Sunday, November 27, 2011


To share or not to share my thoughts on Myanmar/Burma! That is a question I have been pondering these past few days---ever since learning of the upcoming visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a country that has long (and strongly) captured my heart. I am considering this impending visit with concern---if not foreboding.

My points of view, with regard to “The Golden Land”, have often been at odds with the prevailing “inside the beltway” views held and expressed by the United States Government and by the people who get their information from those sources. Clearly, my ten extended visits in the past decade, have given me a different perspective from the information disseminated by the mainstream media. The unyielding hatred of the regime, spewed by angry ex-patriots as well as by good and sincere supporters of the abused political prisoners and ethnic minorities, doesn’t tell the whole story. And the partial story has, in my opinion, damaged and delayed opportunities to understand, assist and repair the lives of the Myanmar people. Yes, the abuses and atrocities are reprehensible. However, they do not show the whole picture. Moreover, the anger, propaganda and sanctions that result, neither improve the situation nor protect and support the innocent—and most of the people living under the repressive government are innocent. The continued anger and vilification of the ever-changing regime offer no pathways to understanding. And understanding (listening, acknowledging, apologizing, forgiving) is essential if peace, opportunity, and cooperation are our true and honorable goals with regard to this largely unknown and misunderstood land.

…I site the parable of the blind men and the elephant: By simply and blindly probing the tail or the foot of the proverbial elephant one cannot get a proper understanding of the animal. The ears, the torso, the trunk…all need to be explored. It is important to give a possibility to the fact that there is much good in those whose ideas are at odds with our own. There is much to learn. I don’t want the good that exists to be overlooked or buried by those--with power--who lacked the ability to consider the whole elephant!

My travels through Mandalay, Pyin U Lwin, Bagan, Pathein, Kyaiktiyo, Kengtung, Taunggyi, Mawlamyaing…by train, car, horse cart, ferry, bicycle and foot strongly informed my view of the people, their beliefs, their ordeals. In many ways, these considered conclusions are at odds with the information that has formed the U.S policy towards this beleaguered and oppressed country: The U.S. and British Governments say “Burma”/I say Myanmar.

“Burma” a far sexier name than Myanmar and far easier to remember and pronounce is what the British renamed the country when they invaded it, exiled the Royal Family and colonized the land in the late 19th Century. They named it after the Burmans, a major ethnic group in a land of many ethnic minorities. But the official name—and an ancient name, at that---is Myanmar or Myanma. It is a common misconception in the west that the Military Regime, in a power-usurping fit of xenophobia changed the name--out of spite or meanness. In truth, they just removed the British name and restored the historic name. Ma Thanegi, a former personal secretary to Aung San Suu Kyi, researched the name “Myanmar”. She writes that on a “stone inscription known as the Yadana Kon Htan Inscription, written in early Bama (Burmese language)…are the words ‘Myanma Pyay’ which means Myanmar Country. The date of this inscription is 597 in the Myanmar Era---this translates to 1235 in the Roman calendar. Ma Thanegi concludes by saying “Even during the British era and beyond when the English speaking world used the name Burma as given by the British, to the citizens of the country, the official name in the local language has always been Myanmar.

On the first day of my first visit to the country I used to call Burma, I went to the shabby U.S. Embassy/Consular Office in downtown Yangon (most westerners still think of it as Rangoon) to let my government know that I was in “Burma” and to get some advice about traveling upcountry. They were decidedly unhelpful and offered no answers to my questions. They gave me a faded sheet (it looked like mimeograph paper) with some travel agency names and addresses. Most no longer existed. As it turned out, I didn’t need the assistance of the United States. I quickly met taxi drivers, shopkeepers, artists, monks, poets and friendly children …all of whom smiled, pointed me in interesting directions, taught me essential words and phrases, educated me about the food, currencies, family dynamics and in so many small ways exemplified their loving kindness way of living.

Ten years later, many of these people are cherished friends. Almost every day, I think about the ninety year old woman who was a Fulbright Scholar at Temple University in the late 1940’s. Her impeccable English, her deep Buddhist practice, her generosity, her wisdom and grace humble and inspire me.

The political situation in Myanmar/Burma has begun to change. Government officials are engaging in talks with members of the NLD (National League for Democracy). Aung San Suu Kyi is planning to run for election. Now, after decades of living under severe government oppression, in relative isolation and after enduring the damaging sanctions imposed the United States, Myanmar is receiving a formal visit from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This visit will bring worldwide media attention to a country that has been ignored or vilified for too long.

I wonder what will happen to the gentle people of this fragile country. How will world perception of “Burma”/Myanmar change? Will things be better or worse for the people in the Chin State? The Mon State? The Shan, Karen, Kachin States? In the past, only the bad aspects of the ever-changing, xenophobic, greedy and frequently ignorant regime got press. The good---and there has been good was almost totally ignored. One example: recently, the government of Myanmar, working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, designated an area the size of Vermont, in the northern Huwang Valley, for the largest tiger reserve in the world.

An experienced traveler friend of mine just wrote from Mandalay to tell me how much things are changing/have changed in the country since his visit the previous year. Crowds of curious tourists are suddenly flocking to the shrines and beaches and ancient sites. Hotels are full. Souvenirs are selling. In his words: “…It’s going to bust open like a ripe pomegranate! And it will not be the way we wish it was. Globalization has a way of eradicating exoticism! Already in Yangon everybody’s walking around talking on cell phones. The locals are in a big hurry to modernize…so be it! Who am I to stop them?”

Sometimes my CASSANDRA persona makes a futile rush to the fore---only to retreat, weeping!

Foreign business concerns are selling genetically modified seeds and insecticides to farmers, who for ages have grown healthy and plentiful crops in the fertile soil of the country, without “benefit” of chemicals.

The Chinese are exporting precious resources and importing junk. They almost succeeded in building a dam and a hydro-electric plant north of Myitkyina in the pristinely beautiful state of Kachin---a dam that would have destroyed villages and farmland while providing electricity (mainly) for China. The Myanmar government listened to the people and (just in the nick of time) stopped the project from going forward. I want to say that again: The government listened to the people!

My friends chide me for being an unapologetic apologist for Myanmar. Perhaps. I prefer to call myself a freelance cultural explorer who embraces that which is beautiful and memorable in the country. If I were a praying woman, I would pray that these indications of change will position the country in a solid place on the world stage---without sanctions and fighting and landmines and pollution and…

Secretary Clinton, please be gentle.