Thursday, 8 May 2008

Rambling memories of a beautiful country - Burma

The calamity that has unfolded in Burma over the last week was especially poignant to me, as my family spent three years there when I was a teenager and I have very fond memories of the place and, especially, the people who are without a doubt the friendliest folk on the face of the earth. That they endure life under a self-serving military dictatorship while the rest of the world looks the other way (as it is so often wont to do) is a tragedy that has lasted for more than forty years.

You can read about Burma at Wikipedia, which has a good article on the country. I don't intend to go into the history of the place but this passage from the article is especially poignant in light of its subsequent history:
The country is one of the poorest nations in South Asia / Southeast Asia, suffering from decades of stagnation, mismanagement and isolation. Burma's GDP grows at a rate of 2.9% annually - the lowest rate of economic growth in the Greater Mekong Subregion.

Under British administration and in the early 1950s, Burma was the
wealthiest country in Southeast Asia. It was once the world's largest exporter of rice. During British administration, Burma supplied oil through the Burmah Oil Company. Burma also had a wealth of natural and labor resources. It produced 75% of the world's teak and had a highly literate population. The country was believed to be on the fast track to development.
Before Zimbabwe there was Burma...and Cuba...two prime examples of the destructive nature of socialism and its need for a repressive military to back it up, which has led to the miserable existence for the people of each of those countries.


The first thing one notices upon arrival in Rangoon is how old the buildings are. I'm not talking old in the sense of the pyramids or the Canterbury Cathedral but instead old in that they belong in the 1940s and '50s (except for the pagodas, which are quite old). One is left with the impression that, come 1960, time decided to stand still in Burma.

Central Rangoon - the land that time forgot

Rangoon used to be a transit point for aircraft throughout the region in much the same way as Singapore is today. Two things occurred that were to have negative consequences for the country. Firstly, a military coup in 1962 by General Ne Win introduced the Burmese Way To Socialism, which was a plan to nationalise industry and, of course, led to a large reduction in foreign investment. Secondly, the range of modern aircraft increased to the point that they could bypass Rangoon altogether as a refuelling stop and land in Singapore. From the mid-60s on, Burma became somewhat of a forgotten nation.

The lack of investment in infrastructure is plain to see not only in its old buildings but also in its transport. Buses are fifty years old and many date back to WW2. More modern cars are driven by foreign embassy representatives and the higher officials in the junta's pecking order. Most cars are quite dilapidated, all of which is no surprise given its military socialist economy.

To get some idea of how backward the country is: in a country of 48 million there are just 500,000 phone lines, 200,000 mobile phones and just 30,000 Internet users; the health system is such that life expectancy is 62 years while next door neighbour Thailand's is 72; and of the country's 86 airports 70% of them are unpaved and of its 27,000km of roads only 3,200km are paved.

Outside of Rangoon

It's when one gets outside of the capital that a sense of the beauty and history of the Burma can be truly appreciated. The country is littered with large and small pagodas - temples dedicated to the worship of Buddha.

Rice fields abound, especially in the delta region, and the country is home to large mountain ranges that present a particular danger to aircraft, many of which have ended up strewn across them due mainly to pilot error.

Cars and buses are infrequently seen outside of the major centres while ox carts make up the majority of the traffic along rickety, dusty roads.

If you do ever get the chance to visit Burma then a trip to the beach resort at Sandoway
should be high on your list. It is truly one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world. The resort itself post dates my family's time in the country and is an attempt by the junta to attract foreign investment. When we stayed there, which we did a few times, we were provided a house right on the beach. The house was quite OK though the western style toilet did present one challenge; above the toilet roll holder was a large hole about the size of a large fist. One could be doing one's business and then become mightily distracted by the sudden appearance of a large rat in the hole. There are a lot of rats in Burma.

One day the local fisherman at Sandoway asked whether my brother and I would like to join them for a day's fishing on the reef, which was about 2km offshore. Of course, we jumped at the chance. Early the next morning we set out in the fishermen's outrigger canoe and enjoyed the ride while the two of them paddled strongly out to sea. I don't remember how long it took to get to the reef but certainly remember getting there because it was quite a sight. The boat was tied up and we alighted onto a reef measuring something like a hundred feet by twenty feet that jutted a couple of feet out of the ocean. My brother and I had hand lines, which seemed to be normal fishing equipment, as the two Burmese had them also. We could see fish all over the place and fully expected to be able to simply throw a line in and drag them out. Reality was different, of course, but we snagged a few.

