What to Think About Burma?

“The Nationalists Now Wear Panties”. This sentence was grafittied onto a wall on a major artery, a street called Baho Lam, never used by tour buses and mostly unknown to expats and tourists. Yet, Baho Lam, which stretches from near downtown Yangon all the way to the outskirts of Rangoon alongside the vein of the Ayerwaddy River up to places where land exists as it must have existed during colonial times, hosts quite an interesting representation of Rangoon and its working class. There are many areas of green-forested tracts off the road with ram shackled and tilted old wooden shacks about to fall over but for the bamboo poles and occasional steel pole holding them up. People still live in them and much worse alongside the road.

They remind me of the old wooden homes in rural South Carolina standing alone in fields that used to amaze me as my wanderlust Dad drove his family over the white hot Southern Jim Crow roads in the 1960s where “whites only” signs were as common as the African-American descendants of slaves inhabiting those old wood shacks. In my memory they once stood as America’s shameful reminder of the institutional rural poverty and horrifying racism in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Burma is not so shy about its poverty since it’s everywhere and the generals who’ve morphed into politicians have set up their families and cronies to breed into the new capitalist elite of Myanmar. Those who should be reviled have been positioned as admirable winners to be ogled at by the booming mall culture of people seeking salvation in capitalism and consumer goods. Yes, the nationalists buying into the lie are also guilty by default but it’s no surprise. No one really likes being poor and political martyrs are not really willing to sacrifice everything in life to be right any longer since now they have options. In the old days, not long ago, freed political prisoners were given certificates to operate businesses in exchange for disengaging in political activities opposed to the government. Now, no one really cares much or has time to be overly concerned about being politically right but everyone cares about getting something the neo-colonialism via capitalism and so-called Democratization of Burma offers for those who submit to neo-colonialism.

As for Baho Lam one seldom sees the rich BMWs, Lexus’ and Land Rovers that run rampant around the superior bumpy streets of the expat-coveted Golden Valley. Golden Valley is greatly inhabited by the upper crust of Burma and neo-colonialist expats who’ve come to make a buck or two or to fantasize about how they have made Burma their new money seeking and do-gooder playground. Many less well off expats who were down and out in Australia, England or America who’ve come to teach English with their 30-day TEFL credentials mostly live shackled by the bunches in cheap old flats filled with insects and black ooze growing on the walls. One of my friends described these areas as “English teacher ghettos”. I’ve rarely seen an expat far from downtown on Baho. Though recently I did see a neon-wearing helmeted mountain bike rider expat with white skin blazing down a bumpy Baho Lam by-road. “How cool for him”, I thought whilst wishing I had the guts to ride a bike on these crazy potholed roads absent traffic signs and lights and rule of law for drivers and pedestrians.

I’ve spent the better part of the last year driving up and down Baho Lam, back and forth to work and to go anywhere in Yangon in order to avoid the massive traffic jams. The thing with Baho is that one must drive slow because in Yangon, away from the careless and stingy eyes of tourists and cloistered expats, working people living in shacks, moldy cement flats and bamboo huts don’t think of Baho as simply a road. It’s a lifeline for the tens of thousands of people inhabiting its byways and offshoots.

The ancient commuter train also ambles up the side of Baho like a long slow caterpillar going somewhere adding and subtracting legs as it nearly stops at stations that are nothing more than cement slabs with a cement bench and a small cover to protect too few from monsoon rains or blazing sun. No one really needs to worry about catching it. It barely moves fast enough for danger and one can easily get on and off without interrupting the rhythm of one’s footsteps. Of course, at intersections with railroad crossings, cars and trucks stack up on all sides and in all nooks and crannies of the streets waiting to get the bloody hell of a jolly good traffic jam moving again. Transport on Baho slides at about 15 to 20 miles-per-hours on a good day.

