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The Road from Mandalay

The Shwe Dagon pagoda is the most famous building in Rangoon. Understandably so. It is more than six hundred years old. It enshrines eight hairs of Buddha. And it is one of the most sublime pieces of religious kitsch in the world. Not far from the pagoda lies another spot, unknown to most tourists, but, in my mind, far more symbolic of Rangoon, and indeed Burma, today. It is nothing but a field. On this field stood the Student Union Building of the University of Rangoon. It was destroyed by soldiers in 1962, after students protested against the new military government which grabbed power that year. People in Rangoon tell sinister tales of mass graves under the field, containing unknown student demonstrators.

The spot is symbolic because the Student Union stood for something that has been systematically erased in Burma. It can be summed up as the City, meaning modern learning, politics, social mobility, cosmopolitanism, and—not necessarily a contradiction—nationalism; everything in short that ought to lead to freedom and independence of thought. The Student Union produced the brilliant men who delivered Burma from British colonial rule in 1948. Having learned about the modern world from the British, they fought to make Burma a modern nation. But this struggle was aborted and is yet to be resumed.

Rangoon is not a modern city. It is in fact an antimodern city. Unlike Singapore, Jakarta, or Bangkok, where new buildings are obliterating the immediate past, Rangoon has remained much as the British left it in 1948. Old people say that Rangoon was once famous as the cleanest and most pleasant city of Southeast Asia. Now the pavements show great cracks filled with refuse. At night the streets are taken over by enormous rats, jostling one another to get at the best bits of garbage floating in the open sewers. The rather pompous 1920s office buildings and trading houses are like tramps in old dinner jackets, several sizes too large. Only the embassies have been spruced up with whitewash. (Burmese love whitewash. Old pagodas are whitewashed; Buddhas are whitewashed to make them look new. But apart from the embassies, Rangoon is evidently not deemed worthy of whitewash.) The decaying city center is surrounded by vast suburbs of brown huts on stilts in slimy water. The once modern capital is being reclaimed by old village Burma.

In some people the dilapidation of Rangoon evokes feelings of nostalgia. They see romantic grandeur in the crumbling porticoes and peeling Edwardian façades. Equally gratifying to the romantic visitor is the sight of a whole population in native dress. Men and women wear long skirts called longyis, which they constantly wrap and unwrap like birds airing their wings. And, of course, they still smoke the whacking great cheroots celebrated by Kipling in “Mandalay.” (Kipling, incidentally, had never been to Burma.) Here at last is the “real” Asia, where, to use a dated phrase, people are themselves. It is difficult to feel such good cheer, however, when one is continuously accosted by people who want things bought for them at the foreign currency stores; basic things, like medicine, that can be resold on the vast black market.

The black market dominates life in Rangoon. It starts right in the customs hall of the Rangoon airport. Customs officers spend endless time checking documents supposed to make sure the visitor spends every cent at the exorbitant official exchange rate. This job done, the officers smile, welcome the visitor to Burma, and ask for “presents”: ball-point pens, key rings—anything that they can sell on the black market. At the same time young men smoking cheroots offer to buy your whiskey, cigarettes, T-shirts, belts, cosmetics. After a day in Rangoon one already feels haunted by the whispered “Want to do business?” This business is not based on greed, but on necessity. Only 8 percent of Burmese imports are consumer goods and most of those, some say, are for the foreign currency stores, where one US dollar is worth seven local kyats. On the street one can get thirty. The black market is like a tapeworm eating its way through a bankrupt economy. Everything is sold and resold. Government employees sell their rice rations. Each morning young men rush to the movie houses to buy up all the tickets that they resell later in the day (most films seem to star Chuck Norris). Many of these young men are university graduates.

The old cars that delighted travel writers in the past are mostly gone; replaced by Japanese pickup trucks. Most cars were privately owned and too many people sold their gasoline rations on the black market. The back streets of Rangoon are now full of rotting old Chevrolets and Hillmans, lovingly maintained for decades, now banned from the roads. Pickup trucks are classified as taxis. One gets vague answers about who owns these taxis. “They are rented by the day,” people say. “Yes, but from whom?” “From rich people.” Rich people can mean anything from military brass, to Burma Socialist Program Party bosses, to Chinese and Indian traders, to merchant seamen. Most young men want to become seamen. It is a way to get rich, as seamen are allowed to import foreign goods. They work on a ship for three years, save every penny they earn, buy a pickup truck, and live off the profit for years.

