Around and about on the Burmese border

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April 9th 2009
Published: April 22nd 2009
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"I'm very lucky to have this job," Robert, who worked for an employment agency, told us in an almost ridiculously posh British accent. "It's just because I speak good Burmese, Chinese and Shan . Most of us Burmese can't even feed our families. Before I got this job I worked in Thailand, Cambodia, then back in Burma as a long-distance lorry driver for US$50 a month, then in a factory, sixteen hours a day every day with no weekends or holidays, that was for US$60 a month. Like I said, I'm very lucky though. I can't see my family but at least I can support them. The average wage in Burma is US$30 a month. The government just takes everything from the people. There's something wrong with their minds, they're not educated you know, just military people who managed to take over the country." As he spoke he gave us the occasional painful smile that contained no happiness. It lent his conversation an air of pretense, a proud effort to maintain some sort of social norms when his life had long ago been destroyed.

The streets of Ruili, a border town through which jade and heroin flowed from Burma into China, seemed too big for its population. Avenues big enough to accommodate multiple lanes of traffic bisected one another almost devoid of vehicles. We had wandered them all day in search of anyone who spoke any English to no avail until by chance we had bumped into Robert. He had found two people willing to rent us their bicycles the next day to explore some of the surrounding villages.

Leaving the agency we cycled down the main street, passing the occasional Burmese man in their sarong-like longyis and women whose colourful, distinctive clothing, headresses and hats could have indicated Burmese nationality or membership of one of the several ethnic minorities in the area. There were several hundred of these minorities in China's South West, many with their own distinct language, animistic religion, clothing and customs. In Ruili we had so far seen one or two people dressed differently from the norm on almost every street we walked down but they were greatly outnumbered by people clad in ordinary clothes who we assumed were Han Chinese, the ethnic group making up 91% of China's population.

The Han's apparent majority vanished into nothingness, however, when we accidentally cycled into the Burmese quarter. We passed several large open-plan buildings which, along with the streets around them, were home to a huge jade market. Suddenly every woman was sporting a brightly coloured dress, many of them complemeted by headscarves or headresses. The men were either wearing the sleek, silky longyis or traditional Muslim dress. Long, thick, Islamic beards abounded. The atmosphere was full of the hustle and bustle of commerce and a feeling of community, of people knowing one another, that was lacking in the rest of the town.

"Where are you from? Pakistan? Afghanistan?" I asked two of the bearded, Islamically-dressed men who were brokering a deal at a round marble table strewn with dark green gem stones.

"No, no, Burma," one of them said, smiling. They held up handfuls of necklaces and earrings and posed for me while I took a photograph of them, perhaps glad of an opportunity to advertise their wares.

I continued, confused. I had thought Burma was Buddhist, not Muslim, and these people who claimed to be Burmese had a totally different look to them from Robert. I stopped to take a photo and someone shouted to me, "Here no China, you know?"

"I know," I said, smiling, "Here is Burma."

"Yes, that's right," he said, smiling.

"It's very nice," I said, smiling and doing the thumbs up.

His face turned to a scowl. "Burma no nice, Burma very very bad," he said almost angrily.

Later, while we were standing watching a game of street football in which a group of young men made semi-successful efforts to hitch their longyis up to enable tackling, dribbling and shooting while at the same time retaining some level of decency, out of the corner of my eye I noticed someone standing close and looking at me. Turning round I came face to face with an elderly man in a luxurious emerald green longyi, white shirt and black leather jacket. He was not plump but his face looked as though he had eaten and lived well all his life. A well-trimmed, snow-white beard that was long enough to be ostentatious without hinting at Islamic fundamentalism but short enough to be stylish in its own, dignified way dribbled from the near African blackness of his chin.

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"England," I replied.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, his voice full of pleasure at this news. "Whereabouts?"


"Ah! The University of Oxford! How wonderful! One of the oldest in the world! My name's Raushann, I'm an English teacher and if you wouldn't mind I'd love to introduce you to some of my students."

We accepted his invitation and followed him down a side street then up a flight of stairs into an apartment whose spotless, shining moderness seemed almost surreal after the exotic world outside its door.

Three women came to greet us in colourful Islamic dresses and seated us at a sofa before rushing to a fridge to fetch a can of sprite for each of us.

"So where are you from?" I asked the women.

"We are all from Rangoon," Raushann replied proudly, nodding his head proudly. Rangoon was the capital of Burma.

"Ah, Burmese," I said, also nodding.

"No, no, we are not Burmese. We are Islam, like our brothers in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Burmese, they are Buddhists," he said, waving his hand dismissively.

"So where are you from?" I asked.

"Rangoon," came the answer. I was totally confused.

"But Rangoon is in Burma. Where were you born?"


"And your parents? Where were they born?"

"My father was a holy soldier from Pakistan but he moved to Rangoon and married a Burmese woman."

"Ah, I see." It was becoming clearer. "So are all Burmese Muslims originally from Pakistan?"

"Yes, of course. They moved there after World War Two to set up business. Almost all businessmen in Burma are of Pakistani origins. Especially the jade traders, we're all Islam. The Burmese just can't do anything like that, they don't understand it," he said, tapping his head as if to indicate that the Burmese were somehow intellectually inferior to the Pakistanis.

"So are you guys all jade traders?" I asked, indicating with my finger that I was talking about those present in the room.

"Yes," he replied, "we came here 21 years ago."

"Was it difficult to set up a business?" I asked, thinking of Robert's struggle to make ends meet.

"Noooo," he said, closing his eyes, turning his head and waving his hand dismissively again, "we came here with plenty of money. It was very easy."

"Is jade the only product coming here from Burma?" I asked.

Raushann's eyes narrowed slightly and a grin touched the corner of his lips as if he knew that I knew that more than just stones were crossing the border.

"Heroin too," he said. "Lots of heroin. There are about 5000 Burmese living in Ruili on the outside and about 4000 on the inside, in jail for heroin smuggling. Lots more have been executed; it used to be by a bullet to the head, now they do it by injection. If you get caught with a kilo or more, its death."

The next morning Raushann took us for breakfast in an Indian restaurant. Around a tabletop crammed with bowls of curry, soup, samosas, cakes, pots of different types of tea and ten huge, freshly baked circles of nan bread we asked him about the presence of the Dai ethnic minority in the area.

"No, we don't have them here," he said. "In Yunnan yes, but not in this area."

The bill came to 25 yuan, or around US$3.50.

"The owner's very rich," Raushann said, chewing on a piece of nan bread he had dipped in one of the curries. "He doesn't need the money from this restaurant. But his daughters are like Cinderella's older sisters - big, fat and ugly. Afterwards I'll show you."

Forty five extremely sweaty minutes of bike riding landed us in a Dai village with a large temple so outlandishly ornate as to be almost distasteful by Western standards. Several of the buildings in the temple complex were painted gold and shone dazzlingly in the sun that hung directly overhead in the sky. Giant sculpted dragons, ducks and horses were to be found inside and outside the buildings, the expressions on their faces ranging from the sorrowful on a golden duck to the outrageously camp on a prancing dragon. We walked up the wide staircase to the entrance of the main building, removed our shoes and went inside to be greeted by an enormous Buddha, perhaps five metres tall, staring down at us from a seat surrounded by flowers, statues, ornaments and paintings. A young, orange-robed monk was sweeping the velvet red floor, his arms covered in the blue ink of tattoos. Another similarly-clad and equally young monk padded over towards us, his arms tattooed in the same way. The looseness of their robes draping from their limbs, flowing freely around them as they walked, and the slow calmness of their movements gave the impression that they lived life within a bubble of utmost comfort and tranquility.

"Where are you from?" he asked us in only-just-understandable English.

We replied and asked him the same question.

"I'm from Burma, but I'm Dai," he said. I wondered whether Raushann had known about the existence of Dai people in the area or whether he had, for some anti-Buddhist reason, not wanted us to know.

"Drink tea?" the monk invited us.

We sat down with him and a couple of other monks, one of whom went off to bring tea and some apples. All were wearing the orange robes, had shaven heads and tattooed arms.

"How many monks are there in this temple?" I asked.

"Seven, and one apprentice monk," the one who had invited us replied. I had a feeling he was the only one who knew any English. "It's a very small temple.

Some people walked in and began prostrating themselves on the floor in front of the Buddha. After a minute or so they moved over to the other side of the temple and presented some offerings of rice and vegetables to an elderly monk sat behind a desk who smiled and nodded thankfully at them. Afterwards they came and sat down with us to drink tea.

"How old is the temple?" I asked.

"Only five years," replied the English speaker. "Very new!"

