Category Archives: Burma Voices Project

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on the State of Women’s rights in Myanmar (Interview: part 3)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.



If I am a girl and I get the same score as a boy in my class, and we both apply to the same medical university, then the entrance requirement for women is higher than for men. There are so many more women at higher education institutions than men, and they want to balance it.



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Downtown Yangon, Burma (Myanmar), January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

 

What is your favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today?

Favourite thing? It is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.

Also, throughout my network if you don’t mind your age, you can influence your male friends by being professional, and by being like a mother figure (even though I don’t think I am motherly).

What are the best and worst things about the state of women’s rights in Myanmar today?

Well, the privileges that women have are different depending on social status, age, and educational background. For example, I feel that our leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, can be who she is because of her family background. Because her father was the national hero, people tend to accept her more even though she married a foreigner. People are still okay with that fact.* You can talk about constitution, but that’s another matter. In terms of general social acceptance, it is okay that she married a foreigner. It doesn’t matter much for the majority of the people, they still love her, because of the family inheritance. Whereas if a normal, ordinary person, married a foreigner, then that becomes a social problem. That would be one issue. So it depends on where you come from, and your family background and social status, and so on.

There are hidden things, too. In religion, a woman can’t actually be equal to monks as a nun. Women can’t actually go up to the highest part of the pagoda. I mean, I don’t want to say that’s the worst part, but people tend to actually forget that it’s a problem. Even religion is gendered.

Education wise, I am not sure we’re in a bad position, because a lot of the young women are very hard working and they tend to do better than a lot of the young boys. But that’s the justification for previous policy-makers creating gender-biases in education too. For example, if I am a girl and I get the same score as a boy in my class, and we both apply to the same medical institution (university), then the entrance requirement for women is much higher than for men. This is because there are so many more women at higher education institutions than men, and they want to balance it.

The entry requirements for women are higher than men, because the institutions have a gender quota to adhere to?

Yes. The woman’s test scores need to be higher if she wants to qualify for entry to the same university. Still, there are a lot more women in higher education.

There are still so many areas in which women and men are unequal. For example, in the military, there are still some positions women cannot take. That’s a societal, gendered projection of where women and men can take roles.

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These machines whirr away day and night as Pyone’s team at Virya Couture churn out unique, handmade clothing in downtown Yangon, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

What’s the best thing to have happened nationally in recent years?

Well, definitely the elections. The 2015 elections was the best thing that has ever happened. And the period following the successful election of the NLD. Because even when there was as successful election and a landslide victory in 1989-90 elections, even when the opposition party won the elections, the people in power refused to hand it over to the winning party. That created a very nerve-wracking time after the elections: “NLD won, but so what? Will they actually hand over the power?”

Well, it actually happened, and in March-April 2016, we had a new parliament, new government. Yes, there are still a lot of challenges. But still, that was the best thing ever, and there was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy. You could see the people really felt emotional about it. Its more than forty years of struggle since the military coup of 1962, and in that time we never had a majority civilian government. It’s not yet 100% civilian government or civilian legislature, but still it is really good.

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Renovations across downtown Yangon coincide with a newfound energy post-elections, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

There’s a new energy everywhere. On Monday this week , Yangon regional government transformed the public transport system. If that had been done under the previous government, there would be restrictions, it would be really resented, and people would not go out on the street for fear of being arrested. It would be a completely different situation. But now, local people are really invested in this change, they really want this transition to work. So what they do is go out there and help people, make sure people get the transport they need. There are a lot of volunteers out on the street helping people use public transport. You can really feel the commitment and energy out there.

What are your major hopes for Burma (Myanmar) for the next 5 years?

I want our country to have a working government, with the ability to deliver quality services for our people, especially for our poor people in the poorer regions. That would be one thing, because I feel that our country lacks services. Not even quality, lack of services themselves in some areas. It really is bad for some people, I feel. I hope the coming round of elections go well.

Economic development, of course. I think some parts of the country will continue with the conflict if they cannot compromise with each other and with the central institutions, but still, I think that the rest of the country will go ahead with economic activities. We’re actually going through multiple transitions now: economic transitions, social transitions, political transitions, you know. We’ve got all of those things going on. So economic development must go ahead so that people get jobs and can afford to become decent individuals with confidence, jobs and ability to earn money.

 

 

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Hands-on with Pyone at Virya Couture, Yangon, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

There will be by-elections held in April. Are the candidates going to be existing parliamentarians defending their seats? 

Yes, by-elections are coming up in about twenty townships. Some of the areas are places that the previous election did not take place because of the conflict. So with the ceasefire discussions going on, elections will happen in some parts. Other parts are holding by-elections because existing parliamentarians are now deceased, or because of ministerial appointments.

