Saturday, May 01, 2004
Outside magazine, December 1996
In the monsoon twilight, the clamor of Rangoon rises in the shrill horns and sputter of rusted trucks filled with soldiers. Diaphanous light falls over the bright English customs houses and new, half-built tourist hotels. I'm in a taxi, holding a piece of paper scribbled with the name of a man: Caesar. The streets river with people in patterned longyis, Burmese sarongs. Because you can't see their legs, it sometimes seems as if the bodies are floating. At the intersection of Mahabandoola and 32d Streets, in the shadow of the famous Sule Pagoda, a dead man trundles by.
What I see first are two men limping along the sidewalk, hauling something between them, which becomes a stretcher with a body on it, terribly thin, just a hull of ribs. The dead man is partially covered by a blanket, limbs stiff, eyes open like a gutted fish. The men carrying him are almost comical, angrily spitting at each other, hoofing like speed-walkers. As they pass the pagoda, they seem struck by a great spasm of penance. They stop on a dime, drop the dead man without ceremony, and approach a woman who keeps a cage of dirty birds. Offering her a few kyats, they each take out a pigeon, hold the creatures tentatively aloft, and as symbols of their comrade's soul, set them free.
We drive on. Behind a high wall, down a gravel lane, up a winding staircase, Caesar is nearly asleep in the heavy delta heat.
"Oh, you've come," he says, blinking awake. Caesar is a Burmese man in his forties, a well-placed civil servant. He has a dark strand of hair sprouting from a mole on his chin--a sign of good luck. On the desk are stacks of dusty books with yellow pages covered by the beautiful loops of the Burmese language. Normally he doesn't meet like this, in a random, derelict mansion on the outskirts of the capital. Instead he'll have someone pick him up on a prearranged street corner, drive for a few minutes of conversation, and then disappear back into the circus of Rangoon. He's one of those cells that make up an underground here. When he can, he passes along videotapes and news clippings, messages and envelopes of money that help sustain Burma's squelched pro-democracy movement.
Caesar's name, an alias, was passed to me in Bangkok a short time back, when I mentioned to a human-rights activist that I'd soon be visiting Burma--an early tourist arriving just months before the start of what the country's military junta is calling Visit Myanmar Year. If the situation is safe, the activist told me, he'll show you the real Burma. At the sound of a mango falling from a tree out the window, Caesar comes to full attention.
"We sit on a volcano. Spies everywhere," he tells me. "I dare not leave you with a wrong impression, but they say the people, even the students, have given up the revolution, that only the Lady is left, only she has courage now to hang on."
I talk with Caesar well into the night, while wind bangs the shutters and raindrops pelt the leaves. "Oh, I would like you to meet others who share my opinions on the madness of this government," he says. "They are so many. Another time I would take you to them myself." When I ask if we might visit these people, he wiggles uncomfortably in his chair. He's been good enough to risk meeting with me, but now I've inadvertently pushed beyond the line of decorum; he might lose face.
"A bit of an impossibility. Yes, I've the stomach flu," he says, gripping his belly, blinking heavily. Then, as if it's part of the same thought, he adds, "And the Burmese weather, it's like no other weather. So many weeks of clouds and rain and wind. One year the flooding was terrible; the water filled the pagodas. Everywhere, Buddha himself was up to his navel. Oh, quite a mess, quite a mess..."
And just like that, he nods off. I sit for a befuddled moment and then walk myself down the stairs, through the empty raj-era mansion with its cracked ceiling. I pause on the threshold, opening an umbrella against the teeming rain. Beyond the stone driveway, Rangoon is drenched and glimmering, caught behind bars of lightning.
It's 4 a.m. in a bug-infested house near the River Kwai in Thailand, several weeks before my arrival in Rangoon. A group of us groggily fall into a pickup truck starting for the Burmese border, 40 miles away. Having just received the news of another crackdown in Burma, no one has managed more than a few hours' sleep. Those with family inside the country have spent the night on the phone, gathering what information is available: There have been more than 270 arrests. Soldiers are everywhere in the streets of Rangoon, but no violence has been reported. The arrests have already been condemned internationally; travel advisories have been issued by many Western nations, including the United States, calling for all foreigners to stay out of the country.
The Burmese themselves, of course, can't escape, and according to international human-rights groups, a familiar tactic of the government, known since 1988 as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, is to threaten and sometimes torture the families of defectors and rebels during crackdowns like this one. Our truck is filled with revolutionaries--a collection of boyish, olive-skinned men who seem never to have needed a razor in their lives--and their mood is somber, each face turned toward a window, watching as meteors, like tracers, fall out of a black sky.
