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Bago, on the Road to Mandalay


This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

All along the road to Bago as on any road in Myanmar, there are signs. By far the most numerous are the red ones. A few of these give seemingly benign, patriotic slogans like, "Love and cherish the motherland." But most betray the totalitarian nature of the military government, known as the "Tatmadaw" (the military government), as they loom over the road with slogans like, "Anyone who is destructive or unruly is the enemy," "Love your country, obey the law," or, "Only when there is discipline will there be progress." Others proclaim that, "The Tatmadaw and the people work together to crush those who would damage our union." Those were probably the mildest slogans, as they were translated into English. Most signs were only in Burmese, and I didn't endanger any Burmese people by asking them to translate the signs for me. I've been told that many give stern warnings to "enemies of the state" that leave little to the imagination. There's no escaping the red signs; they appear even in the middle of open fields.

Since 1962 Myanmar has been ruled by a deplorable military junta that has been every bit as repressive as Saddam Hussein's Iraq. That's no exaggeration. It is known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC. The SLORC held a "free" election in the early 1990s after assuring that the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, would be totally unable to campaign. Despite that, the NLD won the election by an overwhelming margin. The SLORC responded by jailing the candidates who had won the election, placing Suu Kyi under house arrest, and declaring martial law.

Freedom of expression is non-existent in Myanmar. Even some of the most basic freedoms are totally lacking in the country. A Burmese citizen is not allowed to travel outside his province without government permission. The country's poor infrastructure is built largely with slave labor. The population of whole towns and villages are required to donate labor for roads, bridges, public buildings, etc. with no compensation. The prisons are full of political prisoners and many have "disappeared" without a trace. Thousands of students were massacred with many cremated alive during the pro-Democracy protests of 1989. The government is determined to keep the Burmese population as far away from the outside world as possible. The Internet and email are banned except for the government and a few business and hotels, and even then all emails are read by the police. Fax machines are illegal and international phone calls are monitored. Comedians spend many years in jail for jokes about the government. The Burmese have never known much in the way of freedom. The British colonial government in Burma was among the worst in the empire. The Burmese people were required to address all British citizens as "Master," and the British marched through temples with their shoes on.

There are some who believe that tourism in Myanmar is part of the problem. The Free Burma movement in the west has been working for years to end the military dictatorship. They have succeeded in getting European governments and the US to put sanctions on Myanmar and have driven a number of businesses out of Myanmar. They have also called for a travel boycott. Aung San Suu Kyi has been firm in calling for businesses not to come to Myanmar. Yet some, even NLD members working closely with Suu Kyi, have questioned this approach. After socialism was abandoned a number of companies invested in Myanmar, the country pulled out of its economic depression, and a middle class started to form. That's gone now, as most companies have pulled out, taking their jobs with them. The country has not become a bit freer, but it has become poorer.

I changed my mind about the travel boycott when I began to realize that many of its proponents are not only unconcerned about the poverty of the country, but they feel more poverty is the key to bringing freedom. The argument goes that if the country becomes poor enough, the people will have nothing to lose and rise up against the government.

The tourism industry has created a lot of opportunities for the Burmese people, from guesthouses that cater to tourists to mom-and-pop stores. People who work with tourists are also able to talk openly to tourists about the situation with the government and a number of tourists have exposed human rights violations after trishaw drivers, hotel porters, etc. passed on information. Tourists are also able to provide a window to the outside world. It is my opinion that people should be consulted before being starved for their own good. And when I asked Burmese people in Thailand, every single one wanted to see more investment and had no problem with tourists visiting. No one I talked to wanted to see the country get any poorer, nor did they think that more poverty and isolation would help the situation.

Along with the usual photos of monks, pictures of the Buddha, and little amulets on the bus I took to Bago, was a picture of Aung San, the hero who stood up to the British and the Japanese. He was assassinated just before Burma became independent. Being a great national hero even the government can't touch him, despite the fact that the government he envisioned couldn't have been more different than the present one.

