Reflections on Yangon Part I

13.793595 N, 92.890955 E
Bay of Bengal
Sailing just north of the Adaman and Nicobar Islands
En route to Kochi, India, one and a half days out of Yangon…

Looking down from my vantage point ten decks above, at the waters flowing by our ship at the deep sea port of Thilawa, on the Yangon branch of the Irrawaddy River delta, I noticed that they run in swirling striations of blue and brown, in proportions depending on the motions of the large tides that characterize the region… mostly blue when flowing in from the Adaman Sea, muddy brown when ebbing in the other direction.

Irrawaddy River Delta

Irrawaddy River Delta

I found that similar flows and mixings define the cultural, political, and social situation in the country of Myanmar, sitting as it does at a crossroads of diverse cultures, at a time of shifting balances between tradition and modernism, differing views of governance, and things essentially local or global.

The visit we just concluded would not have been possible only a few short years ago… Let me tell you just a little bit about what I saw, heard, and experienced…

Originally a monarchy, then a British colony, Myanmar gained independence in 1948, with a government marked by strongman, socialist, and rather eccentric military rule, in which its back was turned to the world. It opened up to that world in 2010. Elections, generally characterized as fair, were held two years later, and yielded a sweeping victory for the dominant opposition party.

Foreign investments, and the global tourist trade, began to arrive in its wake… but not so rapidly, or so powerfully, as to push earlier times and their ways to the margins, at least not yet.

And so it is a fascinating place, and time, to visit. Like most places of intersection, it is rich with life, and the change and growth that defines life.

Our first evening’s tour guide, on the bumpy 15 mile bus ride over privately built, privately tolled, roads from port to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and back, shared his perspectives on his homeland and peoples, openly, often with a healthy dose of passion, sometimes intense, sometime leavened with a far-off look…

Our Guide

Our Guide

We learned from him about:

  • The many, some rather extraordinary, excesses of the former military ruling regime — from vast deforestation, to radical manipulation of taxes on automobiles, to the choice of mystically inspired currency denominations (based on combinations around the leader’s personal lucky number, nine), to overnight decisions to change the side of the road on which one drives (and how that requires most larger vehicles, the majority of which are imported from Japan with right side drive, to have a second person help the driver navigate the resulting mis-match of road and vehicle).
  • How the locally lagging economy, and traditional Chinese rote-based education system, was creating a brain drain. His brother is making 20x as an engineer in Singapore, compared to what he could make here ($50K vs. $2.5K per year). He expressed whistful hope that this flow could be reversed (“brain drain becomes brain gain”) through more enlightened education and economic reforms.
  • How long-time dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was, in his view, more effective under house arrest, before reforms and the resulting elections allowed her a place in government… and about the bizarre constitution that bars widows with foreign offspring to hold the position of president… a provision blatantly written with her in mind.
  • About the uncertainties of how coming elections (fall, 2015) will play out, given fears of the re-assertion of military power. (Tides reverse regularly after all.)
  • How there are 135 distinct ethnic groups in the country, with generally peaceful co-existance among them, as well as between the followers of many of the world’s major religions (but for an exception near the border with Bangldesh, and its overwhelmingly Muslim population). 80% of the country is Buddhist.
  • How (in great detail) one grows poppy for opium production, how profitable it can be compared to other crops — and how efforts to create counter-incentives designed to curb production have not yet worked. (Without much apparent reservation, he explained that he and his father proposed to join his neighbor, in the “Golden Triangle” region to the north, in such production. His mother forbade it.)
  • How the coming of social media and internet connectivity has been a mixed influence, amplifying ethnic tensions,  previously muted or locally contained. (Smart phones are everywhere.)
  • How the people of Myanmar feel tiny, squeezed in between its giant powerful neighbors of India and China. Commenting on border tensions with the latter, he said a common joke is that “If war with China would ever come, all they would have to do is to get their people to all piss in our direction, and we’d be washed out to sea!”
  • How China is looking to create influence and leverage, not make war, through development assistance. The main bridge from port over the Yangon river was donated by the Chinese.

Shwedagon Pagoda, view from the south

Shwedagon Pagoda, view from the south

We arrived at Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk. Built over 2500 years ago, it is the most prominent landmark in Yangon, rising to a height of 99 meters, visible in its hilltop setting from most anywhere in the city. Its gold-plated dome is topped by a stupa, crowned with 7000 precious gems, including an emerald mounted so as to catch the last rays of the setting sun and direct them downward to various locations around the surrounding grounds.

“The Shwe Dagon rose superb, glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.” S. Maugham

Visitors must remove their shoes and socks, and walk those grounds and its (usually very hot) tiles barefoot. One learns to navigate in the shadows.

The place teams with life, condensed in all of its diversity, into a quite magical realm of tradition, humanity, and splendor. Monks, local peoples, and tourists from afar are all present — many recording their visits with photographs, and yes, selfies.

Selfies, they're everywhere

Selfies, they’re everywhere

Entry into the Pagoda building itself is not permitted, but there is a riot of things to see all around. The place is chockablock with structures donated by the wealthy in a show of respect (and means).

One of scores of donated buildings surrounding the Pagoda proper

One of scores of donated buildings surrounding the Pagoda proper

We gave our offering by lighting row upon row of small lantern structures, ringing a wall surrounding the Pagoda proper.

Our offering

Our offering

“The Shwe Dagon,” wrote Somerset Maugham in 1930, “rose superb, glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.”

He said it well.

In my view, we could all use a sudden hope in the dark, and the occasional dose of tradition.

I was raised with more than a little conserved tradition — in a household where it was valued, and in a pre-PC school, run with an iron fist by a principal who studded the calendar with regular celebrations of our Country — via parades, plays, and various other forms of reverential assembly.

It’s funny how a visit to an entirely foreign place can stir thoughts of home, and a time long, long ago.

We returned to Shwedagon as part of a longer program the following day, and I learned much more about this place, but I’ll leave the telling of that story for another post.

Posted in Current Affairs, People, Photography, Places, Religion, Travel.

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