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Archive for October 2014

Ghost stories from Myanmar

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Photo: Yu Yu (The Myanmar Times)

Seems everyone in Myanmar has tales of ghostly encounters to tell. Here are a few for Halloween …

A ticket taker at a hip-hop concert notices a young woman slip past without paying the entrance fee. When he turns around to ask for her ticket, she disappears before his eyes. Later at the same show, the DJ notices a woman glaring at him from across the dance floor. After several seconds she vanishes, at which moment the DJ equipment loses power.

An editor at a local magazine approaches the small office where she works. Through the window, she sees a woman dressed in a yellow traditional outfit sitting at one of the desks. But the office is locked from the outside, which can only mean that none of her colleagues has arrived for work yet. When she looks again, the woman in yellow is gone.

Four employees at a downtown office stay after hours to catch up on Facebook. Each of them hears the distinct sound of someone wearing high heels circling the desks. The noise – sharp and clear on the concrete floor – stops for a few minutes before beginning again where it started, retracing the same path. No one present is wearing high heels.

Stranger than fiction

Bring up the subject of ghosts with nearly anyone in Myanmar, and they’ll have a story or two about a spectral encounter involving themselves, coworkers, family members or close friends.

The phenomenon is also prevalent in nonfiction accounts about Myanmar. The title of Pascal Khoo Thwe’s book From the Land of Green Ghosts (2002) refers to fears among the ethnic Padaung that victims of “raw death” – those who were murdered or died in accidents – tend to persist as evil spirits.

Late in the book, the author – one of a group of students who in 1988 fled into the mountains near the Thai border to avoid persecution by the Burmese government – describes a night during which he awakens and feels someone trying to filch his blanket.

The culprits, he finds, are “squatting with their faces turned away from us, shivering and groaning. Some of them seemed to be in uniform, some in civilian clothes, soaking wet and grey in color … There was a rush of wind and they disappeared like smoke.”

Pascal Khoo Thwe and his companions later learn that they had set up camp on a site where the bodies of Burmese soldiers killed by Karenni rebels had been interred in haste and without proper burial rites.

Ma Thanegi, in her prison memoir Nor Iron Bars a Cage (2013), relates the tale of the “Great Haunting”, which occurred one night in the upper story of a hall where prisoners were kept.

“That day, as evening fell, I kept getting goose bumps that came and went,” she writes. “At about 9pm, just after taps, some of us in our cellblock were settling down to sleep. All of a sudden I heard an eerie wail of many voices rising to a crescendo as if in one voice. We all heard it: many voices rising in unison, a cry full of chilling despair.”

While some of the inmates ran around in panic, the less excitable “saw that in a space where the poorest vagrants sleep near the far end of the hall, a group of women stood in a circle as they fought, scratching each other. Their hair swung long and loose, covering their faces so no one could see who they were” before they disappeared.


Photo: Yu Yu (The Myanmar Times)

Paranormal high-jinks

Whether told orally or in writing, ghost stories in Myanmar are often shared in a matter-of-fact way, as if their occurrence were a normal part of day-to-day life.

This tendency to avoid sensationalism in the telling of ghost stories was noted by Jane Ferguson, the author of an essay titled “Terminally Haunted”, published by The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology last February.

Ferguson catalogs ghost lore among workers at Suvannabhumi Airport in Bangkok and Mingalardon Airport in Yangon, including stories about ground crews, baggage handlers and tower communications workers at Mingalardon seeing ghosts “on the concrete apron near the terminal”.

Pilots are also not immune to hauntings. One tower communications worker claimed that on two separate occasions “Myanmar Airways pilots reported that the auto-start was already engaged, even though they had just entered the cockpit and hadn’t touched the instruments”.

These airport ghosts are identified by Ferguson as tasay or thaye, which are described by American cultural anthropologist Melford Spiro in his 1967 book Burmese Supernaturalism as “beings who, as a consequence of evil committed in their past lives, have been reborn into their present disembodied state”.

In remote rural areas of Myanmar, many villagers believe these ghosts can cause illness, disease or worse. According to Spiro’s research, tasay/thaye “live on the outskirts of villages, especially near cemeteries, where they feed on corpses”.

He writes, “They also enjoy the flesh of living people, however, and at times – when feeling especially hungry or malevolent, or under the control of a witch – they enter a village in order to attack and eat one of its inhabitants.”

But the ghosts commonly described by residents of Yangon these days usually fall into a less malevolent category, described by Spiro as “the souls (leikpya) of the dead who, improperly escorted from their human habitat, remain to haunt people”.

