• johnschengber

04: Between Idyll, Imperfection, and Iniquity Part 1

Between Idyll, Imperfection, and Iniquity Runs the Irrawaddy River

Travelers are soldiers. Passports like dog tags, wallets like weapons, our destinations become battlegrounds, exploding with change. If not soldiers then at the least diplomats. In this world of nearly 200 nation-states a traveler’s experience from one to the other testifies to the relationship between the two. Easy-going international tourism, for better or worse, seems a privilege extended most liberally to citizens of hegemonic countries, like the US, as long as the tourist isn’t visiting one of the state-sanctioned pariahs like North Korea. Indeed from a capitalist perspective governments see their citizens’ ability to visit other countries as a boon to the visited, and therefore something to circumscribe as punishment.

Meanwhile, regarding more the international flow of people and less specifically tourism, countries and their citizens can fall victim to undue suspicion or restriction of movement. Europe’s disturbingly walled-up reaction to the refugee crisis and, more recently, Trump’s repeated attempts to limit entry from an array of Muslim-majority nations represent not any intentional market-based or diplomatic lever but a xenophobic and nationalist impulse to resist that which is different or foreign - to resist, in essence, change. Whether as tourist, terrorist, or refugee, to cross a border always sends and receives signals to and from people on every side. A traveler is therefore a mediator of international relations, if he realizes.

That’s why I nearly abandoned my visit to Myanmar. The nation, previously known as Burma, carries with it a poor human rights record. Decades of military dictatorship largely closed off the country, to the chagrin of aid groups who decried the military’s oppression of civil liberties and persecution of ethnic minorities. Most recently Myanmar has come under international scrutiny for the military’s systematic oppression and murder of Muslim Rohingya, an ethnic minority in the western reaches of the country near Bangladesh. Though this is by no means the military’s first offense, the nation is receiving due international ire given that 1) the offenses this time seem particularly egregious 2) the democratic and civilian government that, as of 2015, shares power with the military has largely said or done nothing in response to the crisis. This new civilian arm was thrust into power with great pomp and optimism by Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s renowned anti-military freedom fighter, who became the party’s de facto leader in an election widely seen as a harbinger of change in the country. Suu Kyi in handling the Rohingya crisis, however, has been at best reactive and at worst complicit.

I didn’t want my visit to the country to abet the military or minimize the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted. I had been told repeatedly of the wonders of the country by friends who had visited, by any guidebook I could bare to read, by Google Earth mappings that showed a hell of a lot of green and a wriggly expanse of coastline. But would my going be a bad thing? I had already purchased a flight into Yangon, the commercial capital in the far south, simply because it was 500 dollars cheaper than Bangkok, Hanoi, or Denpasar. But I could always buy an immediate connector out of the country. So really the question was, would my staying be a bad thing? I was conflicted. News kept breaking of the imprisonment of journalists covering military abuses. My parents preferred that I not go. I’m no journalist but I do, after all, carry a camera and write things. I spoke with my friend Russ, who’s been making a film in the country, and asked for advice. He said go. What Myanmar is experiencing is a timeless issue. The party hurt by isolation will be the civilians not the military. Go. And learn.


I went. The first thing I learned was sensory. I left the cold of Washington DC in December and found myself in a bustling Yangon of 75 degrees, where car horns chatter up and down mildly smoggy avenues, overpowering momentarily the real activity bursting from within every smaller street or alley that held the Myanmar I came to see, which either smiled at my entrance or did nothing at all. The people wear long wrap skirts called longyis that stop short of their feet which are always sporting flip-flops. The men, and to a lesser extent the women, often smile with teeth dyed dark red from chewing betel nuts and tobacco. The women, and to a lesser extent the men, seem to me exceptionally regal, their faces distinguished with a creamy yellow paste called thanaka that is made from a bark and applied in different patterns on the cheeks and forehead.

