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Friday, June 13, 2008

Travelling through Myanmar(Gag-the order of the day)

Travelling down the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, for a split moment, I had an illusion of homecoming. The road –a wide, rain-drenched one (it opened on Feb’ 2001), was smooth and had that signature deserted look of any hilly town. Now and then I saw locals, mainly girls, in their bright blouse and longyis – walking by, their faces hidden under the made-in China umbrellas.

In the ghost of a jeep, I found myself sharing a seat with 3 people. The youngest of them, Htun, is our driver and guide and in this rainy, stormy weather, also the saviour, – who can take us to the destination. The greatest love of his life seemed to be chewing betel nut. The 2nd one, an elderly Burman Buddhist and the 3rd person,(yes, another Mr.Htun), a primary school teacher.

We were going towards Kalaymyo, the next big town after Tamu. The cyclone had hit the country 2 days before. There was news of great loss of property and life. Being an Indian, and a media worker at that, I was itching to talk about it, to discuss it, to hear some argument in favor and against the government-taken measures. If nothing at all, I expected people to curse, to complaint…

But minutes passed and then hours, but nobody spoke a word. On the way we stopped twice, first to have afternoon meal (a huge plate of rice with tangy fish curry) and then for a ‘routine check’ by armed soldiers. And I was amazed to see how silently people moved. They ate, chewed betel nuts, some smoked and others just sat there. On the veranda of the bamboo thatched motel, waiting for the journey to resume.

Later that night I was eating dinner at hotel ‘Hollywood’ - a 2 storied house that served as lodge cum bar cum tea house and sold rice, fermented fish chutney and sour apple beer, I saw people gathering in to watch TV. I expected them to switch on the news channel. Instead, the colour TV monitor brought on a Thai film, about a boy and girl and their unrequited love.

It took me 4 more days to learn of and understand this silence, that is, until I met Alex in Kalewa. Alex or Alexander Kwang was a fellow wanderer like me. Unofficially, however, he was a human rights activist. It was Alex who told me that the ruling military junta in Burma neglected everything in the country except the politics. Yes, you could do all illegal businesses but you must make sure not to be involved in politics. This is also the case with many so-called pro-democracy cease-fire groups, which had entered into sorts of agreements with the regime during the past eleven years. Burmese government claimed that, as of now total 17-armed ethnic groups had entered into cease-fire agreements. It has allowed these groups (in Burmese ?Nyein Chan Ye? groups) to operate both legal and illegal businesses with freedom in many parts of the country. These groups come and go in their "areas" with uniforms, guns and their own flags.

But is talking about a natural calamity, a disaster as big and as damaging as a super cyclone a political activity? Yes, said Alex, because it would gradually lead to the action taken or the lack of it. And there would be criticism. And that would be politics. If you were a peace-loving citizen, you would keep quiet, go home and pray –that’s what the Junta said and that’s what you did, if you wanted to keep your freedom of movement intact.

That people were not allowed to speak against the government was not the biggest surprise for me though. What surprised me is how life went on despite that. How people lived their life in absolute normalcy, with the gagging order ruling every sphere of life!

And that’s when I learnt…even peace could be an illusion!

Travelling through Myanmar(The journey begins)

The first thing that you have to deal with and of course with great difficulty, once you cross the international border in Tamu, is remembering names.

To begin with, every name sounds same. Maybe that’s because your ears are still ringing from the continuous journey on rickety buses and then on even more sickly-looking Burmese autos, or maybe because you just haven’t heard so many names with so many ‘n’s before. Whatever the reason is, you can’t help asking everybody again and again to repeat and even after they have already obliged 3-4 times, you still can’t quite get it, and therefore, still can’t help feeling stupid.

The first person I met after entering Burmese soil is Ko Htun Win, the army soldier on duty in Tamu bazaar. The second, the man who sold me a bunch of bananas, was Daw Than . The third, the young urchin who seemed to have curious mixed feelings of ‘who the hell are you’ and ‘love at first sight’ for me, told me his name was U Ngwe Thein. Hmm…no medal for guessing by then I had already forgotten the name of the soldier.

Mercifully, I didn’t stay long enough in one place to face the same person again and again and address him more than once. And mercifully, I looked smiling and strange and young enough to be forgiven, even if I did commit the sin of forgetting names.

But when it came to places, I had no such escape routes. 2 days before I crossed Tamu, I was in Chandel(Manipur), where, over a hot plate of mouth watering Changpa-me (rice gruel, cooked with chunks of smoked pork and herbs) I tried byhearting names of places I might be travelling through …. Nam Monta, Htan Ta Bin, and Man Maw, Ah Myint, Homelin, Thamanthi….

Later, on my way 70 km long journey from Chandel to Moreh town, which leads to Tamu –the first Burmese town I would be in, I tried remembering the very essential What’s your name? (Na meh be lu kaw leh)‘Thank you’ (Kyei zu tin ba deh) and ‘hello(min ga la ba)’s in Myanmarese.

But now, when I was here, in the land of pagodas, my memory failed miserably, making me feel like a complete idiot. In fact it was a classic situation for an idiotic gypsy. –No map, no knowledge of local language and just 20, 000 kyat(pronounced chyat) –the amount of money that could barely sustain me a couple of days and, thanks to the cyclone that had hit the land just a day earlier, with very few roads now open for me to take. Yes, my journey had begun in a true stellasque style.