Kachin-Gorkhas

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On my second day in Myitkyina, Olivier, a French biker who I’ve met at a restaurant, mentioned in a state of high excitement that he’s seen a train full of Burmese soldiers going in the other direction. The rebels are 25 km away, in the Southern part, just where he needs to go to get the boat to Bhamo. He doesn’t know if he will be able to leave the next morning, whether the boat will take off or not. Olivier is going around the world in his motorcycle—Burma is the only country that didn’t allow him to bring in his bike, so he had to fly in. In Pakistan, he was escorted by eight Army officers. He left the country as quickly as possible, he says. We agree this army escort is not the best idea.

“A guy on a bike may draw attention, people may notice that I am white if I drive slowly. But with eight Army officers following me, they definitely noticed!” he says, rather dryly.

Olivier and I spend the best part of dinner talking about fate and destiny, whether the planets can have an influence on a person’s life, and what makes two people meet in a remote outpost in Burma. Olivier is 27 years old. He says his best wealth is his French citizenship—he can go wherever he wants without a visa, unlike many people with other citizenships. He has the best health care in the world, and he will be taken care of if anything happens to him. He has the freedom to explore the world because he has the support of the French system behind him. It’s a freedom not many other people in the world can dream of.

I tell Olivier how I have not heard one word of criticism from the Nepali community against the Burmese state. Olivier says: “My father also never said anything against the French either, who gave him refuge during a different time when he fled from Armenia. I think it’s a politeness that you don’t talk bad about the people who took you in.” And this, in a nutshell, may explain why not a single Nepali I met said one bad word about the Burmese state. There was no rebellion from the Gorkhali side, and nor would there ever be, it was clear.

Olivier is telling me what the worst part of travel is. He said, looking at me: “You know, the worst part is the loneliness, so far away from home and everyone I know.” This is a quiet admission made across the dusty table as we sit eating our dinner. I know loneliness all too well, none more so than when I am traveling. But I am 10 years older than him, and somehow the edge of loneliness, while still cutting, hurts me less than it hurts him. I say that I can read birthcharts and would he like me to take a look at his? This is the only therapy I can offer him at this moment. He says “yes.” And there it is, as I suspected—his Ketu, the planetary force that is responsible for alienation and disconnection, lighting up his second house of wealth. Ketu magnifies. People who have it close to their wealth planets become immensely wealthy. His second house of wealth is loaded with four planets. Who are you? I ask. Are you very rich? He laughs and says he was brought up to lack nothing, even though his parents were very modest. He says he has no trouble getting sponsorships for this world tour. I tell him that the very force that brings him wealth brings him loneliness. The solitude that comes from travel is also the same force, paradoxically, that takes him to new places and new experiences, giving him a wealth he wouldn’t have if he had never left home. He nods his head at this consolation dolefully. It is as if he knows this already—as if he’s resigned to his great good fortune, which also brings with it great alienation.

The next morning, Olivier takes off to Bhamo to take the boat downriver. We are not sure if he can get out, or whether the rebels or Army has blocked the path of the boat. He doesn’t return, which means the boat took off.

That evening I eat with two British men. One is a linguist from SOAS who appears to have spent years in Burma learning Burmese. He is in his fifties, with black curly hair, and a rather morose appearance. His young friend looks like he’s in his mid-twenties, and has a quick and charming smile. They say they went on a hike and the locals were extremely hospitable. Then Army soldiers showed up and ordered them to leave, telling them it was dangerous to be out there. They talked for a bit about how wonderful the local hospitality had been, and how they were in no danger. “It only got dangerous when the Army appeared,” the morose one says dryly. We all agree that Burma is one of the last remaining places on earth where people still retain a sense of warmth and genuine niceness that has all but become extinct in most other parts of the planet.

A boy around 10 comes up to beg. The young British man hands him a 1000 kyat note. I protest. “Don’t,” I say. “It encourages begging.” He shrugs. The young boy looks at the two of us, his eyes darting, afraid that I will snatch the money out of his hand. “A lot of children in Nepal beg from tourists and then use it to sniff glue.” The boy stuffs the money in his pocket and runs before I can intervene. The young British man shrugs, and smiles a charming smile. “This is one quid for me. It wouldn’t be enough to buy a beer in London. I know its probably not good to give it but it makes me feel good.”  Later, I learn from the restaurant owner that the boy begs from tourists and uses the money to drink alcohol.

As the two British men leave, I sit there in the dusk, watching a train come down the tracks, blaring its baleful horn. It is filled with soldiers in green army uniform. It looks like a scene from a World War II movie. It takes me a while to absorb the unreality of the moment. Then I try to grasp what’s happening. Is the Army being deployed in Myitkyina? What was I doing here, sitting by the train tracks, drinking my beer and watching what was clearly the escalation of an armed conflict?

