Yangon_ The Shwedagon Pagoda
A Film by Christian Reverchon
According to local legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was built during the time of the Buddha and the area around the pagoda, modern Yangon has been settled since then. Whatever the truth of the legend, it is certain that a Mon village named Dagon has existed at the site since the 6th century AD. It was renamed Yangon (the ‘end of strife’) by the Shwebo based King Alaungpaya when he captured it from rebel Mon leaders in 1755 after which its importance as a port city began to grow. However, the city gained in importance only after the British occupied it during the Second Burmese War in 1852, after which it became the capital of British Burma and the trading and commercial centre of Burma. The British called the city Rangoon, which was an Anglicised form of “Yangon”. The city grew rapidly during the colonial period, which left a legacy of solid 19th-century colonial architecture. Burma attained independence in 1948, but its true ‘modern’ period begins with the 1962 military coup and the institution of an isolationist Socialist regime in 1964, resulting in the steady decay of the city and its infrastructure.
In 1988, Yangon was the site of peaceful pro-democracy protests, in which thousands, including monks and students were gunned down. In 1989, the city was renamed to its original Burmese name, Yangon, by the military junta. In 2006, the capital was moved to Naypyidaw but today Yangon remains the business, cultural and intellectual capital of modern Burma. In 2007, Yangon again became the centre for demonstrations against the military government.
The city is an amalgamation of British, Burmese, Chinese and Indian influences, and is known for its colonial architecture, which although decaying and beyond appreciation, remains an almost unique example of a 19th-century British colonial capital. New high-rise buildings were constructed from the 1990s (and some are scarily unoccupied and left as ghost skyscrapers and hotels as seen along Upper Pansodan Rd) as the government began to allow private investment (while former national government buildings such as the massive Secretariat Building, as the capital is shifted to Naypyidaw, have been left to rot). However, Yangon continues to be a city of the past, as seen by its longyi-wearing, betel nut chewing and spitting pedestrians, their friendly or even familial attitude towards strangers, its street vendors and its pungent smells.
Yangon’s former name is not the only victim of symbolic changes in this country. For one, the country’s name has been changed. To add up to this identity crisis going on in this country, this city has been stripped of its capital status, the capital relocated to a secluded new site called Naypyidaw built from scratch. The flag too has been changed, recently redesigned in 2010, replacing the old one which replaced another one slightly more than a decade earlier.
One noticeable observation is seen along Yangon’s southern streets perpendicular to the river. Diagonal parking is set off against the traffic direction in these one-way streets.
Maybe because Myanmar had traumatic encounters with foreigners as far back as the Mongol invasion when it sacked the city of Bagan, the colonization by the British and invasion by the Japanese as well as the brutal cruelties inflicted by them – it developed its idiosyncrasy and to the point isolationist behaviour towards foreigners, but it is not as totally xenophobic as North Korea. As Buddhists, Myanmar people are kind and welcoming to any stranger as any guest. As long as that guest-stranger does not impose something to his lifestyle, it’s OK. Somehow, they don’t want to fully and sweepingly adapt to any foreign idea. That said, the history of Myanmar has its own empires, including the complete destruction of Ayuthaya which crushed the Siamese and from which they did not recover for a hundred years.
Their bit of contempt was manifested in condoning the government to practice impositions on foreigners such as a tight grip on the internet as well as the hotel TV – indispensable gadgets by tourists to the outside world in their everyday lives here and in their hometown; requiring foreigners to register and log their particulars every step of the way from every hotel down to the museum they’ve been, and in every mode of transport they use. Not to mention that any local who billeted a foreigner in his house overnight was long perceived by the community as an indiscretion and subject to imprisonment. Attitudes are changing rapidly, however, as a result of the government’s increasing openness to foreign trade and movements towards democracy. As of November, 2013 the situation is significantly changed with far less regulation over foreign tourists and an exponential growth in technology like smartphones and tablets, Internet access and international television. Visitors in February 2014 have noticed no restrictions on internet and no need to log trip details.
Yangon is the most exotic of all Southeast Asian cities. A walk down a typical street, the sights show noticeable commercial and traffic signs written mostly in local alphabet, not to mention the appearance of wandering monks in burgundy robes and the gilded pagodas as this is expected in this Buddhist country, and down to the locals keeping up their appearances. Here, everyone seemed to be comfortable with walking barefoot – indoors or outdoors; with faces applied with sun protection cream from the extracts of a tree branch called Thanaka; smiles reddened by bloody red juice from chewing betel nut; as well as being used to images of men wearing a sarong-like garment, the longyi.
