Friday, June 30, 2006

What Wahyuana Brings from Burma

After risking his limbs entering the borders, Indonesian fellow Wahyuana finally sends me an image of Burma. The laptop where he kept the images of the Shwe Dagun temple (and another temple more striking than Shwe Dagun!) crashed as soon as he arrived in Jakarta.
Damn! Wahyu writes on the email. I have all my pictures there!
But I thank Wahyu for saving one image for me--the image of the monks at the Mahagondayone Monastery in Amapura, Mandalay in North Burma--is one image I can hang on to, at least for a while.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Escape from Burma

"Wahyu, you must be crazy!" I was in the lobby of the Rose Garden Hotel--a resort on Thailand's Nakorn Pathom, 32 km west of downtown Bangkok--with Wahyuana, the fellow from Indonesia on his way to Burma at the start of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) journalism fellowship this year.
"Vhy?" He asked in that Indonesian accent I found amusing.
"Why are you going to Burma?"
He turned to me, puzzled.
"Vhy should I not go to Burma?"
"Because look at them---" I glanced at Myo Zaw and Than Win Htut, the two Burmese on exile here in Thailand, coming out of the hotel elevator on their way to the lobby. "People are going out of Burma, see? Myo Zaw and Win Htut are here, see? They're just too happy to get out of Burma but you, Wahyu, you're going to Burma---Why do you want to go to Buhma? You must be crazy, Vahyu!"
On the eve of our departure to the second country (and for Wahyu, that was to be Burma), tension and uncertainty was up in the air. Even the loud Thai pop song that was playing in the restaurant where we ate spicy Thai food did not help dissipate the tension.
"If you're in Buhma, you can't mention my name!" Win Htut warned Wahyu during our pre-departure briefing. "You mention my name??! You go to prison!" He punctuated his statement with very strong gestures and wild pursing of his mouth. Then, after a while, he said, "But you can mention Myo Zaw. Myo Zaw is a friendly name, he's safe. He's popular among the academics. But me? Everybody is looking for me in Buhma!"
In Buhma, talk only to certain people who will be referred to you by trusted people. These trusted people should also be referred to you by another set of trusted people, Myo Zaw said.
"You should always be careful when you move around! They don't want journalists in Buhma! "
On the internet at the hotel lobby, I chanced upon the computer which Wahyu had been using before I came in. On the screen were images of pain---bandaged arms, blown up bodies, stitched scalps, bloody heads. Those were images of Burma.
"What is in Burma that really fascinates you, Wahyu? Makes you want to go there?"
"I vant to go there because I vant to understand."
"Understand what? You want to understand Burma??"
"No, not Buhma. I vant to unduhstand Moluccas. In Moluccas, people get slaughtered. My friend died in Moluccas. Sometimes, I interview people in Moluccas and then the next thing that I know, they're dead already. I saw the bodies in Moluccas. They used to make me--(he gestures throwing up)! Now, I want to go to Burma to understand these things. Because I don't understand."
I could never write the exact way that Wahyu talk. But this was how, our short talk went before he left for Buhma. In Buhma, he talked to the monks. He went there as a tourist, like Paul Theroux, I joked. "Never talk of politics," he kept saying over and over again, like a mantra. Instead, talk about the price of watches, I said.
He went to Buhma to understand Moluccas. I went to Malaysia and crossed a river in Sarawak because I did not understand anything. Yesterday, Wahyu arrived in Bangkok, at last, to see the rest of the fellows arriving from the second country of our choices. "So, howz Buhma, Wahyu???" everybody was asking.
"No good food in Buhma!" was his conclusion as SEAPA made us sit down to dinner at Bangkok's Royal River Hotel, where we're staying to write our stories.

