• johnschengber

05: Between Idyll, Imperfection, and Iniquity Part 2

Inle Lake is enigmatic. It is many things at once. The lake is idyllic. It does not seem vast, with always-more islands appearing in the offing, as much as it seems infinitely complex and mysteriously dynamic. A big open section of water can transition to a reed-lined singletrack driveway that carries you into a village flooded like Venice, and that village could be the one that makes the silverware or the one that’s figured out floating agriculture or the one with the oldest temple. The lake is never threatening, unless you’re threatened by getting lost, but it is not so understandable to feel hospitable. Around every corner it announces quietly that you are new here. It does so by turning into something else.

The lake becomes a network of water roads complete with directional signs, traffic jams, and highways; backroads, beer billboards, and mailboxes; medians, some manicured, some not; people you pass every morning, and people you’ll never pass again. The lake becomes a place of work, with fishermen fishing in it, taxi drivers crossing it, tour boats touting it. And the lake becomes the subject and setting of worship, with golden stupas perched on the surrounding hilltops and Buddhas adorning the shores.

Of course the lake was always all of these things, and the only thing becoming was my suspected understanding.

Inle is longer than it is wide, nearly resembling a river or a marsh, snaking lazily along a valley protected by green-grey hills. It’s deepest parts reach only 12 feet deep, the rest averaging at 5. Yet it hosts at least 29 endemic species of aquatic fauna and flora. (Endemic means they can be found nowhere else on Earth.) The human populations found along its shores are similarly unique, if not endemic, renowned for their traditional lifestyles like that of the fisherman who, standing, casts and retrieves his net while simultaneously paddling an oar with his feet. There’s the silversmiths, the seamstresses, and their gorgeous local handicrafts, too, symbols of culture and environment intertwined (and upon closer inspection, a relationship in decadence) that all together help to make Inle Lake one of the biggest tourist draws in Myanmar. And there I was.

It had been raining when I arrived on the first night of the New Year, and it would rain for the duration of my visit, frustrating Tamara to the bone and contradicting the ostensibly immutable patterns of the dry season (October-May). I found it fitting though, to be greeted at this lake, the second largest in Myanmar, by the very raining force that helped create it.

And I was glad to be out of Yangon. Six days in any unfamiliar city will wear on me. The prospect of a big blue lake filled me up. I didn’t mind the rain and actually welcomed any natural filter placed upon the heavier tourist imprint. I didn’t mind the tourists either, not least because I am one, but also because it was easy to justify some level of overcrowding since foreigners have hyper-restricted destination options in Myanmar. Go too far north, for example, and you’re in danger of interrupting the state’s simmering civil wars. Go too far west and you might see a Rohingya village burn. Go too far east or south and you’ll not only have to deal with an angry Burmese official but a royal Thai authority, too. Tourists know well the places they can and can’t go, and though I would love to deny all compliments to this government, it does a very good job of marking restricted zones with maps, signs, checkpoints, guards, guns, and the like.

Conversations between travelers therefore deal in the allowable places you’ve already seen, or which you’ll visit next. In these conversations, Inle Lake is a perennial favorite, along with Bagan - an ancient temple city. Yangon and Mandalay make the list mostly as transportation hubs but also as somewhat appealing urban centers. Most travelers I met seem content to remain within these restrictive bounds, both physically and mentally.

In the hostel on my first morning at the lake, Tamara made friends with two American guys. Despite the intermittent rain, we rented bikes, eager to explore. The bikes were cheap and allowed us to move under our own power (unlike the guided boat tours which seemed like the only way to actually get on the lake). We rode to a series of caves that were filled with Buddhas. We rode past fields sewn with unfamiliar crops. We rode to the lakeshore and ate whole grilled fish at restaurants stilted above the water.

I started getting to know the guys a bit. I found out they were from Northern Virginia and that they have been traveling for 8 months and have no defined end-date. It would gradually become a theme in my travels that everyone else seemed to be taking longer, more epic journeys than mine. I always wondered what lives these people led before, and what lives they would lead after, but maybe that’s a sign that I’ve been “on the grid” too long.

