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3 October 2007
Now's the time to be engaged
By Keane Shum, For The Straits Times
SIX weeks ago, before the protests in Myanmar began, I was into the 14th hour of my train ride from Yangon to Mandalay when the compartment went dark. I stared at the light bulbs and fans swaying from the carriage ceiling several times during the day, wondering if they would be operational after dusk. They were not.
But it made for a glorious night skyscape, one of the few times in my city-bred life when I have looked up at the sky and seen stars so dense that it felt like I was looking at entire galaxies.
Late that night I headed into a town with no confirmed lodging reservations and not an English speaker for miles. Hungry from munching on only bananas all day, and my back aching from a reclining seat that could not un-recline, I felt slightly disorientated. In the dark and on my own, I could not remember why people do this travelling thing, this lonely dance to uncomfortable rhythms.
The next day, the monks of Mandalay reminded me, the same way they reminded the world that Myanmar exists.
U Bein's Bridge is why I travel. It is a 200-year-old teak pedestrian bridge that stretches across a lake in the former royal city of Amarapura, near Mandalay. And it blows away the bridges of Golden Gate, Sydney Harbour, Brooklyn, whatever.
BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS: U Bein's Bridge (above) provides the perfect backdrop to rural life in Myanmar. It is a stage for all, from monks taking time off from their religious duties to ordinary folk just going about their business.
You name any bridge, this one is more photogenic. Because more than just making a pretty picture, it is a stage, teeming with characters acting out parts cast just for them. Life is always a bit of a show, but sometimes it picks gorgeous backdrops, and this was one of those times.
Here was this postcard sunset over a gleaming bridge on a glittering lake, and everyone was happy to be there. People who were walking through just walked on. Couples and families were there together just to be together, picnicking on life.
And the monks - the very ones later protesting - were the happiest of them all, climbing up and jumping off trees, wrestling and bathing and posing for their spanking new Japanese digital cameras. There were a couple dozen of them, and in a comforting, telling reversal of the usual backpacker request, they asked me if I could take a picture with each of them, one by one.
The kids of Myanmar are why I travel. There are loads of kids in Myanmar. It sounds basic, but it is true. According to Unicef, more than a third of the population is under 18, and it is a generation that has grown up apart from the world most of us know.
They are not unhappy kids. They squeal and run and jump and laugh and cry like any other kids do. But right now, their lives, like their taxi drivers, are racing ahead in a beat-up car without seat belts.
Myanmar's military rulers have been in control for so long - longer than any other in the world - that they know how to suppress their people without resorting to absolute barbarity. And if you want to know how the next Darfur starts, this is how. The ingredients are all here.
A crippling dictatorship that keeps itself in power and in style by exploiting the country's natural resources; violently deep ethnic divisions that have raged for centuries; endemic poverty; a forced isolation from the outside world, one with which its rulers are only too happy to comply.
And when the US says its companies and tourists should not go to Myanmar, Myanmar says 'thank you, we do not want you here anyway'.
And so this generation of kids, like the past few (it has been 45 years since the country last saw civilian rule), will grow up thinking this is how things work. There are good intentions behind the suggested travel boycott, but at some point it becomes neglect too.
Today, Myanmar is on the cusp. The military is either cracking down or breaking down. Now is not the time to antagonise the regime with more sanctions or more boycotts. Now is the time to engage Myanmar, to go there and see more, understand more and, with some luck, contribute more.