Hazard #5: Myanmar Air Travel
Air KBZ seemed like a good enough airline, with comely stewardesses, seats that recline and hot tea served carefully. The two Air KBZ flights I took passed more or less uneventfully from Rangoon to Mandalay to Myitkyina. Considering that Myitkyina is the army’s northern outpost in the Kachin civil war, the flight may have been the safest part of the whole trip.
Air KBZ is an uniquely Myanmar company, a sort of cronyopoly under the wing of the Kanbawza Industrial group which is a subsidiary of the delightfully named Myanmar Billions Group. It’s the kind of name you choose for your company if you’re the kind of man that owner Aung Ko Win is: a friend of crooked generals, a man elbow-deep in the jade-sapphire-ruby-gold trade, a man whose ties to the junta have landed him on international blacklists. None of those qualities promise Teutonic efficiency in airline management, and sure enough, two months after my flight, an Air KBZ plane crashed upon landing in Thandwe. It was the same type of plane—an ATR-72-500—that I was on, and although it’s not certain, there’s a decent chance that it was the exact plane I was on: there are only three aircraft in all of Air KBZ’s fleet. Yet another private Myanmar carrier, Air Bagan, had one of its planes crash this week near Inle Lake, and it just has us thinking of all those little rides in all those little planes in all those little countries that have passed for us, somehow, without incident.
From R&K’s Ten Hazards of 2012
This is what it is to be Rohingya: in your home country, even in good times, you are considered illegal immigrants from another country. But your supposed home country also says you don’t belong. When times get bad—and lately, for the 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, they have been very, very bad—you try to flee the killings and the arson and the pogroms by crossing the border to Bangladesh, the place where Myanmar people say you belong, but there you just get arrested by the Bangladeshis, because you are not citizens.
The Rohingya are a people without a country.
Saiful Huq Omi is doing an amazing thing with the Rohingya people. He comes from a politically active Bangladeshi family, and though he only picked up photography in 2005, his work has already added a strong visual voice from within Bangladesh. This is no small achievement in a country that has traditionally only been seen, as he puts it, “through the eyes of white photographers from the west”. But more than that, he has chosen to focus his work on a group of people who are the ultimate outsiders within Bangladesh. His work challenges the assumptions and biases not just of Myanmar or of the west, but of his own people.
The Rohingya were immigrants to Myanmar once, ethnic Muslims who came from what is now Bangladesh, but that was over a hundred years ago. Now, long after the British have left, after new nations sprang up and died and were born again through war and revolution, they remain in permanent exile. The genius of Saiful Huq Omi’s work is that it follows them around the world in that exile. In these photos, he shows their lives on the margins of existence in the permanent camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. He shows the underground work and cramped home lives of undocumented Rohingya in Malaysia. And he shows their disjointed lives as (legal) refugees in Bradford, Northern England, a place that offers everything except a sense of belonging,
One of the most surreal experiences about spending time in a country that is at its core still a military dictatorship is sitting down to read the morning paper. While a few news outlets across Burma have taken advantage of the recent loosening of censorship laws, there is one paper that continues to set the standard for astonishingly banal propaganda peddling. The New Light of Myanmar, established in 1914 and published by that oh-so-Orwellian faction of the government, the Ministry of Information, still serves as the junta’s mouthpiece, a bizarre depository for updates on various generals’ bowel movements coupled with bland appeals for patriotism. A fixed banner headline sits at the top of the daily paper to remind Burmese citizens of the Three National Causes: 1) Non-disintegration of the Union. 2) Non-disintegration of National Solidarity. 3) Perpetuation of Sovereignty.
There are multiple of forms of Buddhism in Myanmar, not all of them flattering.
In the unflattering column, I would put the Buddhism that acts as an ethnic emblem, a tool for oppressing Myanmar’s non-Buddhist minorities. It is, for example, very difficult to have a high-ranking job in the military or bureaucracy if you are not an avowed Buddhist (many priests I spoke with in Kachin state told similar stories of their parishioners being advised to change their religion, at least on official paperwork, so their careers wouldn’t be ruined).
The second in our Burma Basics series: Matt takes on the ubiquitous chew of Burma, betel nut, on the streets of Rangoon. WARNING: footage of a Californian in sunglasses getting slightly high may not be suitable for all audiences.
A Republican Travel Guide to Rangoon
Oh, it’s been a good week for Burma. Political prisoners have been spilling from Insein Prison like candies from a piñata. Reformist president Thein Sein must have watched Invictus and wept like I did on my flight over to Burma, because he/I was a little drunk on free bourbon and because Nelson Mandela is such a beautiful man and the capacity to forgive is what separates humans from dogs or from the monkeys that try to steal your jewelry at Mt. Popa.