If certain mortuary rites are not performed at the time of death, “the soul, still attached to the scene of its previous existence, remains within the settlement and, in effect, becomes a ghost, haunting the inhabitants”.

As a case in point, Yangon resident Yin Min Tun – the editor who saw the women in yellow sitting in her office – admitted to feeling shocked upon realizing that she had seen a ghost, but she betrayed no fears about being devoured by malevolent spirits.

“Ghosts cannot do anything to us. They can’t physically hurt us, so I’m more scared of people than of ghosts,” she said.

Yin Min Tun also disputed the belief that ghosts harbor the power to cause disease.

“Illness might come from the mental fear of seeing a ghost, but not because ghosts have the ability to make you ill,” she said.

School’s out … forever

Another experienced hauntee from Yangon, Doi Ling, agreed that the power of ghosts was quite limited – they were likely unable to achieve much beyond stealing blankets or yanking people’s legs as they slept.

Doi Ling attended Basic Education High School 2 in Latha township in the early 1970s, when it still served as a boarding school for girls.

She said students who roomed there encountered a high incidence of nocturnal spectral activity – giving new meaning to the term “school spirit”.

While some of the ghosts seemed indigenous to the school, other hauntings were attributed to the institution’s proximity to Yangon General Hospital; it is perhaps testament to the quality of available healthcare that the hospital was overflowing with the restless souls of people who had expired there, prompting a few enterprising spirits to seek greener pastures at the adjacent school.

“We huddled together in groups at night to ward off ghosts,” Doi Ling said, adding that it was not unusual to hear someone – or something – walking the hallways after dark, wearing the same slippers that the students wore during the daytime.

Other incidents were more upsetting.

“One of our teachers had a stillborn baby, and when she later tried to have another baby she died during childbirth. After that, we saw her wandering around the school at night, in the form of a pregnant woman wearing a maternity dress,” she said.

Some of the stories at BEHS 2 Latha have achieved the status of urban folklore. With the institution dating back to 1861 – when it was founded as St John’s Convent School – it’s hard to determine exactly when they might have originated, but they were well-established by the time Doi Ling started attending the school in 1970.

Upon her arrival as a young student, she was told several harrowing tales by older girls, including one about the recurrent sound of a shower running in the washroom at 3am. Whenever the noise was investigated, the shower stall was found to be completely dry.

In another story, a nighttime hall monitor heard the sound of a ping-pong ball bouncing in an empty room down the hall. She entered the room just in time to see the ball rolling to a stop. She picked it up with a handkerchief, but it felt strangely warm in her hand. Opening the handkerchief, she found that she was holding not a ping-pong ball but a clot of blood and flesh.

A slightly more comical legend claims that some years ago, a group of girls were standing on a balcony whispering about the school being haunted by a ghost bearing a gunshot wound on his back. The girls suddenly noticed the rapid approach of a man, who upon reaching them said, “You mean like this?” He turned around to reveal a large, grisly hole between his shoulder blades. Screaming and running ensued.

These same stories were still being told to incoming students 10 years later. Another woman who attended the school around 1980, and who requested not to be named for fear of reprisal from the spirit world, said she heard similar legends from older girls. But by that time BEHS 2 Latha had stopped allowing students to spend the night, and so the opportunity to witness hauntings firsthand was greatly diminished.


Photo: Yu Yu (The Myanmar Times)

Ghost busting

So, how does one get rid of ghosts? Methods vary, but prevention is the preferred approach.

Simple mortuary rites can help ensure that spirits let go of their connection to the material world, but sometimes a little extra effort is necessary.

Spiro, for example, describes the belief that deceased government officials are especially attached to their positions: “To prevent them from remaining in their offices, a special document is prepared, signed, and sometimes recited by the superior officer of the deceased, discharging the soul from all connections with his erstwhile position.”

More complicated rituals are needed to prevent wicked ghosts from hanging around causing trouble. Pascal Khoo Thwe describes the belief among the Padaung that spirits of “raw death” victims must be summoned into the coffin before burial, and then chased away from the cemetery with gunfire after the burial.

During the wake, musicians play metal frog-drums “believed to possess a powerful vibration, a ‘voice’ that could deafen the hearing organs of evil spirits”. Night-long funeral dances are performed around the coffin, and “a professional mourner or shaman would harangue the soul and exhort it to start on its great journey to the spirit world, describing the way and warning of all the dangers it would encounter”.

Despite these precautions, ghosts sometimes endure in the world of the living. In these cases, rural residents often turn to amulets, tattoos or datloun for protection; the latter are the product of an alchemical process in which shards of various metals – iron, copper, silver and gold – are melted to form an alloy that is used to make magical, protective rings. They are still made at some rural monasteries across the country.

