A Thief in the Night
The man they called Seh Daeng, “Red Commander,” known otherwise as renegade Major General Khattiya, sat down for a hasty last meal in Siam Square. Lower lip jutting, eyes tight as Lee Van Cleef’s, a cowlick plastered to his forehead where his hat had been, aggressively spooning fried rice into his mouth. The Defense Minister had recommended that Khattiya be dismissed from duty for his support of the Red Shirt rebels, had forwarded the papers to Prime Minister Abhisit, but Seh Daeng still wore his army fatigues on the field of Rajprasong.
He said that if the other rebel commanders, the “cowardly idiots,” gave in to government demands, that he and the “hardcore” members would take over and would never give up. “We will fight until we win,” he said, gleeful and animated before the journalists and admirers. “We will use the trucks as barriers and we will drop firebombs on the armored vehicles.” He had trained his guardsmen to use pipes and spears and bangfai rockets, and he would lead them to victory.
They asked him, Seh Daeng, will you not remove your uniform, which makes you stand out in a crowd? Will you not wear a bulletproof vest? A helmet instead of that cloth hat? Anything?
“Such dress would make me feel like one who fears death, and would prevent me from leading others who do not have protective clothing,” quoth Seh Daeng, pulling his special forces hat closer down. The brim was tied up on the side, and metal rings ran along the front. “I'm a commander-in-chief, I can't fear anything.” He said, “All I have on me is a small pistol and a stick. If anyone comes to arrest me, I can assure you I'll shoot and fight to the end. Soldiers are on to me. There are snipers out there. But they'll never get me.”
Seh Daeng’s stick was a long wooden staff he always walked around with. He used it in his training exercises. Some Red Shirts would dress up as riot police, with helmets and wooden shields that looked more like something from the Battle of Hastings than anything in the panoply of a modern police officer. The mock riot police lined up on one side of the street, Seh Daeng’s guardsmen on the other, and the Red Commander ran up and beat at the shields with his staff, harmless and smiling, to show them how it was done, this business of resistance. He went with reporters to a rebel workshop and drew back the string on a longbow they had made out of a bent PVC pipe and some fishing line. Seh Daeng approved.
The day was Thursday, May 13, the day of the Royal Plowing Ceremony in Thailand. Early in the morning two sacred white oxen were tied up to a plow on the ceremonial grounds at Sanam Luang, in a custom seven centuries old. The Crown Prince and his Royal Consort were there, as was Prime Minister Abhisit. Soothsayers presented the oxen with seven bowls of food and drink, and the oxen chose grass, signifying a normal water supply and an abundant rice crop. Thousands of farmers cheered the answer.
Next the Lord of the Plow, otherwise Secretary of Agriculture Yukol Limlaemthong, wearing gold and white robes and a plumed golden crown, chose one of three pieces of folded cloth of different lengths, and chose the longest of the set, thus acting as harbinger of a season of limited water supplies, high rice yields in the lowland areas, and low yields in the highlands. He threw out handfuls of rice, and thousands of gathered Thais scrambled to pick up the auspicious grains.
Thus the plowing season began, and on that same day, at 6 p.m., the rebel camp at Rajprasong was cut off. The security cordon blockaded the supply lines, the truckloads of food and water, and checked the identity of anyone trying to enter the intersection. The initial plan of the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation was to cut off water and phone and electricity at sunset, but the residents and businessmen of the area complained and that plan was canceled. Still the soldiers moved into position.
Convoys of army trucks and armored vehicles plowed into the capital, and soldiers in their full kit marched along the freeway shoulder. They set up checkpoints, with barricades and armored vehicles, along the four roads leading into Rajprasong to keep more protesters out. They put snipers on the rooftops to protect security forces from the “men in black,” the “terrorist elements” of hired mercenaries that fought amongst mobs of unarmed Red Shirts. The streets were closed to traffic, public transit halted, and the government discussed a curfew. Abhisit brought another fifteen provinces into the state of emergency to prevent fresh rebel uprisings in the countryside. It was the most ambitious effort to end the rebellion since the stalemated crackdown on April tenth that first brought the Red Shirt movement into the international spotlight of uninformed sympathy.
And the heart of the movement, which encompassed the country, was the square mile around Rajprasong intersection, the commercial heart of Bangkok, a shopping district with enough floorspace to paint the walls, floors, and ceiling of the Mall of America—there in Rajprasong, where thousands were gathered in spite of the high temperatures and monsoon rains that threatened their crops, and the impending violence and starvation that threatened their lives—men and women and children, poor and hopeful and ready and waiting to be dealt with, one way or another. Some Red Shirt leaders wanted to break camp; others announced on the Pratunam stage that they would fight to the end, to the wild cheers of the mobs. It no longer mattered what the leaders decided. The movement was more than that.
