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Reflexions on Burma - Part 2

By Robert Ross

 

“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me; For the wind is in the palm- trees, and the temple-bells they say: Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!” - The Road to Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling
(This is a continuation of Burma - Part I, which can be seen at www.awarenessmag.com/novdec09/nd09_reflexions)

Burma is a different world - a different century - a different universe; very poor, and I mean verrrry poor, heavily influenced by Buddhism and led by a “socialist dictator General.” Having said all of that, if my ship ever comes in, I will go back to Burma and build a school, a health clinic, or try in some way, to do some good. Why? The people of Burma are special - in all of their suffering, they are dignified, accepting their lot and managing to greet each other and the few tourists with a heartfelt smile. “Welcome to Burma!” our tour guide said as he greeted us at the airport. Pulling away from the airport in our van, our guide mentioned something to the effect that “all is well here in Burma, after all, we have a socialist dictator General in charge!” Somehow his icebreaker did the trick, because we all laughed. But, we would soon learn that all is not well in Burma. Our first stop in Burma was Yangon (or Rangoon). Yangon was the capital of Burma - before the military regime decided to move the capital north to a region that is away from the populace, away from potential coups, away from uprisings. Yangon is still the commercial center and hosts most embassies and an international airport. The first thing one sees and smells in Yangon is mildew. The stench is everywhere- apartments, shops, office buildings, and old government buildings are partially covered in a black soot. Our hotel, which was a beautiful converted old museum, had a strong stench of mildew in our room. One learns to accept things in Burma. We spent two days in Yangon, touring the sites, from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, often called the golden Pagoda, to monasteries and museums. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred pagoda in Burma - a symbol of national identity - its golden dome can be seen from miles away, built on a hill, and standing more than 326 feet tall. Legend has it that the pagoda is 2,500 years old, but archaeologists estimate it was first built between the 6th and 10th centuries. Aside from museums and monasteries, we toured the city and waterfront, which held the most fascination for me; a slice of Burmese life rarely seen by the tourist. At the end of the day, thousands would board ferries for their home destinations - crowding onto the rusted-out double deck ferries built a half century ago; thousands packed on one ferry like sardines, no life boats, no life vests, no toilets. This wouldn’t be the first time my senses were assaulted by the sights of Burma. Burma is a different world. The infrastructure in Burma is a mess, roads, bridges, buildings, all in disrepair. The Internet is virtually nonexistent, with the government blocking access to Yahoo and G-mail. In our hotel one evening, the hotel clerk showed me how to get around the government e-mail block, but the Internet was so slow, that it was useless trying to make an online connection. And of course, the electricity went off a couple of times every night. Welcome to Burma. Bagan is why tourists go to Burma. It is a 1½ hour flight from Yangon, and is referred to as the city of four million pagodas. The Bagan area is an endless plain of green farming land, with literally thousands of terra-cotta-colored pagodas sprouting up like little volcanoes, as far as the eye could see. Many are still in use today. In Bagan, we visited pagodas, temples, shrines and monasteries; an archeologist’s dream. But for me, the real Burma was in view through the window of our van. Bicyclists, motor scooters, and horse carts making their way though uncrowded streets of the area, men and women dressed in sarongs going about their daily lives, women - their cheeks covered with a whitish creamy paste called thanaka, which has been a Burmese tradition for more than two thousand years.
(Burmese women claim that thanaka - taken from a tree bark - helps to remove acne, promote smooth skin and acts as a sun block, antiseptic, anti-fungal ointment and toner). The politics of Burma are stifling - with some 100 languages and dialects and 20 underground armies, add to the fact that Burma is the major drug supplier for the surrounding countries, and you have a situation that lends itself to corruption and socialist dictators.This leads me to the subject of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize winner, currently under house arrest in Burma. In Burma, Part I, (see: www.awarenessmag.com/novdec09/nd09_re flexions) a brief history of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi was sketched out. Free elections were tried in the 1990’s and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was victorious. The military decided otherwise. Since, the call for democracy and free elections is the mantra of the international community. Midway though my trip to Burma, it was evident that the corruption was so endemic among military elites and politicians, coupled with the drug trade payoffs, it was clear that economic and political power would not be given up without a fight. Free elections? Democracy? ... it just ain’t gonna happen in the foreseeable future. There is too much at stake for those in power. If free elections did take place, and were honored, it would lead to bloodshed; a lot of bloodshed. Enough said. A trip to Burma is incomplete without a boat ride on the Irrawaddy river. We boarded an old thin wooden boat with a tarp covering the center area for shade protection and chugged along the coastline for about an hour or so up the Irrawaddy, occasionally glancing at the shoreline where a family might be walking barefoot, wearing sarongs, perhaps carrying a basket of goods on their heads. It could have been Burma circa 1920, or Burma 1820 or Burma 1500. After an hour or so on the river, the owner cut the engine, and we drifted in utter silence - reflecting - for about an hour back to our original embarkation point. Burma is a special place...timeless. No words or photos can adequately describe its uniqueness and natural beauty. The following morning we hopped a plane for Mandalay. Mandalay, with a population, according to the U.N., of about one million people, is the historic old capital of the last Burmese Kingdom, which was conquered by the British in 1886. Today it’s a commercial center of sorts. When I quizzed our tour guide as to what makes Mandalay tick - economically - he stated, without hesitation... “drugs and gemstones!” In Mandalay we visited more monasteries and pagodas and took another boat ride up the river to the village of Mingun to see the world’s largest bell. Bells are common and important in Burmese Buddhist culture. Rudyard Kipling managed to work the importance of bells into his poem on Mandalay: “For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say: Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!” In addition to shops where handicrafts were made, we also visited a gold-leaf workshop where paper-thin pieces of gold were beaten into gossamer thin one-inch squares. Later in the day, I would be rubbing these wafer thin squares on the Buddha. Placing gold leaf on the Buddha brings merit to those who participate in this ritual. One Buddha was so covered with gold leaf applied over the centuries, that the figure was almost unrecognizable. After two days in Mandalay, we flew back to Yangon. Our seven days in Burma had come to an end; it was long enough for a taste of a different culture, a different way of life, but not long enough for me. I’ll return someday. Burma is a land where the 15th century has collided with the 21st century. It’s unlike any place on earth.

Robert Ross can be reached at: SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com
©2010 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved.

 

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