“The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity. It is a struggle that encompasses our political, social and economic aspirations.” – Aung San Suu Kyi
Even from a distance, I could tell that the port town of Kawthaung would be intense. The buzz of market vendors, hustle of charlatan guides and blinding outfits of hippie backpackers broke my travel trance.
The nationals of Burma, also known as Myanmar in Southeast Asia, are a prime example of those in a perpetual state of fear, poverty and disappointment. A military dictatorship has controlled the state since the 1960’s. The ruling power has rejected the peoples pleas for a democracy; such as the refusal to acknowledge Aung San Suu Kyi as the victor in the May 1990 elections and subsequently putting her under house arrest. Suu Kyi won the Nobel Prize in 1991, yet has remained shut in by the Junta. Aung San has been released twice in 17 years (1993, 2002) only to be rearrested on each occasion. The despots have also denied their people basic human rights. The denizens have been subjected to torture, violent ethnic segregation, and most recently, were not given immediate aid from the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 134,000 people and exposed 1 million Burmese to disease and displacement.
The case for hope continues to weaken.
Despite several protests that resulted in countless deaths, the reign of the military junta persists.
Our boat approached the pier where a young man stared, like a hunter assessing its target. I was intimidated. His glare was a mix of contempt, defiance and curiosity.
He stood at about 5″4 and wore a pressed white dress shirt and worn-out, yet clean, brown slacks. I extended my arm to shake his hand, but he shot me an embarrassed look. Disfigured, like 80% of the town’s people, his right arm was twisted and shrunken, and his hand, the size of small child’s, was where his elbow should have been. I pretended not to notice. He exhaled, grinned and said: “Hallo, hallo…how are you? I am Jon.” It was not his eagerness, but his vulnerability that was disarming. I felt my face flush with the shame of my initial apprehension. “I will tour you around. Where are you from? Thai?” the gentleman quipped, in more of a statement than a question. I answered “I am Filipino.” He responded with a hearty “ah, same-same but different, no?”
He was soon joined by a friend whose wrinkles, creased brow, and betel- and tobacco-stained teeth, made it hard to believe that he was only in his late teens. Unlike Jon, this youngster had no qualms about his appearance. Wearing a simple T-shirt, a baseball cap and a cocky grin, he was the Tom Sawyer to Jon’s Huck Finn.
The four of us sauntered through the bazaar, where laborers scurried atop food trucks, merchants yelled their best prices and the roar of motorcycle engines emphasized Kawthaung’s frenetic energy. Wandering the streets like old comrades, we came across a burned-down building: all that was left was a heap of charred rubble. My friend proceeded to pull out his camera, but Jon jumped in front of him and cried out, “Sir, sir…No, no..no, NO photos! Please.” A photography fanatic, Peter* still kept trying to take his shot. With a look of pure disgust, they walked away to join the pack of lost boys loitering outside a local eatery. We had let them down.
Moving beyond the periphery, my partner and I entered the inner section of Kawthaung. The layers of dirt and urban decay gave way to family-run shops and workers going about their business. The community’s rhythm was a pleasant one. The villagers offered nothing but their sincere smiles, friendly greetings and a glimpse into their daily lives. We found ourselves peeking inside an elementary school window. No one noticed at first, but then a few children, aged eight to nine, looked out. Some whispered to their seat mates, others pointed with curious glee. My friend and I grinned and made silly looks to the stifled laughter of the students. Their faces shone with youth and innocence. It began to shower and we waved our hidden goodbyes. As we searched for cover, I took one last look at the kids, a few of whom were listening attentively, while many were daydreaming or trying to communicate jokes to their friends. I wished they could stay there forever–in a bubble of time, where their only concerns would have been fighting boredom instead of oppression, violence and poverty.
We climbed the cement stairs that led up to the gilded Stupa. Breathless and searching for the entrance, our eyes fell on a girl who stood meekly before us. Her soft round cheeks had white ash marks and she wore a long tattered cream shirt. She did not smile nor speak, but only came to hold our hands. She clutched them as though she belonged with us. With bare feet, the child took us around the Wat and back to the home of her parents. Her mother seemed overjoyed. Not at the return of her daughter, but for the potential of cash.
Rather than scolding us for being with her, the mother pushed the daughter on to us. It was time to go. As we walked away, the woman whispered something to the girl, who jumped in for an embrace. It felt pure and honest. I do believe for the child it was. We gave her a bottle of water and a hug. Realizing that we had only given water, her parents glared at us and harshly pushed the girl back inside their small cinder block house. They had expected a lot more.
A frightening thought is that the next hand she could reach out for could belong to anyone; from the 60-year-old pedophile to a member of a prostitution ring. I will never know.
Turning to take one last look at the island, I noticed the women collecting the clothes that they had laid out to dry. Intense hues of blues, pinks and crimson reds contrasted against the tiny patches of green grass. The sun was setting and the breeze began to cool. I came to understand that the trip had been one of extreme oppositions. Each person we encountered spoke for the country. Jon and his buddy were the nation’s most conspicuous victims: the decrepit, the malformed and the lost. The fledgling students gentle laughter bred a reason for hope. While the girl’s pacified voice communicated the public’s case louder than any words ever could. The ambiguity of her future is shared by the inhabitants of Burma; whose their government, like the characters of her parents, hindered progress and manufactured despair.
The land slowly disappeared as we inched closer to Ranong, Thailand, but the shadows of those we encountered grew stronger. The blood-orange dusk concluded my Burmese day, but for the people of Burma, independence seems a far away dream.
Learn more about Burma/Myanmar:
BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/topics/burma
BBC Country Profile: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1300003.stm
Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin:
Burmese Days by George Orwell
Make a difference. Help the people of Burma through these organizations:
Foundation for the People of Burma – The organization is dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to the people Burma.
Free Burma Coalition – Founded in the University of Wisconsin in 1995, the organization is pushing for democratic freedom for the country.
Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) – Formed in 1963, the DEC is a UK based umbrella organizations for 13 humanitarian aid agencies. The committee strives to raise the standards of humanitarian support.
*Originally published in Enrich Magazine (2009)