06 November, 2011

The Gorkhalis of Myitkyina: Himal South Asia

October 2011, Himal South Asia Magazine
By Sushma Joshi
Tracking down a far-off Nepali community.

My flight to Yangon on 18 June is cancelled. Thai Airways announces that heavy rain has closed Yangon airport. In the restless gloom of the waiting area, rumours start to spread. The Myanmar Army has taken over the airport, people whisper. Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday is a day away. Has some event occurred while they have been away? Young fathers sit staring into space, wondering whether they can ever return home.

We get bussed to the Amaranth Hotel, a fancy five-star hotel in the outskirts of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Using my wireless thumb drive, I e-mail my friend in Washington, DC, and request her to check Twitter. Within a few minutes, I get my answer: a plane has skidded off the tracks at Yangon airport. Flights supposed to land there are being rerouted to Singapore.

We fly to Yangon the next morning. In the excited conversations I start up with my fellow travellers, I refer repeatedly to my visit to ‘Burma’, to which they politely remind me it is now ‘Myanmar’. At a crowded traffic junction, a young newspaper boy flashes me illicit news printed in The Nation, a Thai newspaper. The front flap is folded over to hide the headlines inside: Kachin rebels resume fighting at border, threats of civil war. Only 3000 kyats (around USD 468), he says. I get a Hollywood thrill seeing the news, hidden so discreetly and flashed briefly before my eyes.

In a nearby restaurant, the kindly owner starts to discuss the Kachin rebels with me. The people are protesting, she says, because the benefits of the new hydroelectricity dam currently being built will all go to China. The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River will dry up and the Kachin will get nothing in return. She is surprised I do not know all this already. ‘I think you are journalist and you come to report about this,’ she confides. I deny this, but she hardly believes me: how could I not be a journalist? Obviously I was not a tourist – clearly I had come for some specific purpose.

Four months earlier, in February, I had ridden a pickup truck to Lashio, in the northern Shan state. A government official had looked at me and asked, ‘Are you a writer?’ Do I have I am a writer written on my forehead, I had wondered at the time. In hindsight, this was disingenuous: which tourist in her right mind would be riding a pickup truck to Lashio, sitting squashed alongside thirty labourers in the back with a giant pile of goods, and only a plastic mat as cushioning? I had admitted I was a writer, of sorts, but I need not have worried – the official went on to tell me that Myanmar was now introducing democratic norms and would soon become like other democracies. He also told me that he never took the state-owned Myanma Airlines, and that he felt that his country would slowly but surely adopt the political freedom of other countries. He admired writers, and wanted to learn to write in English. Of course, he was a government official whose children studied at the best schools. His three rosy-cheeked children went to one of the best boarding schools in the country, in Pyin U Lwin (formerly Maymo), where he was picking them up to take them for a short vacation. Ordinary people had told me that only government officials get to send their children to good schools, or to buy property or start businesses. We can’t do anything, they said. It might have been true in this case but the official was so pleasant, polite and charming, and so clearly on the side of a democratic system, that it was hard to fault him.

Despite all this, I was unsure how much I should reveal – would saying that I was writing a book about the Nepali/Gorkhali community in Myanmar bring unwelcome attention? Did I want to invite the possibility of more government officials asking me more questions? I was unsure, and in the confusing absence of information it seemed better not to say anything.

To the gompa!
Back in the Yangon restaurant on a steaming and oppressive June evening, I shook my head and said: ‘No, I’m not here to report on the Kachin rebellion.’ The owner was surprised by this. Then she resumed telling me the story of what was happening in Myitkyina, almost as if it did not matter why I had come in the first place, as long as I got a chance to witness what was going on there. I was educated, it was clear. I could speak and write in English. And this was enough credentials to be a witness.

Reading the New Light of Myanmar, the government-run newspaper, I saw that indeed the Kachin rebels have resumed fighting in Myitkyina, where I was headed. As the restaurant owner had earlier indicated, the news also told me that the Kachin were protesting the building of a dam by China; they had already blown up 22 bridges. The newspaper alternatively offered sticks and carrots: warnings to those going against development alongside pleas to rebels to remember that they are part of the Myanmar state, and that those who agree to support state policies can come to the negotiation table.

