Beyond the barricades

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2008, 12:00am

In Yangon, you can check in to a guesthouse; take a nap; walk the couple of kilometres into town, where religious services proceed to the sound of prayer songs and clapping; and visit a brace of two thousand-year-old gold stupas, all by noon.

In Yangon, you can also watch people get beaten.

One afternoon, at the train station, several policemen gather around a dishevelled man loitering on the steps. One officer pulls out a large wooden stick, about the size of a baseball bat but slightly longer and thinner. The officer holds the stick in the air menacingly then starts to beat the man, whacking him until he finally gathers himself up and leaves the premises.

During the government's crackdown last September, soldiers were filmed striking demonstrators in the same way. The CNN reporter was shocked and I am, too. I've just seen a policeman beat someone with a bat for five minutes. And no one stopped him.

AFTER ABOUT 14 HOURS ON the train to Mandalay, it goes dark. The light bulbs and fans rocking from the carriage ceiling are not operational after dusk.

The inconvenience is forgotten when the train reaches the U Bein Bridge, a 200-year-old teak pedestrian bridge - the longest in the world - that stretches across a lake in the former royal city of Amarapura. People pause to watch the sun set over the glittering water and are just happy to be here. The monks seem the happiest - climbing trees, wrestling and posing for photographs.

The Lonely Planet guidebook tells you that in Mandalay, you have to see the Moustache Brothers.

Their act is forced political satire - smart and biting - but it feels like they have been rolling out the same punchlines every day for a decade. Even so, their courage is undeniable, especially as their daily full-frontal critique of the junta landed them in jail in 1990. Again in 1996. And again last September.

I meet a young man who turns out to be the only Burmese I speak to who has heard of U Thant, the former secretary-general of the United Nations. He shows me a biography, thumbing through the pages and indicating photos of the Burmese diplomat with various world leaders.

For a few moments I get a sense of normality.

Bagan, the ancient capital of Myanmar, is a day's boat ride down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay. Thousands of temples adorn the plains around the city: a sight on par with that provided by Angkor Wat. If only the junta could figure out how tourism worked!

While walking around one of the temples, I meet a foreign exchange trader. He is about nine years old. After inspecting my camera, the boy shows me a Euro1 coin. I assume he is showing off, but then he offers it to me. And I - needing some foreign currency because no one has been accepting my wrinkled US$20 bills - actually want it. I quote the widely accepted exchange rate but the child haggles. We compromise. Later that evening I try using the coin as a contribution to the next day's airfare; the airline people refuse to take my slightly torn US bills and I offer the coin as an obviously bona fide form of currency. But they won't take it. Apparently nobody takes coins in Myanmar.

In his memoir, In an Uncertain World, Bob Rubin, US president Bill Clinton's secretary of the treasury, talks a lot about the developing world, even touching upon the debate between sanctions and engagement. The book makes me think about this child because, in a different life, in a different world, he could become secretary of the treasury, or chairman of Goldman Sachs. Better yet, he could be his own nation's finance minister, and figure out what is making a country with such an abundance of natural resources lag so far behind the Asian miracle.

The United Nations Children's Fund says one-third of Myanmar's population is under 18. It is a generation that has grown up separated from the world most of us know. They're not unhappy children. They squeal and jump and laugh and cry like any others. Yet this is how humanitarian crises begin: a crippling dictatorship that keeps itself in power by exploiting the country's natural resources, deep ethnic divisions that have raged on for centuries, endemic poverty and isolation from the outside world.

When do-gooders say companies and tourists shouldn't have anything to do with the country, Myanmar says: 'Thank you, we didn't want you here anyway.' And so this generation of youngsters, like the past few - it has been 45 years since any semblance of civilian rule - will grow up thinking this is just how things work.

There are good intentions behind the suggested travel boycott, but at some point it turns into neglect. You should learn about the situation, and you should come.

Getting there: Singapore Airlines ( flies from Hong Kong to Yangon via Singapore. A cheaper option is to fly from Hong Kong to Bangkok, then from the Thai capital to Yangon with AirAsia (