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Burma Visa Run

  • Written by Felix
  • August 7th, 2006
  • 10 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

I am a German. Jawohl. I am not an old Nazi. No ways. I am a human rights advocate. But I was a young Nazi once, because I was born one year after Hitler was voted into power. I grew up in the psychological climate of fear and prejudice in a totalitarian state. So you can say I have an inbred acquaintance with the working of a dictatorship. Where other tourists only see beautiful temples, I smell terror. And I had ample occasion. I was in China when it suffered most under Mao's wishful collectivism; I spent holidays in Tito's communist Yugoslavia. I even discovered the old South Korea to be much more of a police state than the public opinion acknowledged. So I was in no danger to be deceived about the nature of the political system if I ever visited Burma.

Although I had been in and out of East Asia for many years, I have never travelled to Burma or Myanmar, as it likes to be called now. Last year, when it was again time for a visa run, I decided to take my chance and fly to Rangoon. I took the three days / two nights trip from Bangkok, which I enjoyed much more than the usual minibus-excursion to the Cambodian border. In Poipet I always feel guilty, because we rush in and out of the Khmer country without enjoying even a glimpse of its beautiful countryside with the high rising sugar palms and crumbling temples. This is not the way a temporary visitor to a foreign country with a great cultural heritage should behave.

My trip to Rangoon began – as seems appropriate – with a moment of great anxiety. As soon as we were airborne, I took out my passport. Inside was the original copy of my entry application. I saw at the first look that my signature at the bottom was forged. It was not my handwriting. I had not signed any papers when I had asked the travel agency in Soi Post Office to help me with the tickets and the visa, and they had me not informed of the necessity. Probably they did not want to bother me. An act of courtesy which might have dire consequences. What are the chances for a foreigner entering a totalitarian State with forged papers? To be shot at early down? To be thrown into an overfilled prison, or to be transported to the famous Jade Mountain to dig for jewels? Then lunch was served on the plane. It consisted of half a roll and a leaf of salad. Nothing else. I had been on the road all the morning and it would still take a long time to go in Rangoon through the immigration procedures and move on to the hotel, where the kitchen might probably be closed for the afternoon. So nothing to eat for seven hours. Nothing but half a roll and a leaf of salad. It was the most sleazy in-flight meal I have ever been offered. Why did they serve it at all? To teach us, that we were entering the poorest or second poorest country in the world, where the people stayed hungry all day, even through eating their meals? Or was it possible that one junta general in charge of the catering had siphoned off the money as a present to his mia noi? That gave me hope, for a corrupt dictatorship is never as dangerous as an ideological "pure".

I looked at my feet while the lady at the immigration counter in Rangoon leafed through my papers. She copied the visa number, but she never glanced at my signature. I grew in my shoes. Her eyes smiled like they wanted to tell me: "Die another day." Her lips opened und she said: "Welcome to Myanmar. Have a nice stay."

Arriving in Rangoon I had the impression of deboarding not only an airplane but a time machine, arriving in the late Fifties or early Sixties of the last century. The atmosphere of the City reminded me of the last days of colonialism in Asia, not of an awe inspiring military dictatorship. On the way to my hotel which lay on a hill in the suburbs I passed a few times the open gates of barracks, but there were no disciplined guards to be seen, only one or two lazy lads without weapons, crouching in the shadow. Under Hitler or Kim of North Korea they would have been court marshalled for neglecting their duty.

My hotel was a beautiful old building from colonial times, constructed with lots of teakwood. I got a room with a big balcony where I could sit in the shadow of the evening sun and watch how all around the horizon innumerable gold plated pagodas became fierier and fierier like spaceships starting into nirvana. When all the prayers and all the hopes had left earth I looked for the coffee shop. On the menu I found many mouth watering dishes, but those I tried to order were not available this night. What could be served was a sandwich. As you may guess it was the smallest sandwich I had ever seen. There was only one item whose size they could not shrink: Beer bottles. People who live under a military dictatorship love to drink. The Myanmar Breweries produce an excellent beer. I wished I could take a few hundred bottles back to Pattaya.

