Of longyis, politics and apathy in Myanmar

I always feel miserable whenever a trip abroad ends. There’s just a deep sadness that fills me when I’m about to leave a new country I’ve explored and understood, even in such a short time. It’s not the sights that I miss – it’s the enchanting culture and beautiful people that do.

I felt the same sadness while I was waiting to board my flight to Bangkok from Yangon International Airport. I was looking at all the photos I took, realizing slowly that I might have to count years before I’ll be able to go back in Burma.

From the empty halls of Mandalay Royal Palace to the ancient temples of Bagan to the busy streets of Yangon, my adventure in Myanmar was a dream come true. Aside from visiting historic places, I got deeper insights about the Burmese way of life through my friends during my 9-day trip.

Buddhism plays a major role in Burmese life. Photo from one of the shrines inside Shwedagon Pagoda.
Buddhism plays a major role in Burmese life. Photo from one of the shrines inside Shwedagon Pagoda.

But there’s something in Myanmar that made it different from all other countries I’ve been to. There’s a certain kind of familiarity that makes this country feel like home. And it’s weird because the Philippines is so different from Myanmar, especially in terms of religion and politics.

It took me a few days of observation and a few dinners with locals before I truly understood Burmese culture. The Burmese are a very simple and amiable people, like most Southeast Asians are. But this seemingly easy-going people are more than what usually meets tourists’ eyes.

Beneath the longyi

Burmese men like wearing skirts – the traditional longyi. The professionals wear it in their offices and the vendors wear it while selling fruits in the markets. They wear it in their weddings and other formal gatherings. They wear it in the streets, in their houses, and in their parliament.

“In some provinces, the shorter the longyi, the more manly you are considered,” said a new Burmese friend, who’s a doctor of medicine in Mandalay. (READ: 5 must-see places in majestic Mandalay)

Add this to the constant chewing of betel nut and you have Burmese machismo figured out, he added.

Burmese men wearing longyis walk towards the Royal Palace reconstruction in Bagan.
Burmese men wearing longyis walk towards the Royal Palace reconstruction in Bagan.

Being Buddhists, the Burmese are generally accepting of LGBTs. They generally don’t mind having LGBT friends and family members. Myanmar also got in the news in 2014 when a gay couple married in Yangon – to no objection from the government.

But these does not lessen Burmese men’s masculinity, my friend noted. Being LGBT-friendly is not equivalent to being gay – and Burmese men are more than capable of doing their roles in society.

“Wearing longyi saves laundry,” said my Japanese friend who had been based in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, for more than a year. He wore a longyi during our dinner in the former office of General Aung San. He said it’s both relaxing and comfortable, but takes some getting used to.

I actually bought a longyi to wear during the same dinner but I was too shy to wear a skirt in public. Looking back, I should’ve worn the longyi I bought since I couldn’t wear it anywhere else except, maybe, when I’m at the beach.

A culture of apathy

As in any country, you have to understand a people’s history in order to understand their culture. And Myanmar’s history is infamous worldwide.

Back in Mandalay, I was asking my friend about the politics in Myanmar, unknowingly in my journalistic capacity. We soon found stares from the other customers in the bar, with some of them moving away from our table.

“People are afraid to talk about politics,” my friend told me, seeing that I was getting alarmed. Burmese, he said, are tired of mingling with political affairs after decades of suppression.

The scene in the bar, he added, was typical. Burmese avoid talking about politics in public for fear of getting prosecuted. This might seem like a scene we only see in movies, but it’s still the reality in Myanmar.

I told my friend about the 1986 EDSA Revolution. I told him that in the Philippines, at least, the military often listens to public sentiment. My friend was amazed. He said the junta never listened and those who tried peaceful protests often got killed.

“They just say we’re democratic now. The truth is, they just changed clothes from military to civilian uniforms to look democratic. But the military’s still in control,” he added.

But there are sparks of hope growing across Burma. The Burmese are starting to learn to demand more and more from the government.

After we finished our dinner and drinks, I realized that the Burmese, like Filipinos, are a resilient people – though we have been weathering different circumstances. Many of us have grown tired of our governments yet we never lose hope.

The Lady

Burmese media are becoming more and more critical of their government.
Burmese media are becoming more and more critical of their government.

In the shops of Aung Bogyoke Market and in the horse carts of Bagan, you will see her face in posters. They call her The Lady, one of the few sources of hope for a true democracy in the country, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Though she is only a member of Parliament, she and her party are revered by many Burmese. Some would argue that she is as influential – although obviously less powerful – as the president himself.

I saw a poster of Suu Kyi in a shop in Bagan. I point to it and ask the vendor about the lady. She, not understanding English, just smiled and put a thumbs up. I ask my horse cart driver about the lady and he said he wants her to be the next president of Burma. (READ: Temple run in Bagan, the land of a thousand temples)

Though this kind of hope is inspiring, it might be out of place, as my friend in Yangon reminded me. Suu Kyi cannot run for the presidency since she is married to a British citizen, and under Burmese law, nationals who are married to foreigners cannot run for public office.

“They’d have to change the constitution so she can run. It’s a bit impossible for now,” my friend added.

Regardless of the circumstances, Suu Kyi still receives a lot of support from the Burmese. Though they remain quiet about the much-needed political reforms they long for, the Burmese see in Suu Kyi a way to a better life, my friend said.

Go to Burma now!

A lot of travelers and tourists have said it before, go to Myanmar while the culture is still “fresh,” untouched by Western influences. I could not overemphasize this more.

A Burmese man makes a Buddhist statue.
A Burmese man makes a Buddhist statue.

As more and more tourists arrive in Myanmar – especially in hotspots like Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon – the unique Burmese culture becomes more mixed and the locals are learning to adapt. The perfect time to visit Myanmar is as soon as you can – although check the weather first, as I learned the hard way.

When there, talk to the locals, ask them about their concerns, and tell them about your culture. The most important things that you can learn when traveling is not the tourist spots you visit or the food you eat, but the connection you make with people from different cultures. (READ: How to not get scammed in Myanmar)

Reality hit me as the Burmese lady announced that my flight to Bangkok is ready for boarding. With a heavy heart, I close my laptop full of photos and head towards the plane. Knowing and seeing a small reality of what it means to be Burmese – and experiencing the beauty of their country – I know that a piece of my heart will always stay behind.

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