These by-elections are happening just a year and a half after the national elections. Do you think this is a positive thing?

Yes! I see this election as an opportunity for the current government in power to see and build on. For example, the Union Election Commission, can actually try and test their abilities ahead of the 2020 elections. That’s a technical point of view. But also for the NLD, to actually keep the momentum going. If, during the by-elections, they lose all the seats then that will be an alarm call for 2020. So they would at least jump and think, “ok, we’ve got to do something about this.”

November 2020 is the next national democratic elections. Here the election is always on a Sunday. There are a lot of my friends who contested for the 2015 elections, and I think a lot more will become in 2020. So, there’s a different feeling now. More competition and energy in the political system, which is great.

A lot of the foreign ministers who visit, they come and they are actually very shocked by the positivity that people have here about politics. Because we’re still very new here.


* Aung San Suu Kyi married British citizen Michael Aris in 1972, and they had two children, Kim and Alexander. This fact prevented her taking office as President of Myanmar, due to constitutional clause created by the military government in the early 1990s, stating that anyone with foreign children cannot be President.

 

Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1), ZhendeGender

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2), ZhendeGender

 

 

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.



My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can wear very vibrant colours. I think for men there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, and very colourful.



 

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Handmade clothing on the racks at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How do your fashion choices reflect who you are as a woman? 

At DFID, I quite enjoy representing my country in a foreign organization. I work in a UK aid department trying to end extreme poverty, where we deal with many different organisations and partners. Whenever we go to Naypyitaw (the capital) dealing with the government agencies, or parliament, or the election commission, then I like to wear Burmese traditional dress. That feels somehow more acceptable and proper.

For the office I wear casual western style dresses and I make all my clothes myself. I am quite petite, so I like wearing soft colours because it makes me feel like I have a little bit more volume. I tend to avoid black or any dark colours, which make me feel tinier. During the daytime, I prefer cream or white colours, which are better for our weather. And it has to be locally made cotton. The sunlight is really strong here.

For daily wear, still I like the traditional cotton, but in a freer, looser style, not flared though. I think flared dresses make you look younger, and with Asian genes you already look younger than you are. At thirty-five, I don’t want to look younger anymore.

I think I am a bit more professional, I want to wear more professional style dresses. Maybe when I was younger I would be open to wearing quite short styles. Whereas now, it has a lot to do with age as well, my taste is quite different from in my twenties.

How does wearing traditional dress change the way you feel?

Oh, it makes you feel a lot more proper. And, how do you say it, a bit more timid – is that the word? You behave more like a proper traditional lady. Whereas if I wear a more Western style, then I feel a bit more free. It definitely changes your mood and your professional feeling.

My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.

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Everything is handmade by Pyone and her staff of three at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

What’s the best thing to have happened to you in the past year?

Personally, in the past year, it was my decision to go ahead launching this business. I kind of thought that because of my full time job, and having to run this shop, I thought I might lose my balance. But actually it turns out that I really love this job and because it is my passion, I really never get tired. It’s now been four months, so ask me in another one or two years! For now, though, I really love it and I don’t get tired of it.



We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. When internationals wore my dresses, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. So some Burmese women who have seen the dresses come to have something made too.



How did you discover the gap in the market for your designs?

There are quite a few designers already doing the same thing, but in a sense they were too creative. Some people are doing haute couture shows in big cities like Bangkok, so they tend to make big gowns and showy things. But I design for daily life. It’s all about more casual and semi-casual garments, so people really like to wear them.

At the beginning I made everything for myself. I wore things to work, people started to notice and want them too. Seeing people react to the dresses I made was my market research.

I want to imagine that the business is not personal to me. Yes, I made it in such a way that people come to the shop thinking, “oh, I want to have one of Pyone’s dresses”, but I really want to change that. I want the business to be able to run even without me. So I want to build the brand beyond me, so that it goes on without me.

What challenges do you face when you’re designing for a specific person?

Traditionally in dressmaking, you do the design first and then look for fabrics, but we’re doing it the other way around. Because we’re more about using traditional fabrics, we start with fabrics and turn them into a wearable design.

Depending on the type of fabrics and patterns, we often have to negotiate on the design. For example, with strong colours we may have to tone it down a bit, or if the customer really likes a colour, but it doesn’t suit her, I may have to convince her that an alternative might be better. So we come to a compromise, then we measure and then make the dress.

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Local handmade jewellery displayed at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland


I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. It is actually true that if employers let their employees do what they are really passionate about, then they bring that energy to the day job. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now.



How does the tourist industry affect your business?

The majority of people who like my style are internationals. When internationals wear them, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. So I have now a few Burmese people who have seen the dresses and they come to have something made.

