El Ghibli - rivista online di letteratura della migrazione

Versione Italiana | Nota biografica | Versione lettura |

a visit to mytkyina

sushma joshi

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 gadget, I email my friend in Washington DC to check Twitter. Within a few minutes, I get my answer: a plane has indeed skidded off the tracks. Flights supposed to land in Yangon airport are being 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 Ayerawady 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 the last time I had ridden a pickup truck to Lashio, and 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 be riding a pickup truck to Lashio, sitting squashed with about thirty laborers in the back with a giant pile of goods, and 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, and 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 Mytkyina, 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 that indeed the Kachin rebels have resumed fighting in Mytkyina,where I am headed. The news tells me that 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 and 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 more about the history, culture and life of the Nepali 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 Mytkyina the next morning. The 308 dollar ticket felt exorbitant, but I had already planned this for months so there was no reason now to back out. I was excited to the see the Gorkhali gomba (Buddhist temple), 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 Mytkyina than I bargained for. Of course, with my usual lack of planning, I was carrying no phone numbers with me—only a sense that everything would turn out right.

I need not have worried. Waiting outside the airport was my Nepali guide, Mr. . Bijay Adhikari. Mr. Adhikari worked the airport route as a taxi-driver. At first I mistook him for an Indian—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.”

The first stop in our iternary 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. Sashiji 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 Mytkyina.

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 shrinkwrap. 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, we went to the gomba. Dorje Lama, the chairman, welcomed me warmly. An election to choose members of the 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, the women in another. They all watched as the man on the dais read out the names of selected male candidates.

“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. About 80 or 90 Gorkhalis had 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. “Its 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.”

Another man sitting in the hall recounts a historical tidbid: a relative of his from Burma was one of the police officers who went back to Nepal and led the coup against the Rana regime and estabilished 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 conciousness 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 pasttime. Anything that refers to opposition to an autocratic regime, it appears, is forbidden even to appear on the conciousness. 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 uptopia. Interestingly, this imagined Utopia is real, 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.

As I get on the elevated platform 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 goomba? 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 don’t have many institutions in Nepal, and they train 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 goomba’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.

After I’ve had a rather nice chat with the people of the goomba, and gotten a bit of history, I walked down. I saw Mr. Lama sitting in a circle with the two monks also present. They were 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 zoom off in our motorbike. I give him a deep namaste, and he grudgingly and suspiciously acknowledges the gesture.

After this, we go to visit the main Akhil Gorkhali Myanmar Hindu Sangh. The men have been waiting for me for an hour. I apologize and rush in. The men introduce themselves and their posts. They share with me the work going on with the Sangh—the deep love of Nepali love and literature that led the people to set up this institution, the way in which they work in a united manner, the way the Myanmar government has always treated the Gorkhalis with love and respect, how they had no problems or complaints, and and how they lived in respectful harmony with the Burmese.

I ask for, and they give me, a brief history of Gorkhalis in Mytkyina—how many of them came as soldiers during the Second World War, and many chose to remain behind after the war was over. One man also explain about the great exodus of Nepalis who feared the takeover of the Japanese and decided to leave through one road. One fourth of these Nepalis died of diahorrea along the way, whereas those who had stayed behind survived. He laughs dryly as he tells me this story: clearly it’s a parable of bravery. Those who brave the unknown often come through unscathed, whereas those who fear may be killed by that very fear.

There is no mention of the sectarian conflict that rifts the Gorkhali community. This sectarian rift I will only find out the day after, when I visit the Gorkhali Vihar. The Vihar is newly built. Mr. Sharma, the monk in charge, tells me he’s been there for three months, and he can’t tell me the history of the vihar in detail. But he tells me a greal deal about Thervada Buddhism, its differences with Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, and how this new group has faced rejection within the Gorkhali community. It becomes quickly clear to me that this newly emerging group is taking an oppositional stance to the older faith based communities.

Thervada Buddhism, they say, is derived directly from Buddha’s words. Mahayani Buddhists are not real Buddhists—they have been influenced by Hinduism and their gods. Hinduism is full of old superstitions and useless rituals. “For instance, when my father died, I refused to do the rites and rituals. They said I couldn’t eat salt. I ate it. What does salt have to do with mourning?” says Mr. Sharma, rather proud at his rejection of old superstitions.

