A time in Rangoon
August 8, 1998.
The battered Toyota taxi weaved along Pyay Road through a police checkpoint, the morning sun causing beads of sweat to appear on Zeyar’s wide forehead. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve, immediately regretted dirtying it --and rolled it up to hide the offending stain. The heat irritated him because the AC had broken down a long time ago. Like everything else in this junta nation, spares are difficult to come by. The police constable (or military, rather – in Myanmar everything is military), seeing the empty taxi, waved him through.
Zeyar was on his way to pick me up where I was staying at the Ramada Hotel by the airport.
I met Zeyar about a week ago outside Yangon International where I had just arrived from Bangkok, fresh from my triumph of getting a Myanmar work permit in a record time of four hours at the embassy in Bangkok. I didn’t even have to appear in person. The agent who collected my passport at the hotel suggested I try the newly-opened “Ancient Massage” near the corner across the hotel. That was the best way to pass the time, he said, so why not? Let him battle demonstrators at the embassy instead. Having a lithesome doe-eyed beauty (yes… that one --number 26) with flawless taut skin expertly knead my legs, shoulders, thighs . . . was definitely better than waiting in a snaking queue any day.
In yesterday’s Bangkok Post the big story was UN’s Special Representative to Myanmar, Tan Sri Razali Ismail being denied a visa. Even the cover letter from Kofi Annan did not sway the junta in Yangon into letting him visit Daw Suu Kii. Rumors of a ten-year anniversary to commemorate the ’88 uprising was rife and foreign NGO’s and observers were already warned not to attend or will face the consequences. The Generals had already fired the first salvo...
Exactly a decade earlier on 8 August 1988 --the day of infamy --students and citizens from all walks had gathered peacefully at the Sule Pagoda near the city center. What happened next was unthinkable. Without scant regard, troops had opened fire into the crowd --mowing down students, schoolchildren, pregnant women and monks with impunity. The carnage ran into the thousands. Some news report said there were more than 3000 dead. Some said 5000. Thus a decade later the junta was very careful not to have a repeat of this bloodshed. After all, the junta had recently opened its doors to foreign investment and the seeing of thousands of bodies of being carted away is not something the Generals ever want to see again. That was why I called Zeyar to take me to Sule Pagoda, the site of the bloodshed ten years ago, to pay homage to the dead but brave protestors.
After the massacre, the Junta had hit upon a brainwave. Who are the demonstrators? Why, mostly college students of course. Let the country cease to have students! Brilliant! Now why didn't we think of that earlier? And that’s exactly what the enlightened Generals did – shut down every institution of higher learning in Myanmar. And they have stayed shut ever since. I call the these young people Myanmar’s ‘lost generation’ –people who were denied an education because of an exaggerated government phobia. Living in the 21st century I almost didn’t think that such a thing could have happened. But it did.
8.8.88 was thus an unlucky day for the thousands of students, ordinary workers, schoolchildren, pregnant women and monks who chose to peacefully gather at Sule Pagoda; their dreams of a democratic Myanmar crushed, their lives lost in a hail of bullets. What where the Generals really thinking? Any feng shui master I meet from now on would be judged on how he answers to my question: Is 8-8-88 considered lucky?
When I opened the door to his taxi Zeyar looked troubled.
‘Mr. Salo, I don’t think it’s a good idea’.
‘Why, I’m just a tourist. OK, maybe not Sule Pagoda today but we go to Shwedagon. Don’t worry I give you special tip.’
At the mention of “tip”, I saw Zeyar soften a little. Shwedagon is Myanmar’s finest Pagoda, but I had other ideas in mind, I want to see Suu Kii’s house, peer through her gate. But I’m not telling Zeyar yet.
I sat at the back, smoking my Dunhill’s. At a traffic stop Zeyar turned his head to me.