I think with tourists it is different. They want things quick, and they’ll usually just come one time. But there have been a few occasions when foreign tourists came in and then recommended us to a friend who was coming in, but that’s just one scenario.

We do have customers coming back constantly and recommending one person, then another person. We don’t do active marketing. Our marketing strategy now is all word of mouth. So, we had a few customers, friends of friends, family members, and the customer base is gradually building.

Did DFID have any doubts about you taking on this opportunity?

Some people actually warned me, like, “maybe you should not mention it explicitly”. But they do know that I am the founder and lead designer here. I decided to be frank and open about what I do and what I like doing. So I’m not a profit maximising person, you know, this is not to make a big profit or anything like that. I’m not doing this for money, I can actually survive without this income. So for me, this is about what I really want to do, a passion, and a hobby in a job. So there were a few people who, although they had good intentions, warned me not to tell anyone, not to tell the boss, but I did. And it is going really well so far.

I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. So, I think when I read tips for entrepreneurs and things like that, I kind of thought, it might not be true. But it is actually true that if employers let people do what they are really passionate about, outside of the job, then that really makes them feel happy. And you bring that energy to the day job, which is really good. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now. That’s really great.

Is the organisation supportive of you?

Yes, very encouraging. Specifically at DFID, they really want the local staff to succeed in what they do. They look beyond their service in DFID, so if someone is really keen to become a politician, they will help them to build that capacity. It’s a really helpful way of capacity building. In the end, DFID, as an agency, will have to leave the country, and then the skill set that they give to local staff and local people, will remain in the country.

What are your wildest dreams for the coming few years?

My wildest dream is the most peaceful thing I can imagine. I always wanted to have a little compound. Well, not little, just enough for me to have a green and flower-filled garden, and an ecological wooden house and just be there. It would either be in Hsi-Paw (Shan state), Kalaw (Shan state), Putao (Kachin state), or Dawei (Tanintharyi region).

 

Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1)

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Leading the Ethical Fashion Trend in Burma (Interview: Part 1)



If you have vocational skills, even when you don’t have education, you have a choice. That, for me, is a real takeaway from my life. I really want to help young women who are struggling against poverty.



Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.

Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.

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Minimal clutter in Pyone’s workspace at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

Ethical fashion is all about using locally produced organic fabrics. Pyone’s vision is classy, yet contemporary: reinventing dresses from traditional fabrics representing Myanmar’s diverse ethnicities and cultural regions. The vibrantly coloured fabrics she adores line the shop walls, while her handmade clothes hang in the window. This is what couture now means in Yangon, thanks to the spirit and sensibilities of Pyone’s brand, Virya Couture.

Pyone has been making her own clothes for years. When we first met in 2016, she dreamed of seeing her designs worn by other people. A year later she invited me to her shop, where she’s been running a dressmaking business that was burgeoning by the three-month mark. Not only is her business thriving, but she’s sticking to her guns and promoting the ethics she believes in.

Fashion, like almost everything else, is gendered. The everyday realities of this haven’t escaped Pyone’s attention: “I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave.” Wearing traditional dress, Pyone says, makes her feel “timid. You behave more like a proper traditional lady.” But that won’t stop her empowering young women, supporting the local ethical textile businesses across the country, and challenging ideas about women’s fashion in Myanmar.

Almost symbolic of the transparency of their business model, Pyone’s shop opens right onto the busy downtown street from which passers-by will pop in for a chat with Pyone and her growing staff as they work. Pyone spoke to me in January 2017 about style, supporting local industry, and how fashion meets gender in contemporary Myanmar.



Why did you decide to start Virya Couture now?

I describe myself as somebody who always needs to be on the go. Whenever I feel like I have free time I freak out a little bit and start to question things: “am I really productive? What am I doing with my time?” I was doing the DFID job for a few years before I found it a little bit repetitive. I found the work interesting, especially with the elections, but after that I questioned myself. I wondered what I would like to do in the next five to ten years, after the international aid agenda.

All the international aid organisations will eventually leave because our country will develop. The business and politics is already getting better. So I started Virya Couture, which has been what I really wanted to do since I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen – all my life really.

 

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Handmade clothing on the racks at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How can Virya Couture improve things for people in Myanmar?

The business is about the promotion of ethical fashion in Myanmar, at a very start-up level. There is a boom in the fashion industry here, which means there is a big risk of exploitation. There is a huge need for local organisations working for being ethical in the fashion industry. This is where we come in, not only in sourcing ethical fabrics and materials, but also training young women from disadvantaged backgrounds who really want to come into this field.

