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Myanmar’s mysterious Dhammazedi Bell

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The search

As Jonah Fisher reports, some people doubt the bell ever existed, whilst others think the search is cursed

As Jonah Fisher reports, some people doubt the bell ever existed, whilst others think the search is cursed

The fate of the Dhammazedi Bell is one of Myanmar’s murkiest mysteries and for some Burmese a lifelong obsession. Four centuries after the world’s biggest bell was last seen, a new salvage attempt is under way in Yangon (Rangoon), and it’s attracting large crowds.

Cast in the 15th Century, the Dhammazedi Bell was according to popular legend placed alongside the gleaming gold Schwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar(also known as Burma).

Said to have been made of copper, gold and silver, the bell is said to have weighed nearly 300 tonnes (661,400 pounds).

It’s mindboggling figure, about the same as 25 double-decker buses.

Then in 1608 disaster struck.

The Portuguese adventurer and mercenary Filipe de Brito seized the bell with the aim of melting it down to make cannons.

The Dhammazedi Bell was said to be housed at the Schwedagon Pagoda before it was taken

The Tharawaddy Min bell is the biggest one at Schwedagon but is a fraction of the size of Dhammazedi

He had it dragged to the Pegu (now Bago) River and loaded on to a raft, at which point, not entirely surprisingly, it sank.

In the years that followed the legend of the bell has endured, and recovering it has become a point of both Buddhist and Burmese national pride.

There have been at least seven serious attempts in the last 25 years.

Some have involved international teams and sophisticated underwater equipment, but to date no one has been able to accurately pinpoint where the huge bell is.

That’s not diminished enthusiasm among the public.

Source: BBCNews Read and see more about the search

New Year’s Eve

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Here is Brazil it is 11am, but elsewhere in the world the New Year has already been honoured.

In Auckland, New Zealand it is already 2pm on the 1st January, 2013. Their New Year was like this:

Auckland City waterfront view

Auckland City waterfront view – image: journalweek.com

Sydney, Australia just two hours later…

Sydney's famous harbour bridge and opera house

Sydney’s famous harbour bridge and opera house: image wallpapernoise.com

And in Myanmar (formerly Burma) emerging from the cold, New Year for the first time…

Preparing for the countdown in Rangoon

Preparing for the countdown in Rangoon

rangoonmyanmar

Fireworks burst above Yangon’s landmark Shwedagon pagoda as Myanmar : image – boston.com

For some spectacular photos of recent New Years around the world visit boston.com the images are truly magnificent.

Here in Brazil, we still have 13 hours to wait for our Copacabana Beach spectacle. This year an estimated 2 million people will flock to the famous beach for the biggest party in the world.

This clip 1:22 of the 16 minutes of Copacabana’s display last New Year…

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Sea Gypsies

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Moken nomads leave behind their ‘sea gypsy’ life for a modern existence

Brought to the world’s attention by the 2004 tsunami, the seafaring tribe is struggling to reconcile tradition and modernity


The video didn’t embed, click on the image for video link

 

Ngui takes one last breath and disappears with a tiny splash. Tunnelling through the turquoise waves, he dives past brightly coloured fish and coral, until he reaches the sandy bottom of the seabed, 20 metres deep, where he begins scouring for tonight’s dinner.

He wears no mask, no fins, and no diving tank. He prefers sarongs and button-down shirts decorated with seashell and starfish motifs but the most startling thing about him underwater is his eyes. They are wide open.

Ngui, 30, belongs to the Moken, a nomadic, seafaring tribe of hunter-gatherers who live in the southern seas of Burma and Thailand. Little is known about their origins, but it is believed they descended from migrant Austronesians who set sail from southern China around 4,000 years ago. Spending eight months of the year at sea, the Moken roam in small flotillas of kabang – boats fashioned from a single tree and shared by a nuclear family – and return to land only to barter fish and shells for essentials such as rice and petrol, or to wait out the monsoon season in temporary shacks. It is a way of life that has existed, unchanged, for centuries – but one that may not last for much longer.

The 2004 tsunami greatly depleted the source of the Moken’s only livelihood: the ocean’s once-abundant array of seafood. International fishing boats are now wiping out the little that’s left. Those Moken who have moved ashore are often forced to take dangerous jobs for menial pay. Those who stay at sea are sometimes arrested for lacking papers or permits. Others return to land after months afloat only to find their huts destroyed and luxury tourist resorts built in their place.

“The sea has changed and life has changed,” explains Ngui’s father, Jao. “Things we used to do we can’t do any more. Places we used to go we can’t go any more. Life isn’t fun any more.”

