Late for Nowhere

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Archive for December 2015

Censorship by satellite

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A few years ago Myanmar ostensibly entered the post-censorship era. As a result, newspapers are no longer required to send their copy to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and galleries can now display paintings without the indignity of preview by art-illiterate “authorities”.

Unfortunately, local satellite TV providers are still taking it upon themselves to police the content of the pirated DVDs they screen on their “world movie” channels. Cigarettes, for example, must be blurred out because SMOKING KILLS! (Depictions of people being gunned down are okay, though – perhaps because such activities are compatible with traditional Myanmar junta culture.)

Kissing is also expunged, presumably on the assumption that lip-to-lip congress is a gateway behavior that, if glimpsed even briefly, will inspire the innocent to fornicate in the streets like frenzied simians. Unobstructed cleavage is likewise a harbinger of civilization’s demise.

These examples are merely annoying and can be laughed off as the work of starchy geezers who imagine they are providing a useful service by safeguarding society against perilous imagery.

But censors are rarely astute enough to foresee the more insidious effects of their intrusive moralizing. This is particularly noticeable in ham-fisted attempts to cut scenes from movies that are far smarter than the “editors” – one example being Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), which I watched recently on local satellite.

The movie’s anti-hero is Lester Burnham, a man who enjoys little respect at home or at work. Describing himself as “an ordinary guy with nothing to lose”, he embarks on a quixotic quest to recapture his lost youth. At the root of this reckless venture are lustful daydreams about his teenage daughter’s friend Angela, a flirtatious cheerleader who is fond of boasting about her sexual promiscuity.

There is a pivotal moment toward the end of the film when Lester and Angela find themselves alone. They start undressing on the sofa, and … in the Myanmar satellite version, we suddenly jump to Lester sitting back in a chair and Angela buttoning up her shirt. This poorly conceived bit of cinematic obfuscation gives the impression that we have been “safeguarded” against seeing a disturbing sex scene between a teenage girl and an adult male.

But this is not what actually occurred. In the suppressed scene, Angela admits at the last moment that she is a virgin. No longer seeing the girl as an object of lust, Lester backs off. The man who has been rebelling – both comically and tragically – against his fear of middle age manages, just barely, to liberate himself from his downward spiral.

In cutting the scene, the censors have succeeded in stripping out the message of redemption – however frail – and have turned American Beauty into a far more disquieting tale of unapologetic amorality. Lester, rather than being shocked into a moment of self-realization, is merely a detestable pedophile who unsympathetically deserves the looming death to which he alludes at the beginning of the movie.

Even more disappointing is the censorious violence committed by the same satellite provider to The People vs Larry Flynt (1996), directed by Milos Foreman. The film, which I had originally seen during its theater release, explores the subject of free speech, particularly the question of whether free expression encompasses the right to offend others.

The story builds toward a scene depicting the real-life court case Hustler Magazine vs Falwell, in which the US Supreme Court unanimously decided that offensive speech should indeed be protected. The ruling stated, in part, “The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.”

But I never made it that far into the “Myanmarized” version of The People vs Larry Flynt – it was apparent within the first few minutes that the satellite provider’s inept digital abortionists had struck again, chopping the movie as thoroughly and as gleefully as horned devils slicing and dicing reprobates in hell.

The censors had essentially taken a film about free expression and, in their naïve effort to “protect” viewers, cut the meaning right out of it. In doing so, they managed to debase the very concept of free speech, demonstrating precisely why their jobs are so profoundly anachronistic in a country supposedly moving toward democracy and greater openness.

Written by latefornowhere

December 4, 2015 at 3:42 am

Hidden looms and drunken nats

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Kyaung Dawgyi Monastery, Pakhangyi

Bagan is beautiful, but after two days of touring ancient Buddhist temples I was ready for something different. A staff member at my hotel suggested a daytrip to Pakokku, located just 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of Nyaung Oo and on the other side of the Ayeyarwady River – easily accessible in less than an hour by car since the opening of a new bridge across the river on December 31, 2011.

The name “Pakokku” might sound familiar to anyone who has been following events in Myanmar in recent years: It was here in early September 2007 that hundreds of Buddhist monks from Myoma Ahle Monastery held a peaceful march in support of activists who had been arrested the previous month protesting government cuts in fuel subsidies.

The Pakokku march was blocked by soldiers, and three monks were tied to lampposts and bludgeoned with rifle butts and bamboo sticks. The government failed to apologize for the incident, and in mid-September thousands of monks registered their discontent by organizing protests in Yangon, Mandalay and other cities.

As has long been its habit, Myanmar’s army – known as the Tatmadaw – responded with more violence. They raided monasteries and swarmed the streets of Yangon, gunning down unarmed Buddhist monks, laypeople and even a Japanese journalist. The government claimed 13 people died, while Democratic Voice of Burma reported 138 fatalities. The truth likely lay somewhere in between.

In calmer days, Pakokku is famous for its production of tobacco, the traditional cosmetic thanakha and cotton textiles. I was traveling with my wife, and we decided to seek out the latter – the local weavers who use traditional looms to create blankets, shawls and other cotton products.

This was more easily said than done, and our ensuing travails make a good argument for the advantages of hiring a guide when visiting unfamiliar territory with a specific goal in mind. As it turned out, many of the good citizens of Pakokku – or at least the dozen or so random passersby we asked – were entirely ignorant of the location of the looms.