What were they fighting for, those thousands of wretches besieged amid the malls and plazas of Bangkok? For justice against the tyrant, for the restoration of the people’s constitution, for the defense of Thaksin. Some of them were fighting for money, for a share of Thailand’s growing wealth. All of them were fighting for fear. They saw the urban middle-class of Thailand moving ahead and leaving the poor rural farmers behind, as if all the third class carriages had been detached from the train and were left to roll to a stop in the middle of nowhere; they saw this, and they were so terrified that they were willing to sacrifice or destroy everything on the slimmest chance, because they were absolutely unwilling to accept it. The country’s poor had risen up against its wealthy, and there would be wrath and ruin before the end.
An hour after the blockade began, Seh Daeng went with a group of foreign reporters to survey his people’s barricades along Lumpini Park and outside Chulalangkorn Hospital. He was a man who reveled in attention, and here he behaved the bravo, pointing out the better parts of his barricades and boasting of how they would turn back the dictator’s forces. Then the other reporters went off on their own to compare notes, leaving Seh Daeng alone with a journalist from the International Herald Tribune, Thomas Fuller.
The commander talked easily about his uniform, the same uniform he had worn during a campaign against Maoists thirty-odd years back, and about working with civilian troopers, and about the coming crackdown; and as he strolled along the lines of bamboo spears and piled tires and petrol bombs in the early twilight and said gruffly, almost absently, to his companion, “The military cannot get in here,”—he was shot in the head.
Fuller, who was not two feet away, heard a staccato snap over his shoulder, a bang as loud as a firecracker, and saw Seh Daeng’s eyes go wide with awe, his tight countenance slacken, and then the renegade general fell to a heap on the ground. His hat tumbled away, and blood spilled out from his temple. The journalist whirled around, by instinct, and saw nothing but the shocked faces of Red Shirt guardsmen, no assassin; and in the southern distance, away from Rajprasong, an overpass and a nest of skyscrapers.
The bullet had come from a high-powered rifle. It entered near Seh Daeng’s right temple, passed through his brain, came straight out the nape of his neck, and vanished into the pavement. The snap that Fuller heard was not the report of that rifle, but the sound of the bullet passing within inches of his head, faster than the speed of sound.
Imagine the howling and chaos. Alarums, cries within, fly, fly, fly! The other reporters closed in quick as vultures with cameras for beaks, and several Red Shirts snatched up the fallen general, Achaeans clutching at a disemboweled captain on the fields of Ilium. His black blood covered their clothes and arms, as it had already covered his face, and they stared down at their cradled charge, and they could not open their mouths or their eyes wide enough. Others cried out, “Seh Daeng has been shot! Seh Daeng has been shot!” and they moaned his name, but those bearing the body were funereally silent as they struggled to carry him to a nearby hospital.
The commander was still alive—Seh Daeng was not so easy to kill—but comatose, and he could not breathe for himself. He was attached to a respirator and moved into surgery. Because of the general’s earlier assault, the hospitals near Rajprasong were almost completely abandoned, and later that night he was transferred to Vajira Hospital, away from his Red Shirts and his battle lines. Ah, the irony! His own ungovernable fear had seen that hospital shut, and it was that fearful act which sent him away to a distant infirmary, that fear which tore him away from his comrades. Alas! for Seh Daeng, the fight was at an end.
The Red Shirts around Lumpini Park became grim and quiet, breathing a grudge. Two guardsmen whispered, “Why did they shoot him? He was always in the open. They knew where he was. They could have arrested him at anytime. Why shoot him?” They looked out past their piled tires to the security forces sitting there beneath the underpass, riot shields leaned against the walls, shotguns loaded with rubber. The two guardsmen looked out, and a thousand Red Shirts looked out, and they saw in their mind’s eye everything that would occur.
Shortly following the assassin’s bullet there came the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Around 10, the Red Shirts packed around the barricades of Lumpini Park and threw rocks and fired slingshots at security forces outside and received a hailfire of rubber bullets in reply. They no longer wore red; they just looked like lost people. Comrades helped to carry away the wounded. One 25-year-old man was hit in the face and died. Five others were wounded that night, and four went to the hospital.
At the Red Shirt stage at Pratunam, the rebels in their thousands whispered fearful and confused and vaguely determined, cornered animals now, starving and wounded. Their remaining commanders huddled near the stage in a hasty council of war. Seh Daeng’s shooting rattled them, and it came in the wake of news that Veera Musikhapong, the movement’s chief, who had accepted Abhisit’s “road map”—he had quit the Red Shirts and was to flee the country. Now leaderless, the old division between those would talk and those who would fight exploded into argument. The remaining members of Veera’s factions, Adisorn, Visa, and Phaijit, wanted to disperse the mobs and talk to Abhisit, maybe revive some of the Prime Minister’s previous concessions, but without the chief’s support these commanders fell by the wayside.
