Archive for the ‘reportage’ Category

In early March 2002, Khin Zaw, pictured, stepped on a landmine while working as a hunter in the Wawlay Nyaing forest some four hours outside of the small Karen town of Myawaddy on the Thai-Burmese border. He lost his right leg, and with it any viable means of livelihood, and for eight years has lived exclusively from begging in the streets of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Myawaddy is the site of recent (and decades-long) armed conflict between the Burmese military and a coalition of Karen independence fighters, including breakaway factions of the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) and the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). This more recent fighting of the past two months has killed many and resulted in a continuing exodus of more than 20,000 refugees from threatened villages into the Thai border town of Mae Sot, from where many are sent in short order back into Burma.

Among many of these refugees, in addition, are landmine victims, many non-combatants or farmers, or, like Khin Zaw, itinerant hunters pressed to work in dangerous areas to support, as he did, his family in the city. From that date in early-March, Khin Zaw has in fact not seen his wife and two children, now in their mid-teens, still living in Yangon. He has never been able to afford the ticket that far, and nor would his compromised physical condition permit him to find or be offered work in Burma – nor anywhere else. The stigma attached to the forced abandonment of his family and livelihood in Burma is palpable, and has in large part kept Khin Zaw from maintaining strong ties with his family in Burma. Nor does he have contact with brothers and sisters still living there.

While speaking with Khin Zaw, who I met begging on the main tourist strip of Chiang Mai (as he does seven days a week for four hours a day) discussion of his family introduces the only real moment of discomfort, clouds of pain overshadowing his otherwise warm, usually smiling face. Khin Zaw is learning English, when he can afford it, in Chiang Mai, but his friend and fluent English speaker Ajong offers to translate for us. They are both open and friendly, softly-spoken and tactful men, with an intelligent modesty of manner that seems to come naturally to many Burmese. It is a three-way conversation that illumines for me perhaps only some of the legal and socio-economic complexity lying behind the lives of Burmese illegal refugees in northern Thailand, though on the evidence it would seem Khin Zaw’s story is emblematic of many here, and in Mae Sot further south. As the conditions which have given rise to it are ongoing and critical, it seems equally as critical to bring awareness of such conditions to a wider audience. Khin Zaw expressed a happy willingness to tell me his story, and I am honoured to relate it here on his behalf.

When he stepped on the landmine, he relates, he was living alone but had work friends nearby who were able to carry him bodily through the jungle across the border into Thailand. The accident occurred at one in the afternoon, and they arrived at the Thai border town at nine that night, where the Mae Sot Hospital immediately took him into intensive care. Khin Zaw tells how he was largely unconscious during the journey and with the great loss of blood came very close to dying; were it not for the prompt and incredible service of his two friends, he would not have survived. He stayed in Mae Sot some three months in recovery, without cost, before being released into the general community. Dr. Synthia Maung from the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot claims that 60 to 70 per cent of landmine victims who make their way there are civilians, many women and children. As an accident victim Khin Zaw could not be classified as a refugee, and nor did any of the NGO operations and their representatives approach him for economic or further social support. He relied exclusively on Burmese friends, until they too were unable to support him, and he felt he couldn’t expect more from their hospitality. So he returned, largely by necessity, to Myawaddy, and took up again in Wawlay district with his old workmates. But unable to work, having little longterm incentive to stay there either, and unable to reach his family in distant Yangon, he did as many do in his situation, and sought refuge in Chiang Mai, further north in Thailand.

But this is where the more intractable of Khin Zaw’s troubles began. As an illegal alien in Thailand, Khin Zaw, along with thousands of others seeking refuge from the fighting in Karen and Shan states, as well as the oppression in Burma generally, is constantly at risk of deportation. Indeed in the eight years since his accident he has been arrested nine times, imprisoned at length each time, and sent back into Burma at Tachilek, a crossover point for many refugees (and other travelers alike) linking to Mai Sai on the Thai side of the border. He is not entitled to a passport, or a visa for Thai residence, and in view of his injury, a work-permit. On every occasion of his arrests, the first in 2004, he has been forced to spend up to a month in jail each time, and most recently three and a half months, before the inevitable deportation to Tachilek. Altogether his periods of incarceration, an innocent victim of an illegally-planted landmine, have amounted to roughly nine months.

