Burma Voices Project: Women of Burma

During two trips to Burma (Myanmar) in the past year, I initially felt surprised to experience widespread enthusiasm to speak openly to me, outsider as I am. The openness I was so frequently greeted with amazed me. Locals felt completely at ease about discussing the politics of their threatened totalitarian regime in my presence.

The people’s unfaltering hope and excitement were palpable as I commenced my initial trip in August 2015, arriving just six weeks after the announcement of a national election to be held on November 8th. I found myself in the midst of nation-wide political campaigns, which began just days before my visa expired. I returned in January 2016 and was in Yangon the week the new Hluttaw (national assembly) convened for the first time. Since February, newly elected President Htin Kyaw has taken office and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been granted the position of State Counsellor, the position “above” the President she had outlined during election speeches last autumn. Considering this is the first time a woman has held a position of significant power, the previous military regime having controlled the nation for over 60 years, Burma is bound for major change.

With a powerful female figurehead now at the country’s helm, it is high time for the women of Burma to come to the fore. Their unique voices can finally be heard by the international community and their previously untold stories can be deservedly shared with the world.

Thus, I am proud to announce the launch of a series of interviews with women of Burma. Numerous encounters on my travels around Burma kindled this project into existence over several months, with several individual and group interviews occurring in early 2016. However, the initial idea was sparked by two very different women, whose names I never learned and whose uninhibited conversation seemed to offer as much to them as to me.

All interviews were conducted in person, with the participants’ full consent for publication. However, the first two encounters took me by surprise. Given the spirit of the conversation, I believe they demand publishing despite explicit consent not being given. I feel it only right to honour the two women whose words became instrumental to this project. These women made it clear they wanted their voices to be heard by anybody in the international community they could reach.

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Woman selling fruit at a roadside market at night, Tanintharyi Region

Women travellers, Thanbyuzayat

31st August 2015

After a 5am motorcycle lift from the beach resort at Setse to the small town Thanbyuzayat, I learned that my bus was an hour later than anticipated. Disappointed, I found myself spending an hour consuming a Burmese breakfast of warmed but still near raw egg and strong Burma tea. I watched the daily procession of monks file through the streets collecting their breakfasts from neighbourhood women with buckets of rice. I would soon board the bus for a 13-hour ride from Thanbyuzayat to Yangon via Mawlamyine. My two weeks of solo travel in Burma were coming to an end.

Women don’t go anywhere alone.

I travelled alone. As in most places, I was warned against travelling alone. Of course, I know that travelling solo anywhere is potentially dangerous. I had travelled abroad alone before. I was aware of the possible dangers, and I felt well prepared to take care of myself. But this warning had a different origin. In Burma the primary concern was not safety but adhering to socio-cultural norms. While I was happy to follow other social rules I’d read about, Lonely Planet’s advice against solo women travellers went unheeded.

I was sitting alone on the bus somewhere between Mawlamyine and Yangon, minding my own business, when the woman sitting next to me switched with the woman in the seat in front of her. She offered me fruits I didn’t recognise and began to chat amiably, taking me under her wing, as many other women had, for the duration of the journey.

“My husband asks, ‘will you be okay, going alone?’, I’m forty-two, I have two children, I can look after myself!”

The two women were travelling together with a third who was sitting directly in front of me, but only one was confident about her English speaking ability. She was a Church minister and Sunday School teacher from Mon State, going to Yangon to visit a man from her local parish who was in hospital in the city.

It was she who brought up the problematic social expectations I had been sensed during every journey for two weeks previous. She openly voiced her opinions: Women don’t go anywhere alone. Their parents stop them. Husbands and boyfriends are just like extra parents – they worry, they want to check that you are safe. “My husband asks, ‘will you be okay, going alone?’, I’m forty-two, I have two children, I can look after myself!”

Despite clearly feeling the bounds of these gender norms, she maintained a positive view on her culture, insisting that the strong sense of Burma-wide community outweighs a feeling of restriction:

“People don’t earn very much, we don’t have money to travel, but people look out for each other, and help one another wherever they go. We are not rich in money, but we are rich in kindness.”

She had reached out to make sure that foreigners understood as much as they could of the cultures in Burma. Her words have stayed close with me ever since. They seem to encapsulate an ambiance I felt throughout my travels in Burma.

Women’s education, Yangon

1st September 2015

‘Things will only change if she wins. If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.’ 

Pausing at a busy junction in downtown Yangon as I waited to cross – a heavy bag on my back, obviously a tourist – an older Burmese woman muttered under her breath telling me it was safe to cross. The midday heat had begun to settle between the traffic and would not lift until the usual downpour around four. The woman moved slowly but was still close enough when we reached the curb opposite to continue the conversation. My impulse was to speed ahead but she wasn’t finished with me. I slowed my pace to match hers and listened.

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Girls at a monastery school, outside their dormitory room, Dawei

She told me: All the young people in Burma are getting a bad education at the national schools and are having to pay for extra tuition (with the same teacher) outside school time – a scheme deeply entrenched in the country’s economics. ‘They do not learn good English,’ my companion assured me. ‘Even the doctors here do not speak English; if you explain your symptoms in English they will presume you want to pay the “international price” in US Dollars, not Burmese kyat.’

The woman explained: This is all because ‘the education minister will not get out of his seat’ (either to do any work or to make way for a minister who will do the work, she went on to explain). When she grew up, the British education system was still in place – that is the reason she speaks English so well and is able to voice her opinions to me so plainly. Now only private international schools, which are prohibitive and exclusive through their expense, teach good English. ‘That’s why the Number One sends his children overseas, to western schools. Everyone knows he’s been putting money into overseas banks for years; he is ready to flee if anything goes wrong for him here.’

When this loquacious older woman shared her political views with me, I didn’t have to ask who ‘she’ was; she needn’t be named. She’s been on my mind constantly since I began seeing her photo pasted next to her father’s portrait or twinned with posters saying NATIONAL LEAGUE for DEMOCRACY above people’s houses, outside shops and in restaurants all across the country. Aung San Suu Kyi, it seemed, was all anyone could think about.

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The local NLD headquarters, marked by outdoor billboards and posters, Dawei Region

If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been the national beacon of hope since 1988, when she founded the opposition party National League for Democracy. Everyone knows her name, but she is often referred to as ‘The Lady’, or simply ‘she’. She has spent almost 15 years imprisoned in her own home since 1989, separated from her family who were based in Oxford, England and not granted visas to visit her.

It took Suu Kyi and her party 28 years to gain power in the national government. She spent those 28 years either under house arrest, showing support for her people’s protests against the army government or undertaking nation-wide campaigns to unite the many ethnic groups in Burma.

I sensed from context and her tone that when my new friend referred to things remaining ‘stable’, I was to infer that unchanging political leadership in Burma would mean only bad things for the education system already in dire need of alteration. Education was a primary concern many of my new acquaintances in-country raised with me, especially in early 2016 after NLD had begun to adopt political power. Many people have faith in the changes NLD will bring, but worry that things cannot change fast enough for today’s students. How the Burmese education system will develop, only time will tell.

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