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Chapter Sixteen 


 

The Outpost of Tyranny

۞

The large number of Burmese sleeping on the platform at the Rangoon central train station was enough to jolt anyone into a new reality. Station officials ducked away from what appeared to be anything to do with responsibility or work, many showing the guilty gait of escaping work, leaving the station disorganized and in disarray. Small tasks took hours to complete. Thomas knew the body language from his forrays into communist China. It was a universal look not dependent to any specific race or country, but usually found in systems of government that fostered indolence and rewarded those without motivation.

Standing on the platform waiting for the morning train north, he saw people sleeping between the tracks in dirty shirts and threadbare blankets where rats twice the size of the average-sized arm scurried over bare legs. There was harmony between rat and man. With so many wearing sarongs and flip-flops, he couldn't help but guess there was no such thing as a Burmese owning underwear or a pair of socks anywhere in the country. Indeed Stefan the Swede had been right: it was a different strain of beans here in Burma.

Once seated in his compartment waiting for departure, he flipped through the national newspaper The Myanmar Times but it was an unreadable hodge-podge rag of out-dated clippings from the international press. Miffed, he left the train to find a decent newspaper at one of the kiosks that were half-stocked but there was nothing. Remembering he had snagged a few government-issued newspapers from a government travel office the previous day, Thomas returned to the train and rustled through The New Light of Myanmar. It read like a publication of a real banana republic:

THE UNION OF MYANMAR
HOME TO VARIOUS NATIONAL RACES
Our country, the Union of Myanmar, is home to various national races such as Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Bamar, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and so on residing together sharing joys and sorrows in friendship for many years countable by the thousand. The national brethren, throughout history, have resided together with the Union Spirit inherent in them and put up resistance unitedly against any danger that befell the nation. As the saying goes, blood is thicker than water.
- Senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the State Peace & Development Council, Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services 

But it was the People's Desire section that was truly indicative of the persona of Burma. It reads:

PEOPLE'S DESIRE
1.    Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.
2.    Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation.
3.    Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State.
4.    Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

Now with a grasp of how he might be regarded, the notion of finding the sacred tablet and removing it out of Burma placed fear in his gut. The subjective nature of these points made him uneasy, and the thought of a Burmese jail scared him. Senior General Than Shwe was a man he would not like to tamper with. The military boys in the State Peace & Development Council were iron-fisted governors of the land. It didn't bode well, but armed with how they look at foreigners he would tread softly.

Once the train started moving Thomas tried to relax and let providence guide him. Taking full advantage of his window seat, he watched freeloaders hanging off windowsills as the orange colonial train took slow curves north to Mandalay. Arms and legs and heads and luggage stuck out of the windows as men spat their betel juice in arced red streams of liquid. Soon other projectiles were launched out the windows: plastic bags, Styrofoam packaging, cigarettes, coke cans, water bottles, and pretty much anything else that could fit through the window. The garbage along the tracks attested to how long it had been going on.

As the train picked up spped, he passed barren fields with nothing but dying banana trees and leafless palms suffocating in a haze of dust. Mile after mile the landscape was dominated by flaxen grass, cactus patches and forgotten sunflower fields, all drooping sadly under the sun with no visible signs of industry. The antique on wheels lumbered past fields that lay unused and desolate, that made him wonder how the country was generating revenue and putting food on anyone's table. Clusters of thatched huts on stilts had garbage festering underneath, open swamps surrounded the huts where chickens and roosters fed. The stench of human feces even assaulted his nose. He felt concern for children playing around the open pits in their flip-flops, one open cut or abrasion was an open invitation to infection. It was an exercise of witnessing the actual creation of hepatitis and cholera and of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

The buh-bump, buh-bump, buh-bump of the wheels on the track created the illusion that he was back in colonial Burma. It was a potent lullaby that drugged him into a stupor but too noisy for him to fall asleep. But the daunting swagger of the train side to side tested his nerve, especially with the knowledge of two recent derailments. The possibility of the train swaying off the tracks was a very real.

Once the swaying stopped and the train was climbing, he spent some time reading George Orwell's Burmese Days. George Orwell himself, graduate of Eton and born in India, must have taken this same train to Katha in 1923 for his stint as an imperial police officer. In the novel, Orwell insists it was the British who modernized the country, built the infrastructure and the railway and then were unceremoniously booted out, only to have it all collapse from a gallop to a whimpering trot. As the Indian Doctor says in Orwell's Burmese Days: "The British were the torch bearers upon the path to progress." The railway still took its payload through jungles and over rivers and across mountainsides 3000km north to the heart of Upper Burma. General Than Shwe's military dictatorship still benefited today despite his anti-western rhetoric, as if his regime had adopted the old British mastership mentality over the population.

Farther north old plantations peppered the land frozen in time like medieval serfdoms left to wither like the sun-scorched fields the color of Phoenician rust. The plantations were like small ghost towns with no signs of life. Bamboo chicks were the only interruption of the view of the great dried-up dusty plains of Lower Burma laid bare from the heat. With starvation imprinted on the faces of the Burmese, people here were in a constant state of dire indigence. The dirt and torture and ignorance had returned.

  
 

 
 
 
 
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Part One - Canada
1.      The Twin From the East Returns  
2.      The Sundancer  
3.      Waxing Gibbous 
4.      The Second Coming of the Messiah 
5.      The Sacred Twin Story 
6.      The Sign of the Pahana 
7.      Palongawhoya and Poqanghoya 
8.      Rainbow Thunderbird and Red Phoenix 
9.      The True White Brother 
10.    The Lost Louis Riel Notebooks 
 
Part Two - Hong Kong
11.    A Mixture of Revulsion and Pity 
12.    A Classroom of Scallywags 
13.    Illegitimati non Carborundum 
14.    The Distant Fire of Empyrean
 
Part Three - Burma
15.    The Monastery of Sacred Tablets 
16.    The Outpost of Tyranny 
17.    When the 12th Moon Comes 
18.    The Pigeon Left & the Crow Took His Place 
19.    Go North and Find Your People 
20.    Finding Orwell 
21.    Though the Monkey is in a Hurry, the Tree Branch is Not 
22.    The Castle at God's Toes 
23.    The General and Sergeant Betel Nut 
24.    The Tattooed Station Master 
25.    Reverend Crow's Life's Work 
26.    Yield Not to Adversity, But Press on More Bravely 
27.    A Bitter Cuppa Tea 
28.    The Thirteenth Tribe 
29.    When a Lamp is Lit You Must Expect Insects 
30.    John the Christian 
31.    A Guardian Angel Named Hanna 
32.    The Bar Car & Betel Nut 
33.    The Son of Light 
34.    Slipping the Karmic Knot
 
Part Four - Hong Kong
35.    The Tonsure Warning 
36.    The Phoenix Reborn 
37.    Touching the Empyrean 
38.    Joshua the Gatekeeper 
 
Part Five - Canada
39.    Lapsit Exillis 
40.    Thunderstones 
41.    The Time of Great Purification  
         
 
 

  
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