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Notes from Underground

By Stephen Brookes in Yangon • Asia Times

The girls all thought it was pretty funny when the guy in the Happy World hat picked a bone out of the grave and pretended to chew on it. "Grrrr," he said, offering it to one of the female workers, who shrieked and jumped away. He reached into the grave again and pulled out a skull; it was reddish brown, and still had a few teeth in it. He sat it on his shoulder and leered at me. "Gaung kun,"  he said; the head bone.

                                                                                                      Stephen Brookes
We were sitting in the middle of the Kyandaw Cemetery in Yangon, and things were getting strange. A hundred yards in every direction spread a sea of open graves, and in the distance small groups of men were breaking into coffins and tossing the bones into black plastic garbage bags. Nearby, women were pulling bricks up from the tombs, knocking off the dirt and carrying them away. It was hot and dusty, and there was an indescribable smell; not bad, exactly, just strange and unnerving, and oddly narcotic. You wanted to lie down and go to sleep.

Kyandaw is a huge cemetery, about 70 acres sprawling through one of the fastest-developing parts of Yangon. It's a hot topic of conversation right now, because the whole place is being dug up and converted to commercial use -- although no one knows what, exactly. The Yangon City Development Committee, which decides these things, told relatives back in November to move the remains to another cemetery, but that's all. So there's been the usual run of Khun Sa rumors. Everyone's heard that the former drug lord is putting up a shopping center on the site, or possibly an office complex, or possibly the world's biggest miniature golf course. But everyone in Yangon hears fifteen Khun Sa rumors a day, and no one believes any of them anymore.

So I went down to have a look, as much out of morbid curiosity as anything else. Kyandaw had come up at a dinner party a few nights before, when one of the guests pointed out a supernatural problem with this kind of urban renewal.

"Two years ago, they moved a food market onto the site of an old cemetery," she said. "But now hardly anyone goes there, because they're spooked. And if you buy beef there, you bring it home disguised with a piece of charcoal -- because everybody knows that ghosts like beef."

... it felt more and more as if I'd walked into a strange and disturbing dream ...

I stepped slowly along a path through the graves. Most of them had been completely dug up, and some primal instinct made you look into each one as you passed, even though there was nothing to see. Bits of white ribbon, dead weeds, broken pieces of brick.

In other areas, the coffin-shaped tombs had been left intact, but holes had been dug under them to remove the remains. Across one of them, someone had scrawled a checkerboard in yellow chalk. On the ground nearby, a broken marble tombstone read: "In loving memory of our baby John Koop, born and died on July 10, 1949." Brillant yellow butterflies flickered in the air.

The path took me to a small, low shed at the north edge of the cemetery. I passed the front door and looked in: Two shapes moving around in the gloom. Outside was a jumbled pile of dusty black plastic bags, each one sitting on a marble tombstone. I walked over and looked. "In Loving Memory, Daw Grace Sein. Asleep in Jesus, Age 74 Years. Thy Will be Done." The sack was tied with a small piece of plastic ribbon, with a cardboard tag. There were hundreds of them on all sides of the shack, and one had broken open and spilled the bones onto a headstone. "Of All the Gifts," I read, "Love is Still the Best."

Just then, one of the shapes came out of the shed and started shouting angrily at me, pointing to the gate of the cemetery. I made calming explanatory sounds, pointing in the opposite direction. We stared at each other for a minute, when suddenly a kid on a white horse came riding up. He was only about twelve, but he spoke quickly and with great authority to the man, then rode away. The man went back into the shed.

It felt more and more like I'd walked into some strange, disturbing dream.  I followed the path the kid on the horse had taken, through a gate marked with a death's head drawn in charcoal. It led to a dusty lane toward Hanthawaddy Junction, where I'd left my car. But the path took me through another part of the cemetery, where more graves were being dug up. It was very quiet, with the sound of hammering in the distance. I passed an old monk, who was standing next to an open grave and staring fiercely into the distance. I passed in front of him. He didn't even see me.

Then I noticed I'd picked up a tail; a small, tough-looking guy in a tee-shirt with the arms torn off. He wasn't hard to spot; he was suddenly at my elbow, urgent and out of breath. When I looked at him, he didn't look back -- he just pointed toward the exit. He had serious tattoos running up and down both arms. There was no discussion.

So we turned and started across a clearing, and the dirt turned black. I looked down and saw that we were walking over ashes, then noticed the stray bits of charred bone. The crunching under my feet suddenly felt grotesque and disgusting. The tail pointed down another path, and as we passed through a grove of trees we came across another clearing where three men were building a tiny coffin, maybe a meter long. A dozen more of the things were stacked up nearby, and a woman was sitting cross-legged on a bench tying white ribbon into bows. She glanced up, saw the guy with the tattoos, looked away. I recognized the white ribbon -- it was the same stuff I'd seen in the empty graves. We got to the gate, and he pulled a barbed wire barrier aside. In the street, people were going about their lives. I walked back to my car.   

The next weekend, the government held its monthly press conference. There was the usual discussion of political and economic issues, and we were starting to run out of questions. So I asked if they could fill us in on the  cemetery renovation, and got a curt, "no comment" in response. A correspondent from Voice of America was sitting next to me, and he leaned over. "In other words," he muttered under his breath, "it's a dead issue."

Posted on Monday, April 17, 2006 at 10:23PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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