Not that they didn’t try to be “helpful”. Many locals responded to our queries with what seemed to be definitive knowledge about the cottage-weaving industries we sought: “Go three blocks south and two blocks west,” was a typical example of the responses, with the directions leading us to yet another loomless location. After an hour-long wild-goose chase, we finally homed in on our goal when, wandering aimlessly down a nondescript backstreet, we suddenly heard the telltale “clickety-clack” of a weaver at work.

Following the sound, we were happily invited into a modest house where, out in back, a young woman was using her hands and feet to deftly manipulate a complicated weaving apparatus with lightning speed, magically transforming spools of naturally dyed cotton thread into a small, colorful blanket. While most of these blankets – which take about two hours to make – are then sold through local shops, the family who ran this particular “factory” allowed us to buy several freshly made samples straight from the source.


Having already had our fill of Pakokku proper, we headed up the road to Pakhangyi, located 28 kilometers (17 miles) northeast along the road to Monywa. This village is a virtual open-air museum, with pagodas, archaeological sites and, although it never served as a royal capital, even a well-preserved portion of a fortified wall dating back hundreds of years.


Surviving section of Pakhangyi’s fortified wall

Pakhangyi is traditionally thought to have been established as an outpost by King Anawrahta of Bagan (ruled 1044 to 1077), but some inscriptions suggest that it was not founded until the 13th century, near the end of the Bagan period. We hoped to get additional information about the history of the place at the Pakhangyi Archaeological Museum, but it turned out that the staff were there only to collect money and turn on the lights – they were woefully uninformed about the historical details of the region.


That’s not to say the museum is not worth a visit; it’s full of interesting artifacts discovered throughout the town, including Buddha images and ornate wooden reliquaries once used to store sacred texts. One example of the museum’s holdings is a Buddha “footprint” thought to date back to the Inwa period in the 16th century. It had been found broken into fragments at Sithushin Pagoda – established outside the walled city by King Aluangsithu of Bagan (ruled 1113 to 1167) – but in 1997 it was moved to the museum and restored to ensure its preservation and allow it to be studied by scholars.

The most famous site in Pakhangyi is Kyaung Dawgyi, a teak monastery on brick foundations built in 1868 by Minister Phone Tote during the reign of King Mindon, who had established Mandalay as the last royal capital. Among the largest wooden monasteries in the country, the dark-hued structure stands on 254 teak pillars. The doors and some elements of the interior are decorated with beautiful, hand-carved wooden sculptures depicting previous lives of the Buddha.



There are also two special pillars at the monastery, one made of sandalwood and the other of scented wood. They are believed by locals to hold the power to evoke love and affection, which has made them the target of desperate, lovelorn individuals who, feeling the need for more romance in their lives, have chipped off pieces of the wood. Such poor behavior, along with more than a century of harsh weathering, took a heavy toll on the structure, and it was restored in 1992, with additional work done within the past year. In 1996 Myanmar applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the monastery, but the honor has not yet been granted.

Despite its beauty, Kyaung Dawgyi is rarely visited by tourists, and my wife and I had the site entirely to ourselves. It was a nice experience to walk the dim hallways, lit only by shafts of sunlight filtering through the narrow windows and doorways, without jostling with other tourists or souvenir sellers. We stayed for quite a long time, enjoying the silence, tranquility and sacredness of the space.


Our next stop was another monastery named Pakhanngeh Kyaung, this one in complete ruins except for its 332 teak pillars. Most of the posts are still standing, but some lie on the ground and others lean precariously. The floor, roof and walls of the structure, built in 1864, are almost completely gone. The government is considering whether to restore the monastery, but it would be a massive undertaking. Pakhanngeh Kyaung is located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) east of Pakhangyi and just a few hundred meters from the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River. The journey there passes through some lovely wetland scenery on a narrow, raised road.


Pakhanngeh Kyaung


A bicycle path passes through the center of Pakhanngeh Kyaung

Pakhangyi has one more claim to fame: It is the legendary home of U Min Kyaw (also known as Ko Gyi Kyaw and Min Kyawzwa), a powerful nat (spirit) who is the patron saint of drunkards and gamblers. Nats are the spirits of humans who died violently and who remain caught in limbo between one incarnation and the next, and they can grant favors to those who show the proper respect, or make life difficult for those who do not.

There are several versions of U Min Kyaw’s life and death as a human, but according to one of the more popular he was a drunkard, a cock fighter and an excellent horseman who was killed by the spirits of two men he murdered, Khun Cho and Khun Thar. As such, shrines to U Min Kyaw normally depict him riding a dark horse, which is festooned by devotees with offerings of rum and whiskey.

The main festival for U Min Kyaw is held in Pakhangyi every March, but smaller ceremonies are held throughout the year. These are normally organized by worshiper who consult mediums to ask the powerful spirit for favors with the promise that an offering ceremony will be held if the wish is granted. These usually last for three to seven days and are open to the public.

One of these happened to be occurring on the afternoon of our visit to Pakhangyi. A temporary red pavilion had been erected alongside the main road, and the chaotic clanging of live traditional Myanmar orchestral music could be heard from across town. Drawing nearer, we saw a crowd gathered around a nat kadaw (spirit medium) who, as is usually the case, was a transvestite who was dancing wildly to the music, pausing occasionally to spend 30 seconds or so telling the fortune of a lucky bystander before spinning into motion once again. Appreciative devotees pinned money to the medium’s clothing, while the ceremony’s patrons made sure everyone was well-supplied with food and drink – sustenance for the body, even as U Min Kyaw’s worshipers sought salve for their souls.


The road to Pakhanngeh Kyaung ends at the Ayeyarwady River