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The Long Road from Rangoon

The drone of early morning crickets drowns out the sound of my footsteps as I walk through the doors of the Pagoda View Hotel, the dirt drive damp from the heavy Rangoon mists, the sun hefting itself wearily above the horizon. Mo Win stands off to the side of the driveway; I can barely make him out in the shadow of two tall trees. U Thein Ya waits with the engine of his taxi turned off. He flashes on the headlights, and Mo Win and I jump in quickly. Yesterday the soldiers had patrolled back and forth on their bicycles across the street from the hotel, but this morning I look and see no sign of them.

On the way to our bus Mo Win speaks excitedly. Just before dawn, he reports, a small protest broke out in Bago, a town we’ll pass through on our way to the Golden Rock Pagoda. I feel my eyebrows rise and must admit, the news succeeds where the Nescafé failed: finally, after being in Burma a week—I’m awake.

I met Mo Win a few days earlier, just after I arrived in Rangoon. He was introduced to me by his British English teacher, whose address I had been given as my only contact. I found the teacher’s house after three hours of trial and error. The street address I had been given was wrong and so was the street, but my young cab driver was insistent on helping me, the foreigner. So without any additional fee, we spent an entire afternoon together figuring it out. Not such an easy task if you consider the fact that we didn’t want to call much attention to ourselves.

It’s just three weeks after the brutal crackdown on protests in Burma. None of the people I knew from my last visit to Burma are where they’re supposed to be. My monk friends are not at the monasteries. Some fled the country before the violence broke out, and many have simply disappeared. Many in the States want me to check on their Buddhist teachers, but I’ve been advised by Rangoon residents, if I’m seen visiting the monasteries, my presence will endanger the monastics living there.

***

photo by Karen Zusman

In 2004, I traveled to central Burma to practice meditation at one of the hundreds of monasteries there. I’d heard about the harsh military dictatorship and had read a little about the suffering of the people, but the monastery had been so peaceful—the constant murmur of chants mixing with the tinkling of temple bells; the dark, narrow boats gliding down the Irrawaddy River at dawn; the morning rays illuminating the tops of the white pagodas, which rose from the hills like sun-bleached mushroom caps across the water sheltering us yogis and monastics from the bustling commerce of Mandalay. For the entire month I had been enveloped in some kind of ancient tranquility; and yet once the retreat was over, I hardly felt at peace. Looking out beyond the river on that last day, listening to the chants of hundreds of monks and nuns, I knew there was so much I didn’t hear and see.

I decided I would overstay my visa and try to discover for myself why Burma had become such a controversial place to visit. And after about a week, when a broken train track forced me to take a cab outside the usual tourist circuit, I saw what the military government didn’t want me to see: girls no more than 10 years old stooped over shovels as they dug a new road in the scorching Southeast Asian heat. Boys armed with rifles as big as themselves sitting atop a military truck that passed my bus. But when I asked people in Burma about what I’d seen, their eyes turned dark, and they quickly looked away.

photo by Karen Zusman

After the Saffron Revolution in 2007, and the brutal crackdown by the Burmese Junta on the protesters, I left New York for Kuala Lumpur to try to get a visa into Burma.

“I doubt you will get in,” a man back home widely regarded as an expert on Burma warned me, “But if you do, always remember: bet your life you’re being watched. Be impeccable in public places, lest those you’re seen to consort with are taken in to sleep on the floor of a concrete cell.”

But I did get into Burma, and the people proceeded to tell me their stories. In fact, they seemed to seek me out. When I sat in the Sule Pagoda, the main temple in the city center where outside, just weeks ago, monks and protesters had been shot, people motioned me to join them behind large statues of Buddha. Someone whispered to me where the bodies were buried—how they awoke last week to the strange lyric of metal meeting rocks and saw soldiers digging graves in the mists of the moonlit night near the fields of Shwedagon Pagoda. Another describes the torture received by a woman for tending to a monk who lay bloodied in her arms—they tell me her name and the name of her brother, a soldier drugged by the Junta when he refused to shoot and tried to run away.

