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

Posts tagged ‘Yangon’

Thailand’s Migrant Trials

The big news in Thailand this past week, as well as in Myanmar, was the announcement that a Thai court had found two migrant workers from Myanmar guilty of the murder last year of two young British tourists on the island of Koh Tao. The two men were sentenced to death by a curiously “unnamed” Thai judge.


The verdict has been viewed as a dubious one by people familiar with the case, and has resulted in mass protests by outraged Myanmar citizens outside the Thai Embassy in Yangon and at towns straddling the border of both countries the past two days. Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Migrant Worker Rights Network have called for the court’s ruling to be reviewed.

Anyone who has followed this trial from the outset is well aware of the inconsistencies in the case, not to mention the sloppy way that the Thai authorities handled, collected, and processed the evidence. You can read elsewhere about these issues, suffice to say it raises a lot of doubts.

If was only after two weeks of investigation, missteps, and mounting pressure to find those guilty of the murders that the police officers on the tiny island of Koh Tao amazingly decided that these two workers from Myanmar had committed the crimes. I have no idea if these two young men (who are both 22 years of age) are guilty or not. But based on the “evidence” divulged in the media, and factoring in the accusations that the two suspects were beaten and tortured by police during interrogations, and you have a lot of room for doubt about what really happened.

But one thing of which there is no doubt is there are serious problems with the way that migrant workers are treated in Thailand’s criminal justice system. The operative strategy seems to be: when in doubt, blame the foreigner. I think it’s safe to say that virtually the entire Myanmar migrant community believes that these two men are innocent, and were made scapegoats and framed for the murders. Based on their experiences in Thailand and the way they have been mistreated by police officers and authorities in the past, most migrant workers from Myanmar are inclined to believe that this is another example of one of their own being blamed for something that they didn’t do.

In yet another recent case, highlighted in Sunday’s edition of the Bangkok Post, four young men from Myanmar have been accused of murdering a 17-year-old Thai woman in Ranong three months ago. Once again, there are allegations that Thai police used “brutal and intimidating tactics” to force confessions from the Myanmar migrant workers, two of whom are believed to be underage, having lied about their age in order to get the coveted work permits.

And so it goes. And unfortunately it still does.


Rainy Days and Good Friends

It’s been a wet and wild week here in Bangkok. It’s raining nearly every day, sometimes two or three showers each day. Raining cats and dogs … not to mention rats and cockroaches. Yeah, it’s a wild city.


In the midst of all this precipitation, a flurry of good friends has arrived in Bangkok for visits, ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Now that is the sort of storm that I enjoy! Last week heralded the arrival of Ma Thanegi and Myriam Grest, both from Yangon, and hot on their not-so-high heels was ex-Bangkok resident Janet Brown, now living in Seattle. I met those three charming women for several good meals around town, including lunch at the brand new Broccoli Revolution, a vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 49. It’s run by Naya, the same Thai woman who helped start the popular Monsoon Restaurant in Yangon.


That same week I had yet another visit from a Burmese friend, this time Ko Soe Moe from Mandalay, who was making his very first trip to Thailand. Soe Moe is a freelance tour guide and translator and took advantage of the annual September lull to visit our fair kingdom. He spent most of his time up north, in and around Chiang Mai and Chiangrai, but also visited Ayutthaya. He took the overnight train to Bangkok from Chiang Mai and spent his last morning at my bookshop and then headed out for a quick tour of the riverside temples before making tracks to the airport for an early evening flight back to Myanmar. Soe Moe told me that he was very impressed with Thailand and plans to return next year, bringing his son with him.


And they still keep coming. This week, by old Orlando buddy B.T. arrived for another extended stay in Thailand (Pathum Thani, for the most part), after spending most of the summer back in Florida, tacking on a few weeks in Berlin. My final visitor is Richard from Texas, who arrived this week for his annual Thailand sojourn. He’ll be here for almost a full month before flying back to celebrate Halloween in Dallas. Dinner this week? Why not!

It’s been fun to see everyone again, for however brief or long period of time they are here. Janet will also be in town for most of the month, and we are planning further meals in Saphan Khwai at the long-running Abu Ibrahim Indian restaurant and of course some Thai treats at Ton Khrueng, further down Soi 49. I think I’ll have to put off my plan to go on a diet for yet another month!


Fast Food Freedom in Myanmar


Thanks to various reforms that the Myanmar government has enacted in the past two years — not to mention the elimination of Western sanctions — many Western companies are now eager to do business in the long-isolated country. Yes, plane-loads of get-rich-quick capitalists are practically having orgasms at the thought of access to a new untapped market. Coca-Cola has opened a new bottling plant, car manufacturers are eyeing the country, there is a bidding war going on for lucrative telecommunications concessions, and credit card behemoths such as Visa and MasterCard are belatedly making their presence known. It’s all both exciting and frightening. How will the humble people in Myanmar deal with all these sudden big changes?