Bago Buddha

A Buddha in Bago

Bago's charm isn't evident to anyone passing through, thanks to its shabby main street. Off the main street the city looks more like a large, sleepy village with houses made of mainly wood and bamboo. Today's Bago gives only a few hints of its glorious past. From 1287 to 1539, under the name Hinthawaddi, it was the capitol of an ethnic Mon kingdom that occupied most of lower Myanmar. After I arrived I hired a trishaw driver as a guide. The first place we went to was a temple shrouded in legend. Called Hintha Gon Paya, it is on a hill which, the Burmese believe, was once covered in water by a flood, all but one rock on the very top. Two hintha birds (legendary golden geese) were looking for a place to rest when they found the rock, which was only large enough for one of them. So the male landed and let the female stand on his back. (Bago men like to brag that they are more chivalrous than other Burmese men.) As they rested there, the Buddha, traveling through the air, saw them and stopped to deliver his teachings to the birds. He then told them that one day a great city would arise at that spot. A covered stairway leads to the first level of the temple. As we approached we heard drumming. My guide said that there was a nat pwe or nat (spirit) celebration taking place. The first level of the temple is devoted to the nats (spirits,) and there are nat statues in the several glittering shrines.

Bago Street

A Typical Street in Bago

The nat-pwe was taking place in an open area in front of another nat shrine. The audience was seated to the side on the floor, and on the other side of the stage was the orchestra. They sat behind a three-foot high gold-colored screen. Traditional Burmese music has been described as "disconcerting" by some westerners and "bombastic" by others. I would tend to agree, at least about the music at the nat-pwe, though some forms of Burmese music are much more palatable to the western ear. The orchestra that day consisted of drums, gongs, a man playing an oboe-like instrument, cymbals and other, unidentifiable instruments. On a chair above the orchestra sat a lady with a blood-curdling voice who, regrettably, did the singing.

Bago Orchestra

An Orchestra in the Nat Pwe

The main actors at a nat-pwe are known as nat-kadaws. The word nat-kadaw translates to "Nat spouse." For more on that, please see the article "Into the Burmese Supernatural." The nat-pwe in Bago that day was certainly not being run by the serious nat-kadaws. The "wives" of the nat consisted of four transvestites and one woman. Given the amount of money they were trying to collect, they were probably doing nat-pwes full time. Maybe that was why the audience was fairly small. Even my guide, who was clearly a devotee of the nats, didn't seem to have much respect for them. Nonetheless, they had no lack of enthusiasm for their art and the energetic dances they performed were clearly the result of a great deal of practice and rehearsal. The nat they were performing for must love red and white. (Most nats have colors they prefer and those they hate.) The nat-kadaws wore mostly red and white and the stage was decorated with red and white curtains. As the orchestra played without being accompanied by the singer, the nat-kadaw would dance fairly slowly, appearing to act out some part of the nat's life, though they didn't speak and each acted alone. Suddenly, the tempo and volume of the music would increase drastically and the singer would start singing/screeching/caterwauling at the top of her lungs with enough emotion that I thought either she or I would have a heart attack. The nat-kadaw would go into such a wild dance I wondered if he/she was the one having a heart attack. This would go on for a couple of rounds until the singing and dancing part was performed continuously, up to the point the nat-kadaw was staggering and had to be taken off the stage by the other nat-kadaws who gave him food and rum. Then another nat-kadaw would have his or her turn.

Bago Nat Pwe

Nat Pwe in Bago

All the nats in Myanmar were in some way connected to royalty and had died a violent death, mostly at the hands of kings or treacherous members of the government. For a people who have spent the last 1000 years living under one oppressive government or another, the stories of the nats have a very familiar ring. One reason for the popularity of the cult of the nats is that is a subtle way for the people to express their frustration with the government. Many Burmese people have, at one time or another, been forced to work for the government without pay. Often in chains, they live with the huge red signs every day and know that anything they say can be reported by informants to the secret police. Telling the stories of the nats, almost all victims of the government of the day, is often a way to telling one's own story of oppression. At a nat-pwe, the people can safely boo and hiss when a king or other member of the government mistreats a nat, and can openly show their sorrow, anger, frustration and sense of oppression. It may seem that they are simply expressing their emotions over a story, the way someone might cry at a performance of Romeo and Juliet. To some extant that's what they're doing, but they are also showing their emotions towards a present-day reality that they are otherwise forbidden to criticize or bemoan on pain of imprisonment or death. A comedian may go to jail for a joke about the government, but no one goes to jail for hissing at someone playing the part of an oppressive king from 800 years ago, or for cheering on the one opposing him or mourning the victim.