On each occasion also he has had to pay Thai police 5,000 Baht (c. US$165) in order to secure his release. Once across the border at Tachilek, which he soon leaves to return to Chiang Mai, he is ordered by Burmese soldiers to relinquish any valuables he might still have – whatever cash he carries, a watch, clothes-items, mobile-phone. His only saving-grace on the Burmese side of the border is that as an ethnic Burmese (Bamar), Khin Zaw is spared the beatings he has regularly seen meted out as a matter of course to his less-privileged, usually Shan (or other ethnic nationality) fellow-countrymen. It’s hardly surprising that under these conditions he chooses to risk again the uncertainty of life in Thailand, than remain in the effectively closed society of life under the military regime in Burma. He says that he loves his country dearly, but can’t live under those conditions. It is hard enough under most conditions available to him, as a handicapped man, but those in Burma make the suffering still worse.

Burma is one of only 17 countries that abstained from voting on a 2005 United Nations resolution to ban the use of landmines globally. The ruling SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), or its current manifestation in the nascent ‘government’ following the fraudulent elections of November 7, has similarly not acknowledged the Mine Ban Treaty. Recent figures on landmine accidents in Burma available from Landmine Monitor show a 90 per cent increase in 2007 from 2006 figures. The online Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor reports that “In 2009 there were at least 262 new mine/explosive remnants of war (ERW) casualties in Myanmar…of the total, 259 casualties were civilians…In 2008, at least 213 civilian casualties (30 killed and 183 injured) were identified.” It adds that “Due to the lack of systematic data collection and varying sources of annual data, reporting does not reflect the full extent of mine/ERW incidents and casualties in the country. In 2009 the UN noted that many casualties remained unreported.” Other international monitoring organizations (such as Human Rights Watch) have also claimed that the Burmese military and insurgent armies using civilians to reconnoiter known landmine areas (known as minesweeping), acting effectively as mortal human shields, is prevalent as well. Other NGO workers, including Medecins Sans Frontiers, have withdrawn from working in Burma in part because of restrictions the government has placed on their access to landmine victims. The mines themselves are bought from, among other places, Italy and the U.S, and following Russia’s recent discontinuation of landmine use, Burma is now the sole non-participator in the aims of the global anti-landmine treaty.

Now 41 years, Khin Zaw remarried in Chiang Mai, and after a powerful conversion experience, became a Christian along with many of his fellow Burmese there. He speaks of the indubitable sense of the love of Christ, a direct emotional transference that he rarely felt in the more intellectual reasonings of his native Buddhism. He describes the doctrines of karma especially as too complicated and demanding to observe with real consistency, in contrast to the simple but deep faith in Christ that allows him to feel forgiven and purified whatever his current circumstance. Considering his consistent warmth and cheeriness, there is little doubt his Christian faith has given him much in pulling through the constant hardships of eight years.

I can only marvel at his resilience, as he lifts his carpet matting and crutches from his grubby spot on the street to catch a tuk-tuk home, after half a dozen ignore him as a social undesirable, an illegal, one of those of the social under-class in Thailand the local people tend  to avoid. It remains the case that no social support network can be relied upon by Khin Zaw in Chiang Mai, and even his church can’t afford supplements to his meagre earnings as a beggar – at most some 2000 Baht (US$66) a week. While I sit with him at his begging-post it is normal to watch long eddies of Western tourists and Thai party-goers pass him without notice, or for an occasional tourist flashing jewellery and cameras to stop and churlishly offer him a 20 Baht note (US 66 cents). Just around the corner the same tourist readily pays 400 – 600 Baht (US$13 – 20) to watch kick-boxing shows, or pay 170 Baht (US$6) for a drink. Such is life as usual in Chiang Mai, for Khin Zaw, and for those who pass him seemingly oblivious to this particular reality of the place and the time.

A day or so after our interview, Khin Zaw invites me to visit his church, and tells me he never fails to make it there every Sunday. I ask him how he gets there, and smiling expansively he says he takes a tuk-tuk. It costs him 100 Baht for the round journey, but he never resents the weekly cost. “I have faith,” he says, smiling. “You have to trust things will be ok”.


