musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for July, 2014

Flying with Malaysia Airlines

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I always take the window seat. Peering out the window, sometimes even pressing my nose against the surface, I scan the horizon as the airplane ascends, marveling at the panoramic scenery that unfolds before me. It’s a simple pleasure that always delights. When I look out that window, I’m a child all over again, taking my first flight. Oh, the wonder!

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In the past week or so there have been several air tragedies around the world, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries. Most notably, there was the horrific shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine. I wrote about this already, but I remain steadfast in my support of Malaysia Airlines. Being the victim of not one but two very bizarre air tragedies is just freakishly unlucky. Despite the multiple accidents lately, and whatever you want to call the Ukraine incident, I still feel safe flying and will continue to take flights with Malaysia Airlines. And I’ll also fly with Air Bagan, Mandalay Air, Bangkok Airways, or any other of the many regional airlines. I’ve flown them all before and have never felt my safety was compromised.

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The airline industry always boasts about how safe flying is, and I’m still a believer. Hell, it’s easier to get killed just walking across the street or driving a car. Earlier today I talked to a longtime customer on the phone. He couldn’t come to the shop and buy books because he got hit by a car and broke his leg last week. Well, that’s a good excuse for coming to the shop in person! So he asked me to pick out some books for his wife to pick up later. I wished him a speedy recovery, but marveled that he got hit by a car and not a motorcycle. The motor bikes love to drive — and drive fast — on the sidewalks and pavements of Bangkok, and I’ve heard more than a handful of horror stories about pedestrians being knocked down and injured by rampant motos. So, putting it all in perspective, when considering air travel, I don’t even give it a second thought. I feel perfectly safe.

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From my beloved window seat, here are a few photos that I took last month as my Malaysia Airlines flight was flying over the scenic coast of Malaysia.

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Hospital Health Adventures

It was time. Way, way past time. I hadn’t had a complete physical exam or any sort of comprehensive health check-up in well over a decade. The last time was probably about 15 years ago. I’ve felt perfectly fine lately , so there was no pressing need to get examined, but hey, you never know about these things, so needless to say, I was overdue.

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I’ve been a longtime user of Bangkok Hospital, stopping by their main branch on Soi Soonvijai every year or two for some minor ailment or another. Their medical service has always been very fast and efficient and not that expensive either, especially compared to what I would pay for comparable services back in the USA. Plus, it’s within walking distance of my apartment, so the location is very convenient.

I enquired about a check-up with the hospital and received a prompt e-mail reply, giving me four options: The Basic check-up, the Advanced Male check-up, the Executive Male check-up, and the Absolute Male check-up. As you might assume, the range of tests on offer increased with each step up, as did the overall price. Initially, I thought the Advanced Male option would be enough for me, but after talking it over with the doctor, I opted for the Executive Male package.

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After the required advance fasting, I showed up at the hospital at 8:30 on Monday morning, bladder full of water and ready for that urine test! But first, they did the initial range of common tests (checking blood pressure, temperature, weight, etc.) and then took a blood sample. Next up came an ultrasound, chest x-ray, EKG, and then the urine sample. After that was an eye test, hearing test, stress test on the treadmill, and something else that I can’t remember. The whole battery of tests was done promptly, without any long waits. One nurse would escort me the next station and on down the line. Very well organized.

While I was waiting before each test I would take out my dog-eared Burmese dictionary and phrase book, something I always keep in my bag, and tried to memorize a few new words. Seeing as how I don’t have a Smart Phone to play with, that’s how I utilize my free time. By coincidence, while waiting I observed — or rather heard — several people from Myanmar in the waiting room, all speaking Burmese. How cool was that! I was tempted to talk with them, but it just didn’t feel like the time and place to interrupt a whole family while they were also having medical tests being done. But I was surprised at the number of patients from Myanmar that I saw in various areas of the hospital, plus one of the nurses was speaking Burmese too. An international hospital indeed!

The eye test raised a red flag of sorts and I was asked to see a doctor for one extra exam. She told me that the results had shown a “higher pressure” than normal reading in or around the optic nerve. It could be early signs of glaucoma, she said, or perhaps something else. She recommended further tests at the hospital’s specialized eye center to find out exactly what the problem is, and more importantly what they can do to fix it.

