My Days in Yangon

Burma is an emotional roller coaster. A mood swing if you will. A place where my days are often very polarizing – waffling between awe and annoyance. Most days I want to pull my hair out at the lack of efficiency and convenience. Perhaps I’ve had it too good living in Thailand all this time. Lack of telecommunications, prehistoric Internet speeds, my lack of language skills – all things one must get used to when they venture into Burma, which is not unlike time traveling back a few decades.  Yet, no one can deny it.  Something is happening here. The by-elections, the international media attention, new cars on the streets of Yangon, the easily seen and worn NLD flag. This nation is changing. Right here and right now. And it is palatable. Wearing the NLD flag a year ago was grounds for arrest. Today, you can buy NLD souvenirs on nearly every downtown street corner.  Embassies are handing out Burmese visas like candy and it seems everyone wants in. Burma may be the hot spot in Southeast Asia as all the buzz suggests – and it certainly is politically – but should we exercise some caution rather than just showing up to feel as if we are a part of something cool?

The facts:  Hundreds of political prisoners have been released.  Yet hundreds remain detained.  Media access and the censorship board have loosened their firm grip but they still have a grip.  The NLD now occupies 41 of the 44 seats contested during the by-elections.  That’s a triumph for Burma and the NLD but there are  a total of 663 seats in parliament – most of which are still occupied by the military government. President Thein Sein is engaging in peace talks with ethnic minority groups yet ethnic violence ensues in Kachin and Rakhine States. According to the CPI, Burma still ranks as number three on the list of most corrupt nations in the world.  First and second place go to Somalia and North Korea respectively. Multinationals are vying to get their hands on Burma’s mass of natural resources – General Electric, Chevron and Coca Cola are already signing deals.

Where Burma goes from here is undetermined.  Should the West proceed with caution?  Hell yes.  Does a 60-year-running military regime metamorph into a democracy overnight?  Impossible.  Should we be cynical of “development” and “aid” and who that will ultimately impact and benefit?  I think so. Does Burma need improved infrastructure?  You bet. Does Burma need job creation?  Absolutely. Does international development ensure the local people in marginalized communities benefit?  No. In fact, every local person I talked to said they haven’t felt any changes in their personal lives since the by-elections and subsequent reforms. But we can’t also ignore the positive gains taking foot. Make no mistake, I’m no expert on Burmese issues and I may be cautious and cynical but there are incredible things happening in the Golden Land.

On May 17, I attended two back-to-back events in Yangon.  I’d been in the city for exactly one week.  The events that took place that night will go down as some of the most memorable I’ve had in Southeast Asia in all the time I have called this region home.  And that’s saying something.  First, was an NLD photography exhibition held at the French Institute and attended by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself. The exhibition featured several photographs of the Lady and her party touring Burma prior to the by-elections in April. There were photos of the Lady throwing flowers to throngs of supporters; photos of monks waving the NLD flag; photos of convoys cheering in support – all of the images showing the nation’s continued and unwavering support of their beloved icon. Perhaps more amazing than the photos was the presence of the Lady herself.  She didn’t stay long but the fact that she was there speaks volumes to her dedication in attending a rather small, local event in light of the excitement that has become her life of late.

The second event of the night was held at Excel Tower Hotel. A gathering in celebration of May 17 – the International Day Against Homophobia.  The ballroom was packed with what must be Yangon’s entire LGBT community.  Young gay couples, middle-aged transsexuals and a VIP row of homosexual elders – the event was the first of its kind ever to take place in Burma and ever in Yangon.  Homosexuality in Burma is not nearly as accepted as it is in neighboring Thailand.  I forget that most mainland Southeast Asian countries are not as open to flamboyance and queerness as the Kingdom is.  I forget that not every culture has third gender that has, for the most part, become a part of mainstream society.  The gathering was a lot like an indoor Pride parade without the actual parade.  I was one of three white Westerners in attendance .  Posters lined the walls stating in English:  Homosexuality is not a disease.  There were speakers, performers, a drag show and ultimately a spirit of solidarity.  Although I do not speak or understand Burmese, the message was clear.  We are here.  We are queer.  We are gathering for the first time.   It was beyond incredible.  It was electric.

Thank you Burma.  I may call Thailand home but my eyes are always watching you and I will continue to engage with your citizens and work to promote human rights in your nation.  Su su!

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