Journal entry; Saturday, December 1st 2001
Its Saturday evening and Im sitting on a Chinese bus in Burma. The air conditioning is streaming through the vent above my head, and Im freezing my butt off. Im headed north for Mandalay. Right now the bus is stuck between a traffic jam and an on-coming parade. Every now and then someone slams the bus with their fist and yells, its a little un-nerving.
Throughout all of this, for our entertainment, there's a Burmese soap opera blaring from the TV monitor at the front of the bus. Im not sure of the plot but I think its girlfriend mad at boyfriend, father mad at boyfriend... at times like this Id like to be home in Canada watching a good Habs-Leaf game.
The bus ride from Rangoon to Mandalay was 15 hours. I survived another epic long distance, overnight bus ride in the developing world. Mandalay is a frontier boom town. Its known as the city of red, green, and white; rubies, jade and heroin. Burma is the largest exporter of opium in the world. Annually, over 3,000 tones of raw opium are produced. More than half the heroin sold on the streets of North America is refined from opium harvested in Burma. Its shipped through Laos, Thailand and China to the West and the government profits directly from the trade.
Mandalay feels like a border town. Shops ooze with "Made in China" labels on everything from toilet paper to toasters. At this moment in history China is Burmas best friend. China trains the Burmese armies, supplies arms, and is the biggest threat to Burmas sovereignty. Over 10 million Chinese have moved to Burma in the last 10 years. The Burmese people fear that they are becoming a puppet state of the Middle Kingdom.
For centuries Mandalay was the ancient capital of the Burmese Kingdoms. In 1857 King Mindon built the royal palace, now a famous tourist destination. Situated in the middle of the city, the palace is surrounded by an 8 kilometre moat, 70 metres wide and 3 metres deep. In 1994 hundreds of labourers were forced to re-construct the moat all for the benefit of tourists.
Annually, each family must supply a labourer to the military for two weeks; conditions are inhuman and the stint often lasts longer than two weeks. If you have money you can buy your way out of forced labour, but most of the people are too poor to pay the bribe. Exploited as slaves, the exact death tolls are not available, but thousands have perished building the nations railways, highways, and enhancing the governments "city beautification programs."