As you would expect, in the wake of such new commerce, we will be sure to witness the arrival of Western fast food franchises. An article in the Myanmar Times last month announced that Kentucky Fried Chicken would be opening up outlets in Myanmar this year. Just think: Colonel Sanders rubbing shoulders with Aung San Suu Kyi. On second thought, let’s not think too much about that. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t rank KFC on any list of fine dining establishments. And yet, based on the write-up about KFC in the Myanmar Times, you would think they were reviewing an upscale restaurant. Here is what the very excited writer for the newspaper had to say: 

“This time it’s the real thing, not a lookalike like the place that recently sprang up in Dagon township. To set local mouths watering on May 11, KFC held a tasting session at Inya Lake Hotel.

My friends and I arrived at 4pm, which just happens to be the time we normally stop work for a snack. So after listening to the welcoming speech of the vice president and chief marketing officer of Yum Restaurants International, Vipul Chawla, we were ready to sample the goods.

First I went for the original recipe: attractively aromatic, crispy without excess oil. From my first bite I found it pleasingly crunchy on the outside and juicy and moist within. But it was quite salty, so I think it will go well with rice.

Then I turned to the hot and spicy version. I believe many Myanmar will find this most palatable, along with other similar dishes on the menu, though perhaps the original recipe is preferable for children.

In other countries, KFC adapts its fare to local taste. In Thailand, for instance, you can get chicken with rice and green sauce. Here in Myanmar, they are already busily researching local eating habits to craft a product aimed at Myanmar taste buds.

When KFC does officially open, their menu will feature fried chicken, sandwiches and salads, along with various drinks.

This month’s tasting session represents KFC’s first attempt to survey local demand and assess consumer needs in Myanmar. Now they are going to decide where, when and how many KFC outlets they will open.”


Well, obviously someone is excited about the advent of KFC coming to town. And I suppose when you’ve been denied such treats your entire life, discovering the Colonel and his buckets of crispy chicken breasts must seem terribly unique and exotic. This news brings back memories of the KFCC outlet that opened in Mandalay about three or four years ago. Yes, K, F and a double C. As you would suspect, it was a total KFC ripoff, complete with a Colonel Sanders logo on their sign. Alas, it didn’t last more than a year or so. Perhaps the pizza they were plugging didn’t captivate the local diners.


I have no doubt that the younger generation of Myanmar consumers will be drawn to Western fast food franchises like KFC, judging by the popularity of donut shops and local attempts at fast food that have sprung up in shopping malls in Yangon and Mandalay in the past decade. Who needs Kentucky Fried Chicken when you have Tokyo Fried Chicken!  But I can see the younger generation in Myanmar forsaking local institutions such as the Burmese teashop, in favor of shiny and mesmerizing fast food joints. Some people would say that it’s all about choice — freedom to choose, baby! — and that you can’t deny people the right to eat where they want. Yeah, that’s true. But in a country that has gone for so many decades without the blight of Western fast food franchises, it saddens me to see such “progress” spoiling things. Then again if Pizza Hut opens and offers a Pickled Tea Leaf topping, I’ll be first in line to try it.



Soccer Monks


I’m back in Shan State today (at least in my cyber state of mind) with the novice monks from the Tat Ein Monastery. Like most men and boys in Myanmar, these guys are total football fanatics. When not studying their Buddhist texts, they are more than willing to kick around a football — what’s called a soccer ball back in the USA — either inside or outside the monastery. Unlike at some more well-to-do monasteries in Myanmar, the monks at Tat Ein don’t have access to a TV, their football cravings are confined to actually playing the game.





Before I arrived in Nyaungshwe this time, I bought the monks a new football in Yangon. It wasn’t that expensive but it was certainly of much better quality than the beat-up ball they had been using. They might be novice monks, but that shouldn’t prevent them from playing a little football once in a while. And as you can see from these photos, they certainly get a kick out of doing just that!




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We Are Family


I was in Mandalay last week, cycling down 83rd Street, passing the busy 27th Street intersection near the Silver Star Hotel, when I heard someone shout: “Hey, Brother!”


I glanced to my right, being careful not to swerve into the perilous lanes of converging traffic — cars, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, ox carts, 3-wheeled rigs; it’s a dizzying transport stew — and noticed a man waving at me. It was Maung Lwin, a trishaw driver I’ve used many times. I found a safe point to turn around, hopped off my bike and walked over to talk with Maung Lwin. “Brother, be thwa ma le?” he asked me, a big grin plastered on his dark, weathered face. “Brother, where are you going?” Just a typical greeting, but I get a kick out of the way the locals call you brother, or uncle (you know you’re getting “up there” in age when you hear more of the latter) in either English or Burmese.




I’ve met many friendly locals like Maung Lwin while traveling around Myanmar. In addition to conversation and camaraderie, they invite you into their homes, cook elaborate meals for you, buy you little presents as tokens of friendship, and above all, they treat you like you are someone special to them. It feels nice to be accepted like that, almost like you’re part of the family.





