Seen from one angle, the Burma-U.S. rapprochement is a sign of a bright new future. Step a foot to the side and look again, and it’s a sad little tryst between two countries with, shall we say, image problems (and a China problem).
And then it was silent. All the French tourists and their guides, all the monks in crimson, all the Burmese and American security, they all went quiet in the open air of the Shwedagon Pagoda as the great shoving, surging entourage of Hillary Clinton entered.
It had been a comical hour leading up that for us at Roads and Kingdoms. We had come to the East Entrance of the Shwedagon a bit after the appointed time, and were waved away by a Burmese soldier with an assault rifle, which frankly is what one has come to expect from the Burma of the last decades. What happened next was the weird part: I said, “journalist”, and he waved us through. When a colleague came to challenge, he repeated to the colleague, “journalist”, and then he stood down. When you consider how journalists have had to work in Burma all these years, disguising themselves, making (as we did) fake business cards and lying and lying until they got caught on a list and were shipped back to Thailand, it’s all rather incredible.
Stranger still: just inside the gate, a beefy American with wraparound shades and a bomb dog, and then even more State Department security types, in suit and tie, large white men sweating, all with their shoes off because this is sacred ground, but still using the profane manners of American security everywhere, nothing but “I’m going to need you to stand there” and “please don’t touch your bags until they been swept”. But, in a nod perhaps to the paucity of foreign press even for this august event, we had actually made it on the list, even without the brand protection of Time or Rodale that we used to enjoy. “Roads and Kingdoms?” one of them asked, looking at their paperwork. “Who here is from Roads and Kingdoms?”
Why, that would be us, thank you very much.
After a half-hour, a new set of security agents came down. They had the dog sniff our gear, and, regrettably for human-canine relations, our shoes and socks, which were also now in our bags. Then we came to a table where U.S. embassy police searched our bags again. And gave a tender little patdown. Inside, it was the Burmese police’s turn. They searched our bag (the third search by both man and animal), asked to see our phones and then quite deftly switched them off. Then we were made to wait and wait a bit more, and then in a huge rush, they shut the door and made a big show of not allowing anyone else in, and off we went, in an elevator up to the main level of the huge, gilded outdoor temple.
“They’re going to Delta,” said on embassy staffer to another. “Delta pen.” By pen, we found out, he meant a pen, as in a series of fences meant to keep pigs in, for example. There weren’t a lot of us latecomers, maybe six, mostly photographers, but we were shepherded past an entire division of Burmese police straight to our little holding pen blocked off with low white metal fencing.
The great part is that after all that security, it turned out that the Shwedagon Pagoda itself was open to the public and teeming as it always is with monks and penitents and package-tourists, all of whom had absolutely no security screening. So they, and we, found it quite funny that we were trapped in Delta pen with two security guards keeping us there, while the hordes (which included the cleverer among the journalists) roamed free. So the tourists walked by and took our pictures (“we are like monkeys at the zoo,” groused one Japanese photographer.) And we took their picture.
Nor did they clear the pagoda out when, after some more delays, that hush fell over the crowd. Instead, the great wave of security personnel surrounding Clinton and her hosts just pushed into and through the crowd, but just as it began, something rather touching happened: the crowd broke into applause.
Although we were far removed in Delta Pen, the one person standing on a temple ledge whom I could clearly see clapping was a monk. And that just reminded me what a remarkable moment this really was. Clinton’s first public appearance in the heart of Burma, and everyone we’ve spoken to here so far is just aching to believe that she is bringing with her something that their country’s only partner on earth—China—hasn’t. That is, in Burma, the American brand still stands for human rights, for protecting the earth, for wholly fantastical ideas like minimum wage. China, meanwhile, has been taking advantage of Burma’s isolation by pillaging its land and people. And of all the people who have suffered from this cynical union, the monks have fared the worst. Their protests were crushed, spies were sent into the monasteries, their dissident leaders sent to prison. If anyone needs saving, even by something as tarnished as American idealism, it’s the monks.
Long after Clinton had left, when were we just walking the grounds, a monk named Issa latched onto us, a little lonely perhaps, and looking for English practice. He took us to three spots around the massive golden spire where, depending on where you stood, a light would appear at the very top, and then disappear if you stepped one foot to the right, or even more fantastical, would turn colors, from red to orange to green, if you took one step forward.
Not so different, this Burma-U.S. rapprochement. Seen from one angle, it’s a sign of a bright new future. Step a foot to the side and look again, and it’s a sad little tryst between two countries with, shall we say, image problems (and a China problem).
But tonight was sort of electric. The Burmese people—not the goons who have been running the country, but the real Burmese people—want us to be the America we say we are. They want us to help them be free. What better place for prayers than a temple?