One night in Rangoon I had a hard time sleeping and got up early, while it was still dark, and walked a few blocks down to the harbor along the Irrawaddy River, near the Botataung Pagoda where they keep a single strand of the Buddha’s hair. It’s a sacred relic for the Burmese, more than 2,000 years old, encased in gold. During the Second World War the British bombed the pagoda to rubble, but when the monks dug through the heap they found the hair in perfect condition inside a small box, a miracle, and they rebuilt the shrine around it.
There were dogs sleeping on the street like they owned the place, and a line of 30 or 40 young monks walking single file, from tallest to shortest, exiting the pagoda after early morning prayers. On a concrete runway along the river, which was perhaps a half-mile wide, men and women were exercising in the dark, doing tai chi and walking backward, listening to the bbc or voa in Burmese on transistor radios. The sun came up through the thick air, dark red and monstrous. The river turned from slate to blood to pea soup.
I was depressed. We’d come to Burma to see if there might be some hope of a revolution, but people seemed more concerned with making money to buy Game Boys and cell phones, even though a cell phone sim card cost $3,000, the equivalent of 12 years of work at the average yearly salary of about $260. I don’t know how many people had told me they were hoping the United States would invade. The doorman at our hotel said, “I want you to tell President Bush to send his army. They will be welcomed by all Myanmar people. Tell them we have plenty of beer for them to drink.” But President Bush…President Bush…oh, I was depressed.
Along the water, the concrete benches under the palm trees were mostly filled by sleeping teenagers, boys and girls, one to a bench. But at the end of the pier, six boys lay fully awake, listening to their friend sing and play a guitar. He was maybe 16 years old and the guitar had an iron cross acoustics sticker on the front of it. I sat down a few feet away, rolled a cigarette, and listened. The kid had a clear voice, a strong voice, and he was pouring his heart out in a love song, as real as Willie Nelson. They’d been up all night, maybe high on methamphetamines, but their clothes were clean, shorts and baseball hats, and they were polite. I didn’t have a lighter, and the youngest one noticed this and waved to a man walking by and told him to give me a light.
So I sat there and listened and started disintegrating. This has happened twice before. The first time was in the Tiki Room at the Bombay Oberoi, listening to a Bengali play guitar and sing “My Way.” The second time was in a Zapatista village in the mountains of Chiapas, listening to a young woman from Montana play guitar and sing “Redemption Song.” Both times I was left in little pieces that took a long time to push back together. And there along the river, listening to our music, all about yearning for freedom, I again felt overwhelmed by the same juxtapositions and ironies.
Burma is a forgotten country. You might have a hard time finding it on a map, and it may not even be called Burma on the map you’re looking at. It might be called Myanmar, as that’s the official name for it now. It’s an extremely fucked-up place, the size of Texas, located between Thailand and India, south of China. For the past 44 years, it’s been cut off from the rest of the world by a junta of xenophobic and superstitious generals calling themselves the State Peace and Development Council. Others call them mendacious assholes and hungry ghosts.
The population is about 50 million, and they live like imprisoned children, with very little knowledge of their own history and very little opportunity to learn. Their government controls nearly every aspect of their lives—what they can read, what they can say and think, where they go, how they make money. Nothing much comes into the country, and nothing much goes out— except opium, teak, and jade by way of the black market, which is also controlled by the military. Strangely, Burma is open to tourism, but not many people care to visit.
I lied on my visa application, saying I was a college professor; my travel companion wrote in “Spiritual Adviser,” partly as a joke and partly because we were supposed to be visiting the Buddhist temples that dot the landscape. The country is sometimes called the Golden Land because the bell-shaped pagodas are often covered in gilt. Before going to Burma, I’d read how its people are living through an Orwellian nightmare, how in 1988 they turned out in the streets en masse shouting, “Dee-mo-ka-ra-see!” This protest ended with at least 3,000 dead, shot by their own military. A couple of weeks later, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the founding father of Burma’s democratic movement, made a speech from the steps of the Shwedegon Pagoda in Rangoon calling for a second Burmese revolution, and she’s been under house arrest pretty much ever since—even after she won a national democratic election in 1990, making her the rightful leader of the country; even after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
So I expected to see a military presence on the streets in Rangoon, the capital city, or what used to be the capital city until late last year when the astrologers of the chief hungry ghost, Chairman Than Shwe, foresaw that it would be prudent to move all government offices 200 miles north to a small malarial city where they could be better defended from enemies foreign or domestic. I expected to see tanks shaking the ground, or soldiers inside bunkers at the intersections, or checkpoints and roadblocks...something demonstrating who was in control and who was not. Up in the mountains, the Burmese military was busy burning ethnic tribal villages to the ground, systematically raping women, and forcing hundreds of thousands into slave labor camps. But in Rangoon it took two days to even see a policeman—traffic cops dressed in white coats and white British Raj helmets, armed only with whistles. The traffic became gridlocked and no one even honked a horn.