The next morning I went to Chinatown. I wanted to buy a few Chinese books. But there were none. I do not know if for political reasons – no minority languages admitted in The Union of Myanmar – or if it was a sign of technical progress – all books substituted by DVDs. What I did find was garlic. A street on whose left side they sold nothing but garlic. I am a specialist in garlic because I have translated a novel on the plight of garlic farmers from the Chinese. There were hundreds of baskets filled with garlic, one by one, containing millions of garlic. The garlic looked fresh, it was already peeled, the time was ten o'clock in the morning, and they had so much garlic on sale that a dozen trucks of the army would be needed to take all this garlic to its destination. But this garlic had no destination. It just sat there and withered in the heat. Looking up and down the street I saw nobody coming closer to select a pound of garlic. Not one person. And there were hundreds if not more than a thousand kilograms of garlic. What would happen to it? Part of the produce probably could be offered again the coming day, if they peeled off a few additional layers of skin. But how long could this process be continued? If it rained in the night, strong new garlic would grow in the fields. In the book which I translated the garlic farmers get so desperate that they carry a bloody revolt to the authorities. But the women who sat here looked undernourished and weak. What I saw was not a market, it was a demonstration of misery. Tears shot in my eyes, but not because of the smell of garlic.

You are a Burmese and you cannot sell on your home markets. You are a Burmese and you also cannot sell to foreign markets. The United States and other countries have imposed a ban on all Burmese imports.

If I were Burmese, I would cry all day and all night in despair. There are not enough jobs available to earn a living. There is not enough money on the table to feed the whole family. Poverty is widespread, many people are undernourished. Life expectancy is reduced. Child mortality is high. The nation is in the grip of hunger. The cars on the road are twenty years old.

What struck me most was the kindness of the people in spite of all this. You are used to walk through smiles when you come from Thailand, but while a smiling Thai eye can see that you carry an ATM-Card over your heart, the average Burmese is not aware of the existence of such an item.

In Myanmar the Buddhist style of life is still deeper entrenched than in Thailand. The general mood is one of peacefulness, not of despair.

Going on to the waterfront I discovered the Strand Hotel, a relic from the times when Queen Victoria ruled the waves. It is one of the buildings with high ceilings where you could feel comfy without turning on the air-conditioning. The house has recently been refurbished in the colonial style of Singapore's Raffles Hotel. But where in Singapore the casual visitor who does not stay in the hotel is shoo-shooed away to the annex, The Strand is open for everyone to admire. I sat down and ordered a coffee and a pie. I do not remember the exact size of the cake, but the spoon it was served with was one of the smallest I had ever used. The visitor is told that the hotel has only 32 rooms, but they are all suites, the biggest occupying nearly 200 square meters. To stay there over night, just one night, you had to pay the equivalent of the yearly income of the average Burmese. Even if I had the money I would never dare to spend it for such a luxury. Shame would prevent me.

The next place I looked for was the "Traders", the biggest hotel in town. I have learned to appreciate the Traders Group for the efficient service of their business centres all over Asia. But who makes business with Myanmar?

The hotel was not full, but it was surrounded by human gadflies of the kind who ask the traveller: "Do you want a…?" This did not fit into my picture of a totalitarian state. In North Korea you could freeze into the earth, before someone approached you. So what a kind of police state is Burma?

Maybe we have to differentiate between two kinds of police states: The clean and the dirty. In the clean variety the police is not corrupt. They will be shot if they try to be. In the dirty police state the mafia and the police work hand in glove. That reminds me of – no, not what you think – it reminds me of Taiwan in the Nineteen sixties.

Taiwan was able to overcome all its terrible governance problems since then, but not because it was embargoed like Burma today, but because it was allowed to trade with the whole world, earning more and more buying power for its people. It stopped being a military dictatorship, it stopped being a police come triad state, it stopped being a one party state, a development I wish Myanmar could follow.

I have not become a Myanmar expert on this short visa run, all what I have won are questions over questions.

In the airport departure lounge I met a group of German tourists, who were in high spirits. They were full of the exiting sights they had seen. And they were already planning their next visit.

I asked them: "What makes you so happy to visit the land of SLORC and SPDC?"

"Ah," they told me: "It is because of the native tribes that we come to Myanmar, the indigenous people of this country. When we arrive we go directly to the tribes in the hill area and stay all the times with them. They are such a wonderful people. We try to help them to keep their traditions. They enjoy that we come to be with them. It is so important to give these suppressed people support."

Those tourists were all teachers, women and men, and they came to South East Asia in their holidays to do something for the poorest of the poorest. I felt proud of them, and I must say that I take all that advice, not to visit Burma because it is a military dictatorship for irresponsible blabbering, hurting the people not the villains.

Stickman's thoughts:

I have yet to venture to Burma, but friends all tell me it is well worth a visit. I really should push it up closer to the top of my to do list.