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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2007

A country caught in the grip of a regime

Special to The Japan Times

MYANMAR — Rangoon (or Yangon as it is now called) seen from the air seems subdued, at least after brilliant nighttime Bangkok. Just a light here and there, otherwise a carpet of darkness. This extends even down into the new and otherwise imposing "national" airport where the light is so dim that officials squint to read my visa.

After the ordinary airport glare of just about everywhere else this obscurity seems attractively somber. When I remark upon it, I am told that the effect is not deliberate, that it is due to frequent electric power grid breakdowns and the fear that more will occur if the light level is turned up.

This was my introduction to one of the many structural breakdowns occurring in unhappy Burma, caught in the grip of a restrictive regime, for decades now, the bureaucracy of the military junta having held the country since 1962.

But the illusion that dimness is more natural than brightness continued and I found the city so shadowy, so full of groves, stands of trees and clutches of bushes, that I was reminded of a much less scrubbed Singapore or of a more decaying Savannah. This illusion I ascribed to the pull of the past, an old-fashioned quality, a kind of temporal poverty toward which I am drawn.

There is a palpable past of Asia itself, the beauty of things that live on long after their usefulness has evaporated. In Rangoon, on top of this is the more recent colonial past. We pass the Strand Hotel, now refurbished, repainted, restored, though not yet gentrified in the manner of Singapore's Raffles. It speaks not of English power but of English gentility, smiling away on the dark street and suggesting that by comparison we weren't so bad after all, were we?

But I'm not going to stay there. A bed there, despite the country's poverty, cost almost as much as one does in Tokyo's Ritz-Carlton or at the Hong Kong Peninsula. Nor am I going to stay at any of the government-owned hotels. (Though in a sense the government already owns everything since it gets about a third of your bill no matter where you stay.) You can tell which are the governmental hotels; they are often named after the city or the local sight and have the national flag flying in front, something private hotels only occasionally do. Also, the best guides (i.e. Lonely Planet) refuse to list them.

Why do I feel this way? Because I am prejudiced. What I have heard about the government here almost convinced me not to come at all, and once here it finds me unwilling to call the place Myanmar, a name the government began insisting upon in 1989. I have never been to any country under such circumstances — distrusting the governance of the place. In the rain, aware of a pervading melancholy I proceed to my modest hotel.

In the morning, the sky clears, the sun appears, and what I see resembles what the English must have seen a century ago. Though there are now lots of cars, trucks and bikes, lots of people still wear Burmese clothes — skirt-like longyi for the men — and it is still a thriving market-culture. Lots for sale on the streets, piles of mango and papaya. People carry bundles on their heads. I see an ox-cart or two.

And the colors, all pastel shades after the loud primaries of Thailand: rose, beige, a soft verdigris, and a strange and ubiquitous yellow. It is pale, near white, and I see it not only on temple walls but also on the cheeks and foreheads of men and women on the street. Clay-like, it is applied in squares or circles to the face, and though I am told it performs as some kind of sunscreen, in actuality is a fashion. Almost no one young is without it, sometimes accentuated by the scarlet lips and crimson tongue of the betal chewer. This pale stuff is called thanakha and is derived from the bark of a tree. It has a smell and probably a taste as well.

My street scene, once I am a part of it, is redolent of ripening fruit, sweat, incense, dung. I take a taxi on this hot morning and the driver has hung a flowering branch of jasmine in front of the air conditioner so that its fragrance will flavor my journey.

Avoiding the state-owned Myanma Airways, I took one of the semi-private lines (there are several, Air Bagan, Air Mandalay, Yangon Airways) to the ancient city of Pagan (Bagan). It is on an enormous plain along the Irrawaddy River. Some 41 square kilometers, it holds some 2,237 temples, most of them ancient and enormous relics of the great capital that existed here from around A.D. 1047 and was abandoned at the approach of Kublai Khan's raiders in 1287.

It is an astonishing place, stupas as far as you can see, as though you were a tiny pawn in a mighty chess game, the pieces of which tower in all directions. It is like being at Angkor Wat with all the jungle cleared away, the distance palpable. It is like all the churches in Europe crushed into a single shire. And, with their red-brick crenulated walls, their turrets and stone fretwork, the buildings, despite their age, look somehow Victorian, as though thousands of stately homes had been scattered on the plain, an effect enhanced by the many winding country roads and the horse carts trotting along them.

The scene is somehow late 19th century and there seems something ostentatious in the ornate wedding-cake architectural styles, in the deserted sumptuousness of this whole, vast, empty ecclesiastical city — all temples and stupas — that lies there like an abandoned Vatican.

Here, any place the tourists come the children gather. They are garlanded with postcards, loaded with handicrafts, burdened with books. Many carry around smudged stacks of a pirated edition of Penguin's "Burmese Days" by George Orwell. All are for sale as these small salespeople try to pry some dollars loose. I had never before, even in Cambodia, seen such a shameless display of forced child labor and wondered what the socialist Orwell would have made of such an extreme example of capitalism. And I tried to imagine a poverty that made necessary the sending of such small children out to vend things.

One little girl, 5 or so, attached herself to me. Wherever I went she was there too, calling out in a small and gentle voice, deaf to my repeated "no-thanks," following like a shadow or a bad conscience. The children have apparently been taught by whoever controls them to allocate their prospects. Even as a covey of tourists approaches, each child sizes up the group, selecting the most likely. She had seen some promise in me.

Even after I had bought a string of Pagan postcards, even after I had climbed back into my pony cart, there she stood, perhaps hoping I would buy more, perhaps thinking of the next encounter, perhaps not thinking at all. As we trotted off I waved, a facetious but friendly gesture, but she did not wave back.


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