I asked the guys, between spitting out fish bones, if they’d had any conversations about the political and humanitarian situation here in Myanmar. They said it is not their policy to travel in a country and ask of its ills. I thought to myself, no wonder you’ve been able to travel for so long. Extrapolating their policy to my own world, I wondered if I’d be turned off by a Brit walking into my favorite DC bar and jumping down my throat with questions about Trump and our political situation. Maybe, but I don’t think so. At the very least I’d oblige the conversation in hopes that I could walk into a London bar and get my questions answered about Brexit. But that’s just my policy.

Out loud, to my fellow Virginians, I said I thought their policy was nice, and we finished lunch and continued biking in the rain. After a couple hours we hadn’t found much, and I knew that the next day I would bend to the price of a boat tour.


My boat man, as he called himself, was named Chu. He was about my age. He grinned with a picket row of stained red teeth and had a big block head with close cropped hair, painting him well to be a leader on the lake. It was just me and him in the 20 ft long boat that was maybe 1.5 times the width of an average canoe, made of thick paneled wood, and powered by a fully-exposed diesel truck engine that sat waist-high on the stern. It was loud as hell. The engine spun a small propeller attached to the end of a long metal shank, which Chu then directed in the water with a smaller shaft while seated at the stern. To reverse us out of the glut of boats lining the canal, Chu lifted the entire shank and prop out of the water and rotated it so that it nearly reached the bow where I was sitting. He was sure to avoid the other boats and anything floating in the water, lest the careening prop create a storm of shrapnel. It was hard for me to imagine these boats and their engine setups as the most effective, but Chu did a splendid job and made them move like axiomatic paragons of watercraft. We sped out of the boat parking-lot, down the canal, and into the patient opening of the lake.

In all its forms, between being a place of work, worship, or wonder, the lake never seemed to be a place of recreation. I never saw anyone doing anything for the strict purposes of fun. I definitely never saw anyone swimming. I wondered if this was because the people didn’t have the time or the desire. Or maybe the water was not safe for swimming? Some research showed me that Inle Lake is suffering from a range of environmental issues, mostly caused by the boom in population and agriculture in and around the lake.

It goes like this. Nearby farms remove sturdy native vegetation in favor of crops. The crops don’t hold land as well, leading to erosion and sediment runoff, and the crops also require fertilizer, leading to nutrient run-off. The sediment fills up the lake, reducing space for water and organisms, and the nutrients cause algae and weeds to bloom. When the algae and weeds die, dissolved oxygen is sucked into the decomposition process, and the end result is a lake that has more sediment, less water space, less oxygen, and less productive aquatic vegetation. This process, generally known as sedimentation and eutrophication, is not unique to Inle and unfortunately happens just about anywhere agriculture can be found near waterways. The Chesapeake Bay has been battling eutrophication for decades. But Inle Lake is dealing with a unique, additional problem: loss of lake area due to floating agriculture.

Floating agriculture was introduced to Inle by the military junta in the 1960s and involves cutting out chunks of wetland soil and arranging them in rows, staked in place by bamboo poles, in open water (see below). These floating chunks of soil are sewed with tomatoes and other cash crops that are high-yield for about three years, until the soil’s fertility is depleted and the floating gardens are relocated and discarded along the perimeter of the lake. Eventually the discarded gardens form solid land, and over time this encroachment shrinks the size of the lake. In a 65 year period, the lake went from 69.10 to 46.69 square kilometers, a loss of 32.4%. To make matters worse, while the lake is getting smaller, providing less space and critical nutrients for fish and other aquatic inhabitants, tourism-induced boat pollution and fertilizer runoff (which runs off even easier when applied to floating gardens) are only increasing.

