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Archive for April 2015

Trekking into the future in eastern Shan State

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Ethnic Loi children.

Kengtung in eastern Shan State is one of the more remote regions in Myanmar, but like popular destinations such as Bagan and Inle, the town has seen an increase in tourism in recent years as more foreigners visit the country.

Just 10 years ago, trekking around Pintauk 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of Kengtung was like stepping off the grid and into a different world: Strangers were greeted at the entrance to the nearby ethnic Eng village by growling dogs and frowning children, and wary residents regarded cameras with great suspicion. The general dress code for kids was clothing-optional, and the villagers had no idea about selling crafts to the tourists who had come so far to see how they lived.

During high season, the residents of Pintauk and adjacent villages now see foreigners on a daily basis, and the Eng are much more welcoming: A squadron of entrepreneurial women springs into action at the approach of trekkers, surrounding and persistently following visitors with armloads of hats and bracelets whose designs they have largely borrowed from the Akha. The men, meanwhile, are not shy about offering powerful rice wine to weary walkers.

Of course it should be considered a positive development that the residents of this region have found a means of benefitting financially from tourism, but the atmosphere in this particular village now seems more circus-like than a decade ago, when my guide and I had to seek out the local headman and ask how we could help: He suggested that I contribute to their fund for buying the village’s first generator, and when I did so he celebrated by calling the residents together, performing traditional music on a handmade, two-stringed banjo called a song, and inviting me to attend a full-moon ceremony to appease the local spirits.

During a more recent visit to this same village, we walked around in the midst of our escort of handicraft sellers – yes, we did buy a few trinkets – and dropped by a couple of houses, but we did not feel as if we were being granted any great insight into how the locals really lived behind the spectacle. We had a similar experience at Wansai, another easily accessible tourist magnet where it was difficult to glimpse the actual village beyond the tight circle of traditional products offered by the ethnic Akhe handicraft mafia – a sea of women who wagged their fingers in warning against taking photos unless we bought their beads and bamboo pipes.

We had a better experience at some of the less-visited towns farther afield from Kengtung. Akha handicrafts were available for purchase in the homes of a few residents of the Hokyin village cluster, but there were no hard-sell tactics and the women continued going about their daily business when we arrived; when they did take notice of us, they were more concerned about explaining their culture and offering us green tea than pushing us to buy their beaded hats. In one of these villages, we spent some time talking to a woman who was weaving cotton fabric on a back-strap loom. She taught us a great deal about Akha weaving and dyeing techniques, but she insisted that she had nothing to sell when my wife asked how much she would charge us for a length of white fabric.

My favourite trek on this trip was the walk to the ethnic Loi villages of Wan Nyet and Wan Seng, during which we encountered no merchants or performers awaiting our arrival. Getting there involved a two-hour drive toward the Chinese border on a narrow road that wound through high, misty mountains. About 30 kilometers short of the border town of Mongla, we turned onto a rough dirt lane and climbed for about 2 kilometers before the driver parked under a shady tree, and then we started walking just as the sun broke through the fog. The appearance of clear skies didn’t matter much: The mountain air remained cool, and the wild, unlogged jungle provided adequate shade along the trail.

Our first stop was Wan Nyet Monastery, a group of atmospheric, 300-year-old structures that displayed a unique combination of Thai, Chinese and Himalayan architecture and artwork. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in Myanmar, and the more we looked, the more we discovered: gold-painted doorways, colorful murals of scenes from the life of the Buddha, Tibetan-style mandalas, fluttering prayer flags, mirrored mosaics and hand-painted wooden cutouts set into the ceiling, huge drums and gongs, and of course Buddha images of all sizes. Every surface was covered with some kind of artwork. We must have spent an hour looking around, and as we were preparing to leave, the head monk pointed out something else we had not noticed: ancient wooden Buddha statues stored up in the rafters for safe-keeping.

