A visit to Myitkyina

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My flight to Yangon on 18th June is cancelled. The Thai airways crew says heavy rain has closed Yangon airport. In the restless gloom of the waiting area, rumors start to spread that the army has taken over the airport. Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday is only a day away. People fear something may have happened while they have been away. Young fathers sit staring into space, wondering if they can return home.

We get bused to the Amaranth Hotel, a fancy five star hotel in the outskirts of Swarnabhoomi Airport in Bangkok. Using my wireless thumb drive, I email my friend in Washington DC to check Twitter. Within minutes, I get my answer: a plane has skidded off the tracks. Flights supposed to land in Yangon airport are rerouted to Singapore.

The plane flies to Yangon the next morning. At a crowded traffic junction, a young newspaper boy flashes me illicit news printed in The Nation, a Thai newspaper. The front flap is folded over to hide the headlines inside: Kachin Rebels resume fighting at border, threats of civil war. Only three thousand kyats (around $4), he says. I get a Hollywood thrill seeing the news, hidden so discreetly beneath the front flap, flashed briefly before my eyes. 

In the restaurant where I go to eat, the owner, a kindly woman, starts to discuss the Kachin rebels with me. The people are protesting, she says, because the benefits of the new hydroelectricity dam presently being built will all go to China. The Irrawaddy River will dry up, and the Kachins get nothing in return. She is surprised I don’t know all this already. “I think you are journalist and you come to report about this,” she says, with excitement. I deny this, but she hardly believes me: how could I not be a journalist? Obviously I was not a tourist and that I had come there for some specific purpose.

I remember my last trip, in which I had ridden a pickup truck to Lashio, the furthermost town in Burma, close to the Chinese border. A government official had looked at me, then asked: Are you a writer? Do I have: I am a writer written all over me, I had wondered then, a bit shaken. In hindsight, this was disingenuous: which tourist in her right mind would ride a rattling pickup truck to Lashio, squashed with thirty laborers and a giant pile of goods, with only a plastic mat as cushioning? I had admitted I was a writer, of sorts, but I need not have worried— the official went on to tell me Myanmar was now introducing democratic norms and would soon become like other democracies, that he never took the state-sponsored Myama airlines, and that he felt Myanmar would slowly but surely adopt the political freedom of other countries. He admired writers, and wanted to write in English. Of course, he was a government official whose children studied at the best schools, as he was quick to point out. His three rosy cheeked children went to one of the best boarding schools in the country in Pwe Oo Lin, formerly Maymo. He was picking them up to take them for a short vacation. Ordinary people had told me: only government officials get to send their children to good schools, or to buy property, or start businesses. We can’t do anything. It may have been true in this case, but the official was so pleasant, polite and charming, and so clearly on the side of a democratic system, that it was hard to fault him. Despite all this, I was unsure how much I should reveal—would saying I was writing a book about the Gorkhali community in Myanmar bring unwelcome attention? Did I want government officials asking me too many questions? I wasn’t sure, and in the confusing absence of information, it was better not to say anything.

Back in the Yangon restaurant, I shake my head and say: “No, I’m not here to report on the Kachin rebellion.” The owner is surprised by this, and then resumes telling me the story of what is happening in Myitkyina, almost as if it doesn’t matter what purpose I came to Myanmar for, as long as I witnessed what was going on there. I was educated, it was clear. I could speak and write in English. And this was enough credentials to be a witness.

Reading the New Light of Myanmar, the government run newspaper, I see the Kachin rebels have resumed fighting in Myitkyina, where I am headed. The news informs me the Kachins are protesting the building of a dam by China, and they have blown up 22 bridges. The newspaper alternatively offers sticks and carrots—warnings to those going against development, and pleas to rebels to remember that they are part of the Myanmar state. Those who agree to support state policies can come to the negotiation table.

