Daily Archives: 7 April 2004

A Burmese Padaung View of the ‘Wild’ Kayah

Our first contact with the ‘wild’ Kayah came when we were received into a house on a hilltop owned by a shaman. He squatted by the fireplace smoking a pipe as if he were a guardian ghost of the place. He made me think of an unwrapped mummy, and he neither smiled nor spoke to us. We felt like intruders who had wandered into an ancient tomb, and soon set off to the village spring for a shower.

At the spring we waited for the villagers to finish their own shower. They included some stark-naked young women, who were unembarrassed and unashamed. As we watched them they talked to us with the familiarity of old friends. We felt ashamed at our curiousity about this (for us) novelty. When dressed, these women wore a black tunic which revealed one of their breasts. We were told later that they would not cover the naked breast until they were betrothed.

A traditional ‘wild’ Kayah woman is like an uninhibitedly colourful work of art. Her clothes are made of home-woven material in which red and black predominate. She wears black-lacquered cotton-thread rings beneath her knees in large lumps that look like twin beehives. Bunches of silver coins dangle from her neck along with a few strings of semi-precious stones. The younger women wear cone-shaped silver earrings that look like bunches of miniature carrots, while the married ones stuff their big earholes with silver cylinders. A married woman also wears a red turban on her head and a white sash around her waist. She walks like an elephant, slow and with jingling sounds at every step, reminiscent of the tinkling bells on a Burmese pagoda top. These gorgeously caparisoned females scratched their bodies liberally and spat copiously. And all the Kayah, children included, continually smoked pipes.

SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 203-204

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Burmese Views of the Mysterious West

To me [now starting college], Mandalay (a place which, as I later learned, foreign visitors enjoyed as a sleepy backwater that time forgot) was an amazing metropolis, a town of astounding variety and sophistication, a city that never slept. In Mandalay I learned how to use the telephone and the electric kettle….

My first introduction to foreign gadgetry went with the first stories I began to hear about the wonders of the West. I was told that people in the West could cook their meals without pots and pans and stoves. I was puzzled how this could be possible. The few Burmese magazines that were not government-controlled regaled their readers with these strange stories which they gleaned — in embellished form — from the British tabloid the Sun, from Newsweek, and from the novels of Jeffrey Archer, one of the few living English writers allowed to be published in Burma.

The beliefs we absorbed about the West strangely resembled the fantastic stories early Western travellers sent back about the Mysterious East. One teacher at school had told us that in the West things were so advanced that pigs could be grown on trees, and that a type of furniture had been developed that could be eaten if ever food supplies ran low. He also explained to us that the West got so cold in winter that if you peed outdoors the urine would instantly freeze so that you had to snap it like a stick. We had a pretty good sense that these were tall tales — but they made better listening than the equally tall tales of the regime. When we learned that the Americans got to the moon, for instance, we had solemnly been informed by a fanatical socialist-nationalist teacher: ‘Our ancestors got there centuries ago on the astounding flying machines that the genius of the Burmese had perfected — secrets alas now lost.’ We learned something important from all this: that the Burmese, after nearly thirty years of isolation from the rest of the world, constantly subject to official propaganda urging them to detest and despise the West, were in fact fascinated by the Western way of life and ignorantly credulous about it.

SOURCE: From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe (HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 120-121

This reminds me of a conversation I had with an older man in Papua New Guinea in 1976 who had heard something about a conflict in Berlin a decade and a half earlier, and wanted to know how things had finally turned out and who our current Kennedy was. I can’t remember if the conversation took place before or after Carter was elected to be our next Kennedy.

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Zhao Ziyang Ill

China-based blogger Andrés Gentry calls attention to a recent New York Times report that Zhao Ziyang is ill.

This should be getting more play in the China-blog community…. Why is that important?

… lower-level party officials, or students or intellectuals outside the party, may make Mr. Zhao’s death an occasion to press for political liberalization. China’s long tradition of paying homage to the dead makes it unseemly for the police to repress mourners, potentially opening a window for people to express grievances along with condolences.

In fact, the 1989 demonstrations first gathered steam after the death of the reform-minded leader who preceded Mr. Zhao as Communist Party chief, Hu Yaobang, who died 15 years ago this month.

“It is clear that leaders will have taken every measure to prevent any protests from happening,” said one Chinese political analyst who asked not to be quoted by name. “But the impact of such an event would be very unpredictable and risky for the leadership.”

Andrés then adds further insights.

There are other more recent instances of the government getting caught flatfooted in their response to demonstrations. The Belgrade Embassy bombing springs immediately to mind. While there was certainly a lot of anti-foreign/anti-American anger, I know for some people that was simply a vehicle to express their dislike of the CCP. It was a dangerous time for everyone really since if the demonstrations continued it’s likely that they would have begun focusing their energy on China at least as much as on NATO/America. However, if they were cut off too soon then the government could be accused of being unpatriotic and anger would definitely have moved on from foreigners to the CCP.

See also his earlier post on the likelihood of massive demonstrations after Zhao’s death and the CCP’s need to come to terms with the events at Tiananmen in 1989.

Earlier demonstrations in Tiananmen to honor another popular leader, Zhou Enlai (d. 1976), culminated in the Democracy Wall movement.

For some, the Cultural Revolution marked the beginning of an independent political consciousness and the means to express it, as seen, for example, in the controversial wall poster signed by Liyizhe, a pseudonym of its three authors, that appeared on November 7, 1974 in Guangzhou. It denounced the lawlessness, despotism, recklessness, and killings of the Cultural Revolution and called for democratic and individual rights. A larger-scale expression of increasing political independence occurred on April 5, 1976 with a demonstration in Tiananmen Square supposedly to honor Zhou Enlai, who had died in January 1976 without much official note. In actuality, the demonstration was an organized attack on the Cultural Revolution and the tyranny of the Gang of Four and implicitly of Mao. The April 5th demonstration was the first time since 1949 that ordinary Chinese had taken the initiative to launch their own movement and establish a public space where people could freely express their opinions. But it was suppressed after just a few days.Whereas purged party officials and skilled workers had planned the parades and the placards to be carried into the Square months before April 5, 1976, the Democracy Wall movement appears to have begun somewhat spontaneously. Against the background of the party’s official repudiation of the designation of the April 5th demonstration as a “counter-revolutionary” movement in the fall of 1978 and the official media’s calls for “socialist democracy and rule of law,” individuals and groups suddenly began to put up large-character posters and gathered together to discuss political issues at the Xidan wall on a busy street in the middle of Beijing in November 1978.

For more on one of the principal Democracy Wall activists, see this post on Wei Jingsheng.

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