Monday, January 29, 2007

Burma - From the Inside

It was my unexpected pleasure to receive a facebook message from Dr. Cook (after about 4 years of collegiate separation) inquiring about my interest in writing a guest column pertaining to Burma and its history. I must admit; it was difficult to get off the ground. However, I've managed to produce what reads below. Thanks to Dr. Cook for the opportunity and challenge.

I've been to Burma three times. The first was when I was 12. I arrived in Burma's capital city after nearly 30 hours of transit across the world. With hair down to my waist, pink glasses, and a walkman playing Ace of Base on rewind – I was only mildly prepared for the experiences that would soon follow. Within days of our arrival, my cousins and I were draped in traditional Burmese clothing and made participants in a ceremony to commemorate my brother's entry into the Buddhist monkhood. For four days he donned saffron robes, awoke at sunrise to collect breakfast with his begging bowl, and passed nights on a hard wooden floor.

Following this, my family rented two renovated tour buses and traveled via dusty mountain roads and thatch roof hotels to see Burma's northern regions. By the end of two weeks, I had climbed ancient Burmese temples in Pagan, squatted in "public bathrooms" that were literal holes dug into the ground, and eaten in noodle shops with the nation's rural poor. The second and third visits were much the same, except without the extended family or parade. Each time my mother and I started in the capital city before donning longyis and traveling through Burma's less populated regions.

So when I say I've been to Burma, I don't mean I've stayed at Sedona hotel, had my manicure done over by the locals, and eaten my eggs with a little side of Burmese chili paste.

I have been to Burma.

And away from the glittery temples renovated for tourists with gold leaves and paint jobs, is a nation crumpling into economic, social, and silent despair.

Burma's current state of political instability is irrevocably linked to the after-effects of colonial rule. Once one of Britain's most prized colonies (romantically called the "Golden Land"), Burma gained a brief independence under General Aung San's (remember that name) revolutionary leadership of the Burmese Independence Army. In 1947, Aung San was assassinated. By 1962, General Ne Win had seized total governmental power in a military coup. Under his rule, the nation inched closer and closer to turmoil. Finally August 8, 1988, saw the machine gun slaughter of nearly 3,000 students, monks, and nurses marching for democracy. Immediately following, Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of General Aung San) made a speech demanding the end of Ne Win's dictatorship. In 1990, the Lady was placed under house arrest for winning the nation's vote in its first democratic election. In 2002, she was released and immediately began a nation-wide speaking tour. During her travels, her convoy was brutally attacked by military hires and she her house arrest was reinstituted. Today, she is a woman of nearly 60 that has missed the death of her only husband and adulthood of her two sons in her efforts to find a democratic Burma.

Cook asked me to relay why I think America has been so sluggish and uninterested in Burma's compelling plight for freedom despite our vocal commitment to "democracy" and "nation building". In short, why's America being such a hypocrite? Unlike many regions, Burma boasts a clear leader the public is ready to follow. It's a nation ripe for democracy. But it doesn't seem to matter. The US (and UN) have enacted half-hearted economic sanctions that do little but increase the divide between rich and poor. Those with guns will always find ways to profit. Just watch that wedding video of General Than Shwe's daughter ( You can bet most Burmese brides can't boast the impressive diamond and gold hair decorations Thandar showcases.

The only answer I can offer is that America suffers from being both selfish and sheltered. For most, Burma doesn't even exist. (I was once asked if Burma was "that new store in the Mall." It was a special moment I'll always treasure.) Ultimately, it doesn't matter to America if Burma is a democracy or a dictatorship. Having Burma as an ally? Eh. Burma will hardly be able to balance the economic powers of China or India if needed. Having Burma as an enemy? Eh. Their nuclear program is just beginning, and we suffer little fall out from the nation's current atrocities. Refugees? Mostly in Thailand. Women and children forced into sex labor? Talk to the Chinese and Indians. Burma is a problem that doesn't impact America directly – negatively or positively. So, why worry about it? Burma's not our business and compassion can only go so far.

Half of me thinks this is a lame and unimaginative response to the question Doctor poses. But, the simplest answer is usually the right one. Bono can sign a poster. The Beastie Boys could throw a concert. America wouldn't budge. At the end of the day, you've got to put some cold hard pay-off in my palm or strike some serious fear in my trembling heart, and Burma doesn't do either.

While I am heartbroken at discussing the reasons why Burma's situation continues, I'm more interested in wondering aloud about a solution. Senior year of college, I prepared a fellowship application dedicated to spending a year in Burma studying its migrant situation. After making it to the final interview round, I was denied the research money. In a private meeting, my most supportive professor somberly confided: "I think that everyone feels Burma is beyond fixing."

Silently, I weighed this possibility. With a degree in political science from a top college, and more on-site experience than most candidates my age, I realized that beyond my passion - I had little else to offer. I wanted a democratic Burma, sure. But how to get there? That's utterly beyond me. Save for the studies I wanted to conduct and research I hoped to publish, I had nothing to offer by way of real change. Staring back at my professor, a PhD graduate from Columbia and leader in the field of South Asian politics, I suspected the most experienced minds in the field had come to the same sobering realization.

And maybe, more than anything, that's why America and others persist in pretending the crisis of Burma doesn't exist. It's easy to ignore a problem. What's paralyzing is facing the reality that a problem of compelling nature exists, and as much as you'd like to institute a change – you just don't know how.

The writer, Kobes, authors Last Chance, Honey. The Recipe is privileged to have her share a few thoughts.


Blogger Kiki Kobes said...

this makes me blush.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Dr. Cook said...

A tip of the hat, Kobes.

4:44 AM  

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