The highlight of the day was provided by the two fishermen. One had chosen to hang his line in an opening about three foot round in the middle of the reef. We couldn't work out what he was fishing for and as they didn't speak English and we didn't speak Burmese we weren't likely to find out until a catch was made. After at least an hour a huge commotion broke out at the hole. The fisherman had hooked his target - a massive moray eel - and was locked in a life or death (for the eel) struggle to extract it from its lair. The thing was a truly magnificent animal and immensely strong, as it was taking all of the strength of the fisherman to hold it with its head about two feet above the water and the rest probably still in its lair. The other fisherman was bashing the eel on the head as hard as he could with a mallet. Alas, after what seemed a long time but was probably only a couple of minutes, the line broke and the eel escaped. You've never seen such disappointed folk as those two. We later discovered that eel is a great delicacy and worth a lot of money. After fishing for some hours the tide had turned and it was time to return to the beach so we set off to the coast. The sea seemed to be much rougher than our morning journey and I became quite queasy, which was the only low point in a great day.

You don't forget days like that.

The Moray Eel - a local delicacy

The People

As mentioned, the Burmese are the nicest people anywhere in the world. Generous to a fault, even though they have little to give.

To a first time visitor the sight of teenage boys walking around holding hands or young girls doing the same thing is mildly confronting, though it's a sign of great friendship and doesn't carry the same implication as it would in San Francisco or Sydney.

We used to have a couple of young lads from the local village come and be ball boys when we played tennis. They'd run around madly chasing the balls until the ball ended up in the shrubs at which time they would go very slowly, keeping an eye out for snakes. Burma has a lot of snakes. The only forms of communication we had with these kids were "ballo", signalling our need for a ball, and the smile of appreciation at the end of our session when we paid them. Sometimes we'd give them a can of Coke each, a great prize to the locals, as it was only available on the black market at a very high price. Whether they drank the Coke or sold it we never found out.

A national pastime seemed to be one I'd never seen anywhere else in the world - rubber band shooting. A target would be set up, typically a cigarette butt placed upright, the contestants would aim their rubber bands (which were quite large) using both hands - sometimes with extravagant aiming actions - and release at the target. If you missed then you were eliminated. Contestants would then move further and further away from the target until there was a winner. My younger brother used to join in with the lads from the local village and became quite competitive with the best of them.

On one occasion we had a viewing of Ice Station Zebra, which about twenty kids from the local village came to watch. They didn't understand a word, of course, but they loved it all the same. One of the attendees was a very famous Burmese, U Myint Thein, who was widely known as Uncle Monty. He became a close friend of our family and when he was visiting would regularly drop in and see how the 'young monkeys' (that was us kids) were going. He was Chief Justice of Burma from 1957 until the coup in 1962 and was awarded an OBE by the British government. Have a read of the link about him and then try to reconcile the fact that this wise, knowledgeable man when watching the scene towards the end of Ice Station Zebra in which a bloke (is it Rock Hudson or Ernest Borgnine? my memory is hazy) has a remote control device in his hand that will set off some explosives, the red button is pressed, the explosives go off then jumps up and exclaims, "Can they do that?!" He'd never seen a remote control device.

I recall taking a trip to the local zoo, which was remarkable in its unremarkableness. The main thing I remember was that there was a bigger crowd following us than they had animals in the place.

Burma's best known feature is the Shwedagon Pagoda. It really is an amazing place and its spirituality was not lost on me, in spite of my by then well formed atheism, which still didn't stop me lighting candles and banging the bell for luck.
Legend has it that the Shwedagon Pagoda is 2500 years old. Archaeologists believe the stupa was actually built sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries by the Mon, but this is a very controversial issue because according to the records by Buddhist monks it was built before Lord Buddha died in 486 BC. The story of Shwedagon Pagoda begins with two merchant brothers, Taphussa and Bhallika, from the land of Ramanya, meeting the Lord Gautama Buddha and receiving eight of the Buddha's hairs to be enshrined in Burma. The two brothers made their way to Burma and with the help of the local king, King Ukkalapa, found Singuttara Hill, where relics of other Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha had been enshrined.

The famous Shwedagon Pagoda - I banged the bell there a few times

And now, alas, this wonderful country is beset by disaster and the junta's lack of ability to help its people is now widely seen. What does seem strange is that they are refusing international aid in spite of the massive scale of what's happened.

It is ironic that when there were protests in 2007 the military were on the streets in no time, rounding up protestors and cracking down in a harsh way. When they're needed most, though, they are nowhere to be found.

I really hope to visit Burma again one day.

(Nothing Follows)