Tag Archives: betel nut


An inopportune time for a Myanmar holiday

In my final days in Myanmar before I embark on a reporting trip elsewhere, thought I’d update this page.

So far I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to work for a Myanmar news outlet—wonderful people in cramped quarters with betel-nut spittoons that runneth over—walked the streets endlessly taking photographs, and spent an inordinate number of hours in hotel lobbies subjected to the musical stylings of Filipino lounge acts. Billy Joel with sequins is tough on the noggin when you’re trying to write.

I’ll be back in Yangon in April, but I’m still sorry to leave at what’s turning out to be an exciting, troubling phase in Myanmar’s post-junta evolution.

When I got here in November this was still largely a place of optimism. Now there’s lots of evidence suggesting that, in the behind-the-scenes struggle between the government’s progressive camp and old-guard hardliners, the hardliners are gaining ground. Change came swift to Myanmar, and the backlash that’s underway, or at least appears to be gathering force may be just as intense.

One item is Naypyidaw’s bellicose stance on what did or did not take place last month in Maungdaw Township. Rights groups and the United Nations say dozens of Rohingya Muslims died there during Rakhine State’s most recent outbreak of sectarian violence. The government isn’t budging. When a Rohingya MP, Shwe Maung, repeated in a video news item accounts he’d heard from locals in the area suggesting police may have set Rohingya homes ablaze, President Thein Sein himself sought the permissions required for police to interrogate him.

That story is unfolding against increasingly casual anti-Muslim sentiment throughout Myanmar, where for example there is broad support for legislated interdictions against marriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.

Meanwhile, a reporter with Eleven Media has been sentenced to three months in prison for what she said in an interview she conducted while working on a corruption exposé. And authorities have detained the CEO of Unity Weekly and four of its journalists after that paper published reports about a secret chemical weapons factory in Magway Region, central Myanmar.

Then there is the video of Ohn Myint, a former military man and now minister of livestock breeding, fisheries and rural development, upbraiding villagers who complained about access to water. Ohn Myint must have felt he could get away with flipping his longyi skirt at people, exposing leg—very likely a reflection of how his peers in government feel.

“I will attack anyone who insults the ruling government and if I cannot attack them verbally, I will throw them in jail,” he told the group, all of it captured on camera (you can watch it here in this delicious Democratic Voice of Burma piece). “This is how it’s done internationally—if you oppose the government, you go to jail and only come out when we’re out of office.”

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains largely missing in action on these issues—she’s busy campaigning for a change to Myanmar’s 2008 constitution that will permit her to become president if the National League for Democracy, the party she leads, wins the general elections in 2015. I wrote about this state of affairs late last year in Maclean’s.

But there are scenes of striking beauty here, and I’ve had the chance to write about that also—for example here in a piece I did for the Toronto Star about Myanmar’s magical national sport, chinlone. The above photo is of 13-year-old Mg Naing Tun, at a monastery in Mandalay, kicking a chinlone ball with his knee behind his head .

I mean, where else do you get to see that? I look forward to seeing more.


Dinner by the lights of the pivoting cranes

Dinner by the lights of the pivoting cranes

In the north end of Yangon, just around the corner from where I’m staying in the Pyin Nya Waddy condos, a commercial work site I’m told is one of the largest in Myanmar history has sent pastel-coloured cranes soaring above No. 1 Industrial Road, and their lights blaze there, the generators rumbling, late into the night. The cranes, maybe a half dozen of them, pivot, lean dramatically, and seem to gesture, and by their lights, just below and on the opposite side of the construction fence, ordinary Yangon life goes on.

Al fresco dining, off miniature plastic tables and shower stools, caters to the truckers who stop here—they eat, pick up their quids of betel nut, then climb to the roofs of their cabs in their lungi skirts and doze below the dazzle of insects reflecting the halogen glow above.

They will fix you something if you stop at the outdoor kitchen, a buck for long-grain rice laced through with nuts, a chili paste, beef or pork with the consistency of jerky, and a soup of leaves with a pungent, fermented taste.

Close by, the betel nut vendor assembles the teabags of leaf and areca, slathered in the blindingly white industrial lime paste, and you will see the product of this habit, the thick syrup of red-stained saliva, expertly aimed into gutters and from taxi windows everywhere. But here the vendor permits me to photograph the ritual of bagging the doses, and I notice his mouth is clean, and not dyed the blood colour, the gums not dissolved around the enamel like so many of his clients.

Everything is changing here, fast, and the reality of last week is replaced by the urgency of now and then forgotten. There is the strange co-existence of the novel and the nostalgic. Not long ago there were no ATMs. When they arrived you could not use them to draw on foreign accounts, but you had to arrive at the airport saddled with wads of pristine American dollars for changing to kyat, the local currency. Now the machines will take your bank card, and the American dollar appears near to obsolete (although the money changers still hustle along Sule Pagoda Road outside of Traders Hotel, the expat hub).

Much of this change is painful. Yangon is now the most expensive city in Southeast Asia, with commercial rents outstripping Singapore, even downtown Manhattan (a phenomenon well covered by Bloomberg here). The developer working on the site by me, a five minute walk from where Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest in a property on Inya Lake, sought to billet some of its employees at my condo, threatening to triple the rent there.

Therefore locals are increasingly pushed out—by the likes of me, willing to pay top dollar for a little room, and I think of this as I jog around Inya Lake, threading my way through the couples walking hand in hand under parasols, a weirdly old-fashioned, enchanted scene. Traffic clogs the street, and the politics, widely advertised as leaning toward transparency, remain opaque. “Nationalist panties in stores now!” reads graffiti down the street, an umbrella—or is it a parasol?—painted alongside that apparent poem like a massive punctuation mark, and I am eager to know what it means.