Our next stop was a cheerroot factory. Cheerroots are the huge cigars that Burmese people used to smoke; now only older people smoke them. They may be large, but they are low in tobacco. It was a pretty decent place to work as third-world factories go. It was very well ventilated. In fact, it's in a backyard! Under a thatched shelter four women sat in front of round, wicker tables and rolled the cheeroots. They contain mostly wood chips and are rolled in teak leaves. Such "factories" aren't bad places to work, but the overall lack of economic activity in Myanmar means that such places are few and far between.

One of Bago's most famous shrines is the Shwethalyaung Paya, which houses the world's largest reclining Buddha. It was the capitol of a Mon kingdom long before the ethnic Burmese arrived in Myanmar. It is said that animal spirits were once enshrined here many centuries ago. (This is most likely a myth.) One day, a princess from a Buddhist kingdom got lost and was found by the prince of Bago. They fell in love and were married. She secretly worshiped the Buddha and refused to worship the animal spirits. One day the king found out about her faith. He took her to a hill and held a sword to her neck. He ordered her to bow before the statues of the spirits or die. So she bowed in front of the statues, but as she did she thought only of the Buddha and his teachings. As she did, the statues crumbled. The king was amazed. He declared Buddhism to be the state religion and had the reclining Buddha built on the spot where the spirit statues once stood.

This is, of course, a legend. The Burmese are a people who love stories and legends. Some, like this one, they firmly believe. Others they recognize as legend. Everywhere you go in Myanmar there is a story. Every place seems to have at least one story connected to it. The Burmese love to fill their time sitting in the teahouse or at home telling stories.

The Burmese are very fond of stories about people who cleverly escape impossible situations. One story tells of a village girl who was famous for being the most beautiful and cleverest girl in Myanmar. The greedy king heard about her and wanted her to join his 300 wives. But this girl's parents refused. The king was angry so he went with his court to the village. The villagers weren't used to seeing the king in their village so they all came out to see what was happening. The king held up a velvet bag and announced that there was a black and a white marble in the bag. The girl, he said, should take one. If she took the black one, she would be his wife, if she took the white one, she would stay in her village. Well, the girl was smart enough to figure that the deceptive king had put two black marbles in the bag. So she took one, then held it up to her eye, and peeked at it. It was black. She jumped into the air and laughed, throwing the marble into the river behind her. "Oh, your majesty, I'm very sorry," she said. "I was just so happy when I saw the white marble I couldn't help myself. But here, I'll prove that I chose the white one." Before he could stop her, she took the other marble out of the bag, which, of course, was black. The villagers agreed that she had chosen the white one and the king had no choice but to give up. As you can see, story telling, while popular for many reasons, is yet another way the people deal with life under one of the most totalitarian regimes in the world.

After a few more hours in the charming town of Bago it was time to say goodbye to my very informative guide and board the bus to Mandalay. Yes, I was taking the road to Mandalay, which was a great deal less romantic that the famous song would have you believe.


Robert Wilson is an English teacher in northern Thailand. Pictures of his travels can be seen at photos.yahoo.com/robert_92122.

Other stories in this series:

Kyaiktiyo:   The Golden Rock That Balances on a Hair
Shwedagon:   Myanmar's Holy Land
Into the Burmese Supernatural
A Thai Funeral
Brunei: The Abode of Peace
A Glimpse of "Last Time" in Borneo
Finding Religions—Plenty of Them—in Kuala Lumpur
Luang Phabang: The Lao Fairy-tale City
From Monkey to Monk
Along Cambodia's Backroads
Listening to the Rice Grow:   A Journey Up the Nam Ou River in Laos (Part 1 and Part 2)

Don't miss future articles from Robert in our continuing series, Window on Southeast Asia.

© 2005-2006 by Robert Wilson

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