WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA (Irrawaddy Dreaming)
Before there was Rangoon, there was the Shwedagon pagoda. The legend goes something like this. Twenty-five centuries ago, two merchant brothers named Tapussa and Bhallika met the Buddha, by chance, just days after his Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, in northern India. They heard his teachings on how to respond to the generally unsatisfactory nature of human experience. They became amongst his first followers, presenting him with an offering of rice cakes and honey and asking for a token of their encounter. The Buddha gave them eight strands of hair from his head. The Burmese believe that Tapussa and Bhallika were from lower Burma and that on their return home they placed the hairs in a jewelled casket and enshrined the casket deep within what would become the Shwedagon pagoda.
The pagoda sits today in the middle of Rangoon, a sprawling city of five million people, on the only hill for miles around. It is an enormous golden structure nearly 400 feet high, shaped something like an upside-down funnel, with an octagonal base, a rounded dome, and then a long spire. The lower sections are covered in gold leaf, the upper sections in plates of solid gold. Altogether the Shwedagon is said to be enveloped in no less than sixty tons of gold. 'More than in all the vaults of the Bank of England', the Burmese used to say during the days of British rule. At the top the spire is encrusted with thousands of precious stones as well as diamonds totalling 2,000 carats. Archaeologists and historians are uncertain about the true age of the Shwedagon. It is known that the pagoda (in its current form) was built in the fifteenth century, but that it was built on top of far older structures, likely dating back at least to the early centuries AD. A treasure chamber doubtless exists within its innermost recesses.
The Shwedagon can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, reflecting the sun by day and floodlit at night. There is perhaps no other city in the world as dominated, physically and spiritually, by a religious site as Rangoon is by the Shwedagon. Rudyard Kipling, after a visit in 1889, described it as 'a golden mystery' and 'a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun'. Thirty-three years later, Somerset Maugham, who had stopped briefly in Rangoon, remembered that the Shwedagon 'rose superb, glistening with its gold like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul'.
It was dusk when I arrived at the Shwedagon. Statues of two giant griffins or chinthés, the winged half-man half-lion creatures of Burmese mythology, guarded the base of the immense staircase that led up to the main platform. The stairs were made of teak, dark and smooth, and as wide as a street, lined on each side with little stalls, each selling flowers or incense or religious icons. The sellers, like most stallholders in Burma, were women, some with their children playing nearby.
A high roof covered the stairs and so it was only at the very top that the Shwedagon suddenly came into view, surrounded by a complex of dozens of smaller pagodas, pavilions, rest-houses, and shrines of different shapes and sizes, all laid out in no particular manner, the result of centuries of gradual augmentation. Many of the pavilions housed statues of the Buddha, big ones and small ones, the pillars of these pavilions covered in gold leaf or in glass mosaics. It was like a little city from a fairy tale.
Buddhism is the religion of an estimated 85 per cent of all people in Burma (the rest are mainly Christians and Muslims) and all Burmese Buddhists are meant to try to visit the Shwedagon at least once in their lifetime. I can't guess the number of people who were there that evening, certainly in the hundreds, probably in the thousands. Nearly all were wearing a sarong-like longyi, patterned and tied differently for men and women, together with a shirt or blouse. Most were probably from Rangoon, people coming after work, but at least some were villagers from far away, their longyis in less fashionable patterns and a little more threadbare. There were Buddhist monks as well, in rust-coloured robes, and nuns in pale pink. Everyone was in their bare feet, as is traditional and required at all sacred sites. The air was scented with jasmine and marigold, and at some shrines people were lighting little rows of flickering candles. I went into one of the larger pavilions where there were already a few other people, including an old lady, her eyes tightly closed and her long grey hair tied up in a bun, kneeling on the floor, their hands clasped together in prayer, facing the large statue of the Buddha in front of them. I first knelt as well and then touched my head and hands to the ground.
For some, Buddhism is primarily a philosophy, a guide to being happy and knowing how best to deal with the vicissitudes of life. A visit to the Shwedagon is an opportunity to be reminded of the Buddha's teachings, perhaps meditate quietly, or simply try to calm your mind after a hectic and stressful day.
For most Burmese, however, the Shwedagon is also a magical place. The faithful believe that somewhere beneath the gilded stupa are not only the hair relics of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, but the relics of past Buddhas as well, from aeons ago: the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Konagamana, and a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and that all these relics impart the Shwedagon with supernatural power.
The Shwedagon is also the haunt of weizzas or wizards, Tantric adepts who have achieved special abilities (like everlasting youth or invisibility). There is a small pagoda, towards the southwest, decorated with the figures of wizards and necromancers from times past, where some believe invisible beings come to meditate. There is also a pavilion dedicated to Izza Gawna, a wizard and alchemist of medieval times, and a 'Shrine of the Sun and Moon', whose two Buddha statues are said to grant the wishes of all who come to pay their respects.