Bijayji told me he never disagrees with the newly converted Thervadins—no matter how defamatory they become about Hinduism or Hare Krishnaites, he says he merely listens and thinks about it as something that Krishna has willed at that precise moment. I found this to be a rather good strategy as the evening unfolded and the Thervadins did indeed find major flaws in all the other religious systems. They did seem to think their path was the most progressive of all. They complained the Akhil Hindu organization rejected them and would not give them ID cards stating their Thervadin affiliation. They said they were not allowed to enter into villages when they went to give their teachings.

I wondered aloud to Mr. Sherbahadur Khadga, an active member of the Vihar’s organizational committee, if trying to set up their own Theravada organization would make more sense, rather than trying to change an established Hindu network. Wouldn’t it make more sense, I said, to continue to do your work for the community, rather than trying to change the ideas of people who are clearly set on one path? “Why blow up the one small room that’s been set up, and doing good work already?” I asked. “It may be best if you also set up and add your own room, thereby making a strong foundation on which a future secular and overarching Gorkhali organization can grow.” Mr. Khadga immediately agreed that he didn’t want to destroy anything. He said, however, that a separate network was not feasible because he wanted to be part of the same Gorkhali community. Nepali identity and Nepali language would be their primary identification. And they would continue to play Bhailo and Deusi, which was cultural rather than religious events, in order to remain part of the larger whole.

Sherbahadur Khagda emphasized how Thervadin Buddhism was part of Myanmar, and the religion of the state. “All the Gorkhalis are now accepting and coming into this Buddha “sashan,” he says, using the word for “rule” in lieu of dharma or religion. The word “sashan” surprised me. Buddha gave up his kingdom so he wouldn’t have to rule. He went on to get enlightened, and then merely instructed and guided, rather than ruled, his disciples. But this distinction seems lost on the newly converted Thervadins, who use the word “rule” with great frequency to refer to the Dharma. He said their numbers were growing by leaps and bounds while the Hindus were getting less in numbers. He claimed there were double the number of Buddhists in the Gorkhali community. He said that most people were biding their time, and they were just waiting to turn into Buddhists once they realized this was the religion of the majority.

Listening to him, I felt that he lacked the doctrinal and experiential elegance which Thervada practitioners in Thailand exude with such grace. For the Thai monks, control of anger and other negative emotions, control of negative speech, as well as a deep belief in the precepts comes easily—most appear to live by it. For these lay followers in Myanmar who were trying to make what appeared to me a new religious group based less on deep doctrinal understanding and practice, and more a reformist strain that was trying to break from Hinduism and Mahayana, the very deep tolerance of Buddha Dharma was missing.

Later, a member of the Hindu Sangh would tell me why the Thervadins don’t get acknowledged by the Hindu Sangh. “The Thervadins consider themselves to be the best religion of all. They have become professors while they think we are still in class 10,” he said, dryly. “When we set up the Akhil Myamar Hindu Sangh, the state gave us permission to set up an organization for Gorkhalis who were Hindus and Mahayani Buddhists. We are a minority religion in this country, so we need this government sanction to start an organization. They are Thervadins, they are part of the state religion. They don’t need to be part of this Hindu network because their religion is already sanctioned by the state. It would be absurd for them to get identification from here—it would mean they were the religion of the majority trying to get a stamp of approval from a smaller group, which doesn’t make sense. But they refuse to understand this point.”

Perhaps the solution lay in having different religious organizations as a foundation, but then having a larger Gorkhali secular network that brought together the Gorkhalis in Myanmar, regardless of religion, I suggested. But the men shook their head, and explained to me patiently: “The Burmese government allows institutions that are faith-based. They do not allow organizations to operate if they are based on ethnicity (jat.) So therefore, we couldn’t register such a network. This group is bounded together by religion. This is the binding factor, this is what makes us operate as a group.” They pointed out, however, that actual religious rituals was a minor part—most of their work focused on social work. Caste discrimination was strictly out—nobody was asked their caste or ethnicity when scholarships or services were being provided.

Looking at the group of men as they sat there, patiently telling me about all the work that the organization had done, from scholarships for students to study Nepali language during the summers, to wells dug and crematoriums built, I wondered if indeed all the clamour of democracy, which insisted that all organizations must always include everybody—women, minorities, religious groups, ethnic groups—whether that large sense of inclusivity in itself held its own seeds of discord. These men seem to be operating fine, running their businesses, raising funds, giving donations to build up a prosperous and healthy community.

