Friday, July 25, 2014

what a difference a border makes...

During our 28 day stay, the Burmese way of life - what little we were exposed to - didn't feel taxing. Amid the limited resources (it was sheer elation when we stumbled across a pack of Saltine Crackers)  we were never left wanting. And life didn't feel Third World.

Until we returned to Bangkok.

The modern Sky Trains, the reflective windowed high-rises, towering billboards, expansive freeways,  and 21st Century metropolitan feel was a contrast that hit us with such force, our bodies were drained by what we left behind. Then again, the exhaustion could have come from the 12 hour bus ride up to the Yangon airport where we spent more countless hours waiting for our flight to neighboring Thailand to depart. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

road to Mandalay

He was a monk the most of his life, before becoming a teacher and later starting a family.  Today Thura is a mushroom farmer who supplements his family's income as a tour guide - something he started in his teaching years, when all proceeds were donated to the school.

Having grown up in and around Mandalay, he can see past the concrete buildings that would have stopped Esther and I short, aside from the few major "must see" tourist hot-spots.

So we followed him on a journey outside of the city center to see a few insider sights.

Local transport, oddly filled to the brim with females. Thura, standing in the background, being the only exception

ceramic water jugs

Most efficient number of containers to carry is 4, although they are able to carry up to 7 at once (in a stable stance)

monks depositing their shoes at the entrance of the temple for lunch

The line of monks goes from oldest to youngest

Lunch, which is served at 10:30 (breakfast is at 4:30), is the final meal of the day, and eaten in silence

Tin and silversmith

View of the Taungthaman Lake

The U Bein Bridge, a 1.2km (.75mi) teakwood bridge, built in 1850 is still used as a main thoroughfare for locals

And, is quite possibly the most photographed site in and around Mandalay

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"It's not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power..."

It takes strong and courageous people to speak out against a corrupt government. People who are willing to accept the consequences, whatever they may be, in hopes of providing a better life for not only themselves, but for all those around them.

Aung San Suu Kyi is one such person. She rallied for a Democratic Burma. The military government wasn't pleased. They placed her in house arrest, offering her freedom under the condition that she left the country permanently. She refused. Yet, amidst the confines of her own home in Rangoon (Yangon), her influence carried on. The political party she chaired, the National League for Democracy, won the majority vote in the first general elections in over 40 years. She won the Nobel and other Peace Prizes. Her fellow countrymen were inspired.

Four hundred miles (630 kilometers) north of Suu Kyi's confines, three men known as the Moustache Brothers - two of whom are actual brothers and the third being their cousin- rallied behind her. They too were in search of a democratic country.  Comedians at heart, they travelled around the country putting on shows which poked fun at the lack of resources afforded by the government: insufficient hospital care, poor schooling, water shortages, and the list goes on. In 1990, the oldest brother, Par Par Lay, was jailed for 6 months after poking fun at the military government with a satire to brandish their refusal in acknowledging the landslide votes Suu Kyi's party received.

Possible jail time is what all Burmese political comedians agree to sign up for. And there are many who have seen that sad side of activism. It is the risk they take by speaking their mind. Six years later, in 1996, following one of their largest shows which happened to be hosted inside Suu Kyi's home, Par Par Lay and his cousin U Lu Zaw were sentenced to 7 years hard labor at a camp on the Chinese border. Par Par Lay's brother, Lu Maw, was spared the sentence. Prior to the show, the three pulled straws to see who would blatantly crack jokes on the insufficiencies of the government. They knew consequences were highly inevitable. Their voices were heard though.

Upon their release, they were allowed to perform again, but only in the confines of their own home and under strict rules. The comedy show can only be given in English, only to tourists. It must follow the patterns of a typical Burmese show, with song and dance included with the sketches. They've agreed to the terms, yet still find the time to squeeze out little bits of political activism throughout the show which is held in single room offering plastic chairs for their guests to sit on.  Their nephew sits outside keeping watch for cops.

Lu Maw (left) and his cousin U Lu Zaw performing in front of an audience of tourists in their home
In 2007 Par Par Lay was again temporarily arrested for supporting a monk-led rally against the government. Monks are the only individuals able to speak out against the country without consequence.

In 2010 the government shed its military skin and is now touted as a civil one. Aung San Suu Kyi was released. Since then, hope is in the air. But as the Moustache Brothers put it, the government hasn't changed, only the uniform has. They await the day for the next general election in 2015 when Suu Kyi has a clear shot at becoming President.

Sadly, Par Par Lay will never know if that dream will be realized. In 2013 he died of kidney failure. Lead poisoning, from the bad water at the labor camp, is what Lu Maw says is the cause of his brother's shortened life.

And until that hopeful day in 2015, the two remaining Moustache Brothers continue their nightly show to handfuls of tourists inside their home. It's not the ideal situation for them, but the duo believe that the foreign presence will only help in their fight for freedom.

Lu Mau showing the audience a proud moment for him, in which Obama greeted Aung San Suu Kyi with a kiss