A commander named Jatuporn took the stage, surrounded by guards, and said, “The protest will not end as long as justice is not delivered.” He was one of the “hardcore” Red Shirts, along with Arisman, Kwanchai, Payap, Suporn (better known as Rambo), and the fallen Seh Daeng. “If death can bring democracy and justice,” said Jatuporn, “we are ready to die. We are ready to face it. We are here to take the bullets!” The crowd roared up, completely consumed by some fire greater than speeches and speakers, and Jatuporn found himself wrapped up in the energy of the people he ostensibly controlled. There would be no surrender, no compromise, nor sober judgment, now that Seh Daeng had been martyred.
One of the “cowardly” commanders of Veera’s shattered faction, a certain Nattawut, told them all, “Those behind the attack wanted to tell us that even Seh Daeng could be shot, so other Red Shirt protesters can be harmed, too.” We are all in danger of death, he said. The crowds muttered. It was not what they wanted to hear. Nattawut added hastily, in the voice of dictators: “They are tightening a noose on us, but we will fight to the end! Brothers and sisters!” Ah how they cheered! Twas not the words that moved them, but they that moved the words! The drums of war beat in the hearts of every man and woman.
The Red Shirts prepared to fight, and I see it in a montage. They doused Seh Daeng’s barricades, all stone and tires and sharpened bamboo, in gasoline. They splashed oil in front and scattered pellets for the advancing soldiers to slip on. The rebel guardsmen armed themselves with bows and arrows, PVC crossbows, slingshots, bamboo spears, and with crowbars and hatchets and iron poles. They propped their bangfai bamboo rockets in traffic cones, a new trick that allowed them to aim better at soldiers and helicopters. The people filled plastic bags with fish sauce and chili paste to throw at the soldiers. Read that again, O Reader, and wonder.
This is no joke, Reader. The soldiers were conscripts with assault rifles and banana clips, a month of training and a license to kill, and the rebels had bags of fish sauce and a high tragedy in their glance, a readiness to die; and they had that feeling, that afterbirth of glory and honor, a feeling that only humans can show, and only in the rarest and least scientific circumstances of history—that feeling that says, Let’s take as many of them with us as we can. Is it high and noble, or is it the lowest vengeance?
Alas! the clouds had burst, and the fighting would not stop until all was ended.
As my plane landed in Rangoon, I looked out the window on a brown patchwork landscape. The canals of the Irrawaddy zigzagged all over it, snaking lines of green trees and white houses and temples in gold and blue, but most of the land was a deep rich ocher brown, a carpet of scorched earth.
Of course it’s not called the Irrawaddy anymore, but the Ayeyarwady, and Rangoon is now Yangon, and this country is now Myanmar. The British called it Burma after its principle ethnicity, the Burmans, and the generals changed it back in 1988, because even though only the Burmese purebloods can be generals or ministers, there is still a wider country of seven major and 127 minor ethnicities, all living under Burman rule. Many minorities of southern China ended up here, pushed out by Han expansion, as we see modernly the Tibetans pushed into India. The Burmese inhabit the Ayeyarwady plains, and the other populations live mostly in the jungle highlands around the periphery, near Bangladesh, Assam, China, and Thailand.
A coupe brought the left-wing army of General Ne Win into power in 1962. Three thousand people died in the monk-led rebellion of 1988, the military government collapsed, and lo! from the ashes, the Slorc was born—the State Law and Order Restoration Council! The Slorc held elections and duly imprisoned all the winners, famously including Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the general who united Myanmar against the British Empire; and a woman who, after several instances of liberty, remains under house arrest. The country operates under the martial law of the Slorc, without a constitution; a country of 52 million with an army of 15 million soldiers; embargoed by the UN and the USA, though close friends with India and China.
The Slorc dropped its local fuel subsidies in August of 2007, and heightened prices were the proverbial last straw. There was a second rebellion. Again monks went on the march, and again the military cracked down hard. Unknown hundreds, and perhaps thousands of protestors died by the bullets and clubs of their own army, including fifty monks, an irredeemable crime to the pious Burmans, but the Slorc remained in power. Under international pressure, the regime has planned elections for the tenth of October this year—10/10/10, an astrologically auspicious number which should ensure a Slorc victory—and the people say, “No election, only selection.”
