One hair of Buddha
August 16, 2019
After Singapore and Malaysia, our third station was a very special one: Myanmar or Burma (both names are equivalent, although Myanmar is more common nowadays). Special because the country is only slowly opening up to the world after decades of extreme isolation. And special also personally since this semester, I have been working on a case study about the Myitsone dam on Myanmar’s largest river, the Irrawaddy. The Myitsone is a giant hydropower dam that had been planned and financed by a Chinese state-owned company with the purpose of producing electricity for China’s Yunnan province, while the Myanmar government was to be compensated with 500 million $ per year. The construction of the dam would cause, however, substantial ecological, economic, social and cultural damage to the local people close to the dam site, but also further downstream since the Irrawaddy is Myanmar’s most important waterway. In 2012, the protests of local groups together with international NGOs achieved what had seemed impossible for many: The Myanmar government put a halt on the construction of the dam, albeit temporarily at first. It is a very interesting case because it was the first time that a large Chinese investment project abroad has been stopped by local protests. Until this day, the construction of the dam is on ice, but a final decision is yet to be taken. If the dam project is cancelled completely, the Myanmar government would have to pay back 800 million $ which the Chinese company has already invested – a substantial amount of money for a country like Myanmar. I’m really interested to see how this case evolves further. And since I had read so much about the country over the past months, I was very excited to go there myself!
With highspeed into the 21st century
Over the course of the centuries, the territory that makes up present-day Myanmar has been ruled by various ethnic groups. They formed three Burmese empires which at times also controlled large parts of modern Thailand. In the 19th century, the British took control of the country through three Anglo-Burmese wars and administered it as part of “British India”. The British encouraged the immigration of Indian and Chinese workers and businessmen, marginalizing the indigenous population. The Burmese opposed the colonial rule from the beginning on. Nationalism and the call for independence became stronger in the first half of the 20th century as unemployment increased and many felt that the British didn’t respect their Buddhist traditions.
In 1948, Burma became independent, just to completely disintegrate over night due to the opposition of various rebel groups. Although the government managed to stabilize the country over the years to come, the economy slipped from bad to worse. In 1958, power was therefore handed over voluntarily to the military which had a good reputation among the population given the role it had played in the struggle for independence. When the civilian government regained power in the free 1960 elections, however, the military took over the control of the country with an army coup. They announced a “march to socialism”, confiscating much of private property and handing it over to military-run corporations. Many everyday commodities became scarce for the ordinary population, and international aid organizations were rapidly expelled from the country. As a result, the country which had been the world’s largest exporter of rice before WWII was unable to feed its own people by 1967.
Over the decades to come, several rounds of protests against the government lead to brutal repression of all opposition. In 1990, the first multi-party election since 1960 resulted in an overwhelming victory of the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), while the military-backed party won just over 25%. Unwilling to accept their defeat, the military oppressed the NLD, putting their charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for the next 20 years (except for short interruptions). As internal protests and international pressure increased in the early 2000s, the military agreed to hold general elections in 2010. While deeply flawed, these elections nonetheless resulted in a quasi-civilian government and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. In 2011, the glimmers of democratic hope transformed into actual reforms, with diminishing state censorship, the release of political prisoners and the slow liberalization of the economy. The economy developed rapidly, with international investors rushing into the country to get a slice of the pie in a country that had been isolated from the international markets for almost half a century. The first free and fair elections were held in 2015, with the NLD winning a landslide majority of 79% of the elected seats. This time, the military accepted their defeat, marking the end of the military rule and the beginning of democracy in Myanmar.
Puh. Long block of history. I hope you’re still with me But in the case of Myanmar, I feel that it’s worth investing some extra lines into historical background in order to understand the special situation of the country which has completely opened up to the world only four years before our visit. Despite this opening, the political status of Myanmar is still far from completely stabilized. The government lists 135 distinct ethnic groups, forming eight official “major national ethnic races”. Out of these, various had been fighting the central government and the military over decades. Ceasefire agreements with eight rebel groups have been signed only in 2015, but three major rebel armies refused to sign and are fighting the military until today.
Much international awareness has been awarded in the past years to the Rohingya. This Muslim ethnic group living close to the border to Bangladesh and descending from Bengali immigrants who entered the country during British colonial rule is denied Burmese citizenship and has been opposed violently since decades. The UN lists them as the “strongest persecuted minority in the world”. Including the latest outbreak of violence in 2017, this has forced an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Rohingya to leave the country, mostly to Bangladesh. Interestingly, the much-praised NLD government remains largely silent about this issue.
