Burma

If you are of a certain age, I bet I know the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word “Burma.”  Be honest now, I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with Aung San Suu Kyi or the dreadful military tyrants that have had the country in lockdown for the last fifty years. Your first thought may go something like this:

“Does your husband, Misbehave?  Grunt and Grumble, Rant and Rave?                               Shoot the Brute…Some Burma Shave!”

I know you wouldn’t remember the exact words of the doggerel but, more likely than not, you would have thought of Burma Shave. That’s about where I started out as well.

Burma, or as the rest of the world knows it, Myanmar, was not exactly on my radar screen. I knew it was somewhere in Southeast Asia, but I’d have been hard pressed to put my finger on the globe and locate it.  I must admit that Obama’s trip there in 2011 and again in 2014 put Burma briefly in the news and in my consciousness.  Interestingly, Obama is the only US president to ever visit Burma; now twice in two years.  Every shop we visited had a photograph of Obama on one of his visits.  Indeed, I saw more of Obama in Burma than any other country we have visited.

Suffice it to say that Burma is a country in the throws of a transition that may never be complete. Unfortunately, it has more than a little of the political character of Cuba or North Korea, and the consequences on civil society have been equally disastrous.  In my readings before our trip, it was reported that the average income per person is around two dollars a day.   I’m always suspicious of such data from third or fourth world countries, because their ability to gather and report economic data is virtually non-existent – but in this case, based on my own observations, much of the rural population is in a day to day struggle to merely survive.

A little about the history of Burma.  I’ve always thought it easier to understand the present if I had some knowledge of the past, but don’t worry, I won’t make this a tutorial.  In fact, in some ways Burma’s history is pretty simple.  I’ve laid it out in five eras.

Pre-Colonial Era (13,000 BCE to 1824)  I’m sure this was an important era if you lived there then, but other than fairly constant wars and the forming and un-forming of various dynasties, not much of interest to our current understanding happened.  I guess that the beginning of recorded Burmese history when the Puy people began to settle in the Irrawaddy River Valley in 2000 BCE should be noted.  It took roughly four thousand years for the competing forces and dynasties to resolve themselves into a unified entity, which then lasted barely 125 years.

Colonial Era (1824-1948)  The Brits did the typical colonial master thing in organizing then plundering their colony, all the while looking down their noses at the native peoples. The only legacies preserved from this era are a lingering hatred of the English and driving on the wrong side of the road.  If you want to know more about how the British behaved and how it impacted the Burmese, the best descriptor of this period is none other than George Orwell, who is best remembered for his novels about dystopian societies.  In 1934 Orwell’s novel Burmese Days was published.  This book exposed the worst of the British and Burmese character.  It was subsequently banned in Burma until only recently.  His later books, Animal Farm and 1984, while not mentioning Burma directly, are said to be based in substantial part on Orwell’s experiences and observations in Burma.

The War Years (1941-1948)  Yes, I know there is some overlap here, but that’s the way history presents itself.  While this era is the shortest of my Burmese eras, it sets the context for much of what was to follow.  Suffice it to say that the Burmese hated, and I mean hated, their colonial masters, the English.  In fact, this hatred manifested itself in behaviors that are hard to understand from today’s viewpoint.  Aung Sung, who is the father of recent heroine and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, and is considered to be much like the George Washington and Tom Jefferson of Burma, made the tactically understandable but strategically disastrous decision of initially allying with the Japanese.  He, of course, was driven by (one might say blinded by) his hatred of colonialism and the British.  By 1944, Aung Sung saw the writing on the wall and reversed course, dumped the Japanese and flew to the not-so welcoming arms of the Western Powers.  I won’t try to give you the details, but to say at the least he had created an environment of distrust that lasted well beyond the war years.

The Era of Burmese Independence (1948-1962)  This is perhaps the most confusing of the eras.  In a period of only fourteen years, the much beloved leaders of this newly independent and resource-rich country with a promising future mucked it up to the point where they were displaced by a military coup that lasts to this day.  Their first president, Nyaung Shwe Sawbwo Shwe Taik (now you see why Obama may have had trouble with names while he was there), romanced and then denounced a budding communist movement, and made a few other disastrous decisions, which ultimately led to his demise.

The Era of Military Tyranny (1962-Present)  The military coup that took place in 1962 has not yet ended, although lately there have been some promising signs.  Certainly the Obama administration believed that to be the case when they offered the olive branch of reduced sanctions in return for some civilized behavior on the part of the current Junta. Sadly, the people of Burma have suffered while the military elite and their fellow travelers have prospered.  There have been paroxysms of violence along the way.  In 1988, a naively hopeful citizenship led by a consortium of monks, students and pro-democracy advocates – along with the now famous Aung San Suu Kyi – marched, protested, demonstrated and generally pestered the military rulers to try to convince them to proceed with some long promised democratic reforms.  You guessed it, the results were not good.  In fact, they were really bad.  This brief insurrection is now likened to the Burmese Tiananmen Square. An estimated three thousand citizens were killed, mostly students and monks.  A deft journalist recorded on film the deaths of five hundred of these in front of the American Embassy.  When this film was distributed to international news bureaus, the world finally became aware, in this awful way, of the consequences of this oppressive tyranny.