Wan Nyet village is home to the ethnic Loi, whom my guide explained were actually Wa people who had converted from animism to Buddhism and established their own settlements. This begs the question: If this particular group was able to distinguish itself as a discrete ethnicity merely by changing religion and moving to a different location, why is Myanmar so reluctant to accept that ethnogenesis might similarly apply to other groups, such as the Muslims living in northern Rakhine State? As the Loi example shows, ethnicity has never been the monolithic concept that many politicians in Nay Pyi Taw like to pretend. Indeed, the Buddha’s teachings are based on the idea that nothing in this world remains forever unchanged.

In any case, the Wa-speaking Loi are known for living in longhouses that support eight or nine families. These buildings are structured around a large, dimly lit central hall where each family has its own space and kitchen, with the bedrooms in separate areas off to the side. According to our guide, the families don’t share their meat with other families, even though their kitchens might be only a couple of feet apart. This could be due to the dearth of protein sources: When we visited one of the longhouses, we sat and talked to a man who was cooking a tiny wild bird that he had, with no small amount of difficulty, caught in a homemade snare.

We continued walking, enjoying a series of increasingly impressive mountain vistas as we gained elevation. About 5km from where we had parked, we reached Wan Seng, another Loi village consisting of longhouses and a monastery similar in basic design to the one in Wan Nyet, but newer, less elaborately decorated, and less singular.

Like Wan Nyet, few residents took notice of our arrival. We ducked into the dark interior of a longhouse and had tea with one of the families, and then toured the monastery under the watchful eyes of a cluster of curious children. Outside the monastery, two monks struggled to change the tire on their motorcycle, while inside we saw no signs of life aside from two or three sleepy kittens.

During our walk back down the mountain, we met a hunter carrying a long, front-loading musket; he was on his way into the jungle for a few days of hunting. Later, we saw a riderless horse trotting toward us up the path; upon spotting us, she ducked into a tea plantation and tried to hide until we passed, and then she continued on her way. Near Wan Nyet, I spotted a snake on the trail and asked our guide whether it was poisonous. “You’re lucky you saw it before you stepped on it,” he said.

When we passed Wan Nyet Monastery again, we couldn’t help but pause to take a few more photos, even though our SD cards were already overloaded with images we had taken on the way up. As we enjoyed one last look at the exceptional artistic details, I remembered something else the elderly monk had happily informed us about during our earlier visit: He was planning to use donations collected from the growing number of visitors to renovate the monastery, a plan that would include replacing the attractive but fragile traditional clay tiles with new roofing.

The repairs will surely make the place more comfortable for those who live there, but when our guide translated the monk’s news about the project, he added, “The monastery will soon look very different.” I confess to feeling more than a little sad about the prospect of something unique and beautiful disappearing from this world, but then who are any of us to begrudge the sort of change that will improve the lives of others?

This article was published in the April 2015 edition of My Magical Myanmar magazine. For images from the trek, see my blog posts here and here.

Written by latefornowhere

April 29, 2015 at 5:35 am

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Happy Buddhist New Year 1377 from Ngwe Saung Beach

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April is the hottest time of the year in Myanmar, which means it’s the perfect time for the biggest holiday of the year: Thingyan Water Festival, during which the entire country closes down for10 days. Despite the length of the break, the festival itself is only four days long (depending on the year), followed by Buddhist New Year’s Day, which this year fell on April 17.

During my first couple of years in Myanmar, I submitted to the chaos of Thingyan in Yangon, where a significant portion of the populace takes to the streets to toss water on each other using water pistols, buckets, and even garden hoses powered by portable generators. Huge wooden stages are set up from which music is blared and revelers soak the steady stream of passersby who line up for the express purpose of getting doused by the turbo-charged hoses. If you’re in the city, there’s no escape unless you stay locked up in your house: If you show your face outside, you (and everything you are carrying) will get drenched.

Ostensibly, the watering is meant to symbolize the washing away of the misdeeds of the past year; mythically, Thingyan is the time during which Thagyamin, the King of the Celestials, descends to earth and inscribes everyone’s name in one of two books: the golden one for the nice, and the dog-skinned one for the naughty. In reality the holiday inspires plenty of sketchy behavior of its own, most notably four consecutive days of massive alcohol consumption and its attendant idiocy. But not everyone partakes in the water splashing. Many Buddhists use the long holiday as an excuse to spend time meditating in a monastery or nunnery. Others stay home with their families making Thingyan snacks and catching up on their backlog of books and DVDs.