The Longyi – in Myanmar men wear either trousers or a Longyi, a tubular piece of cloth similar to a sarong.
The Ubiquitous Help-Yourselves Water Station – This image is noticeable in hot Laos and Cambodia but they pervade more here in devout Buddhist Myanmar installed at every five or so home or establishment.
Myanmar’s people and history is a glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts. The Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centred on Bagan. For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests of Thailand (Ayutthaya) and India (Manipur), and shrank under attacks from China and internal rebellions.
Eventually, Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into British colonial Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate self-governing colony. Most of the jobs in the British led administration were occupied by people brought from India and the local Bamar people were sidelined.The local farmers became preys of south Indian money lenders who confiscated their land. The oppression of British rule prompted the Burmese to co-operate with the Japanese during the Second World War. Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for dominance over Asia.
The Burma Road was built to get supplies to China. The Thailand-Burma railroad (the so-called “Death Railway”) from Kanchanaburi in Thailand over the River Kwai to Burma was built by the Japanese using forced labor — a great number of people (estimated at 80,000) died during construction of the railway. Large parts of Western Burma, particularly the hilly areas bordering India and the city of Mandalay were severely damaged during the war.
While the Burmese independence fighters led by Aung San initially cooperated with the Japanese to oust the British, with the Japanese promising to grant independence to Burma in exchange, it soon became apparent that the Japanese promises of independence were empty. The Japanese occupation was very brutal, and many Burmese were killed, such as in the Kalagong massacre. Aung San subsequently switched allegiance and helped the British win Burma back from the Japanese. Aung San subsequently led negotiations with the British for Burmese independence after the end of World War II, and the British agreed in 1947 to grant independence to Burma the following year, though Aung San himself was assassinated later in the year and never lived to see his dream come true. Independence from the British under the name Union of Burma was finally attained in 1948, and till this day, Aung San is regarded by most Burmese people to be the father of independence.
The new union brought together various states defined by ethnic identity, many of whom had centuries-long histories of autonomy from and struggles against each other. In the interest of securing their collective independence from Britain, the tribes reached an agreement to submit to collective governance — with power sharing among the ethnicities and states — for ten years, after which each tribe would be afforded the right to secede from the union. The terms of this “Panglong Agreement” were enshrined in the 1947/1948 constitution of the new Union of Burma. The new central government of the nation quickly worked to consolidate its power, marginalizing and angering tribal leaders and setting off more than a decade of armed conflict. In 1961, more than 200 ethnic leaders from the Shan, Kachin, Red Karen, Karen, Chin, Mon and Rakhine people met with ethnic Bamar (Burmese) central government authorities to draft a new form of government which would ensure the tribes both autonomy and self-determination within a federal system.
General elections were held in 1960 and U NU took over as prime minister. In 1962 General Ne Win led a coup d’état which ousted the first democratically elected government in Burma, and subsequently installed himself as leader. General Ne Win dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed, with general Saw Maung taking over in a coup and installing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country, now renamed Myanmar.
Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – winning a landslide victory (392 of 489 seats). But SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she has endured for 14 of the last 20 years.
What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has since slumped into poverty due to inefficient economic policies, rural poverty and corruption. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize price controls after decades of failure under the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” but had to reinstate subsidized prices on staples in the face of food riots, upon which the democracy movement grafted its agenda. The government called out troops and the rioters were defiant until the monks intervened: standing between both sides, they told everyone to go home and they did. The riots caused overseas development assistance to cease and the government subsequently nullified the results of the 1990 legislative elections.
In response to the government’s attack in May 2003 on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy, the USA imposed new economic sanctions against Myanmar, including bans on imports of products from Myanmar and on provision of financial services by US citizens.
The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started in August, apparently in an uncoordinated manner, as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but morphed into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in the town of Pakokku. The monks demanded an apology but none was forthcoming and soon processions of monks with alms bowls held upside down filled many cities (including Sittwe, Mandalay, and Yangon). Yangon, particularly the area around Sule Pagoda in the downtown area, became the centre of these protests. While the monks marched, and many ordinary citizens came out in support of the monks, the world watched as pictures, videos, and blogs flooded the Internet. However, the government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shut down Internet communications with the rest of the world. This led the USA, Australia, Canada and the European Union to impose additional sanctions, some targeting the families and finances of the military leaders. Dialogue between the UN and the military government has stalled.
Despite international condemnation, Aung San Suu Kyi was back under house arrest after being charged of breaching the conditions of her house arrest. She was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010. As of November 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi is participating in politics and the prospects for democracy look better than ever.