As political demonstrations and violence rise in Myanmar, I'd like to add one American's perspective to the discussion.
By a little fate and a little design, I was in Myanmar in December. Like most Americans, I had never been in a country under repressive rule and never one currently under US embargo. I had read the State Department's travel advisory and decided to go anyway.
Upon arrival to the outskirts ot the city, I was struck by how much it had in common with Cambodia and Laos...a mixture of dirt roads and pavement, of street-side vendors, and barnyard animals. In Yangon (Rangoon), we checked into a hotel that would have satisfied all but the most discriminating of expense-account travelers, offering large rooms, well-appointed baths, a beautiful lobby and gift shop, and multiple restaurants/cuisines. From the window, the city looked a bit like many large SouthEast Asian cities, with a mixture of modern tower, British colonial, and poverty all within short distances.
In the few days that we were there, I asked myself repeatedly whether the streets were dustier, the people poorer, or anything else was truly different. I kept challenging my mind to distinguish between projecting what I expected to see in a repressed country with what I was actually seeing.
One of the major differences I noticed first were the dogs. Nearly everywhere we travelled in SouthEast Asia, dogs wandered the streets. In Siem Reap (Cambodia), many were very thin. In Luang Prabang (Laos), most look remarkably fit. In Yangon, they all seemed to have running sores. One of the first shocks of the trip was seeing a cardboard box of puppies, having that automatic reaction of smiling and reaching in to pet one, only to discover that they too were already severely infected with whatever ails them all.
Another immediately apparent dichotomy was the economy. The official zeal for the value of local currency is in no way shared by the population. The government of Myanmar publishes an exchange rate of about 6 Kyat to 1 US Dollar. On the street, stores, restaurants, and vendors gave approximately 1,200 Kyat to the Dollar. I didn't find out whether that reflected their assessment of a 10,000% deflation or the level of their desparation to get Dollars.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we Americans have grown used to military figures with large weapons in public places in major cities. So, I didn't really react to soldiers on busy metropolitan street corners, nor did I see any overt signs of menace directed at me or others. I was truly taken aback, though, when in the course of discussion someone mentioned that all graduate schools had been closed. I never confirmed that statement, but it raised a spectre of a crushing sort of control on thought and a severe limitation on advancement.
The local people were kind and polite to us and we were aware of being quite a novelty to them. Our mere presence created quite a stir among several classes of school children at the zoo! There was no question in my mind though that their eyes lacked the sparkle of opportunity reflected in those in the growing economies of Delhi or Siem Reap.
We visited several religious landmarks including Shwedagon Pagoda, a site of such enormity, complexity, and grandeur that no picture can relay the experience. Set on the plateau of a large hill, it feels about the size of four New York city blocks and is so elaborately decorated, carved, and covered in gold leaf that it is more ornate than any European cathedral I have seen, There, thousands of locals mill about, eat, and pray. Though exceedingly poor, they make donations which are immediately converted to gold leaf sent by wire on miniature, fanciful boats to the top of the pagoda where they will be applied to the hundreds of ever shinier stupas. Although prayer appears to be done independently and without leadership, there were incredibly large groups praying to many of the Buddhas. I couldn't help but wonder if they were praying for release from oppression.
My travels to this part of the world has radically altered my perception of Buddhist monks. As an American, I had some movie vision of wizened men with the countenance of pure zen. In truth, Buddhist monasteries are where many send their sons to be educated and fed; monasteries are filled with boys and young men who are monks along with their elder teachers. Unlike priests in western culture, most of these young men do not remain monks but return to their families and communities. The elder monks, then, are very much responsible for the spread of ideas.
What affected me most on this visit, was the apparently universal desire for connection. In SiemReap, I had seen that people without central plumbing or electricity would opt to spend their money on televisions at home and internet cafes outside the home. Here, too, in Myanmar, though cell phones and internet connections were much rarer, I could see an extraordinary number of antennae and satellite dishes on rooftops and wondered from how far transmissions could be received. Nearly everywhere we went, it was apparent that people wanted to talk to us about the meatier topics of politics and their situation. We held back because the State Department advisories had indicated that people with whom we spoke would likely be arrested and punished after we left them. I was most distressed by this paradox at Shwedagon where we were introduced to some older, English-speaking monks who clearly wanted to engage in discussion.
In the last month or so, Buddhist monks have begun peaceful pro-democracy protests again. In some places, the monks are reported to be blocked in their monasteries by the government forces. Thousands of students and other citizens have taken up the protests. Both groups have been met with gunfire, resulting in an unknown number of deaths including those of some of the monks. As the violence escalated, people rushed to upload cellphone photos, videos and stories to the internet before the government cracked down and cut off communications, which it did this Friday.
I look at the faces in the news photos to see if there is a glimmer of familiarity. I yearn to go back in time and talk to these men who have knowingly risked or met death to express their beliefs. It reminds me to be proud of our system that permits open speech and transition of leadership without bloodshed. And it creates a tremendous sense of urgency to reopen the lines of communication so that words and images can continue to flow out of and into Myanmar, to engage the world in debate and discussion, and to hold leadership accountable.
Before arriving, I had given myself a minor history lesson about the country. Up until that time, perhaps the only things I knew about the country were that U Thant had been Secretary General of the UN during my childhood in the 1960's, that Humphrey Bogart had talked about Rangoon in some movie, and that there was a Nobel Prize winning political dissident named Aung San Suu Kyi. I offer this very informal history for those who knew no more than I.
I read about more than a thousand years of history of various indigenous groups from within the region and nearby (such as Yunnan, Tibet, and Mongolia) migrating, dominating, and intermingling. It became a unified country about the time of US independence (late 1700's) but lost several regions to British India about 50 years later and ultimately lost control to the British and were occupied beginning in the 1880s. The country achieved independence from the UK in 1948 and was known to us as "Burma" through the 1980's.
Although the country had been ruled by royalty prior to British occupation, it became a parliamentary government upon independece. In 1962, the government was overthrown by a military coup. We know of significant public protests in 1974 and again in 1988. The 1988 protests were met with the killing of hundreds of protestors and another military coup. In 1989, the ruling powers declared that the English name of the country should be "Myanmar" and its capital city known as "Yangon" rather than "Rangoon." The US and UK refused to recognize this change and continued to call the country "Burma." In 1990, popular elections were held and pro-democracy representatives received about 80% of the vote; in response the government annulled the results and, to this day, retains power.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, who
negotiated independence from the UK. She received degrees from Oxford
and the University of London and had worked in the UN. Under the 1990
elections, she would have because Prime Minister. She was awarded the
Nobel Prize in 1991 for her work in leading non-violent protest. She
has been under house arrest for more than half of the years since then.