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Burmese Days

On a recent trip to Burma, Benjamin Jakabek checks out the country’s troubled history and shaky forays into modernization.

The Physics Professor

I was walking down the streets of Mandalay when I ran into the most interesting person I would meet in Burma. He was a former physics professor at the University of Mandalay.

He was a slightly pudgy short man in his mid-forties, with a thick black mustache, and a patchy, salt and pepper beard. Everywhere he went he carried a small notebook in the left breast pocket of his worn-out dress shirt, and an unlit green Burmese cigar in his right hand; the type that smelled more like burning corn husks rather than tobacco when smoked.

View of Mandalay from Sutaungpyei Pagoda © Benjamin Jakabek

View of Mandalay from Sutaungpyei Pagoda © Benjamin Jakabek

His anti-government views became apparent within moments. With the ell-tale trademark of a professional defect, he criticized the regime by using mangled physics equations as his examples. He pulled out his little notepad and wrote down, “Work = Force x Time.” He then went on to say that because of the government, physics do not apply in Burma as neither force, nor time, results in any work done, or any income earned. As we walked side by side next to the Royal Palace, which was a peculiar mix of an under visited tourist trap and an active military training ground, he switched from the topic of physics to telling a slew of jokes that ranged from religion and politics, to cunnilingus. I found myself repeatedly bursting out into laughter as we continued to walk to the entrance of the palace. He then switched back to his personal monologue; which he continued to digress from to tell more jokes that he happened to recall.

In 1998, a series of protests broke out in Mandalay. The professor had attended the protests, and at one point he stood on the makeshift podium, megaphone to his mouth, and he did what came so naturally to him; telling a juvenile joke:

“One day I decided I want new brain. So I go around the world to find new brain. I go to see the President of China, and I ask him, ‘How much for your brain?’ He said, ‘$4,000.’ I don’t buy. Then I go, and see President of Japan, and ask him, ‘How much for your brain?’ He said, ‘$6,000.’ I don’t buy. Then I go to America, and ask President,’How much for your brain?’ He said, ‘$8,000.’ I don’t buy. I go back to Myanmar, and ask President, ‘How much for your brain?’ He said, ‘$10,000.’ I buy his brain. All the other presidents were confused, and asked, ‘Why you buy Myanmar President’s brain? It is so expensive.’ I said, ‘Easy, never been used, like new.'”

Within hours he found himself stripped of his title of professor, and was banned from teaching for life. He spent the next three years in a crowded, unhygienic Burmese prison cell. When he emerged in 2001 he lived in abject poverty as a rickshaw driver. After seven years he was finally able to get a partial lift on his teaching ban, and was able to get a job teaching English at a middle- school in a village outside Mandalay. He could now finally properly provide for his wife and five children. Ten years of his life were ruined all because of a poorly timed joke that wasn’t even funny enough, or aggressive enough, to make it into the funny papers of the Toronto Star, or the Toike Oike.


Today, and Tomorrow

Today, Burma rests between obscurity and the modern free world. The people were thrilled when Barack Obama visited the nation in 2013 as they interpreted it as a sign of their impending grand emergence. Almost everyone in Yangon caught a glimpse of the American President as they lined the streets, and it seemed as if all the people knew his exact itinerary while he was in Burma. However, many of the advances that are currently going on are seen as a shame by the international community, and the people at home. Everyone that I talked to believed that the democratically elected leaders from 2011 are the same military officials just without their comically over decorated uniforms.

Streets of Yangon. © Benjamin Jakabek

Streets of Yangon. © Benjamin Jakabek

For the average person on the street, the savior of choice is the English-educated resistance leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi,who many refer to simply as ‘Mama.’ For extra credibility, she is also the granddaughter of the father of Burmese independence, Aung Sang, who was assassinated in 1947 and is still seen as a revered national martyr. Today, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner resides in her home on the outskirts of downtown Yangon under sporadic house arrest.

The only recently installed razor wire I managed to see on the streets of Yangon sat atop the walls of her home in several neat rows, less to keep her fragile 69 year old self from climbing out, but more to keep various supportive protest groups from getting in. In total, she has spent 15 of the last 21 years locked in her compound, and was completely unable to run in the ‘democratic’ elections of 2011. She remains a national hero of unprecedented scale, and a source of hope for a brighter future filled with prosperity despite the fact that she is technically barred forever from the presidency by the constitution adopted in 2008.


The Past’s Hold

For many of the Burmese citizens, moving past the traumatic events they have witnessed may not be feasible. Most of the locals that I spoke with were directly affected by the government-led massacres that had largely targeted students in Yangon on August 8th, 1988. The locals refer to the event as the General Strike. It was essentially a Burmese version of Tiananmen Square, but it is rarely spoken of in the West.