However people choose to spend the water festival, New Year’s Day (April 17) is one of Myanmar’s quietest days. Buddhists flock to pagodas to make offerings, and they also visit elders, parents, and teachers to give thanks.

For me, the attraction of being drowned in water by inebriated Burmese teenagers wore off a few years ago, and now I use the annual holiday as an excuse to get as far away from Yangon as possible. Sometimes this means fleeing the country altogether, but more often it means heading to other parts of Myanmar where Thingyan is generally celebrated in a more low-key, gentler fashion than in Yangon.

This year we headed for Ngwe Saung Beach, located on the Bay of Bengal about 150 miles west of Yangon.


The view from our room.

Our days consisted of morning bike rides, mid-morning swims in the ocean, lunch, afternoon siestas, late afternoon swims in the ocean, dinner, nocturnal beach walks, beer and wine on the patio of our room, and then sleep. Repeat for five days. Our only really excursion was hiring a local boat to take us out to some islands off the coast for swimming and snorkeling.

A few photos from the boat trip:






DVD review: Les Miserables, a more or less miserable viewing experience

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Before I watched director Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Miserables (2012), a friend warned me that if I wasn’t already a fan of the stage musical on which it was based, the movie would do little to win me over.

Oh, how right he was. Les Miserables, the musical, was first performed in 1985, and since then it has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries. As a cultural phenomenon, it holds a position similar to that of Gangnam-style; that is, its popularity clearly demonstrates the collective insanity of the human race.

The storyline of Les Miserables is, of course, based on French author Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel of the same name, which, if rationality prevailed on Planet Earth, would never have been set to music in the first place.

Why, you might ask, would anyone bother to produce a movie version of a stage musical? One obvious advantage of the cinematic approach is the opportunity to show close-ups of the actors’ faces. Allow me to explain: When onstage, the actors are far away from the audience, but with cameras, the director can (brace yourself) zoom in on their skillfully rendered facial expressions.

But with Les Miserables’ childishly unsubtle song lyrics bludgeoning the listener with cheesy, overwrought emotion, why resort to acting at all? It’s a classic case of telling rather than showing: The words reveal everything the characters are meant to be feeling, and they often do so when no other characters are onstage/onscreen to listen to their gripes. This frequently leaves the lead actors (Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway) in the uncomfortable position of crooning into the heavens while the camera hovers near their faces.

This style of filmmaking can easily be observed elsewhere in Myanmar: It is commonly used in karaoke videos in which rain-drenched damsels clutch wilted roses and stare wistfully into space, while generic lyrics about lost love and heartache scroll across the bottom of the screen.

Speaking of crooning, neither Jackman nor Crowe are particularly amazing singers. They aren’t terrible, but it’s doubtful whether they would make the cut into the Top 100 on Australian Idol.

About an hour into Les Miserables, I suddenly felt an intense urge to head for the kitchen and pour myself a stiff drink. Had I been watching a less disagreeable movie, I would have paused the DVD before wandering off to fetch my mind-numbing beverage of choice.

In this case, however, I refrained from reaching for the remote; the kitchen visit served as a welcome opportunity to allow Les Miserables to continue doing its own thing in my absence. I figured I wouldn’t miss much, aside from a few minutes of some endless, meandering song detailing the extent to which life sucked in 19th century France.

Believe it or not, I actually managed to suffer through to end of the film. I even wrote some poignant, heartrending lyrics describing how I felt about the experience (to the tune of “What Have I Done” from Les Miserables): “What have I done?/Sweet Jesus what have I done?/I’ve used my own hard-earned kyats/To purchase this artless piece of crap/Worse, I felt compelled to finish watching it/Even though it was a complete load of …”