The whole place felt supremely non-Western. Situated in the delta of the Irrawaddy River, originating as a fishing village, and today serving as the country’s commercial powerhouse, Yangon’s clash of the modern and the traditional seemed more natural and innocuous than what I would expect for a country that recently ‘opened.’ In other words, I didn’t sense a rapid embrace of Western culture nor an exploitation by it.

Restaurants abounded. Back home I could eat Thai for days, so I was hopeful that I would enjoy Burmese, too. (KFC is the only chain I saw, its chicken dutifully served with rice.) I noticed a funny trend of copycat restaurants. A popular vegetarian restaurant I visited up north called “The Moon: Be Kind to Animals” was neighbored by a restaurant called “Tai Yim: Be Kind to Animals” and another that promised to actually be the kindest of them all.

Most popular are hybrids of restaurants and markets with tiny plastic stools and colored tables. Napkins are rolls of toilet paper in boxes, which I found both utilitarian and inadequately absorbent. The markets in the morning smell of fermented fish and support an eclectic cuisine with influences from China, India, Thailand, and Vietnam, in addition to standout dishes from Myanmar’s diverse regions. Buddhist monks meander through the markets and neighborhoods and everywhere else assiduously collecting alms of rice from shop owners, car washers, people on their stoops. Though very few people speak English well, most signs have small English translations below the Burmese script.

In general the Burmese are a lithe people, and rarely did I witness any obesity or disability. At risk of repeating a problematic westernism, they seem incredibly happy. Displays of friendship are as loving as displays of romance. The communities I found felt more egalitarian than anywhere I have traveled, including back home. I didn’t see anyone begging. Nor did anyone haggle me to buy things. I felt safer in the less-lit streets of Yangon than I ever have in Washington DC. Oddly enough I barely saw any police or military. One ambulance siren in my entire time there. But as I walked around I was trying desperately not to romanticize a standard of living I had only seen and not experienced. Who would I be to relish the ostensible authenticity, vivacity, and parity of this society (that has a 37.5% poverty rate) while simultaneously denouncing the government that, to some inseparable degree, has a manipulative hand in creating or suppressing it? The government here, after all, has historically been worthy of great opprobrium. How to feel about it now?

Well based on the news it’s hard to feel that much has changed. The most recent evils erupted in August 2017 when the military launched a scorched-earth persecution campaign against the Rohingya in the Rakhine State in the west of the country. The campaign was mounted in response to an attack against police by an extremist group loosely associated with the Rohingya, but it has resulted in nearly 6,500 Rohingya civilians being killed, by the national military, in one month. Whole villages have been burned down, after first being turned into abattoirs complete with gang rape and murder. Civilians fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh only manage safe passage if they successfully navigate open fire from police, landmines, and the border-forming, gushing currents of the Naf River, which is to say not many do, and if they do, fewer still are welcomed or find space in Bangladeshi refugee camps. In my reading of the issue, the Rohingya were often called the world’s least wanted minority. They are outcasts among refugees.

I wasn’t the only one thinking about this, of course. I met a girl named Tamara, a Palestinian-American from LA living in New York City. We met my first morning in Yangon, as I woke up from jet lag, and we immediately bonded over three things. She had also recently quit her real world job in the states; she was also planning her trip one week at a time; she was also eager to get answers about the Rohingya crisis.

It went unspoken at first, but we both had our reasons for not taking the headlines at face value, not because we didn’t believe them, but perhaps because as a Palestinian she knew that armed religious and cultural wars are more nuanced than the mainstream media or occupying hegemonies are able or ready to admit, or, like me, perhaps she felt that to investigate this issue was vindicating, for if there is any harm in visiting a country undergoing such terror, then surely asking questions about it will absolve both of us from any hand in it. But none of this was discussed, not yet, beyond acknowledging we both knew of it, we both have no clue what the hostel just served for breakfast, and we both are in this city of Yangon, for which all the guidebooks and fellow tourists recommend a two-day stay, though I would end up staying for six.

