If you are of a certain age, I bet I know the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word “Burma.” Be honest now, I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with Aung San Suu Kyi or the dreadful military tyrants that have had the country in lockdown for the last fifty years. Your first thought may go something like this:
“Does your husband, Misbehave? Grunt and Grumble, Rant and Rave? Shoot the Brute…Some Burma Shave!”
I know you wouldn’t remember the exact words of the doggerel but, more likely than not, you would have thought of Burma Shave. That’s about where I started out as well.
Burma, or as the rest of the world knows it, Myanmar, was not exactly on my radar screen. I knew it was somewhere in Southeast Asia, but I’d have been hard pressed to put my finger on the globe and locate it. I must admit that Obama’s trip there in 2011 and again in 2014 put Burma briefly in the news and in my consciousness. Interestingly, Obama is the only US president to ever visit Burma; now twice in two years. Every shop we visited had a photograph of Obama on one of his visits. Indeed, I saw more of Obama in Burma than any other country we have visited.
Suffice it to say that Burma is a country in the throws of a transition that may never be complete. Unfortunately, it has more than a little of the political character of Cuba or North Korea, and the consequences on civil society have been equally disastrous. In my readings before our trip, it was reported that the average income per person is around two dollars a day. I’m always suspicious of such data from third or fourth world countries, because their ability to gather and report economic data is virtually non-existent – but in this case, based on my own observations, much of the rural population is in a day to day struggle to merely survive.
A little about the history of Burma. I’ve always thought it easier to understand the present if I had some knowledge of the past, but don’t worry, I won’t make this a tutorial. In fact, in some ways Burma’s history is pretty simple. I’ve laid it out in five eras.
Pre-Colonial Era (13,000 BCE to 1824) I’m sure this was an important era if you lived there then, but other than fairly constant wars and the forming and un-forming of various dynasties, not much of interest to our current understanding happened. I guess that the beginning of recorded Burmese history when the Puy people began to settle in the Irrawaddy River Valley in 2000 BCE should be noted. It took roughly four thousand years for the competing forces and dynasties to resolve themselves into a unified entity, which then lasted barely 125 years.
Colonial Era (1824-1948) The Brits did the typical colonial master thing in organizing then plundering their colony, all the while looking down their noses at the native peoples. The only legacies preserved from this era are a lingering hatred of the English and driving on the wrong side of the road. If you want to know more about how the British behaved and how it impacted the Burmese, the best descriptor of this period is none other than George Orwell, who is best remembered for his novels about dystopian societies. In 1934 Orwell’s novel Burmese Days was published. This book exposed the worst of the British and Burmese character. It was subsequently banned in Burma until only recently. His later books, Animal Farm and 1984, while not mentioning Burma directly, are said to be based in substantial part on Orwell’s experiences and observations in Burma.
The War Years (1941-1948) Yes, I know there is some overlap here, but that’s the way history presents itself. While this era is the shortest of my Burmese eras, it sets the context for much of what was to follow. Suffice it to say that the Burmese hated, and I mean hated, their colonial masters, the English. In fact, this hatred manifested itself in behaviors that are hard to understand from today’s viewpoint. Aung Sung, who is the father of recent heroine and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, and is considered to be much like the George Washington and Tom Jefferson of Burma, made the tactically understandable but strategically disastrous decision of initially allying with the Japanese. He, of course, was driven by (one might say blinded by) his hatred of colonialism and the British. By 1944, Aung Sung saw the writing on the wall and reversed course, dumped the Japanese and flew to the not-so welcoming arms of the Western Powers. I won’t try to give you the details, but to say at the least he had created an environment of distrust that lasted well beyond the war years.
The Era of Burmese Independence (1948-1962) This is perhaps the most confusing of the eras. In a period of only fourteen years, the much beloved leaders of this newly independent and resource-rich country with a promising future mucked it up to the point where they were displaced by a military coup that lasts to this day. Their first president, Nyaung Shwe Sawbwo Shwe Taik (now you see why Obama may have had trouble with names while he was there), romanced and then denounced a budding communist movement, and made a few other disastrous decisions, which ultimately led to his demise.
The Era of Military Tyranny (1962-Present) The military coup that took place in 1962 has not yet ended, although lately there have been some promising signs. Certainly the Obama administration believed that to be the case when they offered the olive branch of reduced sanctions in return for some civilized behavior on the part of the current Junta. Sadly, the people of Burma have suffered while the military elite and their fellow travelers have prospered. There have been paroxysms of violence along the way. In 1988, a naively hopeful citizenship led by a consortium of monks, students and pro-democracy advocates – along with the now famous Aung San Suu Kyi – marched, protested, demonstrated and generally pestered the military rulers to try to convince them to proceed with some long promised democratic reforms. You guessed it, the results were not good. In fact, they were really bad. This brief insurrection is now likened to the Burmese Tiananmen Square. An estimated three thousand citizens were killed, mostly students and monks. A deft journalist recorded on film the deaths of five hundred of these in front of the American Embassy. When this film was distributed to international news bureaus, the world finally became aware, in this awful way, of the consequences of this oppressive tyranny.
I will admit to having skipped a lot of stuff in this abbreviated and much edited history, but I hope you got the drift. I’ll add to this picture some of my own observations and questions that arose in my brief but enlightening exposure to Burma.
The National Army pretty much owns everything of value in the country, and nothing works, so it ought to be easy to conclude that the solution might be to get rid of the Army or at least the pervasive power of the Army. Easier said than done.
The monks (and Buddha) pretty much control every thing the Army doesn’t, and what they control doesn’t work very well either. To wit: they have a million or so pagodas (basically shrines to Buddha) painted with gold leaf at great expense while their children are dying from malnutrition and drinking polluted river water. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is said of have tens of millions of dollars of gold leaf decorating its various shrines. I always presumed Buddhism to be a religion of personal awareness and peace, but that’s clearly not the case either. Burma is home to some of the most oppressed ethnic and religious minorities in the world. In fact, the Rohingya Muslims in Western Burma have been more or less terrorized since 1947, and are said by some to be the most oppressed national minority in the world. Go figure. Not only does the pervasive Buddhism of Burma not prevent violence to others, it seems to actively promote it. I can only surmise that Burma’s Buddhists are in the good company of other religiously dominated countries in turning a blind eye to the violence that is often perpetrated in their name.
Burmese names. It’s long been my theory that our perception of a people is directly related to the difficulty we have with their names. Take the Burmese name “Win” for example. It’s not complicated to pronounce or remember, but there are just too damned many of them. It’s more common than “Kim” in Korea. It seems like every third male has Win some where in his name. Fully half of the male crew members on our river cruiser were named Win. In order to distinguish, I renamed them Big Win, Little Win, Young Win and so on. And then there is the length of their name. I’ve already mentioned their first president, Nyaung Shwe Sawbwo Shwe Taik. There’s not a single American that could remember, much less pronounce, the name of this very important Burman. Complicating the names further, there is the matter of pronunciation. Remember the Nobel Laureate that I referred to earlier whose name was mangled by Obama. Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi. Okay, Aung San is her father’s name, and Suu seems fairly simple, but Kyi is unpronounceable. To me, it sound like something between “chee” and “kee,” but I’m glad I don’t have to try it in public.
My final thought is that the Burmese people deserve better. It is said that Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “…people get the government they deserve.” While that may be true in a democracy and over time, in Burma that clearly is not the case. The people are intelligent, kind, and hard working. They are proud of their country even while their leaders have oppressed, and even murdered them. They want and deserve the freedom that civilized peoples deserve.