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I had nearly three hours to kill before my other test results were ready, so I had a long lunch at the Black Canyon branch of the hospital. I used to eat at Black Canyon about once a week, usually at the branch in the Mall Bangkapi, or the one at Major Ekkamai (now closed), but that was back in the days when I actually had a day off work and had leisure time. Those days are long gone, so I haven’t eaten at a Black Canyon in a few years. I think the last time was at their branch at Suvarnaphumi Airport! Anyway, I’m rather addicted to their iced coffee and their gaeng kiew wahn gai (green curry with chicken) is also quite tasty, so that’s what I had, along with a side order of some sort of leafy green vegetable with mushrooms. The food was delicious, but the servings of rice they give you are ridiculously small. I ended up having to order three plates (to call it a “plate” is misleading; the small portions are about the size of a stick of butter) to sop up all the curry!

I was back at the doctor’s office at 2 pm for my results. Is there anything more nerve-wracking than waiting for the results of medical tests, which in this case also included HIV and hepatitis screening? Thankfully, everything was negative and normal. No diseases or signs of heart problems (which run on my father’s side of the family) or any other concerns — except for that thing with the eyes, which this doctor also mentioned. I made an appointment at the eye center for next week, so I can now worry about that for the next several days.

But all in all, it was a positive experience, and I even got a free Bangkok Hospital umbrella out of the deal. Next time I won’t wait 15 years until my next check-up.

 

Monastery Makeover

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When I stopped by Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, the old teakwood monastery in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe, back in March, they were doing a bit of fix-up work; painting, cleaning, dusting, and generally sprucing up the place. It was the equivalent of a monastery makeover!

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Located on the road to Nyaungshwe and the famous Inle Lake, this monastery receives a lot of visits from foreign tourists. It’s common to see tour buses and vans parked by the side of the road, in front of the main building each morning, and these ever-growing throngs of camera-toting visitors no doubt contribute to the deterioration of the old wooden monastery. Taking your shoes off isn’t enough to defend the teakwood floors against lumbering, obese tourists.

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The main teakwood building, the vihara, which houses the monastery’s large Buddha figure, is the one that was receiving the most attention during the renovation, since this is where most of the tourists take their photos, usually of red-robed novice monks standing next to the distinctive huge oval windows.

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But instead of the old vihara where they are usually found, the novice monks were holding their lessons in an adjacent, less picturesque building. There were no doubt plenty of disappointed photographers during this renovation period. Nevertheless, a tour around the rest of the monastery, including the shrine-packed “White Building” that’s located next to the main vihara, provides for plenty of other interesting photo ops.

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Comfort of Smiles

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Checking the online news reports first thing this morning, I was shocked and saddened to hear about the Malaysia Airlines plane that was “blown out of the sky” while flying over Ukraine. Another horrific, senseless tragedy, this one resulting in the deaths of nearly 300 people. That was a depressing way to start the day, but the usual parade of interesting customers passing through my bookshop helped to lighten the mood, as did a phone call from a Cambodian friend who had made it safely back across the border, after worrying about the possibility of police harassment. Thankfully, in his case, all was well.

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I was especially saddened to see another accident strike Malaysia Airlines. I flew with them last month to KL and back and I was very satisfied with their service. I’ll definitely keep using them again, no matter how many times such horrific accidents — or terrorism — occur. In this case, it seems like the plane was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and the airline itself wasn’t targeted or to blame.

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As usual, when bad news like this occurs, I seek solace in photos from my trips. Here are a few more happy faces from my last trip to Myanmar lift the spirits. There is nothing quite like the comfort of smiles.

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The Lasting Appeal of Nero Wolfe

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There are few series in the mystery genre as beloved as the Nero Wolfe novels written by Rex Stout. Part of the appeal is the eccentric Nero Wolfe character; an overweight, beer-drinking, orchid-raising, self-proclaimed “genius” who is able to solve most crime cases without leaving the comfort of his New York City apartment. In fact, other than attending to his orchids each afternoon, Wolfe is usually found sitting in his padded red chair or at the dining room table, enjoying meals prepared by his personal chef. Mobile, Nero Wolfe is not. The other factor in the series’ appeal is Wolfe’s assistant/secretary, the irrepressible, wise-cracking, skirt-chasing Archie Goodwin. Goodwin narrates these books, and his witty and irreverent commentary is a continual source of delight.