The skills that I got from my grandmother when I was young are very useful. My parents don’t come from well-off families, we [my parents and I] were not well-off, so I had to earn my own pocket money. Having sewing skills and a talent for dressmaking really helped me. Having vocational skills means you don’t have to rely on other people and you don’t risk getting into more dangerous professions. If young women don’t have money, they don’t have much choice and often end up as sex workers.

If you have vocational skills, even when you don’t have education, you have a choice. That, for me, is a real takeaway from my life. I really want to help young women who are struggling against poverty.

 



I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave. You can’t actually bend fully, and you have to act really feminine.



How do you choose the fabrics you wear and work with?

My favourite thing to wear is organically dyed fabric or something locally made. Whenever I travel, I look for local suppliers and local fabric. Local fabrics inspire to me, because and you know that the profits actually go to the local communities who made them. In Myanmar specifically, I tend to look for fabrics made by local women. It is always a good sign that it is directly profiting them if you see them weaving.

I have to say I like Rakhine fabrics best. Historically, there were all these Rakhine fabrics that were considered outdated, and no-one wanted to wear them. The patterns were beautiful, but the materials they used were not very good. Even Rakhine people did not wear them for some time. But with the booming fabrics industry here, it is really coming to life. Now the fabrics are very vibrant, full of symbols, meaning and cultural identity. I am half Rakhine, so I am a little bit biased. I also like Kachin fabric. It is quality cotton, the patterns are really lovely, and the ethnic sense is strong in Kachin.

I really like the dynamic, vibrant fabrics made in the ethnic regions. They are full of meanings and symbols. Each fabric has meaning tied to cultural identity and the region they live. The colours are really lovely. We turn them into classy, modern dresses. I love them.

 

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Everything is handmade by Pyone and her staff of three at Virya Couture, Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How do you handle running Virya Couture while working for DFID?

At this stage it is manageable. We don’t want to do a lot of orders, just enough to get the business going. We’re not making a huge profit, but we’re not losing money. We’re making enough to run the shop and pay the staff sufficient salary.

We only have a small team – myself and three colleagues, and someone who will come in on Friday and Saturday. We have three machines. It is very basic, so we can’t really handle a lot of orders. [Pyone laughs] I’m not in it for the money!

I tend to work on designs and patterns in the evenings, so things are ready for the team to complete the next day. I work half days on Fridays and I’m in the shop at the weekends too. To be honest, the only way I can do both and keep a clear head is by leaving my mobile phone downstairs in the shop when I go up to bed at night. Otherwise I’d never sleep!

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Two women wearing longyis walk through downtown Yangon, Burma, January 2017 © Cas Sutherland

How does clothing compound gender norms in Myanmar? Do you think traditional Longyis influence the way women are seen?

I would say that Longyis are actually good for the weather. They are quite airy, and it really suits the hot weather in Myanmar. I think that is how this style developed: the longyi for men and the longyi for women are both quite free and flowing. But in terms of the top, women’s tops tend to be a bit tighter.

Traditionally, it is supposed to be short – it should come in just under the waist. Both the tightness and the length, make you feel… awkward. And traditionally, it is not appropriate to show the skin around your belly or waist. Although in the fifties, very thin, see-through fabrics were popular. During that period it was common to see a woman’s bra through her shirt. That was seen okay during the forties and fifties. But now, it is not okay to show that skin.

In contemporary fashion, the skirt is quite tight around the bum, thighs, and hips. The normal Burmese women’s longyi is not supposed to be tight around there. It is mainly the top that is tight and restricting.

In terms of the way women behave, that top limits the way women move, and behave, and act. I feel conflicted. Yes, I love traditional style dresses, but the real traditional style is actually limiting the way real women behave. You can’t actually bend fully, and you have to act really feminine.



Read on

Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw on Developing her own Fashion Brand in Burma (Interview: part 2)

May Thant on gender roles in sex and marriage in contemporary Burma (interview: part 2)

Social taboos restrict essential elements of healthcare. Sex education, contraception, and abortion are not available from official institutions like schools and hospitals. Most families are unable to discuss such things, assuming such knowledge is unnecessary until learnt within a marriage. Young people must teach themselves about sex, turning to simple pamphlets for education and unofficial clinics for healthcare. Misconceptions about contraception and diseases prevail, and young women lie to doctors about medical issues resulting from botched back-street abortions. This is sex and marriage in contemporary Burma (Myanmar) from May Thant’s perspective.

Is sex education available before marriage? 

Yes. Not at school but outside, from medical centres. Some girls don’t know about sex exactly, and some girls read a lot and they know about it. These girls find the information in books we have about it in our language [Burmese], published by medical centres. We can buy them easily, at the bookshop. But most Myanmar girls are too shy to talk about sex.

Do parents talk about sex with their daughters or sons?