I didn’t discuss this with Chu when we passed a floating garden, because I hadn’t read anything about them and assumed they’d be harmless. But other stops throughout our day on the lake had me questioning the implications of my visit. We pulled up at a small stilted house and I was led into a room full of “long-neck girls” - women of the Kayan culture, who wear brass coils on their neck that lower the collarbone and appear to lengthen the neck. When I walked into the room they jumped from doing nothing to sewing, polishing silver, doing anything to seem authentic. The woman leading me around suggested that I take pictures, repeating “see their long necks.” The last thing I wanted was a picture. I would have preferred a conversation, an invitation into their story.

It turns out that the Kayan people were persecuted by the government of Myanmar in the 1980s and 1990s, causing many of them to flee towards Thailand. Some Kayan refugee camps became tourist destinations buoyed by the exotic appeal of the long-neck tradition, generating enough revenue to make the refugees self-sufficient. In this way tourism became an invaluable tool of recovery. Was that the case here? I couldn’t know. But I wondered, as I was paraded around to look at these women, where recovery ends and exploitation begins. When does selling your culture stop being a tool for self-empowerment and become a barrier to cultural change and self-determination? When does selling your culture become the only reason your culture exists, or exists in a certain fashion? If the tourists only come because your women wear a certain thing, then there’ll be powerful resistance to ever taking that thing off, regardless of the health issues it may cause, the discrimination it may bring, or the plain and simple lack of agency it represents.

This commodification of cultural tradition is of course not limited to Inle Lake or Myanmar, nor to my travels there. I remember traveling around Lake Titicaca in Peru faced with a similar feeling about the Uros people, an indigenous group famous for living on floating islands made of bundled reeds. To visit these islands and the Uros living out tradition there was a huge financial boon to that community, but tourism so drastically outpaces any other form of revenue that it creates a dependence whereby native people must remain traditional, “as they’ve always been,” if they are to reap the greatest financial reward available in the local economy. Meanwhile, skyrocketing tourism increases pollution and resource consumption, degrading the fragile bio-chemistry of the lake and its fishery, thereby further reducing the value of jobs like fishing compared to the lucre of the tourist circuit. In this way, turning tradition into tourism begins as an opportunity for a buck, becomes the biggest buck around, and ends up being the only buck available anymore. In this way, the destruction of the environment and the oppression of people go hand in hand.

These two examples of lacustrine tourism, between Inle and Titicaca, felt uncannily similar in my mind. Maybe it was good that I was doing a guided tour on Inle, instead of exploring on my own in a kayak or something, because at least this way the patterns of tourism were somewhat mediated by local concerns. Nevertheless, I guiltily found that eschewing the imposed tourist order brought about the most fruitful experiences, like when Chu would drop me in some village and say you have two hours to explore. Each time I would run off the beaten path as far as I could and encounter some vignette of daily life that I found more stimulating than the portraits of tradition marketed and sold to tourists.

I stumbled upon a village crowded around a soccer game, and then another village engrossed in a volleyball match. At one stop I walked into a dark room and found 6 men playing pool. They showed me how they play with a deck of cards, each person shooting for the balls that correspond to the hand they are dealt. My hand included a Jack, for example, which is the 13 ball that I narrowly bounced off the corner pocket. Bummer - everyone seemed genuinely let down. To soothe my disappointment I took solace in knowing that playing a game of pool with locals was likely a pretty benign form of tourism, and it was all happening on top of a big lake. This, I could take pictures of.


By the end of the tour I’d reached the limits of my lakeside reverie and was compelled to get out on foot upon returning to the hostel. I walked for an hour and stumbled into Tamara, who was feeling under the weather and just needed some fresh air. We continued along the main road that was full of boys and girls biking home from school in bright plastic ponchos. We avoided the rain-filled potholes and wandered down muddy side streets, eventually coming to a monastery that felt forgotten. A man cooking nearby sensed our curiosity and did us the favor of rapping the door and yelling someone’s name. Tamara and I stood there bewildered as footsteps approached from above and a voice, raspy but kooky, spun closer and closer on the other side of the door as if dizzied by coming to open it. Then in the doorway appeared a wizened monk draped in a layered burgundy robe.

