By Kenneth Wong
Born in Yangon and living in San Francisco, Kenneth Wong sizes up the reform process as it looks from a distance, facing up to some uncomfortable truths.
Under Yangon’s clear blue sky, my taxi sped along University Avenue. It was my second trip to my homeland since I’d immigrated to the US in 1989. I wanted to see with my own eyes the so-called reforms that Thein Sein’s government claimed to be implementing. Usually, mounds of trash hugged the sidewalks, fritter stands invaded the pavements, and bumper-to-bumper gridlocks snarled traffic. But not that day.
My driver U Aung Myint was a man of few words. When he spoke, he chose his words carefully, perhaps a survival skill honed under decades of military rule. He quipped, “Next time we want to clear the streets, we should just invite the American president over.”
That day – November 19, 2012 – Myanmar unveiled its new face to President Obama, the first sitting US president to visit the country. With a hasty coat of paint on Yangon University, the new government had prepared a clean-swept cityscape for the historic occasion. That was the photogenic backdrop that framed the articles that ran in the following day’sTime magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The hour of Obama’s appearance drew near. A group of young boys on the street called timeout from their soccer game to find a cafe with a TV screen; some sidecar operators huddled around a battery-operated radio to catch the broadcast. Then Obama spoke. His first words were “Myanmar naing gan, mingalabar!” (Greetings, the country of Myanmar!). He had them at hello.
I watched local schoolkids in white and green, carrying signs that read “Welcome Mr Obama!” In my Facebook newsfeed, I saw the Former Political Prisoners Association’s photos of newly released dissidents reuniting with their loved ones, smiles and tears all around. Swept up in the mass euphoria, I was willing to overlook that many of the current government were formerly generals who had signed arrest warrants for these student leaders, following the 1988 protests and crackdowns.
On the same trip, I also came across reminders of the cloistered society’s conservatism and prejudice, nurtured in the shadow of isolation. Whereas I as a man could freely go into the inner sanctums of some sacred shrines, my sister and mother were explicitly forbidden from these sections on account of their womanhood. People squirmed when I mentioned the Rakhine-Muslim conflict; they tensed up when I uttered the tabooed word “Rohingya”. But I didn’t want the soap bubble to burst. So I deferred the uncomfortable conversations, postponed the confrontations, and trusted the reform process would bring out the best in people.
This March, I saw the spectre of military rule in the police’s use of force to break up the student protests in Letpadan. One week later, three people – a New Zealander and two of his Myanmar associates – were sentenced to two years in prison for publishing a poster depicting Buddha with headphones to promote a bar. The religious hardliners who called for the prosecution of the trio were the same ones championing a bill to deter interfaith marriages between Buddhist and Muslims.
What surprised and saddened me most was reading the online comments from some of my old friends who showed sympathy – if not outright support – for the hardliners. That convinced me that I must make clear my own positions on a variety of subjects, even if doing so put my relationship with some people in jeopardy. After all, transparency is the bedrock of reform.
In the heart of downtown Yangon, glass-encased Sakura Tower overshadows Sule Pagoda’s gold-tipped spires. In teashops, cellphone-juggling teens in Mohawk cuts and skinny jeans sit next to saffron-robbed monks. The space between Myanmar’s enduring traditions and encroaching modernity is getting smaller, growing tighter. A head-on collision is inevitable. My own conscience is the battleground where the two often clash.
I grew up under Ne Win’s quasi-Socialist government in the 1980s. I had always had nagging questions about the signs marking certain sections of the pagodas off-limit to women, about the jokes we told at the expense of Hindu and Muslim kids, and about the ugly caricatures of Chinese and Indian merchants that appeared in some journals and comics. But I brushed them all aside as part of the country’s social construct, its quirks that didn’t harm anybody.
Perhaps they’re not so harmless. In the small opening provided by the reform, these attitudes found new outlets. The controversial monk Wirathu’s popularity remains undiminished even after he’d publicly called a UN special rapporteur a “whore”. His conduct is a reflection of the religious conservatism that sees women as less than man.
Aung Myo Min, who participated in the 1988 uprising as a university student, fled to neighboring Thailand to avoid arrest. His exile abroad would last 24 years. In 2012, he finally returned home and founded the Equality Myanmar network. As an openly gay activist, I knew he had to have attracted more than his fair share of ire from the hardliners. So I reached out to him via Facebook.
“I face challenges for speaking out on behalf of minority groups, such as women and LGBT,” he said. “I was attacked [in the media]several times for being LGBT and strongly supporting women’s rights, particularly against the interfaith marriage bill. I’ve received death threats on my Viber account, email and SMS.”
In December 12, 2014, issue of Aung Zeyatu journal, a columnist accused Aung Myo Min of “speaking the Devil’s words”. Using a Burmese maxim, the author described Aung Myo Min as “a blind elephant stumbling through a forest”.
In response Aung Myo Min remarked, “Some people interpret human rights as something that belongs to them but not to others – that is especially true of the minorities’ rights.”