Here that would be very strange. That’s like an open type of relationship between parents and their children. But most Myanmar children don’t talk about this with their parents. They would never ask them about it. The thing is [there is no need to learn about sex before marriage because] we will know after we are married.

Is there pressure to get married?

Here, people usually get married under thirty. Some girls over thirty don’t get married, they just live with their parents and they don’t get married. There are women who never get married, who never know about sex, never have children.

They will live with their parents or family until old age.

In other countries, you can live alone when you are over 18. But here, we cannot live alone before we are married. After we are married, it is okay if we live by ourselves. But if we never get married, we have to live with our parents.

It is the same for boys and girls. Right now, I live with my aunt. My parents are in my hometown. If I didn’t have any family in Yangon I would have to live in a hostel, or rent an apartment with friends. Many people rent an apartment with friends, but only if there is no family to stay with.

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Rural woman and child in Shan State, Burma (Myanmar), August 2015 © Cas Sutherland

What kind of relationships do people have before marriage? 

Right now, the cities have many [young] couples, and many couples have sex before they are married. We are facing a problem because young adults don’t know how to use condoms, so they don’t use [protection] and the girls get pregnant. They [usually] don’t want to have children before they are married.

For example, in our society, if I got pregnant [or had] children before I got married, then I would get shame. How can I say it? I would get shame, and my parents wouldn’t call me their daughter. I would be cut off from everyone, everything, and it could affect my job too. Maybe I would get fired from my job. But most of the girls [in this situation] don’t want to have the baby, so they have an abortion.

Is it easy to get an abortion?

Yes, very easy. You don’t have to go to the hospital for it. In most of the hospitals here, they don’t perform abortions. At the hospital you have to register and things like that. But there are some places you don’t have to register and it is easy to have an abortion. Some [of these] places are not safe for your health.

The places are not like clinics. It is just… how can I say? Just a house, just a nurse doing abortions for money. [They go to] a nurse’s house, with a nurse who is not working anymore – like a retired nurse, or the nurse’s daughter [who] the nurse is teaching how to make an abortion. Something like this. They don’t always know what they’re doing.

But girls get an abortion from [these places] outside, and if it is not good for their health, like there is too much bleeding, and they go to the hospital. The doctors will scold them and ask: “why did you do this?” but they don’t perform abortions [at the hospital].

The patient won’t tell the doctor she had an abortion. The patient will just say, “I have this problem.”

Do women tell anyone if they have an abortion? 

They don’t find out. She doesn’t tell anyone. It can be very dangerous. But mostly, her mother will know. [Young women] are scared of their father, and they talk about everything with their mother. Most girls talk to their mother every day; they talk about everything together. Some mothers help their daughters to have an abortion because it affects your reputation [if people find out about the pregnancy or abortion] and the mother worries that the daughter could be poor if it affects her reputation.

Women can talk about an abortion with their mother, but they won’t talk about sex.

Yes. [laughter]

When do married couples usually have children? 

They don’t have to. [Usually] they don’t want children for one or two years after marriage. After two years, they start to have babies. Some marriages [happen] to have a baby. For example, if a girl had sex with her boyfriend and got pregnant, then her house[hold] know she got pregnant, and they talk to her boyfriend’s house[hold] or mother, like this. They get married so they [can] have the baby after the marriage. About thirty to forty percent of marriages start like this in our country.

[May laughs when I explain the phrase ‘shotgun wedding’.]

Is contraception available for couples who don’t want to have a baby?

Condoms and pills are easy to buy and easy to get. But I think some boys don’t like to use condoms, and some girls won’t take the pills after sex, because they forget or they don’t want to.

Traditionally, the wife’s role is to make the husband’s life easy. Is that true?

Men are taught that women are for sex and cooking and children. Women think they cannot find money for their family, and they obey their husband like a king for finding money to support the family.

Men always want to be higher than their wives or their children. But women are more intelligent than men or boys. Women always treat their husband like a king, and men are proud to be themselves.

For example, my grandmother treated my grandfather like a king. For breakfast, she will ask what time he wants it, and she will make sure it is ready for him when he wants. At lunchtime, it will be ready for him when he asked for it. It is the same for many other things. They make sure everything is ready for the man.

Now, some educated women don’t think like this. They can do anything like a man and it is the same for them as a woman.

Some men will not allow their wives to use contraception because they believe contraceptives have dangerous side effects.

Yes. In our country we don’t have enough knowledge about sex. Here we’re a cultural country. Many religious people don’t know about [contraception]. Some educated people will give them knowledge of sex, but they won’t accept it. They say, “it’s a very personal problem and you don’t need to talk about it in public.” Even now, it is like this.

