We travel north to arrive in the East. Over Greenland, Norilsk, Ulaanbaatar. The ice of Siberia outside the window: this is the first surprise. On to Hong Kong. And finally Yangon, which was then Rangoon, which is now Yangon.
We are met by three men standing behind a camera on a tripod. They photograph each person arriving in the terminal. We are met by an ad for a Samsung refrigerator, which I instantly register as an aspiration for any middle class person. The “foreigner” line at immigration is much longer than the line for “citizens.” We are met by the humid air. We see a man outside holding a sign with a large ampersand printed on it and mistakenly think he is there to meet us.
The once-exiled Burmese man who has worked to make our project in Yangon possible is waiting to greet us when we arrive at the hotel at 1 a.m. Something about him and about this gesture makes me feel familiar and tender towards him. I want to call him Uncle. Later I find out that this man’s father spoke my native language and came to Rangoon from Madras as an orphan at age fifteen, when Burma was part of British India.
Though it’s my first time here, there’s much that’s immediately comfortable and familiar to me. The warm, mineral air, the foliage, the street dogs, the men wearing longyis (in India, lunghis), the rounded Burmese script, the Burmese alphabet (like my native language it begins: ka, kha, ga, gha…), the temples and mosques, the Indian faces, the South Indian eateries.
When I announced my trip, I was unaware of how many people in my extended family and in my Telugu community had some distant connection to Burma. Indians had been brought to work in the country under British rule, and in the early 1900s they became the majority population in Yangon, outnumbering the ethnic Burmese. They fled in successive waves after riots in the 1930s and the Japanese occupation during WWII, and by the 1960s the dictatorship had forced most of them into exile. I am surprised by the traces of Indian culture that remain visible, and reminded that the violence of colonialism included how it scattered people and mingled them in new matrixes of inequality.
It’s easy to get situated in Yangon, a manageable city—especially downtown, which is built on a grid. What I don’t understand on the first day and every day is: Where am I? How do I make sense of what I see? What I don’t see? How do I recognize what is illegible to me?
It’s easy to see the leafy streets, the orderly city (from an Indian perspective), the pagodas, and forget everything I’ve read about the military dictatorship. I don’t see any demonstrative signs of repression and state violence, but what do I know of how authoritarianism displays itself?
I see freshly painted mansions, shopping malls, signs for luxury condominiums, and western brands. On the way from Inya Lake, where we are staying, to downtown: a L’Occitaine store, a French bakery, a Rolex showroom, and a shopping strip called The Avenue where there’s a BCBG sign in a window.
On the road from the airport to Inya Lake I see an outline of a huge Coca-Cola bottle in neon lights on the side of a building. I’m surprised by it, and it seems significant to me though I don’t know why I should think so. Maybe it’s because I’m Indian and I remember when Coke was allowed back into India. I think of what that represented (liberalization, global capital). I don’t know enough about Burma to know how to read the lighted sign.
Later I learn that Coke returned to Burma in 2012. I find out that the neon sign I’d seen had been installed on the side of the Yangon Hotel just weeks before we arrived. Later I understand that Coke being back here means something like what I’d intuited: Yangon is now a feeding frenzy for multinational corporations and for all sorts of foreign moneymakers and do-gooders (including us).
Now there are two countries without Coke: Cuba and North Korea.
We are walking down a lane at dusk from the no-name Tamil restaurant back to our hotel. We pass walled compounds, circling crows, and a small pond. B, an American who lives in Berlin, says, This place reminds me of Florida. I’m oddly moved by this unlikely comparison. That anything on one side of the globe should trigger sensations, memories, images of something else on the other side of the globe tells me something about our roving condition.
Shwedagon Pagoda is a national treasure and a Yangon icon. Many aspects of the sacred site are beautiful. For instance, the views of the golden stupa and spire from distant corners of the city at sundown.
Or, for instance, the bodhi tree near one of the entrances. Or the various people taking rest in the shade around the pavilion.
At Shwedagon there is the Buddha, the Buddha, the Buddha, a Buddha above the Buddha, another Buddha, and yet another, Wednesday-born Buddha, Sunday-born Buddha, another Buddha, another Budha, another, and then another. All the addition makes me tired.
B notes that in Christianity everything (the architecture, for instance) points toward the one. Here there is one, endlessly repeating.
It’s a visceral feeling rather than an informed thought: The endless same of the Buddha feels to my body not like a sign of infinite wisdom and grace, but something that readily stands side by side with authoritarianism.
I say this as someone who has loved the Buddha from childhood.
I say this knowing that Shwedagon has been a site for protests, including worker strikes, Aung San’s movement for Burmese independence, and the 8/8/88 democracy protests.
I know, too, that the military government (led by strongman Than Shwe) constructed an exact replica of Shwedagon Pagoda in their new hinterland capital of Naypyitaw.
At Shwedagon Pagoda there are two non-Buddha figures among the thousands of Buddhas, both pre-Buddhist. I like both the Alchemist and the Ogress, but the Ogress is my favorite. She enjoys biryani and cigarettes, so that’s what pilgrims leave at her altar, along with cans of soda. A row of women pray to her, cigarettes pressed between their palms.
