Dated: 2017, July 27
It was our first trip to Myanmar and we didn’t quite know what to expect. Much had been covered in the news about Myanmar’s recent liberalisation, Aung San Suu Kyi’s electoral victories and the Rohingya crisis, but beyond the media coverage, what is Myanmar really like?
As we moved through four different sites in Myanmar (from the last royal capital to its first, from a UNESCO biosphere reserve to a congested metropolis), we experienced a curious mixture of the historical and the contemporary in a country that is steeped in tradition but also looking forward and outward with the promise of a new government. The trip offered us an intimate glimpse into the fascinating dynamics by which the country manages the marriage between history and modernity, and how it negotiates the tensions from this union.
Our first stop was Mandalay, the last royal capital which was ingloriously annexed by the British in 1885. Today, the second largest Myanmar city is still associated with pre-colonial identity with its centerpiece, the Mandalay Palace, functioning as a memento of the kingdom that once ruled these lands.
The palace compound sat within fortress walls and a surrounding moat, and we were told that the military had taken over most of the fortress grounds, so it remained out of bounds. We could only enter the fort through the east gate and we were only allowed to visit the palace once we got behind the walls.
The palace itself is a reconstruction of the original which was mostly destroyed during World War 2. Even though the buildings are beautiful, this palace somehow rings hollow as an inadequate reproduction created to quench the tourist thirst for all things historical-looking.
Although the reconstruction sought to evoke ancient Burmese kingdoms, the buildings are ultimately just impressions of an original world which has been lost. In many ways, the act of rebuilding is like the modern retelling of history. The unseen but foreboding presence of the military surrounding the palace on all sides reminds us that what is unsaid can tell us more about history than what is reconstructed, curated, and then presented before us.
By a stroke of luck (and superstition), one palace building escaped the World War 2 bombings. The Shwenandaw Monastery was originally the royal apartment of King Mindon in the palace. His son Thibaw could not deal with Mindon’s ghost haunting this building after his death and so, he had the entire apartment moved outside the palace grounds and converted to a monastery. Although this is the only original remaining building from the Mandalay Palace, it is still overshadowed by its larger counterfeit at the original site.
Looking back at the Mandalay Palace, one wonders what is the version of history remembered through the Disneyland-like reconstruction of the buildings. There is merit in this reconstruction, but is there more to remembering the past than rebuilding? The reconstructed palace and the Shwenandaw Monastery form an interesting contrast. They are both representations of the old Mandalay Palace, but on the one hand, we have a feel-good, brand-new palace that simulates the extravagance of the old kingdom, and on the other, a decrepit and isolated building bearing scars from history, without hiding or glossing over anything.
Perhaps they serve different purposes – tourism, conservation, education, social, political, the list goes on. Just like how couples get married for various reasons (love, money, convenience, etc), the marriage between history and modernity in Myanmar is not always a straightforward affair.
From Myanmar’s last royal capital, we travelled to its first. It is here that most accounts of Myanmar’s beginnings as a country begin. With thousands of religious buildings, one would think that Bagan sits securely in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The truth, however, is that Myanmar has tried and failed to inscribe the site many times. This is attributed primarily to the inaccurate and potentially detrimental conservation methods applied to the structures over the years. In some cases, new extensions were built on the existing temples, thus infringing preservation principles.
The historical significance of this site is undisputed, but UNESCO is not simply a validator of such significance, as some may think. It also has a policing role – to ensure legitimate methods are used to preserve the historical integrity of the structures. Although UNESCO may ostensibly aspire to rise above political squabbles and social activism, the nature of its business necessarily implicates all heritage sites under its listing in a whirlpool of political lobbying and social consequences which cannot be easily untangled.
For instance, the spike in tourist numbers after attaining world heritage status may bring about further physical deterioration of the site due to increased visitor numbers. Tourism is also a double-edged sword for the local people – it brings economic gains but it may also interfere with the traditional lives and religious practices of a people previously unsullied by the foreign (and perhaps intrusive) presence.
We saw many temples in ruins and awaiting restoration. We saw whitewashed walls and wondered what breathtaking murals once adorned the walls. We saw tourists scurrying from one temple to the next in the same way they would run from one ride to the next in a theme park.
This is a place of contradictions. As tourists, we were also complicit in this – most ironically manifested when we decided to ascend the Nan Myint Tower, built for tourists to capture a panoramic view of the city. While we marveled at the beauty of the countless Bagan temples before our eyes and talked about the preservation efforts, we were also consuming a curated view on this modern monstrosity, erected incongruously on the sacred plains. But without the infrastructure that modernity brings, how rapidly can we salvage the ancient structures succumbing to the tides of time? Without the exposure that tourism brings and sustains, how easily can we garner resources to support restoration and how widespread can educational efforts be?
Perhaps in Bagan, this marriage between history and modernity is frowned upon by some but it goes beyond being a marriage of convenience. In some senses, it could even be a marriage of necessity, despite the accompanying evils it brings.