Central Burmese countryside. © Benjamin Jakabek

Central Burmese countryside. © Benjamin Jakabek

I heard the most vivid account of these tragic events from a man that I met at the base of the brilliant gold and diamond covered Shwedagong Pagoda in Yangon. At the time of the events, he was an undergraduate student at Yangon University. Now in his late- forties, he was a slender man with a soft voice, wearing a bright green Longyi, sporting an overly youthful haircut.

He began describing the first day of the government crackdowns by saying that the epicenter of the protest was located on a 6 lane wide boulevard next to Yangon University that was lined with tall metal fences on the east and west sides. When the military arrived, they stationed themselves on the north and south sides of the boulevard; essentially trapping the students in a box.

As the soldiers piled out of their transport vehicles, they lined up in several neat rows. On the orders of their officers, they lowered their guns, and fired several volleys directly into the crowd. The first few rows of protestors then fell to the ground. The students were horrified, yet perhaps their youthful hubris prevented them from predicting such a tragic conclusion to such a positive movement.

The only easily accessible escape route was a small lake named Inya that lays adjacent to the university. Most of the students sprinted along the grassy knolls that surround the normally peaceful and serene lake. However, some students jumped directly into the lake, perhaps out of sheer panic, or maybe they thought it would mask their visibility. The soldiers then rushed to the banks of the lake, raised their weapons, and looked down the iron sights of their guns to see the students swimming in the lake.

The students were stopped mid wake. Their limp bodies floated on the surface, and their blood now stained the history of this once calm getaway in a bustling city. One day, a politician will put up a bronze monument on this spot, as they are so often inclined to do, but that day is far from the present.

After the incident, the government closed nearly all the universities for over a decade. The largest one, Yangon University, still remains partially closed to this day as it is seen as a potential source of political dissent. As I drove past the university I saw no students or faculty. All I saw was a decaying colonial facade that was being progressively blackened by the polluted air and mildew. The cost of political stability is thus a largely under-educated population that is unable to compete in international markets, or serve as productive bureaucrats at home.


Culture Shocks

The government is currently attempting to make gradual reforms that will eventually liberalize the social, political, and economic infrastructure of the country. Even if these changes are only half-hearted, they are creating small tangible effects. After decades of isolation, a byproduct of these reforms has been the development of small pockets of Western culture in some of the major cities. The most notable case that I saw was of a store that sold hip-hop style swag and clothing, but with a Burmese twist. The store had opened in 2013. They offered fake gold watches and chains with a ‘diamond’ encrusted map of Burma hanging from the bottom, as well as fitted baseball caps, and cut off T-shirts with BURMA written in large gold letters. Streams of youth flooded into the store, mostly to have a look as the $15 dollar hats that were prohibitively expensive for a nation that on average earns $5 a day. The owner told me he was looking forward to earning more sales so that he could drop the price of the custom made products. For the few that could afford the products, it offered a safe form of rebellion- a sort of counterculture that won’t land them into a prison cell, or as in the case of the General Strike, death.

Old Bagan Temple. © Benjamin Jakabek

The local rap scene was a bit underdeveloped, and so, the youth mostly turned to America for their songs. I found it completely bizarre that many of the youth knew the names of all the big rap and hip-hop stars in such an isolated country. Music offered a form of rebellion for the Burmese youth, much like it did in the African-American communities in the east, and west coasts of America in the 1990s. One thought did repeatedly enter my mind; I wish I could understand what the local artists rapped about in their songs. Did they risk addressing the social, economic, and political problems of their people like 2Pac did in 1990s America? Or did they copy the degenerated rap of modern times, and free-style about mansions, gold chains, and foreign cars?

As for the older Burmese, they still maintained nearly all of their traditional clothing and ways of life, even in the major cities. The men still walked around in a traditional Longyi, which is a dress tied from fabric at the front with a big knot resting on their belly button. Everyone walked around with blood red mouths from chewing on the local beetle nut, and occasionally spitting the excess juices on the floor, making every sidewalk look like the scene of a horrible crime. Also, to protect them from the sun, the locals still walked around with colorful silk umbrellas that looked, and functioned, like giant cocktail umbrellas Nearly all had a mixture of water, and sawdust plastered on their cheeks and foreheads. The practice has existed in Burma for centuries, and is called Thanakha. For the vast majority, it did not appear that the emerging modern goods made much difference to their daily lives.


