A Tale of Two Cities
Cover feature, TNT Magazine/UK, April 19th, 2004
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The pagodas tell one story, but the underground bars tell another. The old, the new and the forbidden make for a fascinating mix in Yangon, Myanmar, says Ethan Todras-Whitehill.

In Yangon, Myanmar's capital (formerly called Rangoon and Burma respectively), cars aren't a major pedestrian hazard, but binder clips are another story. I couldn't go 10 feet in the street without walking face first into one hanging from a string. I asked my self-apponted guide, Hein Ko Ko — a diminutive 17-year-old boy who hijacked foreigners to practise his English — what their purpose was. He looked at me like I was crazy and said: "Do'bells." Doorbells? "Do'bells. Six hours of 'lectric a day — if lucky. Can't trust." You pull on the string and it rings a bell in one of the apartments above. Effective, but not exactly what one would expect from a capital city.

But then very little of Yangon is what you would expect. Many visitors anticipate Myanmar to be much like Thailand, its eastern neighbour. Thais ride mopeds, wear Western clothing and watch satellite television. Most Burmese ride bicycles and wear traditional longyi — Burmese sari — the men included. Families buy a generator before they bother with television, while the really well-to-do own a landline phone.

In some places, archaism is mandatory. When the Burmese visit Shwedagon Pagoda, just north of Yangon's city centre, they're required to wear traditional ethnic dress. There, beneath the 100m, 24-carat spire that sanctifies all the land under its shadow, denizens relax, meditate, talk and worship, just as they have for centuries. The warmth of the people is palpable; I had offers from at least seven different English-speaking monks to show me the points of interest. The only modern elements to be seen were carried and worn by the tourists, who were outnumbered by the locals 20 to one.

Some aspects of Western culture do sneak into Burma, but the country's censorship bureau makes sure the original significance gets lost, leaving the Burmese to give these stray cultural elements new homes and meanings. At Shwedagon and other popular Buddhist sites, Burmese have started putting flashing haloes of red, green, and yellow lights behind the Buddha. To me, these lights connote carnivals and arcades, but to the Burmese they express the Buddha's aura of enlightenment. Makes sense if you live in a time bubble, which, conveniently, they do.

Yangon and Myanmar were the names adopted in 1989 by the military State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) which assumed power in 1962. Although the generals claim that they are helping the country work through its long history of racial division towards democracy, the rule of the SPDC has been brutal, censorious, and closed to public scrutiny. Burmese I spoke with in private said the government's recent openness to outsiders is a step in the right direction, but anything short of a democratic election will not satisfy them.

The head of that democratic government, should it ever convene, would be Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won 80% of the parliament seats in 1990 but were never allowed to take power. Since then, Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders have been in and out of house arrest and even jail (in the aptly named Insein Prison). Suu Kyi's name is never spoken in public from fear of retribution from the Government; instead, the Burmese have lovingly and surreptitiously termed her 'the Lady'. Even offhand mentions of Suu Kyi will clear a path in the busiest Yangon street, but some make subtle shows of support: the egg rolls at Nobel Prize Tempura were excellent.

The ruling class are encountered first-hand in the most unlikely of locations: At Mr. Guitar Café, a signpost at the door told me just how many kilometres I would need to travel to reach David Beckham and J. Lo — although "she's busy," it cautioned. Inside, Burmese youths who couldn't converse in English sang country music with a perfect American drawl. Posters of Bob Marley and John Lennon decorated the dark brick walls, and forbidden pornographic ads from Australia and England wallpapered the bathrooms.

In the bathroom, the attendant told me in hushed tones that Mr. Guitar was the favoured hangout of generals and ambassadors — the two gentlemen in dark trousers at the table next to me, I was informed, were particularly high-placed. As to why most of the men in Mr. Guitar wore trousers instead of longyi, I was told that Burmese men wear Western trousers when they go out at night to differentiate from their everyday dress. The military wear trousers all the time — to differentiate from the everyday people.

Whereas my smiles were returned only with stares by the patrons of Mr Guitar, most people on the streets of Yangon smile back and call out Min ga la ba (hello). It seems that, despite the military's efforts, warmth and friendliness are ineradicable from the Burmese character. The Burmese don't have a word for "please," and they don't need one; their politeness and respect is innate.

After my impromptu tour of Yangon, I returned Hein via cab to the city center, but he didn't want to leave. I hoped he wasn't waiting for a tip. "Hut," he said. I didn't understand. "Huck," he tried again, stomping his foot sheepishly. I sussed it: hug. He just wanted a hug.

Should You Go?
  • Many everyday Burmese disagree with Suu Kyi's hardline anti-tourism stance, saying that tourist dollars help them as much as the money helps the government.
  • The government has allowed ever-increasing privatization of the tourist industry since 1996, making it possible for tourists to interact solely with locally-owned businesses.
  • In 2004, the government dropped the requirement of changing $100 US per person on entry to the country—previously a source of foreign currency that every tourist provided for the government.

  • Against
  • The Burmese military is guilty of a growing string of human rights offenses, including forced relocation and unjust imprisonment of democratic leaders.
  • In 1990, free elections were held, but the National League of Democracy (NLD), which won 80% of the seats, was not permitted to take power.
  • NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists to refrain from visiting Myanmar as their money helps the government stay in power.

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    © Copyright Ethan Todras-Whitehill 2004