A Collective Search For Answers

By Khin Zaw Win 3 January 2015

I have been holding public pre-consultations on the draft land-use policy and my final foray took me on roads less traveled to the vast stretch of western Mongmit (Momeik)—once a Shan fiefdom and now a township in the shadow of the better-known Mogok gem-mining region.

There is still a big wildlife reserve with a triple-canopy forest in the area. But it was a shock to see sizeable streams clogged with the debris and detritus of nearby gem and gold mines.

This place is the sinkhole into which the waste of human greed gets poured. Ten thousand acres of paddy land have reportedly been despoiled. The township administration has allocated large sums for dredging the streambeds but the question is: where and how does one dispose of the sludge?

I am not an expert in technology or environmental issues, but I encouraged the establishment of a local community-based organization to discuss and help with the expected work. This will be a groundbreaking effort by both political organizations and civil society.

In such endeavors, early meetings tend to be introductory then, on the second or third days, people begin to open up. Questions are asked and committed people step forward.

A bundled-up teenager had motorcycled in the morning chill from a village over an hour away to be at the land-use and governance consultation held on Dec. 16-18. She was a little unwell as a result and I made note of her name. These meetings are not about populist speechifying—I tell them it is about a collective search for answers.

A mountain range stands imposingly between the Mongmit plain and the glitter and litter of the strike-it-rich district in Mogok. On the final day of the consultation, a decision was reached to accompany some of the ethnic Lisu attendees back to their upland village.

The Lisu must be among the best mountain motorbikers in the world. Hair-raising bursts of vrooming up gradients I had thought impossible to climb brought us to a place a little below the crest of a mountain.

At over 5,000 feet, in the December cold, it was a relief to enter the coziness of a wooden house where a charcoal fire had been lit. Only a Lisu could situate a house with its door open to the north wind, but the legendary hill hospitality more than made up for the chill.

One of the reasons I had taken this mountain trail was to see Bernardmyo, or what remains of it. I had not known much about it except that it had been a colonial station above the district town of Mogok, also known as the Ruby Mines District in colonial days.

Khin Zaw Win is the director of the Tampadipa Institute in Rangoon.
Khin Zaw Win is the director of the Tampadipa Institute in Rangoon.

When I got to Bernardmyo, what greeted me was an ethnic Chinese village on a fairly level plateau, a rather dingy marketplace and the ubiquitous mining pits. One of our party pointed out an overgrown clump which he said was where an old British building had once stood.

The only other legible remnant of the British past other than the name (which has been “localized” into Ban Nat) is a forlorn little cemetery almost hidden by weeds. I counted about twenty gravestones left standing with the handiwork of good stonecutters still noticeable.

They bore the names of men from four British regiments: the Devonshire, Hampshire, PWO Yorkshire and the Border Regiment. Dates of death on many of the graves were from the late 1800s. I could not help feeling a strong sense of history. This year marks the 130th anniversary of the deposition of King Thibaw in 1885.

The men who lie in that graveyard had served their Queen and died in a foreign land. They had been part of the grand imperial endeavor but they are part of this country’s history too. Sadly now—a sign of the times—there are two yawning mining pits on each side of this neglected cemetery.

Back with the amenities of Pyin Oo Lwin, I felt I had to advise ethnic nationality friends about what I had seen and heard.

Western Momeik is multi-ethnic and the ethnic Lisu area has different religions and scripts. I discussed with colleagues the concept of a secular ethnic identity. My ethnic colleague said he had tried googling it but could not find it. He will if he tries hard enough. I might add that secularization is easier said than done—just look at India. And there is some rethinking going on of what a secular state means, or even if it exists at all.

With these facts of a tumultuous time brought to light, I almost feel like one of the prophetic Sibyls of ancient Greece who could foresee future events. It does not make for a pretty picture.

I recall the depiction of a Sibyl in one of Michelangelo’s immortal frescoes. She is holding a parchment, on which is written an account of the future, and is turning to look at the mortal receivers of this destiny. It is one of the most haunting looks I can remember in a work of art.

The script on the parchment for Myanmar has not been a happy one these last seventy-odd years. Let us pray to whoever we worship that it is a more blessed one now.