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I’ve read dozens of the books in this series and have enjoyed them all, but just last week I finally read the very first of the Nero Wolfe novels, Fer-De Lance, written way back in 1934! More than good, I would rank this novel as one of the very best in the series. It pulses with the usual snappy dialogue and charming Nero Wolfe quirks, but there are also aspects of the plot that stray from the expected path. In this case the reader has a pretty good idea of whodunit, but not how and why, or exactly how Nero Wolfe is going to tie it all together. If you’ve never read this series, this novel is as a good a place to start as any; it’s a total delight. What I find remarkable about this book and others in the series is, despite having been written many decades ago, there is no rust or dust or stodginess. Despite some dated slang (which is also part of the fun!) that pops up periodically, the novel reads as if it was written by a contemporary writer. The dialogue is sharp and funny, especially the combative but good-natured banter between Goodwin and Wolfe, and Stout’s plotting is precise and paced perfectly.

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Between novels and short story collections, there are about 50 different Rex Stout books in circulation. After Stout died in 1975 the series was continued briefly, for seven more novels, by Robert Goldsborough. I have yet to read any of those post-Stout books, but I’m still enjoying discovering the other old jewels in the Nero Wolfe canon.

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My copy of Fer-De Lance is part of the “Rex Stout Library” editions that were published in the early 1990s. These editions feature short introductions to each novel written by “today’s best writers.” In this case of Fer-De Lance the intro was written by Loren B. Estleman, another author that I like very much. Estleman’s series of Amos Walker mysteries, set in Detroit, are excellent. Estleman also wrote a separate “Detroit Series” of novels that focused on “the dark side of the Motor City.” That series started as a trilogy but eventually expanded to seven novels, each one highlighting a decade in the city’s turbulent and fascinating history during the twentieth century. The ones that I’ve read are masterful works of crime fiction. If that wasn’t enough for this prolific author, he has also written a series of westerns. I think Rex Stout would be proud!

 

Victoria Music in Kuala Lumpur

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During my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur I spent a lot of time browsing the CD shops in town. Unlike in Bangkok, where it’s become nearly impossible to find good back catalog or anything other than mainstream new releases, there are several shops in Kuala Lumpur offering a very good selection of CDs and even some vinyl records. I may be one of a vanishing breed, but I vastly prefer shopping for real CDs, as opposed to downloading songs or buying stuff online. Okay, I’ve worked in retail since the late 1970s, so I’m biased, but I still think that nothing compares to the experience and ambience of shopping in a well-stocked store, and thankfully in Kuala Lumpur they have those in abundance!

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I think it’s safe to say that the Rock Corner chain of stores have the best selection of CDs in the KL area. I went to their branches in KLCC (next to the famous Petronas Twin Towers), Mid Valley Megamall, 1 Utama, The Curve, Subang Parade, and Bangsar Village, the latter branch having my favorite mix of new releases and older titles, plus the employees are all very nice, and the in-store music that they play is always interesting too. In some shops you invariably encounter a metalhead, hip-hop fanatic, or even someone who still worships Kenny G, but the employees at the Rock Corner Bangsar branch have much better taste in music!

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Another good chain in town is Victoria Music. I always visit their branches at the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya and in Sungai Wang Plaza in the Bukit Bintang area. I stumbled upon both stores by accident initially, but I now go out of my way to visit them, finding that, like the Rock Corner stores, they have a good mix of new releases and back catalog. The young woman who works at the Amcorp Mall branch is always very friendly and invariably recommends something I had not thought of or had overlooked during my bin browsing. She is one of those retail wizards who know exactly what they have in stock.

