I arrived in Rangoon at the beginning of the monsoon this summer after 36 hours of travel from New York, with a stop in Tokyo and a second change of planes in Bangkok. There I boarded an old Air Myanmar jet, and it was immediately clear that I was traveling to a country that lived in semi-isolation as the plane filled with migrant workers, many of whom were awkwardly toting large, makeshift bundles of carry-on goods—clothing, medicine, electronics, and other items that were either unavailable or unaffordable back home.
Officially, I had come to Burma—ruled by one of the world’s most opaque and repressive regimes—to teach a one-month documentary photography course to local photojournalists. But it was the only country in Southeast Asia I had never managed to visit and I was very eager to explore the place for myself.
Arriving at the government-owned business hotel where I would be staying—a large, fading complex with tattered carpets and mildew in the air—I was told I could pay $2 an hour for Internet access, or $50 a week, flat rate. This is a steep price anywhere these days, but especially for a hotel in such a poor country, where a room could be had for $35. I’d been forewarned that internet access could be difficult in Burma, and for good measure, before she took my cash the business center clerk flatly disclaimed, “I want you to know that there are many websites that you won’t be able to visit.” I had taken the precaution of bringing software that overcomes the censors’ attempts to block content in countries like China, where I have worked, and although it sometimes did the trick in Burma, it was of no use during the large chunks of time when there was no internet at all. Early on, during one of these outages my friendly business center clerk told me: “It’s not the hotel, sir, it’s the entire country. This happens quite a lot. You ask the authorities what’s the problem, but they never explain.”
Thoroughly jet lagged, I rose before dawn and set out on foot to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s holiest shrine, a ten-minute walk away. Though it is in the urban center, I was struck by the absence of traffic, almost unheard of for a large Asian city of more than 5 million people. It was not just that there were few cars at this early hour—there were no bicycles or motorbikes at all. However inconceivable, I would later learn that the regime’s notorious police unit, the Special Branch, had banned these for security reasons. All I found, then, were clusters of people on foot, including many Buddhist novitiates, especially nuns, swaddled in pink robes.
I climbed a series of towering canopied staircases to reach the golden shrines of the Pagoda, whose temples and towering spire, reaching 321 feet, sit atop a plateau that dominates the entire city. On each side, traders were just beginning to lay out their goods, joss sticks and candles and other devotional items. Mangy wild dogs, which quickly became a familiar sight throughout the city, roamed freely.
I enthusiastically began taking pictures, only to be immediately approached by a man wearing a red armband over his white shirt, to which he pointed as he explained, half in sign language, half in the most rudimentary English that I had to pay for a permit first.
I had briefly feared far worse, thinking that I had already brought on the unwelcome attentions of the police. Surprisingly, for a paranoid authoritarian state, during my time there I never had trouble of that kind. The experience of grunting gestures and hand signals, though, was deeply revealing about the country in other, unanticipated ways.
Writing in The Atlantic in 1971, Paul Theroux, who had just visited the country, remarked, “A very large number of Burmans speak English.” A minor run-in with the gatekeeper of the most popular attraction in the country signified the opposite: in the space of a generation, perhaps unique in the world for a former British colony, the Burmese had essentially lost their English.
This feat, I would come to understand, was as willful as the odd timekeeping, which has kept the country 30 minutes behind its neighbors, and the ban on motorbikes and the inflated pricing of the Internet. English has been choked off in a variety of ways, especially by limiting school instruction, and by strict language policies that make the use of Burmese mandatory in broadcasting and cinema. All of these contribute to keeping this country separate, apart, and ultimately backward in a region where revolutions in transportation and communications have driven explosive growth. A medical worker told me that the monthly fees from his mobile phone (the equivalent of 5 US cents per text message and 30 cents per minute for local phone calls) far outstripped what he made as a doctor on state payroll. (He manages to afford it by moonlighting outside of state hospitals, and by doing other work completely unrelated to medicine.)
Simultaneous translation was required even for the working photojournalists I taught, not to mention for the plainclothes police in the front row, who had been sent to monitor my lessons.
They seemed to grin smugly at their luck over an easy assignment watching slides of the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and later of Robert Frank’s The Americans, with a mid-morning break for free coffee and snacks each day. I imagined them waiting for me to say something “political,” perhaps with memorized lists of taboo words or themes in mind, missing entirely the eloquence of the photographs themselves.
Apart from my students, it was often difficult to engage with the Burmese. There are few tourists in Burma these days, a consequence of the diplomatic isolation imposed by the West for its annulment of elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in 1990 and for its abysmal human rights record. (On November 10, she was released from house arrest, where she had spent fifteen of the last twenty-one years.) Furthermore, there are restrictions on foreigners visiting the homes of Burmese. Guests must be registered with the police, and as an extra precaution, I was told by the handful people who invited me into their houses, neighbors are encouraged to inform.
