Note: I have retained the historically correct place names, though they have since changed.
I promised myself I would tell this story when I came to America in 1974. And I tried. But then I found out that most people didn’t know Burma was a country in the first place. I couldn’t tell a story about what was happening in a country that didn’t even exist in their mental geography. That’s something people can’t hear.
To be fair, I didn’t hear what I was being told either, even though I was there. Not until a letter travelled halfway round the world to break my heart. Then the story became too painful to tell. But almost fifty years have passed. Burma no longer exists; it’s Myanmar now. And still, lots of people don’t know it’s a country. But that doesn’t change what happened there.
In the winter of 1973, I arrived in Rangoon, Burma where my father was posted, hoping to enjoy Christmas break from an American boarding school in India where I was in my senior year. Besides visiting the temples and pagodas there wasn’t a lot for an American teen to do in the city, so my father had somehow gained for me the privilege of riding the police horses at the racetrack. I had ridden a lot at a stable in Bombay where we had lived before, so I thought I would be able to just saddle up and go. But Burma is different. It turned out I would have to have a ‘guide’ to escort me.
At the track, I was introduced to a stern-faced old policeman in the soft pre-dawn light. He nodded gravely at me, ignored my outstretched hand, and looked away to the stables. The horses were saddled and ready. We would ride in the early mornings before the Southeast Asian heat soured the day. He followed several lengths behind me, silently. I tried all kinds of conversational ploys to get him to speak. He ignored me totally.
I asked my mother why he was so reticent. She tried to explain the authoritarian rule and isolationist policies of the self-appointed head of state, U Ne Win. Ne Win had nationalized most industries and businesses, closing his country off to the outside world. Foreigners were restricted to certain areas within the country, supposedly due to the insurgents – the ethnic minorities being systematically oppressed - who we were told would try to kidnap us for ransom. The Burmese locals were discouraged from interacting with us. According to my mother, it was required that all conversations with us be reported to the authorities. Even food consumed in a foreigner’s house needed to be documented. But I was an American citizen; we are raised on extraordinary freedom. I didn’t understand, and so I didn’t hear her.
I was shortly to witness proof of my mother’s claims. I had made friends with the sons of the ambassador’s gardener who were forming a rock band. They came to our house once so that I could teach them “Proud Mary.” I played it on the guitar a few times while they watched me closely. They picked up the words as I went along but didn’t write anything down though I offered them some paper. They even recited the chord progression to each other. They were quick studies. Naturally, we offered them beverages and snacks. These were firmly declined. Music only.
I later met up with them in a little coffee shop. Mentioning that I was applying to college in Colorado earned me swift slicing motions, their hands held just above the tabletop. OK, college was not an interesting topic; I could take a hint. But shortly after that, I cast out a remark about leaving for the states in June and again, I received the rapid hand signals silencing me. The oldest one leaned forward, looking down at the table, and said quietly, “Do not look now, but the man at table behind us, he listens and records everything.”
“Why?” I infused the question with full-blown incredulity.
He shook his head. “Just do not talk about it.”
I said the tea was good and took a sip, sliding my glance over the rim of my glass to the man at the table next to us. He sat alone with a notepad. My mind almost shorted out at the very idea that the government felt interacting with me was worth monitoring.
My mother later sent me a clipping from the newspaper which reported that U Ne Win himself had stormed a hall the band was playing in and destroyed their equipment. Personally. For the crime of playing foreign music. Their caution hadn’t been far-fetched; it was grounded in real fear. It only looked far-fetched from the outside.
For those who are not under the iron fist, for whom the fear does not exist, the fear seems imaginary, so we don’t believe it. Since I had already witnessed some of this reality, I should have believed my mother when she tried to explain why the stern-faced old policeman remained so aloof.
One morning at the racetrack, while my reticent guide and I trotted in our familiar ritual in the pre-dawn glow, the sun suddenly spilled over the horizon, washing the fading night in crimsons and golds. I began singing one of my favorite songs from the musical, Oliver! “Who will buy this beautiful morning?”
“Nayhtwat,” a voice said. I turned around to that impassive face. Had he just spoken? He jutted his jaw at the horizon. “Nayhtwat.”