And the people on the streets, who I imagined would be huddling and scurrying about like caged rats, seemed rather calm and even happy, strolling along, the men sashaying in long skirts and sandals, some sitting on the broken sidewalks in kindergarten-sized chairs, drinking tiny cups of tea. The women, some of them, smeared light brown cellulose paste in circles on their cheeks, which looked sort of wild and exotic, but is actually a traditional way to protect their skin from the sun.
At one of the busier intersections downtown there was a government billboard that said, in English:
Oppose those relying on external
elements, acting as stooges, holding
negative views Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
Crush all internal and external destructive
elements as the common enemy
But up above the billboard, on the rooftops of the apartment buildings, there were fields of satellite dishes gazing up to the sky like sunflowers. It didn’t make sense. Inside their homes people were watching cnn, bbc, hbo, and mtv, while out on the street they were supposed to be wary of stooges.
Everywhere we went, we were watched. Long, intense stares coming from every direction, as if we were out of place and out of time, and it was hard to tell whether the Burmese were wondering if we were “external destructive elements” or some second-rate soap opera stars they’d seen on TV. They did not, however, appear to be very friendly, and some of them laughed at us. Yes, a mockery, seconded by legions of squawking crows in every tree.
Men did approach us, trying to sell us shoes, postcards, offering to change money, always some kind of business, and we’d try to talk to them. But it was always a pretend conversation. The reason I say this is because the minute we’d ask a question about their lives, like “What’s it like to live here?” the response would be the same—first a turning away, moving the body and the head to the side, then a glazing over of the eyes, a gaze without focus. It was a turning inward, pulling a shell around their bodies.
“It is dangerous for us,” one man said. “There are spies everywhere.”
He was a young social worker for the government, out drinking whiskey with two friends in the Chinatown part of the city. “Everyone in Myanmar has either gone to jail or knows someone who has gone to jail for saying the wrong thing. I have a friend in Insein [pronounced “insane”] Prison who held up a sign at a protest. The sign said only one word, ‘Freedom.’ His sentence is seven years.”
Even other Western tourists spoke in whispers, turning both directions to see if anyone was listening. This syndrome has a name among some ngo workers—"Burma Head." In a 1977 book called Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault discussed the social effects of surveillance, using a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in 1787, called the Panopticon, as a model. The cells are arranged in a circle around a central observation tower, so that one person inside the tower can see into every cell at all times, but the prisoners, while able to see the tower, never really know whether there is a person in there watching them, or not. The observer can see out, but the observed can’t see in.
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.
This was why there was no visible military presence in the city. It wasn’t necessary. The people controlled themselves. Even tourists were not immune. In the Panopticon of Burma, you were a prisoner among prisoners, each with your own cell. The effect was a deadening of desire, a flat-lining of curiosity and humor, and loneliness hung in the air, heavy as the smog cloud that covers all of Asia. There was not a buzz or a whir or a whisper of testosterone among the men, and the women, although many were beautiful, had not an ounce of glamour, not a scent of sensuality among them. The food was horrendous, cooked in the morning and left to sit through the day at room temperature, so that by dinner the stuff on the plate looked like dark brown entrails and tasted like pure msg. And while there was a lot of rock and pop music being played all over town, most of it was just awful. For instance, while on a bus we were subjected to a video of a girl dressed like Britney Spears singing, “She’s a maniac, a maniac, on the floor. And she’s dancing like she’s never danced before.” Only she stood like a frightened child. Behind her was a large photograph of Mother Teresa, and every time she came to the refrain she’d turn around and sing to it.