Behind closed doors with the shades pulled down and the music turned up, I sat with a group of students cross-legged on the floor. The girls took turns placing their hand in mine as I listened to each one’s story.

Yamin Au saw two girls shot right in front of her hostel.

Aye Aye Cho was arrested and beaten for offering water to a young man who carried a protest sign.

Of the group of 12 students who meet here twice a week, only one was not accounted for, Nay Mo Myint, who works in the crematorium and disappeared 10 days ago after he began telling his friends he witnessed naked men burned alive alongside a pile of saffron robes.

***

The morning I arrived in Rangoon, I headed straight to the Shwedagon Pagoda, where I had met many of the monks I came to call friends three years before—a place that held the unworldly hush of places infused with millennia of worship, washed in white and gilded in 18-karat gold. The place where less than a month ago two monks had been shot, directly inside, on the sacred floors.

Three years prior, I sat in the same Pagoda for hours attempting to meditate but was distracted by the lively swarms of monks, nuns, and families combining picnic with prayer on weekends and in the evenings after school and work. Tourists like me mixed among them to experience the spirited and gentle Burmese life. But in 2007, the Pagoda was nearly empty—a few elderly men and a couple of unsmiling monks ghosted warily across the polished marble floor. The main stupa itself, which rises high above the Rangoon treetops, its gold tip shining both in mid-day or midnight, appeared to have been robbed of its luster. The golden thimble looked more like a garish bandage masking a wounded thumb.

I took a place on one of the many white platforms beside a monk who was quietly chanting the Metta Sutta. I tried in earnest to match his chanting with my own. We continued for some time when I noticed only my voice carried the verses. I turned and saw his wet face, streams of water dripping over his hands held in prayer below his chin. I swallowed hard repeatedly to prevent myself from sobbing. I had never seen a monk weep openly. It told me everything he could not say.

Suddenly he was gone, and I also left the pagoda quickly. I hadn’t the heart for this. I jumped into the nearest cab and asked the driver to take me downtown where I could get a western coffee. As we neared the hotel, I noticed a group of soldiers with rifles sneering at people as they ran barefoot across the street, fruits dropping out of baskets as women lowered them quickly from their heads. They were trying to get under the thatched awning that served as a bus stop, where they could wait out the sudden rain.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to take photographs of the military, but I couldn’t resist. I paid the cab driver quickly and jumped out as soon as he passed by a large, white street sign. From behind this post I tried to focus the frame, but I wasn’t fast enough. A soldier took notice and began to chase me screaming angrily in Burmese. I ducked into a large tourist hotel, the one where I’d come to get the coffee, and ran into the deserted gift shop. I hid behind a large statue of a Buddha. I waited, shaking with the shock, for 20 minutes, berating myself many times over for such naïve stupidity.

Afterwards I had my coffee as planned, but when I went to pay for it, my wallet, and the 2,000 U.S. dollars—the most I was allowed to bring in—was gone. There are no ATMs in Burma, so that the military can keep track of western monies coming in. In my haste to capture the soldiers on film, I had somewhere dropped my wallet. I ran the distance back to my hotel and burst into my room; there was no wallet on the bed. Nor in the safe. Nor in the suitcase. There was no one to call. International lines had been cut, as well as the Internet. I went back outside and sat on a bench. There was no blood in my face or hands. My mouth felt drier than I knew was possible, as if I had no tongue.

A few moments later a taxi drove up honking wildly, and the driver jumped out, waving my wallet in his hand. I hadn’t told him where I was staying—I was instructed to tell no one—but since I was one of the only new foreigners on the scene, it was easy to track me down. I’d already begun to think that perhaps I’d left the wallet in the cab, but I didn’t dare to dream it would be returned.