But before I get too moist about all the peace and love, I should remember that it’s all a means to an end. The end, in this case, is the end of sanctions. Myanmar wants out of its cage. It has been trapped in there with a rather selfish dragon for too long. So in exchange for all its good deeds, Myanmar now has friends in Oslo and maybe even Brussels. Roads and Kingdoms was live on the scene when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stormed Myanmar, but today and tomorrow Myanmar has its biggest prize so far: A Republican in Rangoon.
That’s right. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is on an official state visit, just as Washington announced full normalization of relations with Naw Pyi Daw. But having just been there, Roads and Kingdoms understands that it’s still not the easiest destination for anyone, let alone a staunchly conservative burgoo-lover from Louisville on his first trip to the land of shrimp paste. And while we’re not ready to Switch to Mitch at the ballot box, we do applaud his long record opposing the military junta (which included a failed attempt to get a visit to the country years ago). So with gratitude, here is the Republican’s Travel Guide to Rangoon.
In the market for a Burmese keepsake that might help improve your 14 percent approval rating back at home? You could do no better than head to Bogyoke Market and get a travel-size version of one of Burma’s 37 nat, capricious spirits that hold great power over the daily affairs of local Buddhists. Treat your nat right and maybe Americans will forget about a few of those temper tantrums you threw in 2011. Better yet, you can pass it off as a peace offering to Barry or Harry or whoever and neglect to tell them about the nat’s strict diet of daily offerings: unripe bananas, coconuts, tobacco, and blended malt whisky. With the economy showing early signs of recovery, an angry nat could be just what the Republicans need coming into the 2012 election cycle.
Could there be any other destination than the Shwedagon Pagoda? Forget the fact that the murderess of Vince Foster walked that same ground on her official visit last month. The Shwedagon is an absolute must-see for the staunchest defender of unlimited money in politics. Sen. McConnell has been such a soulful warrior against the evils of campaign finance reform that his anti-FEC crusade went all the way to the Supreme Court in a case that presaged Citizens United. With an ardor for earmarks would make Steven Colbert blush, the Senator is sure to enjoy the orgy of gold that is Shwedagon. And yes, that is real gold, and no, it did not just jump up on the paya on its own: it was put there, in recent decades, at least, but the military junta, which tried to buy penance for its occasional bouts of monk-murder by larding as many Buddhist temples as possible with gold. Wrapping warped policies in the cloak of religion? Hmm, sounds familiar.
One little-known fact about the formerly brutal military dictatorship was that it was home to a number of golf course, vestiges of the Brit’s endless appetite for colonial luxuriation. We know how important it is for politicians, especially those so friendly to K-Street, to keep up with their short game, so we recommend the grand-père of all Myanmar courses, the Yangon Golf Club. Bonus: this lovely Steve McCurry photo of a Burmese servant-lady helping a golfer with the daunting task of placing a ball on the driving range tee. To paraphrase 007, in Myanmar, men come first.
The Senator won’t find any squirrels in Asia to remind him of burgoo, that famous Kentuckian stew of roadkill and spices, but if he heads to the Bogyoke Market stalls and looks for the sweet, heavy-set woman with the squat plastic table, he’ll find some dishes that hit a few familiar notes. The meal starts with a bowl of sour soup, made cheek-puckering with a heavy dose of tamarind and lime. Things get salty from there, with the help of a brick of shrimp paste and a few shakes of fish sauce used to lend a good measure of funk to Burma’s midday mélange of meat and fish curries. Lunch ends on a bitter note, a salad of tea leaves dressed with peanut oil, crushed nuts and tiny dried shrimp.
Or might we recommend a nice bowl of chili crab before the Senator’s long flight home?
Burmese bus. Rangoon, early December. More heaped mass transiting en plein air, the object of so much curiosity and longing for those of us from cities like mine, where the taxicabs now hector you automatically about buckling up in the backseat as you wait in standstill traffic on Fifth Avenue.
So what is the price of this crowded, sweaty liberation that charms every Western tourist who ever sat and sagged a tuk-tuk? The Asian Development Bank and ASEAN came up with some Myanmar data:
Overall, traffic accidents accounted for over $122 million in societal costs in 2003, or 3% of Myanmar’s GDP (twice the relative cost, for example, as in Ghana).
The dry genius of the ADB-ASEAN cost estimate is that it includes estimates for grief and human suffering in the aftermath of an accident. That’s $1,800 in societal grief for every death, $842 for a serious injury accident, $8.28 for a slight injury accident.
But at the same time as we point to all the specifics of Myanmar’s roads and culture, look at the final table here. The point is clear: men, particularly young men, drive like assholes, all over the world. —NT
[Photo credit: Nathan Thornburgh / Roads and Kingdoms]