I hope it doesn’t sound like a cliché, but I truly feel a special bond with many of the locals I’ve meet around Myanmar. From small villages in Shan State and the dry zone of Yenangyaung, to the bustling cities of Yangon and Mandalay; the people are all gold. I return to the same places again and again, so I’m always guaranteed to run into someone I’ve met during previous trips.





In hotels and restaurants, schools and monasteries, teashops and on the street; the locals really make you feel at home. It’s a bond that I cherish, and I look forward to reconnecting with my friends, and meeting new ones, each time I’m in Myanmar. We are family indeed!










Shwedagon Unplugged


Wi-fi is now available at Yangon’s sacred Shwedagon Pagoda? Say, it isn’t so, Soe Moe! But according to a somewhat tardy news bulletin that I stumbled upon last week, the news is true. Here is an excerpt from one online article that I read:

Tourists visiting Shwedagon Pagoda will be provided with free Wi-Fi access as of 15 August, Mizzima reported, citing a member of pagoda board of trustee. The official said Crystal Shine Company offered the board to provide free Wi-Fi service—30 minutes per head—to foreigners on 1 July. “Wi-Fi password will be provided to foreigners visiting once they have paid five FECs or dollars as usual at foreign guest counter at southern arch,” U Win Kyaing, head of BOT office, was quoted as saying by Mizzima. The service at the most famous pagoda in Myanmar is currently destined for the tourists and its service period will be extended later. Signboards will be erected on the pagoda precinct to let the visitors know the Wi-Fi access is available from 4 am to 10 pm.


I’ve mentioned this latest wi-fi news to other friends, both Westerners who have visited Yangon and natives of Myanmar, and everyone’s puzzled reaction runs along the lines of: What’s the point of offering wi-fi at a pagoda? Why are they doing this? Why indeed. Why do tourists need to access wi-fi while visiting the country’s most hallowed pagoda? They can’t wait till they get back to their hotel or an internet café? To me, offering wi-fi at Shwedagon borders on sacrilege. Yet the local authorities seem to have no qualms about initiating this so-called “service.” I have visions (okay, nightmares) of laptop-toting tourists sprawled on the grounds of Shwedagon (which is actually more than one famous pagoda, but a large complex of shrines and pagodas, including that famous “big one”), tapping away on their keyboards, oblivious to the worshippers around them. This is just … wrong.


And it’s also yet another disturbing sign of the increasing sense of entitlement that seems to have become the norm nowadays amongst the tech-savvy generation. These youngsters have practically grown-up online and feel like they need to be — and are entitled to be — connected around the clock, no matter where they wander. I was shocked to see a “Wi-Fi available” sign at a teashop in Myanmar last year, but this Shwedagon sighting it an outrage of a different magnitude. It seems to me that there needs to be a line drawn at some point, leaving some places — such as Shwedagon — off limits to such electronic distractions.


I remain puzzled at the plethora of businesses and even non-commercial entities that now offer free wi-fi to their customers or the general public. Why? Do they really think these weasels are going to spend more money because wi-fi is being offered? Everything I’ve noticed says that the opposite is happening. I see this new generation of freeloaders and slackers and I don’t see any of them spending any money whatsoever … except to buy the latest shiny new gadget. From free downloads and Google searches to various phone apps and Skype, people nowadays want instant information and instant access, and they don’t want to pay for any of it. It’s what they now expect. And that’s quite sad.


Wi-fi at Shwedagon? It’s the end of the world as we know it.


21 Shots: Remembering Myanmar


I’m thinking a lot about Myanmar lately, as I begin planning my next trip over there. As the days fly by I realize my departure date is less than two months away. Holy monhinga … time to start picking out which longyis, in my ever-growing collection, to wear. All this trip preparation reminds me that I still have a bunch of photos leftover from my last trip that I haven’t posted yet. So, on that note, here we go: 21 more reasons to remember Myanmar.



Making morning treats at a small neighborhood teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay.



Novice monks bring water for the primary school at Tat Ein village in Shan State.



Students at a village school near Inle Lake play games during their lunch break.



Early morning cyclist on a muddy street in Nyaungshwe.



Tapping and blowing out a tune in Shan State!



Students at Tat Ein’s primary school peek under the partition to check out what I’m teaching in the other class.



Ko Maw Hsi and his daughter in Mandalay.



Zin Ko shows off his tasty new key chain in Amarapura.



Drying out chili peppers outside a monastery near Nyaungshwe.



Even monks enjoy a game of late afternoon football!



A student in a pretty hat poses in front of a pretty plant at a temple near Pindaya.



Nyaungshwe traffic jam!



Taking aim while playing the shoe game at a pagoda in Amarapura.


A little afternoon street corner guitar serenade in Yangon.



A monk in Mandalay during his morning meditation walk.



Checking out the tunes at the teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay.



Ko Maw Hsi bangs a gong in Mandalay.



Novice monk with his alms bowl outside the monastery at Tat Ein village in Shan State.



Dancing the day away in Amarapura.



Students at a village school near Inle Lake play on the slide during their lunch break.


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