We speculated that Yangon gets the short shrift from tourists because by and large there are few ‘attractions.’ There is the one big Shwedagon Pagoda and several smaller ones to accompany, whose golden stupas and endless shrines to Buddha are magnificent. They draw hordes of Asian tourists, but in my opinion get repetitive in the same way ancient churches in France do. For me the beauty of Yangon was in its smaller moments and streets, like the morning Tamara and I took a perimeter train ride, which was not listed on the tourist to-do list.

Before boarding, Tamara and I were wandering down a small alley nearby and came across four pairs of flips flops stacked up like bowling pins in the middle of the path. A moment later a boy and his two sisters wheeled around the corner, unleashed the balls in their hands in a perfect bowling motion, obliterated the flip flop pyramid, and ran away enrapt with their own victory.

The open-air train, once it came, took us for one or two hours in a wide circle around the city, cutting through Yangon’s urban centers, suburban outskirts, and outlier rural fields and paddies. We saw pastoral scenes, trash burning, and school buses. We talked about boyfriends and girlfriends, graduate school degrees, and where’d she’d been before Burma. (Cuba, at some point earlier, where she got the straw bag she was holding.) I told her about my magazine when she asked, and about why I have two cameras now, one film and one digital, the latter being a recent purchase because film is turning me broke and I wanted to capture some video, too. She is a good bit older than me, and now knowing each other for two days I got a nice sympathy laugh when I told her she was my oldest friend.


I went out with a group of Burmese kids my age. I had been connected by a friend back home to one of them, Zoë, who agreed to grab dinner while I was still in her hometown of Yangon. She picked me up at my hostel in a little black car and had mellow club music playing. She was gorgeous. We arrived at a traditional Burmese restaurant and sat at a table with a group of her friends who had already been through several dishes. They caught us up quickly. I laughed at a couple of inside jokes that everyone knew I had no idea about. I was nervous to take a dish that I wouldn’t like. But the conversations didn’t notice and the food was exceptional. Zoë and her friends were immediately welcoming and unbearably interesting.

Most of them had been to university in the states. They all spoke English perfectly, which was comforting. Zoë came from a mixed Dutch-Burmese family of gem traders, commodity exporters, and artists. The others and their stories seemed equally cosmopolitan. As we proceeded through the evening, leaving the restaurant (which was founded by their friend) and driving across town to other favorite bars, I knew this crew of which I had become a guest member was not quite the average. Elite may be too strong a word, having not seen the top, but I figured I was probably hanging with an extraordinary crowd, and there was a bit of thrill to it.

Of course I had to break the laws of cocktail conversation, not to mention the decree of new friendships, by asking about the Rohingya. I first asked Zoë at dinner, and it somehow remained a one on one conversation. She was patient and wasn’t turned off by my questioning. She acknowledged with remorse the atrocities being committed by the state against the Rohingya. The underlying theme in her answers, echoed by others later in the evening, seemed to be that the situation is multiple degrees more complex than how the Western media portrays it. Yes, it’s not wrong to call it ethnic cleansing. Yes, Aung San Suu Kyi has done embarrassingly little for her purported title of freedom fighter and defender of civil liberties. But the military has been persecuting various ethnic and religious minorities for as long as the state has been a state, she said. Where was the attentive international condemnation then? She feels that Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian government, and the citizenry remain relatively powerless to intervene. I wondered if she feared the potential for change to be stronger in the opposite direction - in the direction of regression, military crackdown, etc. But more so she said that the Rohingya have no powerful allies in the country, if not the world. They receive little sympathy from Burmese because they don’t speak Burmese and are seen as Bangladeshi intruders. While the international community sees the Rohingya as victims, they are seen as aggressors by the Burmese government, Buddhist majority, and much of the general population.