If a ghost does manage to lodge itself in the human habitat, it’s not uncommon to call upon Buddhist monks to perform an exorcism ceremony.

One expatriate manager at a medium-sized company’s branch office in Mandalay was recently called upon by his phantom-harried local colleagues to arrange just such a ceremony to oust a pesky poltergeist from the premises.

The ritual involved about 10 monks, who came to the office and spent 45 minutes reciting sections of the Buddhist suttas while the Myanmar employees prayed alongside.

“It was the strangest thing I’ve ever had to put on the expense account,” the manager said. “But after that, the office was ghost-free.”

This article was originally published in the October 27-November 2 issue of The Myanmar Times.

Interview with film producer David Puttnam

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This is a follow-up to my previous post “Being kind to the new”, which covered David Puttnam’s appearance at a panel discussion in Yangon titled “Putting Culture at the Heart of Public Policy”.

House of Lords member David Puttnam visited Yangon on October 9 and 10 in his capacity as trade envoy for the United Kingdom. He is most well known to the public as the independent producer of numerous award-winning films, including Midnight Express (1978), Chariots of Fire (1981) and The Killing Fields (1984). I spoke with Puttnam following his visit to the Yangon Film School (YFS), where he talked with the students about the ways in which he came up with ideas for his various film projects.

Many of the films you made were based on historical events. How did you choose the stories you produced?

It may sound corny, but the stories pick you. The idea that you sit holding the bridge of your nose and pondering what story to produce, it doesn’t quite work that way. What happens is you’re going through material and something just jumps off the page at you, and what I’m saying there is absolutely accurate. It isn’t just one idea, it’s that something comes off the page and you think, ah, that reminds me of that, which reminds me of that. It is the elision of three or four ideas, images or whatever they may be. It’s when you suddenly get them into shape, into focus, and then you know you’ve got something special.

Do you think there are aspects of history and the human condition that are better explored through dramatic films than through documentaries?

A good example would be the wonderful Cambodian documentary film The Missing Picture (2013) about the whole Pol Pot experience. It’s a really fine film, but at the end of it … Normally when I ran The Killing Fields for audiences, and this was true all over the world, I would see a lot of the audience crying. That didn’t happen with The Missing Picture. The movie is shocking and appalling, but it doesn’t make you cry. I’ve seen many, many Holocaust documentaries. They appall me and shock me, and you have other emotions, but they don’t make me cry. You don’t get wrapped up in the individual pain of somebody. And that’s what movies are about: identity. You find somebody in that story, you closely identify with them, you go on their journey with them, and as the story resolves itself, you share that resolution. That’s almost impossible in a documentary.

Some filmmakers here are working on a biopic about the life of independence hero Bogyoke Aung San. They asked several foreign producers for help but ultimately rejected them because the local crew wants the film to exactly depict historical fact, while the foreigners advised that making a good film would require making some creative changes to the “true” story. What do you think about the idea of changing some of the facts to improve the narrative?

As a filmmaker, you have to justify to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. In the case of Chariots of Fire, I needed a protagonist for [the main character] Eric Liddell. The more I researched this guy, all I got from people was that he was a completely wonderful man. Everyone just adored him. But I needed someone to argue with him about what he was doing. So I visited his sister Jenny and said, “I know you’ve always backed your brother to the hilt, but in this movie I need you to argue with him. I need someone with emotional investment in the film to argue.” She said, “Sure, I don’t mind.” I showed her the script and she said, “Yes, I’ll do that.” So we have three scenes in the film where she clearly disapproves of him running because he has more important things to do with the Christian mission. When the film premiered, a journalist asked Jenny whether she disapproved of what Eric did. She said, “Oh no, not at all. I loved Eric. I would never have argued with anything he wanted to do.” So our cover was blown the next day, but it didn’t matter because within the narrative of the movie, she played a very important role and it didn’t damage anything. Jenny would be the first person to say this. Here’s another example from the same movie, and this is where I think the guys who are defending “the truth” may be wrong. When I showed the film to Eric Liddell’s widow, she said she really liked it and said two really important things: First, she said Eric was a very poor speaker who never could capture an audience. She said, “Your man in the film says all the things Eric wanted to say, but now he’s saying them to millions of people.” The second thing she said was that we got one thing wrong in the movie: Eric ran like a god. “Your man in the film, he’s waving his arms about,” she said. The only thing we knew about Eric, because we had the documentary film footage, was the way he ran. And poor Ian Charleston [the actor who depicted Liddell in the film] had to work for ages to learn to run in that very awkward style. So the only thing we knew about Liddell for sure was the only thing she said we got wrong. That’s fact. Would the film have been a more accurate portrayal if we had shown an inarticulate man never able to say what he really felt? I don’t think so. I think the domestic filmmakers in Myanmar, with their obsession with exactly the truth, are being a little naïve. What’s important is “the truth” they are trying to get to with the movie – the big truth, not the little truth. And sometimes in order to enhance the big truth, you may have to cut corners and change things.