And why would it be? Everywhere the poverty of Burma screams out. The protests themselves had been in reaction to the rise of fuel and food costs escalating as much as 500 percent, and now, there was no tourism. No way for money to reach the people’s hands. And this man’s taxi seemed to run on duct tape and fumes. Yet here he was, beaming as he held out my bulging wallet. He insisted I check its contents. I flipped through the cash embarrassingly, all 2,000 dollars of it there. I tried to give him some money in appreciation. He refused. Back and forth we went. Until he jumped back in his cab and I reached through the open window and threw it in the seat beside him. When I ran into him by chance a few days later he insisted on taking me home to meet his family, who served me lunch. I learned from them that he had donated the money to the monks. His name was U Thein Ya.

This is how I seem to cultivate friendships in Burma. I go there to see how I can help, and inevitably they end up helping me.

***

U Thein Ya pulls his cab up to the station, and Mo Win and I board the bus. Although it’s not yet seven am., the vehicle is already nearly full with families, teenagers, elders. A little TV hangs precariously behind the driver’s head. Once we get moving, it broadcasts a modern love story with a horrible Southeast Asian pop beat. Burmese Bollywood—at once horrible and charming—everyone on the bus, save myself, is totally entranced.

Mo Win is an uncharacteristically outspoken 28-year-old monk who’d left the monastery recently. A few weeks ago in late September, at the peak of the protests and the violence surrounding them, Mo Win’s 15-year-old sister, Ei Ei Au, was walking home from school when two soldiers leapt out from behind a bush to rape her and a friend. Ei Ei arrived home afterwards, walked wordlessly past her mother, and entered the family shrine room. She closed the door behind her. There in front of the image of the Buddha, she slit her throat with a shard of glass.

In Buddhist thought, suicide carries the worst karma, because you take the most precious of all lives—the only one you’re truly responsible for—your own. What happens to Ei Ei Au becomes a triple tragedy—the magnitude of which is compounded, if in the accounting, one is generous enough to add the suffering of the soldiers. The drugs, the coercion, the threats—involuntary conscription into the Burmese Army is well documented—these are the conditions that they face. Who’s to say what we would do if faced with the same conditions?

Mo Win is convinced that if he goes home he will kill the soldiers. My plan is to buy a few days’ time for him to meditate, so I offer to take him on an out-of-town trip to the sacred Golden Rock instead. About three kilometers outside of Bago, a snake of drab, green military trucks begins to overtake our bus. I count more than 40. A truck goes by with a boy no more than 11 or 12 years old manning a rifle on top. Mo Win nudges me hard.

photo by Karen Zusman

“Come on, take it! Take the picture—you must sneak it out and send it to the BBC!”

If I take the picture and they see me, it won’t be my head but the head of the bus driver, or perhaps Mo Win. They will be the ones held accountable.

Confusion drives a bass note thumping deeply in the pit of my belly. Helplessness tingles, it quivers in my palms. Outrage tastes strangely like caramel gone sour; it coats my mouth with a horrible, fermented paste.

I feel the cool metal of the camera, and my finger twitches uncontrollably over the shutter button. I clutch the camera at my chest, hidden under my shawl, but make no move. The truck gains a little speed on us, and Mo Win frantically urges me again to snap a shot of the child soldier. I wait a few moments before lunging with my arm stretched out in the aisle: Click. Click. Click.

I shoot the pictures through the front window beyond the driver where I can still make out the shape of the rifle and the small shoulders of a boy draped in drab, olive green. It’s too far away for me to capture on my cheap camera, but I realize it’s also far enough away that the soldiers haven’t seen me, either. My action is futile like that of an angered child who screams a terrible name at his father after the parent has already walked out and locked the door.