As tourists, we did not take any note of these conflicts. Areas of ongoing violence are completely off-limits for tourists, and also otherwise the government seems to take good care of creating a harmonious picture of the political situation. What we did note, however, was the economic situation of the country. As soon as we crossed the border from Thailand, the quality of the roads deteriorated, wooden huts took the place of concrete houses. Poverty is over 50% in rural areas where 70% of the population live. In terms of GDP per capita and Human Development Index, the country ranks among the least developed quarter of the world. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. As written above, international investment is soaring, leading to an economic growth rate of 8% in 2016. Smartphones and internet coverage are penetrating the country quickly. During my preparation for the trip, several blogs had written that mobile network coverage was good only in cities and along major highways, while being very poor or non-existent elsewhere. What we found, was an excellent network strength in most parts that we have visited, even in pretty remote rural areas. We also found first signs of solar power in otherwise unelectrified villages, as in the picture below. These are all signs that economic development is picking up rapidly. Whether this is good news or bad news, depends on your world view and on your definition of “good” and “bad”, I guess.
Another thing we noticed as soon as we entered Myanmar was the central role that Buddhism plays in the country. There are temples and stupas everywhere. In towns and cities, large temples form central points of every neighborhood. In the countryside, small stupas with golden domes peak out of the green vegetation frequently. Buddhism is by far the dominant religion, about 88% of the population being Buddhist. This is also represented in the government, where there are more high-ranking Buddhists than those of any other religion.
At the core of Buddha’s teachings is that complete wisdom and non-desire can only be achieved by turning inwards and mastering one’s own mind through meditation. When we visited the first temples, we were therefore quite surprised that they resemble rather places of worship than of quietness and meditation. At larger temples, there is usually a number of shops at the entrance selling flowers, incense sticks and other items that can be “sacrificed” inside the temple in front of Buddha statues. The Buddha statues are often surrounded by fairy lights or blinking LED lights, which complemented the unexpected character of the temples. In one temple in Yangon, a monk approached us to explain the logic behind this: In the center of the temple is a bell-shaped golden dome which cannot be entered. On the circular path around the dome are eight shrines with Buddha statues, corresponding to the eight days of the Buddhist week (Wednesday is split into two days). Next thing you need to know is the weekday when you were born. As we didn’t know ours, he took out a small book that contained all weekdays of the last century or so. After we had found out (mine was a Monday), we went to the corresponding shrine where we then had to first pour five cups of water over a small Buddha statue, and another three over a statue of the animal corresponding to the weekday. As the last step, we had to strike a large gong next to shrine three times. Doing all of this, we had become entitled to make a wish. Up to that moment, I had always (naively) thought that all Buddhists try to find peace and harmony inside themselves. Apparently, they don’t.
Another funny aspect of this scene was that as soon as we were finished striking the gong, the monk asked for a donation. When we agreed “Yes, ok, we will put something in the donation box next to the entrance”, he said “No, no, give it to me.” And with this he took out the second-highest bank note to indicate how much “donation” would be appropriate. Also not exactly my understanding of a monk giving up all worldly desires. Myanmar’s monkhood counts around 500.000 men. Every Buddhist Myanmar man should take up monastic life two times: Once between 10 and 20, and another time after the age of 20. As a monk, they give up all material possessions and are equipped by the population with three robes, a razor, a cup, a filter to keep drinking water clean, an umbrella and a bowl to collect alms. Women can live as nuns, too, but this is not as prestigious as being a monk since they cannot perform ceremonies on behalf of laypeople.
Another impressive encounter with Buddhism was our visit to the Golden Rock. This is a rock that lies upon another rock in a way that seems impossible from a physical point of view (see title picture of this post). Legend says that it is kept in place by one hair of Buddha that is placed in the stupa on top of the rock. Funny thing, given that Buddha himself never wanted a cult around his person or body. And today places that contain his hair are among the holiest of Myanmar. Anyways. Visiting the Golden Rock was an experience in itself. It started in a small village at the foot of a mountain range where we entered a vehicle that resembled a hybrid between a bus (back end) and a truck (front end). We were wondering: Why do they need truck engines? We soon found out: It’s a 45-minute drive uphill, and very steeply uphill. And full-speed uphill, no matter how steep or narrow the curve. At times, it felt more like a roller coaster than like a bus ride. Arriving on top of the mountain, we again expected the quietness of a holy site. Just to find an entire small town in the middle of nowhere. Bizarrely, the town was largely deserted, as it is mostly there to accommodate pilgrims during the large festivals held at the rock each year. During our visit, we were two of only a few foreign tourists, all the rest being locals who went up for worship. Besides the almost empty city, the weather added to the somewhat lost atmosphere, as clouds formed around us, just to be blown away by the wind and giving way for the sun the next moment.
