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Published: February 4th 2006
In Myanmar it is an established guidebook fact that you can actually avoid paying entrance fees without incurring the wrath of fellow travellers for being a hairy-tight-ass! For here in Myanmar, you are depriving an evil tyrannical power of money, ever so slightly weakening him and thus contributing to his ultimate downfall...or NOT! And so it was, as I roamed around Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred pagoda in the world in the first shards of morning light, enthusiastically avoiding the $5US admittance fee I had my first shart! Shart
: when one farts and a little piece of s__t comes out.
There's no doubt that Shwedagon is a spectacular Pagoda, However if you’ve just been on a Pagoda pilgrimage tour through Thailand and Myanmar, and have seen these phallic symbols competing for prominence on every hill top you’ve passed, in all honesty, this is just another, slightly more bulbous example of the norm. If Rangoon is your first stop in Myanmar however this place will probably knock your socks off…but remember DON’T buy a ticket - Viva la Revolution;-)
Our next stop on the journey, The Mergui Archipelago, was actually the main reason I had come to Myanmar. Located off
that curious finger of Burma that probes for over a thousand kilometres south down Thailand’s west coast. The sheer variety of this unknown and untouched archipelago makes the mind boggle. There is no island group in the world in such a state of virginity. On this almost totally uninhabited collection of some 800 islands live elephants, tigers, crocodiles and rhino; a variety of flora and fauna both above and below the water that would keep Charles Darwin and Jacque Cousteau occupied for decades.
Firstly however, the shart issue needed to be cleared up and we needed to extend our visas; The Military Junta had just moved ‘their’ capital from Rangoon three days before to a more auspicious collection of WWII bunkers in the north, left over from Japans occupation in the 1940’s, making our task difficult…though also providing an opportunity: If stopped at one of the ubiquitous Immigration checkpoints in Burma we’d have an excuse right?
The Mergui Archipelago has been off-limits since Burma’s independence in the late 40’s. Foreigners aren’t allowed to travel down there overland and though I researched every means possible; bus, boat and train all seemed to be out of the question (there’s an
Colonial architecture, Rangoon.
(In Myanmar men wear skirts or 'longyis')
American owned gas pipeline down there). With more time and without an expired visa I may well have attempted to hide in the back of a truck or something…but this is Burma, and if caught I would plead ignorance and be cautioned - the driver however would incur the full wrath of the totalitarian regime. The only way was to fly.
Wandering the streets of Rangoon feels more like some far flung Indian city on the subcontinent than somewhere in south East Asia. Rangoon was the newly created capital under the British colonisers, who brought along many immigrants, and within this melting pot of religion and cultures there lay a large part of the problems beseeching modern Myanmar.
The British had made Myanmar part of colonial India, opening it up to Indian labourers and business men. The Burmese became alienated from their land and drifted to the cities where they rented from newly arrived wealthy Indians. By 1930 half the population of Rangoon was Indian, and in Mandalay business was dominated by the Chinese. Colonialisation and an influx of capital meant that Burma became a relatively rich country overnight, yet the Burmans remained poor - from a psychological
point of view they were worse off.
In typical divide and rule tactics the colonial army was made up of British, Indians, Nepali Ghurkas and other indigenous tribes (Karens, Kachins and Chins). Less than 2% were actually Burman. This gave a disproportionate amount of power to the minority tribes, who were also, incidentally recent converts to Christianity and whom traditionally the Burmans had despised as culturally inferior. English became the language of the elite. Leaving the Burmans at the bottom of society in their own land.
At the outbreak of World War II foreign and minority groups in Burma were fully behind the British whereas the Burmans were less enthusiastic. Burmese rebel leader Aung San secretly met with the Japanese who helped him to train an army of Burmans ready to rise up as soon as the Japanese invaded. This army of dacoits and thugs led by monks with double-barreled shot guns (it's written!) turned on anyone believed to sympathise with the British and ultimately anyone who wasn’t Buddhist or ethnically Burman. They incinerated tribal villages, churches and massacred the inhabitants.
Burma’s ethnic minorities fought back - for now they were not simply fighting for the British
The Burmese national pastime...
...amongst the faded colonial architecture of Rangoon
Empire, they were fighting for their own lives. The Japanese found themselves encircled and attacked by these numerous jungle-wise and fearless hill tribes. Once the tide of war began to turn, the Burmese nationalists, realising they had backed a loser, double-crossed the Japanese in their hour of greatest need, and began attacking their former ally. Now ironically changing their name to the ‘Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League’. Nowadays Independence leader Aung San, and the ethnic Burman are credited with single handedly liberating Burma during World War II!
After the war the British overlooked Aung San’s barbaric war crimes and put him in charge. He then pushed for immediate independence to free The Burmese from the despotic thieving clutches of The British Empire (to paraphrase Orwell).
Though before this was achieved, Aung San was assassinated in very conspiratorial circumstances. The new government refused to grant the many races any degree of autonomy. And thus the civil war in Burma began almost at the inception of its creation.
With many highly trained soldiers, the coalition of tribes very nearly took over the country but for British and Indian help at the last minute to halt them at the gates of Rangoon.
The heart of Rangoon.
Once power was consolidated the government began a ten year spell of Burmanization. Though what really riled the people was that the economy was still controlled by foreigners. In the early 60’s the army revoked the constitution and took over the reigns of power - they closed universities, purged the civil service, took control of the media and nationalized everything. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Indians fled Burma. The economy was destroyed overnight but the Military now controlled it.
This totalitarianism continued for over twenty years, Burma’s economy plummeted from the most prosperous in Asia to become one of the poorest countries in the world. Meanwhile the military Junta grew rich from their monopolies in the oil, gem and opium trade. Then in 1987, with the economy virtually bankrupt the military invalidated 75, 35 and 25 kyat notes and replaced them with 45 and 90 because it believed anything divisible by nine is auspicious! A bad excuse for stealing 70% of the people’s money!.
The people began rioting, and the military responded ruthlessly, massacring many. At 8 minutes past 8 on the 8/8/88, the masses felt auspiciously lucky themselves and rose up against their oppressers...and it is
Don't ask me what any of it is...I only ate it!
estimated than up to 10,000 lost their lives in the futile struggle. Then after many resignations and under mounting pressure, the Junta agreed to democratic elections on 27 May 1990 = fourth Sunday, fifth month (4+5= 9)...This is starting to look like some sick case of the DaVinci code I know.
So after harassing, banning and cheating as best they knew, the Junta, not used to playing the democracy game, was totally thrashed! Winning only 10 of the 485 seats contested!!! Aung Sans daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy won 392. The Junta then decided it didn’t like playing this game anymore and people start disappearing into jail and down holes. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and the Junta takes a new tact: if people don’t vote for them, they’ll increase their power base by increasing the army from 180,000 to almost 500,000 over the next ten years. They also took Marx’s ‘opiate of the masses’ theory and ran with it; resorting to acts of Buddhist piety, giving money to monasteries and building thousands of pagodas. Which also inadvertently stimulated the tourist trade: there’s nothing more exciting than a shiny new pagoda stuffed
Mergui (he was so big he had his own island!)
with Buddha’s right?
So, loaded with Imodium and awe we fly from Rangoon over the northern section of the archipelago directly to Mergui; a world belonging to the sea gypsies, or Moken, a nomadic sea culture who are born, live and die on their boats. So in touch with their natural environment, they have even adapted eyesight to allow them to see a lot more clearly underwater than other humans. They are the very soul of the Mergui Archipelago, roaming between islands living off the sea and bartering occasionally with passing Malay or Chinese traders, and only living on the islands during the monsoons. It is estimated there are around a thousand left, they keep to themselves, but their existence is under threat. It is not known how the sea gypsies faired in last years tsunami…but if evidence from Indigenous tribes in The Andaman’s is anything to go by ….they knew.
