Myanmar and us
To Mrauk U
The following day in Yangon, I found a small Muslim owned restaurant displaying a sign that stated it served halal food. Here I thought I could get some opinions about the current situation.
During my meal, a Muslim customer came to talk with me. He explained that the situation was very bad for Muslims; they could not get any good jobs or positions in the government. He said ARSA had started the fighting. Now the AA was fighting. Surprisingly, he said that the 'Bengali' from 'Chittagong' had come to Myanmar and were demanding independence. He did not support them. He said the Muslims in Yangon were peaceful but those who had caused the problems had now been forced to leave.
I asked him what he thought the solution to these problems was. He replied that he had a 'red card', he was legal, there was no problem in Yangon. The problem was in Rakhine. From his conversation, some established Muslims living so far away in Yangon, who were unaffected by the atrocities, may be unsympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya. It wasn't just a possible need to protect his own interests. This person had fallen for the government line of illegal Bengali migrants.
At night, this restaurant spilled out from the shop to the pavement and onto the street. Many temporary plastic tables with small red plastic chairs became occupied by Muslim men drinking tea, smoking, or having a meal.
Unlike the cheaper roadside restaurants in Bangladesh where you will find some customers shouting out to the helpers for their orders, demanding immediate and exclusive attention, where the conversation is conducted loudly, here it was quiet. The customers waved their hands to attract the helpers, then waited until they could speak to them when they came table-side. People talked in a quiet voice to each other.
It was clear how the prevailing culture had shaped the habits of people's interactions. These Myanmar customers would find it more difficult to shout to each other when talking in the restaurant than Bangladeshi people in a cheap eatery would find it easy to whisper.
It surprised the hotel staff in Yangon that I wanted to visit Rakhine State. They advised me not to go because the situation was not good, there was fighting. Although I mentioned that tourists were not being targeted, they strongly advised me to go to various other 'touristy' places instead. Eventually, they agreed to enquire about a bus ticket to Mrauk U.
The bus company informed them that the area was off-limits for tourists, something I had already found out from one website. My next option was Sittwe. Strangely, the road to reach Sittwe passed through Mrauk U. The hotel again protested that I should not be embarking on a bus journey that would take a minimum of twenty-four hours to a dangerous area.
The bus left Yangon at 8 a.m. the next morning. We soon crossed flat sparsely inhabited countryside covered with some dry, brown fields and clumps of trees. Hours later, the scenery became hilly, dotted with small isolated farms and villages with the odd larger town.
During one meal stop, I asked to sit with a rather tubby government official who had greeted me amicably on the bus. He asked if my health was good. Taking the cue, I asked about his health. He said, although he was in his 30s, he had diabetes and high blood pressure. He took tablets for his diabetes. His blood pressure was 160/120. He worried about a heart attack but took tablets for his diabetes so it was under control.
As he tucked into a lavish meal of several plates of rice with lots of side dishes, I knew the futility of one-off health advice. In the past, people had listened to me politely, sometimes agreeing, but they changed none of their habits, however life-threatening.
Humans find it quite difficult to appreciate and act on threats that slowly build up over time, such as climate change. We have evolved to fear immediate threats. Our brains would need to have quickly responded to a predator in the past or that person's genes would be extinguished.
Towards evening the road climbed up in a series of sharp zigzags into the range of mountains that had historically kept Rakhine State isolated from the rest of the country, which in the past led to a distinct culture. The drops on either side became precipitous, the scenery spectacular with forest covered ridges and valleys undulating into the dim distance. Logging had cleared all the primary forest in the past, leaving small trees and saplings in what would once have been a majestic dense forest.
Night shrouded the scene - no street lights here - whilst the bus continued revving its engine shrilly as it clawed its twisting way up higher and higher following uninhabited mountain valleys, along mountainous ridges, down valleys... up and down, up and down through the timeless dark night. Over the protesting engine was the guttural sound of passengers, uncontrollably retching again and again into small black plastic bags.
At 1.30 a.m. the bus had one of its regular stops. The stop seemed to drag on indeterminably with other nearby buses and Lorries stationary with their engines turned off. After multiple snacks and sufficient rushed toilet visits so as not to miss the bus, I realised at 4 a.m. when everything was still ominously quiet, that the "it will leave in 5 minutes" to be probably my gross misunderstanding.
I approached some monks sitting at one of the faintly lit outdoor snack tables. They told me there was a problem ahead; there was fighting. They didn't know when the bus would go.
Frowning, the monks explained they were afraid. They were travelling to Mrauk U. There was fighting in Mrauk U. They said they would only stay there for a short time. One monk said he wanted to be a barrister but had no money to go to school so had to become a monk instead. The other said he wanted to make a career creating computer games but had no money to go to school so became a monk.
In the same way some poor parents don't just send their children to madrasas in Bangladesh purely for the religious education, the monks were deprived of their wish for a broad education because school was not free. I mulled about the slogans of 'free education' in Bangladesh. The monks explained how in state education you have to pay for textbooks, pens, a uniform, etc. They had wanted to study but had no other option. They hoped things would improve under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The rather tubby man from the bus who I had earlier eaten with now made a ponderous appearance from the gloom. I asked him about "the problem". He said there was an army curfew around Mrauk U every night from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
The man became surprisingly open, explaining he was a government vet but also a business man, saying the problem was the fighting between the AA and army. He said he and all the Rakhine people support the AA. According to him, the government just took all the wealth from Rakhine State. The AA fought for people's rights. He asserted that the army killed common Rakhine people.
The government employee explained that the old bridge ahead could not take heavy vehicles so all the buses and Lorries had to cross the river by ferry. The lone ferry would not start until 8 a.m. Our bus was behind many other vehicles so the wait would last many hours.
I explained how I was not allowed to go to Mrauk U. He said he'd find out. After several phone calls to government departments in Mrauk U, he said I could go. He asked if I would like to come with him. Eagerly taking the chance, I collected my bags and took a seat in an open three-wheeler he and several people had hired.
To be continued...