I am team teaching a two-week workshop at a university with three Burmese colleagues. The university was shut down for undergraduate studies after the democracy protests of 1988 and only reopened in 2012. I arrived with a team of Americans to work on a long-term project of educational reform.
When the students introduce themselves on the first day of class, some of them mention—in addition to their names and academic interests—siblings and other family members who have died. One of my colleagues also speaks of a deceased sibling. I find it curious that we begin in this way, by naming our dead. Later, over tea, another colleague tells me that one of her brothers is dead. He died during 8/8/88, she says. He was not protesting; he was at a tea shop and he stepped out to see what was happening and he was shot.
Our Burmese colleagues are friendly and cheerful and smile a lot. An American colleague says, They love us, they love the work we’re doing, they’re very happy. While I think this may be true, I suspect something else is going on. I’m relying on my instinct as an Indian, and I could be wrong. Later, when I ask various local contacts, Do you think our Burmese colleagues seem approving because they want to make us happy? each of them says: Yes. They are being good hosts.
At Happy Café & Noodles, a Burmese colleague tells me that she is one of five sisters, all middle aged, all unmarried. She goes back to her village from time to time to take care of her elderly mother. Her father was of Chinese ancestry. Do you speak any Chinese, I ask. Oh, no, he didn’t want that. Are both your parents alive?, she asks. When I say Yes, she looks me in the eyes, smiles weakly and says, You are very lucky.
The cheerfulness and optimism we witness in late 2014 can be soothing. Or it can be puzzling. I suppose it depends on who you are and what you are looking for. I constantly sense that I’m missing something, that my grasp of reality here is shallow. I tell myself that if the optimism sometimes strikes me as tinny and amnesiac, maybe it’s understandable. Maybe people want to forget a painful past and would rather imagine a better future. But that’s not quite it. One day while we’re midstream in the cheer and excitement I turn to a Burmese colleague and ask quietly, Are you optimistic about the future? Instantly her face drops as she says, Maybe.
A little boy comes up to me in Scott Market and says, Sister, look at these beautiful postcards. They are so beautiful, only six hundred kyat. Sister, look at how beautiful they are. The little boy is holding a strip of watercolors depicting rural scenes. He looks at my friend, K, and asks, Are you a boy or girl? K says, Girl. The boy turns back to me and begins to follow me out of the market. He has a beautiful smile. That’s why I keep looking at him even as I tell him I don’t want any postcards. Then while I’m looking I realize that the boy is a girl. She has a beautiful smile.
Burma has long been of interest to competing foreign powers. During a 1958 state visit Khruschev gifted the Inya Lake Hotel to the nation, a token of Cold War friendship. This is the hotel where we are staying. The hot water is never hot, sometimes the room is damp, the housekeeping staff is erratic, and the internet hardly works. But the rooms are ample, and each has a balcony, and it is all perfectly adequate. On weekends, we even feel a touch of glamour, as the hotel hosts wedding parties for wealthy Yangon couples, and we get to watch a parade of exquisitely dressed women step out of chauffeured cars and glide into the grand ballroom.
I spy a group of Indian men in the hotel lobby. I gather that they are Indian (not Burmese Indian or Bangladeshi) because they are speaking English together. They are accompanied by a security detail. Someone of importance is here, but I don’t know who. Later I ask a man walking up the stairs behind me if he is here from India. Yes, he says, Delhi. He is here with the Indian Government for talks with the Myanmar military. He works for Indian military intelligence. Do you want to meet in the bar for a drink? he asks. Though it’s late and I have work to do for morning classes, the answer, of course, is yes.
I spend a few hours talking with Captain L. Now that he is working his way up in Indian military intelligence, he works a desk job in Delhi, but he prefers to be out in the field. I’m an infantryman at heart, he says. He speaks of Manipur, Kashmir, peacekeeping in the Congo. His favorite posting was in Kashmir. There was work to do there; you wake up and you start shooting, he says.
I ask him about the Northeast and he discusses the insurgencies on the Myanmar border. He talks about Burmese history and speaks of India’s concerns and interests here, which are, essentially, China. When I ask him if he thinks the military will let go of power and allow the reforms to continue, he says, The Myanmar military will not give up power. It’s very smart what they’ve done, how they drafted the constitution to ensure their power, how they’ve politically reformed just enough so that the money is pouring in, the sanctions have been lifted, and they can get rich.
The next evening I meet a contact from the US State Department for drinks at his hotel. He had previously been posted in Afghanistan and India. I tell him what the Indian officer said to me. He has a very different view of things. The US is optimistic about Myanmar. They are pretty much the only government that does what we ask them to, he says. He tells me that a New York Times op-ed piece issued by the office of the President of Myanmar was commissioned by the US government. Can you imagine the Indian government writing an op-ed because we asked them to? he says. We both laugh. The message, it seems, is: Myanmar is pliable.
A few days later I am introduced to a British academic who lives in Delhi. Her research focuses on Myanmar/India border issues. I don’t know anything about the India/Myanmar border, I tell her, But I was just talking with an Indian military officer and what he told me was … Before I know it she has taken out a small notebook and is taking notes. Who am I?
