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Burmese Days
Living with human rights abuses
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2009-01-21 12:33 (KST)   
Inle Lake
©2009 Yuko Kootnikoff
When Soe hears my wife is Japanese he quietly apologizes. During the 2007 anti-government protests in Burma one of his fellow compatriots - a young soldier in flip-flops - shot and killed Japanese photographer, Kenji Nagai, at point blank range in the heart of Rangoon.

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We've just arrived in the village of Nyuangshwe on the shore of Inle Lake about 400 kilometers north of Rangoon. Soe (not his real name) had seen the protests on the BBC at a teahouse in town and watched in horror as Nagai collapsed in front of the soldier. The junta, bearing the Orwellian moniker the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), had forgotten to cut the country's satellite and Internet connections. "No one supports the government - everybody hates them," Soe says under his breath. As we soon discover, it's a familiar refrain.

Deciding whether or not to travel into Burma, a nation of 50 million, wasn't easy. Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has recommended tourists stay away until "genuine progress towards democratization" is made, while others such as Thant Myint-U, an historian and grandson of former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, argue for engagement.

I made my decision after befriending a Burmese man while studying in Hong Kong who had been confined and tortured by the regime. He urged me to go, meet the people and report back about his country. I knew to avoid any organized tours and meet the locals to prevent our money going directly to the junta.

Another issue is what to call the country. The SPDC unilaterally changed the name in 1989 from Burma to Myanmar without consulting its citizens. Most opposition groups use Burma, as do some governments such as the US and Canada, while the United Nations recognizes Myanmar.

The next morning Soe takes us out on the lake as the damp air seeps into our clothes and a lone bird from the surrounding marshes breaks the silence. Nestled between two mountain ranges in Shan state, Inle seems far removed from the catastrophe of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country last spring. Inle is home to the Intha, one of Burma's more than 130 ethnic groups. They live in homes built on stilts that balance precariously above the lake's surface like giant long-legged spiders. For sustenance they fish and farm floating gardens attached to the shallow lake bottom by bamboo poles.

Inle Lake
©2009 Yuko Kootnikoff
As we glide over the lake's smooth surface one of Inle's "leg-rowing" fishermen emerges from the mist like an apparition. Using a cone-shaped net made from teak wood, he hooks one leg around a single paddle to steer while using his hands to pull in a catch of nga hpein, the local carp.

As the sun rises higher in the sky our surroundings begin to take shape. In the distance I see a pole with a box on top of it standing a few meters above the water's surface. As we get closer it turns out to be a miniature golden roofed pagoda filled with small offerings of rice. It houses a "Sky Buddha" looking to the heavens to see if it's time for lunch.

Sky Buddha
©2009 Yuko Kootnikoff
A few times a week Inle's floating market meets in a different location around the lake. We navigate through a log-jam of boats as a group of hawkers quickly converges on us selling trinkets and souvenirs. After docking, we dodge though the crowd and find a bustling outdoor market selling everything from fresh eels and dried ants to cheroot cigarettes. A pair of teenage girls - twins - waves some rice crackers at us while a man tries to interest me in some lemon-yellow tofu. His lips are stained crimson from sucking on betel nut, a mild narcotic providing a similar rush as coco leaves.

The next day a rickety horse drawn cart drops us off at the edge of town for a trek into the hills surrounding the lake. We follow the dry path through a Pa-O village, another ethnic group, and stumble upon a one-room schoolhouse filled with small children. We're invited in to see the pupils hard at work on their English alphabet. As the teacher points to a letter the class recites it in unison, their faces smeared with white moisturizing cream from the bark of a thanakh tree that makes them look like a gaggle of laughing clowns.

Mandalay is Burma's second largest city after Rangoon and its last royal capital before the British annexed the country in 1885. George Orwell did his training here in 1922 at 19 before setting off for northern Burma where he spent another four years. Twenty years later he wrote Animal Farm and 1984, novels that depict dystopian societies, which Burma has tragically come to embody. Ironically, the junta has tried to capitalize on Orwell's legacy by allowing photocopies of his novel Burmese Days to be widely available throughout the country. In one of his best-known essays, "Shooting An Elephant," Orwell wrote when "a white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." The only thing that has changed is the colour of the tyrant's skin.