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April 9, 2015 at 5:12 am

Book Review: Pole to Pole by Pat Farmer

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Rare is the person who can perform amazing deeds and then write an extraordinary book on the subject; standout adventurer-writers include Jon Krakauer, Kira Salak, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and Ernest Shackleton.
Unfortunately, ultra-marathon runner Pat Farmer is not among them.
If I were asked to rate Farmer’s accomplishments as an adventurer– spending 10 months running nearly 21,000 kilometers from North Pole to South Pole, with barely a day off during the entire journey, and with the noble aim of raising donations for the Red Cross – I would, without qualms, give him five stars.
But his book Pole to Pole: One Man, 20 Million Steps, which recounts the expedition from beginning to end, fails to satisfy. Told in the form of a daily journal, the book is dull and repetitive, the descriptions clichéd and forgettable, and the “insights” lacking in profundity. We read over and over again about Farmer’s sore knee, the type of road kill he encounters during the day, how much he misses his kids, how his journey is 90 percent mental – and not much else. It reads more like an interminable series of unedited blog posts than a proper book.
Farmer also demonstrates a disappointingly narrow view of the world. At one point he wonders “if the hospitality I’ve been experiencing [in Canada and the United States] will cease at the Mexican border.”As varied and vibrant as Mexico’s culture is, we learn virtually nothing about it once he enters the country. Instead, barely a sentence passes without some reference to “bandits” or “drug-runners,” and this obsession with negative stereotypes continues unabated all the way through the Central and South American countries through which he passes.
Farmer explains at the end that the book “reflects my thoughts and feelings each day as I ran from pole to pole” and that “I have not returned to revise my words.” It’s understandable that after spending all day running 80-plus kilometers he would have more blood in his legs than in his brain, but this is all the more reason to abandon the day-by-day journal format and pen a retrospective account into which he might have injected more analysis, heartfelt introspection, and “bigger-picture” insight.
But it’s also doubtful whether this alternative approach would have made for a more compelling read. As Farmer proudly writes, “I’ve never been a great reader, preferring to experience life first-hand rather than vicariously” – as if it’s not possible to balance both. As such, the book goes a long way toward reinforcing my belief that to be a good writer, it’s necessary to be a good reader.
Of course it’s possible that I’m underestimating Farmer’s genius as a writer. Perhaps his aim was to write a book that forces the reader to share the tedium of his adventure, requiring tremendous fortitude to continue turning the pages and slog all the way through to the end. If so, anyone who reads the entire book should feel proud that they made it all the way from one pole to the other. But I was able to do so only because I was using the book as bedtime reading, for which its soporific effect was just the ticket for drifting off into a good night’s sleep.

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April 7, 2015 at 3:38 am

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Myanmar Times Weekend magazine No 4: Literature

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Just a brief post: The literature issue was scheduled for the week following the Irrawaddy Literary Festival held in Mandalay March 28-30. I didn’t contribute any stories to this issue as I was too focused on the bike racing that occurred in Mandalay on the same weekend, but I thought I’d post an image of the cover all the same, so here it is:


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April 6, 2015 at 3:46 am

Blitzkrieg: A lightning-fast tour of Myanmar’s Defence Services Museum

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Years ago when it was located in Yangon, the Defence Services Museum was second only to the Drug Elimination Museum in weirdness.

A posted sign requested a US$50 camera fee from foreigners, and an old army helicopter on display in the compound had been turned into a grimy, miniature shantytown with museum employees living inside and tattered laundry hanging from the rotor blades. Bored gallery attendants sometimes caught afternoon naps in the back seat of the Rolls Royce Phantom that had belonged to Sao Shwe Thaik, the first president of Burma (1948-1952). One friend of mine who visited was told that if he brought his own can of petrol, he could start the car and take it for a quick spin.

More alarmingly, a young expat acquaintance who ventured to the museum alone in 2005 was pulled into the gatehouse by a female security guard and subjected to a hostile interrogation, with questions ranging from why she wanted to visit the museum to whether she was a virgin.

Alas, the day finally came when the government announced that the museum would be relocated to Nay Pyi Taw, thereby depriving Yangon of one of its greatest wonders.

Construction on the Nay Pyi Taw venue started in May 2010, and the new Defence Services Museum was opened to the public on March 18, 2012, “to hail the 67th Anniversary [of] Armed Forces Day”, The New Light of Myanmar reported at the time. At the ceremony, Commander-in Chief of Defence Services General Min Aung Hlaing “pressed the button to unveil the stone inscription of the Defence Services Museum and sprinkled scented water on it” before touring the sprawling 603.68-acre compound, which included separate buildings dedicated to the Army, Navy and Air Force “with encouraging exhibition”.