The pagoda has also played its role in Burmese history. To the north is the 'Victory Ground', an open area where people come to pray for success of any kind, religious or secular. Traditionally, kings and generals came here before leaving for war. More recently, it has been the place to begin political protests. One of the first was in 1920, when students camped here at the start of an anti-colonial campaign. There's a column nearby in their memory, with their names written not only in Burmese and English but also in Russian, a sign of the high hopes the anti-colonialists then had for the recent Bolshevik Revolution. And protesters have gathered here ever since. In September 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks led peaceful marches against the ruling military junta. The demonstrations lasted for several days and on each day the monks started here at the 'Victory Ground'. But at least in this case their wishes went unfulfilled as riot police eventually closed in, sealing off the Shwedagon complex, and violently ending the demonstrations.
There may be wizards and the occasional protestors, but there are still very few foreign tourists. I saw one that evening, looking relaxed, in khakis and T-shirt, sitting cross-legged with his camera on the marble floor, watching the Burmese go by. I may be biased, but I would rank the Shwedagon as easily an equal of any of the other great sites I have seen, including the pyramids in Mexico, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the Taj Mahal. Ralph Fitch was the first Englishman ever to come to Burma, in 1584 as the captain of 'the talle shippe Tyger' (the ship mentioned, some say, by Shakespeare in Macbeth), and he said of the Shwedagon: 'It is, as I suppose, the fairest place that doe bee in all the Worlde.' From the beginning of 1962 through the 1980s, it was difficult to travel to Burma and tourism was discouraged. That has changed and it is today easy to visit. But in the place of old government restrictions there are now boycott campaigns from overseas, campaigns that have called on would-be tourists to stay away from Burma, so as not to contribute to the coffers of the ruling generals. The boycotts have been terrible for the country's nascent tourism industry, but have had the benefit of keeping back the hordes that will almost certainly one day come.
It was dark by the time I climbed back down the stairs and walked to the busy roundabout in front, to hail a taxi and drive to the 365 Café.
Edward was a Burmese businessman in his late fifties, a strongly built man with thinning salt and pepper hair, who had worked for several years in Singapore, as an engineer, before returning to Rangoon, his home town. He had a Burmese name as well, but like many of his class and generation had received an English name at school. The Burmese name he used for any official purpose and was the way he introduced himself to any new acquaintances. But to old friends (he was an old friend of my family's), he had remained 'Edward'.
He was waiting for me when I arrived, dressed in a dark Hawaiian shirt and a Burmese longyi. He had a broad, almost Polynesian, face, and looked tanned and healthy. We spoke in a mix of Burmese and English. 'Business is bad,' he said. 'Sometimes I think I made a big mistake coming back. I should have stayed in Singapore or gone to America when I had the opportunity. My brother's there, you know, in San Diego. He offered to find me a job, ages ago. My mistake.'
Edward had suggested the 365 Café. It was downtown, on the ground floor of the Thamada or 'President' hotel. It was decorated in a bright international style, with comfortable faux-leather chairs, and had a menu that offered a mix of sandwiches and Asian dishes. Big glass windows covered an entire wall, and through them you could see a small car park, with a couple of old Japanese cars and a big truck filled with crates of orangeade bottles. Beyond the parking lot was the street, and then a tall hedge, and finally a red-brick church, looking exactly like a church in a small English town.
'We have nothing like a proper business environment,' he complained. 'The banking system's practically non-existent, there's corruption, and on top of that we've got sanctions!' He meant the sanctions Western governments had imposed to try to pressurize the ruling junta towards democratic reforms. They were amongst the toughest sanctions anywhere in the world, and included a prohibition of all Burmese exports to the US, a blocking of all loans to Burma by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and financial sanctions that essentially made it impossible for any Burmese company to do business in the West. He had tried his hand at different things, from setting up a furniture-making company to running a small hotel. 'The top guys can still make money, but for the rest of us, it's next to impossible. Why impose sanctions when the government already makes it so hard to make a decent living?'
Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer once remarked that political progress in Burma was about as fast as glue flowing up a hill. And the news from Burma had rarely been good. In 1988, a massive pro-democracy uprising had been crushed. Two years later, the junta that was in power had held elections, but then ignored the results when the opposition scored a landslide victory. Burma rarely made the front pages, but when it did, it was usually about the continued house-arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's human-rights icon. There had been a fresh round of protests in 2007, and by the end of that year Amnesty Inter national was estimating that no fewer than 2,000 political prisoners were languishing in the country's jails. And then, in 2008, the deadly Cyclone Nargis had left over 100,000 people dead. I was meeting Edward in late 2008, a few months after Nargis. It was hard not to be despondent. The little foreign tourism there had been was disappearing and the global recession was just beginning.
But what of relations with India and China, I asked? Their economies had been growing at light speed and were still growing, even during the recession. There were the plans to connect their economies with Burma. Edward hadn't thought about it very much. He was a man of the West. His father and grandfather had been educated in England and all his travels abroad, other than to Singapore and Bangkok, had been in the West. He had never set foot in India or China. He watched American movies, read English-language books, and hoped his kids would go to university in the US. He agreed that the world's economy was shifting eastward, but couldn't predict what its effect on Burma would be. This was the response I heard from many in Rangoon. Few seemed to be looking at the map. But there were others, elsewhere, who were not only looking at the map, but getting ready to change it.
