I awoke before the first dawn of the year to fly back to Yangon (known as Rangoon in its previous incarnation), Burma’s largest city and its capital. The taxi driver pulled up to the curb and pointed up to a fourth story window. On a small sign was written the name of the hostel where I’d booked a single room. I approached a narrow unmarked doorway squeezed in between two shops, hesitated, and looked back at the driver, who gave me a go-ahead thumbs up. In the dingy stairwell, red betel nut juice spit was splattered against the walls near unemptied garbage bins. The third floor landing opened into a family’s living room. Even entering the hostel’s modern lobby, I still wasn’t entirely sure I was in the right place.
I checked into my room, and upon overhearing the conversation of three other guests promptly invited myself to join them for lunch. Sean was from Canada, Melissa from Australia, and Edwin from Bogotá, Colombia. (Somehow Colombians manage to find me all over the world.) We ended up at a conventional Burmese tea shop, light on ambiance with a menu heavy on Chinese influence. Customers crouched on tiny plastic chairs over knee-high tables.
Unlike tourist safe havens Inle Lake and Bagan, the subtle sense that something is amiss in Yangon cannot be completely erased, as if whatever it is runs so deep underground that on the surface it is perceptible to outsiders only as an unsettling feeling. Beyond the obvious poverty and hardship is a near-invisible force of psychological control that can only be described as Orwellian. According to Emma Larkin’s book Finding George Orwell in Burma, which for me had become a sort of guide to Burma’s hidden dark side, Military Intelligence is tasked with keeping tabs on the entire population. Its wide network of informants are the eyes and ears of the military government. “In short,” says Larkin, “everyone is being watched.” Merely the idea that you are under constant surveillance is enough to put you on edge. Not being able to confirm if you’re being monitored or by whom makes it all the more effective. Mildewed cinderblock tenements loom over the decaying city streets like a setting of dystopian fiction, perhaps 1984.
I hastily snapped one photo of this police station, paranoiacally expecting to be tapped on the shoulder by an agent of the state who’d politely demand my camera’s memory card. I’d seen plenty of other police stations in Burma, all displaying a “May I Help You?” sign in front that sent chills up my spine. But this one, the Kyauktada Police Station, was straight out of a George Orwell novel, Burmese Days to be specific. Based on the author’s time as a police officer in Katha, the book’s publisher had Orwell alter some of the names over concerns the references would lead to legal action. The name of the town was changed to Kyauktada.
Melissa and Sean wanted to check out the Drug Elimination Museum, which I’d also heard about, so I decided to tag along. Here we are at the train station.
Pushing through the crowd to board the train was a bit overwhelming.
A vendor weaves through the aisle balancing a tray of sweets on her head. Others were hawking everything from boiled ears of corn to children’s toys. Some fellow passengers offered us their seats with gracious smiles and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
When we reached the museum, the only other people around were a bunch of kids playing soccer in the driveway. The gates were locked, so they showed us where to peel back a sheet of rusty corrugated metal and climb through the hole.
From a distance, the Drug Elimination Museum looks like an extravagant showpiece. But few things in Burma are what they seem. Up close, you can see it for what it really is—a sham. The staff turned on the lights and sounds for us, as we were the only guests in the three-story facility, which had been shut down until our arrival. A couple I’d met in Bagan had reported a similar experience, so I wasn’t surprised. The entryway was covered in black mold, and the walls were crumbling. Pigeons had found their way through the cracks and were living in the exhibits, and pooping all over them, too. As you might guess from the name, the museum’s purpose is to glorify the government’s war on illegal drugs. Larkin’s book states, “After Afghanistan, Burma is the world’s largest producer of heroin […] The business is run by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a group described by the US State Department as the world’s ‘most heavily armed narco-traffickers.'” Never mind that the government allegedly profits from the drug trade: “The Burmese regime is thought to have been benefiting financially from this illegal trade in drugs since the UWSA signed a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese generals in 1989. But the generals insist they are working to eradicate the drug industry, and from time to time they invite foreign journalists to specially organized ceremonies where enormous mounds of heroin, opium and methamphetamine pills are burned to cinders in front of international television crews.”
Several dioramas like this one show heroic Burmese soldiers destroying poppy fields. Although foreign visitors may find humor or irony in these “kitschy” exhibits, I was deeply disturbed to think of the groups of school children who come here on educational trips, who have been raised in a “post-truth” society with no ability to distinguish reality from the government’s twisted versions of events. As in 1984, if the Party says that 2 + 2 = 5, then it is true. In the various displays of propaganda, it is impossible to tell what is the cherrypicking of facts, what is didactic exaggeration, and what is pure fabrication. Having declined to pay the extra fee to take pictures inside the museum, I snapped a few secret shots when we were out of sight of the employees. When we approached a bizarre haunted-house type exhibit meant to demonstrate the deadly effects of drug use, a member of the staff suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere to flip on the power switches for us. Clearly they had been keeping an eye on us the whole time, though we couldn’t quite figure out how. Big Brother is Watching You, indeed.
We hailed a taxi back towards the city center…
…to the shining star of Yangon and perhaps all of Burma, Shwedagon Pagoda.
Young novice nuns dressed in pink robes douse a Buddha statuette in purifying water. Worshippers are divided into groups by the day of the week they were born for luck and “good karma.” According to what my meditation teachers have taught me, karma is the natural law of cause and effect. It is not a moral concept or cosmic system to reward or punish our behavior, but a description of how reality unfolds. Every action has a consequence. Stubbing your toe causes the effect of pain. Perhaps the situation is a result of mindlessness, but not because you deserved some type of karmic retribution for doing something “bad” and the universe is making you pay. Your past actions create habit patterns in the mind which influence your future actions. If your thinking is careless, you will probably act carelessly as a result. This is karma. No matter what heinous crimes you commit, I doubt you’ll be turned into a rat in your next life. (But you can’t know for sure, can you?) However, this is not how most of the religious Buddhist world understands karma. Try imposing a “rational” interpretation of karma on the doctrine of reincarnation and see where that gets you. You might find yourself trying to argue, as the old bumper sticker adage goes, “My karma ran over your dogma.”
Without a wide-angle lens, my camera can barely do justice to the massive scale of the Shwedagon temple complex. Although the 100-meter-tall stupa has been rebuilt several times, many people claim the original was first constructed 2500 years ago. You can call me a skeptic if you like.
Watching people stream by in their colorful costumes is as mesmerizing as the pagoda itself.
After dark, hundreds of flickering candles glowed in a ring of fire around the temple. My journey through Burma had come full circle, and it was time to go back to my home in Thailand. Other than Shwedagon, the sparkling jewel of the city, Yangon might not dazzle the imagination, although it may inspire a few paranoid delusions. But as a traveler without much time to stray from the well-trodden tourist circuit, it was my only glimpse of Burma’s shadow, the truth I sought which I had read so much about but seemed to be hiding in plain sight. You might even miss it if you blink. George Orwell’s bleak vision is still alive and well in present-day Burma, even after the democratic elections, but the faith of the Burmese people is inextinguishable. May their future be brighter.