One of the countries often in news nowadays is Myanmar or Burma. George Orwell’s novel,Burmese Days (1934), showcased a society afflicted by racism, exclusivity, nepotism and ignorance. Was his depiction accurate? What has changed from then to now? While the international community looks on, waiting for the country to solve its internal crises, citizens are victimised not only by the pandemic but also by a military coup. Some of them have been stateless for some time now, thrown out altogether for being ‘a threat to Buddhism’. Jessica Mudditt, an author and journalist, who spent four years in Myanmar saw fit to voice her experiences within a country with 135 ethnicities. Her memoir, Our Home in Myanmar – Four Years in Yangon ( 2021), showcases a country where anyone can be displaced at any point like the Rohingyas. With 90% of the populationfollowing Buddhism, how is the religion, born of the compassionate quest of a prince to alleviate human suffering, being interpreted? Recently, in an interview, Muddit said, “Most people outside Myanmar assume that Buddhism is a religion of peace, so they don’t understand why so much violence has taken place, or that Buddhism can turn militant and be infected with extreme nationalism.”
This special showcases Myanmar from various perspectives: from that of an expat journalist, from a travellers’, a local writer’s and it even has a translation of a Tagore poem that reflects on the compassion of a Buddhist sage revered in Myanmar, called Shin Upagutta or Upagupta. Why should Shin Upagutta’s devotees resort to violence? Seeking answers, we present this selection from our treasury.
The Tryst, a story poem about Upagupta’s mercy by Rabindranath Tagore translated from Bengali. Click here to read.
Keith Lyons interviews Jessica Mudditt, who spent four years in Myanmar and wrote a book about it
Australian author and journalist Jessica Mudditt studied and worked in the UK, but it is the seven years she spent in Bangladesh and Myanmar which seems to have made the most significant impact on her professional career and personal life. Mainly covering business, technology and lifestyle, her articles have appeared in The Economist, BBC, The Telegraph, The Guardian, CNN, GQ and Marie Claire.
She lived and worked in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon in the mid-2010s, and after returning to Australia, Our Home in Myanmar – Four Years in Yangon (Hembury Press, May 2021) was published with an Epilogue placing the book’s focus in the context of the military coup which stole back power in February this year following democratic elections.
From Sydney, Jessica reflected on her time in Myanmar, and the recent events which have curtailed hopes for democracy, freedom and economic growth.
Looking back on what happened this year, does it make your time in Myanmar seem more special?
In a way, it makes even my most happy and carefree memories bittersweet. When I was reading back over the book as part of the editing process, some of the situations I described became quite poignant, knowing what I know in hindsight. For example, after the 2015 elections, it was Senior General Min Aung Hlaing who was the first to come out and say that as the commander-in-chief, he would respect the election results and the will of the people in voting for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Five years later, it was he who staged this terrible coup and is holding the entire country hostage. What changed for him, I wonder, between then and now? It was like he tried the shoe on one day and decided that it didn’t fit.
If you were still in Myanmar at the time of the coup, would you get out or stay given the dangerous time for journalists right now?
I would leave. It is simply too unsafe. There are no newspapers left to write for at any rate, other than The Global New Light of Myanmar. Mizzima and Irrawaddy and others have been stripped of their operating licenses and as such, are illegal entities. If you go on The Myanmar Times website, it turns black, and then a pop-up notice announces that the newspaper has been suspended for three months. That was six months ago. There are very, very few foreign journalists left inside the country. Of course, every expat was heartbroken to leave and many have expressed that they feel guilty about the people they have left behind. Everyone is in an impossible situation right now.
You added to the book from 2015 with updates on where some of the key players are now: The Myanmar Times co-founder Ross Dunkley was pardoned after the coup and is now back in Australia, have you had any contact with him, and if so, how do you feel about how it all panned out for him?
When Ross got a 13-year sentence in 2019 on drugs charges, I worried that he may not survive such a long period in prison. He is not a young man anymore. However, Ross turned out to be a cat with nine lives. He was released shortly after the coup (he joked in an interview that he is the only person to have benefitted from the coup). What astounded me was that despite everything he has been through in Myanmar, he expressed a wish to return there. I suppose it is his home, after all the years he has spent there. But even so! I sent him a message on Facebook just saying I was glad and relieved for him. However, I don’t think he has logged onto it since his release.
Photos of jailed former advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, Sean Turnell, being vaccinated were released recently; are you concerned about his fate and also that of journalist Danny Fenster from Frontier who is also in Insein?