More than a hundred years ago, it was the British who looked at the map, and had their own dreams of Asia's future. The British had seized Rangoon from the Burmese in 1852. And soon, in the clubs and boardrooms of London and Calcutta, there were dreams of the Irrawaddy River as a back door to the markets of China. Rangoon was then little more than a small town next to the Shwedagon, but it held a potentially strategic place. It sits along a branch of the Irrawaddy River, that starts far to the north, in the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, before descending a thousand miles and emptying into the Bay of Bengal, close to Rangoon.
The British were then the paramount power in India. From beachheads at Madras (also now known as Chennai), Bengal and Bombay, their East India Company had overwhelmed all rivals and established a complete hegemony over the subcontinent. The company already enjoyed lucrative trade with China, mainly involving the sale of British Indian opium in exchange for Chinese silver. But the British saw the obvious: Burma was what lay between their Indian Empire and the immense and still barely explored interior of China. They could sail around Singapore, but a passage through Burma might save time and lead to still more profits. In the decades that followed, soldiers, scientists and surveyors were sent out to map out the unknown borderlands, looking for new routes and attempting alliances with the remote princes and tribal chiefs they encountered.
The lure of China was strong, even then. In the 1890s, the adventurer and writer Archibald Ross Colquhoun had penned books such as Across Chryse: Being A Journey of Exploration Through the South China Borderlands From Canton to Mandalay, as well as his China in Transformation, which became a bestseller in London. He said that China was 'destined, before long, to be counted among the great world-powers' and pressed hard for the British to find a way from Burma into the heart of that enormous country. Another writer and former intelligence officer, H. R. Davies, made similar arguments: 'In an age when railways are penetrating to the most out-of-the-way places on the earth, it is impossible to suppose that India and China-the two most populous countries in the world-would remain without being connected by railway.' The Victorians thought big and there was even talk of an 'elevated railway' which would zoom across the jungle canopy and directly link Calcutta to the cities along China's Yangtze valley.
The French had similar dreams. A generation earlier, the explorers Ernest Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier had travelled from Saigon up the Mekong in the hopes of finding a viable route to the Chinese interior, but they returned disappointed, Doudart de Lagrée dying from exhaustion and the formidable diseases contracted along the way. On a map the Mekong looked promising, but the French discovered that deep gorges and treacherous rapids would block any significant upriver traffic from their coastal bases in Indochina.
The British too eventually grasped the enormity of the physical challenge. A direct overland route from Calcutta was deemed impossible. From Bengal the Brahmaputra River ran for hundreds of miles northeast, but hundreds more miles of thickly forested and malarial mountains separated the upper Brahmaputra from the headwaters of the Irrawaddy and then China. The costs would be astronomical.
But what about going by the Irrawaddy itself? This seemed more promising. Ships could sail from Calcutta and Madras to newly conquered Rangoon and then off-load their cargo somewhere up the river. Railways could then connect these upriver ports with China. In 1885, British forces had utterly defeated the army of the last king of Burma, Thibaw, and soon a railway line was being extended north and east from Mandalay, through the Shan Hills to within a stone's throw of the Chinese frontier.
The French explorer Prince Henri d'Orléans saw the potential and tried to warn his countrymen of the prize that he believed was coming within British reach. He was a grandson of King Louis-Philippe of France and a virulent anglophobe, famous in Europe for his sword duel against the Italian Prince Vittorio Emanuel (after Prince Henri had called the Italian soldiers in Abyssinia 'cowards'). In the 1890s Prince Henri had travelled from Siberia to Siam and then to Africa before returning to Asia and trekking along the China-Burma-India borderlands. He felt certain that this region, situated as it was between the world's two most populous regions, would one day be of huge significance, and only hated the fact that Britain and not France held the strategic land bridge-Burma-that lay in between.
The British, though, would find turning concept into reality far harder than anticipated. The problem was partly geographical and partly political. Yes, the last British outposts were now close to the Chinese frontier, but 'China proper' was still a long way away. Across the border were not the big cities of the Chinese interior but the wild and rugged province of Yunnan. Mountains, torrential rivers and deep ravines running a distance equal to that from Paris to Rome would still need to be traversed.
There were monumental political challenges as well. In China, a series of blood-soaked uprisings had left literally tens of millions dead, and the Manchu or Qing dynasty that had governed China for centuries was hobbling on its last legs. In the 1850s and 1860s, the Taiping Rebellion, led by a charismatic quasi-Christian leader named Hong Xiuquan (who believed in God, Christ, and himself as Christ's 'Little Brother'), had shaken Manchu rule to its very foundations. Meanwhile, in the southwest, Muslim rebels had grabbed control of Yunnan, the province next to Burma, and held the borderlands for years. Beijing's authority over its distant provinces was weakening fast; warlords were replacing mandarins.
