“I hate them,” said Pha after glancing furtively around the opulent old-world tearoom of the Strand hotel in downtown Yangon. The 32-year-old Burmese tour guide stopped speaking and looked out the window as an immaculately dressed waitress approached the table and began delicately to unload her tray of tea and biscuits. The starched tablecloths and antique silverware threw the scene outside the window into stark relief. It was one month since cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in Myanmar's recorded history, had ripped through the south of the country. The storm, along with the wilful neglect of survivors by the ruling military junta, had just claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
Outside, the people of Yangon were clawing their way back towards the normality they had known before the storm made their existence that bit more precarious. Downed trees and walls still littered roadsides. They lay in heaps on footpaths along with clay-coloured tiles torn from roofs.
There were more homeless than normal too, Pha points out. Many, left with nothing by cyclone Nargis, were now reduced to begging from people with nothing to spare. Whole families were sleeping in makeshift huts on street corners all over town with near-constant seasonal drizzle compounding their despair. Pha believes the junta is deliberately keeping the population on the edge of starvation in order to stave off the chances of revolt. Hungry people don't think about regime change. Hungry people think about food.
The decadent Strand Hotel, with its $400 suites and a past guestlist featuring Mick Jagger and Oliver Stone, made a welcome respite from the poverty that surrounded it. It remained one of the most popular stop-off points on the city’s tourist trail, but like all the other hotspots, it was devoid of foreign faces.
There were so many ancient craters in the pockmarked footpaths they had become impossible to sweep. Decades of dirt and grime, which spilled over from the hundreds of Spartan roadside eateries, festered in the cracks of the battered city that was once the glittering capital of the most wealthy nation in Southeast Asia. It made the whole place stink.
The pervading sense of gloom beyond the windows of the hotel came less from the worn-out city than it did from its tormented inhabitants. Travellers who wander off the beaten track in Myanmar’s neighbouring countries are met with smiles and stares. In Myanmar, people still stare at the rarity of a Caucasian, but the smiles are hauntingly absent. “We can never relax,” adds Pha in his impressive English when the waitress retreats out of earshot. “We always have to watch what we say.”
As a teenager, Pha trained in his country's infamously gruelling martial art of Lethwei in which bare-knuckle fighters can kick, knee, elbow and punch. His mother disapproved of his pastime and banned him from competing. He responded by running away and signing up as a prizefighter on the Lethwei circuit. He lasted long enough to earn a number of scars but after a few fights and a few months, he returned home to his mother and his studies.
Years later, a latent confidence in his ability to fight almost ended with him being more than just scarred. “I once got drunk and lost control of myself. I stood up in a teashop and shouted as loud as I could that I hated the military and the police. I told the people who looked at me to go and get a policeman or someone from the army because I wanted to fight them.” A shocked smile flashes across his face as he recollects what could have been the end for him, but it disappears just as quickly. “The teashop was close to my home, so the people there knew me. They knew I wasn't normally a drinker or a troublemaker, so nobody told on me.”
The horror of what can happen to people who stand against the junta is ever-present: “My friend was a student in 1988 when the protests started. He went on a march and they took him to prison. That was 20 years ago and he’s still in there. We know what they do to people in their prisons. They do terrible things.”
The country’s fledgling tourism industry contracted rapidly in the wake of the junta’s vicious clampdown on the latest monk-led pro-democracy marches which caught the attention of the world when they began in August of last year. Before the army moved onto the streets and started gunning down protesters, Air Asia was flying two frequently full flights from Bangkok to Yangon every day. Today, the company struggles to fill enough seats to justify flying three flights a week between the two cities.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the public face of the country’s National League for Democracy, has called for tourists to stay away from Burma in order to deny the junta revenue. This is one of the few points on which Pha’s views differ from the Noble Peace Prize-winning prisoner of conscience. “It is difficult for us – for people who earn money from tourists. Most stopped coming after the protests last year and now we've had the cyclone things will get worse.”
With the number of tourists dwindling to near zero, Pha has decided he cannot wait any longer for his nation to wake up from the Orwellian nightmare it finds itself in, and he has been looking for employment abroad. He holds a degree in engineering and has near-perfect English, but will be interviewed by a Burma-based employment agency later this month for a job working among Dubai's notoriously ill-paid foreign construction labourers. If he gets the job, he plans to work until he has saved enough money to move to the west before sending for his mother, wife and young son, who will wait for him in shattered, beaten Yangon. “George Orwell stayed here too,” notes Pha with a forced smile as he rises to leave.
Pha’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
© Rob Carry. All rights reserved by the author.