Myanmar on My Mind
I’m no fan of Monday mornings, and the disheartening news from Myanmar made for an unhappy start to the week; it felt almost like a punch to the gut. Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government had been overthrown by the Tatmadaw (the armed forces) just one day before its members of parliament would have been sworn in. It seems that Myanmar’s feudal generals have succeeded where Trump and his die-hard Republican supporters could not; they have constantly peddled unfounded allegations of widespread fraud since the deeply unpopular Union Solidarity and Development Party, which the military itself controls, was humiliated at the polls in November. The Tatmadaw claims it will allow “free and fair elections” after their year-long state of emergency is lifted, but hardly anyone believes the power-hungry generals will make good on that promise.
Here in Indonesia – the world’s third-largest democracy (after India and the U.S.) – there’s a great deal of sympathy for the everyday Burmese who have had their future suddenly ripped out from under their feet. It was only in 1998 that an economic meltdown and large-scale student protests triggered the fall of Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for more than three decades under a U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Suharto did not tolerate dissent; activists and dissidents were disappeared, outspoken journalists detained without trial, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s greatest modern author, was exiled to a prison camp on the remote island of Buru. His brilliant novels were banned by the government even though they did not openly criticize Suharto or his cronies. More than 20 years later, the legacy of that time still lives on through a series of major problems – including widespread corruption, a general lack of critical thought (the public education system has long emphasized the authority of teachers), and the close alignment between security forces and powerful business interests.
Since last Monday, I’ve been thinking a lot about Myanmar and my own experience of the country back in 2015, when Bama and I spent 17 unforgettable days there as part of our six-month Spice Odyssey. Like many other first-timers, we chose the classic route starting out in Yangon, the former capital and largest city, whose downtown area is filled with proud British colonial buildings in various states of disrepair. From there, a series of domestic flights took us to Inle Lake, Bagan, and Mandalay. Bama and I left barely a week before the general election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) pull off a landslide victory in Myanmar’s first free election in decades. I recall the excited chatter of talk shows broadcast on local TV channels and a sense of optimism that permeated the air, redolent with the possibility that the Tatmadaw was finally loosening its iron grip on the country. In Mandalay, our final stop, we had dinner at a beer garden called Shwe Let Yar, where the staff members all wore identical T-shirts with the NLD logo and each table had bright red stickers encouraging people to vote for the long-standing opposition.
A few years before the trip, my father took our family to dinner with Mary, the relative of a friend and retired work colleague – a Myanmar-born Englishman with a dash of Burmese ancestry – he’d known for decades. Mary had been given a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in Hong Kong; her eloquence and quiet confidence instantly made an impression. Over plates of regional Chinese fare, she told us she was most impressed with the university’s high-tech learning resources and the fact that, unlike her hometown of Yangon, the power supply was always reliable.
I don’t recall much else of the conversation, but one anecdote that has remained etched into my memory concerns Cyclone Nargis – a devastating Category 4 storm that hit Myanmar in 2008 – and the old Parliament Building left by the British, which had been abandoned since the Tatmadaw moved the capital to the newly built city of Naypidaw near the country’s geographic heart. Nargis, Mary recalled, blew down the large trees that had obscured the stately red-brick structure from view, allowing ordinary residents of Yangon to see it for the first time in decades. “Maybe it was a sign,” she said hopefully. We did not need any further elaboration to know exactly what Mary meant.
My father himself had traveled to Myanmar on a business trip in the early 2000s, and after returning he showed me personal albums of his photos shot on film. I marveled at these images that captured perfect sunsets over Inle Lake and the plain of Bagan, the glass mosaic–clad hallways of a temple atop Mandalay Hill, and the enormous shimmering stupa of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. The dominant colors of each place seemed to be gold and an earthy reddish-brown, warm and radiant beneath untainted blue skies. “Myanmar is even more beautiful than its neighbors,” my father declared. “It has this quality of light you don’t really find in Thailand.”
So, when Bama and I began planning our Spice Odyssey from Indonesia to India, it made sense to spend at least two weeks in Myanmar. Bama had only managed to visit Yangon for a few short days in 2012; he reported that the city then felt like a time capsule. But the Yangon we experienced was awash with signs of newfound prosperity and foreign investment. We spotted a branch of a Singaporean café chain inside a brand-new mall in the downtown area. Coca-Cola had only arrived in Myanmar earlier that year; on TV it was being marketed as a gift for close family. Down on Strand Road, a wide avenue near the Yangon River, a grand old colonnaded courthouse was being transformed into a luxury hotel. The influx of imported cars from Japan, Korea, and Europe fueled rush-hour traffic jams that were noticeably absent during Bama’s previous sojourn.
On our third day in town, while taking pictures from a pedestrian footbridge in the Indian Quarter, we met 27-year-old Thaku, who had spotted our cameras and wanted to practice his English. In a way, he was the face of the young, modern Myanmar: instead of a traditional longyi, the Burmese sarong, our new friend wore tight-fitting jeans (this made sense because he sold denim trousers); the back of Thaku’s black punk T-shirt was almost entirely taken up by a large skull. His hair had been spiked up with gel and an earring dangled from his pierced left earlobe. All this was juxtaposed with the quintessentially Burmese thanakha – a paste made from pounded tree bark – rubbed on his face and arms. “I put on thanakha because sun very strong,” Thaku explained. “If you wear long time, skin become more white.”
When he realized we were looking for a refreshing sweet drink called phaluda, Thaku offered to take us to a recommended place in neighboring Chinatown. He was easily the fastest walker I’d seen in Yangon, and we followed closely behind as he zipped down pavements thronged with vendors selling stacks of fresh fruit, home accessories, noodles, fried snacks and vats of pork offal hotpot.
Eventually Thaku brought us into the air-conditioned interior of Shake, a simple café of whitewashed walls and square tables topped with laminated timber. Burmese phaluda is closely related to Indian falooda but far less cloying; I loved the more balanced blend of rose syrup and milk, with strands and little beads of agar-agar jelly in vibrant colors. The version served at Shake featured luscious egg custard, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and Taiwanese tapioca pearls (a.k.a. boba). We bought Thaku a large phaluda to repay his kindness, and he in turn thanked us for the drink before disappearing back into the crowds.
Today, I wonder how Thaku and Mary are doing. I wonder how their lives have played out in the last few years, and if they are among the thousands who have joined peaceful street protests in Yangon or the chorus of residents banging their pots and pans every night in a show of collective anger. Myanmar’s myopic, egotistical generals have rolled back five years of democratic progress, however flawed it may have been, and I can only hope that the people will triumph against this latest act of repression. ◊