You spoke during your visit to Yangon about the potential for films to influence public policy. Can you give any examples of where this has occurred with your own films?

Within two months of the opening of Midnight Express, the American and Turkish governments came to an agreement they had been negotiating for three years, whereby American prisoners on anything other than murder charges could serve their sentences in the United States. But the best example is from American movies. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, American movies completely ignored the racial situation in America. It was a subject you didn’t want to go too near. And then starting later in the 1950s, you had a whole spate of movies starting with The Defiant Ones (1958), which began to deal quite seriously with race. Those movies, I would argue, softened public opinion up for [the Civil Rights Act of 1964] that Lyndon Johnson was able to get through. If you read about Jack and Bobby Kennedy, you find that their attitudes were definitely being influenced by the tone of the movies that were coming out. Race was not a subject that you could put a cap on anymore. The role that movies can play by dealing in attitudes and softening up public opinion can eventually influence things. Politicians always try to get in step with public opinion. Very few politicians ever get ahead of public opinion, but they try to remain in step with public opinion. And if they sense the mood of the country is drifting, the politicians will go along with it. So cinema can definitely soften up and adjust public opinion so the politicians follow.

You also spoke in Yangon about the negative aspects of culture. Earlier this year a film promoting tolerance between Buddhists and Muslims was kept out of the Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival in Yangon because the filmmakers started receiving death threats from extremists who had not even seen the film. How can you deal with a situation where some people try to suppress or censor films that they believe pose some sort of threat to their world view?

My understanding of that particular instance is that when the film was eventually seen, the extremists who had threatened these things that the film was about were proved not to have been accurate, that in fact the film was very reasonable. So the short answer is to try to make sure that the criticisms you’re dealing with are based on the actual film, as opposed to some lunatic’s extreme version of what they think you’ve made. My film Stardust (1974) had some quite tough scenes in it that certainly were stronger than anything that had been seen before. It was about rock and roll, and about a rock and roller who eventually dies of drug addiction. In those days there was a woman named Mary Whitehouse who ran a campaign to clean up screens. She heard about the film and we suddenly got attacked by her and her organization for making this “disgusting” movie. And it began to affect the certificate [rating] the film was going to be given. I got hold of the censor and said, “You may be right being frightened about this movie. Why don’t we actually find out what the public think?” I talked him into having a screening, and we had it run by a university so the assessment was completely neutral. We asked the audience several questions at the end, including how would they feel about their 16-year-old child seeing this film. I’m not exaggerating – I think the figure was 97 percent of the audience said it was absolutely fine and they didn’t know what the fuss was about. I remember one of my critics who was using Whitehouse’s argument came out with a wonderful line because I thought it was very honest of him: He said, “I’ve got to admit, Mary Whitehouse is a queen without a country.” His point was this woman with a group of devoted admirers were a tiny coterie of people who were trying to stop the world and get off. When the film was exposed to a real audience, her concerns were evident nonsense. So the key is to make sure the criticisms you’re dealing with are about the actual product, be it a film or a book or whatever it might be, and not about someone’s fantasy about what it might be.

Myanmar’s Olympus

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A storm approaches Taungkalat.

When most people hear the word “Popa” they mistakenly think not of the 1509-metre peak of that name but of nearby Taungkalat, a 737-metre plug of volcanic rock nearby which is topped by a Buddhist pagoda complex. This is the main destination for most day-trippers from Bagan, who climb Taungkalat’s steps – said to number 777 – while trying to protect their belongings from being filched by the mischievous resident monkeys that scamper up and down the long stairway. The reward at the top is a spectacular view in all directions.


Mount Popa.

Many ancient folktales surround this region. Taungkalat means “Table Mountain” and was, according to legend, used by alchemists to crush pills. More famously, at the base of Taungkalat is a shrine guarded by two tiger statues. Inside are images of many of Myanmar’s most famous spirits (nats), as well as Indian deities and other supernatural beings. This shrine is an important destination for spirit worshippers from around Myanmar, and Popa is sometimes referred to as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, based on its status as the center of nat culture in the country.


Banana offerings in the mouth of a tiger guardian at the nat shrine at the base of Taungkalat.

However, these nats are not gods, but rather the spirits or ghosts of people who died in unjust or violent ways. In death they have gained extraordinary powers to grant protection to those who show them the proper respect, but many are also known to harbor foul temperaments and can be quick to curse or harm people who offend them.

