Today I went to the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, likely the most well-known symbol of the city today. Other than being an impressive piece of devotional architecture, it also has been the site of public protests since the British ruled Burma to the present day. It is probably the most sacred place in the country yet it is also the site of the recent military regime’s most brutal repression, a place where they have violently quashed peaceful protests.
There were many monks present on the grounds. I also noticed many lay people meditating or praying. In fact, I was surprised at the number of lay people visiting, and I noted that most of them were not actively praying or meditating. Being a Saturday, it seemed many came with their families and/or friends and had decided to make a daylong outing of their visit. Groups had laid down blankets and had brought picnic lunches. Adults were lounging and chatting in the shaded areas of the Shwedagon complex, while small children scampered around nearby. It seemed to be a simple but significant communal ritual.
On the way to and from the pagoda I became aware of a peculiar thing about Yangon traffic. Not unusual for a large city, there were a substantial number of cars on the road, though nowhere near as many as I saw in other large Asian cities. Consistent with my impression of a country that had a small, wealthy elite and masses of poor people, I was not surprised that almost all the cars were either the ubiquitous old, white, beat-up Toyota taxi cabs, or newer upscale luxury models.
But I was surprised at the complete lack of motorcycles, scooters and even bicycles on the roads. Could people here not afford them? Or did everyone prefer to take the bus? (The latter seemed highly unlikely given that most of the buses were aging hulks belching black diesel exhaust, overloaded with passengers who held on for dear life as they hung out of the open doorways).
While doing some reading about recent Burmese history, I found my answer. In the book Burma’s Spring, British journalist Rosalind Russell reports that all two-wheelers “were banned purportedly for reasons of safety but in fact as a means of control.” With the people only able to rely on buses, Russell states, “the junta reasoned, mass movement in the city was fully controlled — a flash demonstration would be impossible to organise.”