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Both Victoria Music and Rock Corner also have a good selection of these new mini-boxed sets of CDs that WEA and Sony have been putting out the past couple of years. These sets include 4 or 5 entire albums by a single artist (dozens of popular names, such as Hall & Oates, Bill Withers, Fleetwood Mac, Foghat, Young Rascals, X, Chicago, George Duke, George Benson, and many, many more) all housed in cardboard sleeves and packaged inside a sturdy box. But the best thing is that they are priced not much more than what it would cost you to buy a single disc, so they are great bargains indeed. For some reason I never see any of these special CD sets at the shops in Bangkok and if check online at sites like Amazon they are quite expensive. But not in KL!

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During my shopping spree I found a ton of new music from the likes of Broken Bells, Robert Cray, Blood Orange, Bombay Bicycle Club, Capital Cities, Mazzy Star, Tory Y Moi, Paul Heaton, Low, Temper Trap, White Denim, Eddi Reader, and My Morning Jacket. And I bought plenty of older goodies from The Hollies, The Turtles, Peter Green, Crown Heights Affair, Solomon Burke, Husker Du, Willie Nile, Robin Trower, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and The Troggs, Gordon Lightfoot, oodles of cool compilations, and many more than I want to list!

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Another cool thing about the Amcorp Mall, in addition to Victoria Music and the giant Book Xcess store, is their weekend “Flea Market”. This indoor market features several dealers that sell affordable secondhand CDs, DVDs, and vinyl records. Some dealers even have Star Wars memorabilia and other collectible items. Something for everyone!

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Monhinga in Malaysia

klbur03While I was In Kuala Lumpur last month I was able to satisfy my cravings for monhinga, the savory Burmese noodle soup that is a breakfast staple throughout Myanmar, at a local restaurant. In the past, while visiting Kuala Lumpur, I have dined at another place specializing in Burmese food, the Gandawin Restaurant on Lebu Pudu Street. But due to construction work it was closed the first day I ventured out. Luckily, I found another place nearby, the Zay Yar Restaurant.

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klbur07Actually, it wasn’t so much luck that I found this place. There are several restaurants and grocery stores in the same neighborhood that cater to the large number of Myanmar nationals who work in the greater Kuala Lumpur area. Zay Yar is much more of a basic operation than Gandawin, offering self-serve meals where you walk up the counter and place your order, similar to a fast food joint. But Zay Yar turned out to be a very friendly and very inexpensive place that offered very tasty bowls of monhinga along with a few other Burmese noodle and rice dishes. A pleasing cup of hot Burmese tea is the perfect accompaniment to any meal.

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Zay Yar Restaurant is located on the corner of Jalan Tun Perak, on the second floor of a large building that houses other restaurants and businesses. It’s directly across the street from the Maybank Tower.

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But all is not blissful for those people from Myanmar working in Malaysia. I frequently read accounts of Burmese being robbed, injured, or murdered in Malaysia. Whether this is Burmese-on-Burmese crime, or something else, I can only speculate. This week I read a report on the Irrawaddy’s online site about four Myanmar workers in Malaysia who were brutally murdered this past week. One theory is that these murders were somehow linked to the Buddhist-Muslim riots in Mandalay last week. Hmm … that sounds a bit far-fetched, but the article said that whenever such sectarian violence erupts in Myanmar, attacks on Burmese working in Malaysia invariably occur soon afterwards.

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 Whatever the cause, it highlights the dangers and uncertainty that awaits anyone from Myanmar who decides to seek work overseas. The wages for unskilled Burmese workers are much better in countries such as Malaysia, but adjusting to life in a different culture and country is not always easy, nor is it always safe.

http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/four-burmese-workers-killed-brutally-malaysia-month.html

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Phone Calls, World Cup, and Mandalay Sorrow

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I received an e-mail this morning from a friend in Mandalay. He was replying to a note I had sent him last week, in the wake of the violence that erupted in the city. Here is an excerpt:

“Sorry for the late reply. I was not able to use the internet for a couple of days, and so I couldn’t check any mail. Thanks a lot for your concern, we were safe, but I lost a very close friend of mine, who was more like a brother to me, we have known each other very well for more than 15 years. We have been together at least once a week. He was brutally killed on his way to the Mosque in the early morning. It is still very difficult for me to accept that he left us.”

