Burma

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Emerald cool we may be,

As waterin cupped hands

But oh that we might be

As splinters of glass

In cupped hands

-Aung San Suu Kyi

Around two hundred kilometers from Mandalay, in the war-torn region of north-east Burma, there exists an obscure town called Hsipaw which sits on an invisible border that does not appear on any map. The activities that go on in the thick jungles that stretch beyond the town are not amenable to tourism, so foreigners are forbidden to travel any further, and anyone caught doing so is subject to immediate deportation.

I arrived around mid-afternoon in a rickety train dating back to the time of the British Empire, and descended into a maze of dusty, shack-lined streets in search of a palace that had once been home to the last king of the Shan people. The man was named Sao Kya Seng, and he disappeared in military custody shortly after the coup d’état of 1962. The coup that made the country what it is today.

It took a while to find, since the town has almost no road signs. There are no road signs because, just like in most of the rest of Burma, there are almost no real roads, just dirt paths running between sparse uneven rows of deteriorating lean-tos. Asking for directions was also a challenge, because in spite of its old imperial connections, practically no one in the country speaks English anymore. Besides, it is dangerous to speak to bystanders. They might disappear if the wrong people see them engaged in conversation with a foreigner.

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The old palace was overgrown with tall grass and weeds. The military had long since seized the farming and other equipment that had once maintained the property. The dilapidated royal residence would barely have passed in Canada for a regular middle-class house. Double-checking the map to make sure that this desolate landscape was indeed the place I was looking for, I let myself in through the untended gate. It was only a few steps to the front door, but before I could knock, it was opened wide by a diminutive white haired man of late middle age in a button-up shirt and white khaki pants. Vigilance can be a life-saving trait in that part of the world, and he had obviously seen me coming. He introduced himself as Sao Oo Kya, the nephew of the absent monarch, and invited me in with impeccable English, a testimony of his royal education.

Ostensibly a tour guide, he briefly guided me around the grounds telling me about the history of the palace and the dynasty. Historically minded tourists came by once in a while to get a tour of the place, he told me, and the revenue he derived from this was how he supported his wife and two small children.

His burnished round face lit up with nostalgia as he showed me dusty black and white pictures of the royalty of which he was the last remaining scion. He mentioned several books that had been published abroad about his family, explaining how his ancestors had overseen the public affairs of this region for nearly six hundred years. I listened attentively, then started in with some questions.

I had my notepad out, and could see that it made him nervous.

“Who are you,” he asked hesitantly, “and why do you want to know these things?”

I introduced myself, explaining that I had been directed to him by members of the underground resistance in Mandalay, and that I was planning to write about Burma after my trip was finished.

“Then you need to be careful,” he murmured quietly, sitting down. “Very careful. I’ve already checked the house for bugs and wiretaps this morning. We can speak freely, here. But if I see you in the street tomorrow, I will just walk by without saying hello. Make sure you do the same.”

I promised him that I would.

Now, before I go on, I feel a little elaboration is necessary for a full understanding of the situation. After all, Myanmar, as the country is now formally called, barely exists. It is certainly a nonentity in the cluttered mind of the western world. Almost no one from North America would be able to find it on an unlabelled globe. Say the name of it where I am from and many people will ask you what the word means. They will not recognize it as the name of a nation.

There are reasons for this.

The country has been under information lockdown for 49 years. There is next to no internet, and what does exist is restricted and monitored around the clock. There are very few books. Those that can be found are generally military propaganda, and those that are not are hidden from the authorities in secret caches of private collectors. There are no free newspapers and no real universities. Cell phones are prohibited, and possession of an unauthorized fax machine is a crime punishable by years in prison.

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