In 2011, after spending almost two decades behind bars, my classmate Richard Aung was freed, just days before Hillary Clinton was set to arrive. Richard is now part of the Sanchaung branch of the NLD. Two years ago, when I met him again in person, I spent a memorable evening playing guitars with him in Yangon University, pretending to be our 20-year-old selves as we serenaded the hostel students in the windows.
I caught up with him on Skype last week. “Have you lost friends over your stance on religion, race, or the [religious hardliners’]Race Protection Organisation?” I asked him. He chuckled.
“I have my own convictions guiding me on those, and they’re crystal clear to me,” he said. “If some people want to hate me because they disagree with me, let them. But I must say, I have never hated anybody because of their race or their religion.”
“Do these topics tend to come up when you get together with classmates and old friends?” I asked.
“I know some friends have strong religious views. I leave them alone and they let me be,” he said. “When we get together, we talk about old times, but avoid these sensitive topics. It’s not like we made a pledge not to talk about them, but I think people realise their sensitivity.”
Richard urged me to look beyond the sectarian conflicts and see the puppet masters. “Look at the police’s show of force to respond to the student protests in Letpadan,” he said. “And look at how little effort was made to stop the violence in Meiktila [where religious riots killed dozens and displaced thousands in March 2013]. This shows you this government’s true nature.”
I also tracked down the phone number for taxi-man U Aung Myint. His familiar voice came through Skype. I asked him how he felt about the reforms.
“I’m not that interested in politics,” he said. “I’m just trying to make a living. I’ll respect whoever becomes president, whether it’s Daw Suu or some official from the current administration. If I can make a comfortable living, I can live with that.”
I had heard of the religious hardliners campaigning to boycott the Muslims in daily commerce. In the taxi community, that would take the form of stickers bearing the sign 969, which signals to the passenger that the operator is a Buddhist. Some claim the sticker is no more than a symbol, as innocent as the image of a saint or a cross. But I imagine Muslims might see it differently, because the same three digits are prominently featured at the Race Protection Organisation’s gatherings. Both Richard Aung and U Aung Myint told me they hadn’t seen Yangon taxi drivers using the sticker as means to discriminate against passengers belonging to other faiths. Still, I had to ask.
“Is there a 969 sticker on your car?” I asked, holding my breath for the answer.
“No,” said U Aung Myint. “I keep a Buddha figurine in my car. People can tell I’m a Buddhist just from that. I don’t need to hang a 969 sticker.”
I reminded him of the joke he made about the best way to clear up traffic in Yangon – by inviting President Obama back for another visit. Obama, in fact, did return for a second visit last November.
“But in his second visit, I ran into a traffic jam,” U Aung Myint revealed. “At the 8 Mile junction, I and my foreigner passenger were stuck in traffic for 45 minutes, waiting for Obama to pass.”
Myanmar is waking up from a long nightmare. The 51 million who live within it are well acquainted with the Buddhist principle of impermanence. But change is still hard. The reform brought Hillary Clinton, President Obama and Jason Mraz to the country. It also paved the way for the first LGBT film festival in Yangon; and ushered in tourists with Buddhist symbols tattooed on their limbs. Some of the country’s youth unleashed their pent-up energy during the water festival, with shorter skirts and edgier shirts each year. Some of these developments boosted the population’s morale. Others made the conservatives feel under siege.
The country’s Buddhist clergy has always held a powerful sway over the population. Its role in national politics stretched back to the colonial days; and its heroism in the 2007 Saffron uprising rightfully garnered the world’s admiration. But how will it react to the separation of Church and State, a basic rule in secular government? The support enjoyed by Wirathu and the Race Protection Organisation is significant. It suggests some in the religious community are not willing to settle for a smaller role. Quite the opposite: they’re seeking to exert more influence on secular affairs.
Some citizens, either out of disinterest or weariness, may drop out of the political process altogether, focusing instead on day-to-day survival like U Aung Myint. For others like my friend Richard Aung, the years they’d sacrificed behind bars was far too great an investment, so they must push ahead. Advocates like Aung Myo Min have a tough job ahead. He has to somehow explain to his countrymen that human rights are not a privilege but a responsibility.
It would take many uncomfortable talks: about why women should not be relegated to the back rows in shrines that hold the relics of a being who championed kindness; about why a monk’s robe doesn’t give anyone the right to incite hatred and discrimination; about why the Muslim neighbour across the street shouldn’t be judged for the acts of the extremists in the Middle East.
There are the difficult conversations we must have with our Myanmar friends, because without tackling these, the democratic reform process doesn’t stand a chance. We must have these exchanges, even at the risk of our friendship. If we don’t, we give up on the people of Myanmar.
Kenneth Wong is a Myanmar-American author and blogger who grew up in Yangon. He now lives in San Francisco, California. His essays and short stories have appeared in Grain, AGNI and San Francisco Chronicle magazines, among others.