Burma was not going to be a back door to China, not yet.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, prospects of a road to China had been forgotten, and Rangoon, as the capital of British Burma, developed instead as a port for local exports-rice mainly, but also timber and petroleum oil. And in this way Rangoon grew rich. The Shwedagon remained at the centre of the new, sprawling city, with its tree-lined avenues, lakes and gardens, and the many and handsome homes of its official and business elite. Along the river to the south was a modern downtown, carefully laid out on a grid pattern, with its government and commercial offices, colonnaded shops and hotels, and rows of apartment blocks. A largely English administrative class presided over the colonial apparatus; Scots dominated trade. The big companies of the day-Steel Brothers (rice), the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (timber), Burmah Oil, and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, were all in Glaswegian hands. And millions of Indians, from every part of the subcontinent, streamed into Rangoon in search of new lives and new opportunities.
The British had initially hoped that Burma might be a back door to China. But for the Burmese, British rule led instead to a much closer connection with India than ever before. Rather than making Burma a separate colony (like Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), the one-time kingdom was annexed to British India, and governed as just another province, no different than, say, Bengal or the Punjab.
In the early twentieth century, Burma enjoyed a higher standard of living than India and was far less densely populated. And as the economy grew, there was a need for cheap labour as well as entrepreneurial and professional skills. All this came from India, with movement into Burma unchecked and for a long time positively encouraged. By the late 1920s Rangoon even exceeded New York as the greatest immigrant port in the world and this influx turned Rangoon into an Indian city, with the Burmese reduced to a minority. There was a mingling of peoples from every part of the subcontinent, from Bengali schoolteachers and Gujarati bankers, to Sikh policemen and Tamil merchants. There were Chinese too, and smaller communities of Europeans, Americans and even Latin Americans (the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda lived in Rangoon briefly in the 1920s). The Cambridge political economist and long-time Burma civil servant J. S. Furnivall invented the term 'plural society' to describe Rangoon's mix of nationalities. Steam ships fastened Rangoon to Calcutta and then, with the start of air travel, Rangoon became a hub for all of Asia. Flights to Sydney from London on British Imperial Airways, or to Jakarta from Amsterdam on KLM, were all routed via Rangoon. World-class schools and a top-notch university helped create a cosmopolitan and politically active middle class.
But then this world came crashing down. First came the Japanese invasion and four years of bitter fighting, including the aerial bombing of Rangoon. Hundreds of thousands of Indians fled. Then in 1948 came independence from Britain, followed immediately by civil war, Rangoon itself at one point being besieged by rebel armies. And finally came the military take-over of 1962, which overthrew the last elected Burmese government and promptly shut off the country from the outside world. Many in the remaining Indian community, in particular the professional and business class, were expelled. This period of self-imposed isolation would last for a quarter of a century, and in the process Rangoon was remade in spirit from global entrepôt to backwater village, its stately if decrepit architecture the only sign of more affluent days.
Rangoon was my introduction to Asia. I first visited in 1974, on the occasion of my grandfather's funeral. I was then eight years old and was living with my family in New York. The country was in the full grip of General Ne Win's 'Burmese Way to Socialism', isolated, impoverished, with his army fighting little insurgencies in the hills. I would go back most years after that, sometimes for just a week or two, sometimes for the entire summer, spending time with my many relatives, in Rangoon and elsewhere in the country.
Rangoon in those days-in the late 1970s and early 1980s-seemed entirely cut off from the late twentieth century. There were few telephones or cars on the streets, almost no television (broadcasts were limited to a couple of hours a day), no supermarkets or modern shops of any kind. It was easy then to imagine the days of the British Raj. There was the big red-brick High Court along Fytche Square and the Holy Trinity (Anglican) Cathedral nearby, the massive Secretariat complex further to the east, and the whitewashed neo-Palladian Customs House. There was the derelict building that had housed Rowe and Co., once a fashionable department store favoured by English and Scottish housewives. And the Empire Theatre, where John Gielgud had performed Hamlet. The Minto Mansions, a sprawling hotel that had boasted 'the only French chef in the Indies', was destroyed during the Second World War, but its competitor, the Strand, was still there, charging $20 a night to the trickle of visitors who still came. And near the intersection of Phayre Street and Merchant Street were the magnificent Edwardian buildings that had been home to Lloyds and the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, Thomas Cook and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, all remaining, together with other smaller offices in a mix of art-deco and local styles, in what was perhaps one of the best-preserved colonial cityscapes anywhere in the world.
Rangoon was like a big empty movie set, the Burmese themselves like supporting actors still hanging around after the main stars had left. It was a city waiting for a new role.
In 1988 nationwide protests came close to overthrowing the military regime, protests that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets before they were brutally crushed. And in its aftermath a new junta was formed, maintaining an iron grip on power, but jettisoning the autarkic policies of its predecessors and beginning, tentatively at least, to open up the economy and the country to the outside world. General Ne Win, in charge since 1962, quietly faded into the background. A new leader, General Than Shwe, began consolidating his hold. Burmese socialism was dead. But what would come next?
