Reflections on Burma Becoming Myanmar

Today I’m lazing at Sedona in Mandalay enjoying the fast Internet (for Myanmar) and a perfect coffee for the afternoon buzz. I’ve been in Burma since March 2009 with a few earlier visits and some brief living on the border near the town of Mae Sot in Thailand.

When I think back, I became intrigued with Burma after some young Karen men, who were also former child soldiers fighting the Burmese Army in Kayah state, asked me to appeal to the British government on their behalf  to encourage the Brits to return soon to help them gain independence. Their pure, innocent sincerity when asking me at which time will the British return to help them gain independence, as the British promised to do in exchange for the Karen and other hill tribes peoples’ efforts with the Brits fighting the Japanese, really opened my mind. I realized they were forest dwelling people with no contact with the outside world expect for some time learning from and teaching people like me who go to their camp for brief periods. It was as if I had been sent to the past, one hundred or more years ago, people from jungle villages oppressed by an evil government determined to enslave, rape with abandon, torture, murder and mutilate all ethnic people and pillage all of the natural resources underfoot – a real Heart of Darkness.

That’s what Burma has been for the past forty years and more for ethnic people. It’s been a Heart of Darkness. Before the majority Barma people began their reign of terror over the ethnic regions, the Japanese, and for decades the British, showed the Barma the way. The leading Burmese Generals and the Army known as the Tatmadaw for decades comprised of, essentially, thugs in charge of uneducated men and child soldiers. They enslaved people and unflinching brutality was their method of doing business. Today those Generals and their cronies are the new politicians and the ruling elite class. This is why Burma, excuse me, Myanmar will not change easily. Crony capitalism.

It was a confusing time for me in that refugee camp in 2006, new to Asia. I felt a bit ashamed and somewhat awash with guilt to be spoiled by how easy my life was compared to the lives of the people living in the Mae La Refugee camp. At the same time I envied them, the young men speaking to me, for their conviction and determination, their honesty and their will to survive. On the surface they seemed simple but they were far from that. They knew their own Karen history, were multilingual, they were guerilla fighters and devoted to their families and each other. They use the term brother and sister, as most people do in Myanmar, in a cultural way that explains how closely connected they are to one and another. It took me a while to figure out that one sister or brother need not be from the same blood. I’m sure they didn’t lie and manipulate or do any of the number of things more so-called “sophisticated” people from outside their world do so well.

It was after meeting them I decided I had to go to Burma, to see for myself the conditions of the country and the people, to experience something unfamiliar to me, to witness life in a place that was then almost completely closed off from the outside world, held down under the jackals and henchmen of a military dictatorship and a deeply entrenched police state oppressing all people every day. I’d imagined at the time many, many people were sucked into the vacuum of the police state Burma had become out of need and care of immediate family. After all, one had much to lose if one didn’t follow along with the rulers. I’d certainly met my share of Special Branch and Military Intelligence policemen who signed up for the Leadership and Democracy classes I taught in Rangoon. Most of them quietly told me they didn’t agree with government police. I stayed quiet not knowing if their comments were trying to draw me out in the wrong vain.

I found that it was easy for me to get “inside” Burma in 2008 and 2009 and staying there was never a question mark for me. On my first ride from the old rundown airport the streets for several miles were lined with armed soldiers. I didn’t know why. I didn’t find it frightening and didn’t feel worried or afraid. I was fascinated and excited with the feel of overt social and political oppression and I spent all of my free time meeting many people and going anywhere I wanted to go. I absorbed the nuances of the culture and language, learned how translation changed the meaning of words and ideas so I could communicate easily, and I adopted the physical habits of Burmese communications, such as particular hand gestures and movements when explaining or asking, or exchanging items. I was brought to certain teashops that were energized and intriguing, inhabited by activists and their watchers.

When I tried to go to forbidden areas I was often told politely, “No foreigner” and I just turned and walked away smiling and friendly to my deflectors knowing they were just doing their job. The Burmese way was not to get caught holding the bag, so to speak and if something went wrong, the person deemed responsible was the one who got the screw. “No foreigner” was a phrase many Burmese men knew how to say in English, if nothing else. Sometimes I persisted and got my way. Sometimes, after they learned I was American, I was allowed access to places and areas for a small fee and sometimes for no fee at all. And twice in 2009 I was on a motorbike with a driver in the delta areas that were ravaged by Cyclone Nargis and we ran roadblocks on bumpy rural roads. The tricky part was finding an alternative way back to the starting point. There was really no point in the roadblock, it was just standard around Burma at the time to have roadblocks comprising more often than not of a couple of very skinny and undernourished men in uniform who all but lived under the shade of a particular banyan tree, their families nearby, asking questions and collecting small bribes for passage we in the west call tolls.

Like the young men in the refugee camp, the people inside Burma were all genuine, polite, caring and sincere with me. That was, and mostly is has been, my experience with Myanmar people until recently.

The irony for my bookends in Burma, my first and last several months, were and will have been spent living in Mandalay. In 2009 tri-shaw’s, motorbikes, bicycles and horse carts were the main means of transportation. Now in 2013 going into 2014, mainly it’s motorbikes and cars and trucks. The dramatic proliferation of cars and giant SUV’s in Myanmar have made Mandalay and especially Yangon almost miserable places to live by comparison to before the so-called reforms starting in mid-2012. It’s very difficult to get around in these cities now. Or, maybe the gridlock just annoys me because I recall how it was during the darker days of severe oppression, lack of economic progress and no electricity. Burma seemed timeless then as streets before 2012 were usually clear at all times and they were almost completely abandoned after 8 o’clock save for the desperately broken taxis and those fortunate enough to have the 50,000 dollars or more it took to buy a used vehicle.

I understand now how I’ve changed and that Mandalay and Rangoon have changed. Now, post reforms, instead of working with intellectual democracy activists I find myself working for despicable cronies who’ve profited off the backs of the poor in many, many ways. I’ve recently learned of this and I was not shy with my questions to them, which they ignored. However, this has put our relationships on ice and it’s only now a matter of time before the ice hardens into a frozen cocoon and I either accept them for what they are and continue working with them, or quit.

Five years living in Burma is a long, long time. There are few conveniences here. I’ll be leaving my job soon, very soon, and I hope I do it tastefully but the lying, despicable and deceitful behavior of my crony employers infuriates me. I know people like them are the reason why Burma is the way it is and has been for decades. To me there is a difference between going along to get along for survival and actively being a part of the overall state of oppression.

The people I work for now are not simply getting by under the noses of a corrupt system rotted from the roots up. They are a part of the roots sucking the earth clean of its most treasured resources and abusing less fortunate and common people at every opportunity. To give some insight into these people; they thought it was normal to have mainly shoeless young boys in tattered dirty clothing no older than 13 as workers on their soon to open hotel. Those kids were using power tools as toys as they played on the construction worksite. When I asked the owner, my employer, who had brought me to see the hotel being built, “Why are all these kids hanging around here playing with the electric tools?” her reply was this: “They are on lunch break.”

Sadly, this is not an isolated story though I suspect it’s not the norm on the many larger multimillion-dollar construction sites now reshaping Yangon and Mandalay. But for small contractors and other such people like the ones I work for, everywhere it is the norm and they could care less if one of those kids cut off a few toes. “So this is Myanmar,” as one of my crony employer’s is fond of saying.

These days Myanmar is a nice place for hardy tourists to visit to drop loads of money at the major attractions and hotels but as far as progress is concerned, well, the rich are, as usual, getting richer. At the same time many young people are getting work opportunities that didn’t exist a few years ago, merchants are selling lots of their goods and services, there is more social freedom, more political opening, Ford and Chevrolet have opened car dealerships, and child labor still exists in full view for anyone paying attention.

Yet, there are many areas of Myanmar still off limits to foreigners and one can only wonder how much has changed for people in those areas. I suspect not very much has. All of the old problems still persist and few of the carpet-bagging western investors and opportunists meeting up at networking events every week at 5Oth Street Bar and Strand Hotel and other swank venues could care less about the impoverished or disease stricken millions of Myanmar people still living under the brutes of oppression. Never mind that more political prisoners in Myanmar were just released.

My questions are why weren’t they released last year and why were they in prison at all anyway? Who is responsible for their imprisonment and who is stealing the land away from peasants all over the country today? Who is behind the murder and mayhem of Burmese Muslim people and why hasn’t the government done more to stop it? For that matter as well, why hasn’t Aung San Suu Kyi spoken out fervently against the mayhem against Burmese Muslims? True colors never shone brighter. No one is perfect and I admire The Lady but I wonder about her real thoughts. Is it ok to compromise with those who once wanted you dead? She’s doing the best she can, but ethnic and religious violence should never get a silent tongue from leaders.

As for the Generals who’ve changed into politicians and business people wearing suits, and their cronies, as the saying goes, a leopard can hide but it can’t change its spots. So, this is the new Myanmar. It’s the same as the old Myanmar. Except now it’s easier for many to ignore past and current crimes against humanity because of the huge sums of money being spent here. Shopping malls and traffic jams, major international NGOs and their links to corporations have been and will continue to prevent anyone from seeing the misery that has existed in Myanmar for decades. Misery isn’t sexy unless you’re raising cash for your NGO or your next contract if you’re an aid worker. No need to speak about it. So it seems like a lot of the old cronies and their bosses will escape into the jungle of international finance with their looted billions and bask in unregulated capitalism where they belong. The game is over; the criminals will go free in Burma.

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 Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.