Guitar in Yangon

Before I left the office last night, I asked colleagues what they were hearing about the bombings in Burmese language news and on social media. The thing I’m afraid of most, I said, is a bomb that kills monks or Buddhist children. After that, the whole country might explode. A friend who lived through the breakup of the former Yugoslavia shared his experiences in a workshop with our organization recently and said he thought a half million Muslims and Chinese, too, might be killed following something like that. I hope he is wrong. At least seven small bombs have gone off or been found around Myanmar in the last few days, but there has been minimal damage.

Have you seen anything alleging links between these bombings and Islam? I asked. What power, insinuations and rumour mongering. Lazy journalism. Mistakes. Yesterday morning when I read about the bombs from Monday my newsfeed showed automatic links to related stories. Topmost was an article from three months ago, about a bombing near a speech given by a leader of the radical 969 movement. It took me a moment to understand why a photo of U Wirathu was appearing at the bottom of the bombing coverage; it was an accident but it still gave me shivers. I haven’t seen anything making that kind of connection, my colleague said. I haven’t seen anything either, said my other colleague. But I heard they caught someone already, within just a few hours. Can it be?

During my ride home something seemed wrong with the traffic. The road in front of my office was busy. The roads are always busy but the first bus that passed felt too close and the lane I pinballed into seemed unwelcoming. Later the driver of a sedan making an unannounced U-turn gave me an apologetic wave, but right after that an overhanging tree branch hit me in the face as I avoided a truck. Am I riding scared or is the city angry? I wondered. The rest of the way home I thought about how totally beyond control traffic can seem, when not surrounded by a weight of metal. A person on a bicycle can feel very small. Thousands of massing cars, an organism of independent moving parts: when something like that gains momentum, what can one do but avoid being run down?

I ate dinner on the corner and talked with Ma Nwe. I was supposed to meet her brothers but they did not appear at her curry stand. “What time did you get home last night?” she asked. I had just returned from a trip outside of Yangon. Around 10:30 pm, I told her. “Did you come straight home, or go to Traders Hotel?” She knows that I often use the Internet there, as it is the best in the city. Last night a bomb in one of the rooms there injured a tourist and broke windows. We talked about this briefly. I sat on the edge of my seat, ready to flee if the conversation turned towards speculation about who might have been responsible. I am conditioned to hearing bigoted conspiracies now. I had been saddened and exhausted by conversations on this corner before and I felt too tired for a debate. “I heard they caught the bombers already,” I said. “Yes,” Ma Nwe said. Then we talked about my recent trip.

When I arrived home Myint Zaw caught me beside his betel nut stand, below my apartment. He and my adoptive uncle who sells vegetables nearby wanted to ask about the day’s news. My uncle listens to the radio every evening and likes to confirm that I am also monitoring world events. He is glad the US seems less poised to invade Syria. Last night they were both agitated. For Myint Zaw I guess he’d been drinking but my uncle is generally friendly and a jokster but never usually agitated. “Do you know the situation now?” I heard the question and felt the sinking feeling from dinner.

“He knows the situation,” my uncle said. “He reads the news.” I was still wary but also I wanted to know what they thought. “What situation?” I asked. “The situation. It is very bad. Very bad,” said Myint Zaw. My uncle stepped closer to me and said: the bombings. Yes, I said, I heard about those. Myint Zaw listed the different locations. He mentioned Rakhine State last. I interjected with a question. There had just been religious violence in there, but as far as I knew, not been any bombings.

“Yes. Riots in Rakhine State,” Myint Zaw said. This time he used the word for ‘riot’ and it stood out clearly; now he was saying something different than I had expected. “Bombs and the Lepetdaung case and riots in Rakhine State,” he said, as if to begin an inventory of Myanmar’s recent problems. “President Thein Sein visited Rakhine State and then that riot happened.” He looked at me seriously. He was saying that the timing of the violence and the president’s visit was important. My uncle looked at me seriously, too. What were they saying about the timing?

I thought I knew and they were surprising me too so I wanted to check. “Well, who put the bomb last night?” I asked. Don’t you know? They both responded. “I read in the news that they arrested a Karen man in Thaton,” I said. “And two others in Yangon.” Yes, that’s what the news says, said Myint Zaw. The government says they caught someone. They can take a dead person and put his name on it and say they caught him. The government can, Myint Zaw said, and looked at my uncle. “The old government: how do you call it?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer: “military government!” Military government, military government, military government: he said it in English and repeated it again and again. He had definitely been drinking, but my uncle did not seem to disagree with him. I wanted to ask the question, “Who do you think benefits from this violence?” but I did not know the right word for “benefit.” They seemed to be telling me what they thought the answer was anyway.

Much later, one of Ma Nwe’s brothers and Tin Win called me. They were standing on the street in front of my apartment. I came downstairs and we went and sat by the road with two guitars and not enough guitar strings. Ma Nwe’s brother wandered off while Tin Win and another friend fixed and tuned the guitars. Tin Win said he wanted to talk to me about something later, when I could give him an hour. You get home between 7 and 10 pm, he said, I will call you one night. I didn’t know what he wanted to talk about. He is the only Muslim friend in our group. I wondered if it could be serious but I think it is probably not. Then they began to sing. “What is this song about?” I asked when the finished their first song. I couldn’t follow the story. I also couldn’t follow the answer I got from the other friend. Tin Win could see that I did not understand. “I’ll give you some clarity, another time when we can talk.” Then they kept singing. No one mentioned the bombings.

Matt Schissler has lived and worked in Burma and Thailand since 2007. He is currently based in Yangon.