Travelling down the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, for a split moment, I had an illusion of homecoming. The road –a wide, rain-drenched one (it opened on Feb’ 2001), was smooth and had that signature deserted look of any hilly town. Now and then I saw locals, mainly girls, in their bright blouse and longyis – walking by, their faces hidden under the made-in China umbrellas.
In the ghost of a jeep, I found myself sharing a seat with 3 people. The youngest of them, Htun, is our driver and guide and in this rainy, stormy weather, also the saviour, – who can take us to the destination. The greatest love of his life seemed to be chewing betel nut. The 2nd one, an elderly Burman Buddhist and the 3rd person,(yes, another Mr.Htun), a primary school teacher.
We were going towards Kalaymyo, the next big town after Tamu. The cyclone had hit the country 2 days before. There was news of great loss of property and life. Being an Indian, and a media worker at that, I was itching to talk about it, to discuss it, to hear some argument in favor and against the government-taken measures. If nothing at all, I expected people to curse, to complaint…
But minutes passed and then hours, but nobody spoke a word. On the way we stopped twice, first to have afternoon meal (a huge plate of rice with tangy fish curry) and then for a ‘routine check’ by armed soldiers. And I was amazed to see how silently people moved. They ate, chewed betel nuts, some smoked and others just sat there. On the veranda of the bamboo thatched motel, waiting for the journey to resume.
Later that night I was eating dinner at hotel ‘Hollywood’ - a 2 storied house that served as lodge cum bar cum tea house and sold rice, fermented fish chutney and sour apple beer, I saw people gathering in to watch TV. I expected them to switch on the news channel. Instead, the colour TV monitor brought on a Thai film, about a boy and girl and their unrequited love.
It took me 4 more days to learn of and understand this silence, that is, until I met Alex in Kalewa. Alex or Alexander Kwang was a fellow wanderer like me. Unofficially, however, he was a human rights activist. It was Alex who told me that the ruling military junta in Burma neglected everything in the country except the politics. Yes, you could do all illegal businesses but you must make sure not to be involved in politics. This is also the case with many so-called pro-democracy cease-fire groups, which had entered into sorts of agreements with the regime during the past eleven years. Burmese government claimed that, as of now total 17-armed ethnic groups had entered into cease-fire agreements. It has allowed these groups (in Burmese ?Nyein Chan Ye? groups) to operate both legal and illegal businesses with freedom in many parts of the country. These groups come and go in their "areas" with uniforms, guns and their own flags.
But is talking about a natural calamity, a disaster as big and as damaging as a super cyclone a political activity? Yes, said Alex, because it would gradually lead to the action taken or the lack of it. And there would be criticism. And that would be politics. If you were a peace-loving citizen, you would keep quiet, go home and pray –that’s what the Junta said and that’s what you did, if you wanted to keep your freedom of movement intact.
That people were not allowed to speak against the government was not the biggest surprise for me though. What surprised me is how life went on despite that. How people lived their life in absolute normalcy, with the gagging order ruling every sphere of life!
And that’s when I learnt…even peace could be an illusion!