I feel sick when I think about them. I don’t know Danny personally, but Sean was a source for a few stories, and I met him in Sydney. I have so much respect for him, and he was always so kind and helpful. I am friends with his wife, Ha Vu, on Facebook, and her anguished posts are deeply upsetting. Yesterday was her birthday and she wrote that it was the first time in a decade that her husband hadn’t been able to wish her a happy birthday. She knew it would upset him. Sean has done nothing wrong – nor has Danny, of course – and I just wish that the military would let them go – along with the other 6,000 innocent people they have arrested.
Do you think you were lucky to have been in the country during its opening up and transformation?
I was incredibly lucky. The pace of change was so fast that I often had the sensation that I was watching history unfold in front of me. That may never happen again in my life. The liberalisation of the media was incredible. As a freelance journalist, when I had an idea for a story, I would google the topic to see what had been previously written. There were many instances when there was virtually nothing at all because it had never been possible to write of such topics under the draconian censorship laws (most of these laws were lifted not long after I arrived). I wrote the first stories on Myanmar’s human hair trade, cobras being found inside peoples’ homes in Yangon, children with cancer and elderly care. Journalism was challenging in Myanmar because there was a dearth of reliable data and finding sources could be tricky, as people were not always willing to speak as they still mistrusted the military (with good reason, it turned out). But it was also rewarding because it gave people the chance to tell their stories for the first time, and to provide information to readers that had perhaps not been in the public domain before.
What do you think attracted others from overseas to witness, take part or benefit from the changes?
One of the reasons I loved living in Yangon was because the ex-pat community was very interesting. At a party, for example, I could walk up to someone and ask, “What brought you to Myanmar?” or “What are you doing in Myanmar” and the answer would just about always be fascinating. Myanmar is a beautiful country with wonderful people, but it isn’t an easy place to live and many of the things associated with the ‘good life’ are unavailable. I think that if you moved to Myanmar, you wanted something different out of life, or to do things in a different way.
I’m pretty sure that there were a host of motivations though, and I’m sure that a few were motivated partially by greed. Myanmar was an untapped market with a large population, although spending power is comparatively low. There were also few laws regulating business dealings, so it was a bit of a wild west and that attracted a few shandy operators. But I think, for the most part, people’s intentions were good. They were there because they wanted to make a difference as well as to witness something really historic, in a political sense.
As a woman in Myanmar how safe did you feel, and do you think that helped or hindered your work?
I felt safe in Myanmar, as it has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia. I remember reading in Lonely Planet that muggings and pickpocketing are rare, and that if you accidentally drop money on the ground in a big city like Yangon, it’s more likely that someone will come chasing after you to return it. That actually happened to me. I would sit at a beer station in the evening with my bag slung behind my chair or on the ground or whatnot, and I never gave it a second thought. I wouldn’t do that in Sydney.
Sexual harassment is nowhere near as prevalent as it is in places such as India. In saying that, I am referring to sexual harassment against expat women. There were frequent reports of Burmese women being groped on crowded buses, for example.
Someone in Yangon told me last week that even though the current situation is desperate, and millions of people are starving and displaced, there is a huge amount of cooperation among the people, who help each other in any way they can. Sadly, we all know that the criminals in Myanmar are the military. The reams of razor wire that sit atop six-foot fences around people’s homes are there not because there are a lot of burglaries, but because the military comes for people in the night. They were doing it for decades before I arrived, and they are doing it again now.
What misconceptions about Myanmar do you think are held outside the country?
I’m not sure if it’s a misconception, but Myanmar’s political history is so complex that it can be difficult for people to get their head around it, and difficult to explain. The first thing most people say to me when the subject of Myanmar comes up is “What is the deal with Aung San Suu Kyi? I thought she was a good person – why did she fall from grace?” Or they will say they have heard of the terrible situation with the Rohingya, but they don’t understand how the genocide came about, or why they are still living in refugee camps. Most people outside Myanmar assume that Buddhism is a religion of peace, so they don’t understand why so much violence has taken place, or that Buddhism can turn militant and be infected with extreme nationalism.
Were you more surprised about the frosty reception you got from fellow ex-pats at your first newspaper job, or the treatment you got working for a newspaper once considered a mouthpiece for the military and government?
I was more surprised by the frosty reception I got at The Myanmar Times. I was wildly excited to be working there and went through a lot of difficulties to get my first visa (I brush over it in the book, but Sherpa and I initially applied from Bangladesh and were denied visas, so in the end we had to apply from Thailand). My colleagues at newspapers in Bangladesh had always been fantastically friendly, so it just never crossed my mind that my expat colleagues in Myanmar wouldn’t be friendly. My expectations were way too high, but I was pretty crushed, I have to say. Over time though, things improved, and I ended up with a terrific group of friends at work. We had a lot of fun nights out too.
