Friday, September 28, 2007

Walking backwards over bridges in the night

Until a few days ago, all I knew about Burma was that it was ruled by a nasty military junta, that hardly anyone went in or out (the rule for such places), and that the opposition leader was a very attractive woman with a British husband.

I don't know much more than that now, but the place is beginning to acquire that aura of the unique. “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know,” said Kipling, and as usual it seems he was right.

This fascinating article by Ben Macintyre is a sort of Best of Dictators and Astrology. For it seems that the Burmese junta is, as a group, of the opinion that if the stars ain't with ya, ya screwed.

General Ne Win was the mysticism-obsessed dictator who seized power in 1962 and steered Burma from prosperity to penury; in 1989 he introduced the 45-kyat and 90-kyat banknotes, for the simple but mind-bending reason that these were divisible by and added up to nine, his lucky number. He believed this move would also ensure he would live to the lucky age of 90. Ne Win, who insisted on walking backwards over bridges at night and other rituals to avoid bad luck, died in 2002, at the age of 92.

I wonder how many years of study and good contacts it would take to understand why a grown man would believe that walking over bridges backwards at night was good luck. I think many of the great conundrums of human psychology (such as, why is my wife physically incapable of returning something to the place where she found it?) would suddenly yield their mystery.

But these Burmese nutters are serious nutters whose nuttiness has big consequences.

When the junta moved the capital from Rangoon to a malarial town deep in the jungle, it did so because an astrologer employed by Senior General Than Shwe had warned him of an impending catastrophe that could only be averted by moving the seat of government. The same astrologer asserted that the most auspicious moment for the move would be November 6, 2005, at 6.37 in the morning. Sure enough, at that precise hour on the ordained day, the bullet-proof limousines of Burma’s generals started to roll towards their new home on the road to Mandalay.

I suppose, from one point of view, the passing of these clowns will be a loss to the gallery of human weirdness. However, what a gain to the lives of the ordinary.

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Hazar Nesimi said...

Sounds like my kinda place, i can help astrologers there :-). Burma is one of the most fascinating countries in the world though... Especially North... it is still shaped in aura of mystic Shambala in my mind.. i remember reading about the land of hundred thousand Pagodas and such like when I was a kid. Laos is another closed insular country, for some reason nobody mentions. Maybe there is an opposition leader who is not that attractive?

Hazar Nesimi said...

Read this about Buddhist resistance to British:

To stimulate trade and facilitate changes, the British brought in Indians and Chinese who quickly displaced the Burmese in urban areas. To this day Yangon and Mandalay have large ethnic Indian populations. Railroads and schools were built, as well as a large number of prisons including the infamous Insein Jail, then as now used for political prisoners. Burmese resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralyzed Yangon on occasion all the way until the 1930s.[14] Much of the discontent was caused by disrespect for Burman culture and traditions, for example, what the British termed the Shoe Question: the colonisers’ refusal to remove their shoes upon entering Buddhist temples or other holy places. In October 1919, Eindawya Pagoda in Mandalay was the scene of exceptional violence when tempers flared after scandalised Buddhist monks attempted to physically expel a group of shoe-wearing British visitors. The leader of the monks was later sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder. Such incidents inspired the Burmese resistance to use Buddhism as a rallying point for their cause. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement, and many died while protesting. One monk-turned-martyr was U Wisara, who died in prison after a 163-day hunger strike to protest a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned.[15] Kipling’s poem 'Mandalay' is now all that most people in Britain remember of Myanmar’s difficult and often brutal colonisation.