The men are from the Karen tribe, perhaps the largest of more than a dozen major ethnic groups in Burma. One of the rebels, a man known as Ko Baw, has agreed to act as my guide. A lithe ex-kickboxer, he now spends most of his time in the jungle, detailing atrocities committed against his people. Our hope is to journey as close as we can to the front line of an insurgent war that the Karen have waged for half a century against the government--to see the Burma that SLORC doesn't want us to see, the Burma that even now is kept from the world.
Just before the border, a Thai military checkpoint appears in the first light--a shack with a bamboo pole blocking the road and two huddled men cooking breakfast over an open flame. Often a bribe is enough for the Karen to pass, but today Ko Baw decides it's best not to raise suspicions with an American on board, so four of us break off into the hills while the others continue ahead. We pick our way through the jungle, passing certain bird's nests and betel trees that seem to guide the rebels. Ko Baw stoops to catch a cricket and, as it wriggles to free itself, declares that there's nothing better to eat with a little salt and ginger. The others disagree: Grubs rule.
For years, ethnic groups like the Mon, Chin, Karenni, and Rakhine have also battled for control of their own jungle outbacks but one by one are surrendering and signing cease-fire agreements with SLORC. Nevertheless, today the country of Burma more closely resembles a patchwork of warlords and their fiefdoms than a unified body politic, Southeast Asia's version of Yugoslavia. More than a hundred languages and dialects are spoken; the Karen alone comprise 12 different tribes.The only things uniting the Burmese are an abiding fear of SLORC and almost unanimous support of Aung San Suu Kyi, Caesar's "Lady," the widely popular pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent six years under house arrest and who now finds herself on the verge of arrest again. From the high northern peaks of the Himalayas to the swampy hells of the delta, Burma is in every other sense an utter stranger to itself, battered by its violent history into an anesthetized state, war-torn and woozy.
In the truck again, we jolt over the rutted road. Passing into Burma, it's hard to imagine we're moving from one social and political reality to another when the monolith of jungle is so remarkably unchanging, its quavering green curtains of eucalyptus and frangipani giving way only to more curtains. And yet that's what we're doing: moving quietly from peace to war, from freedom to captivity.
Alongside the road, three young boys march single file. As we pass, one of them turns, aims an AK-47 at us playfully, smiles, and points it away. He wears a bandolier and Buck knife and smokes a cheroot. The truck rolls onward and the boys fan out, clowning in the cloud of dust we leave behind, hoisting their guns high, goose-stepping in the first streamers of light that unfurl from the jungle canopy.
Until recently, the world knew little of modern Burma, perhaps not even the fact that it was vaporized in 1988 following the bloody massacres that ushered in martial law. In an act of psychic hijacking, SLORC renamed the country Myanmar. Rangoon became Yangon, and hundreds of other towns, rivers, and mountains were stripped of their names and given new ones. After 2,000 years of power struggles, the precedent had been set: Tribes from India and China had lost their claims on Burma to other tribes from Tibet and Siam, which in turn were forced to make room for Western missionaries and finally the British, each invading group bringing with it a new set of names. Then came independence from Britain in 1948 and the rise of a new military regime that usurped power in 1962. The doors to the country slammed shut, and foreigners were banned. Burma's rechristening by its xenophobic government, nearly 25 years after it took control, was a declaration against the citizens themselves: Things in Myanmar would be done SLORC's way.
Now, suddenly, after three decades of isolation and tyranny, Burma's ruling junta is throwing a world bash. With the beginning of Visit Myanmar Year, the government is hoping to lure a projected one million visitors, many from the West, who could infuse the beleaguered economy with as much as $2 billion. If half that many show up--a near impossibility, given the political climate--Visit Myanmar Year will be deemed a success and, SLORC hopes, will add a shred of legitimacy to a regime that has made international headlines for its human-rights abuses. For even as the junta rushes to build hotels countrywide and uses forced labor to spiff up its most celebrated tourist sites, Burma's plight has become the cause du jour on college campuses across America. It's the South Africa of the nineties, in which the villainy of a jackbooted regime propped up by foreign investment and staggering profits from alleged opium smuggling has provided the perfect target for moral outrage.