I will admit to having skipped a lot of stuff in this abbreviated and much edited history, but I hope you got the drift.  I’ll add to this picture some of my own observations and questions that arose in my brief but enlightening exposure to Burma.

The National Army pretty much owns everything of value in the country, and nothing works, so it ought to be easy to conclude that the solution might be to get rid of the Army or at least the pervasive power of the Army.  Easier said than done.

The monks (and Buddha) pretty much control every thing the Army doesn’t, and what they control doesn’t work very well either.  To wit: they have a million or so pagodas (basically shrines to Buddha) painted with gold leaf at great expense while their children are dying from malnutrition and drinking polluted river water. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is said of have tens of millions of dollars of gold leaf decorating its various shrines.  I always presumed Buddhism to be a religion of personal awareness and peace, but that’s clearly not the case either.  Burma is home to some of the most oppressed ethnic and religious minorities in the world.  In fact, the Rohingya Muslims in Western Burma have been more or less terrorized since 1947, and are said by some to be the most oppressed national minority in the world.  Go figure.  Not only does the pervasive Buddhism of Burma not prevent violence to others, it seems to actively promote it.  I can only surmise that Burma’s Buddhists are in the good company of other religiously dominated countries in turning a blind eye to the violence that is often perpetrated in their name.

Burmese names.  It’s long been my theory that our perception of a people is directly related to the difficulty we have with their names.  Take the Burmese name “Win” for example.  It’s not complicated to pronounce or remember, but there are just too damned many of them. It’s more common than “Kim” in Korea.  It seems like every third male has Win some where in his name. Fully half of the male crew members on our river cruiser were named Win.  In order to distinguish, I renamed them Big Win, Little Win, Young Win and so on.  And then there is the length of their name.  I’ve already mentioned their first president, Nyaung Shwe Sawbwo Shwe Taik.  There’s not a single American that could remember, much less pronounce, the name of this very important Burman.  Complicating the names further, there is the matter of pronunciation. Remember the Nobel Laureate that I referred to earlier whose name was mangled by Obama.  Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi. Okay, Aung San is her father’s name, and Suu seems fairly simple, but Kyi is unpronounceable.  To me, it sound like something between “chee” and “kee,” but I’m glad I don’t have to try it in public.

My final thought is that the Burmese people deserve better.  It is said that Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “…people get the government they deserve.”  While that may be true in a democracy and over time, in Burma that clearly is not the case.  The people are intelligent, kind, and hard working.  They are proud of their country even while their leaders have oppressed, and even murdered them. They want and deserve the freedom that civilized peoples deserve.

Singapore, The Asian City State

I used to travel around the world a lot. In fact, I still do, but I’m now convinced that places are further away than they used to be. I’ll explain.

I had been looking forward to this trip for some time.  An all expenses paid trip to Singapore is nothing to sneeze at these days, even if I had to work a few days for it.  Singapore, as you know is on the other side of the world.  Well, it’s not exactly the other side, but it might as well be.  The world’s circumference is about 24,000 miles and it’s about 10,000 to Singapore as the crow flies, but no one ever flies like a crow.  My plan, developed after far too many hours on the internet, was to fly DFW to LAX, and after a short layover, catch the Singapore Airlines non-stop to Singapore. Three hours to LA, two hours of layover, and sixteen hours of food, drink, and movies to Singapore.  If you’re quick with math you will note that this is an elapsed time of twenty one hours.  Not a milk run, but within my collapse-in-exhaustion limit.

My flight from DFW was delayed before boarding for two hours by one of the two thunderstorms to pass this area in the last six months.  Another delay of two hours on the runway ensued when the storm doubled back on itself.  I was now four hours into my trip and hadn’t gone anywhere.  As we pulled in to our gate at LAX I could see my Singapore Air flight taxiing for takeoff.  An emergency call to my trusty travel agent informed me that I had several other options, none of which I would like.  I finally settled on a flight leaving in four hours that would take me to Seoul, Korea where I would layover another four hours and catch a Korean Air flight to Singapore arriving there, if everything went right, some seventeen hours after I was supposed to have gotten there.  My twenty one hour travel time turned in to a thirty some hour trip (well outside my collapse-in-exhaustion limit).  The very nice and efficient Korean Air agent had given me little hope that my luggage would make it, and she was right.