Given these dire straits, I prologue my account of Myanmar with a defense of my going there:
I initially got the idea in a town in the Albanian hills, an old Turkish town called Berat, at a table in an inn where I ran to escape the rain. I found myself at dinner with a Canadian named Frederick. I told him I would go to Southeast Asia eventually, and he said that he enjoyed Thailand, Laos, Vietnam—but that his favorite place was Burma, “and hear me out on this.” A lot of people questioned his decision to go to a country that was the origin of such horrible news, where his presence and his tourist dollars would go to support a much (and justly) maligned government, but Frederick said that he went anyway.
“I spent my money at local places,” he said, “at hotels and restaurants and family stores. It went straight into the hands of the people. No charity can say that. Half their money disappears into the pockets of the government. And anyway, most people give more money to the Myanmar army when they fill up their tanks than I gave to them in my whole trip there,”—and it’s true, Reader, and you should be more aware of where your money goes. Tourism brought in $164 million in 2006, the majority of which went to the private sector; natural gas took in $2.16 billion, and then there's oil, minerals, teak, timber, and heroin to consider. No wonder China and India are such close comrades of this rich little neighbor!
By going there, by talking to people, the Canadian learned what was really happening, and told people of the freedoms he enjoyed, which is exactly why the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi endorsed foreign tourism. Frederick said that Myanmar was a bewitching and rewarding country, with an untouched and unexplored character, and that its people were impossibly nice, generous, and welcoming.
I was sold. I heard much more praise for Myanmar as I neared its borders, and never a word of criticism, and that only cemented my resolve to see it. So I overcame the process of attaining a visa in Bangkok, and I filled my wallet with the familiar faces of dead presidents. There was no way to withdraw money within Myanmar, it being unsupported by international banks; and the government changed at an extortionate rate, and the black market moneychangers demanded dollars. Really, they were connoisseurs of the bills, demanding the most recent models, uncreased and unbent. Some serial codes were preferable, and some were unacceptable, although this was generally some bullshit they concocted to swindle the foreigners out of their money.
Contrary to the Bible’s sound advice, and without knowing the exchange rate, I changed money with the first trader I met outside of the airport. I was standing there in the shade of the new arrivals zone with a Chinese woman, and we were going to share a cab, and she seemed to think that this was a horrible idea as she thumbed through her own Lonely Planet, but she did not say anything. I gave over $50 to the moneychanger for an equivalent amount of kyut (that’s chut, as “k” in Burmese produces the sound of “ch”, and also “th” is “t-ha” and “ph” is “p-ha,” and if the Reader finds that confusing, wait for Pinyin). A good rate would be 1000 kyut for one dollar, but you will only get this from sneakthieves who have many tricks up their sleeves to part you with your money. I changed mine for 950, received my kyut, counted it, and said, “Thanks.”
Everything worked out, with the proper amount, and I was very grateful, given the horror stories I heard later. Sometimes it is good to trust people and sometimes it’s stupid and you just have to be lucky, and sometimes it is best not to question the difference.
Anyway, the Chinese woman and I took a taxi into downtown Yangon, past the towering golden bell of the Schwedagon Pagoda, surrounded by smaller pagodas like the ancillary towers of a citadel, to Sule Square and, just around the corner, the Okinawa Guesthouse. The city reminded me immediately of India, in its smell and its squalor. There was a greasy reek with a fragrant overlay, an unbathed scent masked by too much of some fascinatingly exotic perfume, a smell of cooking and frying. Geographically and culturally, Burma lies right between three tectonic cultures—India, China, and Siam—and its position combined with its isolation and backwardness has made it a fascinating blend.
The streets of Yangon differ from the streets of Calcutta or Benares: not quite so oppressively filthy or trafficked, more lively and cheerful, and with little noodle stalls and squat chairs and tables with teapots set up here and there on the sidewalk (in India the streets are for walking and nothing else, and there are no streetside cafes), and Yangon differs in the proliferation of great gilded bell-shaped stupas and monks and nuns.
Many monasteries had been moved outside of the capital after the monks went on the march during the protests a few years ago, but most religious communities remain in the cities, where the laity has more to give. Maroon-wrapped monks and pink-cloaked nuns can be commonly seen walking from storefront to storefront making noise and asking for alms. Women would come out and put a spoonful of rice in the black alms bowls of each of a string of novices, who proceeded smiling as if it was Halloween.
Myanmar is predominantly Theravada Buddhist and profoundly pious. Merit is the supreme consideration, won by rituals and good deeds—merit to improve the karma, thy fate in this life and the next. The rich build stupas and hope for Nirvana, or at least rebirth as a man, and not some lesser thing on the wheel of life, like a rat, a snake, or a woman. The common people engage in simpler rituals within the pagoda. Most families pay hundreds of dollars to have their sons don the maroon robes and move into a monastery for a few weeks, first as a teenage novice and sometime later as an ordained monk. This brings the family great merit.
