Friday, September 28, 2007


Burma 1: Rangoon

by Larry Geller

In the newspapers you'll see pictures of Burmese Buddhist monks marching near the Schwedegon Pagoda in Rangoon. You won't see pictures of the killings that are taking place, nor stories of the ongoing repression, murders and mass displacement of villagers.

For the latest, including disturbing photos that will never be printed in our newspapers, see Ko Htike's blog. Google has news. For some background, try these two segments from Democracy Now!:

Burma Military Junta Cracks Down on Protesters; 8 People Killed, Hundreds of Monks Rounded Up

More Dead in Burma as Troops Fire on Defiant Anti-Government Protesters

From today's Democracy Now:

In Burma, the military junta is continuing its violent crackdown on the most vocal popular uprising against its rule in nearly two decades. Burmese soldiers and police are baton-charging groups of demonstrators gathering in the city of Rangoon.

It's so scary to me that the United Nations seems powerless to save this beautiful and sacred country. From yesterday's Democracy Now:

Unfortunately the United Nations Security Council just simply hasn't lifted a finger, because of China. And I think as the Olympics approach, our organization is calling on individuals, organizations to boycott the Olympics. It's just unconscionable what they're getting away with there. I mean, when a country can destroy 3,000 villages -- and these are civilians I’m talking about here, who are fleeing a military regime -- and there be no consequences whatsoever because of one country, I think there's something seriously wrong with the international system.

We visited Burma more than 30 years ago, before the earthquake that knocked over many of the ruins in the ancient city of Pagan. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had not yet been locked up. Nor were we, as travelers, fully aware of the political situation in the country. We visited on the suggestion of our neighbors, who urged us to go right away, "before the last vestige of the British Raj crumbles into the dust." They described flying from Rangoon to Mandalay on a low-flying DC-3. Looking out of the window they thought they saw fireworks and asked if there was some kind of festival or celebration. No, said the crew, "they're shooting at us." The territory between Rangoon and Mandalay was not under government control.

The country is stunningly beautiful and the people are peaceful and caring. I don't think we've ever felt as accepted and comfortable anywhere as we did on that trip to Burma. It is also now one of the poorest countries on earth. Burma went from "the rice basket of Asia" to abject poverty due to the destruction wrought by its military government. Any outside visitor is unimaginably rich when compared to the citizens of Burma.  We were constantly aware of that. We could afford to travel to an "exotic" place whose people could never hope to scrape up the air fare for even one trip out.

Time was limited because it was only possible to stay in the country for a week. I have no idea what would have happened had we missed the deadline to get out, but it wasn't worth finding out. So we planned to visit the Burma Airlines office first thing after we checked into our hotel and reconfirm all of our reservations.

We stayed at the President Hotel for some reason. I think it might have been required to stay there for at least one night--the President was the government hotel. I can't find it on current maps, maybe it's gone or maybe I'm wrong about the name. If it has been torn down, good riddance.

Getting to the hotel was a trip. We rode in an old Nash. The import of cars had been banned for so long that the cars were straight out of old Al Capone movies. Cars with rumble seats. Plate glass windows. Crank starters (electric starters burn out and can't be replaced).

When we arrived, the room stank unbearably. The windows were screwed shut around a laboring air conditioner. I opened the ancient case to find a replaceable filter that had most likely not been changed since they bought the machine--it was covered with noxious jelly about 1/2 inch thick on both sides. Little air could get through. I did what I assume other tourists before us had done--I removed the filter and placed it on the floor in the bathroom. That's where it stayed while we were there. Nevermind that the air conditioner was being ruined for lack of a filter. When we left, I carefully replaced it. Who knows what the penalty might have been if the government found out.

The airline office was down the street. So off we went, clutching our passports and tickets. The office was something out of an old British movie--two story high ceilings, tall khaki-colored file cabinets against the walls, and an incredibly long, high, wide wooden counter that snaked the entire length of the building, crossed over in a U-turn, and came back on the other side. Behind the counter sat the clerks, reading, eating, not chatting among themselves (it probably wasn't allowed). There was a poster at the entrance announcing the time for our flight to Mandalay, but something was wrong, because it indicated that the flight would depart in the morning of the next day, which means we would lose much of our time in Rangoon.