One of my favorite stops in Myanmar was Bagan. Between the 11th and 13th century, Bagan’s kings had more than 4000 Buddhist temples built in the city. The importance of the city declined soon after, and as everything besides the temples was built from wood, all that is left today are the ruins of the temples in the middle of lush vegetation. Amazing. The common way to explore the vast area is by electric scooter. While the largest temples draw crowds of tourists and souvenir shops, we were almost completely on our own as soon as we went on a few hundred meters. Some of the temples have been restored in the past decades, however under strong international criticism as this was not done according to the original form of the temples. In 2016, a strong earthquake damaged hundreds of temples. Luckily, however, most of what was destroyed was the restoration work and not the historical substance. This coincided well with the government’s application for Bagan to be entitled World Heritage Status, as also Unesco disapproved of the unprofessional restoration works. A few days before we visited Bagan, it was then indeed listed as World Heritage Site. To us, many of the temples in Bagan had an almost magical, meditative atmosphere which we really enjoyed. I can only agree with Marco Polo who called Bagan “one of the finest sights in the world”.
People as warm as their food
Besides Bagan, another outstanding feature of our time in Myanmar was the friendliness of the people. Even if verbal communication was oftentimes very difficult due to a lack of a mutual language, the non-verbal part compensated largely for this. Oftentimes, we had the impression that people were almost more interested in us than we in them. Myanmar doesn’t see many tourists in general, and even less so during the low (rainy) season. As a result, we had several situations where we were the only foreign tourists. Exposed like this, people approached us quite frequently to ask for a picture together.
One rather peculiar habit in Myanmar is that most men constantly chew betel nut and spit out the saliva and the leftovers of the nut onto the street. The nuts are chewed together with betel leaves as they have slightly stimulating effects and heighten your awareness. To make the active compounds from the nut better resorbable, they usually add calcium hydroxide, as well as a small amount of tobacco. All of this is wrapped inside the betel leaf to form a small package that is then chewed as a whole for a few minutes before spitting it out. The betel nut turns the saliva red, resulting in red stains on the ground that you’ll see everywhere. On long bus rides, they even distribute small plastic bags for people to spit into during the ride. If we had to describe Myanmar with one sound, it would probably be the sound of somebody clearing his throat and spitting out. Besides these rather aesthetic points, chewing betel nut is, however, also highly carcinogenic. As betel nut is consumed by several hundred million people globally – mainly in South-East Asia – this practice has been described as a “neglected global public health emergency”.
Like in Malaysia, we also went on a two-day trek in Myanmar, but this time not into the jungle, but into a mostly agricultural area. We learned a lot about how different crops are grown – in this region mainly rice, ginger, tomatoes, corn and potatoes. All the farmers were working on a small-scale, with most fields smaller than one hectare and ploughed by oxen instead of tractors. Nevertheless, this does not mean that modern-day agriculture has not yet reached this area: We also saw people with large bottles on their back applying pesticides and at least the corn fields were also fertilized quite heavily. The guide explained to us that they use pesticides and fertilizer mainly for crops that are produced for the market, while they grow “organic” food for their own consumption. Overnight, we stayed with a family in a local village, gaining some more insight into how people live.
On our last day, we randomly stumbled upon another insightful tour. On the internet, we had found a “tofu palace” in a nearby village offering a food tour. We spontaneously rented bikes, went there and were welcomed warmly by an elderly man who, a few years back, had found it a pity that less and less people know how the food they eat every day is produced. He set up the tofu palace as well as the food tours through the village, promising to taste 22 different kinds of food. Small spoiler: Yes, it was indeed 22 kinds, and most of them were so oily that it took us a while to digest all of them. We basically went from house to house in the village, always heading to an unspectacular looking wooden barn in the backyard. As soon as he opened the door, the barn transformed into a deep-frying heaven: Huge pots of boiling oil, fired by whole trunks, into which old women and men poured dough in various forms to deep-fry it for a minute. It was as fantastic as it was unexpected. One of the stations was the tofu production, and interestingly enough, they don’t produce tofu from soybeans, but from chickpeas! Overall, it was a great last stop that filled our stomachs as much as it filled our hearts.
It was a great time to visit Myanmar. Four years after opening up, the country is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world from which it has been isolated for so long. We saw Buddhist monks carrying nothing but their robe, an alms bowl and a smartphone. We saw farmers carrying the produce from their fields over several kilometers on their heads and backs into the village. We saw glorious, golden temples. We slept in a village where most of the houses were dark after sunset as there is still no electricity. But most of all, we met super friendly people who are proud of their culture, their language and their history. Let’s hope that they manage to preserve part of that richness in the light of capitalism taking over the country!