Scarlett Hawkins

Myanmar: A very different, very complex, very divided country

Image: AAP

In the first of a three-part series on Myanmar, take a mad motorbike ride with Scarlett Hawkins that began for her an investigation into the cultural, political, economic and social dynamics at play within this complex country.

 

We were riding through the rural hills of Shan State in Myanmar when the motorbike died. The hill was steep and so rocky that I had been rehearsing in my mind all the old adages of taekwondo instructors as to how exactly I should land without hitting my head when falling from a moving object. I was being ferried from one rural village to another, three hours away, and had not been provided a helmet. To break down was to have a reprieve from the jolting nightmare of limestone on tyre; almost a relief.

Until I remembered my driver did not speak my language and that my knowledge of his extended no further than “Hello” and “Thank You”.

Until I remembered that the bike was rust-smattered and prone to overheating.

Until I remembered that I only had two litres of drinking water and we were in the middle of nowhere.

Then I began to feel nervous.

My guide didn’t seem so worried. We had stalled a good dozen or so times by this point, the bike perhaps unused to the weight of a passenger. He choked the throttle a few times, grunted, dipped a stick into the oil tank, and did the cursory whack-the-problem-with-a-rock trick that seems to be the only truly universal human experience. Presently, and without so much as a glance in my direction, he walked into the scrub. Within seconds, he had disappeared entirely amongst the trees. I contemplated calling out to ask if he was leaving me, but knew it would be of no use. I was on Asian time. He would return when he was ready.

If he returned at all.

At this point, I began to psychologically brace myself for the diplomatic drama I had always privately suspected I would one day spawn. I could see the headline clearly:

“Australia calls on Myanmar to immediately find missing Australian last seen tearing away from village patrolled by paramilitary group with a man whose name she did not know”

(Ok a bit long for a headline but you get my drift.)

Minutes passed as the quiet of the forest reclaimed the space. Leaves rustled halfheartedly in an indifferent breeze. I wondered whether my phone, running on a Burmese tourist SIM card that had suspiciously lost all reception once I had left the urban sprawl of Mandalay, could still be pinged by satellite if the Australian government asked the International Space Station nicely.

However, with the peculiar twist with which all things in Myanmar seem to gravitate, my driver soon returned. In his hands he clutched two dusty dirty bottles of drinking water. Slowly and carefully, he doused the bike’s engine and listened to it hiss like a doctor taking a pulse.

Pour, pause. Pour, pause.

If you’re inclined to pun – rinse, and repeat.

Soon, I was back on the caboose, clenching my eyes shut at the occasional approach of felled trees, as we hurtled up the path with seemingly no care in the world. Well, aside from my lack of helmet.

But there was a question that had begun to germinate in the back of my mind after my driver had returned. I digested it slowly as we rode.

Where had the bottles of water come from?

In my attempts to answer this question, much else of what I had learned of the most magnificent country I have ever experienced begun to shift into comprehension. Things I had accepted at face value began to make sense at a deeper level than the academic internalisation with which I had initially imbibed them.


 

Myanmar is a country ever in flux. A country that operated in what was, essentially, a vacuum to the West for a large portion of the Twentieth century, it is a nation that comes across as confused. The strongest way to describe Myanmar’s political system is “democrat-ish” — though the nation undertook its first democratic election in 2010, its results in unanimously electing the National League for Democracy, were not acknowledged by the military junta, so many seats were not forfeited to the citizen victors until some years later, if at all. With the arrival of democracy(-ish), came the lifting of a great number of international sanctions and the country experienced an economic boost in the form of tourism. Despite a constitution being crafted in that very same year, decades of military administration continues to make its presence felt in modern-day Myanmar.

“It’s like a dystopian novel,” one person entreated, “It’s an eerie city. Everything is owned by the government. Photographs don’t do it justice.”

With borders that were only formally opened to tourists as of 2012, several corners of the country remain essentially sealed to foreign travel. This is part logistical, due to ongoing conflicts in certain regions, and part tactical: it is no secret that the Myanmar government has, for many years, preferred to shuttle tourists along a clearly-defined path.

To understand the magnitude of this governmental control, one needs only to consider Naypyidaw, the nation’s newest capital, which was constructed in that same dramatic year of 2010. The city boasts twelve-lane highways, hyper-cleanliness and slick buildings yet remains something of an eerie ghost town due to a dearth of tourists and locals alike. Naypyidaw was born on the ashes of almost a dozen villages that belonged to various ethnic minority tribes who have been displaced. Why Myanmar’s government felt the need to pivot its capital away from Yangon is unclear: some academics speculate that the decision was motivated by fear of Yangon’s vulnerability to amphibious attack, while others have speculated that the decision is a bold affirmation of centralised government presence in what has been historically an unstable region of control.

Tourists who have passed through Naypyidaw attest to the eeriness of its luxuriant emptiness. There are few foreigners and even fewer locals.

“It’s like a dystopian novel,” one person entreated, “It’s an eerie city. Everything is owned by the government. Photographs don’t do it justice.”

To this end, they are right. In 2006, a pair of local photojournalists were sentenced to three years’ jail time for taking photos of the city, a reaction borne of some inadequately-explained governmental hyper-control. Now, photos are permitted, but the dystopian atmosphere has, arguably, not waned.

Despite the all-pervading reach of the Myanmar government, its presence is less palpable to the eyes of the many tourists who traipse around a country that is still, for all intents and purposes, annexed from within. But a great deal of the political tensions within Myanmar can be attributed to locations scattered far from the conventional tourist trail.

Here is where individual stories craft a perception of a very different, very complex, very divided country.

 

Part Two of this three-part series on Myanmar will appear this time next week on TBS

Scarlett Hawkins

Scarlett Hawkins is an author with a penchant for scathing trope deconstruction and killing her darlings. She is currently backpacking indefinitely around the world in order to engage with local slam poetry scenes, research her fourth novel, and write freelance editorials from the road.

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