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Uncomfortable Silences: A Walk in Myanmar

Myanmar, photo courtesy the author

David Fettling | Longreads | March 2018 | 19 minutes (5,019 words)

Now what I remember most about him is what he said about the Rohingya: that they were troublemakers, not really citizens of his country, undeserving of sympathy, that he hated them. He had said it standing under a banyan tree, and I had noticed, again, his dress: he was wearing a longyi, a Burmese sarong, and with it, new-looking, Western hiking boots. His longyi’s knot was tied impeccably. His boots appeared to me to not quite fit him.

But I spent three days and walked 50 kilometers with him before he said this. Through a trekking agency I’d arranged to meet him in Kalaw, in hill-country in central Myanmar, and took an overnight bus there from Yangon. The bus was ultra-modern, air-conditioned, and near-empty. Arriving at dawn, I disembarked into cold air and a fog that obscured the tops of pine trees. I found the café where we were to meet, ordered a tea. Every few minutes a man sidled up to me and asked if I needed a guide. When I said I had one already they looked not merely disappointed but resentful; slinking away, I saw them lingering on the café’s margins.

This was a year ago, so Myanmar was still in-vogue: after decades of oppressive military government and isolation internationally, it had begun to ‘open’ and appeared to be moving toward democratization. A perception of the country as a dramatic ‘good-news story’ — a newly-liberated populace, pursuing long-denied opportunities — was drawing increasing international interest. I badly wanted to see Myanmar and Kalaw through this lens; but those sullen, hands-in-pockets-would-be-guides kept straying into my field of vision.

He arrived fifteen minutes late. He looked extremely young: early twenties, I guessed. He introduced himself as Thomas — I blinked, asked him to repeat it. Thomas was at once exuberantly friendly and palpably nervous: as he met me he profusely apologized. “I’m sorry, sir” — I never got him to stop calling me sir — “I am running late. I still have to get some things from the supermarket. I am running late, I am sorry. I think maybe you will write this on TripAdvisor.” I told him it was no problem, and we walked two streets over, not to a supermarket but to a small, dowdy grocery store. Thomas disappeared; I waited outside. Next-door was an internet café. Young men played computer games, their faces near-expressionless. The fog was clearing to a powder-blue sky, yet I felt a sense of anti-climax: this, apparently, was Myanmar’s transformation in actuality. Thomas reappeared; walking quickly, he continued to apologize. “I am sorry about this,” he said, into the chilly blue morning. “I am sorry about this.”
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