I FELT LIKE A TARGET when we first arrived in the Yangon (formerly Rangoon) airport in late December. Uniformed guards, medals and ribbons dripping off their breast pockets and machine guns at the ready, surveyed our group in the customs line. More unnerving yet, a customs official in a longyi (the long wraparound skirt worn by most Burmese) hurried toward me, nervously pointing to the pink immigration card I’d filled out on the plane, shaking his head and exclaiming, “No editor. Something else.” In my jet-lagged ignorance, I had written “Editor” in the box marked “Occupation,” not stopping to think that a military junta with the Darth Vaderesque acronym SLORC (for State Law and Order Restoration Council, recently changed to the less apt SPDC, State Peace and Development Council) might not like having journalists wandering around. The man was visibly relieved when I promoted myself to “Arts Coordinator.” I’d gotten my first lesson in Burma travel; watch your back, no matter who you are.
I already knew that Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy-movement leader who won both the last free election, which the SLORC overturned, and the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize had been under some form of house arrest for years, separated all that time from her husband and sons in England; that the entire population of Pagan (now called Bagan) was forced to move so tourists could better enjoy the views of its splendid pagodas; that everyone said “8-8-88” to evoke the date when the Tatmadaw (army) massacred thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators; that Burma has one of the worst human-rights records on the planet, if not the worst; and that much of the Tourist Triangle (Rangoon, Mandalay, and Bagan) had reportedly been renovated with coerced labor. If that was not enough, my first images of the place came from a video called Inside Burma: Land of Fear.
I KNEW I WAS WALKING a fine moral line by “vacationing” in Burma. As a journalist, I took it as an opportunity to learn and, as the customs official feared, write about my experience. I went out of my way to get to Suu Kyi’s house. (She occasionally makes public speeches on weekends, but that day her road was barricaded and guarded.) I met with National League for Democracy activists in Bagan. I quizzed our guides until they resorted to the standard refrain: “I am not allowed to talk politics because I might lose my license.” I told many people that we in the West cared about their struggle for democracy. And I was shown an example of “forced labor,” petty criminals knocking off after-hours in telltale long jackets.
In Myanmar (Burma’s newspeak name), the military presence coexists with contemplative Buddhism. It was hard at first to reconcile the two extremes, but the beauty and focus of this religion lends a complex optimism to an otherwise oppressive place. The gilded spires of Yangon’s golden stupas, the Shwedagon and the Sule, reach to the heavens with an otherworldly glow. Back on earth, people pad around the gaudy temple grounds in bare feet and kneel before benign Buddha statues enhanced with electrically lit, technicolor halos. Monks in mahogany and nuns in pink blend in with the longyis, and a serenity settles over everything. It begins to dawn on you that outside these compounds of worship, in the haze of exhaust fumes, fruit stands, anti-insurrection billboards, and the all-but-empty People’s Park, things don’t have to make as much sense. Buddhism provides diversion from the difficulties of daily life and the threat of violence. As a tourist, I felt exempt from this threat.
MANDALAY COMES ALIVE after sunset, when its popular Night Market opens—a multisensory promenade along tables covered with sticky rice candy, English-language study guides, bootleg tapes (the Spice Girls!), personal-hygiene products, textiles, and, well, guns. Plastic guns of all shapes, sizes, and colors take up more space than all other toys together; you can never forget that the military runs this country, and boys start preparing early for it—unless they’re sent to the monasteries. Power or poverty, the options in Burma.
As I walked ahead of my group, a dozen or more toy-gun vendors who beckoned for me to pass a few hundred kyat their way. I turned the corner and headed back on the opposite side of the street, attracting the attention of five or so men in their late teens or early twenties standing around a table. I flashed them a smile and received jeers. I kept going, until I heard a sudden “crack” and felt a wallop of pain on my right shoulder blade. I turned and saw the guys laughing their heads off. One of them had his finger on the trigger of a small pistol, presumably with one less BB in it. *
More information on the current situation in Burma: