Sunday, June 01, 2014

Mawlamyine, Burma (Myanmar)

Decaying colonial mansion
Today I'm looking out over the delta and islands along which George Orwell once walked, the river heading into the Andaman Sea.  I chose to stay in Mawlamyine for three days partly as a kind of pilgrimage (see the masthead), to breathe the same air that George Orwell breathed, walk the same streets that he did.  On the day I arrived, the Breeze Guesthouse owner informed me that the building where I slept, and the surrounding buildings, are a hundred years old.  Well within the time that Orwell-then Eric Blair—lived here.  Did he drink afternoon tea in my bedroom?  (Not likely.  It was more probably servants' quarters.)  Did he make social calls on the balcony where I eat breakfast?  Did he stroll along the oceanfront boulevard, arm-in-arm with a lady and her parasol?

I wandered among the streets on a self-made tour.  His grandmother lived in this city all her life. Her house allegedly exists still, but no one knows where.  Every grand old example of colonial architecture I passed I imagined was it.  And say what you will about colonial fascism (and Blair said a lot), its architecture is grand.  This city may be my favorite example yet, better than boutiquified Georgetown and Luang Prabang.  Mawlamyine's grand old buildings are decayed, decrepit, rotting, their elegance and glamour somehow only enhanced.  Georgetown and Luang Prabang have already been recolonized by the nouveaux riches, but this town is real, authentic, hungry.

Never mind that the riverfront, below the gracious tree-lined colonnade, is covered in heaps of garbage, a festering noxious street-side landfill.

“Shooting an Elephant,” an essay I've never managed to read all the way through (do it yourself, if you dare—it's out of copyright, free for the reading, but I quail about the eleventh paragraph—see if you can make it farther) is set here.

It begins:  “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people.” 

Critics believe his five years in Burma shaped the rest of his life, shaped his constant and unflinching opposition to totalitarianism, in all forms.  His first three years he spent farther to the north, in perhaps less polarized conditions, the setting of Burmese Days, his first novel.  There he learned Burmese, with friends saying he was able to converse fluently in “high-flown Burmese” with priests.  During his early rural posting he imprinted himself with blue circular knuckle tattoos, a common preventative against bullets and snake bites.

He continues in his essay:  “The sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.”

I feel echoes of the same visibility now, in the attention paid me.  The comments hooted after me are “helloes” and “I love yous” but it still gets badly on my nerves, on occasion.  Annoying occasionally, but not really so much, not in this town isolated from tourism for so long.  Mainly what I feel is gratitude for my presence, for the coming presence of tourism.

Attraction and hatred, two sides of the same coin—the same inability to see each other merely as people.

Blair was a cop, an ambassador of the system he despised:
At that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.  The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.
For one thing this paragraph is perfectly written.  Each sentence follows the next as inevitable as a windstorm.  The entire essay is perfectly written, fierce profluence, one thought following the next inevitably.  That's why I can't finish reading it.  Especially the distance in his tone, a distance that allows the unsayable able to be said.

But he is graphic about how the unsayable affected him, and despite any internal conviction to the contrary he was hated and hated back.  Maybe the Stanford prison experiment has become a cliché, but in case you haven't heard it:  in the seventies a psychologist staged an experiment that set two groups of college students against each other—some were assigned as guards, others as prisoners.  In less than a week, the guards began inflicting psychological torture on the prisoners.  They took away their clothes, attacked them with fire extinguishers, prevented them from emptying buckets filled with human waste, confined them to dark closets, and refused to allow them to use their own names.  After only six days the psychologist discontinued the experiment intended for two weeks, as a third of the guards began exhibiting truly sadistic qualities.  The conclusion being that setting one group in power against another alone instills violence and hatred between the two groups.

I have a nascent political theory about post-traumatic stress and culture, that entire groups and subsets of oppressed and oppressors experience post-traumatic stress as collective entities.  We have a sense, in the west, that these ex-colonial countries just need to get their acts together, find democracy, the same way believers would tell people they need to find religion.  But the way most ex-colonial countries govern themselves—specifically, Burma—was modeled to them by us, by the colonial powers, with our white man's burden and noblesse oblige.

In Dawei, a Burmese friend Caroline (not her real name) showed me a pdf presentation for a business she’s enlisted in. 

“Taiwan,” she said, as if that proved its legitimacy.

I hope it’s not a pyramid scheme she’s bought into, but I have no way to know.  It involves door-to-door sales, a la Girl Scout cookies or Amway, of things like healthy herbal teas and skin creams made from odd plants.  One slide showed the arches of McDonald’s as a golden symbol of franchised success the world over, and she displayed it proudly to me on the same day I read of a riot in front of the Oak Brook corporate headquarters of McDonald’s, right down the street from where I used to work at a development organization.  I’m fairly sure I ate lunch at the same plaza where the riot happened.

I showed her images of the riot, trying to explain.  She looked bewildered.  McDonald’s is the Holy Grail here, as all American companies are, beacons of the kind of success Burma is reaching after.  I was able to explain with judicious use of my Myanmar phrasebook.

“McDonald’s president rich,” I said.  “Workers poor.”

“Same in Myanmar!” she exclaimed.  “Government rich.  People poor.”

I could have adapted Orwell’s line:  “All people are equal.  But some are more equal than others.”

Maybe we don’t torture anymore, unless it’s of accused terrorists in Guantanamo, or girls enslaved for our sexual pleasure, or Bangladeshi sweatshop workers locked in firetraps for our cheap clothing.  We have our own cowed, grey-faced prisoners—they’re just all black drug dealers.  We hold ourselves at a distance from our crimes so we can justify them.  Ignore the coming Holocaust brought about by our carbon dioxide waste.

Oppressive oligarchies are the same everywhere.

Our new capitalist colonialism, our consumer empire--the future tourist onslaught--is a welcome distraction for people here from the “younger empire” that supplanted the British.  But when every restaurant begins selling banana pancakes and every shop elephant pants—when Burmese people realize that, despite our dollars, their culture is dying, I wonder what their response will be.  I am still a colonialist, colonizing with my culture and money.  I float in the ether of my class, a class that allows me to travel for pleasure even with an income below poverty in the west.  I bring change.
The metal road was building and where it was impassable the Ford car took the bullock track;  here and there we splashed through shallow streams.  I was bumped and shaken and tossed from side to side;  still it was a road, a motor road, and I sped along vertiginously at the rate of eight miles an hour.  It was the first car in the history of man that had ever passed that way and the peasants in their fields looked at us in amaze.  I wondered whether it occurred to any of them that in it they saw the symbol of a new life.  It marked the end of an existence they had led since time immemorial.  It heralded a revolution in their habits and their customs.  It was change that came down upon them panting and puffing, with a slightly flattened tyre but blowing a defiant horn.  Change.      —Somerset Maugham, Gentleman in the Parlor
 I feel I have more to say about this--a lot more.  But no matter how much I write, I can't find a way to express just how Orwellian both modern-day Burma, and its counterpoint, the industrialized west, have become.  It's one of these things that takes time to tease apart in words.  It took Orwell ten years for his essay.

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