Tri-shaw drivers (licensed bicycles with side-cars), kids playing or selling things, lottery ticket carts-men, fruit cart pushers, bicycle commuters, mothers walking kids home from school, motorbike riders, tri-shaws pushing water, steel and bamboo poles, trash recycling cart pushers, water and beetle-nut chew sellers, drunks, people standing and talking, men flagging down drivers who seek a car scrubbing, hundreds of dogs fighting, foraging, pooping and making love, streetwalkers in the evening hours, and crowds of people standing in too small an area waiting for buses and commuter passenger small-trucks, keep Baho Lam busy.

Included among this throng of Yangon’s working class beatniks are monstrous buses with no lights or brake lights belching noxious fumes and blaring their extremely loud horns, light-trucks overloaded with unbalanced loads of people or merchandise that all seem sure to fall off, and many, many commuters in banged up or modestly priced cars also compete for space. People spitting beetle nut juice from everywhere and, oh yeah, me in my overpriced car freaking out and anxiously anticipating slamming on the brakes once every five yards to avoid collisions, killing people and letting the thousands of rude selfish, over-aggressive drivers cut me off. With spotty electricity many intersections, the ones that actually have traffic lights, often don’t work. In fact, many of the traffic lights don’t work even when the electricity is on. “So, this is Myanmar”, as my close friend likes to say about such things.

The people of Yangon and Myanmar have no concept of personal space. Every inch is to be used and exploited, even in traffic. Too often I could easily move my head out the window and have my big nose scraped off my face by a passing truck or gargantuan bus conveying past me at a faster speed than I dare attempt. Driving in Yangon, and especially Baho Lam, is a bloody good sport and it scares the hell out of me. There are even worse roads to drive on than Baho Lam, but I won’t use them after I experience them a first time.

Baho Lam is a life-filled avenue of teashops, little markets and thousands of merchants and inhabitants, truck stops and food stalls. It’s one of those places tourists wish they could see but can’t because tour agents don’t make money by showing tourists rundown impoverished but thriving neighborhoods of the real life livers in Rangoon. Touring in Burma is the same as spending a few days at a resort in Jamaica, scoring some weed from a Rasta haired resort worker and saying you’ve experienced the real Jamaica. Most tourists in Burma see the big Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Inle Lake and Bagan. Yeah, it’s beautiful and certainly worth visiting but it’s far from the real Burma of 60 million people surviving to eat and make a living in any way they can. At its end there’s an area of factories where workers earn a cool $1.50 to $2.00 a day for a long day of work. What would they do without garment factories to help them put rice in the bowls of their families?

My concept of Myanmar people has changed a lot since I’ve become an inhabitant of Baho. It’s a different side of life in Rangoon that I knew existed but hadn’t loved because it’s mainly not a pretty place with its broken streets and buildings and dodgy people walking the roadways at night. It’s a hustle, to be sure, to have to use Baho for a lifeline to work or to gather food to make a meal every evening. No one seems to care about me or flash a typical Burmese smile and rarely is curiosity given to me. No one really cares about me and it’s nice to not have to say Mingala ba and Je su tin ba deh. Instead, I honk my horn like all other Burmese drivers and yell to myself, “Get the hell out of my way”. I simply edge along the lam and do my own thing and wonder about graffiti on the walls that seems to make little sense.

The panty-wearing nationalists have been marginalized and neo-liberal economics have burst their pre-reform unity and purpose beyond redemption for the time being. This Democracy thing going on in Burma has only just begun and there are bumps in the road ahead. There are certainly no sure bets and even though I can open a bank account now, there’s no chance in hell I will do so. Burma is in chaos still and subtle yet obvious signs still point to the old ways still rooted deeply in minds of the people in charge. With elections coming up in 2015 there is surely going to be strife, violence, bullets, fire, religious and ethnic clashes and undoubtedly a major charge at the military-dominated presence in governance. And for the thousands and millions of people like the ones etching out a living on roads like Baho all over the country, I think it really won’t matter to them who is leading the government.

Ko Tha Dja is an educator and writer who lived in Burma for five years. His collection of stories about his time in Burma is forthcoming. Now residing in Vientiane, Lao PDR, he can be reached via his personal blog at Bamboodazed.com. Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.