I was unable to make it to Nay Pyi Taw for the opening, as much as I longed to be there. But last month I finally visited with a local friend to see how Defence Services Museum version 2.0 compares with the original.

Outside, a work crew was cleaning and repainting the numerous helicopters and airplanes on display. Two uniformed guides who met us upon arrival explained that the aircraft are maintained once a year, a process that takes about one month. Everything looked new and clean, and while we saw a few workers taking lunch breaks in the shade of jet fighters, no one appeared to be using the cockpits as a permanent dwelling.




I had been warned ahead of time that seeing everything at the museum would require more than a day. With only about three hours to spare, our first choice was the monolithic Army building. Our car was the only vehicle in the large parking lot. My Myanmar friend remarked, “All the buildings look impressive, but no one comes to see. It’s a waste.”


The empty parking lot.

In direct opposition to the old museum, the new one is sparkling clean, with adequate lighting and galleries staffed by attendants in military uniform. The exhibits are well-labeled in Myanmar and English, and the section on Myanmar’s ancient kingdoms is particularly informative: A large wall chart lays out the accession of kings, and detailed maps illustrate the extent of various kingdoms throughout history. There are diagrams of ancient battle formations and displays of armor and weapons.

The purpose of the museum, however, is to create and cement historicizing myths of Myanmar’s military might, and as we advanced chronologically through the “encouraging exhibition”, the information gaps became increasingly obvious.

This first became apparent to me while viewing two huge paintings depicting a couple of battles the British lost to the Burmese in 1824 and 1825. Nothing wrong with highlighting a few rare victories, but there is a noticeable lack of context: in particular, the fact that although these skirmishes were won by the Burmese, they were part of a larger war that was ultimately lost, as were the two wars that followed against the same opponents.


Painting depicting the British defeat at the Battle of Wettigan (1825).

The sections on the Burma Independence Army and the Burma Defence Army include maps of marching routes and impressive displays of weapons and other equipment, but the role that the British and US armies played in driving the Japanese out of the country is unacknowledged. World War II was won, it appears, solely through the efforts of Burmese freedom fighters.


An odd shift occurs in the post-1962 era, where display cases detail Tatmadaw (armed forces) operations against Communists and ethnic minority groups year-by-year: While the Myanmar-language labels are significantly longer and more detailed than elsewhere in the museum, English translations are suddenly nowhere to be seen. Foreign visitors are therefore kept in the dark concerning the Army’s take on subjects such as “The 1988 Affair”, “Internal Peace Negotiations” and “Ceremony of Cadet Passing Out Parade”.

We spent more than two hours in this first gallery, and with time running out we practically sprinted through rooms dedicated to engineering (displays included road and bridge projects, knot-tying techniques and landmine-clearing technology), ordnance and psychological warfare. Other galleries in the Army building were left unexplored, and we didn’t even think about entering the Air Force and Navy buildings.


A wonder of engineering courtesy of the Myanmar Army.


Tatmadaw-approved knots.

In virtually every aspect but quirkiness, the Nay Pyi Taw Defence Services Museum is vastly superior to the old one in Yangon, but one thing has not changed: the paranoia that comes with wondering whether one is being baited by gallery attendants.

One friend who visited the Yangon museum in 2009 was followed around by an in-house guide who made jokes about the decrepit state of Myanmar’s naval armada, and also commented sarcastically on the fact that all photographs of former Prime Minister U Khin Nyunt had been removed from the galleries following his arrest in 2004.

I had a similar experience in Nay Pyi Taw. One gallery attendant, indicating the long series of displays recounting “Tatmadaw operations”, commented, “Some of these photos are just for show. They’re a little different from what really happened.”

Another attendant, resplendent in his freshly pressed Army uniform, told us that he felt bad for the Tatmadaw soldiers who died fighting in Kokang, but that he was not proud of what was occurring in that region.

