Myanmar: Buddhist beauty and government oppression |

Myanmar: Buddhist beauty and government oppression

Story and photos by Paul and Marjorie Hilts

MANDALAY, Myanmar As the sun began to set behind the hills on the far side of Mandalay, the valley below turned a dusty red. The small trash fires burning constantly along the roadsides contributed to the eerie scene. We had made the 700-foot climb to a shrine on Mandalay Hill that purportedly held three sacred bones from the Buddha. (Considering how many other sites in Southeast Asia claim to hold similar relics, the Buddha must have been a huge figure before his bones were picked clean.) As we gazed at the scene below we were approached by three Burmese natives, a woman and two male companions. They started a conversation with the usual Where are you from? and What is your name? questions. They wanted to practice their English and we were happy to oblige. The woman, Thanda, came from a small village to the north and taught children at a local school. She helped them learn English and computer skills, two keys to escape a life of grinding poverty that most Burmese people face (at least those not connected to the military junta). As it turned out, we would stay in touch with Thanda via e-mail, both during the rest of our 2007 trip to Southeast Asia and after we returned to the U.S.Not long after, we were joined by two monks with maroon robes and shaved heads. After exchanging pleasantries they glanced around to see who was watching and, feeling like the coast was clear, they began to berate their government and its secretive, brutal military leaders. As the sun disappeared and we began our descent, the monks pointed out the prison where several of their brothers were being held and tortured. They expressed appreciation for the pressure being applied to the junta by American and European governments. They also told us they were happy we had come to their country, so we could see first-hand what was going on. They related a story about one of their friends, who had spoken to a foreign journalist; the journalist took a few photographs and later quoted the friend in an article. Soon after, the monk was arrested and had been in prison for the past three years.By the time we reached the bottom of the hill, the black, tropical night had descended on the city. The trees were alive with animals, birds and insects, whistling and howling. The air was thick with fires cooking what food was available for dinner. The monks disappeared into the inky, hazy void. We said good-bye to the school teachers and made our way back to our hotel.Mandalay, Myanmars second largest city, sits on the Irrawaddy River, 450 miles north of Yangon, also known as Rangoon, the countrys largest city and former capital. It was controlled by the British in the late 1800s until the Japanese overran it in 1942. It is home to one of Myanmars holiest pilgrimage shrines, the Mahamuni Pagoda. Built in 1784, it houses a 12-foot-high bronze Buddha covered in four inches of gold leaf. Every day at 4 a.m., the monasterys monks wash its face and brush its teeth to prepare for the long day of greeting visitors ahead. The site also is a popular place for the traditional ear-piercing ceremony, which symbolizes a young girls passage into womanhood and, for young boys, ordination as novice monks for short periods.As I watched one such ceremony, hired photographers and videographers filmed the spectacle for wealthy families. Outside, a procession of elephants brought in the new arrivals and hauled away those on their way to the monastery, where their heads would be shaved and they would trade in their sequined costumes for monks robes.

(e-mail from Thanda)How are you? Im still trying to improve my English. Now Im teaching children who cant attend school and are very poor. As you know there are a lot of children who dont know real education. They dont even know what a computer is so I want them to know. Our government does not do much for them. They can only do one thing and that is take care of their own family. Now they change our national flag and song. Its not good for us but for them. They still dont give a chance to open our class again. How bad they are.Now I look for one place to teach the children but fare is very expensive for me. Now Ive to save money to buy one computer. I promise you I never give up and Ill try my best as much as I can. May you and Marjorie be healthy and happy. Thanda

We traveled on to Bagan, the plain of 10,000 temples and one of the two great sacred sites in southeast Asia, the other being the temples at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. More than 13,000 temples were built by Buddhist kings, to make merit and seek good karma, between 850 and 1287 AD. The city was overrun by Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century, and fewer than 2,000 temples remain today. But the 16 square miles of ruins still make for an astonishing site.The military junta, which never misses an opportunity to profit from tourism, has built a golf course nearby and a huge concrete viewing tower that rises awkwardly amid the ancient ruins. Tourists and Burmese guides alike avoid the tower and its $10 entry fee, not wanting to support anything the government does.Of course, with so many temples there were nearly as many souvenir-hawkers and young kids trying to extort payment for various services. These kids were charming and bright, however. We asked one young boy how he had learned so much English. In school. They teach us English in school, he replied. And what other languages do you speak? I asked. I speak a little French and a little German. Do they teach that in the schools, too? No. We follow the tour groups around and learn some from the guides and the tourists from these countries, he said. Remarkable, I thought.And do you learn any Chinese in school? thinking that China was an emerging force in both Asia and the world economy, and that the Chinese were tolerant of the Burmese ruling junta.No, they do not teach us Chinese in school and we dont really care about it anyway. I was taken aback.We hired a pony cart to haul us around the dirt tracks between the various temples. Soe-Soe, the 21-year-old who ran the operation, spoke quite a bit of English. He said he did not own the cart and pony, but was trying to save money to buy one someday. It is $250 for the cart, $250 for the horse and $200 for the license. It is very difficult but I think I can save the money in two more years. I have been very lucky lately. He told us his lucky number was 7 and his cart number was 77 and we had been his seventh customers in the past seven days.This kind of thinking is not unusual in a country that moved its capital from Yangon to the backwater town of Naypyidaw recently because of an astrologers assessment. The astrologer even provided the most auspicious date and exact time when the move would begin 4:34 a.m.Soe-Soe seemed to be a horse whisperer, constantly making little noises that the animal seemed to respond to. The various noises were quiet, almost imperceptible at times.Finally one day I asked him if he was talking to his horse. He looked at me with a funny little grin and said, Yes. Does he understand you? I asked. Yes, of course. What did you just say to him? I told him he was very lazy and he needed to go faster. All that in a few short humming sounds and, amazingly, the horse went faster.Late one afternoon we went to a temple recommended by a guidebook as one of the few sites left where you could climb up for a better view of the surrounding plain and temples at sunset or sunrise. To our surprise the place was fenced off and closed, but two hawkers had set up shop to catch uninformed tourists like us.After checking for spies, one of the hawkers blurted that the temple closure had been perpetrated by the government. It is a joke, a very bad joke, by the government. The government built that big tower over there (pointing to the concrete viewing structure) and they charge foreigners $10 to go up there to watch the sunset. That is why they have closed this temple, he explained. He was not allowed to sell souvenirs near the tower.The peoples contempt for their government manifested itself in many ways. In fact, the countrys name-change from Burma to Myanmar was actually a gesture by the ruling junta to reflect the nations various ethnic groups; Burma was derived from the name of just one group, the Burman people. But the change to the more inclusive name seems to have backfired, since most Burmese use the old name as a small act of defiance.Anti-government sentiment also was present in Thandas e-mails, which continued after Cyclone Nargis hit the country in May 2008 and killed hundreds of thousands.