The Other 134 Ethnic Groups of Burma

There is one group of people in the Burmese State that will not feel the effects of modernization for a very long time. In the Burmese government’s long repertoire of human rights abuses, one of the most continual victims has been the Rohingya ethnic group. Decades of armed conflict between the Rohingyas has driven many from their homes in the west. The Burmese government puts forth its agenda through the use of proxy groups such as Buddhist mobs who engage in riots while the government stands by idly in various provinces. Thousands of Rohingyas have found refuge in Thailand or Bangladesh, but most found their way into the main cities of Burma. Their situation is so second-rate that most are not recognized as citizens, and so, many are technically stateless people.

Their volatile situation became even more real when I first arrived in Mandalay. A day before my arrival a Buddhist led riot occurred against the Rohingyas. The result was scores of homes burned to the ground, and several left dead.

The local intelligentsia claims that the catalyst for the attacks were several internet forum posts, allegedly posted by the government themselves. These posts stated that the Rohingyas (Muslims) had raped several Burmese (Buddhist) women- a tried, and true method of starting a riot as the American South knows all about.

The event remained unreported in the Western media. I did my best to search for any news of the attack. The governments response was a temporary implementation of martial law, coupled with a curfew that was in effect after 9PM. The minimum punishment for noncompliance was a week to two weeks in jail, or a $100 bribe that only the rich could afford.The locals seemed unfazed by the events given their nonchalant demeanor. At this point it must seem like a common occurrence that has blended into the fabric of their everyday existences, and it offers little protection to the Rohingya victims themselves.

Mahamuni Buddhist Temple. © Benjamin Jakabek

Unfortunately, very few Rohingyas spoke any English, but I did meet one at a local street produce market in Yangon that could hold a conversation. In a somewhat skittish demeanor he spoke of how the government oppresses his people, and that all efforts at unity come under the condition of complete submission to the Burmese government first. He showed great sympathy to the Rohingya resistance groups that have been leading an ongoing campaign sine 1947. He said that his people are being primarily driven out of their land because it is a fertile region that the government wishes to exploit to grow cash crops, so they can provide a stable food supply for the Burmese people (hungry mouths make for loud mouths).

It is unclear whether there will ever be peace between the Burmese people, and all 135 of their ethnic groups, but clearly a name change from Burma to Myanmar will not cut it.


Destination RGN, and MDL

Despite all the negatives, there are already signs of substantive non-cultural changes. Foreign direct investment from China and Japan was apparent everywhere in the major cities. As of today, there are over ten planes a day that fly between Bangkok and Yangon. On my flight to Yangon, the plane carried perhaps five tourists in total. The rest were all business men dressed in fine suits, brief cases in hand, and a generally well manicured appearance. All were ready to make their fortunes in this fifty-million strong market. These men are the pioneers of capitalism, the risk takers, the frontiersmen of asset diversification.

Fruit reserves at Mahangandayon Monastery. © Benjamin Jakabek

Fruit reserves at Mahangandayon Monastery. © Bejamin Jakabek

These men came into Burma without the Kipling ideology of the white man’s burden to masquerade their agenda of profit seeking. The Thai and Chinese men were there to exploit the natural resources that their people so desperately need to fuel their own development. The Americans were there to push their labels and brands into an untapped market. The last group were the heavily accented Israelis. This group was attempting to expand their influence in the lucrative gem and diamond market that is valued in the billions. It seemed like the streets of Yangon were peppered with small diamond and gem stores just to prove how abundant these resources were.

It is up to the government to control this force, or face possible regional or Western exploitation. At this point, it did not seem to me that the Burmese were organized enough to develop with a Chinese, Japanese, Singaporean, or Korean style of growth, as their bureaucracy appeared to be unchanged since the 1950s. Not a single computer was in sight at most government buildings, schools, and train stations. Instead, they relied on old fashioned pen and paper, as well as a complex system of ledgers and accounts. The system’s petrified state is due to the government’s preference for proven loyalty over any degree of actual competency.

Upein Bridge. © Benjamin Jakabek

The final result of the forces of capitalism may look like the SAPs of 1980s Africa rather than the successful outcome of regional neighbors. This unfortunately could mean that Burma could relapse to military dictatorship due to the stability-compromising effects of economic reforms. The proposition that the great savior Aung Sang Suu Kyi will be elected president is unlikely to come to fruition, but accelerating modernization does appear to be a more predictable outcome. Nowadays it is not so much a matter of emerging, as it is letting others in. Political liberalization and economic advancement will not clean the slate of Burma’s past and current atrocities, but perhaps, for the first time in decades, the people can reasonably hope that their children will have a brighter future than their own.


Benjamin Jakabek is a 4th year Political Science student at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. You can see more of his photos from the Burma trip here:

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Anders Bretsen is a first-year student at the University of Toronto, in the Trinity One International Relations program. Originally from Vancouver, BC, he frequently complains about the cold.

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