Yet much could be learned from the hot and teeming city itself, for which Theroux’s 1971 description remains apt: “The decrepitude of the buildings in Rangoon is almost grand. The surfaces are shabby, but the shapes are extravagant, and the workmanship is obvious (Corinthian columns support one veranda; another, very graceful, is of wrought-iron lyres); their dereliction has splendor.” It was into this seediness that I happily plunged each day, in the monsoon-drenched afternoons after classes during the week, and all day on the weekends, exploring central Rangoon on foot with camera in hand.
More than anywhere else, in central Rangoon the old-fashioned term Indochina still resonates. There, in a circumscribed grid of warped asphalt streets an old Chinatown and an old Gujarati Indian town sit cheek to jowl. The Indians came in large numbers beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, under the British, while many of the Chinese arrived in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s from southern Guangdong and Fujian provinces, escaping the turmoil of their country to join an older, smaller Chinese community in Rangoon. Today, the two groups dominate the downtown area, which is neatly divided between them and plied by ordinary Burmese who mill on crowded sidewalks to eyeball electronics, buy clothing, or trade fresh produce from rickety stalls set up on dark and airless side streets.
Several overseas Burmese contacts had urged me to see an astrologer, saying the practice was essential to the country’s culture, and I reasoned that it might even be fun. Downtown, between the centrally located (and politically symbolic) Sule Pagoda and the river, dozens of cheap practitioners of traditional fortune telling wield signs touting their merits.
Customers sit in the shade of a tree for a quick reading. I had been led, however, to someone with a long family pedigree and many distinctions, which I gathered had included reading the fortunes of rich and powerful Burmese. The house I was directed to was nonetheless an old and creaky wood frame with high ceilings from which hung spinning (electricity willing) fans.
I was eventually received by a man of modest stature who sized me up from behind thick glasses. He had only two questions: the time and date of my birth. The reading seemed to go on forever, as he made notations in Burmese on a sheet of loose paper and occasionally consulted charts and books. I grew impatient to ask a question of my own.
Burma’s mysterious ruler, General Than Shwe, who is famously superstitious, began moving the entire government to a new, secretly built capital, Naypyidaw, on November 6, 2005 at what was said to be the unusually auspicious hour of 6:37 a.m. On 11/11, five days later, at 11 a.m. a convoy of 1,100 military trucks, carrying 11 battalions rolled out of Rangoon to get things underway in earnest.
“Do you know anything about how they make calculations like these?” I asked the man. “Does Than Shwe use astrologers?”
“It is not convenient to speak of such things,” he told me, leaving me little way forward.
“What about the country itself, can a country’s fortunes be read?” I asked.
“In Burma,” he answered, shaking his head and looking downward, “it is not good to speak of politics.” He would not have known it, perhaps, but this was almost the identical message posted at Internet cafes throughout the country: “Please respect the law. Do not discuss politics.”
It was late May at the time, and although no date had been announced for what was going to be the second popular vote in 50 years, complicated maneuvers were said to be underway in preparation for the formation of a nominally civilian government that critics said would continue to be under army control. (The election was held on November 7, and won by the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party. Turnout was estimated as low as 35 percent, and the United States and other Western nations condemned the vote as un-free and unfair.)
Seeking some means for understanding the politics in a system as opaque as this, I went to see the editor of a leading newspaper, one with unreservedly critical views of the government. He received me in his editorial offices, up a narrow flight of stairs on a busy commercial street. Just outside, a very loud portable generator provided the electricity for an oscillating fan that blew the hot, moist air over us as he chain-smoked clove cigarettes and spoke animatedly.
What came first was a lengthy explanation of the fine art of censorship in Burma. Newspapers must submit their content to the government overseers who approve or reject items for publication. The editor, a veteran of Burmese prison for his role in protests years ago, spoke with pride about an item in the latest issue of his tabloid, a prominent article about Japanese politics.
“You see this Hatoyama man,” he said, pointing to the photograph of the Japanese prime minister who had just stepped down. “We have quoted him saying that he resigned to take responsibility for his failure to carry out the aspirations of the people. For our culture that is a very profound statement.” He added, “I guess they must have missed it,” meaning the censors.
I asked him what he made of the elections and whether or not people should participate. His answer was surprisingly nuanced, reflecting, I thought, the adaptive habits of mind of people in a country accustomed to bad choices.
“This process is like tasting ice cream for the very first time,” he said. “The majority of people are under 35 and have never voted before. Let them taste it. They may say this is interesting, even if it is not real ice cream.”
“The second time around, their attitudes may change. They may insist on something better. They may realize they have power.”