Letter From - Autumn 2008

Burma: Captives of the Junta

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Young monks seek shelter in Nyaung Shwe. (Stephanie Bastek)

By William Lychack

September 1, 2008


 

A group of National League for Democracy (NLD) members gathered outside their party headquarters in Yangon to mark Suu Kyi’s 63rd birthday Thursday by releasing 63 sparrows and shouting “Free Aung San Suu Kyi.” Seven government cars arrived shortly after the protest began and rounded up at least 30 of the NLD members, taking them away to an unknown destination.

—Indo-Asian News Service, June 19, 2008


Rangoon, summer 2008, and the eastern staircase of the Shwedagon Pagoda spills out into shops and stalls. All the bric-a-brac of Buddhism. The bells, the beads, the monks’ robes and bowls, strings of jasmine flowers, little bamboo cages ripe with birds. For a few kyat, a bit less than a dime, you can release one of them, these nervous little sparrows, release them in a kind of prayer, some essence of that freedom flying to whatever your hope might be.

The Burmese believe in such cause and effect. Do the good deed and you will get the good response. Do the bad deed and you will get the bad response. From the seed the fruit must follow. Hard to argue with such faith, really, though anything one thinks about enough becomes problematic.

Take the pretty metaphor of the sar kaley, the little birds for sale in the cages. “They do have in them an element of bad karma for us also,” as one trishaw driver explains. “The more we buy, the more the man will be encouraged to catch.” Besides, I’m told the birds mostly return to their cages, that they’ve been tamed, that they prefer life with one another like this, the closeness, the community. And I’m told the man sometimes mixes opium with their seed. Or that children often carry the birds home, keep them in glass jars, the lids poked with holes for air. Or that people feed the sparrows to pet lizards or snakes. Or that some deep-fry the little birds whole, eat them crispy and spicy, like they eat crickets and small frogs.

All in all, not a perfect way to earn merit, these so-called lucky birds, yet still people feel compelled to release them on special occasions, funerals, weddings, birthdays, all the obvious days, all the obvious anniversaries, all the obvious wishes wished.


A month, two months, and soon will be a year after Cyclone Nargis. Already a year has passed since the marching of monks last September, just as already 20 years have passed since the uprisings of 1988, just as soon will mark 20 years since the election of 1990, and then 50 years since the bloody coup that toppled the civilian government in 1962.

All this time and what’s striking is how little seems to change in Burma. More than 130,000 people reported dead or missing in the cyclone, 25-foot storm surges across the Irrawaddy Delta, and the only evidence in Rangoon are the trees down or gone, the fences crumpled, a few more windows broken. It’s hard not to feel disappointed—disappointed and relieved—relieved to find everything the same as it was before. The same broken sidewalks, the same busy press of people, the crowded shop fronts, the smell of fish paste, of charcoal, of diesel, of palm sugar cooking.

This is my fourth time to Myanmar, to Burma, and maybe now I find more abandoned buildings in Yangon, or Rangoon, the government gone to Naypyidaw, the new capital to the north. There might be fewer trees from the storm. More crows than I seem to remember. Less electricity. But one has to search for differences. There are still monks carrying their bowls for alms in the mornings, their robes the color of rust. Still soldiers posted in pairs, always those poly-green uniforms, always those helmets, always those guns. Fewer rats in the city, come to think of it, the water table higher perhaps. One walks the streets of Rangoon and senses that time is somehow different here, somehow eternal, or stopped.

“You know,” a Burmese friend tells me, “I am beginning to question our Buddhist beliefs. I mean, isn’t everything supposed to be about change?”

We’re at one of the many beer stations in town, the place packed, the night cool, ceiling strung with lights, and he’s smiling and joking and not joking and not smiling at the same time. “Where’s the idea of karma?” he’s asking. “The bad men live old. The good men die soon.”


It’s true, the days pass here without passing at all, yet always there seems another anniversary to mourn, another season of handwringing from the West, another year of waiting for a generation of generals to die. Because that, one diplomat tells me, is the only real game plan for most of the embassies in town, just hold out and hope that the next leaders will be more enlightened.

“Easy to feel slightly glum about it all,” she says, a faint whiff of condescension in her voice, that old colonial weariness in the way she presses her lips into a line, that ho-hum-let’s-make-the-best-of-our-hardship-assignment-shall-we? shrug of her shoulders.

Or, as my Burmese friend at the beer garden would later put it—the same friend who wonders aloud about his Buddhist beliefs, who tells me earlier how he was studying philosophy at the university when it closed in 1988, how he and his classmates ran as soldiers started firing into the crowds, how he kept running, became a monk for a few years, became a pilgrim going monastery to monastery—as my friend would say, there weren’t many options left to him at the time. His smile sours as we stand to leave for the night. On the street, just before we say goodbye, he smiles and curses. “You know,” he says, “I have been waiting for one day since I was 16 years old.”


My fourth visit to Burma, a decade of occasional travel and study, and only now do I feel that people are able to talk to me. Or maybe it’s only now that I feel at home enough to hear them. Or only now do I find myself with a chance to tell them how, back home, we watched snippets of the cyclone on YouTube. I explain how we saw the slow galaxy of the storm spinning into the delta, the home movies showing villages buried in silt and debris, the dead bodies of oxen, of goats, of people floating face down in the water. I tell how, during last fall’s demonstrations, we watched crowds holding hands to protect the monks passing along the avenues, thousands of monks, an amazing river of tamarind robes, the sky and trees like old postcards, everything colorized and soft, familiar and strange. I tell how we looked for landmarks, recognized the old cinema houses near Traders Hotel, recognized the Shwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, heard the singing and chanting, the celebratory kazoos of motorbike horns, the rain falling, the gathering roll of cheering loud enough to make the hair on our arms go electric.

The immediate catalyst of this unrest had been the unannounced and unexplained removal of fuel subsidies, which caused gasoline and diesel to double in price in less than a week and caused compressed natural gas for buses and taxis to jump fivefold. News reports referred to the spreading protests, the monasteries taking their moral authority to the streets, as the Saffron Revolution. One could see monks walking with their bowls turned over, refusing to accept alms, effectively excommunicating the military—a defiant gesture many thought long overdue in the country.

In Buddhist terms, a lay person gains merit by giving alms to a monk or nun, usually food. This connects the lay person, who represents the material and worldly, to the monks and nuns, who represent the spiritual and holy in a relationship of mutual dependence. Both lay people and monastics nurture humility and respect, and the merit they share contributes to their progress toward liberation, liberation from suffering, from “the sleep of ignorance.”

Again, it’s hard to argue with such generosity of spirit, such a feeling of interconnectedness, and in a country of more than 500,000 monks, where nine of every 10 people are practicing Buddhists, the military relies on the monks to provide tacit legitimacy to the regime, if only by accepting alms. The monks keep the military engaged in a kind of discourse on virtue in Buddhist terms: the monks nothing if not patience and loving kindness, the military anything but nuanced, everything but modest in its patronage of the monasteries or nunneries. Every pagoda has its requisite snapshots of uniformed officers on the wall, photos of soldiers offering gifts to monks and novices, everyone holding those gunpoint smiles.

In any case, only now can I say the obvious: in the beer station I say how I see photographs of the generals in all the temples, how they wear pistols on their hips, how, even as the officers try to kneel and bow to the abbot, there are soldiers standing just behind with machine guns. It could be the beer, the ice-wet glass in my hand, the mosquitoes at my feet, but I keep going, as if I’m in on some joke now, telling my friends how we watched a video from the wedding of Senior General Than Shwe’s daughter—the lavish spread, the diamonds she wore, the reported gifts worth more than $50 million, the bride so porcine she’d have stirred the sympathy and imagination of George Orwell.

After we have our laugh, after another joke that’s not altogether funny, after another last round of beer in the beer station, everything smudging in the dusk, the birds having turned into bats, after putting it off for as long as possible, I describe their own terrible scenes back to them. I tell how we streamed the video, heard the chanting of the monks as they flowed down the long straight avenues for as far as one could see, that eerie quiet as dark green army trucks circled and pulled in, the nasal bray of loudspeakers telling everyone to leave, the drifts of tear gas, everyone running blind, the hand-held images of monks kicked to the ground. There were reports of security forces preparing insect spray, fire crews ordered to fill tankers with insecticide to use on the protesters. It was like watching a dream—footage of 1988 blending into footage of 1990 blending into footage of 2007—the movies all grainy, unsteady as a nightmare, the sense of déjà vu as soldiers piled out of trucks, gunfire crackled, people ran away, the unsettling image of sandals littering pavement.

We watched the soldier shooting the Japanese photographer point-blank. We stared at that final photo of him, that lasting image of the regime’s crackdown, the man sprawled on his back before the soldier, the man holding his camera as one would hold a vase or child in a fall, the man tipped like a turtle on the street, holding that camera at arm’s length, as if it were highly keyed, as if it were safe, as if offering it to the soldier, the soldier in flip-flops continuing past as if not even seeing him, rifle pointing toward the ground. Kenji Nagai had been in Burma less than two days, was taking pictures of the protests around Sule Pagoda, and the government would propose that his death was from “a stray bullet.”

How close this all felt to us. The streets littered with sandals and broken alms bowls. And how far away it felt, as well. How helpless we were as we watched.


And now, back in Rangoon, a year after my last visit to the country, eight months after the protests of September, not even a month after Cyclone Nargis, I sit in the plush wicker comfort of Traders Hotel and read the newspapers and watch the aid workers bustle past in the lobby. I’m waiting to meet someone here—a Swede who runs a daycare school I volunteered with last summer—he warned that I might not recognize him, that he’d be in disguise, that he’d grown a beard, dyed his hair brown to get past the checkpoints to his school on the delta.

The cyclone completely demolished the school and most of the buildings in the townships south of Rangoon, and I’ve brought 50 pounds of powdered baby formula to give to him, as well as some medical supplies and some money for food and building supplies. I’d hoped to visit his village, hoped to see the effected areas in the Irrawaddy Division, but even the Burmese were being turned away at the bridges. The state newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, announces it every day in big block letters:

MAKE DONATIONS TO THE STORM VICTIMS.
• EVERYBODY MAY MAKE DONATIONS FREELY.
• EVERYBODY MAY MAKE DONATIONS TO ANY PERSON OR ANY AREA.
HOWEVER, WELL-WISHERS ARE URGED TO AVOID UNSYSTEMATIC DONATIONS AND ACTS THAT MAY TARNISH THE IMAGE OF THE NATION AND ITS PEOPLE.

Well, one could press the issue, one could buy his way out to the delta, as some journalists do, but the consequences always fall on the local guides and drivers. At worst the foreigners are deported, while at best the locals face fines or imprisonment. Surely, there must be a point in every journey like this when you wish you’d just stayed home, that acid-burn of shame when you think how foolish and selfish you’d been to come to this place, all the energy and time you’ve used in order to sit and luxuriate in the cool of a hotel like this, how much unalloyed good you could have done in the world by never applying on a whim for that tourist visa, by simply sending all the money you’ve wasted.

My friend never arrives, and I begin to worry as I watch the aid workers come and go. There’s an air of adventure to the way they stride toward the doors, their khakis pressed, rainwear snug, that sexy swagger as they pull themselves into fancy clean Land Rovers idling at the curb.

Backpackers turned pro, disaster junkies—or so thinks the dilettante in that wicker creak of comfort of his—and the dark observation I hear over the next two weeks is how nice it must be to come home to such a fine, state-friendly hotel. I meet my friend the next day, give him the baby formula for his village, and we agree how wonderful it must be. An expense account, pool on the roof, some drinks at the bar, good clean sheets at night, a touch of jealousy under our breath, naturally, but we also sense how toothless and dithering and self-serving the UN and ASEAN and NGOs prove to be in the end, how the truth is that China is the junta’s only real father, how everyone appears only too happy to keep Burma exactly the way it is.