We sat and sipped our tea in silence for several minutes. I could not work out whether or not it was an awkward silence, whether they had invited us just as a formality or whether they genuinely wanted us to be there with them.

The one who had invited us stood up, walked off and came back a minute later holding a large fan.

"Excuse me," he said, "I have to go visit someone in a house."

"Ok, maybe we'll leave too," I said, standing up.

"No, no, please stay," he said, "I'll only be ten minutes. I'm very glad you're here."

We sat down again and waited. Our inability to communicate caused a silence that seemed to grow and grow, eventually reaching into the realms of discomfort. Lizz, who is half Armenian and therefore constantly thinking about hospitality, manners, inviting people and other aspects of social etiquette that would escape most British people, said that maybe he only asked us to stay to be polite. I tended to think that if he asked us to stay he probably wanted us to stay, perhaps because he was interested in us and wanted to practice his English.

Nevertheless, after fifteen minutes our host had not returned so we said our goodbyes and left. We cycled out of the village and onto the dusty, bumpy road back to Ruili. After a minute we cycled past a trailer on its way back to the village we had come from. On the back was sat the young monk who had invited us for tea, an expression of surprised sadness stamped across his face as he watched his guests cycling in the opposite direction having refused his invitation.

We returned the bikes to Robert later that evening. Asking him about Raushann's figures of the number of Burmese in prison here, he seemed to agree.

"Sometimes people are forced to run drugs across the border to stop their family from starving, or to pay back an otherwise unpayable debt. The UN sent people here last year to try to persuade the Chinese to stop executing people. It doesn't solve the problem you know, because the ones they catch are just small fry, desperate poor people who have no choice but to smuggle those drugs. But the Chinese didn't want to listen."

We payed him the amount we had agreed on for the bikes.

"They're asking if you can you give a bit extra?" he asked, pointing at the owners of the bikes and looking down at the floor. "Myself I don't care, but they're asking if you wouldn't mind giving an extra ten yuan ."

I suspected from his embarrassed manner that the extra would really go to him but, with the budget traveler's ruthlessness, I asked, "Why do we need to give more than we agreed on?"

He looked down at the ground and in his posh, Oxford English that now resonated dejection and sadness, he said, "The money you gave went to them. I didn't make anything from it."

Immediately I hated myself for forcing him to sink low enough to ask me directly and I handed him what he wanted.

"Thank you," he said, still not looking me in the eye. "Life is so hard for us. We can't see the future. Really."

Click this link for advice on independent travel in Yunnan Province

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22nd April 2009

This is very interesting. Thank you!
23rd April 2009

myanmar or ruili
It appears that you did not in fact spend any time in the country of Myanmar which you happen to write a lot about. I'm impressed that you have such an abundance of knowledge on the present conditions in the country, without ever visiting it. I was in Myanmar (not Burma) for over a month in the summer of 2008 and visited 10 different cities including Mandalay and Yangon. I have written about my personal experiences from an eye witness perspective. It is misleading the readers on Travel Blog, to write about countries that you have not visited, and experienced what is really going on in Myanmar. Please refrain writing about subjects that you have little direct knowledge about. Thank you
23rd April 2009

As I said in the email I sent you I didn't give any opinions about Burma, I just reported what I saw and the conversations I had. Any information in my blog about Burma comes from quotes from other people. And they all referred to it as Burma. Please refrain from writing such unconstructive, ignorant and unhappy comments on my blog or anywhere else in future.
26th April 2009

You're quite right that many Burmese people refer to their country as Burma (when speaking English) or Bama (in the Burmese language), and your critic above is not correct in insisting on the name 'Myanmar'. Myanma (with no –r) is the country's official name in the Burmese language, but Bama is the colloquial name widely used in conversation. Burma and Myanmar (with an –r) are both English names for the country. Burma was universally used until 1989, when Burma's military junta decreed that the English name should be 'Myanmar'. This military junta suppresses almost all dissent and wields absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions. Therefore, Burmese people who are pro-democracy do not recognise its right to change the name, so they still use the old name, Burma, when speaking English. The Muslims you spoke to would use this name too because of the junta's persecution of ethnic and religious minorities. Also many governments, including the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, do not recognise the name 'Myanmar', according to Wikipedia. I believe the BBC continues to use 'Burma' as well.
8th September 2009

hey,i live on ruili time when u come,just call me:)i will show u around

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