Thinking about Yangon: Normalcy or Conflict?

Christina says I should write about my trip to Yangon (Myanmar/Burma) these last few days, as it is a city unfamiliar to the readers of Ethnography.com.  Her impressions, and those of our readers are probably in the context of the international news about Myanmar which focused last year on the Rohingya refugee crisis in which some 800,000 fled to Bangladesh, and more recent fighting in the western province of Rakhine, which briefly made the news a week or two ago.  Or perhaps they are more knowledgeable, and also know about the ongoing insurgencies around the periphery of Myanmar/Burma.  A powerful independent military rules the country, alongside a new civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) in a system that is an “alliance,” but only sort of.  ASSK has of course been accused of genocide because she leads a country in which the military violently pushed out, yet again, thousands of minorities, and killed thousands of people.

But in Yangon today all this seems a long way away. Yangon is a bustling city of some 5 or 6 million, which is 10% of Myanmar’s population.  Unlike more modern cities in Thailand (and China), the population lives in sprawl, not high rise construction.  The building cranes are just recently arriving, permitting the first 30+ stories of modern Asia buildings to go up.  Most of the construction, though, is 60 or 70 old buildings built by the British before and after World War II, or an independent Burma after independence in 1948.  Today, Yangon is a busy city, with people on the streets buying, selling and moving around. Street selling is common, particularly in the afternoon and early evening. Considering the hustle and bustle, things are quite orderly, though a bit noisy.  It is not a wealthy city, but the streets are clean, and somehow traffic usually moves, even though there are not many police.  There is also a wealth of ethnic diversity on the streets in a country where the Burmese ethnic group and Buddhism are dominant.  But there are also many churches, mosques, ethnic dress, etc., to be seen around.  As for the military, it is missing from the streets, despite the fact this is a “military ruled” country.  It seems like just another bustling and growing Asian city, albeit one which has yet to have skyscrapers. Nor for that matter does it have motorcycles—the all-purpose way to avoid traffic jams was banned in the city some years ago.

Yangon was the capital of this country until 2005, and is still the commercial, and to a large extent, the political capital even though Parliament and the Ministers meet in a new capital to the north. Yangon (Rangoon) itself is by and large a new city, too, having been established as a capital of British Burma only in the nineteenth century, after the Burmese King from Mandalay was defeated.  There is a thriving port, where you can watch large ships come and go.

There is a great deal of monumental architecture in town.  Most prominent are the Buddhist pagodas, of which Shwedagon is the most prominent.  Other buildings of fading British-era architecture are still prominent, even though the colonial government withdrew in 1948.  But then there are also buzzing shopping malls.  These modern “temples of consumption” are found in many modern cities, particularly in Asia.  They are multi-floored, with unique architecture, and stunning interior views to view as you ride the modern escalators.

These are the air conditioned malls I’ve seen in China, Thailand, Dubai and other Asian countries. They have flashing screens with advertising, and teasers for the latest in popular culture, which seems to involve Korean boy bands, as in many countries.  In Yangon, malls are just a little smaller than their grandiose competitors in other Asian countries.  But the malls are also full of people.  I don’t know how big Yangon’s middle class, or how much they are buying, but they fill these malls with an appearance of prosperity.

My favorite was shopping was perhaps “Book Street” which was a street-side market of used and new books, near The Secretariat where national hero Aung San (and father of Aung San Suu Kyi) was assassinated with his cabinet in 1947.  The English language books are all priced cheaply, either because they were ancient, or because they were reprinted in Myanmar with or without copyright fees paid. There are also of course many books published in Burmese.

Myanmar has a thriving literary scene—there was a poetry reading in Burmese on Book Street that day, amongst the burgeoning market.  I was told that about 80% of the 50 seats were filled—the poets do their performances because first, that is what poets do in Myanmar, and secondly of course, in the hope of selling just a few books.

In other words, the insurgencies, refugee flight, ethnic grievance, and genocide are a long way away from the temples, malls, and streets of daily life in Yangon.  Out of sight, and out of mind, just like it is for the rest of the world.

We met a group of six or seven teachers one evening to talk about one of my books. They took us out to dinner in an Indian restaurant.  They teach at a bilingual (English and Burmese) school, and spoke English well, and were engaging and fun to talk to.  They even broached the subject of politics, and in a country which has such an unruly system, they were critical of it all—both the “government” as well as the “military.”  But as Yangonians and teachers, their political interests lay with education issues, not insurgency.  Like I said, what makes western newspapers seemed really far away for them. Rather, they liked to talk about their home areas (five different ethnic groups were represented among the six teachers), problems of teaching, complaining about their students study habits, and the difficulties/advantages/disadvantages of being a multi-lingual nation.

The next night we had tea in a classic Burmese tea house.  There were 10 or 12 waiters and waitresses in a busy shop who looked to be teenagers, or in their early twenties.  It was explained to us that they are from the same place up country and had perhaps a fourth-grade education.  They receive a small daily wage, are fed, and at night will sleep on the restaurant tables.  This too is part of modern Asia—and was an environment different from that of our middle-class teachers, most of whom apparently lived in the school’s dormitories.  What would happen to the youth sleeping on the tables?  My hope is that they will be able to find a place in a community which, for now, seems to be thriving.  Perhaps there will be jobs in a new manufacturing sector, or other industry?  This has been the pattern in other nearby countries like Bangladesh and China which in recent decades swept millions of such rural people into cheap clothing for the world economy.

I started writing this while waiting to depart from the Yangon airport.  It is a hyper-modern airport, with many well-stocked boutiques of designer purses, and many attentive salespeople, just like the shopping malls. The design and quality of the airport is found in many other Asian airports from Dubai to Japan.  I believe the airport was completed by a Chinese construction company about three years ago.  But here is something missing: passengers.  Unlike the busily buzzing shopping mall, and streets, there are fewer air travelers on this Sunday afternoon than attentive sales clerks in the generic airport boutiques.  The departures scheduled for the day fit onto two small screens—this is not a busy full airport like Bangkok, China or even Chiangmai, Thailand.  It is quite different than the busy shopping malls and bustling streets of Yangon. Where are the middle class ?

But what about the insurgency and violence of Myanmar?  Isn’t there any? Actually of course there is, it is not though apparent to the casual traveler like I was in Yangon.  Next blog I will write about the horrifying stories I heard about from my refugee students in Chiangmai, and the micro-specks of national sovereignty where revolution, refugee flight, militia, ethnic school systems, Internally Displaced Persons camps, the drug trade, and child soldiers all persist.  These too are part of modern Myanmar.