And then, always with more emotion than intended, always a bit more wistful than seems comfortable, the question that always takes you off balance arrives. If you sit long enough with someone in-country, they’ll always ask why no one comes to save them and their democracy. They’ll recite the speeches of Laura Bush, whom they love in Burma, love for the simple fact that she talks about their situation. They’ll suggest a few smart bombs on the new capital of Naypyidaw, joke how the generals are all in one convenient place now, explain how taking down the regime wouldn’t even affect Rangoon anymore, how all the exiles could be invited home, how the election of 1990 could be honored at last, how Aung San Suu Kyi could take her role as prime minister, how Burma could become part of the world again.


Another of the many dark jokes here—another joke that’s not entirely a joke in Myanmar—is how everyone in the country lives under house arrest. It almost goes without saying, but the recent renewal of Aung San Suu Kyi’s sentence strikes most people as inevitable. They resign themselves to her situation, just as they resign themselves to the rolling blackouts of the city, the rain-flooded streets, the heavy delta heat of the summer, the Lady, as she’s widely known here, confined to her home in Rangoon for 12 of the last 18 years.

It’s impossible to overstate the love and respect she engenders in people here. Her father, General Aung San, negotiated independence for Burma in 1947 and was assassinated later the same year at the age of 32 when his daughter was only two years old. She grew up in Rangoon, attended English Catholic schools for most of her childhood in Burma, graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, her mother serving as ambassador to India and Nepal at the time. Aung San Suu Kyi went on to earn a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from St. Hugh’s College of Oxford University in 1967; she took a position in New York as assistant secretary, Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, for U Thant of Burma, who was then UN secretary-general; and in 1972, she married Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture, gave birth to a son the next year in London and to a second son in 1977.

For years she lived a relatively quiet life in Britain as a wife and mother. Then, after returning to Burma to care for her ailing mother in 1988, she found herself increasingly involved in the pro-democracy movement that was sweeping the country. In 1990, her party, the National League for Democracy, won the multiparty elections by more than 80 percent, but the military refused to recognize the results and placed the elected leaders under house arrest. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the next year, but the Lady would endure the next six years alone in her bungalow beside Inya Lake. No mail. No phone. No visitors. Her family in England. Her detention indefinite.

From teashop to teashop, rumor runs that she’s not allowed to so much as walk in her garden, that her hair has fallen out for lack of nutrition, that the military staffs her house with the most handsome men in the country to tempt her loneliness, that she lost the roof of her home in the cyclone and lives without electricity now, the rain pouring into her rooms. Among the indignities one imagines inflicted behind those barricades at 54 University Avenue are the personal sacrifices that are known: the years she’s gone without seeing her two sons; the faraway death of her husband from cancer; a third of her life spent in near-total isolation.


Such suffering, in a culture so steeped in Buddhism, must become an opportunity, a test of one’s equanimity. The regime becomes another means of furthering one’s Buddhist practice, another way of developing one’s understanding and compassion. If anything, one does come to feel an odd empathy for the generals, an honest pity for their suffering, these poor men who rule only through fear, whose ignorance is so complete, so misleading that they would oppress their own countrymen with such violence.

Like it or not, the military of Myanmar, known as the Tatmadaw, is an inextricable part of the country. The army was founded by General—or Bogyoke in Burmese—Aung San, the irony of this almost sublime. The service is still all-volunteer, and most families have at least one member serving in the armed forces. In Buddhist terms, the violence and greed and fear of the generals must be part of the inner life of Burma itself.

Aung San Suu Kyi talks about an engaged Buddhism that is active in its compassion. This commitment to empathy and understanding runs through all of her conversations with Alan Clements in their collection, The Voice of Hope. “It’s not just sitting there passively saying, ‘I feel sorry for them,’” as she says, talking about the generals, talking about her idea of engaged Buddhism. “It means doing something about the situation by bringing whatever relief you can to those who need it the most, by caring for them, by doing what you can to help others.”

