Friday, April 20, 2007

The Burmese

Everything about this forgotten nation seems and feels different to the rest of South East Asia. The people are no exception.

But how is it that a population can be so isolated and yet so worldly? However while this may be so I do not believe that such worldliness is necessarily due the legacy of a colonial past which only came to an end in 1958. Afterall the whole of the Indo-China region was at one stage or other occupied by the European superpowers of yester year and yet the citizens of the neighbouring states are not in any way as cultured as the shut-off Burmese.

On arrival it was to my great surprise that bookstalls are dotted throughout the streets of Rangoon and be it the roof of a truck, bus stop, tea shop, or military checkpoint, everybody is to be seen reading. This in itself sets Burma apart as I don't recall such a sight in Vietnam, Cambodia or even Laos. Unfortunately however the "photocopied" book world is strictly censored with Jeffrey Archer being presently the only “contemporary” English author whose translated titles are permitted on the shelves. Likewise all hotmail and yahoo acocunts are blocked out but many thankfully get around this using a server aptly known as "freedom". The situation is perfectly described by Burmese autor Pascal Khoo Thwe who recalls his university literature class having only one copy of a core text to share amongst an entire literature faculty.

The Burmese in general have also managed to become superior English speakers despite the fact that the teaching of the language was banned for so many decades. Curiously however the law was changed when the daughter of former dictator General Ne Win was denied a place in Medical school in England on the grounds of her lack of English. I have always believed that to speak a foreign language is not just knowing how to comunícate in a different tongue but also a priviledged and clear insight into a foreign culture that no amount of social commentary or history books can properly provide. Such is therefore the case here where the ability to speak English has subtely enlightened an oppressed people and enabled them to learn and know of an outside world that sadly does not wish to know of them in return. Perhaps therefore you might dare to say their language skills only serve to increase their frustration and awareness of the ludicrous situation in which they find themselves abandoned.

Walking through the streets it is very easy to ascertain the main religions of Burma. As in Laos and Thailand, Buddhist monks are omnipresent in their saffron robes, shaven heads and bare feet, but also recognisable are the muslims with their tradicional head wear and long beards. The Hindus whose parents and grandparents were stationed here as soldiers of the English Empire are also distinguishable, if not by their Indian features then surely by their turbans. I can't say that I have a knack for recognising Christians or more to the point Baptists, but they tend to have very English names such as Jeffrey or James and in any case invariably inform me of their crede very early on in the conversation. Curiously they say it in such a fashion that seems to be telling me that they too are very European....that we have something extra in common that their fellow country men do not. Perhaps this may be explained by the fact for many years the Baptists were prejudiced against by the despotic authorities of the phony socialist era. In fact the present regime gave religious tension as the primary reason for changing the name of the state but this is something that I fail to sense on the steets. Furthermore it is not unusual to spot a mixed group of middle aged men of varying religions joking or engagedly discussing world soccer over chinese tea. Of course more often than not you would also spot a young Buddhist novice sitting at a nearby table reading newpaper reports on the same subject and making sporadic contrabutions to the animated discussion within earshot.

Without a doubt the Burmese people are quite simply mad about football. Most nights the local tea shops and stalls fill up as crowds gather to watch which ever European football league is to be televised in that evening. The most popular teams are without doubt AC Milan and Manchester United but no matter what the team or league, the enthusiasm and turn out is the same. This is noticeable not only in the main cities of Rangoon and Mandalay but also in the small towns and mountain villages. Writer Pascal Khoo Thwe describes how a good footballer is given hero status among his native Paduang people who are especially well known for the players they produce. For many tribal people such as his it is their life ambition to play for the local township team.

The National sport however is known as "Chinlone" although in converation they referred to it perhaps for my benefit as as “caneball”. The game is played by four to six people who stand in a circle tour to six feet apart and pass the ball as gracefully as possible using any part of the body except their hands. There is no winner and the objective is to keep the ball in the air as long as possible while the players walk in a cirlce. The ball is hollow and made of plaited reeds or bamboo skin. Quite spectacular to watch, I gave it a try and found to no surprise that I simply cannot raise my feet above my shoulders to the amusmement of the agile and forever young locals.