Anyway, we figured we'd make any necessary adjustments.  In English, we interrupted the reading of the closest clerk and asked where we could reconfirm a flight. "Reconfirm?" he asked. "Reconfirm," I said. He pointed down the counter and went back to his reading.

Going down about half way, there was another clerk reading. Interrupting this one, we asked again if we could reconfirm our flight to Mandalay. "Reconfirm?" he asked. "Reconfirm." I said. He pointed down the counter saying only "Mandalay."

Going all the way down to where the counter began its U-turn, again we asked: "Where can we confirm our flight to Mandalay??" "Reconfirm," he said. Progress at last. It wasn't a question. "Mandalay?" He asked to see the tickets and stared at them for a long time, then went to one of the file cabinets, opened it, and removed the second of many huge ledger books that were stacked on the top shelf. Each shelf had dozens of brown ledgers, bigger than any piece of paper I had ever seen. Imagine a newspaper sheet unfolded so you have two facing pages. Each ledger page was bigger than that.

He opened to a particular page. There were two lines of information already penciled in. We became the third and fourth line. He then closed the ledger book and put it back where it had been in the stack, closed the file cabinet doors and gave us back our tickets. "Are we reconfirmed," I asked? "Reconfirmed?" he said. Never mind.

As we later learned, there was no electronic communication between the airline office and the airport. What was written in those ledgers stayed in those ledgers. And of course, the time on the poster was wrong. When we got to the airport at the appointed hour, we simply had to wait. The plane came in from Pagan when it was ready to do so, the pilot ate a good and leisurely  lunch, then it was time to fly us all to Mandalay. We had been the first to show up for the flight. Everyone else apparently knew how the system worked, but we were afraid to miss our flight so we showed up an hour early like the good and careful travelers we were.

 While in Rangoon we visited the Schwedegon Pagoda, truly one of the wonders of the world. It is a huge space covered with gold-leaf spires, painted brightly, clean and beautiful. There were spaces for families to gather and pray. At the foot of the stairs leading up to it we were told we must leave our shoes, since footwear is of course forbidden. A number of thoughts went through my head at once, regrettably. Would our shoes be there when we came back? How would we find the spot we left them? In a country where most people don't have decent shoes, why wouldn't they be stolen? Would other tourists steal them? Where could I buy replacement shoes? And so forth. We left them, and on our return, hours later, they were still waiting for us. Try that in New York, Honolulu, or anywhere in the "advanced" countries of the world.

Please check out the link above or Google for more images of this sacred and beautiful place.


At the foot of the stairs gold beaters sell pounded flakes of gold leaf to be affixed to the pagodas and images. In this poorest of poor countries, people save up to buy gold to adorn the pagoda.

We also had time to visit Inya Lake. On one shore of this placid pond was a museum. Smaller rooms had military-issue portable blackboards as dividers, and some chairs, nothing more. Or should I say khaki-boards, everything was the same ugly color. The building itself was (like other buildings in Rangoon), slowly self-destructing. Bricks fell off the wall and just lay there. No one picked them up. No one fixed the wall. Inside, children were kicking around the bones of a dinosaur, long fallen apart. In other museums you get to look a the dinosaur, who would even think of handling its bones or letting kids play with them? No one cared. But what a fantastic experience for the kids! Real, not plastic dinosaurs to play with! Awesome.

On the lake was some kind of royal barge, kept in good condition. Nearby was the Inya Lake Hotel, built by the Soviets, so it was a very classy place.

Back in the city center, I just had to have some sugar cane juice. I loved to drink the stuff in Singapore, and I could taste it, I wanted it, I had to have it. It should be safe to drink, too. Unfortunately, in my greed I forgot about the ice that the vendor added to the glass. You know what the consequences of that would be.

I think we passed up the chicken in the restaurant that night. The chickens hanging in the window did not appear to have lead good enough chicken lives. We were tired after a wonderful day exploring Rangoon. That was sustenance enough. On the way back to the hotel we saw people in an alley refilling and resealing ancient glass CocaCola bottles. With something. Better not to think of that and just replay the images of a day in magical, mystical Rangoon.


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