Again, in a culture so steeped in Buddhism, in a country so firm in its belief in liberation, so strong in its faith that one can only oppress oneself, all suffering must turn into a kind of opportunity. It’s a way of necessitating the accidents that fall to one’s life, the idea of karma, or kamma, as it’s known in Theravada Buddhism, the idea that the individual is responsible for his or her own self-awakening and liberation, just as he or she is responsible for personal actions and the consequences of those actions. As Aung San Suu Kyi suggests in an essay on sacrifice and meditation for The Bangkok Post, “Like many of my Buddhist colleagues, I decided to put my time under detention to good use by practicing meditation.”

Vipassana meditation teaches one to observe firsthand the basic nature and reality of change—or, in Buddhism, of anicca—the idea that everything arises and falls away, moment by moment, arising and falling away, change the only unchanging thing. The practice of meditation, central to Theravada Buddhism, allows one to become mindful of attachment and suffering. To be enlightened means to become awakened to the world. A breeze of bells, a gust of birds, a hill tipped with a lime-white stupa, some flashy words we tourists collect like souvenirs: attachment, suffering, change, anicca, kamma.


Political change was to come with the general election of 1990. It’s old news by now, the NLD taking 392 of 492 seats in parliament, the military junta winning only 10 seats, Aung San Suu Kyi the prime minister-elect of Burma, the junta refusing to recognize the results, the military continuing to rule the country as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (or SLORC, in the spirit of Orwell, that great student of Burma). The dictatorship’s name will later be changed to the State Peace and Development Council (or SPDC, in the spirit of the Washington lobbying firm of Jefferson Waterman, the company hired to soften the image of the dictatorship).

But that’s another story. As are the latest rumors of the Lady’s release in six months. As was the latest constitutional referendum in May, the vote held a week after the cyclone, the military leaving nothing to chance. Ballots were marked with voter names and addresses, poll workers standing over the boxes, so is it any wonder that 92 percent approved of the new constitution offered by the generals? Who could afford to jeopardize his or her family over something as useless as a vote? Where had that gotten them 20 years before? Would you yourself have the courage to risk your livelihood? Would you stand up to the guns? How about as they start to fire straight on the crowd? Your eyes burning with smoke? Your children home? Your wife begging you to stay with them this time?

“The government,” as one woman explained to me, “is quite smart in an evil way.” And in some ways, the fear of, and contempt for, this military government and what it has done to the country is best seen in its opposite: the reverence people show toward the monks, the love everyone feels for Suu Kyi, the devotion everyone feels toward family and friends.


Every evening at six o’clock, the television news is an unbroken, almost comic routine of generals planting trees or visiting monasteries, handing gifts to bowing children or monks or tiny old ladies.

I watch an hour of this. General Than Shwe, head of the military junta, awkward across the screen with that bloated face and strut of his, his uniform blouse untucked, pistol on his hip as he stands before yet another far-flung statue of Buddha, as he tips a giant plastic watering can to some seedling tree, as he walks through a Potemkin village of royal blue tents and soldiers doling out food and blankets to refugees of the cyclone. Central casting could not have sent a better dictator for Orwell to tip his head at in wonder, right down to the regime’s sloganeering, the pure allegory of it, the pure fable of it, the satire perfect with those red billboards with words like stooges, crush, cherish, eternal, honor, betray.

Back to the big-block bullet points:

• CERTAIN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL ANTI-GOVERNMENT ELEMENTS, SELF-CENTERED PERSONS AND UNSCRUPULOUS ELEMENTS ARE NOW SEEKING THEIR SELF-INTERESTS BY SENDING TO THE FOREIGN NEWS AGENCIES STORIES ABOUT RELIEF AND REHABILITATION WORK THEY HAVE MADE UP AND SHOT ON VIDEO.
• STORM VICTIMS ARE HEREBY WARNED TO REMAIN VIGILANT WITH NATIONALISTIC SPIRIT AGAINST THE DECEPTIONS OF THE SELF-CENTERED PERSONS AND UNSCRUPULOUS ELEMENTS.
• SKYFUL [SIC] LIARS ATTEMPTING TO DESTROY NATION.
• BBC LYING. VOA DECEIVING. RFA SETTING UP HOSTILITIES.
• BEWARE! DON’T BE BOUGHT BY THOSE ILL-WISHERS.

Later, everyone in the beer station will joke how I might have been the only one watching the news, the only viewer in the entire country. Ha, ha, ha, they laugh and keep laughing at this. Yet another old routine that doesn’t seem altogether funny. Here’s to those skyful liars, those stooges attempting to destroy the nation, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.


Perhaps it’s just an accident of translation—kaley meaning, literally, “very small” in Burmese, “tiny, diminutive”—but when people speak of those little songbirds, those sar kaley, they often call them “she,” as in “she will go free.” And maybe it’s that old trick of only finding what one is looking for, but each mention of her freedom feels like a secret hope for their own personal release, as well as the release of their country.

If anything, people wonder if Aung San Suu Kyi is not too good, too pure. In hushed tones they worry that she’s somehow not as ruthless as her father.

His daughter is not a politician like her father, people say; the woman is too delicate and pure, beautiful like a flower, not shark enough to affect real change, not ruthless enough. Or I hear the argument that she relies on tactics and principles used by her father to help drive off colonial Britain, yet the situation is not even similar. General Aung San gambled that the British would pick up and go home eventually, retire to the cool English countryside where they belonged. But the military junta of Myanmar has no such options. The leaders’ fear of losing power corrupts every single action, colors every single word.

Again the quick glances to see who can hear, again the smile to say this is just between the two of us, a kissing signal to call the waiter over, another round of Mandalay beer, please, nice and cold, some peanuts for the table, and life goes on, cheers!


There is a subversive side to carrying on in spite of everything. Normal life does, by necessity, hold a kind of everyday resistance in it. It’s pure Orwell, straight out of his essay “Why I Write.” “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics,” he wrote, “is itself a political attitude.”

No doubt Orwell would recognize the former capital, Rangoon. This dirty, crumbling, thriving, wonderful, conflicted ruin of a city—he’d appreciate how the place seems to have always been near the edge of collapse. One wonders, again, if anything has changed. Orwell, aka Eric Blair, aka the Indian Imperial policeman shooting his elephant, aka the assistant superintendent of Insein Prison, still the most notorious jail in Burma, aka that homesick young Brit making the most of his hardship assignment, contracting dengue fever, retiring back to the family house at Southwold to recuperate, the climate cool and green and lovely as a hill station.

By necessity, normal life still holds a kind of everyday resistance in it here. In Burma it forever seems that one’s real work goes on not because of anything, but despite everything. Or, taken another way, taken as Orwell might take it, it must be true that the placing of family and friends above politics is a political act. Laura Bush and her segue from Cyclone Nargis to Jenna’s wedding is a political act. The holding of religion above government is a political act. Running away as soldiers push through a crowd of monks is a political act. Those broken bowls, lost sandals, quiet streets—all political.


Even to a tourist—or especially to a tourist—it’s astonishing how quickly one becomes accustomed to the strangest things. The newly empty government buildings in the city. The constant fart-purr of generators. The taste of charcoal and diesel. The darkness of the city streets at night, no electricity, every shadow turning into a dog or person.

And isn’t this part of the allure of a place like Burma? The sense of romance, mystery, danger. The sense of the foreign, finally. It makes me wince, this unflattering truth, the basic fact that everything I cherish about the country, everything I care about, everything I seem to love most—that aura of spirituality, that timelessness—is all preserved by some horror of the government. Whatever pulls me here, whatever keeps drawing me to this place, it comes at the expense of people, my friends now, the whole place locked in amber.