Unlike Thailand and Laos where the Buddhist monks are gentle and pious, the saffron community here seem to be of a very different breed. For example as in the rest of the region, the monks pass through the town collecting food from locals in their "alms bowls". However to my sleepy surprise this happens in Burma at the more civilised hour of 11am as opposed to the misty 5 am start in the rest of Buddhist South East Asia. Furthermore if you fail to make an offering of food or alternatively neglect to place money on the lid of their bowl, you can expect the young tattooed monk to curse at you under his breath as he turns and walks away. At the time this can be quite annoying and in fact something completely unheard of and truly inconceivable in the Loatian or Thai communities. However I will stop short of condemning such monastic malice as I am fully aware that these are the same brave monks who led the democratic demonstrations in 1988 which tragically ended in a blood bath.

The Burmese have not yet been exposed to many foreigners and so there are certain habits that truly baffle them. For example I am a hopelessly doomed "Irish citóg" who has never even mastered the proper table etiquette of using a spoon with the right hand. And if this is the case it goes without saying that chop sticks and dipping burmese food in the sauces are all performed by use of my more deft left hand. How and ever, waiters, school girls and monks stop and stare with a mixture of fascination and I dare to say, disgust at my eating habits. The same goes for when I write. Luckily however I have been able to adapt to the practise of always “handing over or taking” with my “right hand only, while my left must touch the right inner fore-arm”. This I found would endear you to the people very quickly and “almost” make up for my brutish dining. It is also central to Buddhist belief and hence Burmese thinking that the head is the highest and most sacred part of the body. You therefore never pat someone on the head, not even babies as I learned through experience when I met the children of an exiled Burmese karen tribe in Thailand. The head commands anosloute reverence and it therefore follows that the feet are the dirtiest and lowliest, never to be touched in public…that is to say not even scratched or dusted depite the fact that you are walking in sandals in a country or dirt tracks not asphalted roads. The local people are a respectful people and never would you get a hint of sleaze even in the city. As one guide book put it, the men are more likely to offer to carry the bags of a girl than to whistle or look her up and down. That said, a woman must never stand over a man and for this reason the men will cling to the back of the overcrowded buses and pick-up trucks rather than be seated.

All men smoke Burmese cheroots which are short, slim, untapered cigars. Burma is the home of the cheroot and their factories are a principle source of income for many Burmese women in the Mandalay area. However when not puffing on their famous local product the men will more than likely be chewing on “betel nuts”. These nuts, also popular amongst women , are mixed with tobacco and are wrapped up in banana leaves into a matchbox-like shape and size. The leaves are unravelled and discarded with the tobacco coated betel nuts chewed upon and spitted out for hours on end. The vice causes the gums, lips and teeth to become a luminous bloody red which is a very ugly and dirty sight to me but surely harldy noticeable to the burmese themselves. Meanwhile a far more pleasing sight is what appears to be a white paint on the cheeks or often the entire face of the women and children. This is Tanaka, a native wood which they grind on a wet stone or hard surface and then apply as make-up. They tell me that it is a perfect sunblock that also stops the complexion from ageing. This authentic, primitive and yet superior cosmetic is sold as a piece of log which slowly wears down over use. All bus stops and public toilets will normally have tanakah and grind stones for use. Amongst men on the other hand, body piercing and tattoos are widely popular with the games of games of caneball providing the perfect opportunity to show off the dragon like body ink.

Walking through the markets I could not at first get my head around the number of stalls selling microphones. I could not see how there could be such a demand for an item that I have never desired to own in my life. In the end the mystery was solved when I was invited to the house of locals and being the perfect burmese hosts they started to sing karaoke! I would have joined in but for the first time ever my getting kicked out of the school choir has come back to haunt me. Music is important to the Burmese who have little else and almost everyone can sing or play the guitar. Nobody appears embarrassed to break into song on the streets be it amongst friends or as they go about their daily business. The youth all sing western tunes but often with burmese lyrics. However while pondering over their love for music I suddenly realised that I have not yet seen any night clubs in Burma. I don't know what is the case in the larger cities but I am told that they all closed in the smaller towns and villages as the government forces kidnapped youths in the night and forced them to carry their amunition or walk ahead of the soldiers in the jungle in order to set off the land mines. Likewise the rebels did similar and forced the kidnapped to fight alongside. Thankfully this is no longer the case.

People here are extraordinarily polite and enthusiastic in Burma. Not only do they possess the smiles and manners of the Thais, the gentle nature of the Laotians, the humbleness of the Cambodians but also a charm and air of incredible optimism. The delightful Burmese are excellent conversants and always ready for a chat within of course the parameters deemed safe in a country where 1 in 10 are said to be police informers. These are the unsung heroes of South East Asia. I unwittingly left the best to last.

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