Myanmar: The Land of Green Ghosts
“If someone was murdered or died in an accident, this was categorised as a ‘raw death’. The belief was that the deceased would become a ‘green ghost’ – the most feared of all the spirits.”
From: From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe
The current persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar has catapulted the country into international news, and is the result of a complex regional history in a country that is made up of more than 135 different ethnic groups. This ethnic minority (although not recognized as such by the government), were classed as “foreigners” in 1978, effectively stripping them from any claim to citizenship. Two recently published books shed light on the history and background of this issue: Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ by Francis Wade; and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim, and are worth a read, if you are interested in gaining insight into this complex state of affairs.
This is only the most recent incidence of violence, not just against the Rohingya, but touching everyone in the country in some way. Myanmar, as we know it geographically today, is mainly the result of British colonization (1824-1948), which brought together various independent territories. In an effort to free themselves from British rule, help was sought from the Japanese, but instead of gaining freedom, it resulted in a brutal occupation during WW2. After WW2, there was a short-lived and precarious flirtation with freedom and self-rule, but it was violently squashed by a military coup in 1962, which resulted in a dictatorship that lasted until very recently. Aung San Suu Kyi, and her ruling party, have brought the dream of democracy closer to a reality, since the November 2015 elections, but for the people of Myanmar, the concepts of true freedom, and true peace, are still fairly elusive.
Over the years, various ethnic minorities have fought guerilla wars against the military government to gain independence and restore self-rule, without much success. People (including women and children) caught in the middle of these were often forced to work for free for the government on various projects, through a system labeled “donated labour”, or used as porters or shields in the skirmishes. In some instances, rebel army commanders have become rich and powerful drug lords, making Myanmar the largest opium producer after Afghanistan.
But violence and oppression seem to hark back much further, and King Thibaw, the last ruler in Mandalay, who was described by Scott as “the most inhuman of a long line of savage despots”, is just one example of a ruler striking fear in the hearts of his subjects. His father, King Mindon, when he moved his court from Ava to Mandalay, had fifty-two people buried alive beneath its walls in the belief that their ghosts will guard the city against evil forces.
A very different kind of danger stems from the leftover legacy of both the British and Japanese presence in Myanmar in that cars have right-hand steering wheels. On the apparent advice of his personal astrologer, or so one story goes, General Ne Win (military dictator from 1962-1988), decreed in 1970 that motorists should drive on the right. This effectively means that drivers cannot see the oncoming traffic, unless they veer all the way left, right into the lane of oncoming traffic, to see if they can overtake, which, for obvious reasons is rather dangerous. On quiet country roads, with hardly any traffic, the problem seems minor, but in congested Yangon, with the added stress of too many cars, it is a terrifying reality. I quickly learned that the best strategy was to sit behind the driver, and keep my eyes focused on the countryside or passing buildings, instead of the road. This anomaly should change in the near future, though, as the government has banned, in principle, the import of right-hand vehicles from January.
Despite its history steeped in violence, Myanmar is a land of great beauty, and friendly people, who are remarkably resilient, and extremely welcoming to visitors. It is the words of an older gentleman, who I encountered in Bagan that I treasure the most from my time there. He wanted to know where I was from, and after a short conversation, looked me in the eye, and said: “Thank you for visiting Myanmar”. In times of upheaval, tourists tend to stay away, and it is the ordinary people, who rely on the tourist industry to make ends meet, who suffer the most.
# To throw pearls before swine: ‘to play a harp for a water buffalo’.
# To blow your own trumpet: ‘to praise the pickling of your own fish’.
# To bask in someone else’s glory: ‘to lean on the sacred white elephant and suck sugar cane’.
Words to learn:
Mingalaba – hello (literally translates as ‘it’s a blessing’ or ‘auspiciousness to you’)
Che zu ba – thank you
Books to Read:
- From the Land of Green Ghosts – A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
- The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U
- A Burmese Heart by YMV Han and Tinsa Maw-Naing
- Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times by Rosalind Russel
- Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma by Rory Maclean
- Burmese Days – George Orwell
- Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
- Burma: A Journey Across Time by Matt Sims
- The Trouser People – Burma in the Shadows of the Empire by Andrew Marshall
- The Burman: His Life and Notions by James George Scott
- Greetings from Myanmar: Exploring the Price of Progress in One of the Last Countries on Earth to Open for Business by David Bockino
- Children of the Revolution by Feroze Dada
- Burmese Folk Tales by Maung Htin Aung
- Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ by Francis Wade
- The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim.