New political forces had emerged in the aftermath of the failed 1988 uprising, and by 1990 these forces-united primarily by their hostility to military rule-had coalesced around the 'National League for Democracy', or NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. At the height of the 1988 protests, the regime had promised 'multi-party elections' and in 1990 made good on their word. Why they did this remains somewhat of a mystery, given the enormous groundswell of opposition and talk of retribution. Perhaps they under-estimated the degree of public anger; perhaps they felt they had little choice but to proceed. The ruling junta likely hoped for a fractured parliament, one that the army could still dominate from behind the scenes. But when the NLD won a resounding 60 per cent of the vote, the regime prevaricated, without a clear plan, determined only not to cede power to their most outspoken foes.
The year after the election, the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, then in her mid-forties, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, propelling her to international stardom. A long-time Oxford housewife and the daughter of Burma's nationalist martyr General Aung San, she had returned to Burma shortly before the 1988 uprising, and then moved assertively into the political arena. Her tactics were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and she hoped that peaceful demonstrations would eventually melt military intransigence. She called for 'national unity' and spoke of a 'second struggle for independence'. She also called for the economic embargoes that were subsequently imposed by Western governments whilst at the same time asking for dialogue with the top army chiefs. Over the next twenty years, hundreds of her supporters would be jailed, and she herself would suffer long periods under house-arrest.
During the periods that she was free, people flocked to hear her speak. And she spoke in clear and simple terms about the importance of political freedom and respect for basic human rights. I had met her in 1987 when she was living in Oxford and I was in my final year at university. We talked about movies and old family friends and she struck me even then, in her living room, with books all around and her younger son, Kim, playing on the floor, as charismatic and self-assured. By the mid-1990s she was a world-famous icon, a challenge to the notion that democracy in Asia was a Western import, and the main protagonist in a morality play that set her and her movement against a thuggish and shadowy tyranny.
The generals, though, were unmoved. Sanctions strained relations with the West but they did little to convince the generals of a need to shift direction. And so the regime settled into the kind of authoritarian crony-capitalism familiar in the region, trading less with the West and more with the growing economies of the East, oblivious to the 'demands' for change from far-away London or Washington.
Rangoon acquired a veneer of normalcy, at least for those who could afford it. By the early 2000s, there were several well-appointed hotels, as well as cafés and restaurants ('Le Planteur' and 'L'Opera'), many set in renovated colonial bungalows and offering a range of world cuisines, from Italian to Korean. The new international airport was sleek and efficient, all light and glass and polished floors. New air-conditioned cinemas served up the latest Hollywood films and the first supermarkets and shopping malls sold the latest in international goods. There were even bars like 50th Street Bar and Grill, and Ginki Kids, with a big poster of Kurt Cobain on the wall, offering a selection of Thai snacks and draft beer. Satellite television was widely available and internet cafés sprouted up around town.
It was still, however, a poor city. There were many more cars but they were generally wrecks, old Nissans and Toyotas from the 1980s that almost anywhere else would have long ago wound up on the scrap heap. The pavements were potholed and whilst the old colonial buildings still seemed impressive, the newer ones tended to look mean and ill-made. Away from the city centre were poorer neighbourhoods still, with few social services and for many hours a day no electricity. It was not a grinding poverty. There were few beggars or homeless people. And people carried on as in any big city, walking to work or taking the bus, enjoying themselves with friends at a local teahouse, parents collecting their kids from school. But it was a poverty that seemed increasingly pointless, in what was a naturally rich and bountiful land.
And then came the tragedy.
On 2 May 2008 the city and the vast expanse of low-lying countryside to the west were battered by a cyclone of unprecedented size and ferocity. Cyclone Nargis swirled around the Bay of Bengal and then careered slowly across the flat delta of the Irrawaddy River, its 130 mile per hour winds driving a wall of water across the little villages and towns, much like the Boxing Day tsunami that had devastated Aceh in 2004. The results were catastrophic, by far the worst natural disaster in the history of Burma, killing over a hundred thousand people and making homeless and leaving utterly destitute millions of others. In Rangoon itself few people were killed but over ten thousand old trees were downed, roofs blown away and power lines destroyed.
American, British and French warships had appeared within days off the coast with offers of help. But after years of sanctions, vociferous condemnation, and active support for the opposition, Burma's generals were unsurprisingly reluctant to accept help from any Western military, all the more so after President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush separately renewed their condemnation of the regime less than forty-eight hours after the cyclone had struck. For three long weeks there was a stalemate, as the Burmese authorities prioritized their own security fears over the fate of millions of survivors; Burmese nationals were allowed to deliver aid, and all aid, including military-transported aid, was accepted from friendly governments (like India) but Westerners were kept from entering the disaster zone, including the UN disaster teams most needed. The small stream of aid reaching cyclone victims was nothing like what was required. There were then calls for forceful intervention as well as intensive diplomacy. Finally the junta agreed to a mechanism involving themselves, the United Nations, and the regional organization known as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). It was a face-saver for them, as well as a way of ensuring that no Western soldiers would set foot on Burmese soil. Dozens of UN agencies and international charities then began delivering food and medicines directly to affected communities. Luckily for everyone, a much feared 'second wave of deaths' from waterborne illness never materialized.