The animist practice of worshipping nats predates Buddhism in Myanmar, and there are legends that before the 11th century hundreds of animals were sacrificed as part of spirit rituals at Mount Popa and other sacred sites around the country. However, King Anawrahta, who ruled Bagan from 1044 to 1077 AD, is said to have subsumed nat culture into the sphere of Buddhism, allowing people to make offerings and pray to these spirits as long as they understood that the Buddha was above them all in the order of the universe and celestial realms. As a result, nat shrines can still be seen at many Buddhist pagodas throughout Myanmar.

There are generally considered to be 37 powerful “inner” nats, plus many “outer” spirits from different regions of Myanmar. Although the shrine at the base of Taungkalat contains images of all 37 inner nats as well as numerous others, only four of these spirits actually have their abode at Mount Popa: U Byat Tha, Mai Wunna and the two Mahagiri nats.



U Byat Tha and Mai Wunna

One of the most famous nat legends tells the story of U Byat Tha, who was sent by King Anawrahta to gather flowers from Mount Popa every day. While carrying out this task U Byat Tha fell in love with Mai Wunna, a flower-eating ogress who lived on the mountain. As U Byat Tha started spending more time with Mai Wunna, his deliveries of flowers to the king started occurring later and later in the day. The king must have really relied on his daily floral fix, because for this transgression he ordered U Byat Tha executed.

In the meantime, Mai Wunna gave birth to two sons by U Byat Tha, named Min Gyi and Min Lay. When they grew up they became generals in the service of Anawrahta, but they too were executed by the king, for failing to contribute bricks to the construction of a pagoda in the town of Taungbyone just north of Mandalay. In their deaths they became powerful nats and remain – along with their mother, who is now known as Mother Popa – the cener of worship at Myanmar’s biggest nat festival, held in Taungbyone every August. Mother Popa holds the place of honor at the center of the nat shrine at the base of Taungkalat, flanked by her sons Min Gyi and Min Lay. U Byat Tha is also nearby.



The shrine also houses a statue of Maung Tint De, a blacksmith who died at the hands of the king of Tagaung, a town along the Ayeyarwady River said to be the place where Myanmar culture originated. The king, fearing the blacksmith’s great physical strength, captured Maung Tint De, tied him to a tree and burnt him to death. In protest, the blacksmith’s sister Shwe Na Pae – who happened to be married to the king – also jumped into the fire and died. Their angry spirits subsequently dwelt in the tree, placing curses on any animal or person who came too close. The king eventually had the tree uprooted and thrown into the Ayeyarwady River, on which it was carried downstream.

The king of Bagan at the time, Thelegyang, heard about the tree and had it pulled out of the river when it reached his kingdom. He ordered artisans to carve the wood into the figures of Maung Tint De and Shwe Na Pae, and enshrined them at Mount Popa. Though his sister also became one of the 37 inner nats, it was Maung Tint De who became known as the nat Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain), who is worshipped in homes to this day by those who seek his blessing and fear his anger. Because of the manner of his death, he will be upset by offerings of candles, but it is for him that people throughout Myanmar have a tradition of hanging coconuts inside as an offering.


Mission impossible in Pathein

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A few weeks ago I posted a series of photographs from a recent excursion to Pathein. Following is one of the travel stories I wrote as a result of that trip, which was published in the September 29-October 5 edition of The Myanmar Times.


I was sitting in a minivan with three local friends, and we were prowling the streets of Pathein on a mission.

Pathein is the fourth-largest urban area in the country, the capital of Ayeyarwady Region and a lively port at the center of the delta’s rice trade. We were trying to get our hands on a copy of a particular Myanmar-language book that told its history.

We located a cramped bookstore near the Central Market. The owner was familiar with the book, but said no copies were available as the writer had passed away two years ago. Given that the invention of the printing press has, for the past 500 years or so, obviated the need for living authors to crank out freshly handwritten originals, we found this rather odd reasoning.

Still, we soldiered on. Our next stop was the city’s public library, which we found to be unburdened by printed material of any description. An underworked watchman in the lobby informed us that the knowledge-starved citizenry of Pathein had cultivated a habit of borrowing books but not returning them, thereby depleting the collection into nonexistence.

Our last hope was a mysterious cultural museum. It was not listed in the latest edition of Lonely Planet, but I had encountered a passing reference to it (sans address) online. One of my travel companions had heard about it too – from the friend of a friend. But none of the four Patheinians we queried were aware of there being a museum in their town.