At a well-known gallery in downtown Yangon I pretend to look at paintings while eavesdropping on a conversation between a white visitor and the white gallerist. He, the British visitor, has asked her, the American gallerist, why the Burmese dislike Indians. Part of it, you see, she says, is that the Burmese farmers were living a decent life; then when the British incorporated Burma into British India they wanted the Burmese to work much more for lower wages. When the Burmese resisted, Indians were imported to fill these jobs. So the Burmese resented the Indians for being willing to work under those conditions. Other Indians prospered while working for the British administration, and this too caused hostility.
I’d read a little Burmese history before my visit, but I never tire of hearing different people (the military officer, the State Department official, a World Bank employee, a NGO worker, a former exile, the gallerist) talk about what’s going on. Each take helps to complicate, if not simply fill in, the picture.
What’s impossible to talk about in Burma is the “R” word. Even among leftist, former political prisoners there’s vitriol. What I hear, from otherwise progressive people who become enflamed at the mention of the word, is that the Rohingya don’t exist.
I ask a few different people about why the Rohingya have been targeted and I collect the various explanations – this time the picture is as confused as ever. One of my acquaintances told me that after she wrote about the Rohingya in 2006, she was afraid to return to Burma for several years.
There’s no shortage of ethnic tensions in Burma, which is the site of the longest ongoing civil war. The Karen, the Shan, the Kachin, and others have long been embattled. The Rohingya, however, are not separatists. A Muslim minority that live in Rakhine State, they are victims of ongoing ethnic cleansing. Currently, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are in concentration camps.
One of my mothers was a Buddhist devotee and scholar; Buddhism is close to my heart. In Burma I sometimes find it oppressive. Buddhism is many things, of course, including a platform for ethnic cleansing.
I am asked on a few occasions if I am Muslim. The owner of a bookstore (without any prompting on my part) leads me to a book on Muslims in Myanmar. I don’t encounter hostility, but I am uncomfortable. Yangon is relatively safe for ethnic minorities, compared with the rest of the country. I am not Rohingya, I am not Muslim. I am often taken for a local (Indian Burmese). Still, I feel alarm in my body. An intense historical sorrow follows me around.
I meet some of my American colleagues at the first Yangon LGBT Film Festival, which is being held at the Alliance Française. At the after party I see a young man of Indian ancestry speaking to one of my colleagues; they head off somewhere. Later my colleague tells me that the young man, R, is a servant in the home of a foreigner. R’s boss had encouraged him to come to the festival, but now that he’s here, R needs to be careful to avoid anyone in his boss’s social circles. R asks my colleague to be his boyfriend. My colleague says, No, but finds R to be sweet. He asks R if he has a boyfriend and R says, No I’m too poor to have a boyfriend. The class and residual colonial dynamics of this space, made visible to me by R, sadden me even though they’re not at all surprising. The rest of the night I periodically scan the crowd for R. He is often watching the crowd from the sidelines, on the margins looking for a way in. I am momentarily heartened when, later, I see him dancing expressively in a circle of men.
I walk through Yangon with a feeling I can only describe as historical melancholy. It’s as though I represent a past that the Burmese would like to forget. I represent it (as many of other ethnicities do) simply in my body – by the fact of my features and their historical inscription in a colonial project. I keep thinking about other peoples who are a target of a majority’s amnesia: Palestinians, Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, non-Hindu Indians, non-Muslim Afghans, African-Americans. I wonder, as a famous American exile once did, “What does it mean to be a problem?”
I have experienced and theorized dislocation in my life, but I haven’t felt this marked since my childhood as an immigrant. I’ve lived my adult life in New York City, where—despite its many inequalities and indecencies—there’s no one who doesn’t belong.
The problem of Burma, as I see it, is not only a problem of democracy. There’s the question of how to live in a multi-ethnic state. It’s the problem for us all: how to live meaningfully and equally with others.
On our last evening two American colleagues and I give talks at PEN Myanmar. The topic, announced at the last minute, is “What is Contemporary in Poetry?” My two colleagues speak beautifully and then it’s my turn. I admit that I don’t know what is “contemporary.” Is it “now” or “not now”? Are we in Burma or Myanmar? Are we in Rangoon or Yangon?
The layers of the past feel present to me. I’m interested in the lag that is propelling us into the future. I feel stuck (I feel like a stick) in the mud. The contemporary is caked with it. There’s more to it, of course, but I’m in the mud.
In response to an email in which I’d written about how easily I fall into the past tense, a friend responds: The present tense is the smallest of them all. I don’t know if this is true. I know that I am always behind. The present tense is magical, a sensorium, the ticking of life itself. For me, understanding (writing) belongs to the future past. I understand and write (about Myanmar) in this strange lag.
And as I write this, I am five hours behind New York, fifteen and a half hours behind India, sixteen and a half hours behind Myanmar. I’m writing now because I couldn’t put Burma behind me when I left. And only now could I write a little bit, and in the present tense. Really it’s a story to be written in the future. It takes place in the past. Now and not now.
November 2014 – January 2015