'It's shameful that funding for Burma has been so low', a long-time aid official in Rangoon told me. Burma receives less international assistance than any other developing country, about $4 [US] a year per person compared to ten times that for communist Laos next door. We were meeting over coffee in the lobby of the Chatrium Hotel, several months after Nargis. The Chatrium had become the hotel of choice for UN officials and the growing aid community, thanks to its central location, reasonable rates, and decent internet connection. The bigger trees nearby had been knocked down by the storm, but it was still pleasantly green outside. A sign out front said that a meeting on 'Food Security' was scheduled for 3 p.m. in the ballroom.
'Tens of thousands of people die every year from treatable diseases,' he said. 'Yes, the government is autocratic, but there are dozens of other places around the world, with equally bad governments, where we give far more in humanitarian aid.' Even aid for cyclone victims was low. Despite all the brouhaha at the time and calls for invasion to help these people, once there actually was opportunity to help directly, the money was less than forthcoming. Altogether, about half a billion dollars worth of assistance has been given to Cyclone Nargis victims, compared with the $10 billion that went into reconstructing Aceh after the tsunami. Everybody said they supported humanitarian aid to Burma's poorest. But in practice, Western governments generally shied away.
By 2009, though, there were some glimmers of possible change. The junta had embarked on what they called a 'Roadmap to Democracy', carefully scripted, and leading to a new constitution and a plan for fresh elections the following year. Many in the NLD rejected this constitution as being insufficiently democratic, more a device to sanctify rather than end military domination. Like past constitutions in Indonesia and Thailand, this one allotted a quarter of the seats in the legislature to the armed forces, providing future generals an effective veto in parliament. The president would only be indirectly elected, and the army would retain control over security-related ministries. All this provoked considerable debate. Not so much amongst ordinary people, who worried more about simply getting by, but amongst government officials, dissidents and other activists, aid workers and intellectuals, as well as the sizeable community of expatriates now living and working in Rangoon.
Some saw little more than an attempt to create a fig-leaf for continued military rule. 'How can we trust them! You'll see, they just want legitimacy, and to continue in power forever. We can't sacrifice our principles now, not for a constitution that is so far from what we've fought for all these years.' Others, however, saw an opportunity for change. 'Even a mixed civilian-military government is better than what we have now, which is pure army rule,' one university lecturer argued. 'What's the alternative? Revolution? It won't happen here! We need to be pragmatic. We need to move step by step, to broaden government, bring in new people, and focus on actual policies. The army has to be kept on board. Dreaming of instant democracy won't get us anywhere.'
In all my visits to Rangoon, these arguments were made to me many times by many people. Foreign diplomats, UN officials and what was left of the Burmese intelligentsia gathered around in receptions and dinners and speculated endlessly about the junta's latest actions or decrees. Distrust of the ruling generals was sky high. But with the ruling generals in their late sixties and seventies and at least the prospect of some kind of election and some kind of new government, there was also an air of transition.
There was a lot of talk about the minutiae of Burmese politics, but there was far less discussion of the much bigger drama that seemed to me to be unfolding all around. Far away in Europe and America there was constant speculation about 'the rise of India and China', and its effect on everything from climate change to jobs, to more generally on the world's economy and political order. There was nervousness that hundreds of years of Western domination was finally coming to an end and that different priorities and different values would need to be accommodated like never before. The West's entanglements in the Islamic world and the threats of terrorism were diverting attention in other directions, especially for foreign-policy and security establishments. But for business investors and others with a more long-term horizon, the emergence of a modernizing India and especially a modernizing China was unmistakably the most important issue of our lifetimes. Sitting one evening in my hotel room, I watched a panel on CNN debate what China's and India's continued economic growth would mean for the world. I wondered what it would mean for Burma and I knew that, although the focus in Rangoon was on internal politics, elsewhere others were beginning to look at Burma in a very different way.
In the heart of downtown Rangoon, close to the waterfront, is Mughal Street. In 1858, when the Indian Mutiny (or 'The First War of Indian Independence') was crushed, the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was banished to Rangoon, where he lived in a small house next to the Shwedagon pagoda until his death four year later. His tomb has since become a Sufi shrine, attracting pilgrims as well as a regular stream of dignitaries from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He brought with him dozens of courtiers and attendants and today many of the shopkeepers and others on Mughal Street claim descent from this exiled court. It's a broad street, running towards the river, with little girls in veils and boys in snow-white skullcaps on their way to a madrassa, several kebab shops and halal restaurants, as well as a surprising and sizeable concentration of optometrists. Walking around one morning I noticed a small medical clinic with a sign saying 'Trained in Edinburgh' and wondered what youthful memories of Scotland lingered behind.
