Captives of the Junta.

Author:Lychack, William

LETTER FROM BURMA - Travel narrative


A group of National League for Democracy (NLD) members gathered outside their party headquarters in Yangon to mark Suu Kji's 63rd birthday Thursday by releasing 63 sparrows and shouting "Free Aung San Suu Kyi. "Seven government cars arrived shortly after the protest began and rounded up at least 30 of the NLD members, taking them away to an unknown destination.

--Indo-Asian News Service, June 19, 2008

Rangoon, summer 2008, and the eastern staircase of the Shwedagon Pagoda spills out into shops and stalls. All the bric-a-brac of Buddhism. The bells, the beads, the monks' robes and bowls, strings of jasmine flowers, little bamboo cages ripe with birds. For a few kyat, a bit less than a dime, you can release one of them, these nervous little sparrows, release them in a kind of prayer, some essence of that freedom flying to whatever your hope might be.

The Burmese believe in such cause and effect. Do the good deed and you will get the good response. Do the bad deed and you will get the bad response. From the seed the fruit must follow. Hard to argue with such faith, really, though anything one thinks about enough becomes problematic.

Take the pretty metaphor of the sar kaley, the little birds for sale in the cages. "They do have in them an element of bad karma for us also," as one trishaw driver explains. "The more we buy, the more the man will be encouraged to catch." Besides, I'm told the birds mostly return to their cages, that they've been tamed, that they prefer life with one another like this, the closeness, the community. And I'm told the man sometimes mixes opium with their seed. Or that children often carry the birds home, keep them in glass jars, the lids poked with holes for air. Or that people feed the sparrows to pet lizards or snakes. Or that some deep-fry the little birds whole, eat them crispy and spicy, like they eat crickets and small frogs.

All in all, not a perfect way to earn merit, these so-called lucky birds, yet still people feel campelled to release them on special occasions, funerals, weddings, birthdays, all the obvious days, all the obvious anniversaries, all the obvious wishes wished.

A MONTH, TWO MONTHS, and soon will be a year after Cyclone Nargis. Already a year has passed since the marching of monks last September, just as already 20 years have passed since the uprisings of 1988, just as soon will mark 20 years since the election of 1990, and then 50 years since the bloody coup that toppled the civilian government in 1962.

All this time and what's striking is how little seems to change in Burma. More than 130,000 people reported dead or missing in the cyclone, 25-foot storm surges across the Irrawaddy Delta, and the only evidence in Rangoon are the trees down or gone, the fences crumpled, a few more windows broken. It's hard not to feel disappointed--disappointed and relieved--relieved to find everything the same as it was before. The same broken sidewalks, the same busy press of people, the crowded shop fronts, the smell offish paste, of charcoal, of diesel, of palm sugar cooking.

This is my fourth time to Myanmar, to Burma, and maybe now I find more abandoned buildings in Yangon, or Rangoon, the government gone to Naypyidaw, the new capital to the north. There might be fewer trees from the storm. More crows than I seem to remember. Less electricity. But one has to search for differences. There are still monks carrying their bowls for alms in the mornings, their robes the color of rust. Still soldiers posted in pairs, always those poly-green uniforms, always those helmets, always those guns. Fewer rats in the city, come to think of it, the water table higher perhaps. One walks the streets of Rangoon and senses that time is somehow different here, somehow eternal, or stopped.

"You know," a Burmese friend tells me, "I am beginning to question our Buddhist beliefs. I mean, isn't everything supposed to be about change?"

We're at one of the many beer stations in town, the place packed, the night cool, ceiling strung with lights, and he's smiling and joking and not joking and not smiling at the same time. "Where's the idea of karma?" he's asking. "The bad men live old. The good men die soon."

IT'S TRUE, the days pass here without passing at all, yet always there seems another anniversary to mourn, another season of hand wringing from the West, another year of waiting for a generation of generals to die. Because that, one diplomat tells me, is the only real game plan for most of the embassies in town, just hold out and hope that the next leaders will be more enlightened.

"Easy to feel slightly glum about it all," she says, a faint whiff of condescension in her voice, that old colonial weariness in the way she presses her lips into a line, that ho-hum-let's-make-the-best-of-our-hardship-assignment-shall-we? shrug of her shoulders.

Or, as my Burmese friend at the beer garden would later put it--the same friend who wonders aloud about his Buddhist beliefs, who tells me earlier how he was studying philosophy at the university when it closed in 1988, how he and his classmates ran as soldiers started firing into the crowds, how he kept running, became a monk for a few years, became a pilgrim going monastery to monastery--as my friend would say, there weren't many options left to him at the time. His smile sours as we stand to leave for the night. On the street, just before we say goodbye, he smiles and curses. "You know," he says, "I have been waiting for one day since I was 16 years old."

MY FOURTH VISIT TO BURMA, a decade of occasional travel and study, and only now do I feel that people are able to talk to me. Or maybe it's only now that I feel at home enough to hear them. Or only now do I find myself with a chance to tell them how, back home, we watched snippets of the cyclone on YouTube. I explain how we saw the slow galaxy of the storm spinning into the delta, the home movies showing villages buried in silt and debris, the dead bodies of oxen, of goats, of people floating face down in the water. I tell how, during last fall's demonstrations, we watched crowds holding hands to protect the monks passing along the avenues, thousands of monks, an amazing river of tamarind robes, the sky and trees like old postcards, everything colorized and soft, familiar and strange. I tell how we looked for landmarks, recognized the old cinema houses near Traders Hotel, recognized the Shwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, heard the singing and chanting, the celebratory kazoos of motorbike horns, the rain falling, the gathering roll of cheering loud enough to make the hair on our arms go electric.

The immediate catalyst of this unrest had been the unannounced and unexplained removal of fuel subsidies, which caused gasoline and diesel to double in price in less than a week and caused compressed natural gas for buses and taxis to jump fivefold. News reports referred to the...

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