He took us upstairs to a wide open room and fed us bananas as we sat together on the floor. Upon learning that Tamara was Palestinian he launched into a rant about the Israel-Palestine conflict, mostly through gestures since his English was limited. And upon learning that I was from the US he rattled off every automobile make and model that he could manage, which is to say just about every single one. Our conversation seemed to both please him and put him to sleep. We asked about Inle, and he said people only come for the boats, not the surrounding communities, or something along those lines. Then Tamara asked, when I hesitated, about the Rohingya.

The eyes of the monk went wide, pushing the waves of his forehead toward the ceiling. He leaned back slightly, as if having just witnessed a small explosion. And then he leaned forward again and said “Bengali.” The insistence of his answer evinced certainty and composure and a feeling that his answer was such a truism that further questions could not exist. But we pried.

To our knowledge, Bengali could mean either the people of Bengal (a region composed of Bangladesh and the part of India called West Bengal) or their language. Rohingya Muslims for the most part do not speak Bengali, though their language is closer to Bengali than it is to Burmese. So why does this monk keep saying Bengali when we say Rohingya?

His answers echoed, out loud, sentiments I had gotten wind of - that the Rohingya have come in from Bangladesh and taken up land; that they don’t speak Burmese; and that their Muslim faith is uncompromising and is supplanting the Buddhist majority. These grievances and the comfortable refrain of “Bengali” comprised the only substance we could scrape together from the monk’s English, and to our knowledge, it didn’t include any reassuring motes of remorse or ambivalence, nor an awareness that there may be another side to the story, that there may be a whole tragedy to the term “Bengali.”

I should not have been so surprised that a religious figure like a monk, a figure so associated with pacifism, could ever unblinkingly support or at least fail to condemn ethnic cleansing against a religious minority. Why? Not because it’s the modus operandi of religion to kill in the name of it. But because I was reading about Buddhist monks standing side-by-side with the Burmese military in killing the Rohingya. Indeed Rakhine monks (from the Rakhine State, where the Rohingya also live) have been delivering anti-Muslim speeches and inviting violence against Rohingya villages. They’re even leading the charge. So while international opinion attributes this campaign of ethnic cleansing principally to the state, we ought to acknowledge that it is a state wrapped in Buddhist robes.


To understand the Rohingya crisis is to understand how a group of people can come to be unanimously despised in a diverse country. To understand this process, in turn, is to recount years of manipulative statecraft by the Burmese government, centered around the political idea of taingyintha. Roughly translated, taingyintha means ‘national races’ and refers to the idea that a single political identity must exist in Myanmar to unite against common enemies inside and out. This singular identity can arise only from the unification of a prescriptive list of ethnicities that have demonstrably coexisted in the country for a long time. And this aggregate list of ethnicities forms the 8 national races identified and approved by the government: Bamar, Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan. The unassailable Bamar sit at the top, making up about 60% of the list by population. The Rohingya don’t qualify for the list at all. But their Buddhist counterparts in the Rakhine State do, even though they’ve roughly the same amount of amicable history in the region as the Rohingya.

Since the Rohingya don’t count as a national race, the Burmese government can righteously persecute and discriminate against them in the name of taingyintha. They are often denied basic human rights, like the right to leave their village or choose how many children to have, and they are denied identification or citizenship documents. Therefore a vicious cycle is created whereby Rohingya are denied citizenship and then are persecuted for residing illegally as non-citizens in Myanmar. Rohingya are then forced to leave, or flee their burning villages, making it even harder to prove identity or history in a place. This is why, when the monk says that the Rohingya are Bengali, he is not just categorizing or classifying. He is dismissing, discriminating, and persecuting with words as destructive as any military’s arms.