After Bagan, we traveled to another site already listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Inle Lake. This is the second largest lake in Myanmar and well known for its leg-rowers. The leg-rowing technique is believed to date back to the 12th century and passed down the generations from father to son (women still row in the conventional manner with their hands). This technique gives fishermen a better view of the waterways and submerged obstacles in their path. It also frees their hands to cast the fishing nets.
Today, with the help of diesel engines, the fishermen can travel the lake much more efficiently. In fact, they only travel short distances with the leg-rowing technique, and sometimes only when they sense the gawking gazes of tourists on them.
We were brought to a few stores selling lotus silk weaving and wood-carved products. According to our guide, these are traditional crafts practised by the people of the lake. There is little doubt that the workshops probably catered to tourists, as the workers only stirred to work when we stepped into the workshop. They invited us to take pictures, smiling as they worked away at their stations.
Inle Lake was nominated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for its ecological importance and the ways in which its inhabitants co-exist with their environment. In many ways, the marriage between history and modernity has worked out relatively well here. For instance, the locals have devised ways to create floating islands of mud and soil to farm various fruits and vegetables on the lake.
Modernity does not always have to stand in opposition to history and tradition. Such aspects of everyday life on the lake, made possible by modern innovations, have become important facets of the intangible cultural heritage of the region. Yet, against these idyllic backdrops, there are also reminders in the sprouting hotels that a balance needs to be struck and carefully maintained between progress and the preservation of the fragile environmental and historical heritage of this lake. Like all marriages, disproportionate attention on one side may spell trouble for the delicate equilibrium that has been painstakingly achieved.
Our last stop was Yangon, where history and modernity are pulling the city in opposite directions and yet still trying to co-exist with each other at the same time. Here, our senses were overwhelmed by a metropolis rapidly modernising and determined to shed the shackles from a previous administration that turned the country into what some considered a pariah state.
With one of the highest concentrations of colonial era buildings in Asia, Yangon most obviously bears the vestiges of Myanmar’s colonial history. These buildings co-exist with pre-colonial structures, such as the Shwedagon Pagoda, and everywhere we turn, the interaction between the historical, the colonial, and the contemporary continues to play out in different forms.
Jumping into the fray is a recently established organisation, the Yangon Heritage Trust, dedicated to preserving the architectural heritage of Yangon. Most of these architectural sites are colonial era buildings which have fallen into varying states of neglect, especially after some government offices relocated to the new capital Naypyidaw.
There have also been talks about converting The Secretariat, an important red-brick building which was the site of key historical events in Myanmar, into a cultural space. However, as with many other conservation projects, funds are lacking. It is said that the restoration of The Secretariat will cost at least $100 million.
On our last few days in Yangon, we visited a few contemporary art spaces: River Gallery, New Zero Art Space, Myanm/Art, and New Treasure Art Space. Before this trip, I only had a cursory understanding of contemporary art in Myanmar. A few prominent artists can be named easily and their works remembered, but other Southeast Asian countries, like Thailand and the Philippines, had comparatively more developed art scenes.
The visits to art spaces and conversations with art practitioners gave us a sense of some struggles they face in the country. Difficulties remain in freedom of expression, imposed both by the government and by the artists themselves. Some artworks became predictably uninteresting, steering clear of important but controversial issues in Myanmar.
Perhaps the merits of art emerging from Myanmar should be assessed not according to international frameworks of what contemporary art should be (if there is one), but according to the relevance and complexity of their works within the context of Myanmar society. How can we sufficiently understand the layers of meaning in each work without having preconceived notions of what a “progressive” contemporary artwork should look like?
Another limitation is the acute lack of research, resources, and opportunities for young artists, curators, and art writers, who often need to seek opportunities in other countries instead. Individuals such as Aye Ko and Nathelie Johnston have started to address this issue by initiating residencies, projects, and resource centres for the local art community. This is a problem endemic to many art communities in Southeast Asia and one hopes that more of such initiatives would change the situation soon.
In Myanmar, the tension between history and modernity is most sharply felt in Yangon, where there is a race to modernise, but a similar pull to remember the past. New buildings rise against the backdrop of old and crumbling colonial-era buildings, and artists create experimental works which push the boundaries of art making in an art scene that may still give preferential treatment to traditional works. Such tensions are weaved into the fabric of art and architecture in Yangon today, and it is often in such push-and-pull that the most interesting artworks are created.
We travelled to Myanmar expecting to see both history and modernity. However, in our minds, we had unknowingly segregated them into neat categories: history in Mandalay and Bagan, a short respite in the tranquil Inle Lake, and then back to modernity in Yangon. What we got, however, is a far more captivating experience of Myanmar as a place where history and modernity are consistently intertwined with each other. We returned from this trip seeing the relationship between history and modernity in terms of marriage, albeit one that is fraught with tension and influenced by a wide array of socio-political influences.
There is no doubt that our itinerary catered to tourists and was necessarily limited in uncovering the complexities of the country, but it gave us much to think about and much to expect as we follow the ongoing debates and endless conversations surrounding the development of this nation and where it is heading next.