Let me admit it right here—I am not one of those who go seeking adventure. I was in Myanmar to find out about the history, culture and life of the Nepali diasporic community. If fighting was happening exactly where I was headed, perhaps I shouldn’t go. Unlike many of my friends, I am not a conflict junkie. And while getting their heads broken open with a policeman’s baton during protest marches in Nepal’s democratic movement was a badge of pride (one may say a badge of honor) for many of my contemporaries, I tend to be more cautious—following my mother’s advice, I tend to save my brain cells for other activities.

But precisely as planned, I did fly to Myitkyina the next morning. The USD $ 308 ticket felt exorbitant, but I had been planning this for months. There was no reason now to back out. I was excited to see the Gorkhali gomba, described to me in great detail by the Mahayani Buddhist followers in Pwe Oo Lin. I was also excited to see the almost 300,000 Nepali people who lived in Kachin state. With villages named Rampur, Sitapur and Radhapur, I had a feeling I was going to see a lot more of Nepal in Myitkyina than I bargained for.

Walking off the plane at Myitkyina, I knew no one. In my usual state of disorganization and un-preparedness, I had carried no phone numbers, only a sense that everything would turn out right.

The guard at the airport said: Passport? Suddenly my heart was thumping and my throat was dry. I was at the farthest point of Burma, about a few thousand kilometers north of Yangon, close to the Chinese border. It felt very far away from the known world. In a sheer act of willful folly, I did not even have the number of the Nepali embassy—so confident had I become from my previous travels in Burma that I was safer and sounder here than perhaps even in Nepal. I had been lulled, from my previous travels and the extraordinary hospitality shown to me, that I was almost at home.

My passport had a photograph of me at age 19, with giant glasses covering half my face and a big smile, with this unambiguous term listed on my “occupation” box: JOURNALIST. Would the guard stop me? Throw me in jail? Why was he asking me for my passport if I was already in the country, and this was just an internal destination? Local officials can often be more intractable and worrisome than the ones in the capital.

The guard, dressed in his green almost-Army like outfit, scared me. He flipped the pages, took one look, and returned my passport to me again without a comment. My heart lightened. I wondered, as I walked out, if he knew how to read, or whether he was just checking my passport to see if I had a visa. I had just left Yangon, sweltering in the oppressive June heat, the people thin and malnourished, their faces shuttered. In the narrow streets, I had felt conspicuous, visible. In Myitkyina, the fresh air was palpable. My trepidation faded as the small town met me with a shower of rain and flowers from the green trees.

My mother always said I was born under a lucky star. And today was my lucky day. As I walked out, rather uneasily, wondering how to get to the center of town and whether I would be able to get a room at the last moment (in a state of panic generated by the Fukushima nuclear accident, I had already closed my apartment in Bangkok, and packed and shipped my Lonely Planet back home to Nepal and therefore had to rely on my own intuition), I saw a man standing cordially by the car park. This was the first taxi-driver I chatted up. I mistook him for an Afgani—possibly one who got left behind in this remote outpost of the world, the detritus of some war of the past. Then he asked me: which country are you from? And when I said, “Nepal,” he said, “I am Nepali too. You don’t worry. I’ll take you everywhere.”

How often does this happen to someone? You fly to a foreign land thousands of miles away from your own country and the driver waiting to meet you at the airport happens to share your same language and culture? I am not sure, but it did happen to me. I have no doubt that if I show up in Sudan or Somalia, the same thing will happen—precisely because Nepalis are such global people. 

The first stop in our itinerary was Bijayji’s home, where we met his wife in front of the Hare Krishna shrine in their home. Their three children were all working in Thailand—the son a tailor in Phuket, the two daughters working in different stores in Bangkok.  His wife seemed sad when I asked if people in Myanmar missed their children. Within a second of the question coming out of my mouth, I realized my mistake. Almost all of the younger generation of working age has migrated to Thailand. The villages are empty of young people. Bijayji said the tailoring business had boomed for those who left about a decade ago, but now in the current economic climate, it was difficult to establish a business or to buy one’s own home in Phuket.