The Burmans, mostly dark-skinned with East Asian features, dress in a sort of long skirt called the longyi, made of cotton with dark checkered patterns, which they wrap up in a bundle at the front of their waist, so that it looks like some samurai garb. Conical bamboo hats and paper umbrellas are also a common sight. If the Reader wishes to pretend to be in a Kurosawa film, apply for your visa today. An honest and trusting folk, the Burmans often stick their wallets in the back of their wrapped up longyi, so that half of the leather pouch sticks straight out from the small of the back. Most of the men go clean shaven, but the Muslims, making up one in twenty of the population, often wear beards on their chins.
Burmese women are very beautiful, oval-faced and long-eyed with straight black hair and the same cheeky cheer as the Thais, and almost tragically intelligent, given their common fate as housewives, day-laborers, and sore-footed farmers. On the Buddhist hierarchy of reincarnation, women occupy the same tier as rats—they cannot achieve enlightenment, and must instead aspire to being born a man in the next life. They sometimes wear the longyi and sometimes a simpler skirt, and always keep their shoulders covered. Rice paddy hats and smiles half simple, half sly complete the peasant attire. During the monsoon season, most of the Burma girls paint demon lines across their face with khaki dust from the thanakha tree, to absorb sweat and keep clear their dusky countenances.
After checking into the guesthouse I wandered out to a street corner for some cold rice noodles, hand-mixed with sauces and spices in a metal bowl and served with a cup of chicken broth, a common street meal in Myanmar. Then I crossed the busy roundabout of Sula Square into the pagoda, or paya, of the same name.
Cool stone walkways circled the golden umbrella at the center, winding under smaller shrines and spires and past rows of Burmese in everyday clothing, praying or meditating before statues of the Buddha and his saints. I circled the complex a few times in great wonderment, and then was approached by a young Burman learning to be a travel guide and out to practice his English. He told me a little about the pagoda and showed me which statue to douse in 24 cups of water (one for each year of life, with a hopeful extra, that I may see my next birthday, I suppose). The post depended on what day of the week I was born. This was the simplest and most common ritual to receive merit. A Buddhist monk told me a little more, as I sat in the shade to cool off from the heat and humidity, and then I walked back to the guesthouse.
Then it started to rain. Dark clouds had been sliding back and forth across the sky all day, and now they burst with bucket-fulls of rain. It came quick as an earthquake—a moment of sprinkling drips and then the high tide of the downpour—and lasted only a little longer. Twas the monsoon! It was the second rain of Burma’s wet season, which came late that year. All the farmers had been praying for it, shooting fireworks up into the hundred degree sky and offering gifts at their animist shrines. They had no other way but rainfall to water their tiered fields, and for the last ten years have had to deal with incessant drought. May that 2010 be a better year for it, however much it inconveniences the unwary traveler—for I was caught in the middle of it!
The Burmans and monks took cowering refuge in alcoves and alleyways along the main streets, which were reduced to rivulets by the diluvian rain; but I’m an Oregonian and used to this business. Of course this was much heavier than the rain of my home, and I was so wet when I got back to the guesthouse I might as well have swam the last block.
I went upstairs laughing, to change my clothes, and there met a San Franciscan girl named Samantha, who had been on the road about as long as me, which was true of many of the Myanmar travelers—they were long term, and despised the Anglo-drunks in Thailand. She was copper-skinned and almond-eyed, with bundled hair and a long-traveled look, not dirty but self-assured and self-contained, and with the energy of someone who could spend six hours at a nightclub.
Well we talked for a while, and after the rain ended we went out to find something to eat on the street. We had some greasy flat-rolled pancakes with vegetables and sauce, very like the Indian dhosas, and some rambutan, red and egg-shaped and covered in green hair like stalks of grass, and white and sweet on the inside; we asked at the trinket stores if they were government owned, and shouted hello back at the grinning children; and we looked all over for some man who made wafer sandwiches that Sam had found a few days before, and ended up instead at a hotel with a mummified gym and a swimming pool full of screaming, writhing Burmans.
I did not ask Sam where she was really from, which is a question without much relevance in this cosmopolitan world, a question that she said she had to answer far too often. She was born in California and very much a Californian, but her parents were from Vietnam and had fled to the States by way of Hong Kong. I also did not ask her if she was in Asia to discover her Chinese roots, which was another question far too often put, even in India. “I’m here for the same reason as everyone else,” she said, and I knew what she meant. Her parents did not understand it, she said, and would have preferred a stable job, a cultured life, and a permanent home, but they accepted that Sam was different, that she preferred teaching at an Ethiopian grade school and wandering India with a chain-smoking Swede and milking goats in Laos.
“Travel is difficult,” she said as we frowned at the prices in the menu of a sushi restaurant,—“that’s what they don’t understand. Finding a bus to somewhere, arriving in the middle of the night, lost in some town, haggling down a hotel, trying to find something edible.”