My colleagues at The Global New Light of Myanmar were really kind and wonderful. I learnt so much about Myanmar from them, both on the job and during the casual conversations we’d have while smoking cigarettes or drinking whisky together after work. Myanmar people are so kind –so it wasn’t my colleagues’ kindness that surprised me. It was how strongly opposed to the military they were. I had not expected them to be staunch supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, or even to themselves be former political prisoners. Many worked at the state-run newspaper because it was one of the few opportunities to use English in a professional context. To me, it showed just how pervasive the desire is for democracy and human rights among the people of Myanmar.
When did you get the idea for writing a book about your time in Myanmar?
I got the idea after I returned from Myanmar to Australia. Funnily enough, while I was living in Myanmar, I had been writing a book about Bangladesh. When I got back to Australia, I had no luck getting a publishing deal for the memoir on Bangladesh, so I decided to put it aside and start one on Myanmar. I started it in 2018 and finished it in April 2021. I’m glad that I decided to do that, because it would be hard to write the same book knowing that a coup would take place after I left. I am sure I would write it differently — with less optimism. As I mention in the epilogue, I thought I was simply writing about the ‘new Myanmar’ and that many books would follow in the same vein. I had no idea that I was inadvertently writing a history book.
In light of the events of 2021 with the military coup and Covid, do you see any hope for Myanmar, or is it a failed state?
There has possibly never been a darker time in Myanmar’s history, with the twin crises of COVID-19 and the military takeover to endure. But I don’t believe that this is how the story ends for Myanmar. It is evident that the people are unwilling to give up their democratic freedoms and human rights – I get the sense that they will fight until there is no one left standing.
However, the country is on the brink of becoming a failed state, if it isn’t already, and the suffering has already been immense. I know from my time in Myanmar that building back after half a century of dictatorship and a mismanaged economy was already difficult enough – I worry about how much this puts the country back on the path to progress. I take a long-term view of things though, and I believe that democracy will be restored, and the military will be booted out of all aspects of civilian life, including their 25% quota of parliamentary seats. I have no idea when this may occur, but I do believe that it will.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The tide was out. But when it came back in, the waves would lap at Daw Myint Shwe’s house. Pointing towards the ocean, she told me the erosion was so bad that she’d been forced to move her bamboo shack four times, but could only ever move it a little further inland. She had lived in the area her entire life and was now in her sixties, but even so, she wished that she could start again in a safer place. The problem was that she didn’t have the money. And every year, the Bay of Bengal crept closer in.
As my translator asked Daw Myint Shwe another question on my behalf, my eyes strained to make out the horizon behind her, so muted were the colours of the landscape. The hazy sky seemed to melt into the taupe mud flats, where shallow pools of water looked like shards of broken glass. Debris was scattered across the soggy sand on which the three of us stood: a ripped blue tarpaulin, cracked ceramic bowls, coconut husks and discarded fishing nets.
The next person the United Nations had lined up for me to interview was U Myint Swe, who lived slightly further inland. Raising his voice to be heard over a noisy gust of wind, he told us that his main worry was for his three young children, who had to cross a river in a small boat to get to school.
‘During the wet season, when the waters are high and rough, U Myint Swe worries that the boat will capsize,’ my translator said. ‘He says that no one in the fishing village can afford life jackets – not even if they all chipped in together to buy them.’
U Myint Swe’s family was stuck in Labutta Township in the southern, low-lying Ayeyarwady Delta: the only jobs were there, near the coast. Even so, he only made about two American dollars a day as a fisherman.
‘Nowadays the weather is often too foul to go out in – and on those days he earns nothing,’ my translator said. ‘But he says he is grateful for the weather warnings that are broadcast through speakers at the local monastery.’
In 2008, there had been no warning before Cyclone Nargis swept through the 115 villages in U Myint Swe’s township and left 85,000 people dead in its wake. He told us several times that he was still haunted by the death and destruction he had seen, and I suspected that his current worries about his children were exacerbated by previous trauma.
But as arresting and poignant as these stories were, I was struggling to focus. My attention kept wandering from the people the United Nations had sent me to interview for a series of articles on climate change to my husband’s visa situation. Sherpa is from Bangladesh and getting a visa for Myanmar – or anywhere, for that matter – had never been straightforward. But in the four years we had been living in Yangon and working as journalists, it had never taken as long as it was taking this time around. He had submitted his passport to the immigration department three months ago, but when his go-between, Aye Chan Wynn, started calling to find out whether the visa was ready, his contact at the department wouldn’t return his calls. I was worried that Sherpa’s passport had been lost, as nothing else seemed to explain the delay.
