Nine days ago, on a Saturday night, I wandered around Shwedagon in more of a daze than usual because the intensities up there - golden statues, people praying, sounding gongs, chatting, walking, making offerings, pouring water on their day-of-the-week animal, and more - were multiplied tenfold, it seemed. As the sky slowly darkened after sunset, the temple festival lights came on. Usually at night the dome is floodlit, but these are different. They’ve been put up for the huge temple festival at Shwedagon at the end of the month. Imagine little fairy lights, the kind of Christmas outside lights that some people in the northern countries use to outline the edges of their windows at Christmas time, and then in your mind’s eye drape them around the outlines of temple roofs and chapel openings each strand a brilliant green or an intense blue or purple or yellow or red or... You get the idea. It was gaudy, kitschy, fantastical.
(On my second walk around the circle of the dome an older monk stopped to talk with me After I’d answered his question about where I was from I said, “And isn’t all this amazing?” and he answered, “I don’t like all these lights; too much!” )
Two days later I was in Myitkyina, in Burma’ s farthest north state, Kachin State. The crowds and the celebrations of Rangoon felt far away, for the army has been attacking villages up there for the last six months or so, and fighting with the KIA (the Kachin Independence Army) after a ceasefire of seventeen years, despite a call from Burma’s president Thain Sein to stop fighting. As several people put it: “The army is out of control”.
There are small camps for the IDP’s (Internally Displaced People) who have fled their villages; they now number over 65,000. It’s an ugly situation, with no resolution in sight. The churches in Myitkyina and area are working to get supplies of blankets and food to the IDP’s who are out in the countryside; other camps in and around town are being supported, with shelters, basic food supplies, and blankets, by UNHCR and the World Food Program, as well as local churches and temples.
I stayed at the YMCA where I’d stayed three years earlier on my first trip to Myitkyina. The same fabulous staff still work there, and it’s a good place to meet other foreigners who have a special interest in Burma, and to learn the latest news. This time there was immediate good news amidst all the bad details about the fighting and the IDP’s: Aung San Suu Kyi was coming to Myitkyina. Unbelievable.
The day she arrived the town was buzzing, and whenever she was driven somewhere the small cavalcade was led by guys on a motorcycle shouting out and waving a red NLD flag atop a long bamboo pole. She spent most of the day visiting other towns, then in the evening dined with the heads of the churches to discuss the IDP situation and the fighting. I waited outside her small hotel just behind the Y to see her when she returned after ten that night. After a long gruelling day, she still looked full of life, saying a few words and touching hands with each of the young people who crowded around as she walked up the hotel’s front steps.
The next day she gave a big speech at the Manau grounds, where the Kachin new year festivitites take place each January (except this year, when they were cancelled because of the fighting). I went out early on my rented bicycle to find myself a good spot. There was a decorated platform, some flags and bunting, and no visible security. People started to stream in before eight in the morning until suddenly there was a crowd. And it roared as she got out of a van and walked up onto the podium, dressed in traditional Kachin clothing, and began to talk.
At the time I could just pick out key words: democracy, Panglong, Bogyoke Aung San (her father)... Later I learned that she’d talked about national reconciliation, the need to negotiate a settlement with the army, the need for a “Panglong for the twenty-first century”, a reference to an accord with the major non-Bamar groups (except the Karen) that was reached before independence; her father Aung San was the man who achieved that. Every once in awhile there’d be a call out or comment from the crowd. And each time she’d respond to it, sometimes making people laugh with a quick retort, other times with a longer reply.
One call-out was a “it’s been so long since you were last here!” She answered with a “well I was under house arrest for a lot of that time” and then went on to say that they, the people of Myitkyina, know what house arrest feels like because their situation is similar, with the army and police checking on them, and no freedom to go where they want freely. ‘We are all citizens of this country and we should all have the same rights, the same respect,’ was her message, along with a reminder that democracy involves responsibility and hard work.
Afterward the van carrying her, standing up through the roof and easy to see, drove at a snail’s pace across the field toward the road, the crowd thick all around and reaching up to her. She reached back, bending to each side to touch people’s hands, and again and again..more and more...
And so there was celebration in Myitkyina.
AND ABOUT THE DAM: I went one day up to Myit Sone, the place where the two upper branches of the Irrawaddy meet to form the great river. It's the site of the proposed Chinese dam, or series of dams. Those have been suspended for now by President Thein Sein. The Chinese, not just the companies involved, but also the government, are incensed. Perhaps this is part of the explanation for the continued fighting in Kachin State? Maybe they want to destabilise this reasonable liberalising president? Hard to know.
In the meantime the confluence area is beautiful. I feel so lucky to have seen it, been out on the river there, seen the gold panning along the river banks, etc. There are signs of the dam prep: dormitory buildings all in a row on the far bank, and walls of concrete high up on the cliffs and banks to stabilise the future walls of the future reservoirs. This is set to be a huge project, with a giant lake, that could alter and destroy the water balance and the agriculture of central Burma. Let's hope Thein Sein survives as president and the dam project stays on the drawing boards only.