The Moustache Brothers comedy troupe is renowned for their politically charged performances of a-nyeint pwe, a type of traditional Burmese vaudeville. The three brothers have been banned from performing for their fellow citizens and survive by putting on nightly shows for foreign visitors in their home. Tonight over 40 of us cram into their small basement beneath photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, their good friend and fan.

Brother No. 1, 60-year-old Par Par Lay, has been arrested three times, most recently during the September 2007 "saffron revolution," when he was jailed for over a month for providing food to the demonstrating monks. He and fellow Moustache Brother Lu Zaw previously served nearly six years in a labour camp for criticizing the junta during a performance at a party at Suu Kyi's house in 1996. Amnesty International has taken up his case and he was mentioned in the 2002 film, About A Boy starring Hugh Grant. He still performs one of his trademark routines, "a traditional Burmese dance," masking himself like a thief to spoof the corruption of the current regime.

Par Par Lay
©2009 Yuko Kootnikoff
We return to our hotel and pass Mandalay's brand new train station, its metal gleaming under the moonlight. My trishaw driver tells me Burma is like China's little brother or its student, referring to the station's Chinese-style architecture. Next to Thailand, China is Burma's most important client with Sinopec and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) actively seeking access to its lucrative oil and gas reserves.

A few hours west of Mandalay is the historical area of Bagan - a magical land inhabited by divine beings or flying elephants with jewel encrusted wings. Founded in 1057 by King Anawrahta, hundreds of temples and stupas dating from this period are spread out over a 40 square kilometer plain. With Burma's largest river, the Irrawaddy, winding in the background, Bagan rivals Cambodia's Angkor Wat as one of Southeast Asia's most alluring sights.

Bagan
©2009 Yuko Kootnikoff
In hushed tones at a cafe, our guide tells us that last year he watched the monks march twice before joining them the third time. Soon after the junta stifled the protests he took his wife and two infant children to his family's village near Mandalay. Two months later when it was safe, the family returned.

At dawn, we drive 50 kilometers south to Mount Popa, Burma's Mount Olympus and home for pre-Buddhist spirit-gods called nats. Along the way we pass processions of monks collecting alms from the faithful lining the streets. During the saffron revolution monks from all over the country refused to accept alms from anyone aligned with the junta, turning their lacquered black bowls upside down in an act of excommunication. It was a highly symbolical gesture that resonated deeply in this devoutly Buddhist country.

Morning Alms
©2009 Yuko Kootnikoff
Mount Popa
©2009 Yuko Kootnikoff
Arriving at the foot of the temple over an hour later, we're greeted by a legion of monkeys awaiting their breakfast. We nimbly tiptoe around their poop, climb up the stairs and reach the top of the small mountain temple, a former volcano, just in time to catch the sun peeking over the surrounding hills.

Back in Rangoon, we pass the spot where Nagai, the photographer, was shot. Not far away is the City Hall where the military resides, immediately adjacent to Sule Temple, the epicenter for many of the clashes in 2007 that eventually claimed at least 31 lives.

As we walked down Anawratha Road in the heart of the city, an older man wrapped in a checkered blue longyi suddenly hails me with a broad smile. He asks where I'm from and when I say Canada he tells me he is a Muslim and once lived in Toronto. I mention my hometown is Vancouver and he asks about the "Punjabi Market" before shaking my hand.

We soon pass The Strand, the city's most luxurious hotel, and find it's offering a discount -- a superior room listed at US$450 a night is going for the "bargain" price of $350. A sales rep tells me they plan to expand and build a new swimming pool. I browse through a copy of the government propaganda rag, The New Light of Myanmar and see a photo of the paunchy Chairman of the SPDC, Than Shwe, teeing off at an opening for a new golf course in Mandalay. Turning the page I read that the BBC and VOA are "killers in the airwaves" bent on destroying the nation.

Our final day is spent visiting Kyaiktiyo, also known as the Golden Rock stupa, an enormous boulder painted gold and balancing high over a forested valley. To reach this sacred Buddhist site involves an hour long trek uphill from the drop off point five hours east of Rangoon. Throughout the journey our driver sucks on betel nut to stay alert and I lose count of how many military checkpoints we stop at. On our return, we cross the river at Sittoung and pass a soldier sleeping at his post in the middle of the bridge. In a strange way it offers a small glimmer of hope knowing that everyone, even Big Brother, eventually nods off.

Kyaiktiyo
©2009 Yuko Kootnikoff


A version of this article appeared in The South China Morning Post.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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