After traveling almost forty hours door to door, I arrived (sans luggage) at the hotel on Orchard Road in Singapore desperately needing, in no particular order, sleep in a bed with sheets, some time alone in my own bathroom, food, a bath and shave, an internet connection, and some clean underwear.  All were furnished forthwith excepting the clean undergarments.  I was moderately suspicious when the floor concierge offered to provide me with a clean t-shirt, and what he called some men’s panties, but I accepted his offer.  I asked for XL knowing that asian sizes tend to run small.  Minutes later the doorbell rang with the promised items.  The t-shirt would not fit over my head, and the men’s “panties” didn’t provide room for one leg much less two.  So much for the clean undergarments.

But I was in Singapore.  The other side of the world.  A few facts are in order.  Singapore is one of three contemporary city states.  The other two are Monaco and Vatican City.  Not exactly analogous.  Singapore is separated from the Malay Peninsula by the Straits of Jahor and a much wider gulf of economic progress.  Its 5.3 million inhabitants are arguably the most productive in the world as it ranks third in per capita GDP after only Qatar and Luxembourg which are both unique cases.  1.3 million of its population are not citizens but are there under various government programs which allows in country those skills it needs to help fuel their economy.  Why can’t we figure that out.

Singapore has a short, but eventful history as an independent state.  After centuries of domination by one war lord or another, the Brits took over in 1824.  They did their normal colony thing, but without doing irreparable harm as they were wont to do in other areas of the world.  The Japanese intervened for a short period in WWII, but then the Brits showed up again with hat in hand and prevailed until common sense held sway in 1959 when a form of troubled independence was tolerated until 1963 when it joined with Malaysia for a brief respite of two years, and finally, the current Republic of Singapore began a run to a form of democracy that we don’t really understand and an economic prosperity which we can only envy.

Let me give you two numbers.  14.5% and 2%.  Those are respectively the 2010 GDP growth rate and current unemployment rate.  Wow!  How can that be you say?  By comparison Singapore makes China look like, er, well, like it is.  A  non-democratic, semi-chaotic, barely, if at all, rule of law country where its inhabitants spit a lot in public and you have to risk your life if you visit a public restroom.  No spitting in Singapore.  Clean restrooms all around.  Business friendly to a T, and a citizenry that behaves well because, I think, because it has to.

Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister who served from 1965 until he retired in 2004 to let his son, Hsien Loong, take over has a lot to do with it.  No, he’s not some tin pot dictator, but many have called him many other things including benevolent despot.  He’s no dummy.  His early education came from the renowned Raffles Institute where he learned Japanese and refined his Mandarin, both to good effect for his later endeavors.  He put his Japanese to good effect during the war by working as a translator for the dominating Army, and he has been a champion of the Mandarin language for Singapore’s population throughout his tenure.  He went on to graduate with honors from Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge.  Lee and his colleagues collaborated to make Singapore first among the Asian Tigers and continues today to position Singapore as the Asian Hub for all things economic, and they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.

There is more than a bit of dichotomy, however, in that Singapore is noted as amongst the most business friendly of governments, but it demands much from its citizens.  Don’t have more than two kids, don’t chew gum in public, wait your turn for a place to live, don’t criticize the government, use your car only when told to, and, above all, be willing to accept “judicial corporal punishment” when one commits a transgression.  Yes, public beating.  Or more accurately, public caning.  As recently as 2007 there were over six thousand such thrashings.  I met Prime Minister Lee in the course of doing business in Singapore and spent much of my time worrying about inadvertently doing something that might invoke a public thrashing.

During my stay, one of the larger banks was fined by the government because its electronic banking network went down for a couple of days and the ATM machines wouldn’t work.  Hell, in the good old US of A we can’t even slap a bank on the wrist for falsifying mortgage foreclosure documents on millions of people.  But what’s really surprising is that the the fine (it was either $2.8 million or $280 million…I can’t remember) was levied one week after the incident.  No special commissions to investigate, no due process.  And they paid without a whimper.  Tells you something about their society, doesn’t it.

On my one free day I went bird watching with a delightful university professor.  He picked me up at the hotel at 5:45 and headed for the Botanical Gardens in the moonless dark of predawn.  I mentioned that it would be hard to see the birds given the absence of the light.  He said not to worry…we would get a bit of breakfast first.  I’m always ready to eat so I gave no protest.

We navigated some narrow streets and parked near a building showing signs of life.  As we entered, the smell of curry, garlic and chilis caused my taste buds to perk up.  We sat amongst several tables of working men in a room of dim light but extraordinary aromas.  The professor asked what I wanted, and I asked him to order for me.  We were quickly served steaming hot mugs of tea and a large plate of very spicy lamb curry with a side of rice.  It may be the best breakfast I ever had.

Bird watching was never so good.