I wondered too how much the newly converted Thervadins understood, or practiced, the path. Unlike Thailand or Nepal, there was no monks who learnt the doctrines and precepts here from childhood. Mr. Sharma was a new convert, and many of his preachings against Hindu practice seemed more in line with reform and rejection of Brahmanical norms and values rather than Thervadin tolerance.

As I rode through the Mytkyina market, with a Gorkhali telling me passionately that Hindus never offer meat, or pork, or eggs or or fish to their gods, it occurred to me that most religious conflicts seem to boil down to meat. How its killed, how its consumed, which animal it comes from. Thervadins said killing a goat for a religious sacrifice is wrong, superstitious and backwards. The Hindus (especially the Vaishnavs who follow a strict vegetarian protocol) pointed out that Thervadin monks eat meat, which goes against all of Buddha’s fundamental precept not to kill, and that if they wanted to be vegetarian, their followers would respect that choice and not offer them meat. They point out there are well-known monks in Yangon who are vegetarian, and people respect their choices and do not offer them meat. The Thervadin monks insisted they could not reject anything give by people, and that they are allowed to eat meat since its been killed by someone else and therefore beyond the purview of their responsibility. The meat issue is an insolvable one, cutting the community neatly in half.

On my second day in Mytkyina, Anton, the French biker who I’ve met at a restaurant, mentioned in a state of high excitement that he’s seen a carful of Burmese soldiers in a train 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. Anto 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, which made him very uncomfortable and he left the country as quickly as possible, he says. We agree this 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 dryly.

Anto and I spend the best part of dinner talking about fate and destiny, whether the planets can really have an influence on a person’s life, and what makes two people meet in a remote outpost in Burma. Anto 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 him Anto how I have not heard one word of criticism from the Nepali community against the Burmese state. Anto 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 they ever be, it was clear.

The next morning, Anto takes off to Bhamo to take the boat downriver. He doesn’t return, which means the boat took off. I am left wondering if I too should change my flight out of Mytkyina to leave a few days early.

At 10:30 pm on my third night in Mytkyina, 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), then hear the second bomb go off. The bombs sound like they went off on the railway tracks nearby my hotel. There is 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. 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 youself caught in some remote outpost of the world with rebels blowing up buildings around you.

The next morning, my kindly Kachin friend tells me the rebels blew up the police station and the immigration office, which has become a central census taker and which keeps track of all Kachin families as well, thereby 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 very cheaply 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 mostly 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 Mytkyina 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—its 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 speak reassuring platitudes about how democracy in Nepal brought political freedom but economic uncertainty. Some aspects of Myanmar’s current system is very good, for instance, the social system which appears to distribute the wealth more evenly. Perhaps the solution is a middle way between political freedom and economic certainty, I suggest, by way of comfort. “Sometimes democracy just brings total anarchy, and people’s livelihoods are disrupted due to this process. People can conduct business here without hindrance,” I point out. He laughs and tells me that there are a few business houses in Yangon, all related to the generals, and through which any new entrepreneur wanting to do business has to go through. Ordinary people can own small businesses but they cannot dream of anything larger.

The Gorkhalis love Myanmar, and they express no dissatisfaction with the current system. Partially it is because they are trained to obey authority and stay strictly within rules and regulations—witness the Sanatan Dharma, or Hindu dharma, which can mirror the disciplined, bounded life of the contemporary Burmese. Partially its because they are a minority, and that makes them even more disciplined and self-censoring than in other places. But partially, its also because they do truly enjoy a life of economic freedom and prosperity in Burma, a life where hard work is rewarded with a comfortable livelihood. Burma is also a land which encourages a rich and complex community life. They truly have no complaints.

Many people high up in the army are Gorkhali, and a few have reached high posts within the military. Many Gorkhalis have fought in the Myanmar army against the rebels, and eaten the bullets of the dissenting forces. They are a species who’ve adapted to the current system—they know no other. They have also acquired the double conciousness of people in repressive countries—they know how to remain silent. They know how not to criticize or voice dissent. They know how not to step our of their place. And within this bounded space, they’ve learnt to become content.

No Gorkhali from Myanmar would complain about having to work as domestic workers or vendors in Thailand, and they never once said that education would have given them better chances. Whatever work they do in Thailand is seen to be very good work, and nobody complains about their limitations. Also, nobody aspires to further their education or get better qualifications, opportunities that Nepali migrants in the United States will often quickly seize upon.