It would be difficult to find a family that represents the changes wrought on the Moken as well as Jao’s. He was born on a boat and spent his childhood at sea. He married at 16 and nearly pursued a traditional, aquatic lifestyle – until he and his wife decided to settle on land.

“Life was hard being illiterate,” says Jao in the cramped house in Kuraburi they now share with a 13-member extended family. “I wanted my children to go to school and have options.”

Education is still a relatively new concept to the roughly 2,000 Moken who live in the waters around Burma and Thailand, most of whom are stateless. A recent push by various charities and the Thai government to issue Thai identity cards has granted some access to state-run schools and healthcare, but claiming full-blown citizenship – by proving that they, or a parent, were born in Thailand – is a complex issue for a nomadic people who hardly use numbers and mark the date according to the tide, not the Gregorian calendar.

Even getting children to school can prove trying, said Sumana Sirimangkala, headteacher at the only school on Koh Lao, an island of 50 Moken families on the Thai-Burmese border. “Moken lack supplies like clothes, food, stationery, textbooks, shoes, raincoats, lifejackets, umbrellas – all the things that are necessary for children to come to school,” she says.

“Moken can’t afford any of these things, so the school has to provide it all – otherwise they don’t want to come.”

Moken children regularly drop out to help their parents earn money, students say. Some boys as young as eight are sent to work in construction, while others help their mothers dig for shells – backbreaking labour in the hot sun.

Nearly all the men on the island are hired by Thai fishing boats to plant explosives on the seabed, or to dive for expensive and exotic rarities such as sea cucumber. Sometimes they are sent down with air run through thin plastic tubes hooked up to a spluttery, diesel-run compressor; other times they dive without any air at all. Many succumb to decompression sickness (the bends) from ascending too quickly; some don’t return at all.

“I’m afraid of being killed, it’s so risky,” admits a 30-year-old Moken who has just returned from a fish-bombing expedition. “We wire together four to five dynamite sticks, connect another explosive wire that hooks up to the boat, and then I dive down to the bottom of the sea. When I come back up, the sticks are ignited with a battery.”

Sitdit, a Moken elder whose son died from decompression sickness during a job in the Nicobar Islands, says risks such as these are increasingly part and parcel of a new way of life.

“We are running out of resources, so our skills have to be adapted to the new challenges,” he says simply. “Sometimes the big boats get caught by the Burmese military and Moken are arrested. I had four relatives arrested by the Burmese military and they all died in jail.”

Apart from a handful of researchers who had studied their language and customs – notably the French father-son anthropologist duo Pierre and Jacques Ivanoff – the Moken were a relatively unknown lot until the tsunami, when headlines described the mysterious “sea gypsies [who] saw signs in the waves“. Charities and religious groups poured in with free supplies – food, petrol, boats and building materials – at such a velocity that some communities were left bewildered by the handouts.

“We had to become Christian to qualify for a boat, so I became a Christian – I even became a church leader!” explains Sitdit, his charity-built, two-room stilt house facing the “church”, an empty wooden structure with a simple roof. “All we had to do was follow the gospel and sing songs. But then the church [group] cheated us, and now nobody goes to church any more.”

Today, a different kind of communion is going on, one where Moken women in sarongs while away the afternoon heat with card games and whisky so strong it makes the eyes burn. When the men return from their jobs at sea, they too take to drinking and gambling.

“There’s an issue with their drinking a lot of alcohol – it’s everywhere,” says Jitlada Rattanapan of Plan Thailand, a charity working to support Moken children.

At Baan Tung Wah, a Moken village of around 70 families in the mainland resort town of Khao Lak, children with snotty noses and dirty T-shirts beg for sweets while elders take shots of strong drink. Most of the parents are away doing menial day jobs – working in construction, spraying insecticides, or scavenging for recyclables along the beaches and streets – leaving the children to play among puppies and chickens in the rubbish-filled streets.

“Everyone in this village drinks – they hit their kids, too,” says a shopkeeper, Kong Kwan, 35, who spends all day selling sweets and crisps to Moken children and petrol and whisky to Moken elders. “Sometimes the police come, but they can’t be bothered to deal with it.”

The community’s 20-year-old youth leader, Big, says that life in the village can be stifling, forcing many youths to look for a way out.

“We’re restricted to living in this area only – about five acres [2 hectares] – and because of the influx of hotels and resorts around here, the sea has been polluted,” he says. “That makes it difficult to go fishing. So a lot of young people just choose easier jobs, like working in hotels or at 7-Eleven.”