I discreetly put away my notebook and look away, pretending I haven’t noticed the hundred soldiers that just drove past me in the open train. Then I glance back at my hotel, which had a TV on the open threshold that frequently airs the Kachin News Service. A group of jolly people sit around by the TV every evening to listen to Aung Sang Suu Kyi talk. The news channel is aired from Norway. As the train passes, I worry about the little beggar alcoholic boy who has skipped across the railroad tracks. I hope he is nowhere near the vicinity when the soldiers unload. As night falls, I am left wondering if I, like Olivier, should leave a few days early to avoid the conflict. I am supposed to be here for two weeks. Perhaps I could change my flight out of Myitkyina.

At 10:30 pm that night, my third night in Myitkyina, I hear a familiar explosion. Having lived through twelve years of the Nepali civil conflict, I can tell the sound of a bomb when I hear one.

I roll out of bed, hear the sudden confused chatter of people rousing, put on my trousers (never good to be caught in bed half dressed in case soldiers and rebels start pouring into the hotel), than hear the second bomb go off. The sound is so loud it sounds like it exploded across the hotel, on the railway tracks. Perhaps they are blowing up the train tracks so soldiers can’t be ferried in, I think.

There’s something about a bomb going off that shakes the core of one’s being. It is as if the entire fragile atomic structure of your body has been shaken loose by the power of the blast, for an instance, before returning back to its place, leaving some uneven psychic gaps where there didn’t use to be any. I get back into bed, wondering about the protocol. Should I run out of my room and try to find some of the hotel’s other residents?

I listen. No sound of sirens, and no police cars go by, unlike New York City, in which two bomb blasts would have been a major emergency with thousands of sirens and police cars screaming past. I don’t want to put on the light and draw attention to my lit window. I wondered if the hotel would be stormed by soldiers looking for rebels, and where I would run in case it was overrun by the army.

All was silent in about five minutes. Having no desire to go out and investigate the whos and whats, I roll back and go back to sleep. It is in moments like this that I appreciate my mother’s insouciance that she bequeathed to me. Part Hindu fatalism, part Nepali indifference (or call it bravery if you want), this feeling that: whatever happens, will happen, and tomorrow will be a new day is a reassuring feeling to fall back on as you find yourself caught in some remote outpost of the world with bombs going off around you.

The next morning, my kindly Kachin friend tells me the rebels blew up the police station and the immigration office. The immigration office operates as a central census taker, and keeps track of all Kachin families, ensuring government control over the population. The rebels didn’t like this. I ask him if he thinks the conflict will end soon. For a moment, he smiles a small smile. Then he says: “You know, in order to justify a military, and the law and order, and the rule of law, often you need the rebels.”

My Kachin friend tells me that a lot of opium and heroin is being sold at dirt-cheap rates in Kachin state. Ordinary business people cannot carry a truckload of drugs from one state to another, unlike the army trucks, which have total freedom to cross checkposts, he says. Everyone knows this. If you turn the young people into addicts, they cannot fight, he says. Then, unexpectedly, he laughs. “But the Kachins are mostly Christians. The Church doesn’t allow us to take alcohol or drugs. So the people who come from central and southern part of Myanmar end up taking these drugs and using the prostitutes,” he says, laughing jovially. “They want us to get hooked, but they end up getting hooked themselves.”

The Burmese who come to Kachin state, lured by rich resources and high wages (almost 4500 kyats as opposed to 500-1000 kyats they get in lower Burma) in gold mines and plantations, come to Myitkyina during the weekend, get drunk and go with the sex workers who line the railway tracks. I see them as he points them out, thin young girls, barely teenagers, waiting by the small cigarette kiosks. “See those motorcycles?” he says. “Those are transporters. They take the girls to their clients. But the Kachin girls don’t do this. These girls come from down below, in the trains. Then they and the Barmese workers take back the drug habits and the diseases with them back to their villages.” He laughs merrily, as if this boomerang effect in which a state hostile to its own minorities, and intent on corrupting it, gets affected negatively by its own policies, amuses him. The Buddhist notion of bad deeds leading to bad karma, it is clear, is being played out right here. I ask if the men use condoms. “They are mostly drunk,” he says. “They are not using their heads.” The idea of a state hooking its citizens onto heroin to control them appeared to me an entirely gloomy scenario.  .

Finding this depressing, I change the topic, and ask him who the most famous Kachin writer is. “Well, you see…” he says. “The Kachins are not allowed to print in their own language. Everything needs government approval here. We are only allowed to print limited numbers of books to distribute inside the Church. Everything else has to go through the government censors.” In other words, there are no famous Kachin writers. The Kachins in Yunnan, unlike the Kachins in Myanmar, are allowed by the Chinese government to print their own literature in their own language. “Those folks are preserving our culture, very strong,” he says. “But Myanmar—it's been over fifty years that we are waiting for the military rule to end. They keep making promises, and they keep breaking them, over and over. Now they say there is a new constitution, but we have to yet see it on paper. We don’t want to break away from the country. We just want a union. They keep promising a democratic system. But it seems like it will never happen.” I sense bitterness laced with gloom.