Although they are often restricted by national boundaries, lack of passports and lack of money, they do not feel restricted, and have found ways to move and travel between Nepal, Burma and Thailand. This often involves taking the “Tala ko bato”, or the lower road in which people are smuggled out from jungle areas to India and from there to Nepal. Most older Hindu Gorkhalis go to Nepal for the purpose of pilgrimage—with the Pashupatinath temple being cited a top pilgrimage spot, akin to Benaras’s Kashi. Visits can often involve a complex manoevering over nation-states in which Gorkhalis from Burma will say they are Gorkhalis living by the border as they cross into India. They may take ID cards of India and Nepal to ease the process of travel, and then leave these cards behind upon return to Burma.

For the younger Gorkhalis, Thailand provides the same economic opportunities that Burma provided to their grandparents and parents. As with their older relatives, Gorkhalis do not allow paperwork restrictions to get in the way, most often finding ways to get work permits and legal methods to work in Thailand. For the Thai small business owner, having a Gorkhali employee is often a wise choice. All Gorkhalis are multi-lingual. They grow up speaking Nepali and Burmese as first languages, and also know a fair bit of Hindi, Chinese, Thai, English, Urdu and a smattering of European languages. For the monolingual Thai business owner, having a shop assistant who can interact with multiple nationalities is not just a luxury, but a necessity. For many small business owners, the one Gorkhali assistant may be their only employee, and the one whom they have hired for the past decade. Trust and mutual respect often binds the relationship, with the Gorkhalis making salaries as high as 12,000 bt per month. In addition, Gorkhalis are often dressed smartly and are invariably presentable—partially due to the fact that most tailoring shops are now owned by Gorkhalis, making tailored outfits easy to acquire. This fashionable appearance is a necessity in Thailand’s commercial markets and businesses.

Gorkhalis mediate interactions between tourists from multiple countries, in industries such as tailoring, vending, and the food industry. They are found in high-end restaurants operated by foreigners, who may prefer working with the English speaking Gorkhalis rather than managing a Thai staff. The tourist industry contributes a significant portion of Thailand’s annual GDP, but the Gorkhalis who grease the wheels of this industry are often under-appreciated, and their contributions to the Thai economy not properly understood. The media, which often portrays “the Burmese” migrants as one big undifferentiated mass of low-end workers who are somehow in Thailand to illegally take benefit of government benefits, misses the often great contribution of migrant workers like the Gorkhalis.

The stated intent of Gorkhalis, however, is not to migrate to Thailand but always to return to Burma. Almost all maintain family ties to Burma. Older grand-parents take care of grandchildren, as well as house and farm, while the children toil in the urban cities of Thailand.

For a few rare Gorkhalis, there is a yearning in their eyes as they talk about the people who went to other countries, and who are now in professions that are astronomically higher paying that they could ever dream of. Where would I be if my parents had migrated to a different country is a thought that crosses their minds, although they never voice their yearning explicitly. These people are few and far between.

Then there are the people who love knowledge, and who are painfully aware of their deprivation. Added to this group are the parents, who are all uniformly aware their children are missing their most productive years in which they could be getting a good education. Indeed, bad education may be the Gorkhalis’ only gripe with Burma.

“Knowledge is better than business,” says one trader to me. “Knowledge can take you very far. Business is good one day, bad the next.” And knowledge, it is painfully clear, is one thing people were deprived of in Myanmar during the past forty odd years. An entire generation missed the opportunity to get a good education or learn English. Men are acutely aware they lost their chance to speak English. The education system remains poor even now. Families will often live apart for decades so one parent can send children to school in the city of Mandalay or Yangon while the other parent stays behind to work. In many cases, children are also sent as far abroad as Singapore, Sikkim, Darjeeling or even Nepal for their studies.

Despite great love for Myanmar, young Gorkhalis are voting with their feet and moving to Thailand. Economics is the primary reason—salaries of 6000 baht can often translate to savings of 10 lakh Myanmar kyats (approx $1300) per year. Often all of this savings are sent back for education and health care in Myanmar. Grandchildren, when they are born, are often sent back as well—parents work long hours of the day, but also because the parents want the children to know where they came from. The culture, they feel, is more preserved back in the homeland. This is clear to see as I look at the small and cosy families still living in close proximity. For the older Gorkhali generation, Myanmar remains their homeland, the place where they were born and the place where they choose to die.