Needless to say, I was stunned to hear that one of the two people killed during the disturbances in Mandalay last week was the friend of a friend of mine … a friend I won’t name to protect his privacy at this time. I was more than stunned and saddened to hear this news, I was outraged. Honestly, if a close friend of mine had been senselessly killed under similar circumstances, I would be beyond angry. I’d want to hunt down the fuckers responsible for the killings and seek revenge. No mercy. Screw forgiveness, give me justice.

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On a more pleasant note, I had a phone call on Sunday night from Baw Ga, one of the kids I know from the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay. Before I left Mandalay in early April, Baw Ga announced that he had a phone number (actually it’s a cell phone that is shared by members of his family) and asked if I would call him. Of course! Having access to a phone is a big deal for Baw Ga and many people in Myanmar. Until recently, having a cell phone was a huge luxury, and ownership of such phones is still not as common as it is in other Southeast Asian nations. But the gap is closing swiftly. The people in Myanmar have gone from having almost zero access to telephones to having internet-enabled smart phones with all the bells and whistles. They can take and show photos, post silly stuff on Facebook, send text messages, and talk to their friends. Needless to say, they are having a blast with these new devices.

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So I’ve called Baw Ga a few times and we’ve had some very nice, but very basic conversations. My Burmese is far from fluent and his English skills are even more limited, so we stick to easy subjects like the weather, work, school, and sports. This week I asked him about the “problems” in Mandalay and what he had been doing lately. I also asked about the new school term. He’s in the 11th grade now, which boggles my mind. It seems like only yesterday that he was just one of the “little kids” that I took on trips around the area. Man, they grow up quickly!

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Like most young males in Myanmar, Baw Ga is a huge football fan. In the current World Cup he is rooting for Germany. I was half-heartedly pulling for Colombia until they got knocked out of the tournament by Brazil last week, but honestly I don’t really care which nation wins. I’m not a big fan of football/soccer and watching the World Cup games with my friends from the nearby motorcycle taxi stand (most of them are Argentina fans) hasn’t changed my opinion. I find these games mind-numbingly boring. What is exciting about a 0-0 draw? Of course they would probably have a similar opinion of my favorite sport, the mighty game of baseball, and no amount of explaining the rules and strategy would change their mind. They would still be mystified and bored, just like I feel when I watch one of these sloppy football matches with player after player shamlessly falling to the ground and acting like they’ve been horribly injured. Another foul; how exciting! Give me a break! Oh well, at least I have some knowledge of the sport at this point and can use that for my conversations on the phone with Baw Ga. For that, at least, the sport is useful!

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Monk Mood Therapy

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These are strange times in Southeast Asia, especially lately. Where I live in Thailand we are still officially under martial law after the military coup back in May. Life has pretty much returned to normal, although with media restrictions and a zero-tolerance policy towards protests of any sort, what qualifies as “Free Speech” in most countries does not exist here at the moment … which is more than a bit disturbing. But hey, the World Cup is ongoing — and that apparently enthralls about ninety-five percent of the Thai populace — and the curfew has been lifted, and the junta is “returning happiness to the people,” so all is well … at least on the surface. We just won’t talk about, uh, anything else.

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Meanwhile, across the border in Mandalay, they currently DO have a curfew, imposed after last week’s violent “Teashop Riots”. Hopefully, things will quickly calm down there too and the people in Mandalay can walk around their neighborhoods or visit their local temples or mosques without fearing for their life.

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Whenever all this bad news gets me down, I have a sure-fire cure for the blues: monk photos! Yes, a little monk mood therapy goes a long way towards restoring a sense of peace and normality to the world. So here today, to lift our spirits, are the novice monks from Tat Ein monastery in Shan State.

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Mandalay Mayhem & Fakebook Rumors

Some disturbing news reports this week of rioting and violence in central Mandalay, incidents that have led to at least two deaths thus far. The mayhem was spurred by rumors that were spread online, accusing the Muslim owners of a teashop of raping a Buddhist waitress. This in turn led to calls to “destroy” the teashop.