I spent the next day in a village on an island so remote that accessing it required a two-hour journey by longboat. I was anxiously hoping for an update on the visa, but my phone lost reception soon after we set off through the mangroves. The island had no electricity and supplies of clean water were limited. Stagnant water, however, was abundant: it pooled under the residents’ shacks on stilts, so the mosquitoes bred incessantly. Later, I suspected it was our lunch in the village that gave me a painful and lasting bout of colitis.
While I was on the island, I met a young woman called May Thazin who worked at a prawn farm for fourteen hours a day. The work was seasonal, so she and her husband scavenged for crabs to get by in the off-months. She said that most of her friends had moved several hundred kilometres away to Yangon in search of a better life, but she was deterred by the bad stories she’d heard from those who couldn’t make a go of it and were forced to return. Her only fun was watching Korean soap operas on a solar-powered television.
When I got back to the bare bones guesthouse at dusk, there was still no news on Sherpa’s visa. He said that Aye Chan Wynn would keep trying to make contact and would go to the department in person if he had to. I lay in bed that night with an aching stomach, morosely thinking of my husband’s uncertain visa situation and how vulnerable Myanmar was to climate change. The United Nations was working with the government to boost resilience in places like Labutta Township – including practical courses on what to do in an emergency situation – but I could see that the challenge was immense. Everyone I had met depended on agriculture for a livelihood, and the need to take out high-interest loans to rebuild homes and farmland following a natural disaster trapped them in a continuous cycle of poverty. The UN had hired me as a sort of in-house journalist to draw attention to the need for urgent action.
After doing an interview at a government department in the morning, I farewelled my translator and hopped back in the UN’s oversized 4WD. With my completely silent driver at the wheel, I continued on to the drought-ravaged plains of Magway region in central Myanmar, where I heard harrowing stories of how a particularly terrible flood in 2010 swept entire families away in their beds one night. In the late afternoon, a surprise storm caused flash-flooding that almost made the road impassable on our way out. From there it was only a few hours to the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, where I was scheduled to interview members of the environment ministry and work from the UN’s office. I was on the tail end of a ten-day mission, and my loneliness was compounded by Nay Pyi Taw being a bizarre place without a heart or soul. A visit there always left me feeling blue.
The junta abruptly moved Myanmar’s capital city to Nay Pyi Taw in 2006 and it was built in secret, possibly using slave labour. Nay Pyi Taw is the only place in Myanmar with 24-hour electricity and decent internet speeds. It is flat, deserted and massive: New York City is just a sixth of its size. But it wasn’t a case of ‘build it and they will come,’ as not even the embassies could be convinced to move to the purpose-built city, which is nothing short of dystopian. It is divided into ‘zones’ for retail, government, hotels and so forth, and it has a zoo that cost a fortune to build but scarcely sees any children pass through its gates. There are also oddities like the restaurant in an aeroplane that is parked out the front of a palatial hotel.
As we sped along an empty twenty-lane highway, my phone pinged with a text message from Sherpa.
‘Hey babe. Great news. My passport is ready to be collected. Aye Chan Wynn will go to the immigration department now to pick it up.’
I was so relieved that I wanted to cheer. We pulled up at an enormous hotel that looked like a wedding cake. I checked in at the vast, empty lobby, then unpacked my things and took a shower, humming all the while.
I’d been enjoying the warm water for a couple of minutes when someone started violently banging on the door of my room.
‘I’m in the—!’ I began to shout, but was drowned out by a deafening roar. It sounded as if artillery was hitting the building, so my first instinct was to crouch. As the ground beneath me gave way, I realised it was an earthquake. I tried to grab the bath rail but missed: my hands were covered in soap suds and wet hair covered my face.
The shaking lasted maybe a minute, and it was the most terrifying minute of my life. When it stopped, I stood there dripping wet and praying that it wouldn’t start again. With trembling hands, I wrapped a towel around me, then I went online and discovered that the epicentre of the 6.8 magnitude earthquake was 250 kilometres away in Magway region, where I’d just been. Photos were appearing on social media of the moment the earthquake struck Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, leaving dozens of the ancient structures lying in the dust. One person was killed.
Still frightened, I called Sherpa. He listened to me recount the experience and said how sorry he was that he wasn’t there to comfort me. And then he said he had something to tell me. I could tell from his tone that something was amiss.
