Not only the road to Mandalay, but city streets the length and breadth of Myanmar stream today with protestors flashing the three-fingered salute, with flotillas of motorcycles and scooters, monks in maroon robes, even the occasional elephant. Unseen are the armies of government workers, railway staff, nurses and doctors, power plant personnel and bank tellers who have silently left their jobs in protest at the army detention of democratically elected leaders. A revolution powered by hundreds of thousands is being livestreamed by citizen journalists who at considerable risk have mastered the might of a smart phone. Meanwhile, the clunky generals who seized power in morning darkness, now daily showered with taunts and insults, nervously finger the safeties on their rifles knowing what another bloodbath will do to the nation – and to them. Events teeter on a knife edge.
During a visit to Yangon still fresh in memory, I taxi’ed to a university in Insein, also home to a notorious prison, in hopes I might learn about work for peace in a land of scant and restless dreams. A woman professor in the liberal arts department, a Karen intellectual, resorted to a story from ethnic lore to explain a root of current tension. The Karen, she said, believe that they were the earliest people to settle the hill country of eastern Myanmar. Their elders set out bamboo markers to indicate the land they required as home for the people. Later the mainstream Bama from the river valleys appeared and found the bamboo groves left by the Karen elders. But the lowlanders were clever and planted trees to mark their own boundary claims that overtook the bamboo. So it was that the Karen were disinherited of their lands.
In some measure, belief in such sleight of hand injustices underlies why the gallery of tribal minorities – the Kachin, the Shan, the Chin, the Karen, the Mon, the Rohingya and others – have raised resistance to valley power. Decades of low-intensity conflict with the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, have ensued even as the generals vow not to let power or control of the hills slip from their hands.
But my wife, Mary Kay, and I stumbled on a much more current – even subversive – account of what has led to the live-streamed revolution: a sculpture exhibited in the River Gallery not far from downtown Yangon. It is the gilded figure of a worn rickshaw over-laden with passengers. The driver strains at the pedals to move the load. Another man has joined the up-hill effort by pushing from the rear. The riders seem oblivious to the struggle around them. The burnished figures meanwhile are all naked. Even the gold leaf cannot hide the shame of failed fellow-feeling. And not in Myanmar only.
It is plain who are the masses in the streets today, and who the free riders.