Reflections on a Journey Part III — Changed Perceptions of Burma

During the time I spent in Burma and on the border, my perception of the country changed drastically.  Much of what I leaned is likely obvious to anyone who has spent time in the developing world, or studying anything for that matter, but I think it is worth sharing nonetheless.  When our view of a problem is formed by a simplistic view of the facts, our proposed solutions tend to be equally simplistic.  If there is one thing I’ve learned, improving the problems in Burma will be anything but simple.

Information is very difficult to come by in Burma.  News tends to either come from government mouthpieces or opposition-funded news sources, which have their own biases (more on this in a later post).  As a result, I view with severe skepticism anyone who claims to be 100% sure about anything that happens in the country.  During my research, I asked the same question to many different people, with many different perspectives, and tried to put all these together to develop my own view.  I have outlined some of most significant realizations below.  Several of these warrant additional discussion, and I will discuss them further in later posts.

A smile is not always a smile

As I have discussed before, one cannot help but be blown away from reception received from Burmese people.  I was initially pleasantly surprised by the fact that, in spite of the harshness of life almost everyone I met was smiling.  As I developed friendships with many Burmese, I came to realize that the smile, while often a genuine expression of happiness, was just as often a mask for pain, sadness, or resignation.  Temper tantrums, crying, and other expressions of anger are unacceptable within the culture.  And for many, after countless disappointment, the tears have all been shed and the rage has been expressed to its fullest.  There is nothing left to do but smile.

The enigma of the Burmese smile was most clearly expressed to me during when a good friend of mine relayed her life story.  As she told me of a sister who was trafficked and infected with HIV and an HIV+ nephew who was shunned from his village, the smile never left her face.  Her tale of hardship endured by her family was interrupted by small giggles, as if neither anger nor tears could sufficiently express the depths of her emotion.

There is not always a clear line between “good guys” and “bad guys”

The Burmese army is bad.  The ethnic rebels are good.  So goes the simple narrative one encounters when first learning about Myanmar.  Then you meet the poor farming family whose son or nephew joined the army because there was no other work in the village; or the man whose sister who was going to marry a general because it was a way to escape crushing poverty.  The man who told me about his sister looked slightly ashamed as he described her new husband, assuring me that he had never even spoken to the man.  In Burma, people are sometimes faced with a decision about whether to stand up for principles or to eat, clothe, and shelter themselves.

KNU/KNLA good.  DKBA bad.[1]  Another generalization that gets bandied about amongst Burma newbies.  At first blush, this makes some sense, as the DKBA signed a cease-fire agreement with the government and started fighting against their Karen brethren.  The reality, however, is much more complex.  The KNU are mostly Christian while the DKBA are Buddhist.  Missionaries have been a presence in Burma and in the border region for a long time, offering aid and spiritual guidance.  Christian groups have done wonderful work in and around Burma, but they have also perpetuated the notion that Christian Karen are more sympathetic than Buddhists.  The fact is that while many Karen citizens applaud the KNU for their stand against the Tatmadaw, there are also many complaints regarding forced conscription into the KNLA and heavy taxes imposed by the KNU.  While I was in Hpa-An, stories were circulating about a recent sniper attack and bomb blast, one attributed to the DKBA and the other to the KNLA.  Most ordinary people I met told me that, at this point, they weren’t taking sides.  They just wanted the fighting to end so they could farm in peace.

Aung San Suu Kyi is not universally revered

There is no doubt that “The Lady” has brought much needed attention to the plight of the Burmese people.  She stepped into a leadership void, and at great personal risk, gave an eloquent voice to the suffering of a nation.  She is, at least in part, responsible for western sanctions against Burma and the attention that is paid to the country by the international community.  Within Burma, she has thousands, if not millions, of followers who look to her for inspiration.

But, that is not the whole story.  Many people I met, especially in the ethnic areas, supported Suu Kyi tepidly, if at all.  Some still blamed her father, General Aung San, both for his role in brutal attacks against pro-British Karen, and for convincing them to join the Burmans to form a united Myanmar.  Many believe Aung San Suu Kyi pays only lip service to the plight of the ethnic groups.  Moreover, many who have been active in civil society for the last 20 years, while Suu Kyi was under house arrest, blame her and the NLD for inflexible policies that have only made matters worse.

The less than unanimous for support for Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to be heard by the casual visitor.  Why?  More on that in the next post.


[1] The KLNA and some parts of the DKBA have recently reunited to fight against the Burmese army.

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