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Trojan Horse

By G.R. Johnston

“I also have human skulls for sale” Tomi proudly declared.

“May I see one?” I asked with feigned interest.
He then carefully cat stepped over his antiques to a covered basket in the corner
concealing a number of objects out of public view, and for a good reason. After
rummaging around and finding what he was looking for, he pulled it out and unwrapped
layer after layer of plastic bags and motioned towards me to take off the final layer for

With the absence of flesh, hair and a jaw bone, the human head is not very big. Slightly
bigger than a grapefruit and smaller than a pomelo. As I peeled back the last layer, the
first thing I saw was a square hole in the skulls temporal lobe: five by five centimeters.
“What’s this hole?” I asked.
“They used these for medicine”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, they would use parts of the brain to make medicine”
“No kidding”
“Some remote tribes still practice headhunting, but they’re inaccessible”

I pulled off the square cap and turned it over to find a miniature lattice work of
indentations on the concave side, much like what a river delta looks like from the sky. No
doubt the result of being molded by the brain’s blood vessels over the owner’s lifetime.
Despite seeing towers of human skulls outside of Phnom Penh, and teaching science
lessons with skeletal reproductions, I started feeling nauseous. What kind of people
actually perpetuate this trade?

This was not my first time to Myanmar. During my first year of living illegally in
northern Thailand, I’d crossed into the Burmese border town of Tachilek once a month to
renew my visa; one of the legal loopholes I learned to exploit. While there, I’d stretch my
legs by strolling market shops selling counterfeit Chinese goods ranging from wine to
toys to pornography. Back in the market’s bowels one can buy animals parts such as
monkey and bear hands, hornbill heads and deer antlers. I always wondered what they
were used for. Medicine or decoration? Probably both.

Myanmar is a country that the world forgot. Their atrocious human rights record has led
them to condemnation by the United Nations, Nobel Laureates, and peace activists world
wide. The resulting economic sanctions have brought isolation for Myanmar and one sees
it upon arrival. Most men wear their traditional sarong instead of trousers and many
styles of dress have gone unchanged over the last few decades. At the time of my trip,
overland border crossings were not permitted and as the ruling junta is in tight control of
the media, news on the outside world is sketchy for those living there. Only after living in
Southeast Asia for five years and hearing traveler’s tales of the hospitality shown by the
Burmese people, did we finally warm to the notion of seeing Myanmar for ourselves. I
consulted my globe-trotting co-worker Greg to see if he and his wife had fun while there.
He thought about it for a few seconds and replied: “I wouldn’t exactly call it fun, but it
was an eye-opener”.

On our second day in Mandalay, we took a 5000 kyat taxi ride down Bayintnaung Road
to catch a ferry to Minguin, one of the old capitals of the north. Apparently, the kings of
old in their effort to one-up each other, built new capitals away from the old ones around
Mandalay to immortalize themselves. Although the kings are gone, the ruins of Inwa,
Amarpura and Sagaing are testament to them.

The ferry port to Minguin was a festering heap of squalor. Market, ferry port and garbage
dump aromatically rolled into one. Kids with matted hair and scabs running the length of
their scalps ask for food. One tourist threw a handful of candy up into the air which
rained down on a half dozen kids only so she could take a picture of the ensuing chaos.
Life isn’t easy there. The big entertainment is you; and locals don’t have any qualms
about staring at you for as long as they want.
I was expecting a Mekong river-ish trip with lush trees lining the riverbanks on the way
to Minguin. Instead, it was as dry as bone, and thatched huts along the sandy, treeless
shores looked like bedouin settlements on a trip down the Nile. We sat in lounge chairs
under the deck while river life scenes flashed by the windows. Vendors accompanied us
along on the trip trying to sell us packs of 10 postcards for a dollar and souvenir t-shirts,
while their children did their homework below deck. Inevitably, those kids will take up
their parent’s trade as soon as they learn the English. With public education in this
country and the job market, what other choice is there?

To write about Burma’s people, landscape and culture without mentioning the
dictatorship governing their behavior is a great disservice to the people there and their
struggle. It’s comforting that in a country so repressive such resilience can be found. You
find it everywhere. You find it in a secluded conversation with a tourist guide in the back
of a taxi. You find it in the slumped shoulders of the citizens in a quiet tea shop. You see
it in glassy eyes of street beggars, and there sure are many. Most lower their voices and
ask that you do not repeat anything they say. Some, like the famous Moustache Brothers,
are not so reserved about their runs in with the law.