“The Kokang leader is just a drug dealer, but our army started the fight in the name of self-defence so we could get popular support from the people. The fighting is not necessary,” he said.

Me and my Myanmar friend listened politely, nodding but keeping our comments to ourselves. Like many things in this country, where obfuscation so often trumps transparency, it was impossible to know where our conspirators really stood. END


A long hallway between galleries.


The Tatmadaw: Defender of the country, manufacturer of balls.


Written by latefornowhere

April 5, 2015 at 5:21 am

Armed with a ballpoint pen

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Hlaw Myint Swe sketch 1

Also published in last week’s Weekend magazine: an update of a story I wrote last year about Yangon-based artist Hla Myint Swe:


Since 2006 Hla Myint Swe has published nearly 10 large-format books filled with pen sketches and photographs of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.

Despite his prolific output, he does not consider himself a true artist, but rather “an amateur with a profound interest in drawing and photography”. This self-perception, he confesses, stems primarily from his lack of formal training in the arts. But he has made up for this by demonstrating persistence and natural talent from an early age, first by teaching himself to draw by copying pictures and photographs from books.

Born in Bhamo, Kachin State, in 1948, Hla Myint Swe met his first art teacher, U Lu Tin, while attending St Peter’s High School in Mandalay in 1965. U Lu Tin often assigned his students to paint landscapes, but Hla Myint Swe preferred figure drawing, and so instead of focusing on the scenery, he drew side-view portraits of his fellow students as they worked.

Hla Myint Swe spent only six months learning from U Lu Tin. After graduating from high school he entered the Defence Services Academy and stayed in the Army for 26 years, from 1966 to 1992. It was while serving as a soldier that he became interested in drawing ethnic minorities.

“When I was in the Army, I had to go to the front lines in Kachin State and Shan State. At that time I had to meet with so many tribes,” he said in an interview last week with The Myanmar Times. “I was a soldier, so I had no chance to carry brushes or painting supplies. I had only a ballpoint pen and some pieces of paper, so I made sketches of the people, the villages, the scenes. I’m very fond of the tribes.”

In 1992 Hla Myint Swe left the Army and took a job with Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). He continued sketching but abandoned his ballpoint in favor of proper drawing pens and quality ink.

As part of his YCDC work, he edited several coffee-table photography books, including Yangon: The Garden City (1995) and Shwedagon: Symbol of Strength and Serenity (1997).

Working with photographers on these projects piqued his own interest in photography. Whereas previously he had used his camera for family snapshots, he now started utilizing it as a means of capturing the infinitely varied faces of Myanmar’s ethnic people, which he later sketched from the photographs.

In the preface to his 2010 collection Pen Sketches of Artist Hla Myint Swe: Nature and Social Life Features of Myanmar, he wrote that he strives to preserve those fleeting moments when people’s facial expressions reveal their “inner lives”.

“I am drawing not only faces. I want to catch the mind of the figure,” he said in last week’s interview. “Faces are easy to draw, but their minds, what they are thinking caught in their facial expressions, I want to catch this.”

He added that he often uses a zoom lens to take photographs from a distance so the subject’s thoughts are not distracted by the presence of the camera.

Hla Myint Swe retired from YCDC in 2012 but maintains a private office in the compound of City FM, which he helped establish in 2001. He continues to dedicate much of his free time to his artwork.

“Every day I draw. If you come to my office I have no time to draw. If you leave my office, I will draw at my desk. All the time I am drawing,” he said.

In recent years he has published several hardcover photography books such as Paragon: Exotic Cultural Heritage Beauties of Myanmar (2011) and Homeland: Traditional Culture and Customs of Myanmar Ethnics (2014).

Each of the five or six chapters in these books represents a particular region of Myanmar. Last year he also released the first in a planned series of less-expensive paperback books, each covering a single area of the country. They are aimed at tourists who might be reluctant to purchase a heavy, expensive hardcover while traveling. The first, Moenei-Namsan: Beauties of the Nature (2014), was originally a chapter in Homeland.

Despite his favored subject matter, Hla Myint Swe prefers not to use his books as a means of wading into debates about ethnic identity in Myanmar.

