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

Archive for July, 2014

Phone Calls, World Cup, and Mandalay Sorrow


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.


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.


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!


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!



Monk Mood Therapy


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.



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.



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.




















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.


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.

Reconstructing Kuala Lumpur


One of the most noticeable things I saw when walking around Kuala Lumpur last month was all the construction taking place around the city. Buildings being torn down or renovated, new monstrosities under construction, plus some streets closed to accommodate the cranes and jackhammers. “Watch your step” was good advice!



In the area around Pasar Seni (Central Market) there was a still a lot of digging going on and some of the sidewalks were either torn up or being resurfaced, along with some landscaping work, looking like they are attempting to beautify the area. One of the employees at my hotel told me that they were planning on banning vehicles from at least one of the streets and making it a pedestrian thoroughfare. On nearby Lebu Pudu Street, which boasts many shops and restaurants catering to Myanmar/Burmese workers, many places appeared to be closed while the construction work was ongoing.




This construction chaos was not confined to that area, though, not by a long shot. The Bukit Bintang area was also a mess of barriers and obstacles, plus even over in Petaling Jaya I noticed several new building projects going up. Perhaps all of this construction isn’t unusual in a city as large and sprawling as Kuala Lumpur, but I’ve never seen so much of it as I did during this visit.






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