And yet SLORC would have you believe another story. "Discover for yourself the unique beauty of our land, and the serenity of our people, all of whom still strive to preserve the rich and unique culture of their ancient past," gushes one tourist brochure. "The country's great lakes, snow-capped mountains and unspoiled beaches are undoubtedly some of the most stunning, idyllic, and mystical places to be found anywhere on earth." The British called it the Golden Land, half-patronizingly, as if it were a museum exhibit full of coolies and elephants, rubies and animist spirits, a stop on the world tour, where the hazy vistas from the pine deck of a luxury steamer on the Irrawaddy River passed as the country itself. In the wash of a cool vodka, in twilights that turn the ruins of the country purple, it remains a land haunted by the strange descant of its civilization, from the great kings of Pagan to the deification of Aung San Suu Kyi, from the Civil List of the raj to the Most Wanted list of SLORC. And so, too, SLORC has drawn on an old selling point: the exotic inscrutability of Burma's human fauna. The friendliest people in Southeast Asia. Grown out of the sarcophagus of their own country and living, as one tourist T-shirt would have it, in Happyland.
"Money is their lover," says Ko Baw, shaking his head and frowning. We've just been had by the Tajdar brothers, two Indian traders we've met a few days away from the village of Kyeikdon (pronounced "ji-do"), near the front line. The Tajdars possess a battered pickup truck; after three days on the road, we've run out of rides. They argue in Karen that the front line is a place fraught with perils, that the road is all but impassable in the monsoon, just river and gumbo. The trip is worth $1,000 for the American; when Ko Baw balks they quickly cut the price in half, happily load the pickup with goods, and then sell $1 spots in the back to others who also need to go down the road.
To get this far, we've passed through the wood smoke and morning prayers of Karen refugee camps. We've drunk pots of tea and eaten rice with the dispossessed, for the Karen are hospitable to a fault. We've seen people starving or literally halved, left legless by land mines. With bodyguards, we've traveled the same route along which there have been recent government-sponsored killings and kidnappings. Human-rights groups estimate that half a million Karen have died in five decades of fighting; some 8,000 a month now pass over the border into Thailand. Having recently sustained a number of devastating defeats, including the loss of their headquarters at Manerplaw, near the Thai city of Mae Sot, the Karen are barely holding on.
Made up of a group of Indo-Chinese tribes, the Karen were long ago driven by invaders into southern Burma and settled over time near the Andaman Sea on the Tenasserim Peninsula, in the delta area south of Rangoon, and in the jungle along the Thai border. When they were discovered by missionaries in 1827, they were thought to be a lost tribe of Israel, for one of their creation stories echoed the biblical book of Genesis. Though a majority of the Karen are now either Christian or Buddhist, there are still animists living in remote reaches of the jungle who believe an earthworm created the universe.
Unlike most Karen, who tend to be guarded with their feelings, Ko Baw allows his emotion to pass openly over his 26-year-old face as if it were the weather itself, and I've used it as a constant barometer to gauge how good or bad things are for us. There are certain moments when his exuberance or laughter, the gentle tilt of his head, make him seem almost feminine, and moments again when he looks hard and fearless, like an old man. On his arm there is an ugly gash where he was forced to cut out a Karen tattoo. Because his work brings him so often to Thailand, the tattoo became a hazard, an easy excuse for the Thai authorities to detain him and deport him back to Rangoon for certain punishment. In several months he'll marry an American human-rights activist in a traditional Karen ceremony; almost hugging himself, he starts each day with a declaration: "I love that Jenny!"
Ko Baw has been in the jungle since the nightmare autumn of 1988. In August of that year, masses of Burmese, led mostly by students, took to the Rangoon streets in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. In response, the military reportedly opened fire, sparking a four-day killing orgy and months of continued skirmishes that left as many as 10,000 dead. In contrast with the high-profile massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square a year later, in which perhaps 300 people died, the debacle in Rangoon remained something of a mystery to the international press, and by extension the public, because no journalists were allowed in the country. Those Burmese who tried to take photographs were ordered to be shot on sight.
According to the American embassy, however, the military gunned down students and protesters, raped and drowned them, left them to suffocate in the hot sun in police vans or cremated them alive. At one point, troops reportedly stormed the crowded emergency room at Rangoon General Hospital and opened fire, killing doctors, nurses, and already-injured students in their stretchers and beds. The soldiers were imported to Rangoon from rural areas and told they were fighting communist insurgents. At the beginning and end of each day, it is said, they were ordered to drink shots of whiskey, apparently to numb them to their crimes.
Ko Baw was there for it all. He remembers one march in particular in which a woman carried an upside-down Burmese flag toward a line of soldiers. He remembers her in slow motion, almost as if she walked into the bayonet, and before she fell, the flag being taken up by another woman, and watching as she, too, was bayonetted. And then there was blood soaking their longyis and a hail of gunfire. Ko Baw, like the rest of the protesters, instinctively threw stones and then realized the stupidity of it as people began to fall. Later, his friend was hit in the face by a bullet, slurring "I'm dead. I'm dead." Ko Baw carried him away, still alive, his jaw shattered.