Myanmar is repressive for many, especially ethnic minorities who have been fighting the Myanmar regime continuously since the Sixties—the Shan, the Karen, the Karenni. These were given a contract by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, who promised a union of different ethnic minorities. He subsequently died, and the agreement made during that time was never honored by the future generals. People never forget this break of contract.

But for the Gorkhalis, there was no contract. No promise was broken. They came with the British during the Second World War, and fought the Japanese. They had no axe to grind—they were simply good soldiers who got left behind in the aftermath of the war. Thousands of other Gorkhalis also came to trade, and settled in the land of plenty. Gorkhalis came from a country which was already repressive—the autocratic Ranas ruled Nepal till the Fifties, so facing censorship, lack of political participation, and punishment towards rebellion was nothing new to Gorkhalis. They were also, in many ways, a people that had been trained to value orderliness, loyalty, and discipline. This became a mutual win-win situation, with successive Myanmar regimes gaining a new population of hard-working, honest and loyal people, and the Gorkhalis gaining a new homeland which provided them with economic certainty and great community pride. They were allowed to practice their religion in freedom.

Paradoxically, the very same measurements Western countries draw up to measure Myanmar’s record in economic development and freedom, and in which it comes up lacking, is reversed in the case of Gorkhali immigrants—while UN organizations see desperate poverty and lack of economic opportunity, the Gorkhalis saw food and trading opportunities. Where the UN saw lack of freedom, the Gorkhalis translated into freedom through co-operating with the existing regime, by not getting involved in politics, and minding their own business. Burma remained the land of gold and plenty for Gorkhalis because they left politics alone and focused simply on getting on with livelihoods and material prosperity. Of course, this had its own consequences in later generations, which remained deprived of education, which is greatly valued by all Nepalis.

This kind of East-West reversals of measurements can be seen in what I call the thin/fat paradox. On my first visit to Burma, I exclaimed to a Gorkhali woman: The Burmese are so thin! I was under the impression that everyone was suffering from food deprivation, having read several important reports by various institutions about the food deprivation in Burma. This urban Gorkhali lady, whose husband works in the gem industry, laughed and said that definitely people were not starving. She made very sure to eat very little in order to maintain her figure! Later, in places as far out of the way as Mytkyina, I would see advertisements for pills for slimness—an obsessiveness that cannot happen to a food deprived country. This Gorkhali lady then retorted to me: And why are all people from Nepal so fat? And the answer, of course, is very easy. We come from a country where food is actually costly and not easy to access. So people often eat more than needed, since fat becomes a sign of wealth in food deprived economies.

Like a photograph that changes with each shift of light, Myanmar can alternatively be seen as a country of people deprived of food, and who are on the edge of starvation, as Western observers are fond of doing. Or it could be, from the perspective of Third World immigrants, be seen as a country with great access to grains, meats, fish, poultry, vegetables and diary products. Perhaps for ethnic populations living far into the mountains, away from city centers, like the Chin, food deprivation is a reality. But Nepali people living in the hills and mountains have also historically been food deprived—their production is not enough for their needs, and they often need to bring up more food than they produce from their own terraces and hillsides.

What was clear to me, coming from Nepal, is that food was cheaper and more plentiful in Burmese cities than any urban center in Nepal. After almost five years of democratic rule, Nepal’s food situation had not gotten better, but worsened. Food prices have soared, and all the new crops planted in the mountains will often find its way across the border to China. Nepal is now the third largest exporter of ginger, which goes to China, half of it ending up in shampoo. Crops like these bring cash for the farmers, but they take land away from food crops which could be consumed within the country. In addition, the quick introduction of cash crops have meant that water reservoirs, traditionally carefully and judiciously used, has been all but wiped out through new water hungry crops like elaichi and cardamom. So now people live in a democratic country and have the freedom to trade. They can make money from ventures like cash crops. But their money is not enough, paradoxically, to buy food.