Remember that reading should always take context into consideration. These books all capture a very specific time in Myanmar’s history, and the conditions, beliefs, and way of doing things may no longer be relevant today. So take note, for instance, of when they were published.
An excellent overview of some of the issues and tragedies in Myanmar. We lived there for several years in the 1980s and I have such wonderful memories.
The generosity and warmth of the people I encountered stand in such contrast to the many challenges they’ve been through, and are still facing. It is a country that has touched my heart in a way not all countries does, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for you to live there. Such different times, though!
Very different times, but very fortunate to have lived there.
As is so often the case, the beauty of the country contrasts with human ugliness, to put it mildly.
So true, Tanja. If only we could live in peace with one another. But it seems, as human beings, we tend to fear those things that makes us different.
If only… 😪
Great post, thank you for the references. As someone who was raised Buddhist, I find it hard to understand how people can claim to follow the teachings of the Buddha and yet commit such horrible acts of cruelty. I’m sure Myanmar is a beautiful place and I’d love to visit someday: but for now, I’d prefer to withhold my tourist dollars until the issue of the Rohingya is addressed in a humane way by the government.
Extremism and religious intolerance is a very sad reality of the world we live in. Sadly, although the government has a stake in the tourist industry, it is the ordinary people like you and me, who are just trying to make a living, who suffer the most, when the tourists stay away. But we all need to align our choices with our values, so I completely understand your stance. The true value of travel, I believe, lies not only in the broadening of our understanding of other cultures, but embracing the impact it has on our world view and values to inform our choices, and the subsequent way we live.
Thank you for shedding light behind the news headlines. Your insights are always valuable.
Thank you, Gwen. I find it incredibly sad that Myanmar is struggling so to shed centuries of violence. I have never read as much as I did about a country, as I did with Myanmar, before my visit. The thread of violence that runs through its history stands in such sharp contrast with the heartfelt welcome I received from the people I met. And unlike locals in so many other countries, people smiled at me, not just with their mouths, but their eyes.
There is always so much to learn when you are actually in the country, and because you do not do the five star fly-in fly-out packaged holiday experience you open yourself to all those new adjustments. I’m so grateful we have you out there to bring it to our living rooms as juxtaposition to our nightly news.
The news from this country is not that good.
Pity it looks like a beautiful scenery.
Ashame that the people make it so deadly and horrifying.
It is indeed a shame, Rob. So many innocent people suffer as a result of intolerance.
I’ve been curious about Myanmar because of the news, but never found a good primer. How delightful to see just what I needed on this note pop up in my WordPress feed. Thanks for putting this together!
I’m glad to hear it gives you some insight. Myanmar has a fascinating history, albeit a difficult one.
Thank you for your insights into a fascinating place, on my “wish list” but I’m not sure I’ll get there in reality. I had to re-read the right-hand driving scenario, then I realized that it was in a right-hand drive car too…Oh, gosh, that must have been a moment of terror as you headed off out into the maelstrom!
Crazy, isn’t it? When I read about the way they drive before my visit, I stored it as something quirky, making it a unique and curious phenomena, but imagining something, and experiencing the reality, can be two vastly different things! 🙂 I transited through Bangkok, and spent a day there after my time in Myanmar, and thought the traffic to be oh so civilized in comparison.
I spent time just across the border from Myanmar in Yunnan province during 1990; it was a fascinating area. Within China this was the region of Dehong and Jingbo minorities, who had fascinating traditional wear and musical instruments. The border was advertised as closed, especially to Westerners, and even in Dehong it was infrequent to see a white person. But there was a bridge across the river at a tiny market village whose name I forget — I think near Muse (Burma) and the locals would flock across to make trades and purchases with the Burmese in the village on the other side. God, did I want to walk over that bridge. But probably would have been arrested in Muse.
I can only imagine your curiosity and desire to walk across that bridge. It would have been very tempting to me too! What an amazing experience it must have been for you, living in such an interesting, and remote part of China. You must have so many wonderful memories, and interesting stories to tell.