The ironic hypocrisy of monks fomenting violence is doubled when looking at the history of Rakhine monks in particular. These buddhists have had their share of strife with the national military in the past, since the Rakhine State is geographically isolated by mountains and has historically been a hotbed of insurgent movements for independence or autonomy. But nowadays history has come full circle. Conflict between Rakhine buddhists and the state has mostly frozen; the Rakhine Buddhists are included in the schema of national races; and the Rakhine Buddhists now hold up taingyintha as justification to attack their neighbors, the Rohingya. Taingyintha has been so skillfully embedded by the military government into the Burmese national psyche that it’s now being promoted and wielded by its former victims. Taingyintha is not a paradigm of unity but an imagined hierarchy that justifies prejudice, persecution, and at its extreme, ethnic cleansing.

Worse, it seems that the only way out for the Rohingya is to submit to this oppressive paradigm. When advocates for the Rohingya argue for their rights, they invariably assert that, given the chance, Rohingya would be amicable and productive members of society and taingyintha. In doing so, advocates validate the entire idea of national races, and since the Rohingya have the most to gain by being included in the national races, they inadvertently become its loudest supporters.

The government and taingyintha emerge as an inseparable and powerful system that can only be threatened by those with no stake in being included. This means people immune from the magnetic danger of the national races idea must be even louder in denouncing it. But unfortunately most of those people are foreigners, and most foreigners with a voice are (justifiably but maybe myopically) lamenting the Rohingya crisis, whereas shouldn’t we be decrying the root problem of taingyintha and the fact that an entire country has grown out of it? This does not minimize the plight of the Rohingya - it elevates the severity of the crisis by revealing its profound and pervasive nature. It calls into question the policy other international powers should adopt in engaging with Myanmar as a state. And it would seemingly invite religious leaders across the world to mediate in some way. Yet when Pope Francis visited Myanmar in November, he was strongly encouraged not to mention the word Rohingya amid fears that the Burmese Christian community would be seen as supporting the Rohingya and become the target of the government's wrath. The Pope did not say the word, and taingyintha was made stronger still.

Eventually Tamara and I left the monastery to walk back in the rain, pack our things, and go to the bus station. Perhaps our learnings were putting us on edge. When Tamara encountered a former Israeli soldier in the terminal, she didn’t waste a minute before asking why the hell he would ever serve as an occupying force against Palestinians. He didn’t have a great answer, though it wasn't as bad as an oversimplification like “Bengali.”

Tamara and I sat together on the bus and she continued her diatribe about the evils of the Jewish occupation of Palestine. She had just lived there for several months and told me what it was like to live under constant surveillance, to be told where you can go and who you can love, to be constantly in fear that today, this checkpoint at the wall that you have to pass through everyday, could be the one where they decide to arrest you or misunderstand something and resolve it with a weapon. She wondered, wouldn’t all the lessons of the Holocaust serve to teach us, especially its victims, of the wrongs inherent in occupying and oppressing another people? The hypocrisy didn’t sound that dissimilar from the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims.

On one hand I felt very thankful to learn from her side of the story. On the other I felt overwhelmed. Damn, I was just getting my head around the Burmese-Rohingya conflict, and here is another crisis of humanity to which I have dedicated shamefully inadequate amounts of cognitive or emotional energy. To imagine all the suffering that I’ve never imagined. Made me nauseous. And even Tamara had to think about something else eventually.

It's an unfortunate but potentially necessary characteristic of people that it's all too easy to compartmentalize the suffering of others, and it was especially easy given our new setting. We were taking an overnight bus to the next stop on Myanmar’s tourist circuit: Bagan. The driver stood in front of the bus, addressing us over the microphone in Burmese and then English. The PA system was wonky and his announcement waved with a flanging reminiscent of a Pink Floyd audio treatment. He said we would arrive at four in the morning. Behind him above the dashboard hung a row fluorescent teddy bears. They started swaying once we started driving, and soon everyone was asleep, except me, alerted to the peace.

+ & -


My third and most likely final dispatch from Myanmar will be released next week.


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