"Before the demonstrations, I was just a gaw," says Ko Baw, using Burmese slang to identify himself as a kind of playboy. "I was selling stuff on the black market. I was wearing my American jeans. My friends and I would go to the beauty parlor to look good for the girls. But slowly, I started to have a deep feeling about things."
When the government began to arrest large portions of the population, Ko Baw packed three longyis and three shirts and vanished on a night train. At the time, there was a mass exodus for the jungle, mainly student leaders and the Karen, who in the past few years had already been drifting out of Rangoon. Ko Baw walked for eight days, passing through makeshift villages full of others who were fleeing. In some cases, the government forces bombed them right to the Thai border. Somewhere in those days, he remembers seeing a young girl who had been raped and killed by government troops; they'd left a branch in her vagina.
So now he slept in the soft leaves of the jungle and ate bamboo shoots and bananas picked from the trees, and he began to realize that he was no longer a gaw, was never going to wear his American jeans to the beauty parlor again. In the shade of a betel grove one twilight, he heard noises behind him and, thinking it was government troops, he ran. When he turned back, two people came forth in rags. They were nothing but bones. We need salt, they said in Karen, otherwise we will die here. And Ko Baw understood then that he was Karen, too.
And so he has spent the last seven years interviewing his people and passing their stories on to his fiancëe and other activists. Not a day passes that he doesn't mention his mother in Rangoon, the way he misses her. Afterward, he often falls into a moody silence, though he realizes that anger can be debilitating. When he told one refugee that he could best serve his people by getting an education and bringing it back to the jungle, the boy snapped, "They killed my mother and father. They killed my sisters. I want revenge."
The monk Bo Gin is feeling merry. Reaching into his saffron robes, he produces a handful of kyats, happily slaps them onto the table, and spots us all a Coke. What he'd really like is beer, but there's none to be had at this shepherd's hut. He then insists that since monks invented beer--or as he puts it, "the happiness of beer"--Buddha should grant us all enlightenment. Right now.
As I try to muster a response, she's already talking over me, drawn up on the toes of my boots. "You come see my husband, the revolutionary. We'll give you tea." She points to a hut in a grove of mango trees. "There."
With Bo Gin still holding court over Cokes--he's now rhapsodizing about rap music--Ko Baw and I excuse ourselves. Outside, everything is silver, the trees are bent like harps, and pendants of moonlight glitter in a nearby river. Inside the revolutionary's hut, we remove our shoes and climb a ladder. The elfin woman greets us, as does a man, who appears from the shadows and sits cross-legged, bolt upright, by a single lit candle. He too is small, with white wisps of a mustache, and wears a wool cap and sweater.
We share tea that tastes more like smoky water. When I ask about a tattoo on the back of the old man's hand, he peels off his sweater to show me more, including one across his chest, a garland of flowers held at either end by swallows. His 76-year-old body is startling for its youthfulness: taut and muscular like a teenager's. The birds were razored into him when he fought with the British in World War II as part of a unit called the Karen Rifles, but in the end, he claims, the British let his people down terribly. After trusting the Karen, they left after 65 years of rule, without granting the tribe independence. All but ignored in the new Burma, the Karen immediately stormed Mandalay, besieged Rangoon, and nearly toppled the fledgling government. It was perhaps the pinnacle of their rebel war.
As the revolutionary speaks, I notice a change in Ko Baw. He later tells me that he knows this man from childhood stories he heard about the Karen's most legendary fighter, a man whose bravery made him a kind of Che Guevara. Ko Baw never thought the man was still alive. Once, when cornered, he is said to have killed six soldiers and fought his way to safety. Even now, the old man's most prized possession is the G-2 rifle he wrestled from one of them and then used himself. He killed them with one of their own guns, he says, making them feel their own bullets. As he and his family go hungry, he saves the bony chickens in his yard to feed the Karen soldiers who walk the road. It is in them that he sees his sons. Four were lost in bloody skirmishes; their bodies were never recovered. When I ask if he regrets letting them go to war, he shakes his head violently. "Oh no, never! I have two sisters in jail as punishment for my life as a rebel. We are just one family, and SLORC has raped and killed and mixed the blood of all Karen." He leans forward and his voice drops to a whisper. "I will tell you something. We fight with our blood. When I die, my ghost will rise up and go on fighting forever."
He sits back from the flame, and for a moment everything is silent, until from the back of the hut there's a sudden scream. Bodies move in the dark; I hear the clank of a bucket. It's a grandchild with malaria; the fever is unbearable. A wet rag is slopped over the boy's body.
