles.

The feeling of peace is overwhelming. I knew that on the nearby Thai border, Burmese and Thai artillery had been swapping shells for days. In the mountains above Inle Lake separatist Shan tribes fight the Rangoon government for independence. And yet the lake somehow dissolves everything into a blue haze. At the end of the day, the setting sun turns the colour of betel juice.

In the muddy canals cut from the rice paddies into the lake, small boys are riding a water buffalo. It is a lot of fun, taking a buffalo for his bath. You sit between his horns and go diving off his nose. You grab a submarine ride, holding tight to his ears.

On the placid surface of Inle Lake are drifting mats of sedge. The lake people stitch them together into floating gardens where they grow cucumbers and tomatoes. But the gardens are so light they drift apart, so they must be tethered to the bottom of the shallow lake with long bamboo staves, driven deep into the mud. And that is Burma, too, a shifting, shimmering, fragile beauty with sharp stakes driven though its heart.

  • Christopher Hope travelled to Burma courtesy of Worldwide Journeys & Expeditions (020 7386 4646). The 14-day “Treasures of Myanmar” itinerary incorporates the most important archaeological and religious sites in the country, most notably Rangoon, Mandalay and Pagan, as well as a three-day cruise on the Irrawaddy and a visit to Inle Lake. From £1,845 per person (based on two sharing), including return flights. Worldwide Journeys can also take care of visa arrangements.


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