On Being Watched in Burma

Categories: Cover Story
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Photos by Mike Giglio
I remember his nose. Thick gray hair spouted from each nostril, all the way down to the old monk's lip, like smoke from the snout of a dragon. He sat on some steps inside the gold and glittering Sule Pagoda in central Rangoon.

The monk was bald and missing teeth, and a cinnamon robe hung around his tiny frame. His eyebrows perfectly matched the hair in his nose. He raised them toward the sun and motioned for me to sit beside him in the shade.

This was December of 2006, well before I moved to Houston and found that the city is home to a rapidly growing community of Burmese refugees, the subject of this week's feature.

It was less than a year before the ubiquitous monks in Burma (or Myanmar) would lead a peaceful uprising that its military dictatorship would quickly and violently crush. I had been in Rangoon (or Yangon) about an hour and was already sweating through my shirt. I sat, and the monk began to speak with me in confident English.

A man from the crowd of people milling about the temple suddenly forced his way between us, shoving me to the side. He was dressed like anyone else, and I guessed I had offended some local custom. But the monk became angry. He pushed himself up and pulled me with him, and we began to circle the temple together, his arm around mine.

"We must be very careful," he whispered. "Now come with me."

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Downtown Rangoon
Soon we were out onto the busy street. The old monk darted through traffic and flagged down a bus that was overflowing with people. A wave of flailing and shouting carried down the aisle until a single seat opened up in front. Someone winked at me and pointed to the straps hanging from the ceiling as the bus jerked into motion.

It's not unusual for the Burmese to approach a foreigner traveling alone. The word for tourist is guest, and a guest should feel at home. Many wanted to practice their English and ask about places they could never see. Some were looking for money, others for soap or a pen. And several were desperate to tell the outside world what was happening to them. They seemed to have great faith in the outside world.

"Tell your army to come here and kill the generals," one cab driver said.

"Do you think it will change?" another man asked. He said the cost of rice and vegetables had risen, but food quality had plummeted along with regular wages. "All the people of Myanmar, they want change. But the government now is very powerful."

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The monk brought me to a temple in a quiet corner of the city and over a lunch of chicken organ curry painted a picture of fear and corruption. The government had a gun in one hand, held out at shoulder level, and money in the other, he said. Fifty million people were suffering and struggling to eat while five million grew richer and fatter. And no one was able to say it.

"Here, we cannot speak," he said.

Government spies like the man in the temple were all around. They might be listening in on a conversation on the street, or through the walls of a home. Anyone who overheard subversive talk and didn't report it risked punishment. Shop and homeowners had become wary of their guests.

The man stretched out on the floor in front of a giant reclining Buddha and took from his bag a small and tattered book he called his life's work. The statue rested on its right elbow and stared out at small clusters of worshippers.

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A new monk and his proud mother
The monk wrote in peculiar script, with the letters packed tightly together. "Religion has been and always will be a tool, both visible and invisible, of control for the government," the writing said.

Then the monk lamented the decline of education. It was a student movement that brought on the presidential election of 1990, which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy handily won, bringing about her endless and recently extended house arrest. Now the rich bought degrees for their kids.

"It is the same with religion," he said, tapping the cover of the book. "The uneducated do not question. They take it as fact. But the government stands behind it. We are educated. We can question and learn. The others cannot."
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The Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon


When the monks finally revolted against government the following fall, marching and refusing to accept its alms in a display of condemnation, soldiers would beat and arrest them outside of the towering Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred site in the city. Two blocks from its main entrance, the old monk left me with a plea.

"When you go back to your country, talk, talk. Talk so people will know. Because in Myanmar we cannot talk. When you are here do not talk. Do not say you spoke to a monk about these things. We must be very careful in Myanmar. People are listening."

****

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A monk in Mandalay
In Mandalay, 360 miles and a painful 16-hour bus ride from Rangoon, The Moustache Brothers had lookouts outside of their small garage to make sure the wrong people weren't listening.

Inside, Lu Maw, the only English speaker in the famous trio, stood before a semi-circle of ten tourists in plastic folding chairs. Handcrafted marionettes hung from the walls behind him, along with a large white sign that read, "The Moustache Brothers Are Under
Surveillance."

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Lu Maw
"No regret!" he rasped, and stroked his long handlebar moustache. His voice was mischievous, and it was also angry and sad beneath the layers of slapstick comedy and satire that covered his act. "R-E-G-R-E-T. Very brave. No regret."

Once, the Moustache Brothers had performed the highest level of Burmese theater. Their shows lasted through the night and were attended by thousands. But the troupe, especially its leader Par Par Lay, were known opponents to the government. In January of 1996, during a performance at Suu Kyi's house, he made a joke.

You used to call a thief a thief. Now, you call him a government agent.

For that Par Par Lay served more than five years of hard labor. The troupe was forbidden to perform in Burmese and in public. They were relegated to a small tourist attraction.

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Par Par Lay
Lu Maw held out his wrists, which were locked together in invisible handcuffs. During the fall protests, Par Par Lay was imprisoned again for more than a month.

"Seven years, in the clink," Lu Maw said, clinking the imaginary cuffs together.

"In the slammer. Up the river. Behind bars." He clinked them again. "Seven years, for comedy."

He motioned to a picture of Suu Kyi, who is referred to in Burma as simply "Great Lady" for fear of being overheard, and clinked the cuffs. "Nobel peace prize," was all that he said.


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Then Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, who was also arrested in 1996, came out for some traditional dancing and comedy routines. They held up signs reading "FBI", "Guardia Civil" and the like and encouraged pictures and applause. Lu Maw said the applause would chase the police away.

When it was over, he pointed to the audience.

"We old fogeys," he said. "We keep the protest. You--you show your family what you see here. I need your help."

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Shore of a teak bridge outside Mandalay
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