Hello! my brother I couldnt open my email since last three weeks because of the cyclone. Did you hear about our country? All the news about the cyclone are right. It is not good for our peoples. The cyclone did not touch Mandalay. I and all my family are good but my teachers village near Yangon was destroyed, so Im sorry for him.Some of the monks are trying to send aid. I dont have money to send aid but am trying to help them. How should I try? If I do something Ill be in ruin. I feel something in my heart. I feel sorry for my people.Now I met with four childrens who really want to learn English but they dont have enough money to attend class so I have to try to teach them and find good job. I also dont have enough moneys to support my family. You know, things do not always happen that we wish or we want.But I never give up. Please pray to your god for us to be healthy and happy.Thanda

A few days later we were at Inle Lake in Shan State, home to the Intha people. The isolated, 14 mile-long lake sits at 3,000 feet above sea level in a valley surrounded by terraced hills and mountains. This bucolic setting belies its reputation as a hotbed of dissident activities. According to several locals it is not uncommon for people to disappear for years at a time.Many of the Intha inhabitants live in floating villages or houses on stilts. They carry out all daily functions on, in and above the water. Their markets are on the water, they bathe in the water, they brush their teeth in the water, and all of their waste ends up in the water. The area is known for its silk weaving, silversmithing and floating gardens, making its people totally self-sufficient.One early morning we were treated to one of the most astounding sights I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Some 1,500 novice monks were beginning a week-long initiation, which is quite typical in Buddhist countries throughout Southeast Asia. But this ceremony took place on the water. The procession began at 7 a.m. and the first vessel in line was a 40-foot-long golden dragon barge with Buddhist prayer altars inside. Next came two long boats with young girls dressed in traditional lime-green costumes, dancing and rowing to amplified Shan music. Then came the initiates, accompanied by the full-time adult monks in a procession of several hundred flat-bottomed boats. The locals rowed out, to make merit by serving up donations of rice and noodles for the week ahead. Within a half-hour the procession spread out over nearly two miles as the boats circled around the lake and then headed back to the monastery. The parade lasted about an hour, and then it was gone.

We arrived in Yangon a few days later to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunrise. The main stupa, or temple, stands nearly 321 feet high, is estimated to be covered in 53 metric tons of gold and is topped by a 76-karat diamond.Legend has it that construction began nearly 2,500 years ago to house four hairs of Gautama Buddha, but work on the building tourists see today began in the 14th century and has continued ever since. Not only is the Shwedagon the most important pilgrimage site in Burma, but it has been a rallying point for political demonstrations throughout its history. Independence protesters against the British in the 1800s, student protesters in the 1920s, oil field workers in the 1930s and pro-democracy demonstrators in the 1980s all used the Shwedagon temple complex to make their points. In August 1988, Nobel honoree Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a rally of more than 500,000 people in her bid to become the first democratically elected leader of Burma. She succeeded, only to be jailed and denied her post by the military junta. She has been held under house arrest at her home in Yangon off and on for nearly 20 years now.Most recently, in September 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns marched at the Pagoda to protest the juntas decision to reduce or remove food and fuel subsidies. The monks protest highlighted the burden placed on an already impoverished people to spend more and more on daily necessities. During the ensuing crackdown, hundreds of monks and sympathetic demonstrators were killed or arrested, while many more were held under house detention in their monasteries.

Dear friends,Our group at the free education center are trying to help cyclone sufferers. The people in northern Myanmar are good. It appears that most of the damage occurred in the south of our country. We asked the people who live in northern part of country to offer some money and old clothes and foods to help cyclone sufferers. Im really happy to help them and I will go to the south of our country. Now Im teaching to students at their house. I dont have a place to teach with my own class. Its expensive to hire a place for me. As for my family, we are hand to mouth peoples and every day is exactly the same for us. I think I have to try for my family, because when I was young they treat me well and give me shelter and decent education so I have to support my parents again.Now Im really mad that I want to help cyclone sufferers but I cant help my family. I hope the suffering of our people will end soon. With best wishes, Thanda

It is estimated that as many as 130,000 people have died from Cyclone Nargis. Aid to victims has been slow to reach survivors and in some cases was diverted for other purposes by the junta. At the same time it is estimated that the government has already spent $4.5 billion dollars on its new capital at Naypyidaw.Anyone interested in reading more on the situation in Burma can go to

Freelance writer and photographer Paul Hilts and his wife, Marjorie, split their time between Basalt, Colo., and Chiang Mai, Thailand. You can reach them by e-mail at or visit their travel blog at

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