‘The military intelligence, Mr. Salo, know already that foreigners have come into Yangon to show support for eight-eight-eighty eight. I also heard on the radio that some Thai and Malaysian activist have been caught at the airport for carrying leaflets . . . I also see more roadblocks put up . . . there is a planned demo this afternoon but I think it will not happen’.
I was disappointed upon hearing this. But further down the intersection of Pyay Road I saw an army tank. Another road-block was being assembled to protect the many foreign business premises along the wide avenue; my employers included. Zeyar pointed to the tank. ‘See Mr. Salo, I hope you have your passport with you because they maybe want to check ID in case we are stopped’.
As a rule I never carry my passport. A passport should only be shown at a country’s port of entry or disembarkation, but I didn’t tell Zeyar this.
‘Eh, Zeyar, you show me University of Yangon first?’
The area the university was in was what I presume to be the Yangon’s poshest district; wide shady streets and peach white bungalows along the ground's perimeter. The setting was quaint. It was scenes such as these that brought back nostalgic memories of my hometown of Seremban in Malaysia. Myanmar is still locked in the Sixties when the century was already drawing to a close. This is what I tell people when asked what Myanmar is like: A time that land forgot –if you remember what Klang and Seremban looked like in the Sixties –that is what Yangon is today. That’s what one party military rule does to you.
But the university was totally deserted. So it’s true then. Shrubs and opportunistic plants have rendered the once-pristine lawns turn into an eyesore. Creeper vines have taken over one side of a red building, presumably the bursar’s office.
‘So these students, Zeyar, what do they do now? They need jobs, right? For that you need some sort of paper.’
‘Actually Mr. Salo, the government gives them degrees so they can get employed.'
‘But how . . . there are no classes?’ The taxi had now stopped and as I looked closer, most of the windows in the buildings were broken.
Zeyar turns the engine off.
‘Believe it or not, once a year the universities are opened for exams. Since nobody go to class, so nobody learn anything so they let everybody pass so they can get jobs’.
‘My God,’ as I took another Dunhill from my duty-free pack, ‘so you mean to tell me the universities are opened just once every year, students take exams and they let everybody pass?’
A whole generation lost was the phrase that went to my mind.
Like all Myanmarese, Zeyar never ventures an opinion. He merely states facts, often in cynical harsh monotones. It must be honed-in to their heads to never speak their minds out. Lest they are spies out there so they might get arrested if they talk anything bad about their government.
Top down in my 4.0
In the taxi I told Zeyar to just go up the road. I had already cased the phone book at the Ramada and noted the Nobel Laureate’s address. And I knew it was just down the road from the university, at an intersection off the main road. Zeyar seemed to have read my mind.
‘Mr. Salo, you know we cannot enter the street where Daw Aung lives.’
‘Why not,’ I said. ‘I mean I just like to see the architecture of these old British-built houses. Almost similar to the bungalows we have in Malaysia . . . okay, just show me the street then.’
But as soon as we approached the junction that led into her street I asked Zeyar to stop. I got out of the taxi.
‘What are you doing Mr. Salo? –The police will catch you -‘
‘Just wait here ok?’
I quickly walked up the shady avenue. It had a very generous sidewalk. The bungalows here must have once housed Burma’s British colonial administrators. Some had swimming pools but all were now dry and have become refuse pits: broken branches, leaves, an upturned bicycle. I turned around to see Zeyar lean against the taxi, looking restless. Then I saw her house. Her gardens were huge and I stopped to admire the Flame of The Forest at the perimeter of her chain-link fence. When my dad was a Planter back in the Sixties, I too had once lived in fine bungalows with breezy corridors and wide banisters and a dog named Johnny. And I just particularly liked the tree‘s name . . . it just has a sexy ring to it. Flame of the Forest.
Her front gates, from what I gathered in the distance seemed to be made of solid iron and painted light green. It was still a further fifty yards ahead. I heard the clanging of the gate being opened. But there were no cars coming in or out.