“My brother Par Par go in the slammer, in the klink, up the river!” exclaimed loudly by
Lu Maw during a late night show at their residence. The three handlebar toting
Moustaches have felt the brunt of censorship through prison sentences, blacklists and
governmental condemnation, so they perform their nyeint troupe dance performance from
their home, the last sanctuary that they can. Their nyeint act is an eclectic mix of a social
parody, traditional dance, and stand up comedy.

Lu Maw points to my wife Lisa and shouts,

“That chair is chair where Aung San Suu Kyi sat when she came in 2003! You have to
pay more lady! Yea! I’m a comedian! You all my Trojan horse for helping this country.
You help the people, you tell the world about Myanmar!”
We hopped on an early morning riverboat to take us on a nine-hour trip to Bagan.
Cruising along the Ayerwaddy went much quicker when a clamorous Australian named
Glen shouted: “Any uh you punters wanna play some poker?” Soon after, my wife Lisa
was dealing Texas hold-em to me, Suzanne from Greenwich Village, and an Australian
real estate developer with money to burn. I’ve always been wary of those with nothing to
lose, but being up twenty bucks by the time we reached Bagan paid homage to both
chance encounters, and our Bagan archeological entrance fee which was ten dollars a

The more places you visit, the harder it is to be impressed. The ruins of Bagan dwarf the
most seasoned traveler and the plain of temple chedis piercing the horizon in all
directions leaves one at a loss for words. It’s one of those rare reminders that no
civilization lasts forever, and the only way to live forever is to be remembered. Bagan has
a mix of massive and tiny red bricked temples, but mind you, even the smallest ones took
decades to build. Roaming around these stupas by bicycle or horse-drawn cart, you’re
welcomed by custodians shying away temple robbers, vendors selling sand paintings, and
street kids eager to give a quick tour in the hopes that you buy ten of their postcards for a

I sketch now and then. One of the residual habits of my time as a design student a
thousand years ago. Such sittings gave me the time to get to know the kids selling
postcards around the ruins and attach names to them like Yalak and Zoes-zo. As I filled
up journal pages with my pilot roller ball, they elbowed each other for a closer look.
“Wow, you are artist?” Yalak asked me.
“No.” I replied. “Shouldn’t you two be in school?”
“We not afford school. Too expensive”.
“Where did you learn to speak English then?”
“Tourists teach me.”
“The tourists that come here, where are they from?”
“Germany, France, US, some Israel. US tourists, they buy everything, German people get
angry very easy, Israel people complain all time”.
Staple items like pens and paper are hard currency there, and are more than appreciated
when hauled in by thoughtful visitors. While in Nyung Shwe, just outside of Inle Lake, a
tourist brought a pasta maker to a restaurant and taught them to make their own pasta.
Soon after they were growing their own herbs, and now the Golden Kite is one of the
most profitable restaurants in Myanmar and has a reputation as having the best pasta in
the country. All because of one tourist.

How did this country become so cut off from the rest of the world where such staple
items are such a luxury? In 1990, Burma’s National League for Democracy won
overwhelmingly in landslide election. The military government responded by declaring
the election void and many of the democracy activists a liability, which were promptly
imprisoned. The NLD’s spokesperson, Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest
indefinitely, and unless Myanmar produces natural resources as collateral, it’s doubtful
that western nations will ever swoop in to liberate the people from their aggressors in the
name of liberty and freedom. Groups like the Karen Liberation army have taken up the
fight on the eastern side of the country, but blockades keep tourists and photojournalists
out. However, truth is hard to keep down. Horror stories of human rights abuses by the
Burmese military in forms of ethnic cleansing, systematic gang rapes and torture of
Karen Liberation Army soldiers in the Chin state filter their way out as the junta
continually declares that it’s on the “road to democracy”.

There are few places that have caused me to both revere and pity its people so
proportionally. We landed weeks before with hopes of seeing sights that few people have,
and digressed into people jaded by the realities of life there. We staggered through
monuments in Yangon and beaches in Ngapali, half trying to enjoy the moment, half in
dismay. Is Myanmar unique? To be sure. Should you go? Definitely. Those who are up
for the experience will have the rarest glimpse back in time to what Southeast Asia may
have looked like thirty years ago. Why should you go? Well, there’s an old adage that
states that a few dedicated people can change the world against overwhelming adversity.
Burma more than anywhere in the region needs those people to tell their story, voice
discontent, provide aid, and political pressure. Traveling there guarantees the visitor will
become inextricably linked to the people and with some degree of good sense and
conscience, volunteer to serve as yet another Trojan Horse.

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