***

Mo Win appears to lose a little respect for me. He seems to take glee at instructing me. I cannot place a gold leaf on the golden rock as he can because I am a woman. He begins to tease me that I am an “old maid,” although I seem “very well preserved” for my age. At 42 and still single, the insults seem pointedly insensitive and hurt. The constant smudge on the lenses of his glasses begins to bother me. I know the glasses are not strong enough because he is frequently squinting. I decide I will buy him new spectacles instead of leaving the camera with him. A choice I know in my heart he will not be happy with. A choice I later regret. When I say good-bye to the students, Mo Win is not there. I never see him again. I go back to my hotel to pack and tear out all the pages of notes I took from my notebook, committing them to memory as best I can before running them under the tap. I suspect I will be searched carefully at the departure gate, and I pray that immigration doesn’t ask me about the torn-out pages.

photo by Karen Zusman

***

When my plane lands in Kuala Lumpur, I take dazed steps through the gate, as if coming to from some kind of shock. I blink repeatedly at the bright lights of designer shops and shiny chrome of the modern Malaysian airport. It’s the first time I can show a notebook in public. I grab it from my backpack and begin writing furiously, even as I stand on the moving airport sidewalk. Though the belt keeps me in forward motion, everything in my body freezes. I stop, feeling a sudden sense of paralysis. My feet can’t move and my mind can’t quite alight on any words, while the people mover carries me its full length and I trip abruptly over the firm footing. I drop to my knees, gasping. I feel like I’ve been swimming under water, holding my breath for 14 days, and I’ve just come up for air. An airport attendant rushes toward me and picks up my notepad and pen. I only know one word in Malay—Terima kasih—thank you. I practically cough it out, a loud whisper, and shoo him away.

The memories of the past two weeks come flooding back. Kneeling beside the boy in the street selling flowers and incense offerings to bestow at the many Buddhas’ feet—a girl, the same girl, or a different girl, walks directly toward me, touches my forehead with her hands. I watch things I cannot name pass across her face. No matter how many times she finds me, no matter where I am, her message doesn’t change.

“Please, sister, I can no longer bare it.”

Then she’s gone and I’m unable to follow her.

I remember the hushed tone of the hotel waiter as he leaned into my table, shielding his lips with the menu as he handed it to me.

“Thank you for coming to our country,” he whispered. “You very courage.”

I waited before extending my hand for the menu.

“You must be journalist?” he asked.

“No,” I told him.

“I think you are. Why else would you be here?”

He moved in closer to wipe some ancient cigarette ashes from the stained white tablecloth.

“Sister, you must sneak our stories out to your country, like a little gift you might buy at our many wonderful shops.” He looked up at the door before imploring, “Please, do not let the world forget us.”

***

In Kuala Lumpur I set out to do just that. I thought the best—and safest—way to bring home stories of Burma was to spend time interviewing recent Burmese refugees who had fled to Malaysia and could speak to me with ease now that they were finally free. Or so that is what I thought—I had no idea I would spend the next two years uncovering what their life was like in Malaysia.

[author]  [author_info]Karen Zusman is a writer, poet, and multi-media journalist living in New York City, whose coverage of Burma, Burmese refugees in Malaysia, and human trafficking of people from Burma, has been broadcast on World Focus News (PBS), and published by The Christian Science Monitor, USAtoday.com, abcnews.com, Witness.org, Worldfocus.org, The Huffington Post, Refugees International, The Democratic Voice of Burma, and others. In 2009, she wrote, recorded, and produced the feature audio documentary: Please Don’t Say My Name: The plight of Burmese refugees living in Malaysia. She continues to document the situation for people from Burma living in Malaysia and has just returned from there, where she focused on the stories of Burmese refugee children. For more information about her work and how you can help, please go to: www.pleasedontsaymyname.org Learn more about the author’s work with Burmese refugees in Malaysia and how you can help. Listen to excerpts from the one-hour, multi-media documentary, “Please Don’t Say My Name: The plight of Burmese refugees in Malaysia.” While there, click on “Resources” to find out more information about activism related to Burma.[/author_info] [/author]

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