The Burmese word for sunrise. I repeated the word aloud. He corrected me. I tried again. There are small differences in intonation and pitch that I cannot hear. We batted the word back and forth, me unsuccessfully trying, he correcting.
We rode on for a bit when I made a connection. “Ne win, like Ne Win is the sunrise?” I asked, thinking myself politically savvy. To my astonishment, his broad face broke into a grin. He laughed and shook his head. Either I had just butchered the word beyond all recognition or the idea of the dictator of his country being likened to the sunrise was laughable. He thrust his chin in the opposite direction, firing off what I could only assume was the Burmese word for sunset, not sunrise. My grim-faced new friend had made a joke; U Ne Win was the sunset for his country.
After that, my ‘guide’ was not exactly voluble, but offered occasional remarks. Once, when we rode past a small, whitewashed house, little children peeked and fluttered slim dark hands in greeting. He patted his chest, explaining in English, “My.” I waved back, and they scattered like starlings, shrieking and giggling. Once, I saw a pretty woman hanging laundry from a line. She hid behind the flapping white cloth while we rode by, but I could tell by the proud look on his face that this was his wife.
And then he was gone.
I was introduced to the police chief’s son who spoke excellent English and was my new ‘escort.’ He was young and pleasant.
“Where’s my old guide?” I asked. He looked at me, blinked, and looked away.
“Reassigned.” He clipped out the word like it tasted bad.
We rode the track, chatting much more freely than I had been able to converse with the stern old man. I suspected the new ‘guide’ had been assigned to me because of his English and his connection to a high-ranking police officer. He asked me lots of questions about living in America, but it was a fruitless exercise as I had spent less than half my life in the country of my citizenship. It is possible he was assigned to ply me for information about my father’s work as an American foreign service officer. If he was, he wasn’t very good at it and, like many teens, I hardly knew a thing anyway. Mostly, it was pleasant to have someone to speak to as we circled the track.
We came upon the whitewashed house. There were no peeking children, no shy wife. “Where have they gone?” I asked.
Shadows passed over the young man’s eyes and he did not answer. I turned back to the house. There was no one there to wave to and yet laundry hung still on the line.
The telltale laundry. It hung there for days, bleaching in the hot sun. Each day I asked where they had gone. Each day my guide answered, “Reassigned.” Finally, I pointed to the laundry. “They were “reassigned” so abruptly they did not take their laundry?”
The police chief’s son looked out over the empty racetrack and dropped his answer low and fast. “He was sent away to the country to fight the insurgents.” He did not look at me.
“The whole family?” Shutters and shades in his brown eyes were my answer.
Months after I had returned to the states, I was surprised by a single piece of mail from the young man. It had been smuggled across the border and mailed from neighboring Thailand. He wrote that he had been “reassigned” following my departure, though he didn’t say why. He explained he was “in the country, to fight the insurgents,” but in a more fortuitous “reassignment” than he might have received had he not been the police chief’s son, had he just been, he wrote pointedly, an ordinary policeman. He told me not to write back, for then he wouldn’t be so lucky. In any case, there was no return address on the battered envelope.
I now know what the shutters that closed over his eyes were telling me. “Reassignment” was a euphemism for “sent away,” but it is also a euphemism for “executed.”
I do not know what happened to those giggling children, or to the shy wife, or to my reticent old friend “sent away” so swiftly they did not take down the laundry. If the police chief’s son had been “reassigned” because of his duties to the foreigner, what happened to the stern-faced man who clearly was not supposed to speak to me at all? Surely no one would condemn a man for a few harmless words. So I tell myself, even knowing that not all our words had been harmless. He had made a joke on U Ne Win. Could the old man have repeated that? Even I know that if he had, it would have been an offense punishable by death in the Burma of the 1970s.
Ah, but I was just a kid, a person of no consequence. I am not, after all, important.
Or am I? Am I a witness for this absent man? Am I his voice? Though he spoke little to me, perhaps it is in his absence that he now speaks. Listen to the voices of the people who are not here among us. If you can’t hear them, then listen to me.
I have a promise to keep. I have a story to tell.