Guest Column

Returning to a Relaxed Rangoon

By Gustaaf Houtman 7 January 2013

RANGOON—After navigating chaotic lines for a visa at Burma’s embassy in Bangkok, I finally caught my AirAsia flight. A group of several dozen Thai Buddhist pilgrims boarded alongside me: They were joining a program of activities in Rangoon to commemorate the arrival of a famous Buddhist teacher’s ancestors in Burma 135 years ago. The teacher, S.N. Goenka, is part of the Ledi anapana vipassana contemplation tradition, which has long been a factor in exchanges between Burma and the world. Even so, I had not expected such a large Thai turnout for the commemoration.

I’m an anthropologist who has spent more than three decades observing Burma, but when I landed at the city’s airport for this recent trip, I was struck by a number of new features, such as the ATMs and a central organization of taxis from a private company. It was even possible to rent mobile phones for US $4 or a SIM card for $2 per day. The short ride to my hotel convinced me that Rangoon had certainly changed since my last visit in 2005, as I spotted new supermarkets, building projects and condominiums.

There was something disconcerting about returning to Rangoon. Many of my acquaintances have long left the country, some have died, and at least one who went abroad as young child has no desire to ever go back again. This has torn apart many Burmese families.

I noticed my favorite restaurants have been forced to move because of increased rents, and nothing in the city was quite where it was supposed to be. Pavement was broken up all over the place, ostensibly to improve infrastructure, though it was more difficult to walk around than I remember it being in 2005. Youngsters huddled together around their ubiquitous mobile phones, and at night everyone watched football matches in restaurants and bars. Large cinema displays were visible on public streets, broadcasting the latest news and advertising, and nobody was playing the Burmese game of chinlon on the street anymore.

I saw youngsters with dyed hair, and beauty shops encouraging a new model of femininity like what you would see in Bangkok or London. Watching television was also a different experience. Except for the news, which was still mostly old style, television programs focused on topics that might interest young people, with music, dancing, quizzes and competitions in shopping malls or studios. Would anyone have imagined Burmese television shows with Facebook pages?

Puppies were for sale all over, which caught me by surprise, as I had never seen anyone even taking a dog for a walk in Burma until this visit.

Sessions of monastic preaching took place all over the city on many evenings. I attended a session by Sitagu Sayadaw, one of the country’s most prominent monks, at Bogyoke Aung San Market. These were televised across multiple giant screens with audiences of several thousand per preaching. In the wake of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the monastic order has clearly kept close to the hearts of Rangoonites. The reforms today are no doubt a partial outcome of their strikes in 1990 and 2007.

I stayed at a hotel in the commercial quarters near Wadan Street. As I walked back to my room along Anawrahta Street around midnight one night, I came face to face with Rangoon’s large rat population, trying my best not to trip over the dozen or so that surrounded me.

What struck me most was the lack of fear, something I had not seen in the past. Photos of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Aung San, were everywhere, from book covers to calendars and posters. And now that pre-censorship has been lifted, media agencies including The Irrawaddy have set up offices in Rangoon and are printing issues inside the country. Barely six months ago these journalists would have been arrested, but on my trip I could walk into The Irrawaddy’s office behind Traders Hotel without adverse consequences. Conversation was quite open, pretty much without constraint.

Almost everyone I met seemed happy that Suu Kyi was engaging with President Thein Sein, though they expressed skepticism and concern that the relationship might not last—that reforms could be scuppered by the military at any time. This is why few Burmese will risk their entire future until they gain some confidence.

Most Burmese households have struggled to cope with Burma’s inflationary environment over the past decade. Driven by poverty, prostitution has grown in scale proportionately. I witnessed police raids along Anawrahta Street on small-scale street vendors whose livelihoods have been criminalized while big shopping malls have been built with ill-gained profits. Hopefully, reforms will mean more well-paid jobs for ordinary Burmese and a more equitable distribution of wealth.

A large number of formerly exiled Burmese have made their way back to the country recently, including some who contacted me through Facebook to say they had arrived shortly before me. A highlight of my trip was the reception of exiled Min Zin and the donation of a library in his honor. It was here that I met members of the 88 Generation Students group which he helped form, and I learned how these committed friends persevered through such difficult times. I saw no fear—skepticism, perhaps, but no fear. I also saw no bitterness.

I met Burmese university academics who looked completely left behind in these developments. Long underpaid and lacking resources, they do not have access to the journals and books necessary for cutting-edge research and teaching. It looks as if state employees will not be encouraged to take advantage of new opportunities; permissions on attending conferences abroad, for instance, have not been relaxed yet.

Another highlight was the warm welcome to all academic visitors at Pansodan Art Gallery. And although I missed the group of writers and artists who I used to meet outside Rangoon’s Insein Prison during one of my previous visits when I enjoyed the company of national poet Tin Moe, who later died in exile, I happily discovered a similar group gathering at a tea shop on 37th Street, complete with philosophers, artists and writers hungry for intellectual conversation. If Burmese universities are not exactly a natural home for academic visitors, at least there are tea shop alternatives.

Burma will not become a democracy overnight. After half a century of military dictation on culture, however, liberalization should permit a sense of cultural diversity, in contrast to the preposterous military-led attempt at “Myanmafication” in the 1990s that asserted a Myanma culture(yingyeihmu) in the singular. Will 2013 be the year that yingyeihmu mya is asserted in the plural?

It is too early to say if the relaxation I saw during my visit will be permanent. There will surely be ups and downs, and Burmese media will have to work hard to keep the country’s politicians, soldiers and businessmen on the straight and narrow. All I know is this: In my 35 years of observing the country, I have seen no time quite like this.

Gustaaf Houtman is an anthropologist who was in Burma for three-month periods in 1978 and 1979, for a year in 1982-83 and for short visits in 1997, 1998 and 2005.