Fortune smiled upon us when we noticed a bilingual sign for the Cultural Museum of Ayeyarwady Region as we passed its location on Mahabandoola Road, two blocks up from Strand Road.

The museum, established in 2012, held no books but did boast an array of colorful and copiously illustrated text panels crammed with useful information about the industries for which the area is famous, including paddy cultivation, salt production, mat weaving, halawar cookery and, of course, parasol making.

But the few panels dealing with “history” offered some questionable theories as fact, including the much-debated claim that the Pyu civilization extended into areas of southern Myanmar traditionally rooted in Mon culture.

Another panel sought to impose an ethnic identity upon a 40-million-year-old fossil found near Mandalay, ostensibly proving that “Myanmar started from Myanmar”. This grandiose and insupportable attempt to politicize archaeology dates back to the dark ages of junta rule, and should probably be consigned to the propaganda archives rather than displayed in a museum.

Okay, forget about the history of Pathein.

We departed the museum and decided to spend the rest of the late afternoon taking photographs around the city.

About three minutes after this course of action was agreed upon, rain began pummeling us from the sky and did not stop until 15 minutes after sundown, at which point we managed to get a few shots of the modest nighttime vegetable market along the river. We then retreated to a dimly lit restaurant for agreeably piquant steamed fish and cold beer.

Our goal for the next day was to visit Mawtinsoun Pagoda on the southwestern tip of Ayeyarwady Region.

It’s possible to get there by boat along the Pathein River at a cost of only K3500 for locals and foreigners alike. Such a trip requires an overnight stay near the seaside pagoda before returning to Pathein the following day, and local authorities will call ahead to arrange basic monastic accommodation for travellers.

Unfortunately, our group didn’t have time for an overnight trip, so we took our minivan instead. I had imagined this to involve a simple drive on a straight road through deltaic flatlands, but the outbound trip turned into a five-and-a-half-hour odyssey on a surprisingly twisty, hilly and increasingly bumpy road through the southern reaches of the Rakhine Yoma.

When we arrived at Mawtin Point, there was no town to meet us: The road simply ended at the grey unruly ocean.

The complete lack of facilities was made more surprising by the fact that 30 minutes earlier we had seen a Coca-Cola delivery truck heading back toward Pathein. Despite the bold claim on the side of the vehicle that it was the “real thing”, the mystery of where this delightfully refreshing apparition had originated remained unsolved.

Mawtin Point sports two golden pagodas: Mawtinsoun Pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the sea, and Phaung Daw Oo about 100 metres offshore. The latter is said to mark the spot where King Alaung Sithu – who ruled Bagan from 1113 to 1160, and was renowned for his wide-ranging travels – once berthed his royal barge.


These pagodas teem with activity during the annual Mawtinsoun Pagoda Festival, held in the week leading up to the full moon of the lunar month of Tabaung (February or March). But during our visit we had the wild, beautiful coast to ourselves.

I was tempted to curse the lousy weather as my efforts to take photographs were complicated by ongoing struggles to control my wind-whipped umbrella with one hand while wielding my camera with the other.

But conditions weren’t to blame. It was a pleasant day for walking, and the rain was only annoying insofar as it threatened to ruin my electronic gadgets.

The reality was that I would have enjoyed the pagoda experience to a much greater extent had I not felt obligated to commemorate the experience with my camera, and had I granted myself the freedom to relax, get wet and register the moment in my own memory instead of on an SD card.

But I kept snapping away, at the behest of my 24.1-megapixel slave master, pausing only to light some candles at a shrine under the curious eye of a deaf, elderly pagoda attendant who was happy and helpful in a way that is rarely seen outside of Myanmar.

We descended a steep, narrow stairway from Mawtinsoun and waded out to Phaung Daw Oo along a concrete walkway that was slippery with algae. The footing was rendered even less sure by the steady assault of waves rolling across Mawtin Point from two directions at once – the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Andaman Sea on the other.

Before we departed the coast, we stopped at the lone restaurant onsite, a modest hut with a dirt floor and one item on offer: steamed rice and fried eggs. Our bellies full but unsatisfied, we then hastened back to Pathein at all possible speed, inspired to make the return journey in less than five hours by the promise of a decent dinner and a few bottles of beer.

Our last day in Pathein dawned sunny and bright. As we ate breakfast on the rooftop of Htike Myat San Motel, we could see dozens of white egrets roosting in an expansive tree near the river.

We took advantage of the good weather to buzz around town collecting the photos we had missed on our first day: serene Shwemokhtaw Pagoda, the forest-green façade of St Peter’s Cathedral, the crowded Central Market. At the riverfront, we watched women haul rocks from a barge while men sat nearby playing games.