With the child still screaming, we stand up to leave. The woman jabs me once in the ribs for good measure. The revolutionary bows low and grips my hand, then won't let go. At first, I assume it's a ceremonial gesture, the way he's just clamped on. Then I believe he's actually blessing me, or perhaps allowing something of his dying self to pass into a body--any body--that can carry a shard of him to the front line. Revenge, I realize, has an afterlife: It passes from the old to the young who march back up this road. I instinctively grip his hand hard, too. Then his fingers open, and he lets me go.
We light on Kyeikdon as if it's Jerusalem. Herds of black-horned oxen saunter from town, headed to market in Thailand. Knuckle-skinned elephants lumber past with loads of lacquerware, colorful blankets, and longyis. Karen soldiers trudge wearily back from battle. Placed intermittently along the road are spirit houses for wandering nats--those ghouls, incubi, and ghosts that float between heaven and earth, possessing humans, performing their always mischievous and sometimes deadly pranks. Though Burma is 85 percent Buddhist, almost everyone believes in nats. In some comforting way, they are embraced as an explanation for the country's hardships, for why Burma seems perpetually lost in its surreal cocoon, constantly in a kaleidoscopic state between the conscious and the unconscious. Inside the spirit houses, there are jasmine offerings to Thagyamin, king of nats, who once a year records the names of the good in a book made of gold leaves, those of the evil in a book of dog skin.
Kyeikdon sits on the bluffs of a clear, quick-running river. In the mud streets, there are burning coconut shells and piles of oxen dung. Within sight of several SLORC military outposts, Kyeikdon is one of the last free outposts in this part of the country, despite two significant SLORC sieges in the last seven years. On one occasion, soldiers pillaged the town, lighting everything on fire, including the beards of the Muslim men.
I wander into a tea shop with Bo Gin. He's 41 years old and became a monk only three years ago. He has a long, almond-shaped face, a fuzz of dark hair, and ears that jut out in the shape of apple slices. For 24 years, it turns out, he fought as a Karen soldier. One day, at the age of 14, he left his family in the coastal town of Moulemain, went to the jungle, and took up arms.
He tells me he gave up fighting in 1994 because he felt the center could no longer hold. There were internal conflicts among the Karen, the Buddhists bickering with the Christians and then actually taking up arms against them. Government troops, he says, were using chemical weapons. And there were his parents. He hadn't seen them in more than 20 years, and they were getting old. He arranged a clandestine meeting with them in a jungle village. They told him they understood his life and loved him still but that killing would not lead to enlightenment. Give up the fighting, they said. For us.
And so he did. At first it was a gesture to them, but he soon felt liberated. There were no more nightmares, no more heavy bandoliers and AK-47s--all those snakes of war draping his body--and most of all, no need to take more lives.
When I ask how many he remembers killing, he pretends not to understand my question. When I ask again, he says there were 11 occasions in which "his life was put at risk." When I persist, he says yes, he killed 11 SLORC soldiers. But what seems to trouble him most is the next question, which he's already anticipated. When I ask if he's repented those killings, especially now that he's a monk, he looks at me straight on. "I've not once wanted absolution," he says. "It may not sound like the right words, but I did what was necessary. When I left my family and came to the jungle, the Karen looked after me. I saw two villages massacred by SLORC, 60 Karen killed. I wanted more than justice. I wanted to kill them."
He takes a deep breath after saying this and pleaches his fingers, rubbing his thumbs together. He smiles at me. A cultural characteristic of the Karen is to avoid causing anyone discomfort. "Being a monk has helped my temper," he says, smiling wider. "I'm trying to come close to Buddha. I want a good life."
Suddenly, I'm poolside in Mandalay, lost in a wafting breeze of coconut suntan oil, sipping a huge umbrella drink from the swim-up bar. I've now entered Burma as a fully approved, passport-stamped tourist. Despite the travel advisories and recent government crackdown, which has left the Burmese people in renewed shudders of paranoia, I've decided to take advantage of my foreigner status by going first-class for a day or two. And so I'm frogging in the Hearst-castle swimming pool; I'm frying in the 100-degree sun; I'm ordering a hamburger with the works; I'm enjoying myself like an undergrad at Daytona Beach. I've arrived in Happyland.
The problem is, there's no one here to share it with. The handful of guests at the newly opened five-star Novotel all seem to appear late at night, sidling up to the lobby bar, watching World Cup soccer via satellite. They're British, Australian, and Hong Kong businessmen, intensely talking into cellular phones and tapping on computers. And while they're perhaps anticipating that this is the world's next tiger economy, it seems no one's told them that most people here live without electricity. In fact, Burma remains a land where a single bridge spans the 1,350-mile Irrawaddy River, where the only major highway is a country lane running between its two most populous cities, and where you can still chain-smoke on an airport tarmac next to a refueling plane.
