Burmese Days

In which I travel to Yangon, which was once known as Rangoon, which was once the capital of Myanmar, which was once known as Burma.

Today finds me in Yangon, the city which was once known as Rangoon, which was once the capital of Myanmar, which was once known as Burma.

It's an important and exciting historic moment here in the Union of Myanmar, as elections are being held and Aung San Suu Kyi's formerly outlawed National League for Democracy (NLD) party will be allowed to participate in the first open election since an overwhelming NLD electoral victory in 1990 triggered a military coup by the junta which holds Burma in its iron grip to this day. 

Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma's version of Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, and her name is absolutely electrifying. Although many years of totalitarian rule have taught people here to play their cards close to the vest, there is a discernible jazz in the air. Only 40 some-odd seats out more than 600 are up in this election, but it will serve as an important test for the junta's willingness to share power and allow democratic reform and reconciliation to begin.

Just as a side note, many people still call the country Burma although the name was officially changed to Myanmar. This is sometimes used as a subtle expression of resistance against the junta because they changed the name without public support. Either way, Burmese is the name of the language and is often the adjective used to describe things here (as opposed to Myanmarese or Myanmarian or some similar contortion.) To give you a sense of the junta's position on the matter, the following peevishly defensive quote was taken directly from Myanmar's United States Embassy website:

"Anyhow, since the United Nations has recognized Myanmar by her original name, it is the obligation of all the U.N. member countries to accept it, whether they approve it or not. If the situation has (sic) been reversed certainly these same nations will be urging the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to impost (sic) sanctions and embargoes on countries not recognizing and implementing the U.N. resolution or mandate."

I haven't totally gotten a bead on the enigmatic Burmese vibe yet but that's probably because I have only been in the big city so far and have not managed to learn much of the language. Very few people here speak English, or any other European language for that matter. Due to many years of isolation and an overall cultural conservatism, Yangon is like a giant time capsule. People still wear traditional clothing, which is very unusual for a large city anywhere in the world these days. Most women and children decorate their faces with a dramatic pale yellow chalky makeup, sometimes putting large patches on their cheeks, sometimes covering their whole face with it, and sometimes painting stripes or other patterns. It's quite striking. In addition, many people chew the betel nut, which imparts a light buzz; stains the teeth, gums and lips blood red; and apparently causes accelerated and dramatic tooth decay. So that's striking also. 

Men wear a longyi (like a sarong) instead of western style pants, and women wear a long, colorful silk or cotton dress for the most part. There is wide ethnic and cultural diversity, and the country's proximity to southern India and Bangladesh is reflected in the clothing, food and physical appearance of the people. There are also a number of mosques, churches and even a Jewish synagogue, all manifestations of the country being located not quite between East and West, but between Southwest and Southeast Asia. In many regards, Yangon culture more strongly reflects the influence of its neighbors to the west rather than the east, so although Thailand and Myanmar share a long land border, culturally speaking it is like they are standing back to back.

Even here in the country's main city the appearance of a foreigner is pretty unusual and sometimes people will approach me for an awkward pantomimed interaction. That said, people here are generally more reserved than in Thailand. Western culture and values (and the attendant vices and problems) have made few inroads here. As a result of longstanding trade sanctions, there are no familiar American or European businesses or products. Technology is also pretty far back, with few cell phones in evidence, although there are some internet cafes with very slow connections and "helpful" attendants who basically hover behind me and watch what I am doing the whole time. This is odd because they don't know English, so I'm not sure what they are watching for anyway.

That may or may not be part of the country's broader policy of monitoring and managing foreigners' activities. Although the tourist experience is highly mediated (within the limitations of the country's existing organizational and administrative infrastructure) I think that there is a general tendency for the Burmese to be pretty hands on. In other words, they are all up in my business. When I eat at a restaurant there is usually someone standing next to me trying to anticipate what I need so they keep handing me napkins or filling my glass or spooning food onto my plate. Once I was using a urinal and an attendant reached across in front of me to flush. You get the drift? It quickly starts to feel weird and intrusive.

Hotels are also tightly controlled and monitored. Foreigners can only stay at licensed establishments and Burmese are not permitted to go to those places. Outside my small "hotel" (which actually a reasonably charming, nine-room guest house) is stationed a plain clothes police officer who seems to be posted there, unrelieved, at all hours of the day and night. I have noticed that when I have a conversation with someone on the street, he will often approach them afterwards, presumably to ask what we were talking about. Many parts of the country are closed to foreigners or require special permits and military escorts. Most land crossings in and out of the country are also closed. 

Between the incredible heat, the close oversight and the unfolding political drama, I'm feeling a bit claustrophobic and will soon leave this urban pressure cooker for the rural provinces to visit some important historical sites and other areas of interest. There is not much infrastructure out there in the countryside and very, very few outsiders ever go out there, so it should be pretty interesting indeed. 

Once again, my wife has proved herself to be a good sport and accepted the announcement of my travel plans with admirable stoicism. I am hoping that once my kids are a couple of years older we will begin to be able to see these places as a family, but for now I can continue to explore some of the remotest and most challenging places on the planet without having to make my wife and kids eat bugs. Thanks, Bebo!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Hein Lin Aung April 08, 2012 at 06:02 PM
I'm Burmese and I live in Stony Brook.
Jonathan Kornreich April 09, 2012 at 04:39 AM
Mingalaba! I brought home plenty of tamarind flakes. You want some? I also have some tanakha but I don't think you need that here LOL.


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