In Burma, by contrast, some mechanism of control seems to ensure that at least food remains affordable, especially for the very poorest. Reading “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” by Emma Larkin, it can appear that people are all genteelly starving in Burma. She talks about a middle class woman who goes into a supermarket and cannot afford to buy Western goods, and this appears to her to be an illustration of poverty. But from a Nepali perspective, the meals that appear on the Burmese tables at 1500 kyats are a feast, by Third World standards. In Nepal, of course, $2 will hardly buy you a simple rice and lentil meal, let alone one with chicken, fish, potatoes, fermented bamboo shoots, radish soup, chilli sauce, and a salad plate of fresh greens, small auberigines, and green mangoes. Which is what I ate today, in a small Burmese eatery in Mytkyina. As a special treat, the owner also gave me an entire plate of brown sweet balls, made of what appeared to be raw molasses. And this is a normal meal for most Burmese. Indeed, if you look at it from this bottom-up perspective, the Burmese are less food deprived than many Americans or Europeans! If this is the case, then what are they doing right (instead of constantly harping about what they are doing wrong)?

I wonder at times if the sanctions of the Western countries may in fact have been good for Myanmar. Cut off from all external aid, Myanmar has to learn to stand on its own feet. And this, in itself, may have forced them to depend upon their own resources and strengths, rather than on donor funds. I remember the chapter I read in a book which talked about how the rates of poverty got cut into half with the departure of donors from one Third World country. I’ve forgotten the book in which I read these statistics, but they are definitely out there, telling a different story.

Looking around Myanmar, I wonder indeed if it’s a good thing that donors are not out here, pouring their generosity into joint ventures and MNC chains and new technological growth that could ultimately make people into great consumers of goods, like the Thais have become. The Thais are one people that their neighbours are watching closely. While their food is cheap and plentiful, the one aspect of governance all Asian countries should try to emulate, in many other ways their uncritical embrace of modernization, with the subsequent erosion of traditional knowledge systems, is perhaps a lesson learnt in what not to do for other smaller Asian countries.

At the hotel in Yangon, the owner gives me a new perspective on the sanctions. “Myanmar government no longer wants American or European investors,” he said. “They are now looking for Asian investors—Japan, Korea, Malaysia.” Oh, why is that? I ask, expecting some political answer. Instead, he laughed and said, “They don’t have the money to spend. The Americans come with little money. The Europeans, even less. The Malaysians, they come with lots and lots. They are not haggling over little things,” he said, rather ironically.

In the papers, I later read that Brazil has sent an ambassador to Burma after decades, and is starting joint venture projects with Burma. And this, I thought, was rather intriguing: Brazil has always intrigued me as a country ever since it gave the finger to America, which it did after September 11. I was waiting in line to enter Brazil in 2005 when I saw a long line of people being taken off to be fingerprinted. The incredibly agitated and jittery line of people were all Americans. And the rest of us-Syrians, Libyans, Iranis, Iraqis, Turks, Kurds and Nepalis—could all waltz past the immigration without a single fingerprint being taken. The reason was simple. America had, after 9/11, started the rather repressive and controlling task of fingerprinting all people who entered its borders, including Brazilians. Homeland Security suspected us all of potential terrorism, and it wanted to keep a record of all of our personal information. So Brazil, being a fair country, had made this a mandatory requirement for Americans as well. I rather admired Brazil’s saucy handling in this matter.

Later, in the World Social Forum, learning more about Lula and all the projects he had done for the rural poor, my respect had gone up exponentially. When I learnt that Brazil actually had stations in which cars fueled themselves on corn ethanol, and that it had taken it upon itself to manufacture generic medication for HIV/AIDS patients who would otherwise die from being unable to afford the expensive patented drugs of America, I was won over. My vote was cast for Brazil as moral leader of the planet. So if it was now in Burma, I wanted to know more.

In recent years, Gorkhalis in Burma have lost some historical benefits. For instance, a group of Gorkhali business, known as G9, were the only nine businesses allowed to evaluate the value of gems in Mogok, the gem mining area. This showed the extent to which the Gorkhalis were trusted by the ruling elites of Burma. This group is now no longer the only one that evaluates the values of gems.

According to one source, there’s also been a tightening of religious freedom, with restrictions on the building of new houses of worship which did not exist before. This may be a reaction to the aggressive evangelizing of Christian missionaries. Alternately, it may be a lessening of religious tolerance towards other faiths.