Sure enough, within minutes of arriving in my room, the power in the 200-suite pleasure dome goes out. Apparently there's no backup generator, no emergency exit doors. Just pitch black. If there's a fire, we're all barbecue. I take a few quiet moments to reflect on my happy life until the lights flicker back on.
Touring the city the next day, I'm not surprised by the lack of fellow tourists--it's the off-season, after all--so much as I'm surprised by the glut of tourist facilities. Given SLORC's hurry to modernize, and given its lackadaisical attitude toward drug smuggling in the Golden Triangle region, Burma-based observers believe that much of the domestic building boom is being subsidized by laundered drug money. Khun Sa, one of America's most wanted drug traffickers, has recently been exonerated by SLORC, taken from his Shan State hideout of three decades, and set up in a lakeside villa in Rangoon. It's said that he now owns a bus line and a tourist hotel and that his drug coffers partly line government pockets.
To find fellow travelers, I apply a fail-safe rule of thumb: The bigger the statue of Buddha, the more likely you are to find an ogling argonaut. Sure enough, in a pagoda at the top of Mandalay Hill, I meet an affable British factory worker named Johann, who spends six months of every year backpacking in Southeast Asia. We look down the hill to Fort Mandalay, built in the midnineteenth century by King Mindon, who christened the structure by burying 52 people alive, a number picked for its astrological significance.
I ask Johann what he feels about the political situation in Burma and the fact that a percentage of his tourist money goes to the government. He looks at me quizzically. "I see you out here, too, mate," he says. "Maybe my two quid a day will keep them fookers in power for two more minutes, but I see myself as a political tourist. I spend most of me money on the people, not the state. When I can, I tip cyclo drivers and restaurant owners and tell them about England. What I see I take back to Europe and tell me friends. I'm not some college pisser wavin' a protest sign. I'm more effective than that."
When he asks where I'm staying, I point somewhat guiltily down at the Novotel, its pool glittering richly in the sun. Johann looks thirstily on Xanadu, losing himself for a moment. "I haven't had a bloody bath in two weeks. You think I might have a dip? I'll pay the bloody government for that."
Night on the dusty plain of Pagan is eerie. The pagoda ruins are strung with thousands of colored lights. The spirit houses overflow with rotted durian and roses. I can feel the hollow ache of time inexorably moving backward, of civilizations falling away until it's the eleventh century again. I've got myself believing that great King Anawrahta, the architect of this Burmese Giza, is still out here somewhere, mercilessly driving his workers, demanding that they build a thousand more pagodas for the glory of his name.
Anawrahta's army is still at work tonight, toiling in bright spotlights for the new kings of the country. Throughout my travels in Burma, I've seen forced labor everywhere, dusty-bodied children hoisting rocks alongside men and women, Sunday midnight, Saturday dawn, faces lit by neon like a Degas painting. But in Pagan, one of Burma's most exquisite and sacred sites, there's an unparalleled urgency to it. The pagodas must be put back together again for Visit Myanmar Year, the tourist hotels must be finished before the imaginary tourists can occupy them.
Inside the pagodas, Buddha is everywhere. He's the size of your fingernail or the size of a parking garage. He's made of jade or ruby, teak or bronze. He's smiling or hopping mad. Sparrows fly from his ears, lizards crawl in his hand, papayas rot at his feet. Errant follicles of his hair are enshrined in tons of gold.
In many ways, Buddha alone does the heavy moral lifting in this country. But Buddhist absolution, as institutionalized by the Burmese leaders, seems only to free the government's baser impulses. While pacifying the masses with the promise of an afterlife, they can rape, plunder, and kill--and then dedicate pagodas to Buddha and come out holy.
In the morning, I find a young tour guide to show me around in his horse and buggy. His name is Anton, and he's a happy-go-lucky kid who makes $10 a day, $7 of which goes to the man who owns the horse. Still, his take is a king's ransom in a country where the average monthly wage is $7. As we ride through sesame fields in the blazing heat, he tells me that one day he will have enough for his own horse and buggy, though he loves this horse, constantly coos at her. That is his one wish--besides marrying a girl who works 16-hour days on one of the massive reconstruction projects in Pagan, melding old and new brick to make the pagodas whole again. "She is very, very beautiful," he says, dreamily.
At the end of the day, after seeing no fewer than 20 shrines, we rush to watch the sunset from Gawdawpalin Temple, one of the most famous here. In his haste Anton heads up a paved road--buggies are only allowed to travel the dirt roads--just as a military procession is arriving from the airport. Caught, he freezes. When the procession passes, one of the soldiers points at him menacingly. Anton collapses in a panic, paralyzed, mumbling to himself as the trucks disappear over the next hill.
He insists that we must immediately find the military officer who runs Pagan to pay a bribe. He whips his horse ferociously, and we take off at breakneck speed. His eyes brim with tears. And though we will find the man, and though he will accept the bribe and my guide's prostrate apologies, Anton's Happyland has suddenly diverged from mine. If the commissioner does not look kindly on his next infraction, he will join those who've committed equal and lesser crimes in prison. If he's lucky, he'll stay out on this haunted plain of ruins, chasing sunsets forever while tourists fill him with news of the world.
The lady in the rain: she seems dismal, haggard, wearing a conical hat, water rushing off its brim, standing up behind the high, green-speared gate of her house on University Avenue in Rangoon. In the last few weeks, the government crackdown has focused primarily on key members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, and her weekend talks have been officially banned. Nonetheless, she greets the assembled throng even as army trucks and soldiers mass behind the metal gates of a military station up the street.
Without a doubt, one of the most inspiring sights in Burma is the droves of people who risk turning out for the Lady's speeches. During her house arrest, when she was not allowed to speak publicly, people would pass on the sidewalk and listen for her piano playing each night just to know that she was safe.
Wearing dark sunglasses, military intelligence officers roam the crowd, aiming their camcorders, documenting who has dared to defy SLORC this week. Recently, the state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, has barraged the country with a rash of wonderfully far-fetched tales of Aung San Suu Kyi's corrupt quest for power, her corrupt sexual habits, and her corrupt ties to the West--they've labeled her the "puppet of white face." Billboards in both Burmese and English have been unveiled in staged ceremonies around Rangoon, calling for all citizens to defy "external agents acting as stooges holding negative views." Through it all, the Lady has not backed down, and because of it, the Burmese people remain loyal to her.
There are others who must play their loyalties closer to the vest--mostly diplomats and expatriate businessmen. They come each week, tracking her like a stock in an attempt to gauge the possibilities for conflict, peaceful revolution, or some truce with SLORC. With these observers, the Lady's value fluctuates, depending on the whims of the moment--the strength or weakness of her words, the gestures of SLORC to the international community, or the interest of big business, especially Western business, in the country.
What heightens the drama of Aung San Suu Kyi's stand against SLORC, what gives this political tale the stuff of Greek tragedy, really, is the fact that she is the daughter of Aung San, the revered father of modern Burma. As a general, he led the country to independence but was assassinated before his new government could take control. Over time, many have come to believe that the killing was the handiwork of General Ne Win.
Thus, it's no small irony that Aung San Suu Kyi's home on Rangoon's Inya Lake sits across the water from that of General Ne Win. It's widely held that Ne Win, who is now 85 years old, remains the puppeteer behind the ruling junta, an uncharismatic group of 21 generals. Once second in command to Aung San, Ne Win came to power after leading a coup d'etat against the elected prime minister, and his Revolutionary Council shortly suspended the constitution, instituting military rule and closing Burma for good to the outside world.
Like the country itself, Ne Win is a paradox: Pathologically hermitic, he has at times hungrily assumed the spotlight. As the man who has often condemned the extravagances of the West, he allegedly took planeloads of Burmese rubies to Paris and returned with weapons, fine Western clothes, and a body full of rejuvenating Swiss sheep-cell injections. In 1987, he devalued the country's currency, bankrupting many Burmese, and based a new currency on the number nine because, like King Mindon of a century before, he regarded it as most auspicious in his personal numerology.
Cast against Ne Win and his reinvention of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has inevitably been deified not only by her followers, but also by the West. Yet there are those who claim that she can be quick-tempered, stubborn, and vindictive. "She's on the side of angels," one well-placed Western observer tells me, "and that tends to blind a lot of people to the fact that she has a disjointed agenda. Sometimes her best idea seems to be to get arrested again. She'd prefer martyrdom to being ignored. She's really a hostage to history."
Wrapping up her talk now, she becomes animated, repeating her calls to SLORC to make way for democracy. To avoid conflict--after all, the 1988 violence began with an argument over the station being played on the radio in a tea shop--she asks people to proceed home peacefully. "I'm watching you," she says, wagging a maternal finger at them.
Moments later, I'm permitted through the gate. I follow an aide to the house, a two-story bungalow with a portico and veranda, and into a vast, empty room. Aung San Suu Kyi sits on a window seat, wearing a peach shirt and patterned longyi, roses tied in her hair. She's a slight woman, 51 years old, and while she's most often described as beautiful, up close she looks drawn and fatigued, with dark circles beneath her eyes. In the last weeks her bodyguard and personal assistant have been arrested, as has her godfather, who will later die in prison. She's seen her British husband and two children once in the last two years; their most recent requests for visas have been denied. She rarely leaves her compound these days and dares not travel abroad for fear that she won't be allowed back into the country. In the months to come, even her gateside talks will briefly come to an end when SLORC erects barriers on University Avenue.
