It's late on a Wednesday evening here in Chang Mai. By this time tomorrow I should be in a (rather charmless) hotel room in Rangoon. I'm booked into my usual hotel, the Eastern, not far from the Botataung temple. I'm not really packed yet of course, but I think I have most of what I need assembled, including books to read, books for a friend, and my Burmese language book. Perhaps I should take a bigger bag, just to not feel squeezed? That's always the question. I like to try to get away with having just hand-carry, but it's a pretty silly objective when flying a short distance into an airport that's not big and not really busy. If these are the small things I'm wondering about, you'll say, then clearly I'm fine.
Today I went with a friend to a talk/seminar at Chiang Mai University, CMU as it's known. It's a good bicycle ride away. In the morning rush hour it can be a slow trip in a rot daeng (shared taxi) or a car, but on bicycles, weaving in and out of the cars, we got there easily. The last part of the ride was through the leafy airy campus grounds, with a cool breeze blowing. The talk was about the Karen in the camps and other places along the Thai-Burma border, about their networks of relationship based on religion, and on how humanitarian aid is affected by and affects those networks and connections. Dry stuff you mght think, but the speaker, an academic from Germany who works in Mahidol University in Bangkok named Alex Horstman, had very interesting findings and analysis to share.
He linked his research, which is primarily with the Christian networks (his colleague is focussed on the networks and relations of the buddhist Karen), with the early conversion of Karen by missionaries in the nineteenth century. There's still very active missionary work going on amongst the Karen in Burma and in the camps, but the missionaries are Karen themselves. And much of the leadership of the KNU, the Karen army that is battling the Burmese, is also Christian. The speaker suggested that there's an increased militarisation happening amongst the Karen along the border, those who have come to believe that theirs is a struggle of good versus evil. He suggested to us all, but especially to the KNU guys who were there, that they think about changing the model, perhaps giving up their arms, and trying to work another way.
It's the old old problem of exile and the ongoing struggle of the persecuted: attitudes harden and it's hard to see another path. Meantime there's been sixty years of struggle and suffering and still there are refugees, and attacks by the Burmese army and a seemingly dead-end fruitless struggle.
All the more reason to be impressed by the willingness of the opposition in Burma to be flexible, to agree to participate in elections and engage with the current government. It's very difficult to step back from a hard-line position, even when the other side gives a little. For they never give all that one wants, just a little. Instead of holding out for the moon, Aung San Su Kyi and her party have engaged in dialogue (while asking for more openness, a stop to bloodshed, etc) rather than digging in their heels and refusing to be at all flexible.
How can we ask people who have suffered a lot to move on and compromise? Well we do ask it all the time. In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn't end people's pain. It did allow the victims to face the aggressors and murderers, but that's all. And for some it must have been excruciating and unfair and impossible. But they did it. And somehow that country has managed to move forward rather than staying locked in the past.
I know all this is simplistic talk in some ways. But it seems important to acknowledge how difficult, almost impossible, it can be for people to move past old pains and grievances. (Look at how divorcing couples can stay angry and bitter for years, even when it damages their children and their mental and physical health to stay so angry and stuck.) And how much more difficut to move forward when the conflict has been going on for three generations, as it has with the Karen, and when people on both sides are so committed to their version of the story?
Human beings are creative and have a great capacity for problem-solving. But when the emotions are engaged so deeply, it takes a huge effort of will, personal and political, to move forward beyond the patterns of thinking and reflexes of the past. it hasn't happened in israel-Palestine; it hasn't yet hapened in Burma; it has happened in Ireland and in South Africa.
So there is hope, at least conceptually, for us all.
And meantime, to get down to the level of basic human pleasures, I have been eating very well these last days, especially because I've been out with Eating Asia - Robyn Eckhrdt and Dave Hagerman - several times, and in between I've been frequenting some of my favorite roadside/streetside stands. Last night with Robyn and Dave I was at a small place at the edge of town that specialises in fish laap. We had that, and a brilliant village-style northern tom yum with chicken, a plate of pla som (soured fish patties that had been fried), and some pak kana, Chinese kale, stir-fried with crispy pieces of pork belly. Yum.
And now I'm headed to the land of brilliant noodles and fab lunchtiime rice meals featuring lots of condiments, as well as curries and salads, etc. I probably won't be able to post here while I'm gone, though occasionally I've been able to break through the firewalls or whatever they're called, while in Burma. If I don't find a way around, I won't be posting again until after I fly back to Chiang Mai on December 11...
Happy Thanksgiving to the Americans among you (I admit to being thrilled at not having to eat turkey at all this year). Let's hope that we all get better at compromise and at reconciling ourselves to a less than perfect relationship with our more difficult neighbours.