“Washing clothes in the sink,” I added. “Learning the language.”
“Right. Arguing forever over the price of a bike rental, trying to meet the locals—it’s a lot of work.”
“It’s a pain in the ass. But it’s worth it.”
Sam had been to a lot of the places where I was going, so I quizzed her experience as we went back to Okinawa Guesthouse, without having sushi, and sat around for a few hours. An Israeli named Ron arrived and joined us. He was short, but in a sort of coiled spring way that made him look average height. He had the Ashkenazi features of his ancestors: victims of the Polish Holocaust, survivors of Auschwitz, partisan fighters on the Eastern Front, who had fled by way of mistrust to the Promised Land—but those stories unremarkable in Israel. He was very typical of the Israelis in his cynicism and sturdiness and in the frank manner in which he dealt with people, a no bullshit approach. Ron was on his obligatory post-conscription year abroad, although it had been three years of school and work since he left the Israeli Defense Force; and three months in India, Nepal, and the Thai isles had brought him to Burma.
He sat with us in the air-conditioned dorm and counted some money he had traded. “Fuck,” he said after a while, “Fuck, I got ripped off!” He had traded $300 and lost $170 in the business. Here is what happened:
Ron haggled out a good rate of exchange for $200 then handed the moneychanger his two bills of exchange. The Burman said, “This one is good, but this one no good,” and pointed out some crease or bad serial number or other bullshit flaw that made one of the notes invalid. Alright, fair enough—Ron handed the moneychanger a different hundred dollar note, and in the heat of the black market exchange did not realize that he never had his flawed bill returned! The moneychanger now had $300, though Ron only meant to change $200.
Then came the second scam. The moneychanger counted out somewhere around 200,000 kyut, having offered an unreasonably good rate, but he did it in a card-trick way where he double-counted many of the notes, so in the end he put only but about 130,000 kyut in Ron’s hands. Ron went to count it himself, but the moneychanger stopped him saying, “No, not here, the government watches us! No, cannot count! Quick, quick, police!” I have heard that if you insist on counting out the bills at this point in the scam, the moneychanger will find some other flaw in one of your dollar bills and will call off the whole deal. But Ron listened to the thief and rushed away, having given the moneychanger $300 and received $130 in kyut in return—a most unreasonable rate, though still better than the one the government offered at the airport.
Well we talked and raged about it in the air-conditioned room of the guesthouse. Sam had also lost some money in an exchange and wanted to go take retribution on these moneychangers. I thought, “How did I not get ripped off?” but got worked up with the rest.
Ron went out to find his man, who was of course long gone. The Reader may not be able to appreciate how much $170 amounts to in Burma, but if we say that a beer costs fifty cents, a bottle of whiskey is less than two dollars, a filling plate of noodle is a buck fifty, and a brand new motorcycle costs $200—well, $170 is a lot of money here. However, Ron did find one moneychanger who was apparently offended at the crime committed, and who had a cousin or some relation in the police force—it’s all about family connections in these martial countries—and who vowed to help Ron find the culprit.
First we had sushi. We went to a small restaurant with a Nipponese woman with a shaved head who had been in Yangon for nine months on a meditation visa, learning from the monks to improve her own instruction back home, and in that time had found a very nice Japanese place. We stuffed ourselves on nigiri and maki, tempura and miso soup, and we marveled at the bill—$3 a head. The staff saw us out with a cute kowtow and an, “Arigato gozaimasu,” and we left with that good feeling that can only come after a meal of sushi.
The next day, Ron, Sam, and I went out looking for this noble knight of a moneychanger, with an air of high adventure. Sam was carrying this lacy yellow umbrella, which she planned to wield against the Burman who had stolen from her. Ron only had his fierce Israeli expression, a hundred times as deadly. I was along for the ride, “for the adventure of it,” as Tom Sawyer says. Well, we didn’t find anything and went home disappointed.
But I must add—before we left I had to change more money. Ron went with me, and we walked out to the corner of the square with all the noodle shops. After a while of standing there, a man approached us, and this is how these things work. He was a mustachioed Burman in a soiled longyi with the sallow features of a drug addict, and Ron said to me, “That’s the guy—that’s the guy who wanted to help me catch him,” then he turned to the moneychanger and said, “Hey man, I look all over for you yesterday.”
“Where are you yesterday?” said the man with some concern. “You find the guy?”
“No, I don’t find him.”
“Well I have the police. You tell him about the man who stole, he finds him, gets your money back.”
“Look,” said Ron, “we leave tomorrow, I don’t know. Just forget it. It’s only money.” Sometimes it’s not worth fighting criminals who wouldn’t think twice about killing a man over a few dollars, we had decided earlier.