“In parliament, some tribes are disputing or discussing about their rights. There are so many new tribes. In Naga there are more than 60 clans. So many dialects, languages, cultures, with just a little bit of difference,” he said. “I don’t want to write about these issues directly because maybe there will be problems. I mention the tribes only in the areas where I travel.”

At the same time, he said he hopes his work can serve to remind people of the tremendous depth and breadth of cultures within the borders of Myanmar.

“I believe I’m serving an educational purpose by teaching my brethren about the diversity of the country, and they will be inspired to help forge a more peaceful union,” he said. “If my art and photography can play a role in working toward peace and reconciliation among ethnic groups, I would be delighted.”


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April 3, 2015 at 1:16 am

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Burma 1945: Three cinematic takes

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The third edition of The Myanmar Times weekly magazine was published on Armed Forces Day (March 27), so we went with a military theme. I contributed three stories to this edition, including these brief reviews of three World War II films set in Burma in 1945:


Objective, Burma! (1945)

Objective, Burma! was released, exclamation mark and all, while World War II was still raging in the Pacific. It begins with newsreel footage of the “Jap-infested jungles” of Burma – “the toughest battleground in the world” – before segueing into a fictional story about a group of US paratroopers who drop behind enemy lines to destroy a Japanese radar installation.

With Errol Flynn portraying squad leader Captain Charles Nelson, this is old Hollywood in all its stylized quirkiness: The jungle scenes were shot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, and the soundman compensates for the lack of exotic locale by going hilariously overboard with the hooting-monkey and trumpeting-elephant audio effects.

The battle scenes are tidy – squeeze the trigger and 10 enemy soldiers fall down, bloodless but stone-cold dead – and Flynn himself is a bit too languid and debonair: He never really demonstrates the rugged bravado one would expect from a captain tasked with leading a critical raid into enemy territory.

But Objective, Burma! was not merely for entertainment; it was a propaganda film in which moviegoers were asked, without a hint of irony, to buy into the view that the “Japs” were “stinking little savages” who deserve to be “wipe[d] … off the face of the earth” – a harbinger of the obliteration of two Japanese cities which came just six months after the film’s release.


The Purple Plain (1954)

Bill Forrester (Gregory Peck) is an RAF pilot with a death wish: On bombing runs over Burma, he flies straight into enemy fire, miraculously surviving even as those around him get shot up as a result of his actions. He wants to die, he says, but keeps on “[getting] medals instead”.

The other servicemen in his unit think he’s a lunatic. Forrester’s problem, however, is not madness but heartbreak: His wife died on their wedding night when the Luftwaffe interrupted their post-nuptial London soiree by dropping bombs on it.

Forrester longs for his own demise – until he meets a Burmese nurse named Anna (Win Min Than, in her only film role) who works at a Christian mission hospital and whose angelic appeal is cinematographically enhanced by the use of soft-focus effects on every close-up shot of her face.

Just when Forrester has someone to live for, well, wouldn’t you know it, Death comes a-knockin’. His plane goes down en route to Meiktila, and he and two other battered survivors must slog across the sweltering badlands of central Myanmar.

The prospect of exotic love inspires Forrester to fight for his life, while family man Blore – who had boasted about his wife and kids waiting back in England – spirals into hopelessness and despair. It’s a decidedly Kiplingesque take on the love story theme, where a “neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land” holds greater appeal than the drudgery of an inevitable return to the “blasted English drizzle”.


The Burmese Harp (1956)

More so than the two other films reviewed here, The Burmese Harp tells a story in which Burma is central to the plot. The main character is Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), a harp-playing Japanese soldier fighting in Burma who gets separated from his unit. Wounded and wearing robes stolen from a Buddhist monk, he tries to make his way back to his company only to stumble across battlegrounds strewn with decomposing bodies. He determines to remain in Burma, wandering the land until all the war dead are given proper burials.

Director Ichikawa’s training as a graphic artist is evident in his superb sense of composition. The shots of Mizushima crossing the wastelands of Burma are sublime in a way that is sorely lacking in The Purple Plain’s over-dramatised survival scenes.

