Tales of Rangoon

Text by Emily Speers Mears

Aung Kyaw was released from Insein Prison in 2006. He married soon after and he and his wife had their first child in 2009. Around the same time, he started teaching Burmese to foreigners living in Myanmar. This came about because his sister had worked with an INGO and suggested him to a few of their colleagues. He taught me in 2010. He would come to my house and perch on the couch chanting little rhythms and rhymes that he had made up to explain certain phrases. His style was very much the style of Myanmar’s schoolteachers – didactic, lecture-based, inflexible.

Sometimes Aung Kyaw winced as he sat down on the couch. He had been put in fetters while he was in Insein, for 12 months of his eight-year prison sentence. He told me that when he was in prison, he had often dreamed of this wonderful teashop on Shwegondine Road, the Royal Rose, and how he would return there to have nan bread and beans and tea when he was released, and talk about politics with his friends.

One day we decided to go to the teashop for a Burmese lesson. It was the first time that Aung Kyaw had gone there since his release, and the little wooden teashop surrounded by the garden of his memories wasn’t there any more. It had been replaced by a concrete car park and a big, shiny, empty restaurant with an aquarium, still called the Royal Rose. And they didn’t serve proper Burmese tea any more. We stayed anyway, and I had an avocado milkshake, but we never went back. I can’t remember what Aung Kyaw ordered.


——


We were mid blazing argument, walking down Dhammazeddi Road, breaking from our row only to navigate the treacherous pavement.

A middle-aged woman in a faded batik longyi and aingyi twinset came up to my boyfriend. We switched back to our public faces. She didn’t speak much English, but we cobbled together a conversation. She urged us to visit her; she took my diary and wrote down her address and her phone number, and explained where she lived.

She mentioned her brother, that he was in prison.

Then she was gone and we resumed our fight. Two weeks later we left Myanmar. We were in Bangkok Airport, connected to uncensored internet, cooled by giant air conditioners. On a Burmese exile news website the cover story was of Min Ko Naing having his prison sentence commuted. It was her brother. And we had never visited her.


——


Daw Chit Chit Rosie called me that night, to tell me she was thinking of me and to invite me round that Saturday. What are you doing? Have you eaten dinner? What did you eat? She called the following night, and the one after that too. Each time we repeated the conversation, and each time at the end she handed me to U Aung Ko Ko who wished me well, and then the call was over.


——


The bicycle was black, a bit rusted and a bit antique, as if it would creak when being ridden.

The policeman stroked it slightly with his stubby fingers.
He had bought it himself, with his own money, he claimed, in order to do his beat around Golden Valley.

“Cycling is very good for your health!” he exclaimed.

But he was angry that the government gave so many privileges to the army, and didn’t even respect the police enough to provide bicycles for them. §