But times are changing. In a big town like Yangon, Mandalay, and places like this, most teenagers have enough knowledge of sex and they can accept [education]. But in a small place they don’t have enough knowledge of sex. There they look down on people who have HIV and AIDS, and [doctors] will not treat these patients. They don’t have enough knowledge of the disease to know it can be contracted by other’s blood. Most people think it is only about sex, so they look down upon it.

Read on:

May Thant on Facebook trolls, gender inequality and Burma’s first woman President (interview: part 1)

May Thant works as a receptionist at a popular backpacker’s hostel in downtown Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). She spoke to me in February 2016.

May Thant on Facebook trolls, gender inequality and Burma’s first woman President (interview: part 1)

May Thant works as a receptionist at a popular backpacker’s hostel in downtown Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). She spoke to me in February 2016.

Can you start by telling me about your background?

I come from a very small town, near Yangon. After our matriculation exams, we have to go to other places if we want to continue our education. Our education system meant my options were really bad. I got good grades so I decided to come to Yangon, and attend a university here. I graduated from the Yangon Foreign Languages University, specialising in Chinese. But now I’ve forgotten almost all of my Chinese words [laughter].

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Crowds on the streets surrounding Yangon University, Myanmar, Feb 2016 © Cas Sutherland

After I graduated, I worked in a small company selling medicine for two years. I think this work didn’t improve my ability or my skills. I thought, ‘I can’t improve myself,’ during this time, so I changed my career and I came here.

[May gets up and welcomes a new visitor to the hostel.]

I’m always busy! This work is my family business. My Uncle shares the company with my boss, so I work at the family business. I really enjoy it here – I am really happy and feel successful here. I’ve been working here one year. In that year I’ve had many experiences from guests and I think I can improve my English skills here.

[The telephone rings. May answers in English and switches to Burmese.]

Do you think you will stay in this job a long time? What are your aims for the future?

Yes, a long time. I enjoy my job, for now. I’m planning to attend some more classes, like tourism, business management. I’ve already attended some classes and got a diploma. I think I will stay here for two or three years.

When I was a child, I really wanted to be an engineer. But when I finished school I didn’t want to be an Engineer. Back then I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I really didn’t know. But since working here I know; I want to be a tour guide, and I want to be a traveller.

There are many different racial groups in Myanmar. What does it mean to you to be Burmese?

It means my parents are Burmese and now I am Burmese. My grandparents are Burmese too, and my parents, and me. If my father was Shan, and my mother Burmese, I would be half blood. It doesn’t change my life to be Burmese… I’ve never thought about that before.

Most women don’t travel alone in Myanmar. How do you feel about that?

I feel many things about that. In Myanmar, women don’t travel alone, they travel with their family, and friends. They fear they are not safe to travel alone, so they don’t travel alone.

If I had the time, and enough money, I would travel alone. Because in traveling alone I wouldn’t need to discuss my plans with others; it is much freer. But here, most girls don’t travel alone. At least one or two other people go with them.

I’ve never travelled alone, but I would like to. I don’t worry about bad things happening. But I’d try to go to big towns, not small towns. Because here the men… [laughter]. Here I don’t feel safe to go to places like small villages or small towns. It’s a little bit more dangerous.

Do you feel safe in Yangon?

I feel safe in Yangon. But sometimes, at night, if I walk to my house, sometimes the taxi drivers will stop and talk to me: “Hey, girl, where are you going? What are you doing?” and I feel unsafe. But I walk quicker until I meet with other people, and I feel safe. I think that kind of thing happens everywhere.

Have you ever been threatened?

Here, the threatening is on Facebook and other [social media]. Most men don’t threaten in the outside world. It is mostly online. Most girls like posting their photos on Facebook, and some fake accounts copy their photos. People make changes using Photoshop and post them to another Facebook page. Often the pages are about naked women or something like that. Maybe the threats go further but I haven’t experienced threatening like this.

Most girls talk about this kind of threatening on Facebook. First there will be a private message, where they will discuss with each other like: ‘if you don’t give money, I will post your photos on this Facebook page.’ They threaten to post naked pictures made in Photoshop. It is blackmail. Sometimes they don’t want any money and they just post the pictures.

It is always someone they already have in their Facebook friends. Here, Facebook is very popular, and people think you can make friends very easily on Facebook. If you don’t know him or her outside, you just make friends on Facebook. Many people make friends on Facebook and never meet in real life. Facebook is very new here, maybe a year or a year and a half.

People use Facebook for online dating, too.

Yes, that is common. I really, really don’t like it. Because we don’t know about him or her exactly, it is not safe. It seems like Facebook is less safe than outside on the streets. [laughter]

What do you use Facebook for?

Yes. I use Facebook for information. Facebook is mainly used for work or political and economic information. So I use Facebook for information about our country and some facts about travelling.

