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Sunday, October 07, 2001

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Reality in pagoda land

IT was strange to spend a week in a country that the world seems to have forgotten. Particularly at a time when we seem poised on the brink of a major conflagration as the United States promises to wage war against terrorism. Myanmar (Burma) is literally an island today as world media continues to provide minute by minute coverage of the developments following September 11.

I had to wrestle with my conscience before agreeing to travel around Myanmar with a group from India. That brave and noble woman, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is fighting for the democratic rights of her people, has understandably asked people to avoid going to Myanmar as tourists. She says tourism provides legitimacy to the military government which is illegally holding power. It also provides more money to the bulging coffers of the generals who run the country.

All this is true although you can find ways of avoiding shops and facilities controlled by the Government. Yet, for me Myanmar has had a special place for many decades because of a woman who just passed away two months ago. Miss Emma, as we knew her in school, came to India as a young woman when the Japanese entered Burma. She crossed overland with an Englishwoman, Miss Lillian G. Lutter and together they set up an excellect girls school in Jaipur. All of us who studied in that school got a flavour of Burma through Miss Emma. She was the school bursar, she invited us to her home for delicious Burmese meals and her home was full of the exquisite lacquer-ware from her country.

Besides Miss Emma, Amitabh Ghosh has brought the country alive for many of us through his engrossing book The Glass Palace. So, sending my silent apologies to Ms Suu Kyi, I ventured into this green and beautiful land of golden pagodas where the gentleness of the ordinary people stands out in stark contrast to the brutality of the generals who control it.

You can lose your heart to Myanmar. This is one of those rare countries that has not yet been colonised by the multi-nationals. So, there is no Coke or Pepsi, no MacDonalds or Pizza Hut but also no Internet.

There are only two television channels one run by the Government and the other by the military. And ordinary people tell you that they switch it off as soon as the news starts because all you will see is soldiers and pagodas. A few hotels have cable television and some powerful individuals. But for the rest of the people of Myanmar, the tense and dramatic developments of the last three weeks are more than a world away.

To us outside Myanmar, the country has come alive through the struggle of this one woman, Ms. Suu Kyi or the lady, as people call her in the country. The road leading to her house near the University of Yangon is blocked to the public. Even if you walk past it, you have to carry your identification and you will be questioned. Yet, she is an unmistakable presence and keeps cropping up in the most unexpected conversations.

Like her, the women in Myanmar also seem incredibly strong and free. You see them everywhere in their colourful longyis (sarongs). On bicycles, rowing boats in the vast Inle lake in the east, on buses, running shops and roadside stalls, in the local markets, smoking long cheroots which are the Myanmar version of the cigar. Women in the country do not have to change their names when they get married.

They also do not give a dowry. The man brings gifts instead. So people want daughters. Despite its poverty, the female literacy rate is 78 per cent. Everywhere you go you see boys and girls dressed in green longyis and white shirts making their way to school.

Despite such positive indicators, this country of 51 million people has not moved forward while its immediate neighbour to the east, Thailand, is decades ahead. In the last five years, Myanmar seems to have become schizophrenic. On the one hand, the military government is clearly trying to open up the country in order to attract tourists and investment. Mandalay and Yangon have spanking new airports waiting for the tourist deluge which has still to take place. In Yangon, scores of posh condominiums and new hotels are springing up.

Yet, people tell us that it will be at least a couple of years before they get Internet. The ubiquitous cell phone is hardly visible in this country. Ordinary people cannot get a phone without paying a huge deposit and waiting for many years. And when you travel around Myanmar, it is practically impossible to make an international call. Some people have e-mail, but every outgoing e-mail is monitored.

In this land redolent with teak and toddy palms, you also see stark poverty outside the main cities. People live in small, bamboo structures. And children can be found working everywhere, even on road works. Begging was never known before in Myanmar. But now, for the first time, children beg for money, for food. They scratch their heads indicating that they want tourists to give them the shampoo sachets provided by hotels. And they always ask for pens. Even young novice monks, who are not supposed to ask directly, do so now.

In a sense, this is what contact with the outside world has brought to Myanmar. Even the trickle of tourists has begun the process that will accentuate the gap between the rich and the poor. As tourists drive around in air-conditioned buses and cars, the ordinary people make do by hanging on to the outside of packed pick-up trucks, and a few buses, that seem to be the only form of transport between places.

Despite the sanctions by the International Labour Organisation, and the boycott campaign by the supporters to the Free Myanmar movement, a trickle of new investment is coming in to the country. But it seems to be going into new high rise buildings in Yangon, the capital. Despite its abundant rivers, there is an acute power shortage in most parts of the country. Most people resign themselves to having electricity only at night.

One week is too short a time to conclude anything about Myanmar. What does come across is the unspoilt and gentle nature of its people, and the incredible beauty of the country which by default has also remained untouched. You leave praying to the many Buddhas that dot the landscape of this hidden land, that a day will come soon, when its people will be really free. Free to choose the kind of development they want.


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