Burmese people are omnipresent in the film; they are usually seen staring impassively at the antics of the Japanese. The repetition of these close-up shots is initially baffling, but the director’s intention becomes clearer when a Japanese prisoner observes that Mizushima the monk “never had such a vacant look” when he was a soldier.

This is the transcendent gaze of people who have already seen too much blood, death and horror, and who have given themselves over to remaining untouched by the suffering of the world. As a Buddhist says to Mizushima during his painful transfiguration from soldier to monk, “The British and Japanese can come and fight as they wish. Burma is still Burma. Burma is the Buddha’s country.”



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April 2, 2015 at 3:23 am

Road-race to Mandalay

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My story on last weekend’s cycling events, published in the April 1 edition of The Myanmar Times:


Nyan Linn Htet (006) and Kyaw Htet Aung lead a group of cyclists on the Mandalay Hill climb. Photo: Douglas Long / The Myanmar Times

Competitive cycling in Myanmar took a step forward last weekend when the third leg of the inaugural Cycle and Make a Difference Charity Series hosted the country’s first-ever nighttime mountain bike race in Mandalay.

Held on March 27 – as part of a three-day cycling competition that also included a road race on March 28 and a cross-country mountain bike event on the final day – the event was described as a “milestone for the local cycling scene” by Khin Maung Win, owner of Myan Shwe Pyi Tractors, the series sponsor.

“I think the cyclists found it rewarding. Riders came from all over Myanmar to compete. It was quite amazing to see them all here,” he added.

The winner of each event was given a K1 million certificate to donate to a charitable organisation that works in a community in the vicinity of the race course.

The night race, which started at 7pm at the Nature’s Life Sporting Ground near the base of Yankin Hill, consisted of 10 laps of a fast 5-kilometre (3-mile) course, contested by relay teams made up of three to five riders each. The rules stipulated that no rider could do more than two consecutive laps before handing off to a teammate. Fourteen teams participated.

The winning team of Sai Aung Hlaing Sae, Aung Naing Tun and Sunny Aye, representing the Mandalay Free Riders cycling club, finished in front of a screaming crowd with a time of 2h 4m 47s, just 18 seconds ahead of a three-man team from Nay Pyi Taw.

The 50km road race on March 28 started with a quick cruise around Mandalay Palace before diverting northward onto a tough circuit that included three leg-curdling ascents of Mandalay Hill. The tattered field of 45 riders then faced a long, flat stretch to the finish line in an industrial zone southeast of the city.

The race was won by 37-year-old Min Min Han from Mandalay in time of 1h 24m 5s, with Chit Ko Ko, 21, trailing in second place by 11 seconds.

Min Min Han – who also managed third place in the over-26 age group in the cross-country mountain bike race on March 29, despite having to dismount to squeeze past a truck that briefly blocked the course – was modest about his accomplishments.

“It was a good weekend for me,” he said.

The cross-country mountain bike race – five laps of the same 5km circuit used for the night relay – was taken out by Zaw Win Ko with a time of 59m 10s. He bested his nearest competitor, Sai Aung Hlaing Sae, by 8 seconds. More than 50 cyclists participated in the race.

The women’s road and cross-country races were both won handily by 21-year-old Tin Win Kyi, a triathlete currently residing at the Youth Training Centre in Nay Pyi Taw.

“The mountain bike course was okay. It wasn’t too tough for me,” she said, “but the end of the road course had too much traffic. I had to ride carefully.”

June’s Singapore SEA Games have come too early for the youngster who has only recently joined the sporting academy, but on the basis of this performance she will be one to watch for the future when the 2017 Games roll around.

The series consists of events held every two months in different locations around Myanmar. The first event took place in Yangon last November and the second in Nay Pyi Taw in January. The fourth round is tentatively scheduled to be held in Taunggyi, Shan State, in late May or early June.

Jeff Parry, an Australian cycling guru who lives in Yangon and who participated in the night relay and cross-country races, described the weekend as a “very well-organised carnival of cycling”.

“The mountain bike course was a nice, well-chosen track with a bit of everything,” he said. “I’m already looking forward to the next event in Taunggyi.”

Written by latefornowhere

April 1, 2015 at 3:02 am