Published in Pattaya Trader, Thailand
‘Aright me old china? Howzit going? Fancy a cuppa cha?’ The line could have come from anyone down Hackney high street in London’s East End. Instead, this unmistakable Cockney banter was coming from a man on a rickshaw in the middle of Mandalay.
U Nee showed all his gapped teeth as he grinned and continued to peddle, both literally and figuratively. ‘Hey, geezer, how about some sight-seein’? I’ll take you round all the sights in a jiffy. Easy as pie.’
U Nee is a lean man in his early 20s with striking features and ritualistic tattoos on each arm. Being a tour guide in Myanmar is hard work, given the paucity of punters, so you clearly have to try that bit harder. U Nee learned English from his uncle, who had a colonial-influenced education, and so now if you closed your eyes you would swear you were chatting to Michael Caine. We had our cup of cha in a nearby tea house, and then it was back on the rickshaw. As we rode along the cobbled, open streets we passed men wearing sarong-like longyis and smoking cheroots, while women chewed betel nut and spat the resulting blood-red saliva onto the floor.
Myanmar is a beautiful, intriguing country, but it’s run by inept and callous leaders who will do anything to cling onto power. U Nee wouldn’t say much in the tea shop (you never know who is listening), but on the road he started to explain what life was like here. “Around nine years ago, a new railway line was built near my village. More soldiers came, and more problems came too. “The solders would come to the village and chose a girl. If the girl didn’t want to go with them, then raped her. “When they came back again all our men had sticks. We fought because we didn’t care what happened to us. People hate the system here but what can they do?”
Stories such as U Nee’s are shocking, but not rare. Myanmar, formerly Burma, is run by a group of generals who lost an election in 1989 but refused to cede power to the National League for Democracy. Today, an astrology-mad general named Than Shwe runs the country and listens more to the stars than his people for advice.
Life is tough, with relatively high prices and low wages. Internet access is restricted, there are no mobile phones and communication with the outside world is difficult. In such a country, you’d expect to find a cynical population with little time for others, but its people are gregarious and happy to talk – once they are sure no-one else is listening.
My trip started in Yangon, capital until recently, and a place of crumbling pavements, decaying buildings, and manic markets. Impossibly-packed buses pass cyclists (motorbikes are banned), and armed officers in police boxes sit on street corners, surrounded by a jungle of barbed wire. Women walk by with trays of fruit balanced on their heads and tanakar, white face paint, rubbed on their cheeks.
A guide named Tin Tin took me to Shwedagon Paya, the most sacred site in Burma. As we entered the lift to go up to the top level, a fat woman with a scowl joined us. “Who is he?” she asked Tin Tin, nodding in my direction. An official tourist guide card was hanging from Tin Tin’s neck, but was the wrong way round, so the woman was suspicious. He explained who I was and we continued the ride in silence.
After the temple, we drove out of the city to a wooden jetty, where we sat and Tin Tin explained about living conditions in Myanmar. “There’s no communication here so we do not know what happens. We have to use the BBC or Voice of America to find out things. “Corruption is everywhere. A government worker gets $25 a month, so he goes out and takes kick-backs. If you work in the passport office you may make $50 extra a day. The black market flourishes because people don’t earn enough, and so the government tolerates it.” “The government has money but they keep it.”
A guard walks around the corner and Tin Tin stops talking. The guard approaches us and we avoid eye contact, unsure if he has heard. He approaches, and then walks by. His target is a teenage boy and girl also sitting on the jetty. They’re too close for the guard’s sensibilities, and he orders them to move apart. Guards such as this know that their word is law. Those who dare to protest tend to disappear.
Maybe the one place that publically shows any form dissent is in Mandalay. The Moustache Brothers are a comedy troupe from a run-down part of town which inadvertently achieved international fame. In 1996, two of the group, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, performed at a pro-democracy concert outside the home of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In front of the 2,000-strong audience, they told a joke, which very roughly translated went ‘in the old days you used to call a thief a thief – now you call him a co-operative worker.’ While the crowd laughed, the authorities didn’t see the funny side.
After a two-month public, but jury-less trial, they were jailed for seven years. Both had to crush stones for two months and help build roads. They were fed rice and water, and slept on a bamboo mat. Par Par Lay developed dysentery and malaria. The case made global headlines and in July 2001, with no explanation, they were released. Today, they are black-listed from performing in public, and are only permitted to do toned-down and closely-monitored shows for foreigners.
They perform in a theatre no bigger than a garage. A row of six plastic chairs is lined up along one wall and on the other side of the room is the stage. Lu Maw’s machine-gun delivery is relentless, anti-government, and full of English slang. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the slapstick banter. He grabs a 50s-style microphone, clipped to a 12 volt motorcycle battery, and begins. “Now-we-only-perform-for-tourists. You-are-how-you-say-a-sitting-duck-ripped-off-ripe-for-the-plucking-easy-target-no?” Lu Maw fires off. A Spanish woman sitting next to me looks confused throughout.
It’s not much of a protest group, but it’s about the best its people can muster. Myanmar is a country without a voice, a country with all the potential but none of the ability. Just before I arrived, a small explosion occurred at a hotel in Yangon, a sign of the desperation many feel. U Nee read the report and summed things up succinctly: “We have a saying here, when it’s midnight already it doesn’t get any darker.”