“Arghh…” I flicked my cigarette. One of the military guards had noticed me. I can pretend to do . . . what? This was not a tourist area. I was the only one loitering in the street. Although he was now on the sidewalk in front of the gate and fifty yards was what separates us, the bullets in his rifle can definitely cause serious bodily harm, and I wasn’t about to argue with .22 caliber bullets. In short, I’m not going to hang around to find out. The guard had already thrown a menacing pointing finger at me.
As casually as I could muster, I turned around and came back in the direction I had come, my steps exaggeratedly unhurried. But now the taxi was nowhere to be seen. Shit!
I ran down towards the intersection and looked around the corner. Sure enough the taxi was parked under a tree by a large monsoon drain.
‘Zeyar, why didn’t you wait’, while I huffed and puffed to catch my breath, ‘like I asked you to?’
‘I told you no one is allowed to pass her street’, Zeyar said, a note of triumph in his voice, 'Lucky the police didn't chase you'.
Just then a curious thing happened. From her street emerged a sports car – we actually heard it before we saw it - a two-door coupe with its top down, dark blue and a very young male driver looking smug. Asshole. Not just any sports car but a left-hand-drive ‘99 Mustang four-point-oh. In the US, the latest models are always called “the following year’s" - the latest model produced in ’98 is thus called the ’99. The same it was with my US magazine subscription. (I receive my September Stereophile issues usually in July or August but never in September itself). .
We both turned our heads to admire the car – the rims must be at least twenty inches with a large block V-8 at the heart of pure American muscle.
‘Wow, how come this car is in Burma, Zeyar? That’s the latest Ford Mustang, just released in the States’, I said, exhaling a billowing smoke from my envious lips.
‘What‘s so strange Mr. Salo? That boy you see driving the car is one of the top General’s son. They control all business in Burma. Only children and family members of the junta are allowed to do business. I’m sure your company’s local agent has powerful military connections. . .’
I only know too well of the military connection. Fax machines are a “controlled item” in Myanmar. Just the other day my boss complained that he spent three thousand dollars just to get a fax machine set up in the office. Five hundred for the fax machine, five hundred to set up the line, one thousand for a permit from the Telecom ministry. And then there’s a three month wait. If you don't want to wait another thousand would get the service connected immediately.
Palace's Palatial Pleasures
That night my boss decided to show me Myanmar’s top “meat market”, the Palace. A female Australian engineer who was going to be part of my rig crew insisted on tagging along. She was perhaps barely twenty-five. The problem was she had been holed up in the hotel room for the past one week and mostly ignored by me and a Filipino engineer called Jorgen. It’s not that, but in a equal opportunity world we do not want to be construed as doing anything remotely sexist. So she said she was "bored out of her skull" and wanted to “go out with the boys”.
‘Sharon, I said, ‘our boss is going to bring us to a rather notorious joint. Err . . . It’s a fancy nightclub but really it’s a high-class state-sanctioned whorehouse . . . for top government people and expats. You sure you want to follow?’ And for added emphasis, 'really, for sure, really?'
‘Ummm, yes’, her, face lit at the prospect but me thinking her blond tresses would certainly look out of place at the club tonight. ‘I won’t get in the way I promise, I just want to come along to drink. I can’t be drinking beer from the mini-bar every night . . . it’s expensive for one, and where’s the fun in that? C'mon have mercy, Salo. '
‘We’ll . . . I won’t argue with that, Sharon. But promise me no regrets, eh?’
‘Don’t worry; pretend that I’m not even there.’
We first had a round of post-dinner drinks at the hotel lounge. When the girl went to the restroom I told my boss of her decision to tag along. My boss was of the “old school”, never giving a damn about 21st century workplace ethics or appropriate behavior with female underlings in the office. He was liable to pat a secretary’s rump if necessary or comment freely on the tea lady’s bosoms. My boss’ response was, “If she wants to follow let her come”.
In any oilfield town, or any town for that matter, chief amongst our duties (as oilmen, that is) was to visit the most happening place, usually a bar with the most exquisite women in it and disseminate the information gathered therein far and wide. This will also provide fodder for endless tales of bravado in trashy oilfield bars across Asia in years to come.
