Burma’s Election: Waiting for Mr. President
In early March 2012, I was near the village of Nampan in Burma, where teak and bamboo houses seem to pose precariously on stilts above placid shallow blue canals, where house cats gaze out over the water from boat ramps, dreaming of trees and birds, where children as young as four use child-size paddles to help steer the family boat. But in this particular spot, children were running everywhere. Perhaps they were just excited to be on a large patch of dry land in the generally water-bound world of Inle Lake.
It was a special morning that we stumbled into when we docked at the pier of Alodaw Pauk pagoda on Inle Lake: the President of Burma was coming. And here I thought they'd rolled out the red carpet for me! Mothers in everyday longyis, women in the traditional burgundy and silver weave of Intha tribe, men in short-sleeve white shirts, police in creased olive uniforms and soldiers in blue camouflage mingled and chatted in small groups. The women carried small paper yellow, green and red Myanmar flags; sparkling cut glass hair ornaments held their shining black hair in intricate twists and buns. The soldiers slung AK 47s and the police each had a pistol on their hip.
Speaking of red carpet, this one was a motley of reddish pieces that led from the concrete pad where the president's helicopter was to land, across a small arched bridge and then through this oldest shrine on the lake. We followed it around the large white stupa with a gold spike, home to a gem-encrusted , Shan-style buddha. It brought us to all the important spots, just as it eventually would Burma’s president.
Personally, I found the faded carpet segments scratchy underfoot and would have preferred to walk on the cool white marble tile. I know exactly the texture of that carpet because we were barefoot, as is everyone when entering any monastery grounds. After a brief tour of the buddha and his lesser mates, we settled in the shade of a side-stuppa to await the president’s arrival with local populace.
When would the president arrive, we inquired? Sometime. In an hour, or a half hour, or by noon. Thus enlightened, we shared cookies with the kids, played games with the girls, took photos, waited, wondered when the president would arrive, waited.
Various welcome groups settled into their assigned places around the shrine, sitting cross-legged on the tiled pagoda terrace. Men lounged in the shade of nearby pillars, spitting red betel juice. It was a festive occasion and everyone seemed happy to have the extra time for socializing, until finally, no President in sight, the welcome groups slowly began to disperse, drifting to the tea shops on the other side of the pagoda. Eventually we drifted that way, too, and squatted on low plastic stools along with everyone else. Waiting had made us hungry and we made quick work of some crunchy, hot, potato-stuffed samosas.
Suddenly, as if blown by a gust of wind, everyone lifted off their stools and wafted over to a low wall. Yes, the faint sound of a helicopter could be heard. With measured pace, everyone went back to the arrival area. Two soldiers lit damp piles of brush to create a smoke wind sock. Two villagers arrived with stiff brooms to give the red carpet sections a final dusting. One man tried to uncurl the carpet edges and made sure they overlapped so as not to trip the presidential feet. Twelve blue plastic chairs were set up for the assembled dignitaries who would greet the president.
Then fingers pointed to the northwest. There it was, a bulky white helicopter, Russian made, wheels out for landing. All the Intha tribes people lined up on one side of the carpet, as a six-person band squatted on a hump of grass and tested their flute, drums and cymbals. Then the tribes women were separated from the men and instructed to line up on the opposite of the carpet; the double tribal line made for a more impressive sight. Children clutched their mother's hands, everyone who'd been sitting on the far side of the pagoda came over to this side, to watch the landing.
The helicopter was closer now, and the band started their first tune, shrilling and beating out a welcome. An official noticed an unsightly, half-empty bag of concrete near the red carpet and ordered it hidden behind a wall. Paper flags were in hand, grannies raised babies high, white-shirted men took their seats as the helicopter came closer, slowly descending.
And then, and then......the helicopter made a lazy circle and flew away. One minute the president's arriving and an entire village has turned out to receive him, the next minute he's changed his mind and left.
In this lovely lake heaven, full of floating green gardens, giant egrets resting on lily pads and fishing skiffs as delicate as an eyelash on a teardrop, no one seemed at all miffed. The chairs were stacked, the ladies wandered off, heads together arms around each others’ waist, the men still spat their red spittle, the dignitaries called for their long boats to return to the shore, and flags were collected for another occasion.
It's not every day that a president comes to visit, but I suppose it's happened before that the president fails to arrive.