The Gorkhali faith in the Myanmar regime was also shaken with the end of their recruitment into the army, the mainstay of Gorkhali livelihood and pride. I could get no clear answer about this—while several sources told me Gorkhalis could no longer join the Burmese Army, others more closer with the Myanmar state insisted that could not possibly be the case. I was not able to get a clear answer about the actual policy. What was clear is that Gurkha Battalions, left by the British and who had occupied spaces of pride in various areas around Burma, were no longer there, and that those military enclosures were now occupied by other troops.

Despite this gradual erosion of past priviledge, Gorkhalis continue to live happily amongst the multicultural environment of Burma, often taking on elements of whichever state they are in. In areas with low population of Gorkhalis, many Nepalis have assimilated into the different ethnic groups, and lost their language and culture. Therefore the preservation of language and religion remains of central concern to this diasporic population.

A number of Gorkhalis returned to Nepal during the Seventies, when the civil conflict was at its height and people were kidnapped by the Kachin rebels to porter and join the rebel forces. These people fled to Nepal, settled, and never returned. A similar situation is brewing now in Mytkyina, its clear. The state had drafted 70 young men from a few villages, and the Kachins were also starting to forcibly recruit Gurkhas. Rumors suggested the Kachins, like the English colonizers of the past century, were won over by the fighting capabilities of the brave Gurkhas and they too had their own special “Gurkha Regiment” within the Kachin Liberation Army. One woman told me her seventeen year old nephew had not returned from the Chinese border, where he had gone to trade for motorcycle parts. The Kachins had taken him to join their army. His mother had gone up and wept and asked them to release him, to no avail. It is no wonder that the young men are fleeing the villages en masse for the safety of Bangkok and Phuket, once again.

But for those who remained back in Burma, their loyalties are clear. All unanimously express great love for Nepal, but they would not choose to live there. “Nepal is our fatherland,” they say. “We have a great love for Nepal. But Burma is our motherland, the place that fed us and nurtured it and brought us up.” When asked about it, many Gorkhalis will say they went back to visit Nepal. Many will matter of factly admit they didn’t like it, albeit without any note of condemnation. They will talk about the hardals and strikes which made movement impossible.

One Kachin man told me that many of his Gorkhali friends left in the Eighties—he said General Ne Win had decided to drive out the Gorkhalis. The Gorkhalis, when asked about this moment in history, insist those who left, did so as part of a voluntary repatriation scheme and there was nothing forced about their departure. I wasn’t able to get exact dates—some said the Seventies, other said the Eighties.

My Kachin friend said, “I have Gorkhali friends with whom I grew up who left during that time and now live in other countries, but who still come to visit every year. They come here and they bring small gifts and meet everyone. 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,” he said. I wondered if ethnic groups of Nepal, especially the Tibeto-Burman groups, were more inclined to intermarry into the Kachin community.

I wondered if I should tell him that the village Gorkhalis who’ve had their boys disappear call the Kachin bhootlay (scary hairy beings), but then I decided not to share this interesting tid-bid. Unfortunately I did not visit Sitapur during this visit, primarily because I made the mistake of asking my guide and scooter driver: “Is there anything different and interesting in Sitapur?” And dismissively, he had said: “Not really.”

For the majority of Gorkhalis who live here, Burma remains the land of plenty which their ancestors made their way to, almost a century ago. Gorkhalis here are in their third and fourth generations. Their relatives have scattered all over the world--from Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, the Gulf, Australia to the USA. But for those who choose not to leave, Burma remains the golden land. The land and community satisfies their soul, and that is enough. They have no quarrels with the existing system because they do not seek much more than what they already have. Besides, the cable news from Nepal reminds them all too grimly what can happen when a tightly controlled state falls into economic chaos after transiting to an ill-thought out democracy.

One woman in Mandalay captured the heart of the matter. “I was staying in Kathmandu when an old woman in front of our building died. But nobody gathered when they heard of her death. I wouldn’t have known of it myself if somebody hadn’t told me. A car came and they quickly removed her corpse. When somebody dies in Myanmar, the whole community gathers. Even the Muslim neighbours will come to pay their respects,” she says. “People here care about each other. I didn’t feel anybody cared about their neighbours in Nepal.”

And that tight sense of community, in a nutshell, is what will keep the Gorkhali community going strong in Myanmar.

Inizio pagina

Home | Archivio | Cerca


Anno 8, Numero 34
December 2011




©2003-2014 El-Ghibli.org
Chi siamo | Contatti | Archivio | Notizie | Links