Photo: Alex Schwab
It took me a long time and five continents to learn what I know about the men you can trust and the ones you can’t, and my gut told me I could trust this man. Still. He was a man and I barely knew him so I fingered the six-inch gurkha knife I had tucked into my pants before I climbed onto the back of his motorbike. “The restaurant is not in town,” is all he would reveal.
John*, who had just returned to Burma following a more than two-decade exile, was excited. When we arrived at the stilted teak pier and shack that constituted the restaurant, I realized there was an air about him – one that hadn’t been there earlier in the day – of just barely suppressed intensity, like a person who had recently eaten a chili pepper. Time, I had discovered during the previous two weeks, was an extraordinarily flexible concept in Burma, yet he had arrived at my guesthouse precisely at 7 p.m. as we had discussed, wearing ironed blue jeans and a white blazer. I wondered if he thought we were on a date.
Earlier as we exited the gate from Nyaung Shwe, a substantial fishing village southeast of Mandalay, he drove clumsily and pointed to an unimpressive pagoda. “That’s where they changed my life,” he had said. Twenty-four years earlier, he had been the leader of the uprising that both brought Aung San Suu Kyi forth as a national icon and led to the public slaughtering of thousands of Burmese civilians.
I’d spent the afternoon watching him do business. He plucked me from a wrongheaded walk through the countryside outside of Nyaung Shwe and spoke to me in an English that, though fluent, was spiced with isms I didn’t recognize. He said things like, “up the spout” and “no good, lah?”
Having been on bicycle, he disembarked so that we could talk and, wheeling it between us, led the way to a small village. He was more carefully groomed than most Burmese I had encountered: His teeth were white and straight and his clothes were western, a polo shirt tucked into belted cargo shorts. He spoke of visiting Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, even the States.
His frankness was unusual. In my experience, most Burmese were reserved around foreigners, while John freely offered up the fact that he was in the country “unofficially,” that he thought the recent change in government had a 50/50 shot at working, that it was all dependent on which of Burma’s current leaders lived and which died.
The business of the day, as it turned out, was something John called cut rice. A mixture of two kinds that are soaked, ground, cut into strips, dried and fried. John was in the village to negotiate a deal to buy wholesale and secure the exclusive rights to sell bags of these things one town over. He insisted that I sit on a log and drink tea while he made his case to the shirtless proprietor. The business meeting involved all present, including the 7-year-old kid who had showed us the way to the correct hut after demanding both money and candy and me (on my log), munching on cut rice and sitting in a semi-circle in a field around the proprietor’s sizable wife, who was actively frying in an enormous wok over an open flame. Cut rice had been this family’s business for three generations and I left clutching an enormous bag of it, a gift.
During dinner, John became more animated and excitable with each sip of beer. His giddiness was childlike and he picked up previously absent traits like running his hands back through his hair and laughing at his own jokes. Having become mildly alarmed at his newly manic behavior, I barely spoke except to steer his story telling from time to time. I sipped my beer slowly and tried and failed to formulate a plan for making sure he drank enough to keep talking, but not so much that he couldn’t drive me back. The night was black and still and empty and I didn’t know where we were.
Years before, when John was 16, his family had drained its savings and commissioned a forged passport that enabled his relocation to Malaysia. He had been wanted and hunted by the military junta that levied its brutal wrath against the people of Burma for nearly 50 years.
This was 1988. If December 2010 could be called the beginning of the Arab Spring, March of ’88 was the beginning of Burma’s. There had been a transfer of power within the military-run government that resulted in the devaluing of currency notes, a blow of particular significance to students, and to John and his brother specifically, because it wiped out the funds their family had been saving for tuition. Years of diligence and hopeful study were nullified instantly and something snapped within the country’s collective psyche. Normally obedient citizens protested. Riots followed. It was in response to these events that Aung San Suu Kyi took a microphone and a stage. Years later, after she’d missed her husband’s death and her children’s childhoods, she would ask of the rest of the world, “use your liberty to promote ours.”
In 1988, John lived in the same village where we met that afternoon and it was here that the unrest that had mounted since March of that year peaked and crashed. John and his brother had been the ones to open a parcel shipped to their local college from student protestors at the University of Rangoon. Its contents were women’s underwear – specifically, bras – and a note asking not politely if their decision not to protest was perhaps a result of latent female tendencies. In essence, they were calling them pussies and a flood of bravado ensued. They marched – John and his brother the de facto leaders – and the military reacted by clubbing many of them to death and raping others. Some of those who were captured were forced at gunpoint to walk arm in arm through minefields until someone set one off.
John admitted to his terror: “I wanted to be brave but I wasn’t, I ran.”
That night two military officers approached his home to inform his father that his sons were marked. Risking their own lives, the soldiers had come to warn the family. His father had been well respected in the village, his sons well liked. In John’s words, “some of the soldiers, they were naughty.” If they weren’t gone in 12 hours, they would be back to shoot. He and his brother hid in a field where they slept and ate and pissed in shifts while the necessary bribes were made to secure passports.
When he arrived in Malaysia, there was an arrangement through an immigrant service – he slept on the floor of a couple’s block apartment and was given a demolition job. He didn’t know how to handle an axe but each day he was charged with tunneling through the walls of condemned buildings. In Burma he had been an educated boy from a good family, a college student, a young man with prospects. His second week there, as he used the apartment’s wash bin to bathe, he discovered the woman’s wedding ring and returned it. In gratitude, the couple, who as yet had barely spoken to him, took John to dinner where he confessed how he came to be in Malaysia. Immediately they went to the night market and bought for him clothes, a mattress, sheets. He remained living with the couple for a further two years.
Having eventually installed himself in his own apartment and having saved all of his wages for this purpose, in 1992 he began sending for them. They came one at a time. He sent the money to his father – cash hidden in parcels of packaged food – and passports were arranged. Cousins, nephews, neighbors were sent. Each spent half a year living on his floor, finding jobs, learning English. They dispersed.
John says that he doesn’t know of any that returned to Burma. He estimates that over the course of ten years he and his father were responsible for the illegal transplanting of 17 young Burmese citizens. Many they never heard from again but rumors would surface that they’d ended up in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
When his father died, John didn’t receive word of it for over a year. Finally, a letter. He crossed overland from northern Thailand by foot. He wore a longyi – the folded sheet of cloth that almost all Burmese men wear instead of pants – and carried the cash that would be necessary for bribes if he were caught. He went to his father’s burial site and saw his mother for the first time in more than 20 years.
When we finally left the restaurant – more than three hours after we had arrived – John asked if I wanted to drive. Perhaps he sensed my apprehensions or perhaps he was just drunk. As he directed me back into town I felt a tinge of shame about the knife in my pants. I could feel it pressing against my leg and in that moment I knew it had been unnecessary.
As we passed the pagoda where, as a child, he confronted the soldiers, I asked him what he thought his life would be like if none of it had happened. He replied that he would probably be a very rich man but that he wouldn’t have as much knowledge.
*Note: Name has been changed.