There is in this part of Rangoon a wonderful mixing of cultures and religions from across the Indian subcontinent. The Indian population is now only a fraction of what it once was, and what is left is like a museum piece, a living remnant of a past connection. There is a grand banyan tree with statues and portraits of the Hindu gods Hanuman and Rama and the goddess Sita. And a few blocks away is the Mughal Shia mosque as well as several Sunni mosques, including ones belonging to the city's sizeable Bengali and Tamil Muslim communities. There's an eighteenth-century Armenian church, a Jain temple and a Parsi fire-temple, a temple to the Tantric goddess Kali and a multi-coloured temple to the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.
There is even a Jewish synagogue, the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue, right in the heart of the Muslim quarter. In the years before World War Two, Rangoon was home to over 2,000 Jews (out of a population of about half a million). The leading families, the Sophaers, the Cohens, and the Sassoons, were, like their cousins in India, from a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic backgrounds, but most were immigrants from Baghdad who had reached Burma in the late nineteenth century. There was a Judah Ezekiel street, named after an early settler, and Rangoon even had a Jewish mayor-David Sophaer-in the 1930s. They have now almost all left, all except for about twenty, for the US and Israel and elsewhere, but the handsome synagogue is still there, and recently refurbished. On a rainy afternoon, Moses Samuels, the caretaker, proudly showed me the two Torahs that remained (dozens of others have been surreptitiously removed to Israel over the years), and I was introduced to his son, Sammy Samuels, back home after graduating from Yeshivah University in New York.
There is a long-standing Chinese community as well in Rangoon. They are not recent immigrants but the descendants of people who came from two directions: by sea and overland. The Chinese who came by sea were part of the worldwide Chinese diaspora, that stretched from Singapore to San Francisco. They were from the coastal provinces along China's southeast coast and spoke not the Mandarin Chinese of Beijing, but a mix of different southern dialects like Cantonese and Fukienese. The Cantonese in Rangoon were mainly artisans and were called by the Burmese 'the short sleeve' or let-to Chinese for the short-sleeve shirts they wore. The Fukienese were mainly merchants and were known as the 'long sleeve' or let-shay Chinese. Few Burmese cared to probe beyond these distinctions. As in most places, Chinese immigrants were industrious and seen as good business men. And, as many immigrants were single men, they normally took Burmese wives, a practice not particularly frowned upon and one that has led over the centuries to many in Rangoon having some Chinese ancestry. More than a hundred years ago, the top British official in Burma wrote of this group: 'Most mixed races in the East seem to inherit the vices of both parents, but [the mixed Chinese-Burmese] seems to have been endowed with the good qualities of both his father and his mother. He is intelligent, steady, and industrious, and decidedly superior in many ways to the pure Burman.' But except for these Chinese and mixed Chinese families, not many in Rangoon knew or cared much about China in those days. Nothing about China was taught in schools and most aspects of Chinese culture would have been a mystery to the average Burmese.
On the streets of downtown Rangoon, Indian and Chinese worlds nowadays appear almost in collision: the kebab shops and Hindu shrines, the bearded men and women in saris yielding almost entirely, after a heterogeneous zone of a block or two, to joss houses, men in baggy shorts and shop signs in Chinese characters. Chinatown is right next to the Indian quarter and has its noisy and crowded little restaurants and karaoke bars, an imposing Hokkien temple, and stores selling herbal medicine, offering acupuncture, and cut-price flights to Taiwan and Hong Kong.
This collision of the older Indian and Chinese worlds is a friendly and cosmopolitan one. But a much newer and far bigger collision, perhaps friendly as well, but with at least the potential for conflict, is fast approaching.
As British planners a century ago looked at the map and thought big thoughts, now Chinese planners have been doing the same. China's development has been concentrated on its eastern coast, from Beijing and Shanghai south towards Hong Kong. Yet to the west are still many poor and backward areas and these include areas with many non-Han Chinese minorities. The planners have been vexed by this gap between a prosperous east coast and a relatively underdeveloped interior. What China is lacking is its California, another coast that would provide its remote interior provinces with an outlet to the sea. Chinese academics have written about a 'Two Oceans' policy. The first ocean is the Pacific. The second would be the Indian Ocean. They didn't say that Burma would become China's California, but clearly they saw Burma as the bridge to the Bay of Bengal and the waters beyond.
They have also written about their 'Malacca Dilemma'. China is heavily dependent on foreign oil and approximately 80 per cent of these oil imports currently pass through the Straits of Malacca, near Singapore, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and just 1.7 miles across at the narrowest point. For Chinese strategists, the straits are a natural chokepoint, through which future enemies could cut off foreign energy supplies. An alternative route needs to be found. Burma again is a key.