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In downtown Yangon, exactly a fortnite before the country’s national ‘democratic election’ is due to be contested, life appears much as usual. People lounge and relax for hours over slow nickle pots of tea in street tea-shops, children run and play among vehicles and the detritus of roadwork, monks – and nuns, in miraculously clean, pink tunics with tan shoulder robes and brown umbrellas – make alm’s rounds through the streets, barefoot and impassive amidst noise, rain or traffic. Yangon is a colourful, if shambolic city, alive with a human warmth and vibrancy that rarely betrays a much deeper discontent beneath its vital surface.

Yet cracks do show, as much in the difficulties of daily life as in the spoken admissions of people from all walks of life. While the shaky infrastructure of much of Yangon is little different from that of a city in a poor Indian state (Patna or Kolkata for example) other less obvious constraints of communication and movement belie a much deeper malaise conditioning much of life here. My guesthouse proprietor is required to report to the local police registry office to submit details of all his current guests, sometimes more than once a day, reporting any knowledge of their movements and activities. This is ironic considering many areas of the country are off-limits to travelers, and even non-Burmese ethnic nationalities alike, so that both visitors and locals are unable to travel as freely as the expectation that they do so might allow. Perhaps the most practically curtailing proof of unreasonable control however comes in all online communication where even mainstream e-mail sites require overseas server providers in order to allow for a few snatched moments of web access, usually at the cost of a lengthy process of proxy transfer. Sometimes there is no access at all, and then the extent of Burma’s isolation from the world beyond comes clear, with a chill of recognition: much could happen here that could go unknown by both local and international news providers, or only until it might be too late. It is only a matter of moments before the barricades and cordons can be drawn up and lines of armed military personnel prevent any kind of open communication at all.

In my short time here, without eliciting any discussion of the election, I’ve been confided to by many people eking out a living as tea-shop owners, guesthouse workers, booksellers, taxi-drivers and beggars. Many have made it clear that they hold little faith in the coming election, others, especially younger educated people, try to preserve some optimism that a reasonably democratic procedure might begin to institute the reforms they expect is their due in voting at all.

Few have suggested to me that a boycott of the election is the only course to follow, and while emphasizing their fidelity to Aung San Suu Kyi and the now heavily compromised former NLD party, they profess her political power to be at an all-time minimum, and her career effectively closed. Yet they say this with a wistfulness that makes it very clear that while her political currency appears to have passed its peak, their personal faith in and love for who she is and what she means to their national identity is as undying as ever. Younger people I have spoken to look to the Student 88 party as most likely to hold some kind of legitimacy in the democratic cause, at least one with some political negotiating power, even as they are certain the USDP will win the election outright and current Prime Minister Thein Sein become the new leader of Myanmar under its auspices. It is hard to disagree with them, and everything seems to be confirming it by the day. Yet even this morning an apparent show of protest by some monks near the Shwedagon Pagoda, and the arrest of two of them, challenges that foregone conclusion. In this election anything could happen, and the coming two weeks hold much more radical surprises in store.

Trading English books with a bookseller all of eighty years, speaking through his two remaining betel-stained teeth, nothing was mentioned of the election until I was about to take leave of him. Then he cannily grinned and said, ‘And you don’t know anything about the election, do you?’ I quickly grinned back and agreed, saying, ‘Nothing at all! In fact, I’ve forgotten about it! What is it?’ He slapped his knees and burst out into laughter, two friends joining in, all of us laughing in a happy defiance as I crossed the road. A nearby police official looked askance at us, but we kept on laughing. There was a feeling that no matter who might be observing, the local people preserve an integrity and conviction intact precisely through such defiance, however passing. The irony also was that the book I’d exchanged with the old bookseller was a collection of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s short fiction: a great Russian writer repeatedly persecuted by Stalin’s Soviet regime, his life often threatened, until he had finally died in exile in Paris, obscure and largely unknown to the Russian reading public of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods. Yet his writing lives on, read now in English in Yangon. The old man shook my hand and thanked me and said he looked forward to reading the stories, brilliant parables of freedom eked out in unlikely places and through fragile human solidarities, just as it is in Burma today. In such ways the best of the human spirit survives, and triumphs in ways that Gen. Than Shwe and his minions seem deadened to, so great already is their loss.

