year I met Swiss newlyweds, honeymooning the world, who
solemnly pledged to counter the American militaristic misanthropy
and cruel xenophobia by excluding the US Empire from the itinerary
until it reforms. They took the oath over a pint of Myanmar Lager
in Burma's now-ex capital, Rangoon.
Following six decades of
exploitation under the stiff Indo-British Raj, briefly interrupted
by Japanese occupation, Burma enjoyed 14 years of relative democracy
after the WWII. As Pico Iyer points out, it was the general Ne Win's
bloody coup of 1962, not the nullified 1990 elections highjacked by
the present junta, that '...sent the rest of the world into exile'
by embracing a queer mixture of religious Marxism and totalitarian
isolationism spiced with astrology. The incarcerated Burma's poster
dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, who advocates that the world ought to,
in turn, boycott Burma as a way of isolating its military regime, was
16 at the time attending an elite boarding school in Delhi.
Independent travel to
Southeast Asia's forbidden fruit became much easier lately as the
country no longer requires the $200 compulsory exchange into the
Monopoly-money and most border crossings with Thailand are now open
to the western 'overlanders' (though one has to take an expensive
domestic flight to venture farther). Several areas are still
nominally off limit to foreigners - I was thrown out of a bus at
the fifth military checkpoint (dodging the first four on account of
soldiers sleeping) while trying
to reach the Padaung long-necks of Loikaw. But on balance, there are
relatively few restrictions as to where and how one can travel -
Area 51 is not that easy to reach either.
pre-departure guilt trip inflicted by the guidebooks, political
campaigns by Burmese exiles and the general knowledge of atrocities,
you may remember Burma more for its kind, docile and respectful
people than for its complicated history and politics. What you read
is a murderous regime, ethnocentrism, coercion, forced labour and censorship; what
you remember are cheroots, men's longi skirts,
thanaka bark sunscreen, betel nut juice spitting, lephet
pickled tea, trains without timetables, ubiquitous shortwave
radios permanently tuned to the Burmese edition of the Voice of
America and overly tactful conversations.
Burma is poor to be
sure, but so are many other places in Asia; dilapidated
infrastructure doesn't always translate to visible poverty and
starvation. Above all, Burmese desire what most other people
world-over do: peaceful lives and prosperity.
apolitical: there are very few places that one couldn't find some
fault with and thereby elect not to go to see them. Burma is the one that you
will always remember but never understand.