Meanwhile, most tourists, myself included, rarely break out of the air-conditioned bubbles we bring along with us. We temple-hop and eat and, in general, acquire. And more than 10 years ago, on my first visit to Myanmar, in the back of a dusty antiques store, I stumbled into a conversation with the Italian consul.

We were picking over copper scales and bronze weights and fancy English clocks, a brass compass, an old sextant, statues of Buddha, lacquer bowls and trays and betel nut kits. And in the course of an hour he told his whole life story, how he got to Burma, Myanmar, how he treasured everything about the place, how it was like traveling back in time, being here, the country reminding him of Thailand in the ’70s, and how he saw changes creeping in, how he wasn’t ready to say goodbye just yet. “And the sad truth?” he said. “The sad truth is that, once the government falls, this won’t be my Burma anymore.”

He might have smiled when he said this, or brushed his hands clean, but all I remember is how wistful he sounded, my first taste of that ho-hum accent, my first glimpse of that blasé shrug of shoulders, the fine shirt he wore, his hair perfect. And I recall how immoral I felt standing there, aisles of old lacquer bowls and baskets around us, the fancy British clocks all broken, the opium weights and scales, all these ruins washed ashore. I don’t remember anything else, except how terribly in love I must have been with this country already, how strangely at home, and then how I proceeded to haggle down the price on a beautiful silver opium mat. I felt the world was mine, and I loved that feeling. And then hated myself for loving that feeling. Hoped this would be my secret place forever. My Burma. Wished the government would never fall.

I still feel this way at times. Maybe we all do. Maybe we are those self-centered persons and unscrupulous elements that the regime describes. Maybe we are just like China, the junta’s father, our vested interest being to keep Burma exactly the way it is.

That’s why we distract ourselves, why we entertain our guilt away, bury ourselves in pretty little objects, like the betel nut kits that open like nesting dolls—lose ourselves in pretty little stories, like the one about this tourist who goes to Sule Pagoda around dusk one evening, the streets leading into the traffic circle wet with rain, this young man about to float away, hardly anything tethering him to the earth as he walks, and then these birds, this handful of birds he releases, sickly little threadbare creatures, the last one he cradles in his hands so long it nearly suffocates, poor thing skittering across the avenue, disappearing into the dark, some children laughing at this tourist, his fingers musty, his hands dirty with birds as he wanders back to the hotel, past the fortunetellers, past the long colonnades of the colonial buildings, floating like a handful of dark inside the dark.


And because a story is a story, or because one keeps wanting things to make sense, to add up to something, I keep coming back to the birds, back to those chittering little sar kaley, as if they can help me understand or explain or find some meaning in all of this. Who knows, maybe my Burmese friends are right when they smile and ask which birds are happiest? Those in the cage with each other? Or those who are off and away in the trees?

Only now can I tell them not to start with that philosophy stuff on me again, because I don’t know anything anymore. And lost like this—drunk but not drunk—I walk the tumbled streets of Rangoon, the trees having tipped over from the storm, the roots lifting out of the ground like doors ajar, the joke being how now one can see the Shwedagon, one of the holiest sites in Buddhism, that abiding presence visible from nearly everywhere in the city, the trees gone now, the sky big and bright.

I feel myself go empty, the air so thick it’s almost viscous, this person floating over streets and wires and smell of diesel, this body moving through Rangoon. I watch as if from above, see myself as this man passing through the afternoon heat. It’s like a dream, finding him on the eastern staircase of the Shwedagon—all the bric-a-brac of Buddhism again—that giant school bell of gold above, nothing but gold, bright shining gold in the distance. It’s an empty gesture in the face of everything, a shivering handful of birds to release, but still the man can’t help but come back to them again. A few kyat, and once more, from the right intention comes the right action. From the good action comes the good result. He releases the birds, and keeps releasing them, each flying like a wish into the trees, each flickering away in the light.


William Lychack is the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater, and is currently the writer in residence at Phillips Academy.


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