Catching a taxi last night to the Shwedagon Pagoda to see the full-moon festival there, my driver (slightly drunk) told me almost as soon as I was inside how much he loved ‘Daw Suu Kyi’. By the time we arrived at the glittering golden stupa there were tears in his eyes, and he almost refused to accept my payment for the ride. Such is the warmth and faith of many of the Burmese people I have met here in only a short time. The overriding conclusion that can’t be avoided is that such a people deserve much better than the disrespect and humiliation the ruling regime mete out to them again and again in so many forms of curtailment of basic rights of expression, assembly, freedom of association and self-determination.

Two days ago I saw a man being led along Merchant Street, both his arms gripped hard by two black-uniformed military personnel on either side. The man was young, mild-faced and went passively; I don’t know what he had done that warranted his arrest, but he went almost willingly, as if he knew beforehand that it was only to be expected, had perhaps gone through the process before. I didn’t know if he had broken the law, or what passes for such in Burma, but it seemed certain that he, too, didn’t deserve to be led away, stallholders and bystanders craning their necks to see him go, to an unobserved interrogation, and perhaps many years in one of Burma’s notoriously inhumane prisons.

Life appears here to be business as usual, but deep beneath the surface a pride and strength of spirit speaks out loud, saying that the subjugation of fundamental freedom can only go so far, beyond which point everything will be risked to secure its eventual triumph. Perhaps this is the one thing in its people the ruling regime has failed to manouvre against, the one thing it will finally be unable to withstand. Whatever the election outcome in two weeks, the quest for genuine freedom isn’t over, and the election might only be its prelude. October 24, Yangon. Copyright © Martin Kovan
An edited version of this article was published in the online  journal The Irrawaddy on 28.X.2010, as “The Malaise Below the Surface”: http://www.irrawaddy.org/election/…/560-the-malaise-below-the-surface.html

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Jalgaon, 25.XI.08


Grit that seems to come from under the door. As if self-willed, stolen in by night. In the morning, before I turn on the TV, there is a small ritual of gathering this fine sand, come in from the street, from different travellers’ shoes, from the largely arid wastes of the plains beyond the small town. A minor ordering against general encroachments.

In the mid-morning, the TV doesn’t work. The general power is disconnected, though this is only meant to last for three hours: a struggle with a minor addiction to the World Movies channel. There is a disturbance, outside, down the corridor, a brief verbal skirmish between a Spanish woman and one of the Indian workers: she is impatient and he is repeatedly apologetic, both it seems in a familiar mode, a small scene of disorder they have played out many times before this one. The woman wins the minor contest – even in India. ( In bed reading early Bellow by torchlight, this room immured from light, the adventures of the prose exploit this one, a youth again, in hiding, picaresque fugitive between walls. I never know what will come next.)

Later, with the power returned, there’s more sense in going out to eat. The Mumbai ticket needs confirming, down at the local station, an obscure, stray satellite of one of Dante’s purgatorial suburbs. And always far more people than the existing system seems able to accommodate. A thousand men materializing always at the head of the queue. If I were not a self with a self-project to enact in the world I could stay there indefinitely, eternally, relegated to the end of the line a martyr a saint of patience and waiting except that I have by this time gone beyond suffering it seems, suffering is what real people do and I am a cipher a circle a zero or orobouros not merely chasing its own tail because this tail and all its imaginary outgrowths have been digested, self-fellated so many aeons before there is no more of that fictional shambolic passage to show for it has been told a million times what more another Cervantes Sterne Rushdie or Foster Wallace to repeat the tale of misbegotten quests? Please, steal this cheap plastic pen, the cheap imitation watch from this same wrist that itself imitates how many yesteryears of DNA? In this queue in this queue in this queue I am nobody nada to wait to be waited upon by others to wait for the enaction the event the happening I believe it has become a truism to suggest that the à venir never arrives or does it or does it or does it.

I leave, I can’t wait, I abandon the confirmation side of the process, the ticket is in my hand, this is enough, this will be my way out of here, I will leave, I will be delivered in Mumbai, three hours away, tomorrow, my birthday, of all days.