Next door in the old wooden house, we met Bijayji’s mother. She was a sprightly lady in her eighties, dressed in her Burmese loyngi. She told me the story of how she got married to her husband.

In her eighties, the old lady suffered severe pain in her knees—the internal cartilage had vanished, she said, and although she had tried many remedies, there appeared to be no medical relief. My father, who suffers from the same problem, had gone to the Chinese acupuncturist, who had given him giant gumball sized medication, and which had gotten rid of his most immediate pain. Perhaps, I said, this could also help her. I mentioned the glucosamine , which I know has helped others, and the Japanese medication a friend of mine in his seventies had told me about. She listened attentively. She said she had never been to the Chinese doctor, but perhaps she could find one in Myitkyina.

It is strange, I thought, how a point of commonality could immediately be forged between this eighty year old woman in Burma, and myself, based on our shared heritage. The people in Myanmar have this childlike openness to the world, an openness that most people in the modernized world have forgotten about. Distrust wraps modern people like shrink-wrap. Over here, under the fresh smell of green trees, people still exuded an immediate intimacy. This openness worried me—I feared I may inadvertently do or say something that may put people’s in harm’s way. But I need not have worried. The Gorkhali community has nothing to hide in Burma. “We have excellent relationships with both the state and the Kachin rebels,” they said with great conviction. And somehow, I believed them.

In the bamboo house of the old woman, we moved to the issue of religion, always a contentious one in Myanmar’s Gorkhali community. The old lady was a Buddhist, unlike her son and daughter-in-law, who followed the Bhakti movement through the Hare Krishna path. She had a Buddhist shrine midway up her wall, just like the Burmese. “We have no quarrels here,” she said. “I follow Buddha, and they follow Krishna.” Unlike in the larger community, this family seemed to have made peace with religious freedom and the different choices of family members.

Immediately afterwards, Bijayji took me on his motorcycle to the Myitkyina gomba, which I had told him I had come to see. Dorje Lama, the chairman, welcomed me warmly. An election to choose members of the gomba committee was occurring at full swing. We sat down at a bench at the back. I admired for a few moments the civil ways in which the event was taking place. Ostensibly it was an election, but it was clear the candidates were pre-selected and nominated, rather than elected. The men sat on one side of the hall on wooden benches, the women on the other. They all watched as the man on the dais read out the names of selected male candidates. It seemed to me from the names being read out, as well as the visual cues of dress and accent, that the majority of the gomba members were Tamangs.

“We were planning to have a celebration but it wasn’t appropriate with the Kachin rebels resuming the fighting,” a man called Nima Lama told me. Mr Lama, of Manangi descent, told me his grandfather had come to Burma to trade in gems and never left. His wife, a Kachin, teaches at the university. “About 80 or 90 Gorkhalis have been recruited by the Burmese army to fight the Kachins,” he says. I’ve already come to hear about this forcible recruitment by the military, but Mr. Lama seemed to think this recruitment was almost a draft of sorts, a patriotic duty. “And the Gorkhalis should fight the rebels, too,” he says passionately. “It's their duty. I hate the Maoists and what they did to Nepal.” All the Gorkhalis I meet talk about the Bagi, or Tigers, their nicknames for rebels within the Burmese state, with the same neutral tone of regret as urban Kathmanduites used to talk about the Maoists. There appeared to be no approval or point of commonality with the rebels.

Mr. Lama told me, “So I’ve been back to Nepal a number of times.”

“What did you think?” I asked him, curious.  He said it was a waste of time. “Hardtals, chakka jams and strikes. I was stuck in a house all day and didn’t get to see anything,” he said. “What a waste of time.”

This was a familiar story. The Gorkhalis in Burma who went to visit their relatives in Nepal uniformly seemed to have experienced it as a series of unbroken strikes which left them stranded in suburban concrete homes. It was time and money wasted, they said. Mr. Lama went on about the Maoists for a while, then he asked me what I thought about all this.