We also dedicated an hour to wandering around the delightfully surreal environs of Royal Lake Park. Near the entrance were pavilions erected by various government ministries aimed at flaunting their good works to the public. In a strange way, the setup reminded me of the exhibits at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, but less rooted in reality than the dreams trapped inside Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen head.

I was not disappointed to see that the mouldering government displays were completely ignored by visitors, and that the porticos in front of each pavilion had been commandeered instead by young couples snuggling and whispering behind strategically deployed umbrellas.

Other items of interest at the park included a sculpture of a battle tank made from discarded cans of insect spray; the Bay of Lovers, consisting of a decrepit boardwalk arcing toward a statue of a naked mermaid endowed with bountiful golden breasts; a waterlogged mini-golf course; lakeside cabins from which emanated the banshee wail of daytime karaoke aficionados; and a whimsical graveyard of half-sunken, duck-shaped paddle boats long past their prime.


And of course, we couldn’t leave Pathein without visiting the famous Shwe Sar parasol workshop. Monsoon is the slowest period for the industry, and only a few parasols were being made at the time of our visit. Still, the proprietors went out of their way to accommodate our efforts to photograph their masterful work.

They were also keen to relate the long history of their enterprise: how U Shwe Sar had been the royal parasol maker to King Thibaw but was forced to escape Mandalay after the city was taken over by the British in 1885.

He had fled south along the Ayeyarwady River, eventually settling in Pathein and reestablishing his workshop in his backyard. At first, U Shwe Sar made parasols in exchange for rice, but he later expanded the enterprise into a more viable business that has been passed down to the current generation.

It was a fine, adventurous story that added vitality and context to our workshop visit. The best guidebooks to Pathein, it seems, are still the people themselves. We bade farewell to the city with our photographs taken and our notebooks full, departing for Yangon just before the afternoon rain began to fall.


Being kind to the new

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Award-winning British film producer David Puttnam joined a panel of local experts in Yangon last week to discuss the links between culture, public policy and society, and the benefits of encouraging innovation in creative industries

It all started with cowboy films.

That was how the United States, which until the late 19th century was largely an immigrant nation comprising dozens of languages and no central identity, was able to forge for itself a coherent ethos to project to the rest of the world.

This was one of several examples of the tremendous power of film to shape ideas and attitudes that was presented by UK Trade Envoy and eminent film producer David Puttnam during his visit to Yangon last week.

“[The cowboy film] was very important to America because it created a set of identifiable figures who were mythic, who could be identified as good guys, bad guys, principled people, unprincipled people, positive influences, negative influences,” he said.

“Around this myth of the cowboy emerged the myth of America … and it has endured to a remarkable degree, to the point where the way America saw itself, as well as the way it was seen by the rest of the world, was through the cowboy myth, the sense of the good man who stands up for principle, the sense of fairness, the sense of the rule of law, the sense of moderation.”

Puttnam, who also sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the movies: He spent 30 years as an independent producer of award-winning films, which earned 10 Oscars, 25 British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTAs), and the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Among his more well-known titles are Midnight Express (1978), Chariots of Fire (1981), The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986).

He was speaking at a panel discussion titled “Putting Culture at the Heart of Public Policy” held at the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) in Lanmadaw township on October 9.

The event, according to a press statement released by the British embassy in Yangon, “was aimed at providing a platform for policymakers and stakeholders to discuss how placing culture at the heart of public policy can help Burma achieve its ambitions”.

Among the panelists was U Kyaw Oo, the rector National University of Arts and Culture, who offered a narrowly defined concept of culture based on reverence for Myanmar traditions.

“Nowadays, most of the young people are not interested in the traditional culture. They are more interested in modern culture – not only music, dance, dress and design, but also behavior, communication and lifestyle.”

He complained that kids these days spend their time on Facebook, playing games, singing karaoke and drinking beer, but have forgotten the “duty on their shoulders” to maintain Myanmar traditional culture.

U Kyaw Oo said the cultural university played a key role in “strengthening the national unity and the perpetuation of the national culture”, adding that its activities “are not only propaganda and to strengthen Myanmar culture, but also putting the culture at the heart of the public, especially for the young generation”.

However, Puttnam suggested that truly vital culture lay somewhere in between the extremes represented by the traditional-culture-versus-misdirected-modern-youth dichotomy suggested by U Kyaw Oo.

Puttnam offered Ireland as an example, which in 1922 adopted as its official language the old Irish language and promoted veneration for traditional Irish culture, effectively stifling creative innovation.

But two things happened that dramatically changed this unfortunate situation, the first of which was the introduction in the United Kingdom of television broadcasts that could be received on the east coast of Ireland.