Five more hours of powerlessness. It is good, it is better, to read, cut toenails, wash a dusty shirt, prepare cups of electric black tea and biscuits in my small escape-hatch, Bellow to hand. The town itself bellows, aches and roars dimly, beyond the single, barred window. The Spanish infanta departed. The Indian peon (archaic word, strangely permissible) – chastened. He eats his unlit lunches on the cool floor right in the corridor. In the early evening the TV appears to work. I seek ‘the world news’: but there is no English broadcasting. Hindi, Marathi, some Tamil, apparently. Perhaps Gujerati, even Malayalam. (Listed here only for phonetic pleasure.) But only brief skirmishes into English, occasional morses of escaped worlds: bandits, world summit, cholera, one-day test. Field day for a collagiste. (Be my guest, while I am yours.) Soon the transmission buzzes out, exhausted in the swinging temperatures. I sleep early, Bellow patient, near-silent (there are still echoes) by my ear. And it slips into the decision-making apparatus that I’ll go to the caves enter the grotto Buddha place, what wombs still there simple sublime, but here here but what I know but sublime but this desiccated wasteland outskirts of town, dried heart, small pitted dried fruit they sell like shrunken labia in the streets on a cart, to the caves on a cart thus have I heard Lord Buddha once saw lying beyond the palace gates a cripple an old man a corpse on a cart on a cart on a cart a corpse on a cart a corpse

and saw a robed giver-upper in the muddy street and did the same did the same did the same did the did he did he did did di di di didididididi


There’s no entry for the real-life journal, unlike this simulacrum. Strange European companion for the day, I never knew her name. Children, impeccably poor. Touts, scammers and shysters. Big thick horde-groups of French and German burghers. (Where’s my bacon, where’s my beef?) Not charitable, on my birthday, can’t afford to be, when so much is lost. Already gone. Gate gate parasamgate. Many of the finest wall-paintings ruined by vandals. But the echoing vaults there still. Buddhist sutta bled clean and transparent into the walls. Schist and basalt. Centuries of industry. Centuries passed now, only these marks here, nameless workers, unknown bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, carving into the empty vast of earth: full weight of elephant ear, chariot, flank of deva girl, so many breasts limpid fruit hung from the boughs of mango trees, how many sweat monsoons slipped away but for these austere dripping fruits of time. Before the body became an item, commodified by an unreal market value, gave supply a demand. Gave need, a craving. Tanha, or the Noble Truth, re-told by Cervantes and Co.

I pay the guide vastly inflated sums merely to regain my solitude. The beggars demand spiritual succour in the form not of mangoes but of Euros. Even the children disdain the bunches of bananas I offer them. While I am there I’m accosted by three local children, near-violent in their demands. I teach them to teach themselves how to make an offering – a Marathi folk song for paid lunch, a Bollywood shimmy for the schoolbooks they say they need. They are nervous at first, outside the regular routine, tentative as young horses drinking at strange water. Then satiric, parodic of themselves without ever knowing of punk or post-New Wave or postmodernism. They understand the disguises of irony, its self-protection, not yet ten years old, never gone to school. After their debut concert, shambolic but brave, leave them most of my last rupees. By then their song has been sung true. They can join the greats.

End of day dusk, before the bus is leaving, a poor farmer with splintering crystals gathered from his fields. Another I had had was stolen, weeks before. So I buy, just one, to replace it, the lucky charm from the Womb of wombs, the Door of all doors, the Cave of all possible recesses, refuges, and places of eternal safety. I buy, and will buy again, to pay penance, to placate the demons, to make feeble mark on my slate of credit out in the unreachable sky, I pay, I pay because in this world here below it is the only way we now know the only sacrifice we now make the only intermediary between the gods and ourselves we still trust in. So we will pay. And pay, and pay again. On the bus ride back I’m the only one standing, no-one offers me a seat. The ticket for Mumbai somehow between my fingers, November 26 ill-printed, foregone now, let slip through the window into the darkening night. The sunset is supernal. An ache of surrender.

Next morning the TV doesn’t work. I go for late breakfast, a year to add to those that have gone before. Back at the hotel the Jain proprietor offers me the front-page Times of India, shakes his head, little more. Then the TV is working, as if self-willed, I can’t follow the Hindi, but we watch, we watch, craning old survivors’ necks, lizards in the largely arid zones. Still alive, yes. Hell three hours down the line, the line that divides. But we know we have paid, as they have.

As they have but not as they have.

Published in Percutio 2009, No. 3, Paris: http://alpha.books.online.fr/Percutio/html/PastContents.html

 April, 2009 Paris





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