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"By the old Moulmein Pago-
da, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin',
and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-
trees, and the temple-bells
they say: Come you back, you
British soldier; come you back
to Mandalay!"
-- The Road to Mandalay
by Rudyard Kipling
(This is a continuation of Bur-
ma -- Part I, which can be seen
Burma is a different world --
a different century -- a differ-
ent universe; very poor, and I
mean verrrry poor, heavily in-
fluenced by Buddhism and led
by a "socialist dictator General."
Having said all of that, if
my ship ever comes in, I will
go back to Burma and build a
school, a health clinic, or try
in some way, to do some good.
Why? The people of Burma are
special -- in all of their suffer-
ing, they are dignified, accepting
their lot and managing to greet
each other and the few tourists
with a heartfelt smile.
"Welcome to Burma!" our
tour guide said as he greeted us
at the airport. Pulling away from
the airport in our van, our guide
mentioned something to the
effect that "all is well here in Bur-
ma, after all, we have a social-
ist dictator General in charge!"
Somehow his icebreaker did the
trick, because we all laughed.
But, we would soon learn that
all is not well in Burma.
Our first stop in Burma was
Yangon (or Rangoon). Yangon
was the capital of Burma -- be-
fore the military regime decided
to move the capital north to
a region that is away from the
populace, away from potential
coups, away from uprisings. Yan-
gon is still the commercial cen-
ter and hosts most embassies
and an international airport.
The first thing one sees and
smells in Yangon is mildew. The
stench is everywhere-- apart-
ments, shops, office buildings,
and old government buildings
are partially covered in a black
soot. Our hotel, which was a
beautiful converted old muse-
um, had a strong stench of mil-
dew in our room. One learns to
accept things in Burma.
We spent two days in Yan-
gon, touring the sites, from the
famous Shwedagon Pagoda, of-
ten called the golden Pagoda,
to monasteries and museums.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is
the most sacred pagoda in Bur-
ma -- a symbol of national iden-
tity -- its golden dome can be
seen from miles away, built on
a hill, and standing more than
326 feet tall. Legend has it that
the pagoda is 2,500 years old,
but archaeologists estimate it
was first built between the 6th
and 10th centuries.
Aside from museums and
monasteries, we toured the city
and waterfront, which held the
most fascination for me; a slice
of Burmese life rarely seen by
the tourist. At the end of the
day, thousands would board fer-
ries for their home destinations
-- crowding onto the rusted-out
double deck ferries built a half
century ago; thousands packed
on one ferry like sardines, no life
boats, no life vests, no toilets.
This wouldn't be the first time
my senses were assaulted by the
sights of Burma. Burma is a dif-
ferent world. The infrastructure
in Burma is a mess, roads, bridg-
es, buildings, all in disrepair. The
Internet is virtually nonexistent,
with the government blocking
access to Yahoo and G-mail.
In our hotel one evening,
the hotel clerk showed me how
to get around the government
e-mail block, but the Internet
was so slow, that it was use-
less trying to make an online
connection. And of course, the
electricity went off a couple of
times every night. Welcome to
Bagan is why tourists go to
Burma. It is a 1 hour flight
from Yangon, and is referred to
as the city of four million pa-
godas. The Bagan area is an end-
less plain of green farming land,
with literally thousands of terra-
cotta-colored pagodas sprout-
ing up like little volcanoes, as
far as the eye could see. Many
are still in use today. In Bagan,
we visited pagodas, temples,
shrines and monasteries; an
archeologist's dream. But for
me, the real Burma was in view
through the window of our van.
Bicyclists, motor scooters,
and horse carts making their
way though uncrowded streets
of the area, men and wom-
en dressed in sarongs goi n g
a bout their daily lives, women
-- their cheeks cov-
ered with a whitish
creamy paste called
thanaka, which has
been a Burmese tra-
dition for more than
two thousand years.
( B u r m e s e wo m e n
claim that thanaka
-- taken from a tree
bark -- helps to re-
move acne, promote
smooth skin and acts
as a sun block, anti-
septic, anti-fungal
ointment and toner).
Th e p o l i t i c s o f
Burma are stifling --
with some 100 lan-
guages and dialects
and 20 underground
armies, add to the
fact that Burma is
the major drug sup-
p l i e r f o r t h e s u r-
rounding countries,
and you have a situ-
ation that lends itself
to corruption and so-
cialist dictators.
This leads me to the subject
of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel
prize winner, currently under
house arrest in Burma. In Bur-
ma, Part I, (see: www.awareness
flexions) a brief history of Bur-
ma and Aung San Suu Kyi was
sketched out.
Free elections were tried in
the 1990's and Aung San Suu
Kyi's party was victorious. The
military decided otherwise.
Since, the call for democracy
and free elections is the mantra
of the international community.
Midway though my trip to
Burma, it was evident that the
corruption was so endemic
among military elites and poli-
ticians, coupled with the drug
trade payoffs, it was clear that
economic and political power
would not be given up without
a fight.
Free elections? Democracy?
... it just ain't gonna happen in
the foreseeable future. There is
too much at stake for those in
power. If free elections did take
place, and were honored, it
would lead to bloodshed; a lot
of bloodshed. Enough said.
A trip to Burma is incom-
plete without a boat ride on the
Irrawaddy river. We boarded an
old thin wooden boat with a
tarp covering the center area for
shade protection and chugged
along the coastline for about
an hour or so up the Irrawad-
dy, occasionally glancing at the
shoreline where a family might
be walking barefoot, wearing
sarongs, perhaps carrying a bas-
ket of goods on their heads.
It could have been Burma
circa 1920, or Burma 1820 or
Burma 1500. After an hour or so
on the river, the owner cut the
engine, and we drifted in utter
silence -- reflecting -- for about
Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Burma.
Photo by Robert Ross.
Burma - Part 2
By Robert Ross
(Continued on page 58)