A day or two before I leave Myitkyina, I look at my notebook and say: “Have you heard of San Zar Ni Bo?” My Kachin friend, with whom I have shared long dinner conversations and become fast friends, bursts out into a fit of surprised laughter.

“How do you know of San Zar Ni Bo?” he asks. “He was a college friend of mine! We used to be engaged in democratic politics. I left to go abroad. He was jailed by the military junta. He was in jail for many years.” His face breaks out into a mirthful smile as he thinks about his college friend. “And then,” he says, “We hear after he came out of jail, he became an astrologer. A very famous one! Now he runs many radio programs. Everyone in Yangon listens to him. Even the Generals listen to him.” He chuckles, as if this most unexpected ending makes him vastly amused. The friend, it is clear, has become the symbol of the failed democratic promise. Astrology is clearly an absurd ending for a democratic fighter. And yet, for my Kachin friend, the dénouement of the story, and especially the astrologer’s power over the Generals’ imagination, seems to bring him light relief. The gloom at the thought that democracy will never come to Myanmar lifts.

He repeats the name of his friend a few times, as if it’s a good joke. “While you are there, you must go meet him.” I scribbled down the name again—I had seen at the back page of the in-flight magazine which I had subsequently left behind in the hotel in Yangon, and was glad to hear it repeated again. I promise to go meet his friend. Each time I saw him for the next few days, he would sing out the name of his friend, and then burst into laughter, telling me I should definitely go meet: Sar Zar Ni Bo! Sar Zar Ni Bo!

And in Yangon, I do exactly that, spending my last evening in Myanmar in a house in the outskirts of town, interviewing the most famous astrologer of Burma. 

***

On my last night in Myitkyina, after I ate my fish dinner and walked up to the hotel’s threshold, I met a young Kachin man who was watching TV in the verandah. In the quiet light of dusk, we started to talk. “I have Gorkhali friends who I grew up with. They left during that time,” he says, “Ne Win’s time. He wanted to drive out the Gorkhalis.” When queried about this, Gorkhalis always insisted people who left had done so voluntarily. I wondered what the true story was—had people left from coercion, or because they wanted to immigrate? Or perhaps it was a mixture of both—the thought of being unwanted, although unstated, may have been the underlying motive for leaving.

“They now live in other countries.” Here, I detect a note of wistfulness in the Kachin man’s voice. I wonder where those other countries are. “They are in Australia, America. Doing very well. Very well, very successful.” I sense a note of surprise, as if he can’t believe this twist of fate—that those forced to leave  their homes in a tragic fashion were the ones who got unexpectedly lucky. It is clear his childhood friends have left him far behind. In this broken down porch with the peeling paint, a backwater in the middle of nowhere, we take a few seconds to think about that other world. “But they never forget Myanmar, they always miss this country. I have a friend who still comes to visit every year. He comes here and he brings small gifts and meets everyone. He cries each time. He says they keep a jar of earth from Burma on their altar and they worship it everyday, saying this is the earth of the land in which they were born.” He laughed, as if he found this hilarious. Then immediately he got misty eyed with emotion. “Kachins and Gurkhas have lived together peacefully. They have this one village of Kachin-Gorkhas. That’s what they call them—Kachin-Gorkhas. They are intermarried and have temples and churches right next to each other in this village called Sitapur.”

Sitapur was the only village I hadn’t visited on my trip. The heat was intense, and the long motorcycle drives to meet the Gorkhalis in outlying villages had tired me out. I became complacent, and also aware that my stack of kyats were rapidly dwindling in the last remaining days of my trip. My reluctance to make another trip was apparent, so when I asked Bijayji: “Is there anything different and interesting in Sitapur?”, he may have given me an answer I wanted to hear: “Not really.” This was my mistake of relying on one man to plan my trips, and now time had run out. I was flying out of Myitkyina the next day. As in all other visits in which there is work still left to be done, I felt that sense of lost time. I looked out at the sunset and vowed: I have to return back here again.

I wondered if I should tell the young Kachin man that Gorkhalis who’ve had their sons disappear, forcibly abducted to join the Kachin Liberation Army, call the Kachin bhootlay (a word that echoes both “ghosts” and “scary hairy beings”), but then I decided not to share this interesting linguistic tid-bid. Clearly my uneven skills at diplomacy had received a polish amongst these most diplomatic of Gorkhali people. “Good night,” I tell him, as I retire into the old wooden building. “Good night,” he says, with a bit of regret, as if our little evening conversation was too tiny, and he wants to hold on to this new friendship a little bit longer.

As I flew out of Myitkyina, I looked down at the green paddy fields, almost the same as Nepal’s, and felt as if I carried a bit more love for the Nepali language, and the Nepali culture, than I had before I landed on Myanmar’s shores. 

(Sushma 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 3 of a 3 part series.)

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