Just in time to complement Howard French’s excellent review of two recent books on Burma, the New York Review is running a new blog entry by the author on his experiences traveling and teaching in the country.
Ostensibly, French had come to Burma on a one-month teaching contract. But he admits that his motives for traveling there were mixed: “it was the only country in Southeast Asia I had never managed to visit and I was very eager to explore the place for myself.”
The diary recounts the surprises and frustrations of traveling through one of the world’s most closed and mysterious societies. For example, something as simple as getting on the internet proves to be an enormous headache.
Arriving at the government-owned business hotel where I would be staying—a large, fading complex with tattered carpets and mildew in the air—I was told I could pay $2 an hour for Internet access, or $50 a week, flat rate. This is a steep price anywhere these days, but especially for a hotel in such a poor country, where a room could be had for $35. I’d been forewarned that internet access could be difficult in Burma, and for good measure, before she took my cash the business center clerk flatly disclaimed, “I want you to know that there are many websites that you won’t be able to visit.” I had taken the precaution of bringing software that overcomes the censors’ attempts to block content in countries like China, where I have worked, and although it sometimes did the trick in Burma, it was of no use during the large chunks of time when there was no internet at all. Early on, during one of these outages my friendly business center clerk told me: “It’s not the hotel, sir, it’s the entire country. This happens quite a lot. You ask the authorities what’s the problem, but they never explain.”
Perhaps most surprising to French was the realization that very few people he encountered spoke any English, an odd phenomenon for a place so thoroughly dominated by Great British rule just a few generations ago.
Writing in The Atlantic in 1971, Paul Theroux, who had just visited the country, remarked, “A very large number of Burmans speak English.” A minor run-in with the gatekeeper of the most popular attraction in the country signified the opposite: in the space of a generation, perhaps unique in the world for a former British colony, the Burmese had essentially lost their English.
This feat, I would come to understand, was as willful as the odd timekeeping, which has kept the country 30 minutes behind its neighbors, and the ban on motorbikes and the inflated pricing of the Internet. English has been choked off in a variety of ways, especially by limiting school instruction, and by strict language policies that make the use of Burmese mandatory in broadcasting and cinema. All of these contribute to keeping this country separate, apart, and ultimately backward in a region where revolutions in transportation and communications have driven explosive growth. A medical worker told me that the monthly fees from his mobile phone (the equivalent of 5 US cents per text message and 30 cents per minute for local phone calls) far outstripped what he made as a doctor on state payroll. (He manages to afford it by moonlighting outside of state hospitals, and by doing other work completely unrelated to medicine.)
Simultaneous translation was required even for the working photojournalists I taught, not to mention for the plainclothes police in the front row, who had been sent to monitor my lessons.
French also ventures out to have his fortune read by a Burmese astrologer, which opens a window into understanding the perverse political conditions under which Burmese labors:
Several overseas Burmese contacts had urged me to see an astrologer, saying the practice was essential to the country’s culture, and I reasoned that it might even be fun. Downtown, between the centrally located (and politically symbolic) Sule Pagoda and the river, dozens of cheap practitioners of traditional fortune telling wield signs touting their merits.
Customers sit in the shade of a tree for a quick reading. I had been led, however, to someone with a long family pedigree and many distinctions, which I gathered had included reading the fortunes of rich and powerful Burmese. The house I was directed to was nonetheless an old and creaky wood frame with high ceilings from which hung spinning (electricity willing) fans.
I was eventually received by a man of modest stature who sized me up from behind thick glasses. He had only two questions: the time and date of my birth. The reading seemed to go on forever, as he made notations in Burmese on a sheet of loose paper and occasionally consulted charts and books. I grew impatient to ask a question of my own.
Of course, the country’s leader, Than Shwe, is notoriously dependent upon astrologers to help him make decisions about how best to steer the country to its predestined future. In at least one famous incident, the general ordered the country’s capital to be moved to the middle of nowhere on warnings from his official fortune teller. “Do you know anything about how they make calculations like these?” French asks the astrologer.
“It is not convenient to speak of such things,” he told me, leaving me little way forward.
“What about the country itself, can a country’s fortunes be read?” I asked.
“In Burma,” he answered, shaking his head and looking downward, ” it is not good to speak of politics.” He would not have known it, perhaps, but this was almost the identical message posted at Internet cafes throughout the country: “Please respect the law. Do not discuss politics.”
But talk politics he does, discussing what will be the upcoming elections that took place this past November with the editor of one of Burma’s leading newspapers.
I asked him what he made of the elections and whether or not people should participate. His answer was surprisingly nuanced, reflecting, I thought, the adaptive habits of mind of people in a country accustomed to bad choices.
“This process is like tasting ice cream for the very first time,” he said. “The majority of people are under 35 and have never voted before. Let them taste it. They may say this is interesting, even if it is not real ice cream.”
“The second time around, their attitudes may change. They may insist on something better. They may realize they have power.”
In addition to the blog and French’s review of Emma Larkin’s Everything is Broken and Benedict Rogers’ Than Shwe, interested readers are well advised to visit French’s beautiful photography blog, where some of the writer’s gorgeous color prints from his recent adventures in Burma can be viewed.