Do you feel safe when you use Facebook? 

No. But I only accept friends I know in the outside world; I don’t accept others I don’t know. I use Facebook very little. I normally don’t use Facebook, I just use Instagram because I like photography.

When you speak to people face to face, do you feel comfortable to say anything you want?

Here, it depends on our culture; we can’t always talk freely. For example, if you’re older than me, if it is just you and I, I can’t speak freely to you. It depends on your age. Younger people have to give respect to older people. We can’t speak freely to anyone we want. If you are younger, I don’t need to worry. I don’t need to give so much respect to you, so I can say what I want.

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Open air bookstores abound in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, Feb 2016 © Cas Sutherland

There are lots of differences between men’s and women’s lives. How has your gender affected your life?

Yes sometimes I think about gender, the gap between men and women. Sometimes if I want to travel to other places but it is not safe for travelling alone, women traveling alone, but for men they can travel alone. So I want to be a man.

Here, men’s lives are different from women’s.

Men are taught that women are for sex and cooking and children. But now, some educated women don’t think like this. Those women can do anything like a man and it is the same for them as a woman.

The majority of students at Yangon University are female. But it is harder for a woman to get a good job because everyone looks down upon women. They think women can’t do some jobs, that men can make decisions, women can’t.

There are some jobs that people say: “women can’t do that,” like driving and business. Very few women are engineers. There are big companies where the general staff are all women and the managers are all men. Women do accounting, though, mostly.

Teachers, accountants, they are mostly women. Most doctors are female, because they get better grades in high school so they had the chance to attend medical university. Most girls in our country are very hard working and they get to attend the medical university. But after they graduate they don’t want to be a doctor because the government will send doctors to really rural areas and they don’t want to go there. So after they graduate they don’t work as a doctor. They only want to work in this area, around Yangon.

They will go if it is Ayarwaddy region, Bago region, like this [near Yangon]. But they don’t want to go very far away. Some girls go to other places, but most really don’t want to go to other places like Rakhine and Chin States. They fear it is not safe to go.

Aung San Suu Kyi won the election last November. What are your hopes for the future of the country?

Now, the government has changed and this government really supports education and training. Maybe children can improve their skills. Aung San Suu Kyi really supports education: she will start by changing the education system. I voted NLD [National League for Democracy] in November. She’s the first time we’ve had a woman in power. We hope she can become president; our first woman President. She is a very good role model, especially for women. Most people love her, very much.

Some people love her because she’s Aung San’s daughter. Most people love her because of what she’s done. If she were someone else, she would still be successful. In my opinion, I don’t care about who she is, because it depends on what she’s done. She has a lot of experience and we trust her, because of what she’s done. She is now over 70 and she could rest at her age. But she doesn’t rest, instead she does so much for our country. She is not going to give up.


In part 2 of my interview with May Thant, we discuss sex, taboo, marriage and gender roles. Coming later this month.

This interview was conducted as part of a larger project named Burma Voices Project: Women of Burma, which began in August 2015

 

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.

Open Mouths: Free speech in Burma?

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

Woman and child in downtown Yangon
Woman and child in downtown Yangon

Pausing at a busy junction in downtown Yangon as I wait to cross, a heavy bag on my back, an older Burmese woman mutters under her breath telling me it is safe to cross. The midday heat has begun to settle in the gaps in the traffic and will not lift until the daily downpour around four. The woman walks deliberately slowly but is evidently still close enough to me when we reach the curb opposite to continue the conversation. My impulse is to speed ahead but she isn’t finished with me yet. So, I slow my pace to match hers as she tells me that I must be surprised her English is so good because I have met so many Burmese people who cannot speak proper English. She continues: 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 [1]. They do not learn good English, my companion assures me. Even the doctors here do not speak English; if you explain your symptoms in English – which is a more appropriate language for medical issues – they will complain and presume to charge you the “international price”, a high rate in US Dollars, not Burmese kyat. The woman explains: 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). When she grew up, the British education system was still in place – that is the reason she speaks English so well [2]. But now, only private international schools 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.

Aung San's image hangs in a restaurant at Setse, Mon State
Aung San’s image hangs in a restaurant at Setse, Mon State

When my talkative new advisor shares her political views with me, I don’t have to ask who ‘she’ is; 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 seems, is all anyone can think about in Burma. ‘If they let her in, there will be changes. If not, things will be stable.’ Like her father, Aung San, once was, ‘she’ is the vehicle of hope that carries Burma ever onward to the upcoming November 8th election.

With that, this loquacious older woman turns left down a side street going south, muttering goodbye as she walks. I have barely uttered a thing but small signs of interest and encouragement since we crossed the road. I didn’t even get her name. Though I am desperately trying to remember every word this stranger has shared, I am not surprised by the sharing itself. In fact, I have found openness is a vital element of Burmese social interaction. My time in Burma quickly taught me that people are ready to talk. People have long been ready to talk. They just have to meet the right audience.

