Tuesday, December 13, 2011


My last post here was from Rangoon, the day before I left the relatively easy internet connections and the noise and bustle and openness of that lively city to travel to the Inle Lake region of Shan State and then on to Kalaymyo, at the foot of the Chin Hills. IMore about those travels in a moment...

I'm back in Chiang Mia and finding the traffic very soft-sounding, as if it's purring rather than roaring. And that makes me realise how loud and invasive are the engines of the rattling and wheezing old busses and two stroke agricultural vehicles and roaring long-tail boats, and aging exhaust-spewing cars in Rangoon. You get used to the noise, the cacophany, and so it took returning here to Thailand to make me realise just how raucous Rangoon streets can be. The other thing is that people toot their horns all the time there. Here there's barely a peep, except maybe a slight blip to warn you that someone's coming through or heading into a blind corner.

But I don't really want to write about noise and traffic. No, instead I want to think about the extraordinary possibility that there could be reconciliation in Burma, a political solution to the intermittent very painful and inhuman battles that have been going on in the border areas of Burma for sixty years. How wonderful it would be to move forward from that! The human costs have been enormous, heart-breaking, not only the loss of life and the physiscal injuries, but also the loss of potential, of education and creative fulfilling lives, for the people who have been internally displaced or who find themselves living long-term in refugee camps or in internal exile along the Thai-Burma border and elsewhere.

When I was in Kalaymyo, I ran into a fair number of missionaries, from England, the USA, Canada, Korea, and from Chin State. They're all trying to convert people from buddhism, which seems wrong-headed and deeply patronising and disrespectful to me. And of course they're competing with each other for souls, which feels like some version of colonialism or business, or both. It's not an attractive picture, for sure. I was asked by one foreigner, while getting off the plane, if I was an "M". "A what?" I asked stupidly. "Oh never mind" he said. And then I realised, he was asking if I was a missionary. Good gried no! is my answer to THAT question.

The fact is that the peoples who live in the hillier parts of Burma are not Bamar and many of them are Chrsitains, converted by missionaries in the mid- and late nineteenth centuries. They include the Chin and Karen and Kachin. But the Shan (or Tai Yai as they know themselves) are mostly Buddhists. I am told by Chin people that the double strike of being Chin rather than Bamar, and Christian rather than Buddhist means that they can never advance very far in government service or even in private companies in Burma. That may well continue, of course. But what needs to die back is the opposing of Christianity to Buddhism, in any kind of good vs evil scenario. That kind of Manicheistic view does NOT help with reconciliation. And yet it's the view instilled by the Christian elements among the Karen in exile, for example.

It's hard not to demonise people and a government who have done so much damage and behaved so outrageously toward their fellow citizens for so long. But that demonising is a dead-end and not helpful.

Easy for me to say; I haven't had my village burned before my eyes and I haven't lost years in a refugee camp.

But sill, the need for a negotiated political settlement and an open Burmese society is screaming at us. The same can be said of Syria, where the government is killing and torturing its own citizens every day, trying to re-instill fear and helplessness in them.

Which brings me to the question a young Burmese student asked me when I was helping a teacher of English, the father of a young Burmese friend, to teach his afternoon class. The question came after I tried to get the students to talk by inviting them to ask me questions, any questions. At last one student asked, "what do you want to do with the rest of your life?"

It's a great question, one that I seem to have been asking myself all my life. Do we all do it? As life gets shorter, the question feels even more urgent. Not to say that it doesn't press on us when we're young. Today in a phone call from a young friend, she talked about what she'd really love to do if she were free of financial worries (if she won the lottery say). It was thrilling to hear that she knew so clearly where she wanted to aim. Because then all she has to do is aim. Yes, the question of how to earn a living while doing what she wants is there. But the vital thing is that she knows what she wants to do.

I do believe that if you engage with an idea or a project, if you grow into a clear idea of what you want to do, then you should do it, and figure out the money question later . Yes, I understand that this is a luxury and perhaps I am discussing what my kid calls "First world Problems". But I think it's important to look at these questions, be open about them and about our uncertainties. And then to forge ahead trying to do what we dream of doing.

Now to get clear about my dreams....

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