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This teashop, one report stated, is located near the corner of 27th and 82nd Streets in Mandalay. Yikes, that’s my old stomping grounds! I used to stay at the Unity Hotel, which is also located at the corner of 27th and 82nd Streets, right across the street from the outdoor establishment that the Lonely Planet guidebook dubbed “The Chapatti Stand”, but is actually called the Sun Café. Would this be the “teashop” that is the center of this controversy? I don’t know of any other teashops near that intersection, so I’m assuming that it’s the same place. After staying at the Unity Hotel for a few years, I moved a block away to the Silver Star Hotel, also on 27th Street. Another block from there, on 26th Street, my friend Htoo Htoo (“Mr. Htoo”) has his motorbike and trishaw stand, and right across the street from him is Mr. Jerry’s place where I always rent my bicycle. So yes, I’m very familiar with this neighborhood, one which is home to a large number of Muslim families. But I’ve never sensed any disharmony or problems in this area.

The little café on the corner is bare-bones outdoor joint that is only open in the evening. There is a very limited menu; some curry dishes with rice and the ubiquitous chapattis, plus hot tea … and that’s about it. Being a Muslim establishment, there is no alcohol served. There are no waitresses employed, only young boys who wait on and bus the tables. The food is served on tiny tables and you sit on tiny plastic stools. It’s nothing fancy, but the price is cheap and the food is tasty, and it’s a lively place, always packed with locals and foreign tourists, most of who learned about it due to guidebook recommendations. If this is indeed the place that’s been the center of this storm, I’m more than saddened.

A report on the Irrawaddy website said:

“… hundreds of barricades could be seen along 26th Street, from the southwest corner of the moat surrounding Mandalay Palace west to Zegyo market, where the clashes took place. As the riot spread late into the night, angry men carrying canes and bricks were seen wandering along 26th Street, between 86th and 81st Streets, where the majority of the city’s Muslims live … Although the cause of the initial attack is unknown, it is believed to be linked to reports that have spread widely on Facebook in recent days that a Buddhist maid had been raped by her Muslim employers. Since the rumors first started to spread on June 28, there have been calls to destroy a teashop owned by the brother of the woman’s employers.”

Another report on the Mizzima website added:

“Police in Mandalay fired rubber bullets overnight to disperse hundreds of rioters, some armed with sticks and knives, who attacked a Muslim tea shop after rumours circulated on the internet that one of its owners had raped a Buddhist waitress … The wife of one of the tea shop owners told Mizzima on July 1 that the only women working on the premises “are myself and an elderly woman who cooks the meals with me”. “Our tea shop does not employ a waitress,” she said.

Maid or waitress, maybe it’s all just a matter of semantics — or perhaps sloppy translation — but the fact is that this is still an unverified rumor and no one has yet even been charged with a crime. But that didn’t stop these morons from spreading rumors and trying to inflame passions and hatred via the always dubious “Fakebook”, which caused this horrific rioting.

This latest disturbance is just one of several alarming incidents that have occurred in Myanmar in the past year, pitting Buddhists against Muslims, most of who have lived peacefully together for many decades. In almost all cases, the violence was started after someone spread a rumor that a Buddhist woman was either raped or killed by a Muslim man, leading angry locals to seek vengeance or take justice into their own hands. It’s gotten very ugly.

As someone who has travelled extensively throughout Myanmar in the past decade, I’m both surprised and shocked to hear about such violence. I’ve always found the country to be very peaceful, and most of the residents seem to be quite tolerant of those with other beliefs. Thus, I’m somewhat suspicious about the origins of these rumors and the reasons they are being spread, both online and via word of mouth — or what I like to call “the Tea Leaf Telegraph”, a traditional source for both news and rumors in Myanmar.

After hearing about incidents like this one, you have to ask: who stands to gain by causing such a rift between Buddhist and Muslim residents? It’s both disturbing and very suspicious.

 

http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/multimedia-burma/security-tight-mandalay-outbreak-communal-violence.html

 

http://www.mizzima.com/mizzima-news/myanmar/item/11638-internet-rumour-sparks-communal-violence-in-mandalay

 

http://www.mizzima.com/mizzima-news/myanmar/item/11641-communal-unrest-in-mandalay-leaves-two-dead-say-police

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