We told the moneychanger that I had money to change, and he seemed agreeable. He led us into the backroom of a paint-peeled house near the corner and sat us down in plastic lawn chairs. We talked rates for a while and agreed on 950 kyut to the dollar. Anything more and I would have been suspicious. There were a lot of Burmans lounging about, and it was actually very suspicious, but I was too busy reveling in the scenario to notice—a backroom, black market deal!
Well the man with the money showed up, and he had $100 of kyut in a brick, like some mafia payoff. He disapproved of the serial code on one of my American bills but eventually found one that suited him, and he waited while I counted out the kyut to verify it. When we were all satisfied I shook hands with the two moneychangers, said a thankful, “Chezube,” and sauntered off with a secret smile. How I have such luck with these criminal transactions, I will never know.
Let us travel back in time, not on some Vonnegut highway, but only a little up the track—to the day I arrived in Burma.
That day I got very drunk. Sam led Ron and I down to a local place near the guesthouse, a place with tables and chairs in the street and cups of some local beer called Dagon for fifty cents. We sat at a table with some Burman whom Sam had met, and who was sitting with a woman from Minnesota named Gina, who had been a teacher in the Peace Corps and at an international school in Saigon—and we’ll get to that later.
Well Ron drank a reasonable amount, and Sam and I drank most unreasonably, and I was the least reasonable of the lot. We drank and began to discourse, Sam and I, about kung-fu movies, the philanthropy of Jackie Chan, and about who would win in a brawl, Bruce Lee or Tony Jaa. If the Reader is unfamiliar with this issue, an advised education would include Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon and Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak 2, though Sam would recommend the first Ong Bak, which is an overdrawn mess. Obviously this issue got us very fired up, I for Bruce Lee, Sam for Tony Jaa—and it perplexed everyone else at the table.
And I drank beer very fast, and every time my glass was empty I waved at the Burman waiter and said, “One more,” until I was very tight, and eventually there came one of those vast confusions that sometimes take us, and Sam was giving me the Heimlich Maneuver on the side of the road, though she doesn’t remember it, and shoving fingers down my throat, to save me of the ills of drunkenness, on the not-so-long road back to Okinawa Guesthouse—but we’ll skip all these unsavory details, because what can more mere words add to the imagination, anyway?
After some debate we went back to the same bar the next day. I had spent the day with Sam, Ron, Gina, and a tall Italian from Lombardy named Francisco, wandering around Chinatown and looking at all the strange things for sale between the warehouses. We stopped for a drink at one of the beer and barbecue places on a long street of them. These places were very common in Myanmar—a few picnic tables in the street, a keg of beer in the back, a case of raw meat on wooden skewers, and a hot grill, and sometimes a TV in the corner showing American movies from some hijacked Indian channel.
Myanmar only had eight stations, all state-owned and awful. At seven the government showed a South Korean soap opera that the South Korean tourists say is for old people, but all the Myanmar girls watched the trash in unison each evening and discussed the junkyard of it the next day. At eight came the national news, which closely resembled what you would expect an American public access channel to broadcast if Nazi Germany had won the war.
Anyway we had more sushi, then went back to the site of yesterday’s drunken escapades, along with a Frenchman of Strasbourg named Guillaume his girlfriend, Selene of Normandy. The Burman waiters only laughed when they saw us and showed us to another table. They came over whenever a glass was empty and asked, “One more?” with a great, grinning guffaw, too good-natured and good-humored to hold a grudge against something so innocent as drunkenly keeping a bar open until two in the morning.
The Burmese are the kind of people that, if you compliment them on something more than once, they will gift it to you with a smile. Good deeds matter for the merit of them. Buddhism teaches the Burmans to live not through an acquisition of material possessions, which leads only to yearning and loathing, as we Westerners well know—but by fostering a tranquil complacency, a satisfaction with aught that God has seen fit to bestow. Anything else is out of the mortal hands and surely nothing to worry about. Because they understand these basic truths of the world, the Buddhists are the happiest, most generous, and best-humored of folk.
Later that night I turned my consideration to a people much better off in some ways and far worse in others. Ron, Guillaume, and I stood around talking at the foot of the steep stairs to the dormitories for a few hours, and then we went out and sat on the stoop while Guillaume smoked cigarettes. We talked about dealing with cheaters in the Asian countries, about traveling with girls, about global finance, and always we came back to the topic of America.
Guillaume had been to America, first when he was sixteen, as part of a homestay. The company sent him to an engineer’s family in Sacramento that apparently signed up for the program only for the money it dispatched alongside the foreign ward. The Frenchman did not think much of them. The mother and father were always out of the house; the daughter had fallen in love with him long before he boarded the plane, though the romance lasted only until she emailed a picture of herself to France, for there was no concealing or repairing that kind of ugliness; and the son was about Guillaume’s age but would never leave the suburban house.