“All of a sudden young people were watching very, very good TV programs in English. They became resentful that they had this linguistic duality and dumped the Irish language,” he said.

The second was that the music industry rediscovered its cultural heritage, but tied it to new musical trends. Examples included female singer Enya, as well as the popularization of Riverdance, which was an updated version of traditional Irish step dancing.

“For some Irish traditionalists, this was an outrage. You couldn’t do this because there were very strict rules in step dancing. But it turned an Irish tradition into an international phenomenon,” Puttnam said.

“Really great cultures emerge when you use the very best of the past and have the courage to reinvent it and re-create it as something that is relevant to young people,” he said.

“If you leave [culture] in aspic and say, ‘well this is what we did 300 years ago, we’re going to make it again and again and again’ – that’s dead. What’s vibrant is young designers using traditional methods to reinvent something which is part of the soul of the country. I believe countries have souls, and those souls tend to reside in their culture. But they do need refreshing and reinventing. And that’s the challenge for a new generation here in this country.”

Panelist Grace Swe Zin Htaik from the Myanmar Motion Picture Association said she “partially agreed with U Kyaw Oo” about the need to pass traditional culture to the next generation, but also believes that “culture comes from innovative creative industries, and policy plays a vital role for industrial development”.

“The government always considers the creative industries as an entertainment tool … They have no idea to make policies to develop the industry by investing,” she said.

“But we do have to think of technical development. Our middle generation is facing the cultural shock of the learning technical know-how in our country since changing the policies in 2011 … We are not familiar with that technical development.”

Grace Swe Zin Htaik also said it was essential to create space for young independent filmmakers to work within the industry.

“We should have to create the space for them by merging our own traditional values and the technical know-how. That will be the main door for the development of the creative industries,” she said.

Puttnam largely agreed with Grace Swe Zin Htaik, adding, “There’s a whole generation that needs to enter the cultural arena, and what culture might mean to them might be somewhat different than what culture might mean to someone my age.”

“The cultural world offers young people the jobs they actually want … These are jobs that young people identify with, that they want to be part of,” he said. “They are part of the future. To ignore them is to ignore the genuine desire among young people to improve themselves, and to ignore the economic opportunities they offer.”

Panelist Nay Lin Soe represented the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative, which works to “build a society where people with disabilities can live independently and to their full potential”.

He shared his experiences as a disabled person living in Myanmar, and in doing so provided examples of how traditional cultural beliefs can have a negative impact on a significant segment of society.

After losing the use of his lower extremities at age three due to polio, one of his earliest experiences was being rejected from attending primary school because of his disability. Fortunately, his mother found another school that accepted Nay Lin Soe, and he went on to attend university.

He later started working for disability inclusion and the rights of disabled people in Myanmar.

“Public policy or development should not be limited only to economic growth of the country, but also to increase the wellbeing of human life by promoting social justice through the inclusion of all groups,” Nay Lin Soe said.

“Everybody is talking about how the country is opening and changing, but in reality many citizens with disabilities have not been included in such programs … We are still left behind on every developmental process of the country.”

He said public policies need to be put into place to remove the physical, attitudinal and systematic barriers that kept disabled from living in equality with others.

In response, Puttnam offered another example of the power of movies to shape public policy. He cited films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Men (1950), Coming Home (1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) – all of which depict the struggles of injured soldiers facing the process of readjusting to civilian life after war – as being instrumental in changing public attitudes toward disabled people.

“These films had the effect of reminding people that there was a generation, a whole group, that had been forgotten,” he said.

Mr Puttnam ended the panel discussion by cautioning against the misuse of culture.

“Culture can be used negatively as well as positively. Culture misused is a lazy word, a very exclusive word. It can mean ‘my culture, things I understand’, so that it becomes an exclusive word rather than an inclusive word,” he said. “Culture is something that has to be used judiciously, intelligently and generously.”

He also said that hard work is required to create an atmosphere in which young people have the “confidence to express themselves, confidence to believe that their contribution is valid and important”.

Once again he turned to film for an example, recalling a scene from the animated feature Ratatouille (2007) in which one of the characters says that the most important thing that critics need to remember is “to be kind to the new”.

“The new needs to believe in itself, and the new needs to develop confidence,” Puttnam said.

“Unless you put your toe in the water, unless you do these things, and believe you can do them and take them seriously, and get public policy to back them – because that’s what public policy is there to do – they’re never going to happen.

“It’s fine for us to sit here talking, but in the end none of these things happen unless you and the media and the public policymakers decide to make them happen. Otherwise we can have a nice conversation but nothing changes.”

This article appeared in the October 13-19 issue of The Myanmar Times.