Friday, June 09, 2006

News from Home

The other day, a friend in KL could not help grabbing the newspaper when the headlines showed Dr. Tun Mahathir criticizing his successor for being so ungrateful as to reveal that the government has been losing money for the mega projects built during his reign. This friend is the kind who (like me) never give a damn about politics but was forced to participate in his country's elections in the previous year because, he said, he was getting sick and tired of the Barisa National, the ruling party which has dominated the politics and economics of Malaysia and there's no other way to see it go but to vote for the opposition. Seeing Dr. Tun Mahathir fumed like hell on the headlines really made his day, he was overjoyed! On the story, more and more people---most of them, from the government, of course---are defending the Pak Lah (the endearing term they use to refer to the Prime Minister, who is Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi)!
Except for this rare treat, though, reading the newspapers of Malaysia makes me feel something is missing.
Dr. James Chin of the University of Malaysia (UNIMAS) in the state of Sarawak compares the current state of the press in Malaysia to the press in the Philippines during the reign of Marcos. "All you read there are press statements from the government," he whispered, over a cup of the Malaysian version of halo-halo. Now, if there's anything that glossing over the copies of the Sarawak-based "Borneo Post" or the Peninsula-centered "The Star" and "New Strait Times," it makes me crave for news from home. I love the way that journalists--and editors---in the Philippines painstakingly choose the details to make the story sharp and crisp. I also love the kind of stories that we write. It is so amusing that--when a few kababayans I happen to meet here project a rather "sanitized" image of home, I find the history of struggle in the Philippines against oppressive regimes something to be talked about. This history of struggle has become so advanced and successful that even Malaysian activists are looking up to it with awe and inspiration. That's why, news still trickle to my email, mostly about the counts of how many activists and journalists have died under the hands of the present regime. They came in handy when people start asking about the country under President Arroyo who continued to cling to power despite her being so unpopular and all the unanswered questions about the previous election. What's happening back home forms part of the experience of Southeast Asia, a region that is supposed to share an experience and a culture, but after having been torn apart and subdivided by different colonizers about half a millennium ago, now find themselves strangers to each other.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Rush of Memories

I never trusted my memory since I arrived in Malaysia. I just felt that words had ceased all production of meanings. Masjid Jamek, Tun Sumbanthan, Puduraya, Hang Tuah, Majaralela, Tun Abdulrahman and Menara Tun Razak never meant anything to me although I was forced to memorize them everyday just to get to where I was going. Most often, I was going somewhere at the 27th or 30th floor of buildings that all looked the same.
So, just to make friends with these strangers, I kept rolling them in my tongue as I inserted bills and pulled out cards at the Putra Train station, hoping that my mind can accommodate their strangeness. Only to discover a couple of steps from the train platform that they had all slipped away. How can I hold on to something that I didn't possess in the first place? I asked as I grappled with wild moments of panic.
I easily lost the memories of names because I never had any memory of the language in the first place. How many times did I catch Mujtaba (Taba), our Indonesian fellow, bursting with laughter because I mangled words in Bahasa and chopped and inverted names? He snickered when I asked the Indonesian fellow Wahyu, if his full name was Wayuatta instead of Wahyuana.
My mind seemed to be playing tricks on me because I thought the Burmese fellow's name was Zio Meow instead of Myo Zaw. After a short talk with Malaysiakini editor Stephen Gan, I stopped at the train platform to ask Taba again what the word "bumaputri" meant? Mujtaba, who was already having trouble how to juggle his work schedules with the time that his band of Malaysian friends wanted him to spend with them, frowned in confusion.
"Ahh! You mean, bumiputra!" he burst out laughing again.
That was why, after I left my cellphone in a faraway village of Sarawak, I was amazed to find out that I remembered the 12-digit telephone number that was supposed to be my lifeline. It was the only strange proof that my memory was working! On my way back to Kuching, I was prompted to remember a name that Prof. Wong Meng Chou had mentioned, but which I had kept inside my notebook and locked inside my luggage in a guesthouse in Kuching. I did not trust my memory to remember strange Chinese names at all. But all of a sudden, the name of Sem Kiong floated in my mind like magic. He was the person I was supposed to track down the Sarawak village of Belaga (pronounced B'laga here) to get to the bottom of my story.
Now, I know, my memory is working, at last, as I begin to feel comfortable in the increasingly familiar Kuching surroundings!