‘Aye Chan Wynn picked up my passport,’ he said quietly. ‘There was no visa inside. They wouldn’t say why they didn’t give me one.’
I felt unsteady on my feet all over again.
* * *
Three days later, I was back in Yangon and Sherpa and I were heading to the airport in a taxi through torrential rain. His plan was to get a visa from the embassy in Bangkok, while I would stay put in Yangon with our cat, Butters. But we were worried that he wouldn’t make it out of Myanmar at all – and that he may even be arrested at the airport. Overstaying a visa by several months could be considered a crime under local laws. It didn’t matter that it had been impossible for Sherpa to leave because the immigration department had his passport. We were scared and hadn’t slept.
The taxi ride through the rain seemed to take forever, but we eventually pulled up out the front of the new international terminal. It had opened just the previous week after years of hype about its refurbishment. A small group of taxi drivers in grotty white singlets and longyis, a long sarong tied at the waist, stood out the front and spat red daubs of betel nut onto the freshly laid cement as they waited for a fare. One fanned himself with a newspaper as he stood there shooting the breeze with the others, his gut protruding like a balloon and his singlet rolled up above his nipples. It looked like he was wearing a cut-off sports bra.
Sherpa handed over 6000 kyat to our driver, which was about US$5, and we leapt out of the taxi. He hadn’t any luggage, apart from the small backpack he took to work every day, into which he’d tossed a couple of t-shirts and his shaving gear. If he got out okay, it was only going to be a quickie visa run to Bangkok and back.
I shivered as a shot of icy air met us as we walked inside the terminal. The carpet was a sickly green with mustard-coloured swirls, but there was no denying that the place looked a lot more modern than it used to – the previous incarnation was more of a shed. The airport’s bigger size made it seem emptier than usual, but I took the upgrade as a reassuring sign that Myanmar was eager to be part of the global community after decades of self-imposed isolation. I hoped that perhaps it wouldn’t be heavy-handed in its treatment of outgoing foreigners like my husband.
Please just let him leave.
I squeezed Sherpa’s hand one last time before reluctantly letting go. He looked edgy and unsure of himself, which I knew wouldn’t bode well when he fronted up to the immigration counter. Our eyes locked for a second and we mouthed a quick ‘I love you’ – the most affection it was appropriate to show in the conservative Buddhist country. I wanted to run my hand through his mop of curly black hair but he was already walking away from me.
I crossed both my fingers behind my back and whispered ‘please, please, please’ under my breath as Sherpa approached the counter. Please let luck come our way. After all the time we’d spent in Myanmar, it was probably inevitable that its superstitious ways had rubbed off on me.
I watched on from behind a set of glass doors as Sherpa held up his green passport to the immigration officer, whom he was speaking to deferentially in Burmese. I held my breath. A minute passed, then two. Sherpa had his back to me and I couldn’t read the officer’s unchanging facial expression. He called another officer over. Another couple of minutes passed as they conversed. Just when I couldn’t bear to watch on any longer, I saw Sherpa reach for his wallet to retrieve the wad of US dollars he had ready to pay in overstay fees. As he was waved through to passport control I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. The months of worry were over.
Sherpa turned back to look at me from where I stood in the departures’ hall. His large brown eyes were lit up with happiness. I grinned back and made a stupid thumbs-up gesture, feeling giddy with relief.
I had no idea that this was the last time I’d ever see my husband in Myanmar.
About the Book:
After a whirlwind romance in Bangladesh, Australian journalist Jessica Mudditt and her Bangladeshi husband Sherpa arrive in Yangon in 2012 – just as the military junta is beginning to relax its ironclad grip on power. It is a high-risk atmosphere; a life riddled with chaos and confusion as much as it is with wonder and excitement.
Jessica joins a small team of old-hand expat editors at The Myanmar Times, whose Burmese editor is still languishing in prison. Whether she is covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, getting dangerously close to cobras, directing cover shoots with Burmese models, or scaling Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, Jessica is entranced and challenged by a country undergoing rapid change.
But as the historic elections of 2015 draw near, it becomes evident that the road to democracy is full of twists, turns and false starts. The couple is blindsided when a rise in militant Buddhism takes a personal turn and challenges their belief that they have found a home in Myanmar. (Read the book review by clicking here.)
About the Author:
Jessica Mudditt is a freelance journalist whose articles have been published by The Economist, BBC, CNN, GQ, The Telegraph and Marie Claire. In the lead up to the general election of 2015, she became the first foreign journalist to be appointed on staff at Myanmar’s state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. She also worked as a consultant for the United Nations and the British Embassy.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.