I recall one day walking through a village market, trying to figure out what to eat, when it suddenly dawned on me: I hadn’t seen a non-Chinese person in three or four days. 🙂 Beautiful place, the variety of mushrooms and roots for sale were astounding, all unrecognizable. 🙂
If you want to read a great short memoir of that period of time from a Westerner’s eyes, try Mark Salzman’s “Iron and Silk”. Partly, it insired me to go.
Thank you for the recommendation. There are so many interesting places in the world, and it is always fascinating to find out how people come to choose the places they visit, and live in.
So interesting! Love the book recommendations too. Thanks for sharing.
I love how books open up the world, and even if one never physically travels to a place, one can still experience it through reading. As a matter of fact, the books created a very different reality from the one I experienced being there. Now, when I think about Myanmar, my memories are layered and rich with the stories of other people, instead of being a bit one-dimensional.
Very insightful post. Apart from everything else, it’s a land of beauty – worth loving!
Indeed, Deepak. And thank you.
A land of such contradiction…only different to others perhsps in the severity of what is going on at present….the world the planet is soo topsy turvy ….may we be able to sort ourselves out ☺
Such a good post!!
Thank you. Yip, there is so much conflict and intolerance plaguing the planet, and too many people think violence is the answer. Such a pity, as it is our differences that make us interesting.
Violence will probably never stop altogether. Thank you for the introduction to an interesting sounding place. I especially liked reading the idioms at the end. What is it the girl has in her box/cage?
Sad, but true. Those are birds in the cage that worshippers buy to release, as part of a ritual to accumulate merits for health and longevity, not just for themselves, but also their loved ones. As I understand it, there are various rituals for these ‘mercy releases’, involving different animals to create positive karma. It is a practice that raises all sorts of concerns, though. (A simple Google search will shed more light on it, if you are interested.)
Well written. Thank you! 🙂
Thank you so much. It is not an easy topic to write about.
This was beautifully written. The horrors of Myanmar are rumor here in the US. I am not sure there is anything we should do about it lest we make it worse. I had no idea about the car thing. I’m sure so many die on that whim. Lastly, thank you for the idioms. You can learn much from a culture by their idioms.
Thank you. Myanmar has played witness to so many turbulent times, and it is sad that fear and violence is still part of the history that is being created. Yet the people I’ve met exude a kindness that one doesn’t encounter everywhere. But like you said in your most recent blog post, life is both difficult and wonderful. Often at the same time.
Such a beautiful country. I went not too long after they opened the borders. https://tararunstheworld.blog/2018/05/06/wanderlust-from-burma-a-throwback/
Indeed, Tara. I like how you end your post: “If you do find yourself in Burma, tread lightly and appreciate the kind soul of this country.” Much has changed since your visit, and visas take only a few clicks on the computer, but the people are still kind and lovely in this beautiful place.
I wondered how much it had changed. It was such uncharted territory for the traveler when we went 5 years ago.
The one thing that amazed me was how easy it was to travel in the country, especially because the tourist industry really is still standing in infant shoes, but the service is almost always both quick and great. And once one gets one’s ear tuned in to their particular way of speaking English, communicating one’s needs really is very easy. And the bonus was that the volume of tourists, even in high season, is still very low. I kept bumping into people I’ve met before, in the most unlikely places. Something that has never happened to me before.
You are making me want to return!
That would certainly be an interesting experience. Maybe there is some race you can go run. Seems like a great way to see the world.
Good idea, there is! I looked at it before when we lived in Thailand.
I love that you included local idioms. My favorite is “to praise the pickling of your own fish.”
Isn’t it wonderful?! I love that I stumbled upon these in my reading frenzy on Myanmar. I think idioms convey a lot about a culture, and it is always lovely to hear different cultural versions of essentially saying the same thing, which convey a shared humanity.
Thanks for your post. Myanmar has many beautiful places to visit such as Shwedagon pagoda, Kyaik Htee Toe pagoda, Bagan, Inlay lake, etc. People from foreign countries can practice Buddha’s mediation in Myanmar. Warmly welcome to Myanmar.
Thank you. Myanmar has, indeed, much to offer. Most of all, the warmth and kindness of its people.