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Monday, June 18, 2012

MORE MYANMAR

(Note:  this is an essay written in 2011--before Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest)


MUSING ON MYANMAR AND DEMOCRACY



Years ago, in a tea shop in Mandalay, an old man---having ascertained that I was from the United States---asked me, “What is democracy?”  I explained, in part, that it was a form of government by the people and for the people.  “By what people and for what people?” he inquired.  I don’t recall how I answered.  But I remember the look in his eye.  It was wise.  And he was smiling ever so slightly.  It seems that the answer is  “by some people, for some people.”



In too many parts of our world, people have become disenfranchised and fearful.  They have little or no access to the simple necessities and pleasures of life:  clean water, shelter, food, safety, health care and education.  As an inveterate freelance cultural explorer, I have traveled alone to many countries and wandered among strangers—many of whom quickly became friends.  In those wanderings, I have gotten lost, confused, enlightened, surprised, delighted and disenchanted.  Here at home, I read the papers, listen to the news and talk with my friends about politics, the environment and the arts.  I search for meaning that often becomes a meaningless search for something beyond my ken.




Organizations and nations struggle to govern themselves.  They adopt rules and by-laws and manifestos.  They elect leaders and appoint committees and sub-committees.  Soon they create closed-door sessions and special exceptions and majority opinions---which regularly become opinions of the powerful few.  The co-opted media participate with their daily and nightly drum, drum, drumming of cleverly crafted disinformation.  Eventually, the masses become parrots of propaganda.  It happens again and again.  It’s happening now!  As I child, I learned that propaganda was manipulated or one-sided information, intended to misinform. Our civics teacher explained that the United States government told the truth and “the commies” told propaganda---to deceive the public, the world.



 Although I am seriously concerned about global warming, rising gas prices, the war in Iraq, world poverty and so many other ills and cries of these Times, I have lately concentrated on the ills and cries of the people of a particularly besieged country, Myanmar:  The Golden Land.



Until Cyclone Nargis battered the daylights out of the delta region of Myanmar, my interests in the country (formerly known as Burma) were centered on the arts and cultures of the people:  the Chin, the Mon, the Karen, the Kachin, the Pa-O…And of course, I heralded the bravery and selflessness of Aung San Suu Kyi.  In fact the primary goal of my first visit to Yangon was to meet her---an incredibly na├»ve intention and a goal I failed to achieve.  In 1999 and 2000, people were fearful of uttering her name.  Being overheard by the wrong ears could mean arrest or trouble for one’s family.  In whispered voices, they called her “The Lady”.  She was the beautiful and selfless heroine of democracy, imprisoned indefinitely by a cruel and powerful military regime.  Just to be in the forbidden vicinity of that courageous woman was exciting and mysterious:  everything a freelance cultural explorer dreams of experiencing.


As my first visit morphed into my seventh or eighth visit and as I began to read, inquire and reflect on the political, economic and social realities of Myanmar, I broadened my perspective.  I tempered my outrage in favor of envisioning a possible solution for the suffering men, women and children of that isolated land.


And so, I muse:


If I were in charge of all diplomatic relations and negotiations with The Golden Land, I would begin (on Day One) by declaring to those mired in the past that the correct and official name of the country is Myanmar---pronounced “Me an’ Mar.”  I would explain to those who hold with the more exotic, easier to pronounce British invented/distorted name of Burma, that the name Myanmar (literally: quick and strong) encompasses the scores of ethnic groups in the country.  Burma, on the other hand, references only one dominant group: the Burmans.  Ease of pronunciation for the English (monolinguists) was the reason Yangon became Rangoon and Kyaing Tong became Keng Tong and Pyin U Lwin became Maymyo (go figure!).  I believe it’s time to call the country what the people of the country prefer that we call it.  We have honored name changes all over Eastern Europe, India, China…haven’t we?  It’s not a big concession:  Myanmar.


On Day Two, I would end the U.S. imposed sanctions and boycotts.  I believe that international intimidation and/or coercion (the kind that sanctions and boycotts surely inflame) make substantive communication difficult if not impossible.  Those actions rarely achieve their architects’ desired results: capitulation/surrender.  To the repressive Myanmar regime of greedy, xenophobic generals, those practices do virtually no harm.  To the people---the artists and artisans, the taxi drivers, the restaurant and hotel workers, the small shopkeepers…the harm is huge; incalculable!

And on Day Three---if I had not achieved it on Day One, I would begin the “apologizing and forgiveness” process.  No doubt forgiveness part would be the bigger part.  After all, the junta is responsible for some horrendous behavior.  But I believe some apologies are also in order---in order to affect some sort of rapprochement.  Isn’t that what decent, loving, imperfect people (like us) truly want!


I believe we must talk with our so-called enemies.  How else can we move this world towards clarity, cooperation and--dare we dream--peace? 


When the United States government accuses the Myanmar government of forbidding desperately needed aid from the west to cross their borders after the cyclone disaster (granted, an unconscionable act), I call to mind the U.S. turning away Cuba’s unquestionably valuable medical help for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Hmmm…isn’t that an instance of “the pot calling the kettle black!”  When our media report the largely erroneous fact that the wretched generals failed to warn the Myanmar people of the impending storm, I think:  “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”  

Just this week, by the kind hand of a visiting Myanmar artist who experienced the cyclone in Yangon, I received a written account of the storm by an elderly friend of mine.  She wrote, in part:  “This is the 87th year of my life and I have never gone through such an experience.  I live in a tropical climatic zone country and I am used to rainy season storms.  This kind of storm of such violence was unknown in my country.”


We are experiencing more and more natural disasters of a scale unknown to the oldest in our population.  How do we handle them?  How do we help the victims of the never-before-experienced hurricanes, tidal waves, wildfires, earthquakes and volcanoes?  How can we possibly save and restore lives, comfort the grieving and rebuild our struggling civilization without compassion, cooperation, understanding and (and I’m going to say it even if it sounds too gushy) love?


The Buddhists have a term I have adopted:  Metta  (loving kindness).  May we strive to practice it in our interactions with individuals and institutions near and far.