“He was such a lazy bastard,” said Guillaume. “I would ask him, ‘You want to go play tennis?’ and he would say, ‘No, it is too hot.’ So I would ask him, ‘You want to go swim in the pool?’—everyone had a pool there, you know—and he would say, ‘No, it is too cold.’ That lazy bastard!”
Once the engineer dad came to Guillaume and asked him, “Do you want to go to the mall?” “Yes!” said Guillaume in his retelling,—“anything to get out of this house!” So they drove off to the shopping mall, which the host father revealed with a sort of showman’s flourish. Guillaume had to explain, to the engineer’s great confusion, that they had malls in France. They had the small boutique stores and markets that sell wine and cheese and croissants, and they had malls, too.
The engineer then brought his ward to a bank to make a withdrawal from an ATM, and he showed to Guillaume with an eager glee and narrated all that was involved—the debit card, the card slot, the PIN number, and the security of the transaction. Guillaume then explained that the French also had ATMs, that a Frenchman had invented the credit card, and that France was not some medieval backwater, as his host seemed to think.
At a university in Fort Myers, Florida, a few years later, working towards his MBA, Guillaume saw more of America and was arrested several times, for crimes such as drinking beer in the park, throwing rocks at his roommates window to get him to open the door, and smoking a cigarette outside late at night, a few blocks from an apartment where a man had knocked on the door and ran away a half an hour before. Each time the officers rushed at him screaming nonsense from a cop movie and shining a Mag-light in his face. Once the arresting officer, seeing Guillaume’s French identification, wrote down his name as “Praenom Guillaume” and had his home address as the French consulate.
Guillaume began to reflect very carefully about what made America so different from Europe. Americans, he decided, were too restricted by rules to have real freedom. Everywhere there were stupid laws against trivial things, and there was no common sense or leeway in the law’s application. Guillaume decided that he was far freer in France to live his life than in the land of liberty. A French couple will not be arrested for drinking wine on the banks of the Seine, and teenagers can buy cigarettes for their parents, despite all that the law says, because the law is made to protect people and not confine or moralize them.
Americans are good at making speeches, said Guillaume. They are dangerous in commerce: the Americans always act like your buddy on the phone and made it impossible to tell if they plan to do business or if they are uninterested. The girls are bold and oversexed. Once an American girl sidled up to him at a bar with this obvious look and said, “I’m demanding.” And the Frenchman wondered about the simple nature and the lack of awareness he saw in most Americans. American knowledge of geography and international politics is a great global punchline. Why did so few of those people look beyond the borders of their town or borough, much less their state or nation?
Guillaume experienced a revelation later in his stay, while riding a Brooklyn subway with some other international students. He spotted across the aisle a black man reading a book of French poetry. The French love to speak their lingua franca, and Guillaume approached the man and asked him, “How do you know French?” The black poet turned up from his book with a taciturn, contemptuous expression and said that he was from an old French colony. Which one? He would not say. Guillaume kept up the conversation, even though the African kept muttering under his breath, “White people don’t know anything,” because the Frenchman was curious and pressed him, “Which colony are you from?” The African would not say. Instead, he drew a map of France in the air and marked out the ten largest cities. Then the African got off at his stop, leaving Guillaume with his questions unanswered.
“After he left,” said Guillaume, “I kept thinking, I wonder what colony he is from. Then I asked myself, Do I even know all of France’s colonies? We had a big empire. Forty-nine colonies, all over Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific. I thought about it, and I could only name ten of the forty-nine. Then I thought, Could I name the capital cities in them? The ten largest cities in any of them? The black guy, he knew all of France and all of its cities. I did not know the colonies of my own country.”
Now, France was the world’s fifth largest economy, and Guillaume realized he knew all about the four above it, knew their basic profile and their place on the map, and that he knew next to nothing about all the multitudes below—why should he? How could that help him in business? So it was no surprise that the Americans at number one knew nothing about these lesser economies. Even Britain, Russia, and China warranted little attention from the top dog, other than the sidelong glance that a winning runner casts fearfully back at those who might overtake him.
When he returned to France, when he heard his countrymen laugh about American stupidity, Guillaume would ask them how many countries were in the European Union, and what were their names, their capitals, their major cities; and what were all the colonies of the French Empire; and the French did not know. He asked his sister, who brought out a blank map of Europe, and Guillaume found that he himself could name all the countries but not all the capitals.
And so it was revealed that the Europeans were not so canny as they thought, and knew about as much of the world as any American could be expected to know—not nearly enough. On that note we return our attention to a country of rather small economy and to a conflict that was secretly great.