Jorgen and I looked forward to the evening in anticipation. I can see my Filipino colleague distractedly licking his lips while we were in the car. Sharon sat between us. Our boss sat up front with the driver. Sharon sensibly wore jeans and rather plain white blouse, the sleeves rolled up to expose her elbows. If her hair was shorter, she could pass as a guy almost because her chest was a bit flat.
The place was dark like most discos and night clubs are. It was actually much classier than I thought, with a Captain wearing a suit leading us to our table. The low wide velvety sofa engulfed us. There were a few couples on the dance floor under a solitary globe, bodies not moving in tune together giving it a surreal jerky atmosphere. The Captain asked what we wanted and drinks were ordered. It was time to develop a nice buzz in anticipation of sexually charged evening ahead. Want to see the girls now, Sir? The Captain asked. My boss casually flicked his hand and said, ‘later’. I can see the disappointment in Jorgen’s eyes as I believed he wanted to see them now. Yes, where were they? Perhaps cloistered in a room in the back somewhere?
The Twenty Dollar Siti Nurhaliza
The reason for the unnatural heightened sense of expectation was a story making the rounds called “Twenty Dollar Siti Nurhaliza”. The story was told by a Malaysian construction company executive whom we breakfasted with one morning. We both saw, from a distance one early morning, a young girl exiting the guy’s hotel room into a waiting taxi. She did look breathtakingly pretty but was painfully thin. The exec had boasted, in his excitement spluttering spittle and beans over our table, ‘Only in Myanmar can we get to sleep with Siti Nurhaliza look-a-likes for twenty dollars.’
So that night at the Palace, Jorgen’s thoughts were full of Filipina mini-serials starlets, mine consumed by . . . err I don’t remember –all which can be had for twenty dollars or less.
Actually that’s not true. The Palace being the classiest of the bordellos charges forty dollars at a minimum. Some go as high as three hundred dollars for the night. The girls are carefully selected and guaranteed clean by the military junta. The Palace is a controlled military facility designed for expatriates to channel their sexual needs in a responsible manner. At the very least we can credit the Generals' understanding of business wants and needs. ASEAN-style.
We ignored Sharon completely and drank while making small talk with the boss. The boss suddenly said, ‘Ok let’s get the Captain to bring them out’. Jorgen let out a palpable sigh of relief.
The girls would pass Jorgen first who was sitting to my boss’ left while I sat to his right. The Captain said there was more than twenty girls with a few “fresh ones from Mandalay”. A door at the end opened and soon a train of Burma's finest poured forth, walking awkwardly in heels, chests up, faces forced into a smile framed by too-generous lipsticks. Our pulse quickened. But it was so dark that we can’t quite clearly see their faces.
In order to see our prospects, each time the girl passes, the Captain would pull a mini flashlight to first train the light on her face, then her bosoms before finally settling on the hips. It very much reminded me of a meat market, which it was. If we like her all we have to do is take her hand and beckon her to sit with us. So twenty girls were flashed before us because our boss had instructed to “check out all first” before having them pass slowly the second time around.
Sharon seemed to take all this in quite in stride as she sat in the corner nursing her Gin and Tonic. I wondered if it was fun for her watching guys in their true element.
But something that happened next took me aback.
A girl stood towering over me and holding up the queue. My boss had a certain idea that I might like this one – and indeed her cleavage was phenomenal with all the right curves. But what my boss didn’t know was breasts never factored much in my equation. I was a modern male and equated flatter chests with higher IQ’s. I’m not anti-bimbo per se but honestly I prefer legs, and how a girl looks at me is important. Even if a girl can be had by paying, I subscribe to the theory that there must also be some sort of chemistry involved.
Anyway the girl’s crotch area was level with my boss’ face. She wore a dark colored blouse with some sequins and a short faux-leather skirts with legs stopping down to white stilettos. The next thing I knew my boss had put his hands under her skirt - using both hands grabbing her buttocks.