Let me admit it right here: I am not one of those who go seeking adventure. I was in Myanmar to find out more about the history, culture and life of the Nepali community there. If fighting was happening exactly where I was headed, perhaps I should not go. Unlike many of my friends, I am not a conflict junkie. And while getting their heads broken open with a policeman’s baton during protest marches in Nepal’s democratic movement was a badge of honour for many of my friends, I tend to be more cautious. Following my mother’s advice, I tend to save my brain cells for other activities.

Precisely as planned, however, I did fly to Myitkyina the next morning. The USD 308 ticket felt exorbitant, but I had already planned this for months so there was no possibility of backing down. I was excited to see the Gorkhali gompa, described to me in great detail by the Mahayana Buddhist followers in Pwe Oo Lin. I was also excited to meet some of the estimated 300,000 people of Nepali origin who lived in Kachin state. With villages named Rampur, Sitapur and Radhapur, I had a feeling I was going to see a lot more of Nepal in Myitkyina than I had planned. Of course, with my usual lack of planning I was carrying no phone numbers with me – only a sense that everything would turn out right.

Myitkyina is almost 1500 km from Yangon. In the fresh green air, much of the oppressive gloom of Yangon city falls away. People do not look away with shuttered faces – over here, they look at you with a smile and an open face. As I looked around the verdant greenery and the gently dilapidated buildings, I wondered how the Nepalis had gotten here in the first place.

Later, people tell me that most Nepalis arrived with the British during Second World War to fight the Japanese. The Allies won. The Gurkha regiments stayed behind, even after the end of the war. Others came to trade even before the First World War – one tradesman in the bazaar told me his father came to Burma because it was the land of plenty. His father noticed that children in Calcutta picked rice out of the gutter to eat, but in Rangoon they threw away platefuls of rice from the eatery he sat in on his first day. That is how he knew this land was a rich land. Nepalis also built the road in this town, I was told. ‘My father worked on that road,’ a Nepali tells me later. ‘That road’ is the Ledo Road, which goes from Ledo, in Assam, to Kunming, in Yunnan. The Ledo Road was built as an alternative route by the British to carry supplies to the Chinese after the Japanese troops cut off the Burma Road in 1942.

I need not have worried about knowing not a single soul in Myitkyina as I descended from the airplane. Waiting outside the airport was Bijay Adhikari. Mr Adhikari worked the airport route as a taxi-driver. At first I mistook him for an Afghan – possibly one who had been left behind in this remote outpost, the detritus of some war of the past. Then he asked me, ‘Which country are you from?’ And when I said, ‘Nepal’, he said, ‘I am Nepali too. You don’t worry. I’ll take you everywhere.’

The first stop in our itinerary was Bijayji’s home. His wife sat in front of the Hare Krishna shrine in their home, her hands folded, the picture of propriety and devotion. The Hare Krishnaites, known only for their hippie oddities in the US, have apparently acquired a popular following of diasporic disciples from Hindu backgrounds in countries such as Myanmar. Cut off from their religious traditions and hungry to learn more about their religious heritage, these disciples provide a fertile following.

Bijayji’s wife tells me their three children are all working in Thailand – the son a tailor in Phuket, the two daughters working in retail outlets in Bangkok. ‘Don’t people in Myanmar miss their children?’ I asked, and immediately realised my mistake. Bijayji’s wife looked sad and she glanced down. Almost all of the younger generation of working age has migrated to Thailand. ‘Our villages are empty of young people,’ Bijayji said.
‘Your son must make a lot of money in Phuket, then,’ I said. ‘I met a lot of Nepali tailors who are doing very well in Thailand. They own their own homes and businesses.’
Bijayji shook his head and replied: ‘The tailoring business boomed for those who went about a decade ago. In the current economic climate, it is difficult for new people to establish themselves in Phuket.’ He said his daughters and son planned to send back their grandchildren so the grandparents could look after them while they worked in the big cities.

