There is only one other person staying at the hotel above the river. She is an artist from Spain. On the evening before her departure, we dine together. She has a pressing need to explain herself.
"I'm an idealist like you. I really am. I grew up in Spain, you know. I remember what it was like, during Franco's time. My parents were always telling me not to get involved in the politics, it was very dangerous. Really, I am an idealist, and I think it's terrible that these people are so badly off."
"I don't think badly off really explains it. They are poverty-stricken, malnourished. And oppressed. Hungry for many things."
"Do you really think they are? Really? Is it really possible to be hungry in the tropics? There is so much fruit everywhere. When I was in the north, there were two children sitting outside my restaurant with empty bowls, so of course I gave them some of my food. But someone else would have fed them if I hadn't. They wouldn't have gone to bed hungry."
I swallow a sip of my water, bottled water.
She continues, "A doctor I met up there said that he has never seen the infant mortality rate so high. I agree, that is really awful. But in a way, it's a natural form of birth control."
I want to ask this elegant, beautiful woman if she is on the pill. She was educated at one of the most expensive art schools in London. Has she ever had a baby, and watched her baby die, slowly, of diarrhoea? Dysentery? Malaria? Food poisoning? Those are the common killers of babies born in Burma, ailments often complicated by malnutrition. I finish my glass of water. The food has come but my appetite has left me.
"And they are always smiling! I really don't believe they're so miserable. They're always so happy."
Surely she will hear the exasperation in my voice. "But that's part of being Buddhist. Many people, especially the poor, accept the conditions of their lives, and they revel in whatever life is around them. The Burmese are a deeply hospitable people, too: that's why smile at us."
"They look so happy. There seemed to be a lot of people with bad eye diseases in the north, and even they laughed a lot."
Awkward pause. What can I say?
"I really am idealist, but if democracy came all at once to Burma, this country would disintegrate! It can't come too quickly."
"But the people of Burma already voted in a democratic government. There were elections in 1990. The NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, won by a landslide. The military refused to hand over power." Surely she must know these little details from her guidebook.
"Well, voting for freedom is one thing, but living with it is another. If it comes too quickly, Myanmar will disintegrate!"
How can she not see? She is a painter; her vocation is in her eyes. "But the country already is disintegrating. Nothing works here. The currency is a farce, corruption is rife, the military makes deals with druglords, and the overwhelming majority of people cannot afford to live on what they make because inflation is so high. Even the electricity doesn’t work. People die after operations because the hospitals cannot afford proper sterilization equipment!"
She looks at me squarely, condescendingly. "Journalists exaggerate the situation."
"I haven’t been talking to journalists. I’ve been talking to Burmese people. Students, doctors, artists, market women."
But the doubt remains plain on her face, tightening her lips. "I know how bad it is. But if democracy comes too quickly ..." Her voice trails off. She begins to eat. I move my food around with a fork.
Strange, the fork. Lately I’ve been eating Burmese-style, with my hands. There is something intensely pleasurable about touching the food one puts in one’s mouth. Messy, but fun.
The Spanish artist looks up from her curried chicken with an alarming intensity and asks, "What are you trying to do for the Burmese people?"
This question takes me by surprise. I think for a moment, but can’t decide how to reply. I feel acute embarrassment. Flustered, I say, "Nothing."
"But you must be trying to do something."
I raise my eyebrows, searching. "Um. No. I'm not."
"Why did you come here then? You said you would never come here only as a tourist, so what are you doing here then, if not trying to accomplish something?"
"I'm just talking and listening."
"But aren't you trying to accomplish the freedom of these people?"
I laugh out loud; her statement is so lofty. I am embarrassed and uncomfortable that we are sitting at this table in Burma, talking about the Burmese, while the waiters stand at the dining room doors like sleepy sentinels. They might understand everything we’re saying. Or nothing, which is worse. I want to apologize to them. I want to flee. "I don't pretend anything like that. It's too presumptuous. It sounds silly. Only they can accomplish their own freedom. I am … hanging around."
"But you've been going on about how terrible the government is here, and how much all these people you've met have suffered, and how powerful this place is for you. Don't you want to do anything? You must be trying to do something. Why don't you just say it?"
"I just want to write about what I see here. That's all. That will do whatever it can do. All things considered, that will be very little."
Now it is her turn to sip water. Oh, let the meal be done, let this be over. In other circumstances--in a gallery in Madrid, for example, drinking sangria in a bar in Segovia, I know I would like her. It is foolish as well as fraudulent for me to stand on the moral high ground, though the natural birth control comment was appalling. But we all say appalling things sometimes. It’s the nature of being white, or powerful, or simply human. I have Gorky to temper me: By then I could see that all people are more or less guilty before the god of absolute truth, and that no one is as guilty before mankind as the self-righteous. The sharpening edge of defensiveness in her voice comes from a guilt which has nothing to do with me. I want to say, "It's unnecessary, please don't feel that way," but I just listen to what she says next with a small, pained smile on my face.
"I really feel that I have done a lot for them. I have tried to talk and smile as much as possible. You know, I’ve tried to let them know that foreigners are not threatening, not awful people. And it's absolute hell up in the north where there are no other tourists. The locals won't leave you alone for a second. It's hard work, to be up there, wandering around, trying to get to places they won't let you get to, and all the people are mobbed around you, and there's no other white people. I kept calm the whole time, never lost my temper, always just smiled as much as possible."
I smile myself. The news is coming on. Out of respect, or perhaps out of curiosity to catch more fragments of our conversation, one of the dining room attendants turns down the volume. Conversation wanes in the presence of the silent news; we turn, along with the young Burmese waiters, to watch images of a fine mango crop on screen, box after box of the small, sweet spheres lined up and glowing like orange gems. Surely it is impossible to be hungry in the land of a million mangoes. Now come the obligatory scenes of a military leader inspecting a new factory. Then a whole troop of soldiers marching on some road somewhere in the jungle. Shot after shot of automatic weapons, belts heavy with ammunition. They are very serious, very thin young men, every jaw bone a study in angles, clenched muscle. The Spanish woman turns away from the television and talks more about the difficulties of being a tourist. I nod slowly, suddenly tired. White-shirted waiters come, take away our plates. With great concern, the younger one asks, in Burmese, why I have eaten so little. "I am not hungry." He is aghast, despite my attempts to reassure him. When the table is cleared and the poor waiter becalmed, the Spanish artist and the Canadian writer stand up. "Perhaps we will meet again some day in Madrid." Perhaps. We exchange Buenas noches.
Oddly enough, as I get ready for bed, I think about the Basque country, Euskadi: northern Spain, but not Spain exactly. And so very far from Burma, another world, another lifetime. But every country shares history, just as every human being does. If I know one thing, it is the ultimate meaninglessness of borders. A decade ago, I lived with a woman, also a painter, who was still a child when the tyrant Franco was pronounced dead. As soon as this news came, the children of Euskadi were turned loose from school. The most vivid memory of Maru’s childhood was made that day, when she ran through the village streets with her classmates, crying joy.
25 March 2004
Burma: Broken Heaven, Broken Earth
Canadian essayist, novelist, and poet Karen Connelly wrote about Burma in the Asia Observer: