Despite the repressive regime that they have to live under, the Burmese people were generally laid-back and friendly. Vast golden rice fields upcountry served as a showcase of Burmese fertility. Vendors in the wet market were anxious to sell their produce to visitors.
On that Thursday, May 1, the Burmese had a day off and many of them went to pay homage at Shwedagon Pagoda under the hot sun. An unexpected heavy downpour hit the city in the afternoon, but many people were unfazed by it. They didn't rush home immediately but sought shelter under the pavilions in the pagoda compound. None expected that the heavy downpour was building momentum and would become the disastrous cyclone that would follow.
The junta has been trying to close the country off from the outside world, but their attempts have been futile in curbing the curiosity of the people. At a temple in Mandalay, a group of three Burmese men gathered to listen to the BBC World Service as an alternative source of information to state-run media. At various tourist spots, many young children were waiting to greet foreign visitors to sell souvenirs such as necklaces and postcards. They communicated with tourists in Western languages. An eight-year-old boy at Amarapura spoke in English and could greet the tourists in - at least - five languages: English, French, German, Italian and Thai. He picked up the languages by repeating what foreign visitors said to him.
Despite their eagerness, the Burmese in general were pretty cautious when discussing certain topics with strangers. At Mahamuni Pagoda, a few English-speaking Burmese students were waiting to talk to Western tourists to practice their English. A couple of young male students in traditional sarongs were keen to hear what an American tourist told them about the US election. But when the tourist asked him back about the Burmese election, one of the young students said, "We cannot discuss politics. We will be arrested".
State-run television didn't seem to be a useful source of information. The weekend when the cyclone struck Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta, state-run television ran virtually no news about the natural disaster. Those who had television reception in Pagan would not know of the calamity in Rangoon. Most of them learned of the news from their relatives and reports that all air transport was cancelled.
The Burmese are generally religious. Several villagers were seen waving silver bowls on the sides of the country's bumpy highways in the hopes of receiving donations for the construction of new pagodas in their communities. Boys of a certain age ordain to learn Buddhism or to receive a proper education. Boys become novices starting at the age of seven and some spend 15 years completing the four exams required in the monasteries. Monks are close to the communities and the villagers, who contribute funds to support the temples.
A monk at Amanpada Monastery in Mandalay said that half of a total of 1,400 monks joined the "saffron demonstration" in September last year because they felt sorry for the plight of the people under the repressive regime. The number of monks participating in demonstrations from that temple dwindled to 500 and 300 on the second and third days respectively after authorities ordered them not to participate.
Even though the atmosphere seemed to be peaceful a week ago, there was still simmering discontent against the repressive junta regime.
A few days before the cyclone struck, visitors could sense that a major political movement was about to happen. Several new billboards with green backgrounds were put up at various government offices to encourage the public to vote in favour of the constitution in the May 10 referendum. Green-covered copies of the draft constitution were sold on the market for US$1.5 (Bt48). The price of the draft was doubled on the black market due to the limit of official copies.
The weekend that the cyclone struck Rangoon, Burmese authorities were touring unaffected townships to tell villagers there about the merits of their constitution. The other official omnipresent green signs were to encourage farmers to convert their farms to grow jatropha plants for use in biofuel production. A number of farmers have converted to jatropha, as instructed by authorities, but some of them conceded that they haven't gained any profit from the crop. Even though they have had jatropha output for some time, the government has yet to collect or buy their yields from them.
Nonetheless, the villagers would not criticise the authorities in public. Early on the morning of May 3, residents of the small village of Letpanpya gathered at the village centre, waiting for a convoy of cars led by a junta official coming to instruct them to cast their ballots in favour of the draft constitution.
Burma has recently seen two massive political demonstrations: in 1988 led by the students and the saffron demonstration last year led by the monks. The rural people, most of them peasants, have not been known to lead the political movements. Perhaps, their day will come. The cyclone that struck the heart of Burmese rice bowl may make these peasants feel compelled to do something soon.