Thursday, May 10, 2007

Burma - Amongst the people

Susan Sonntag once wrote that the early success of the photographic apparatus could be attributed to the fact that it invented “class tourism”. By this she meant that the camera provided the wealthy for the first time with a safely distant view of the lives of the poorer classes. Indeed when looking back over my photos taken in Burma, I often think that this same description could apply to my time spent there.

There is no denying that Rangoon is at first quaint and exciting in its dingy and crumbled state. Certainly most striking is the endemic decay of the buildings whose surviving beauty and majesty is testimony to how Rangoon should, could and did once look. It is only natural therefore that one gets excited when the surrounding buildings resemble King Louis’ palace in “The Jungle Book” but it is a thrill that quickly dissipates when a barefooted and scraggly child emerges through the brittle unhinged front door. It seems that pretty urban decay was simply a prelude to equally photogenic human plight.

Every Rangoon street is dotted with food stalls whose aromas reflect the ethnic mix of the city. Indian, Chinese and traditional Burmese cuisine braised noisily alongside the energetic shouts of child waiters. Such eateries would normally consist of a makeshift mobile cooking assembly with about twenty small plastic tables and chairs that I last recall using in my first infant year at school. That said, I also remember quite clearly that in those days it it all seemed a lot less lilliputian and felt a lot more comfortable. Nonetheless unnaturally crouched as I was, it was the perfect location to let the Burmese hours and the Burmese city pass quickly by. Gladly at times like these the people were as curious about me as I was about them and so it was easy to strike up conversation with large gatherings at miniature tables. Nevertheless enthusiastic as they may have been, conversation in public was limited to trivial subjects as my acquaintances skillfully made sure to not allow the chat ever drift off the safer lines. Afterall one in ten of the population are said to be police infomers and behind all those beautiful smiles I could strongly sense the silent fear.

To enter the nation they now call Myanmar is to take a giant step back in time. It is a nation where children drag pick-axes bigger than themselves, fields are ploughed by buffalo, and horses trotted by with cart loads of newly felled teak. So little has been the advancement that the scenes I witnessed were no different to those seen by George Orwell in his time spent here as policeman in the 1920's. Almost a century later the footpaths and streets are a veritable obstacle course yet again and have become nothing more than dirt and rubble after decades of neglect. The thought struck me that while the grandmothers of Southern Spain proudly recall the days before the arrival of roads, in tark contrast the old folk of Rangoon must surely be regailing nostalgically the days of asphalt and markings. Indeed not even the route between Mandalay and Rangoon is surfaced and at times the road completely disppeared, leaving only dirt tracks or flattended scrub for our battered bus (with gerry-cans as seating) to negotiate.

There is no effort made whatsoever ever to hide the fact that Burma is under the complete control of the military junta. This was my first time to see at first hand a despotic regime in action and unsurprisingly the most disturbing aspect was the incredible gap between the ever more rich and the truly hopelessly poor. It was most visible in one particular mountain village known as Kalaw which had an electricity supply only every second day. That was of course unless you lived on the hill in the new military dwellings where they and their families enjoyed endless power without stoppages. This was most noticeable at night when the entire town was in complete darkness without a street lamp in sight while not so far away in lavish brightnesss was the forbidden world of commissioned officers.

The absolute abundance of Pagodas throughout the South East Asian nation is hard to fathom and nowhere was this more so the case than in the countryside surrounding Mandalay. Every hillside in sight was littered with gold painted, if not gold plated, Buddhist shrines which are built by the wealthy in order to gain merit, a central theme in the Buddhist crede. Looking across the valley at this odd spectacle I recalled a cruel and corrupt character named U Po Kyin in George Orwell’s “Burmese Days" who believed that his life's wrong doings (which were many) would be easily compensated for by his building a Pagoda. I can now see that Orwell’s novel was not so much a work of fiction afterall and little has changed since as all still believe that such self indulgent guilded constructions gain more merit than would helping the poor who wash, drink and cook on the river banks that lie in the shadow of theses golden pins.

When I did finally leave Burma, I did so without any sense of optimism or hope for the abandoned nation. While in Vietnam I could see a corrupt communist regime on the verge of democracy and in Cambodia I felt a sense of relief due the upcoming Khmer Rouge trials and the falling number of mine victims, my sensations for Burma were quite the opposite. But what can I do or change ? Afterall I was nothing more than a useless "class tourist".

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