When one of Zoë's friends said don’t we have similar problems in the US, like DACA and the issue of immigration writ large, I was at first distracted and then saddened in trying to think of a country that didn’t have some example of ethnic warfare in its history, before responding to Zoe’s friend, hopefully now my friend, that though US immigration policy is a real and pressing problem, I thought our treatment (genocide) of Native Americans to be much more analogous to this conversation.

Throughout the night, as I oscillated between having a plain fun time and being a nosy foreigner, I couldn’t tell if some of the answers I received were veiled, complacent, or subconscious attempts to dismiss the Rohingya by announcing that others in another time or place have been worse off. Indeed various groups, especially in the northern hinterlands, have been more or less at war with the Burmese government for decades. Indeed Zoë told me of her own family having to flee the country from persecution in the past. Civil war, state-sponsored persecution, and at the very least prejudice seem to be almost sociocultural mainstays. But are the Rohingya just another example, or another story entirely? It would be a question I kept asking during my trip. For now, however, I thought Zoë and her friends had humored me enough. Between the questions and answers I was eating curries and drinking cocktails with purple flowers. It was getting late. They had to go home. I had to go back to my hostel. I am just a traveler, after all.


Apparently I wasn’t too annoying because Zoë invited me to stay for New Year’s Eve. I had planned on doing a trek to Inle Lake where I would meet Tamara. But even Tamara agreed that staying in Yangon would be cooler. We could rendezvous after New Year’s, and I was happy to stay in Yangon a few days more. She was all ears when I told her of the conversations I had with Zoë the night before. I promised to keep learning and she promised the same. She left soon thereafter and I was alone in Yangon again, with time to kill. I ended up managing some moments.

One night I walked around the river at golden hour and on the way back stumbled upon a park full of irony. The park was host to none other than the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival. Promotional posters and billboards strewn across the park were stamped with Aung San Suu Kyi’s queenly countenance. Featured filmmakers gave interviews to marauding press groups, organizers passed out blue balloons, and recipients released them into the sky on command after remarks by the former Canadian ambassador to Myanmar called for continued improvement of the country’s civil liberties. Absent of remarks or films about the military or the Rohingya, though. My curiosity and concern seemed to be both haunting and teasing me.

The next morning I was a bit indolent and homesick in my hostel when one of the workers, Joshua, asked me to come to Sunday Chats. I didn’t know what Sunday Chats meant but I went. I soon realized he was saying Sunday Church (though I felt like Sunday Chats was a nice moniker, too).

Joshua is from the Chin State, a mountainous Christian-majority state on the northern border of the Rakhine State and the eastern border of Bangladesh.

Stopping at his house first for a change of shoes, I met his brothers asleep on the floor underneath mosquito nets. They would be going to the afternoon mass because they were still tired from their night jobs. Then his friends came over and joined us on the walk to church. Unlike Zoë and her pals, nobody spoke English, and I speak no Burmese. My hopes of tactfully asking questions were already intimidated by the idea of bringing up religious wars in holy places, notwithstanding having to repeat the question multiple times, slowly, with gestures.

I met the pastor, who called himself the facilitator. Joshua spotted me a couple small bank notes for the congregation contribution basket, which was actually a deep velvet bag. He taught me how to donate correctly - by concealing the note in my fist and releasing it in the bag once my whole forearm was inside, so as to stay humble about one’s contribution level. I didn’t understand a word of the service, but the ushers handed out programs with romanized song lyrics. So I stood and sat and closed my eyes on cue, and tried to sound out the craziest combination of consonants I could ever imagine.

My grandparents are devout churchgoers. I am not but I felt comfortable. As I sat in the pew, I secretly fantasized that despite their inexperience with Burmese, my grandparents would be able to walk in this church and be able to understand every word, and then suddenly be endowed with a holy ability to build bridges, which they would build from religion to religion, nation to nation, foe to friend, speaking against the anti-muslim sentiment growing stronger in this country, as well as my own.