In Rangoon itself there are few signs of a dramatic Chinese push south. On a flight in from Thailand in late 2008, I found myself sitting in the middle of a big group of middle-aged men who were speaking Mandarin, snapping photographs of one another, flipping through the duty-free catalogue (one bought a watch, the first time I've ever seen anyone buy a watch on a plane) and enjoying the free drinks and savoury snacks. A few hours later, at my hotel, I discovered that the group were a touring high-level delegation from Harbin, a northern Chinese city in what was once Manchuria, close to the Russian border. A big banner had been draped across the entrance that read 'Welcome to the Vice-Governor of Heilongjiang Province and Party' and I saw the same group lounging in the reception area, talking and smoking cigarettes. Otherwise I had seen very few other visitors from the People's Republic, only stories in the papers reporting on this and other visits from high-ranking officials and businessmen.
Chinese plans, though, aren't just talk. In the early 1990s the Burmese-Chinese border, after decades shut, was reopened to trade. Since then, an estimated one to two million Chinese have made their homes-temporary and permanent-in northern and north east Burma. Chinese businesses have come to dominate much of the economy, with Chinese owning and running everything from small shops to big mining and construction firms. Roads have been built linking Chinese border towns to the valley of the Irrawaddy River and beyond. And much bigger plans are afoot. Reversing old British dreams, the Chinese have proposed connecting China to the Burmese coast by high-speed rail so that Chinese products could be shipped from new factories in the Chinese interior direct to the Indian Ocean. Massive hydroelectric dams are being built in Burma's far north that when completed will produce as much electricity as China's famous Three Gorges Dam, the vast majority of which will go to China. And most importantly of all, work has recently begun on an oil and gas pipeline that, in a couple of years, will start to transport Burma's newly found offshore gas to China's Yunnan province, as well as oil from the Middle East and Africa. It's a strategic hedge against the Straits of Malacca, one that may bring Chinese political influence right up to the Indian Ocean, for the first time in history.
This has worried the bureaucrats and politicians in New Delhi, Asia's other rising power. After a few years of all-out support for Burma's pro-democracy opposition, India reversed course in the mid-1990s, alarmed at China's growing influence with the junta. US- and UK-led sanctions had essentially dealt the West out of the game, but for Washington and London Burma was not particularly important and the price of failure not very high. For India, however, the costs of a Chinese-dominated Burma were unacceptable, and Delhi began to compete with Beijing for access and influence.
To many in Burma, India is in some ways a much more familiar place than China, in large part because of the ancient bonds of religion. An old aunt of mine recently spent a considerable part of her life savings to travel to India on a Buddhist pilgrimage, flying to Calcutta and then taking a bus with many other pilgrims to the sacred sites in Bihar related to the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and teaching. It was a dream of a lifetime. There is a natural or at least historical pull towards India that perhaps is not there with China. But it is unclear whether this will be a major factor going forward. The Indian government too has promised roads and new investments and trade has expanded considerably, but nothing on the scale of what is moving in from the northeast. The momentum for now is coming from Beijing.
The tea shop was on the ground floor of an old art-deco office building from the 1920s. Next door was a bookstore, with a bill board in front advertising Burmese translations of Obama's Dreams from My Father, Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World, and Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded. And out front on the pavement was a man selling DVDs, the DVDs neatly arranged by category on a little folding table, and a woman next to him with ancient copies of Life and National Geo graphic stacked up on a dirty blanket on the ground. There was a smell of diesel from the ramshackle buses that passed by, as well as an occasional whiff of apples, from two large baskets, fresh from the Shan Hills, that were going for around 50 US cents each.
I was meeting old friends. Like nearly all men in Rangoon, they were avid followers of English Premier League football, and every now and then glanced at the Arsenal-Manchester City match showing on the small television screen at the far end of the shop. After a while I brought up Burma's relations with India and China. They said China was definitely a growing influence, on the government and on the economy, but that it was difficult to say exactly what impact both countries were having now. One was an academic. He said: 'I've read as well about all the different plans but it's not made any difference in Rangoon. We still don't even have proper electricity or running water! Being in between India and China should benefit us, and hopefully it will, but we have so many of our own problems to sort out first.'
Distance and Burma's long isolation meant that the great changes taking place at the other ends of Asia were not yet strongly felt. The Indian presence was like a relic of British times, far from the India of world-dominating software firms and Booker prize-winning authors. And the Chinese community in Rangoon was linked to a past diaspora, only tangentially tied to the rising superpower next door. The Burmese could still focus inward, but this inwardness, always before an option, would soon, I felt, no longer be possible. It seemed inevitable that the power and energy of the new China and the new India would eventually close in, for better or for worse, even if for now they remained like ocean swells far from shore.
Everybody, though, mentioned Mandalay. 'Mandalay's like a Chinese city now,' they said. I found this difficult to believe. I had been to Mandalay many times, as recently as 2004. It had been the seat of the last Burmese kings and about as sleepy a place as one can imagine. 'You won't believe the changes, the Chinese have taken over,' I was told. I had already planned to visit Mandalay and over the next couple of weeks would travel there, and then across the Shan Hills to the Chinese border, along what had once been called the 'Burma Road'.
WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA Copyright © 2011 by Thant Myint-U