Bijayji then took me to meet his 80-year-old mother. We chatted for a while, and I felt an immediate affinity with the old woman. It is strange, I thought, how a point of commonality could be forged so quickly between this 80-year-old woman in Myanmar and myself, based on our shared heritage. Many of the people that I met during my travels in the country had a unique openness towards the world; while distrust tends to wrap many modern societies like shrink-wrap, in Myanmar many still exude an immediate intimacy. This openness worried me – I feared I might inadvertently do or say something that could put the people I met in harm’s way.

But I need not have worried. The Gorkhali community has nothing to hide in Myanmar. ‘We have excellent relationships with both the state and the Kachin rebels,’ I was told several times, with great conviction.

In the bamboo hut of the old woman, we moved to the issue of religion, always a contentious one in Myanmar’s Gorkhali community, as they refer to themselves. The old lady was a Buddhist, unlike her son and daughter-in-law, who followed the Bhakti movement through the Hare Krishna path. She had a Buddhist shrine midway up her wall, like her Burman neighbours. ‘We have no quarrels here,’ she said. ‘I follow Buddha, and they follow Krishna.’ Unlike in the larger community, this family seemed to have made peace with religious freedom and the different choices of family members.

Rebel, rebel
Immediately afterwards, we went to the gompa. Dorje Lama, the chairman, welcomed me warmly. An election to choose members of the committee was in full swing. Most of the people were Tamang. We sat down at a bench at the back, and I admired for a few moments the civil ways in which the event was taking place. Ostensibly it was an election, but it was clear the candidates had been pre-selected and nominated. The men sat on one side, the women on another. They all watched as the man on the dais read out the names of the elected male candidates.

‘We were planning to have a celebration but it wasn’t appropriate with the Kachin rebels resuming the fighting,’ a man named Nima Lama told me. About 80 or 90 Gorkhalis had been recruited by the Myanmar Army to fight the Kachins, he noted. I had already come to hear about this forcible recruitment by the military, but Mr Lama seemed to think that this was an issue of patriotic duty. ‘The Gorkhalis should fight the rebels, too,’ he said passionately. ‘It’s their duty. I hate the Maoists and what they did to Nepal.’ All the Gorkhalis I meet talk about the Bagi, or Tigers, their nickname for the rebels in Myanmar, with the same neutral tone that many urban Kathmandu people have used to talk about the Maoists. There appeared, at least on the surface, to be no approval or point of commonality with the rebels.

Mr Lama told me, ‘So, I’ve been back to Nepal a number of times.’
‘What did you think?’ I asked him, curious. He said it was a waste of time.
‘Hartals, chakka jams and strikes. I was stuck in a house all day and didn’t get to see anything,’ he said. This was a familiar story. The Gorkhalis in Myanmar who had gone to visit their relatives in Nepal uniformly seemed to have experienced it as a series of unbroken strikes that left them stranded in concrete suburban homes. It was time and money wasted, they said. Mr Lama went on about the Maoists for a while. Then he asked me what I thought about all of that.

‘Yes’, I said, ‘but now in Nepal the war is over and now we are left with all these orphans. Later you look back after killing all your people and you think: What was that all for? Why did we kill our own people? Who will take care of these children now?’ This made him sombre.

‘Besides’, I added quickly, ‘one of Buddha’s edicts is not to kill.’

Later this week, I will learn that the Kachin too are seizing Gorkhalis to fight in their army. A Gorkhali woman told me that her 17-year-old nephew, travelling to the Chinese border to trade motorcycle parts, was seized by the Kachin rebels. ‘They’ve taken him to be part of the Kachin Independence Army. His mother went up and begged them to release him, but they won’t let him go.’ Then she had added: ‘I’ve heard the Kachins have their own Gurkha battalion.’ I wonder at this strange game, in which both the state and the rebels seize the Gorkhali. Gorkhalis end up fighting their own people on opposite sides of other people’s wars. Indeed, being tagged as ‘brave’ has long been one of the Gorkhali’s biggest curses – and perhaps also a significant blessing. Both sides, it appears, want Gorkhalis as allies, and none see them as enemies. That is why the villages are empty, as the young men and women flee the conflict.