Big adds that the Moken youth have pretty much “assimilated seamlessly” into Thai society, so much so that “whatever ‘bad Thais’ do, Moken do now too”, he notes. “Drugs, stealing, marijuana, glue-sniffing. We never saw this before, and it’s getting serious.”

The village is trying to counter such behaviour by offering classes in Moken language and customs to the children, many of whom are unaware of their traditions. Other classes, directed at teens, offer training as tour guides.

The community leader, Hong, who heads the classes and created the village’s Moken museum, hopes that turning Baan Tung Wah into an ecotourism destination may help get people back on track.

“Moken are supposed to travel, to be nomadic, to travel freely. So if we cannot travel freely, we are dead, culturally at least,” he says. “Moken children use mobile phones, study English and choose to be educated. We’ve abandoned our old traditions so much we risk losing them entirely.”

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Oh how we ruin the innocent?

Spitfires in Burma ‘could be found’

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The Spitfires were concealed by the RAF in 1945 to prevent them falling into Japanese hands

British and Burmese authorities could work together to find 20 Spitfires buried in Burma at the end of the World War II, officials say.

The case of the missing planes was raised when PM David Cameron met Burmese President Thein Sein.

A Downing Street source said it was “hoped this will be an opportunity to work with the reforming Burmese government”.

The exact location of the planes is unknown.

The planes were buried in 1945 by the RAF amid fears that they could either be used or destroyed by Japanese forces, but in the intervening years they have not been located.

At the time they were unused, still in crates, and yet to be assembled.

Until a general election in 2010, Burma was ruled for almost half a century by a military junta.

It has been reported that experts from Leeds University and an academic based in Rangoon believe they may have identified the sites where the craft are concealed using sophisticated radar techniques.

On Friday, officials said President Thein Sein was “very enthusiastic” about the prospect of finding and restoring the planes.

A Downing Street source said: “The Spitfire is arguably the most important plane in the history of aviation, playing a crucial role in the Second World War.

“It is hoped this will be an opportunity to work with the reforming Burmese government, uncover, restore and display these fighter planes and get them gracing the skies of Britain once again.”

Source: BBC News

MkVII Spitfires RAF 152 Sqn, Themaw - Burma 1945

Scientists discover more than 200 new Mekong species

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Scientists have identified more than 200 new species in the Greater Mekong region of south-east Asia, a report by conservation group WWF says.

Many of the animals recently identified by the WWF, like this self-cloning lizard, are under threat

They say that throughout 2010 more than 100 plants, 28 reptiles, 25 fish and seven amphibians were discovered.

But the WWF warns that many are endangered – while others could disappear before they are identified.

The Greater Mekong area includes Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Yunnan province of China.

It is one of the world’s most bio-diverse areas, home to some of the planet’s most endangered wild species including the tiger, the Asian elephant and the Mekong dolphin.

The WWF says that more than 1,000 species have been discovered in the Greater Mekong over the past 10 years.

BBC environment reporter Mark Kinver says that new species are frequently found in the region because of increasing levels of human activity, which is proving to be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, building roads opens up remote habitats to scientists who can then venture into previously unexplored areas and record the rich diversity of wildlife.

But this can also have a damaging ecological impact, especially if it results in a greater exploitation of the land which destroys these fragile ecosystems, our correspondent adds.

Female-only lizard

Among recent finds was a female-only lizard species, which reproduces by cloning, and was only discovered after a scientist spotted it on the menu of a Vietnamese restaurant.

Wolf snake (Lycodon aulicus)

Ms Bladen said that the female-only cloning lizard was also an exiting find.

“This lizard is not genetically diverse and is therefore very vulnerable. So these species are often found in shrinking habitats that are under pressure from rapid and unsustainable development and climate change,” she said.

“But while we have extraordinary richness in this region, it is a richness that is under threat and shrinking fast and needs urgent effort to protect it.”

The latest WWF report comes just days after the organisation announced the extinction of the Javan rhino in Vietnam because of poaching, and a 70% reduction in the number of wild tigers in just over 10 years.

China, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia are all planning hydropower dams along the Mekong river to meet the increasing demand for electricity.

Another new species – discovered in 2010 – is a snub-nosed monkey found in a remote and mountainous part of Burma’s Kachin state, WWF spokeswoman Sarah Bladen told the BBC.

“It is well known to locals, who would spot the black-and-white monkey in the rain with its head between its knees, shielding it from the rain running into its upturned nose,” she said.

Source: BBC News

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