Out of sheer serendipity, and perhaps because I was unusually chatty during my flight back from San Diego earlier in the spring, I landed a volunteer position as an English teacher in Myanmar.
When I was a sophomore in college, if you spoke of “Myanmar” or even “Burma” (the state’s previous name under the Brits) few -if any- could put it on a map. Or knew what you were referring to. And if you mentioned “Mandalay”, they might evoke some 1930s film where Kay Francis escapes her degenerate life to seek the once distinguished city via boat. There simply wasn’t much of a conversation going on about the isolated military dictatorship and its oppressive censorship regime, beyond the distress present in various activist and scholarly circles.
We’ve seen exponential change since 2009. The “Golden Land” has now wrested much of the spotlight from other countries in international news media accounts. One the one hand, the revered democracy-leader Aung San Suu Kyi has emerged from over 20 years of house arrest and is now a member of Parliament. Laws banning expression, assembly, and protest have been lifted. The United States and other members of the international community have eased trade sanctions and expressed support for Myanmar to receive financial aid from institutions like the IMF and World Bank. Coca Cola, General Electric, MasterCard, and VISA are anxious to re-enter the country. The United States will likely attempt to compete for political and economic influence with Myanmar’s formidable neighbors: China and India. The word on everybody’s lips seems no longer a pipe-dream: transition.
On the other hand, Suu Kyi seems rather tight-lipped about state-sanctioned military offenses against the Kachin minority, 75,000 of which have been displaced. Rohingya Muslims of the northwest, uneasily moving between the borders of India and Myanmar, receive hostility from both sides. In a broader constellation of national loyalties and homelands, this group is afforded none. And while the National League for Democracy has some – if meager – influence with 43 Parliament seats, the military and its proxy “civilian party” still dominates indisputably. The administering of education, social services, and basic infrastructure is lacking. Little change has yet been felt by the many minorities or rural communities that dwell in peripheral states beyond Rangoon.
So how genuine is this so-called “reform” or “transition”? How do the many fractions of Myanmar, beyond the majority Burmese, as well as apolitical Civil Society (CS) organizations understand the transition? Will these organizations now choose to participate – and pressure – for key policy and governance changes? How will President Thein Sein’s government engage them – or will he?
Answering these questions is not exactly what I am setting out to do, though I will be observing and writing. I hope this blog will serve as a space for sharing (not infrequently..) insights with friends, family, and the curious. For the first month that I live in Kanphyu, near Mandalay, I will be practicing Vipassana Meditation at Kyunpin. You can read about and see pictures of Kyunpin here. This meditation center has also recently launched a major outreach program called the Irrawaddy Education Project, through which I will be teaching English to schoolchildren and some adult volunteers for the remainder of my 6 month voyage. With the country opening up to what will surely be an abundant flow of tourism, not to mention that most textbooks distributed to schools are published only in English (where nobody speaks it), learning English may be necessary for this upcoming generation, socioeconomically speaking. My migration to Myanmar is fairly brief; I depart in mid-April to journey back home and fuss with plans for graduate school.
The best way to end this first post, it seems, is with a quote from Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace – spanning much of Burma’s history (the colonial era, WW1 & WWII, through the 1960s) over the last few centuries. The quote refers to when King Thebaw was removed by the British in 1885 but seems equally applicable for describing the country today:
“This is how power is eclipsed: in a moment of vivid realism, between the waning of one fantasy of governance and its replacement by the next, in an instant when the world springs free of its mooring of dreams and reveals itself to be girdled in the pathways of survival and self-preservation… How would one begin the work of re-creating the tissue that bound people to each other?”