‘Mat Salo’, my boss with a leer in his eyes, said, ‘check it out --she’s not wearing panties’. This of course wasn’t true because he pushed her to me and picked my reluctant hand to join him feeling her buttocks. My fingers immediately got tangled in something. It was just his version of a rowdy macho-guy joke. I can't help but think what Sharon might make of this wanton display . . .
I quietly whispered to him, ‘Boss, if Sharon puts in a complaint of sexual discrimination -- Sheeat . . . we die, man’ (that’s why these days we can’t display images of naked women on company PC’s screen savers for fear of a sexual discrimination lawsuit).
My boss, his speech beginning to slur, ‘Goddamm Salo, this if Burrrmah. If she wants to, well, let her. Who cares?'
In the meantime I was obliged to entertain the girl that we both had pawed. The music changed into something soulful, and I felt the need to dance. I took her hand and we both headed to the dance floor.
I never noticed it earlier, but out of the shadows came two military guards. The girl said to me in very good English, ‘Don’t worry Mister Salo, this is normal. Army take care of your safety here’. But it was quite unnerving nonetheless to see two young commandos on the dance floor in full military dress looking over at us. They just stood there at the edge of the dance floor, immobile. Apparently they only step out of the shadows when foreigners get on the dance floor.
At the end of the Earth Wind and Fire’s ‘Boogie Wonderland’, I decided to get out of the spooky stare of my two minders and sit at a different table to chat with the girl. As she linked her arms in mine, she bent her long graceful neck to my shoulder and whispered, 'one hundred'. I put one finger up in a non-committal gesture of “maybe later”. What I really wanted was to pick her brains. She was a first year Economics student at the University of Rangoon she said, when the massacre happened. That was a decade ago and she must now be about twenty-eight. A bit too old for my taste, I thought. Plus she had hardly looked like Siti Nurhaliza. I looked across and was a bit disappointed that Jorgen had already secured his Filipina wet dream; a teenage version of Kris Aquino from what I could see.
My boss also had a girl draped across his lap. Only Sharon seemed to have shrunken into the folds of the sofa, alone and looking bored.
I looked at the girl, and tried in my best apologetic voice, ‘Sorry Miss, I hope you don’t mind.' She immediately sensed that I wasn’t interested in bedding her and she laid out an opened cupped hand. A tip was expected, of course.
I put in some kyat (pronounced chart) notes the equivalent of five dollars to thank her for her time.
I lay back in the sofa, slumped and wondered whether I should just call it a night soon. The answer came soon enough. I caught Sharon’s eyes across the room and nodded.
To show solidarity with the peoples of Myanmar please sign the on-line petition:
Hello, I thought you should know about this:
Burma is ruled by one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world. For decades the Burmese regime has fought off pressure--imprisoning elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and democracy activists, wiping out thousands of villages, imposing forced labour, creating refugees- But last Tuesday Buddhist monks and nuns, revered in Burma, began marching and chanting prayers. The protests spread as hundreds of thousands of ordinary people and public figures joined in, finding the hope they'd lost. Now they're facing crackdown – so please, show your solidarity to this movement towards reconciliation and democracy and sign the emergency petition supporting the Burmese people -- it'll be delivered to United Nations Security Council members and international media all week:
In the past, Burma's military rulers have massacred the demonstrators and crushed democracy. The world must stand with the Burmese people at this time, to show the military rulers that the world will not tolerate repression and violence.
Right now, global leaders are gathering in New York for the annual United Nations summit. In speeches, press interviews but also in real actions, we need them to show Burma's military junta that the global community is willing to act in solidarity with the protesters.
Show your solidarity to this movement for peace and democracy and sign the emergency petition supporting the Burmese people. It'll be delivered to UN Security Council members and the UN press corps all week:
Thank you for your help!
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
A time in Rangoon