“Yes,” I said, “But now in Nepal the war is over and now we are left with all these orphans. Later you look back after killing all your people and you think: what was that all for? Why did we kill our own people? Who will take care of these children now?”

This makes him somber. “Besides,” I add quickly, “One of Buddha’s edicts is not to kill.” 

As if my point of view has emboldened him, Mr. Lama shares this historical tidbit: a relative of his from Burma was one of the police officers who had returned to Nepal and led the coup against the Rana regime and established King Tribhuwan on the throne. I turn on the video camera, and beg him to repeat this story. He refuses, saying it wouldn’t look good to say this aloud. Anyways, he says hastily, everyone knows this history.

The Ranas appear in the Gorkhali community’s consciousness every once in a while, but the history of opposition to their regime is quickly brushed over, almost as if referring to that moment, for some reason, is a forbidden past-time. Anything that refers to opposition to an autocratic regime, it appears, is forbidden even to appear on the consciousness. People censor any thought that could be potentially treasonous—everything is smoothed over by the belief that they live in a rich, happy and generous utopia. Interestingly, this imagined Utopia is experienced in reality, for almost all Gorkhalis. They do live in a happy Utopia in Burma, one which brings no external distractions to the graceful building of community ties, social events and economic activities that continues amongst great warmth, love and support. In it only in the verandahs during the evenings, sitting amongst painfully thin elderly people, that the darkness of the state sometimes comes out in bitter reproach.

As I get on the elevated platform of the gomba’s hall and interview the chairman of the committee, I become aware that one of the two monks sitting around the table is filming me with his cell-phone camera. There is something hard-edged about the way he directs the camera at me. Suddenly my throat goes dry. I keep forgetting that religious institutions are never free of politics in Burma. These are like no other monks I’ve seen—they wear the yellow robes of the Thervadin monks, but what are they doing here, in this Mahayana gomba? The way they look at me make me nervous.

I suddenly become aware I’m saying that I’m happy at the way the elections took place, and how it was concluded in such an orderly and efficient manner. I’ve also said Tamangs in Nepal tend to train their children to be monks in Tibetan monasteries in the Mahayana tradition. Where do the Burmese stand with the Tibetans? Are they so in bed with the Chinese that any mention of Tibetans is seen as treason? I have mentioned to Mr. Lama a few famous Rimpoches and a few famous Gombas that the Chinese have targeted as political opponents in the past. Immediately I wonder if I’ve gotten into hot water—am I treading in politically mined territory here? I hope the monks are not government spies, and that they don’t mistake me for one.

Of course, the only thing you can do at such moments is carry on lightly. Which is what I did, asking questions about the history of the gomba’s formative moments. It became quickly clear to me that the people had no spiritual guidance, but the space functioned only as a community space rather than a monastic one.

I ask, and am given permission, to videotape my interview with the gomba committee’s chairman. As I sit talking to him, I notice one of the Theravadin monks is walking up towards me. With his cellphone, he hovers over us and starts to shoot a video of me with great intensity. Intensely aware of the monk’s cellphone gaze, I hastily end my interview. I see Mr. Lama sitting in a circle with the two monks also present. They are engaged in a deep discussion.I get the sense that what I told Mr. Lama earlier: killing your own people is never profitable, and not part of the Buddha dharma had been reported back to the group. It has entered the discourse and changed the tenor of people’s certainty.

One of the yellow-robed monks comes out and says goodbye to me and Bijayji as we get on the motorbike. I give him a deep namaste as we zoom off. He grudgingly and suspiciously acknowledges the gesture.

(Joshi was an Asian fellow, through the Asian Scholarship Foundation, in 2010-2011, during which time she traveled to Burma and Thailand to study the Nepali diaspora. A short version of this travel essay appeared in Himal Southasian in November 2011. This is part of a 3 part series.)

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