Expecting much from her, I'm surprised at how little she seems to want to say. Aloof and dismissive, she doesn't answer when I thank her for meeting with me. Sitting straight-backed, her hands curled in her lap, she shows a rigidity that strikes a stark contrast with the lively, smiling woman who stood before her people just moments earlier. When I ask her about the Karen and what words she might offer them in the jungle, she looks at me for a moment. "We need democracy here to dissipate the racial hatred," she says perfunctorily, and then says no more. When I ask about her call for complete disengagement by the international community--whether or not that in fact might isolate Burma for another 30 years--she curtly says, "The international community has a responsibility."
Visit Myanmar Year? "I'm asking people to visit some other year."
An economic boycott? "The only beneficiaries right now of foreign investment are the elite in this country."
For someone with no access to the media in her own country, Aung San Suu Kyi has often found her best weapon in the international media. Yet talking to her now, in the parlor of her father's house with its leaking roof, I realize that she sees our meeting more as an obligation than as an opportunity to speak to the world. In truth, she's not really here at all. She admits that she doesn't like to do interviews on Sundays. When I ask if she still plays the piano, she tersely says that these days politics are everything.
Suddenly we're through. The Lady rises, offers a limp hand, and sleepwalks past me into the swallowing chambers of the dark house. Later, when I speak to a diplomat about the strange meeting, he says, "Doesn't surprise me a bit. She's as bad as a prisoner again, locked in that bloody wrecked house all night and day. There's nothing for her. I'm surprised she hasn't gone insane."
A last village with Ko Baw. We've come here on a rumor that a SLORC soldier, a defector, has stumbled in from the jungle. We find him upstairs in a teak house, sleeping on a rolled-out mat. He wears a pale blue sarong and a T-shirt with Disney dalmatians on it. His skin is caramel-colored and damp with sweat. Ko Baw rouses him and asks if we might speak. He smiles, rubs his eyes, and sits up cross-legged. His big toe is swollen with an infection.
His name is U Tun. He tells us that he fought with SLORC for four years--all of them against his will. His parents were farmers, he says, and he went to town to sell some cane. He was picked off the street and made a soldier. He was 16 years old.
At the time, U Tun already blamed SLORC for the greatest tragedy of his young life. "My older brothers sold charcoal," he says. "I went with them to a nearby village once, and the villagers were protesting something that SLORC had done. The soldiers opened fire, and my brothers got caught in the crossfire." They were both killed. U Tun dug their graves.
In the four years since he was kidnapped, he says, he's never had the chance to see his family. Instead, he says, he was forced to enter jungle villages, demanding "tea money" from the inhabitants. The soldiers took rice, chickens, cows. In one village, U Tun claims, his commander ordered his regiment to tie the men and women up in the jungle and leave them to the leeches. They beat and killed two men in the process.
When I ask if soldiers were allowed girlfriends, he sheepishly says he's had many. I ask what he means, and he says he's been with many women. "It was what the soldiers did." U Tun then admits that he raped 20 women, that SLORC ordered its soldiers to dilute the ethnic Karen with their sperm.
With this revelation, he becomes visibly agitated. "I can never marry now, knowing what I did to them," he says, pressing his lips together to hold himself in. "When I think about it, I see my sisters at home."
This boy, I realize, is the Burma that SLORC doesn't want you to see: the wasteland of refugee camps and work projects, the plundering soldiers and raped women, the damaged bodies and souls and psyches, all left as a sacrifice to country and Buddha. If I've been searching for the true face of Burma, then I guess I've found it: a 20-year-old boy, scared shitless.
When we finish the interview, U Tun smiles nervously and crawls back to his mat. The room is now crowded with other motherless boys, the Karen soldiers who have offered U Tun shelter, unrolling their mats, smoking cheroots, cracking jokes. U Tun tentatively laughs, occasionally adds something himself, accepts a cheroot. When the candles are blown out, everyone is quiet. The silence seems almost crushing, the humid night pressing down until there's no air to breathe. In the pitch black, I'm surprised by a sound, soft at first, sweet notes rising like light. It's a voice coming from a distant corner of the room. U Tun is singing a lullaby.
Michael Paterniti, a former executive editor of Outside, wrote about alpinism in La Grave, France, in the February 1996 issue.
Photographs by James Whitlow Delano