Not too long ago sea gypsies roamed areas all the way south through Thailand. The Thai government has forced nearly 200 Sea gypsies into the Surin Islands National park as a tourist attraction. Further south still, sea gypsies from Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta were
moved to Koh Bulon Leh and Koh Lipe where they now work in bars and guesthouses …their nomadic days a distant memory and their culture developing traits of beer lao.
Once in Mergui (also known as Myeik and Beik), we soon discovered getting out to the islands would be a challenge, not many tourists get down here and pottering about amongst some of the closer islands was our only option. Further field would require permission or someone to take you illegally. But this is Burma, and the power of the Junta is ever present, if not always visible. Unless we had bags of money to pay military officials we soon realised our task was futile; so we jumped on the speedboat and weaved our way through the islands for over three hundred kilometres through hundreds of uninhabited virgin forested islands, lined with white sand beaches, knowing that even though they are only a few kilometres away, you may never in your lifetime be able to wriggle that soft sand between your toes.
Kawthaung (formerly Victoria Point) is on the Thai border, and it notices! Kids and beggars marauded around the streets and latch onto day trippers who’ve come
Smoking in the Monastery
Where's your discipline mate?
from Thailand to renew their visas. This place was bloody awful! After fifteen minutes we craved Thailand with such intensity we doubted we’d last the night. We asked the immigration guards how many day trippers come per day “80 or 90” he said. How many people come up from Mergui on the boat? “Someone, sometimes” he laughed.
By now the realisation had dawned that seeing the sea gypsies was just a pipe dream. So having only seen a fleeting glimpse of their beautiful habitat and having never actually set eyes on them means they've procured an unrivaled mystique for me.
If there were a silver lining to Myanmar’s pariah state status, it must surely be that throughout the fringes of Myanmar there are races and cultures as yet unmolested by mass tourism, globalisation and consumerism. It just so happens they are protected from the outside world by a racist, paranoid, deluded band of megalomaniacs who would rather they didn’t have to share this part of the world with such a rich variety of peoples. I suppose you can’t have it both ways.
If the Junta does ever fall, and I doubt it will be any time soon,
more smoking monks...
Burmese monks are big smokers! (I developed quite a fetish!)
I’ll be on the first plane to explore the unparalleled richness of this great and varied country. The little I have seen here is really the tip of the ice berg - and what I have seen is marvelous. What lies beyond the Burma I saw really is the unknown and something akin to myth and legend.
This is Burma, and it will be unlike any land you know about!
Rudyard Kipling Postscript
Despite receiving the noble peace prize for her efforts, today Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest and whilst we were in Burma she ‘celebrated’ her tenth year, watching some pretty dreadful Burmese TV. Personally I think the opportunity to dislodge the Junta was missed in the early nineties at the height of Aung San Suu Kyi's power. For various reasons the International community allowed them to remain in power, whilst it goes ‘spreading democracy and freedom’ throughout the globe elsewhere. It seems by applying petty sanctions to Burma, as was the case in Iraq, the regime is strengthened and the people further impoverished. Without an established wealthy middle class, nobody with any real clout is actually affected by sanctions…meanwhile we wait patiently for the people to become so desperate with their plight that
Photographed by Nicolas Reynard. National Geographic.
they rise up and overthrow the half a million strong Military Junta themselves.
I understand that by leaving Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi may feel as though she is abandoning her people and they may feel the same. But by leaving Burma and bringing to the attention of the international community some of the atrocities occurring today, she may be able to muster the support that will be needed for western governments to be pressurized by their people into do something about it?
We later discovered it is possible to arrange a 5 night diving tour of The Mergui Archipelago for $899US through a Thai company. If you have that kind of money, it would be the trip of a lifetime. Though if you are fortunate to come across the sea gypsies whilst there please promise you won’t give them any Bon Bons…if “Bon Bons” is their response if I ever meet them, my blood will begin to curdle and I’ll probably keel over and die in a pool of my own shart!
Click on this link to see my route through Myanmar:My route
(zoom right into those islands and you can see the beaches!)
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