The Value of Travel...
Or Learning about Myanmar.

I traveled to Myanmar thinking that I knew a great deal about that nation. Myanmar/Burma has been cut off from most of the world for a half century. I knew about the British colonial period starting in 1824. I am familiar with General Aung San telling the British to leave and how the British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, agreed. I knew that after independence Burma did not wish to join the Commonwealth of Nations.

Clement Attlee and General Aung San in January 1947

Clement Attlee and General Aung San in January 1947

After the British agreed to leave, U Saw assassinated Aung San. The result was that it left his 2 ½ year old daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, fatherless and a country without that country's father. Then a military government took over in the early 60s. I was aware that Aung San Suu Kyi married Dr. Michael Aris in 1971 and that Aung San Suu Kyi has fought for democracy much of her adult life. She spent 15 out of last 21-years under house rest winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while living in her personal prison of her home. I knew a great deal about the 88 Uprising, Min Ko Naing, and his leadership in the protest movement.

I was well prepared to travel to Myanmar...or so I thought. While being there for nearly a month, it has taken me more than a month after returning to the States to begin the process of rethinking the accuracy of all that I thought that I knew. This is a list of my initial attempts to process and then to rectify what I knew.

Patience over impatience

I came of age in the 1960s. I was in college and graduate school during the civil rights movement in the States. We knew back then that overt racism and discrimination against blacks would end soon. It was merely a matter of time...a short time. We all knew that We Shall Overcome.

Rosa Parks started the civil right movement on December 1, 1955 and LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. Addressing explicit racism became federal laws in less than a decade from the time that Rosa Park was arrested in Montgomery. That is a short timeframe. Those involved in the civil rights movement had that mindset that things were going to change...quickly. We saw the necessity of change and knew the federal government would pass laws to deal with overt forms of racism.

However, Myanmar is different at least to this traveler's Weltanschauung. Since the British left in the late 40s, much of the time since then has found Myanmar living under a military dictatorship. They have had a series of generals running the country from the past half century.

As an American, I went to Myanmar with an impatience about change. I soon realized that I could not apply my personal modus operandi to Myanmar. What fit my Weltanschauung could not become the way everyone addressed issues related to discrimination and oppression. I am attempting to process that understanding. However, it has not be easy.

The president no longer a general

Three generals have run Myanmar since the coup d'état in 1962: Ne Win, Saw Maung, and Than Shwe. Today, Myanmar is no longer run by a general but by a president. U Thein Sein is now the president of Myanmar. Nevertheless, he was for 40-years a general. He retired and was elected the first president in March of 2011.

U Thein Sein

U Thein Sein

One thing that I learned about U Thein Sein while in country is that he is considered by some to be a reformer of sorts. Therefore, there is hope for that struggling country in Southeast Asia.

Interestingly, I also discovered that he has a heart problem. I plan to email him a link to this article along with the suggestion that he contact Dr. Marchand, my cardiologist. Both U Thein Sein and I have issues related to your hearts. In addition, I would love to sit down with him when I return to Myanmar this August 8, 2014 with Joan Baez. I told you that I am working at becoming more patient...not that I have obtained patience.

Myanmar's parliament

The parliament looks like a step in the right direction. The picture below is the Lower House of Myanmar. The physical appearance of the parliament is impressive. I am still attempting to resolve the question about how it functions and what can be decided. Having admitted that concern, I have the same concern about the US Congress. I wonder whether there are any Tea Party or birthers types in Myanmar.

Myanmar's Lower House of Parliament

Myanmar's Lower House of Parliament

Controlled demonstrations

Min Ko Naing invited me to a protest rally at Sule Pagoda several hours before my wife and I returned to the States. While the country is moving slowly to a more democratic society, there are rules regarding registering to get approved demonstrations. I have been to many of civil rights demonstrations back in the 60s. This was different. I saw only a couple Yangon city police standing around near a food stand several dozen yards from the group of protestors listening to speakers.

In addition, the police did not seem particularly interested in the demonstration. While there were many ordinary looking locals with camera and video recorders, I had both, no one really knew whether there were plain clothed police or military personnel at the demonstration. Maybe the government wanted to document who was there.

Basically a happy people

Another learning that I am still processing is that the people that I met and saw while in Myanmar were generally happy people. While they were not living in an open and free society, they were very happy and friendly. I have been in European dictatorships in the former E. Germany and Czechoslovakia. I have been in the Middle East dictatorships in Turkey several decades ago and to Egypt a couple of times over the past couple of decades. Locals and foreigners in those countries knew what was expected of them. That was not what I found in Myanmar. I took several thousands of photos and several hours of videos without any fear or without being warned by anyone.

In addition, the people seemed to enjoy foreigners. Travelers came to Myanmar and the local were interested in them as people. I came upon a group of gals sitting in front of building celebrating one of their birthdays. The gal on the right took a picture of me taking several pictures of them. They probably are still laughing about the guy taking their pictures.

Girls at birthday party

Little Girl Smiling

Family selling produce

That little girl's father is also still happy to have had me take his family's picture.

Baby and Dad

The same is true about this father, and the family below.


Working hard for their families and others

Regardless of their labors, the people are dedicated to providing for their families. They work very hard; even though on average, they make about $100 a month.

Girls selling produce


Man carring produce

In addition, the people in Myanmar want to help you while you are traveling in their country. That is impressive. They have both courage and determination, but they will go out of their way to assist foreigners. They do not begrudge their standard of living and want to help outsiders who are visiting their country. Having been helped by them, I want to return the favor by helping them.

When talking with Dr. Marchand, my cardiologist, he quoted a Chinese proverb written by Confucius, "It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop." The people in Myanmar have gotten that message.

No pain no gain. Pain is a wondrous motivator. I am far from arriving at the end of my process of understanding Myanmar, but that pain has pushed me to write this essay and will push me to continue to resolve my internal conflict. In that process, I hope that I will also help Americans and the rest of the world to assist Myanmar. I am committed to returning to Yangon and the Sule Pagoda this August 8 with Joan Baez where she will sing: We Shall Overcome.

Burma flag

Burmese independence flag

Visit the Burma Independence page to read more about this topic.

On Seeing the Light

On Seeing the Light

Visit the On Seeing the Light page to read more about this topic.