Friday, March 1, 2013


Here it is already March 1. Lots of birthdays around this time, including my lovely mother-in-law Ann (Feb 28) who died over twelve years ago, and my father Adrian (Feb 29) who died in 1969 at a too-young age. There are lots of still-alive people, close friends and some relatives too, to celebrate as well, but they should probably remain anonymous…a lovely collection.

The turn into March feels momentous every year, perhaps a little like the turn into September. It’s not yet the end of winter, but the promise is there, of springtime and renewal.

Of course I am writing all this with pictures of winter and spring in my mind’s eye that don’t at all match what I see out my window. For I’m in Chiang Mai, where it’s already hot, with a haze from stubble-burning greying the sky and thickening the air. On the other hand, this dry season blending into hot season is also, like winter, a kind of dead-plants time, that will end with the “spring” that early rains bring, greening the ground and the trees.

Meantime the first durians have appeared in the markets, a little stenchy in an inviting way, and mangoes and papayas are showing up too. Yum. Every season has its disadvantages and its compensations. I’m inclined to focus on the compensations, especially the seasonal foods, for they need to be appreciated while they’re available.

And I leave here on Tuesday, so my awareness of the glorious fruit that I’m about to miss is acute!

Toay I dropped by Akha Ama coffee for a cup of some of the best coffee anywhere (no, I know I’m not an expert, but I have to say it…) and there was Lee, the man who started it all. He’s Akha, young and loaded with creative imagination and energy, and some years ago he persuaded his family and his village to start growing coffee commercially. They’re doing very well. I can only imagine the strain and effort it took to persuade the village to embark on all this. After all, the Akha haven’t survived for centuries by being pushovers or flighty adopters of each new thing that comes along. Instead they have been tenacious survivors, brilliant and thoughtful agriculturalists with a rich material culture.

And now here they are growing world class coffee in Northern Thailand.

I wonder what this will all look like in five years…

I stopped in for coffee because I was in the area, having pedalled out to Niemenhamen soi 13 for a meeting at the best Friends Library. They are the sponsors and arrangers of my two BURMA book speaking events tomorrow. The afternoon session is small, at the Library (which has very little space). In the evening there will be more room – it’s at Documentary Arts Asia. Garrett of the Library and I met today to talk about room arrangements, food (he is doing most of the cooking, with help from friends), and the timing of the events.

It was hard for us to get focussed on those details, since we had so much else to talk about, mostly centred around the current crises in Burma – the war in Kachin State and the ongoing Rohingya situation in Rakhine (Arakan) – and the seeming failure of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be effective or even speak out with any clarity, about either. There seems to be a problem, and perhaps it’s to be expected, that the qualities that made her strong and dynamic as a persecuted opposition leader in a kind of internal exile are not ideal for dealing with the complex realities of ongoing politics. A leader needs people who argue and disagree with her/him, and needs wide-ranging discussion. She also needs a team to deal with the day to day practical details, handlers of various kinds. But Saw Suu apparently refuses to have handlers. And a leader needs to develop sophistication and strength in a team, so other people can carry part of the load and develop necessary skills. This also seems not to be happening.

It is heart-breaking to see how let down by and mistrustful of Daw Suu the non-Bamar peoples of Burma have become. It weakens the country.

Of course there is often let-down after the first euphoria of success or freedom or election. But this is deep distrust and dismay. It makes all of us who worry about Burma feel great concern.

So if you are interested, I suggest that you read news from the Irrawaddy and from Mizzima. Both are independent papers, published outside Burma.

I hadn’t intended to write about all this. It is a subject people talk about amongst
themselves, but not out loud in public much, not yet.

Instead I had intended to write about the people I saw today at the Haw market in Chiang Mai: the older Shan woman who works at the soup place I like, who walks awkwardly on legs a bowed from malnutrition in her childhood and yet works non-stop; the young women of various kinds in their platform shoes teetering through the market; the Muslim woman by the gate with a wooden leg and a baby, waiting for alms from passers-by without asking or even looking up; the mountain-grown vegetables green and bursting with life; the many languages, most opaque to my ear, though I recognise northern Thai, Yunnanese, other Chinese, Shan, Burmese…  It’s a rich brew, every Friday morning, this market opposite the mosque. There are stories and stories, I am sure.

And like most things in life, all I can do is look inquiringly, try to tune in, and know that all I am seeing is the surfaces of things. For each of us has our own story and perspective, and how much of anyone else’s can we hope to understand?

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