One or two days later was the last of 2017, and I was scheduled to go to Zoë's for an afternoon barbecue to begin the New Year’s festivities. I got a cab to her house, which was further out in the suburban reaches of Yangon than I had yet been. The 15 minute trip and indeed the rest of the evening strongly debunked the ostensible socioeconomic parity that I had naively surmised upon walking around inner Yangon for 5 days. (Just as only exploring southeast DC and then going to my house in Yorktown would reveal an inequitable society). Her house was tucked away on a beautiful street, adorned with palm trees, neighbored by a UN office and the American Club. She greeted me in a flowing coral cover-up, and took me back with sangria to a table where the same friends I had met two nights before sat. She took me to order a burger (more like a steak sandwich) and I wanted to ask for three more. There was a pool beyond the maze of wooden tables and chairs on the grass lawn. It was a family affair, but it would turn up later, she promised, as if I was unimpressed or discontent with pools and burgers and sangria and the company of her and her friends. Soon we all put on swimming suits (shorts, my only pair of shorts, for me) and got in the pool as the sun was getting down.

Later we were summoned to another friend’s family-company party, the two being essentially one entity, and in preparation Zoë changed into a dazzling midnight-blue dress that made her look like an archetype of New Year’s itself. We got in an immaterial fender bender on the drive there because we were yelling Happy New Year through the window to a guy dancing and singing in the street, but Zoë said it happens all the time.

Arriving at the party I was no less than blown away by the size of the house, the amount of food, and the kindness of everyone I met. Unsurprisingly many of them were international. I met a Taiwanese couple from the Bay Area who was in the country researching the relationship between diabetes and monks’ obsession with rice and sitting. I met a French girl named Maureen doing impact investing, and her French girl friend named Maureen who was a reporter. She was exasperated when I, naturally, started asking questions about the Rohingya, not because she didn’t want to talk about it but because she didn’t know where to start. She said she had unique access and clemency since she was reporting not in English but French and therefore drew less suspicion. Then she ran away to the bar. I met person after person who was either a current or former consultant, and all were encouraging of my trajectory. I met a Burmese guy planning to bring an American fast food chain into Yangon.

I didn’t meet anyone who looked like they wanted to talk politics, humanity, genocide. So I met plate after plate of red curry with chicken, followed by beer and then whiskey.

The host family fostered great fanfare in revealing a just-roasted suckling pig which they cut into pieces and passed around. My piece tasted like burnt skin. Zoë and I watched partygoers set off Chinese lanterns that floated far into the night sky. We didn’t light any but found them beautiful. When I told her I was glad to have stayed here in Yangon for a couple more days and New Year's I also had to tell her that yes I knew this wasn’t necessarily a typical Burmese experience. And I was okay with that, I told her.

Back at her house we were alerted to the exact moment 2018 began by fireworks whose flares we watched rain down into the pool. The night and the year ended quietly, our feet swaying in the water, no more sad questions to be asked in this moment. Just happy ones. I asked what she missed most about DC, she said Trader Joe’s. I, too, was hungry, and we laughed. I asked when she cried last. She said just this morning. I said I, too, was both happy and sad.

More than anything, though, I was hopeful. The next day I would be going to meet Tamara at Inle Lake. I was cautiously optimistic that I would get back to the hard questions there in the central parts of the country. It felt like a scavenger hunt. How can I navigate unfamiliar language and cultural obstacles to gather representative perspectives about a sensitive subject, I summarized.

And right then I got a bewildering rush of magnanimity and presumptuousness in believing that, while the answer I was pursuing was purely for myself, and the question being asked was being asked by me, it’s likely a question being far-away late-night wondered by the world, by my family, my friends, and strangers. So, if it’s alright with everyone, I’ll keep going.

+ & -


Part 2 will be available next week.

Thanks to Zoë for your candor, hospitality, and friendship.

Thanks to Tamara for being a wonderful travel partner and my oldest friend.

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