Another man sitting in the hall recounted a historical titbit. A relative of his from Myanmar was one of the police officers who went back to Nepal to lead the coup against the Rana regime that established King Tribhuvan on the throne. I turned on my video camera and begged him to repeat this story. But he refused, saying it would not look good to say this aloud. Anyway, he said hastily, everyone knows this history.

The Ranas appear in the Gorkhali community’s consciousness every once in a while. But the history of opposition to the regime is quickly brushed over, almost as if referring to that moment, for some reason, is a forbidden pastime. Anything that refers to opposition to an autocratic regime, it appears, is forbidden. The Gorkhalis of Myanmar seem to censor any thought that could be potentially treasonous – everything is smoothed over by the belief that they live in a rich, happy and generous utopia.Interestingly, the Gorkhali community does live a rather charmed existence, one that brings few external distractions to the building of community ties, social events and economic activities that continue amongst great warmth, love and support. This is immediately apparent in each city and village that I visit.

‘There is no Gorkhali in Myitkyina who doesn’t own his own home, or who is starving,’ the organisation of Hindus in Myanmar assured me. Whatever the official policy of the land – including several complicated categories of citizenship that have left a few Gorkhalis in Myanmar with only partial citizenship rights – it is clear that in general the tight community support, the economic stability afforded by the freedom to run businesses, as well as the sense of being part of a stable and prosperous community has an impact on people’s sense of happiness. Gorkhalis appear to maintain a strict disinterest in politics and a neutral stance towards all parties. This, it appears, has helped them to navigate the quagmire of Myanmar and escape the human-rights violations and savagery faced by many other ethnic groups in the country.

Carry on lightly
I walked up on the elevated platform and sat down to interview the chairman of the committee. After a few minutes of chatting, I became aware that one of the two monks sitting around the table was filming me with his cell-phone camera. He stood directly over me, his face hard-edged, directing the camera in my direction. Suddenly my throat went dry. I kept forgetting that religious institutions are never free of politics in Myanmar.

These were like no other monks I had seen – they wore the yellow robes of the Theravada monks, but what were they doing here, in this Mahayana gompa? The way they looked at me made me nervous. I became aware that I was saying that I was happy at the way the elections took place, and how they were concluded in such an orderly and efficient manner. I also said that Tamang inside Nepal train to be monks in Tibetan monasteries in the Mahayana tradition. Where does Myanmar stand on Tibet? Are they so in bed with the Chinese that any mention of Tibetans is seen as treason? I had talked to Mr Lama about a few famous rinpoches and a few famous gompas, figures who have a good reputation for teaching Buddhism in Nepal. Yet these same people might also be perceived by China as politically problematic. Was I treading in a political minefield here? I hoped the monks were not government spies and that they did not mistake me for one either.

Of course, the only thing you can do in such moments is to carry on lightly, as if nothing is amiss. Which was what I did, asking questions about the history of the gompa’s formative moments. It became quickly clear that the people gathered around me had little spiritual guidance, that the space functioned only as a community space rather than a monastic one.

It was time to leave. As I got up, I saw Mr Lama sitting in a circle with the two monks still present. They were engaged in a deep discussion. I had a feeling they were talking about me. For a moment, nervousness overcame me. Then I got the sense that what I had told Mr Lama earlier – that killing your own people is never profitable, and not part of the Buddhist dharma – had been reported back to the group. It had entered the discourse and changed the tenor of people’s certainty. One of the yellow-robed monks came to say goodbye. As we departed, I gave him a deep namaste. He grudgingly and suspiciously acknowledged the gesture. I could see him watching us as the motorcycle carried us away. ~

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Kathmandu. Her book The End of the World was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. She is writing a book about Nepalis in Burma and Thailand, with support from the Asian Scholarship Foundation.

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