Sealing off a culture from the corrupting influences of the outside world has a somewhat similar effect to shutting young girls up in a segregated boarding school—they fall in love with the first bit of corruption that comes their way. Despite the longyis and the cheroots, many Burmese make a kind of fetish of modern goods. As one walks barefoot along the long shop-lined avenues that lead to the Shwe Dagon pagoda one looks in vain for fine traditional wood-carvings or delicate religious objects; instead there are gaudy models of such icons of modernity as TV sets, telephones, or girls in golfing gear. The most popular items on the black market for teen-agers are T-shirts with Japanese or English slogans on them—any slogans, as long as they are foreign. The thirst for foreignness stretches to nonmaterial goods, too. A Burmese journalist who writes for a foreign magazine often fails to get his copies through the mail; not because of censorship, but because they are stolen at the post office and sold on the black market. I saw bits of an old Life magazine sold in the street. It had Lyndon B. Johnson on the cover.

Foreign modernity seeping through the rather porous Burmese wall influences Burmese tradition itself; wedding receptions are accompanied by loud bands that play sugary pop music in the style of Frankie Avalon and Brenda Lee. Ancient Buddhist sculptures are “improved” by embossing them with gold-painted concrete or gaudy glass mosaics. Old Buddhas are haloed by colored neon or flashing disco lights. This tells us two things: that Burmese tradition is so alive that Buddhas in neon seem perfectly in order; and that enforced parochialism has done little to protect traditional aesthetics from indiscriminate modern taste. It is hard to say which is worse, the tackiness of Coca-Colonization, or the peculiar flowers that grow in a culture artificially but imperfectly isolated from the modern world.

The decay of Rangoon is not simply the result of bad planning. It is part of a deliberate process to strangle the city, to return to precolonial village Burma, ruled by a ruler who knows best, but is accountable to no one. Rangoon simply does not fit into this vision of Burma. It can only be a source of trouble, as in 1974, when students and monks demonstrated against the government on the site of the Student Union Building and the Shwe Dagon pagoda. There is another, perhaps more fundamental, reason why Rangoon does not fit into the Burmese Way to Socialism: there are too many foreigners living there.

Rangoon was never really a Burmese city, but, like Calcutta and Singapore, a creation of the British; before they arrived, Rangoon was little more than a fishing village. British Rangoon was an urban aberration in a rural society with no tradition to prepare it for the shock of a modern market economy. To the Buddhist Burmans money business was associated with greed and deceitful exploitation. And from their point of view this assessment was essentially correct. The British, the Indian moneylenders, and Chinese merchants did much better than most Burmans. The Burmans who did well out of the new foreign ways mostly lived in the city. Some peasants began to benefit from British investment and the cash economy, but the Japanese invasion in 1942 stopped rice exports and the peasants, on the brink of becoming farmers, returned to the old life of the self-sufficient village, from which they never emerged again.

The true center of Burma was the royal palace, which stood in the center of the world. It was a movable center, as Burmese dynasties generally started afresh in new capitals. But wherever it was, the palace was thought to be a microcosm of the mythical Mount Meru, the middle of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. The continent of Mount Meru was the abode of men. Around it lived barbarians, like the British, unenlightened by Buddhism. Burmese kings ruled absolutely in this cosmic center so that their subjects could meditate in peace and overcome Universal Suffering. But while they represented on one hand the ideal of the Buddhist welfare state, they also ruled in the manner of Hindu god-kings, often pragmatically and sometimes cruelly. One monarch tried to increase his power by drinking an elixir made of six thousand human hearts. The last king, Thibaw (1858–1916), is said to have ordered the death of his eighty half brothers and sisters. This involved a matter of some delicacy, as royal blood could not be spilled. So the victims were tied up in sacks and trampled to death by white elephants. No wonder rulers were traditionally regarded as one of the four things not to be trusted; the others were thieves, the boughs of trees, and women.

In 1885 King Thibaw threatened British interests by using the French to protect a state monopoly in teakwood. The British then abolished the Burmese monarchy, an act which deeply shocked the Burmese psyche. The barbarians had crashed the gates and the cosmic order around Mount Meru and the Burmese throne collapsed. The Mandalay Palace became the Upper Burma Club, where British officers and traders drank whiskey at sundown. The royal throne was removed to Calcutta, lest rebellious kings got any ideas of founding a new cosmic center. With the demise of Mount Meru, educated Burmese were forced to recognize the world as described by Copernicus and Galileo, a world in which Burma was but a speck on the globe. As was the case in many parts of Asia, secularization was not the result of human inquiry, but of superior force.

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