This encounter enabled me to understand what I had already been hearing, and pushed me to be there to listen at a time when Burmese people were ready to open their mouths.

‘If NLD wins, freedom of speech begins. If USDP wins, we cannot do anything.’[3]

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A youth hostel in Hpa-An shows support for NLD

Koko was the first person to tell me this, though I heard the same views countless times afterward. Out walking in the hills east of Inle Lake, the pouring rain, biting mosquitos and churned-up mud (we followed a herd of cows along this road) were not enough to distract us from our topic. I learned more about contemporary Burma from my trekking guide over two days than in anything I’d read. The fifth son of a local tomato farmer who died almost a decade ago, 21 year old Koko has never left the Inle Lake area. His move to Nyaungshwe a little over two years ago was the first time he’d ever lived on land. (Tomatoes are grown in floating gardens, houses are built on stilts over the water, and boats are the sole means of transport.) Having worked in a hotel for two years, he began to study English in April 2015, around the time he became a trekking guide and began spending more time with foreigners. He was as eager as I to learn from our exchange, so I taught him new English vocabulary as he enlightened me about Burmese politics. He shared what he has gleaned of the Burmese electoral system and politics. Apparently, every time Myanmar has an election the government gets to decide what that means, and how it works, and people then need to be educated if they are to stand a chance of effectively participating. [4]

First, he explained that votes (for a chosen party, rather than a specific candidate) are cast at monasteries. As far as he knows, monks do not or are not allowed to vote; monks (a huge percentage of Burma’s population) remain impartial. Perhaps this impartial group counts the votes? It is not clear to Koko who counts the votes or how the monks are involved [5]. He observed that the ambiguity of the system is one way the USDP maintains significant power in modern Burma, despite the semblance of democracy in which a huge percentage vote against the USDP. Secondly, while four of us slide and stumble down a steep muddy riverbed, Koko explains the relationship between family and politics in Burma. Family members usually vote the same way; young people, able to vote at 18, generally follow their parents voting tendencies. Very rarely do people vote differently from their family – if they want to, the individual will try to persuade the family of his or her reasoning, explaining their motives for this choice, and vice versa. The family will try to come to a resolution by which every family member will vote for the same party. If they cannot, there is no pressure against voting differently; we vote for whoever we want to win.

Why stay silent?

Talking about voting preference usually stays within the family, or perhaps as far as the extended family or close community members. It is dangerous to discuss political matters with anyone you do not know well because there are government spies who will infiltrate communities or small villages, gather information and report names to government officials who will deal with opposition voters or troublemakers as they see fit, Koko tells me. It can be extremely dangerous to speak openly in public.

Several famous Burmese comedians have been arrested, forced to work in labour camps, and imprisoned or put under house arrest for vast stretches of time – from 2 months to 7 years, and even sentenced to 59 years in prison, in Zarganar’s [6] case. Why? Because comedy shows are traditionally critical of the government. Satirical comedy is at the heart of Burmese entertainment shows – all-nighters that include the entire range of acting, dancing, music, opera, and end with comedy shows at 5am – but their farcical depictions of government officials have landed several comedians in deep trouble. Although they know the danger intimately, their livelihood depends upon the right to free speech, which holds a major position in their jokes:

In need of dental care, Mr Moustache leaves his home in Burma and crosses the border in order to see a dentist in Thailand.

Dentist: Don’t you have dentists in Burma?

Moustache: We do, but we are not allowed to open our mouths!

The Moustache Brothers were once a trio (two brothers and their cousin), who were known for their traditional A-Nyeint [7] comedy shows. Two were imprisoned for a stretch of 7 years as a result of a well-attended show at Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence in Yangon. One of the brothers, Par Par Lay, died in 2013 from lead poisoning – a complication relating to his long-term imprisonment after working in a labour camp. Lu Maw, the remaining brother, still shows off his fine moustache, his corpus of English idioms, and his family’s talent at nightly comedy shows in Mandalay. He is not free to perform publicly. Instead he invites tourists into his home, despite the risk it poses for his huge family who live and perform with him. For him, the danger has always been there. It will not cease to exist until those in power move over and allow democratically elected leaders into government. Lu Maw has been speaking his mind for decades. He has consistently been one of a few individuals unperturbed by the danger still alive. In days past, many voices have joined in and been snuffed out through acts of mass violence, such as the Saffron Revolution of 2007. The threat of real violence is enough to keep many people silent, most of the time. But now, mouths are opening throughout Burma.

Lu Maw on stage at his home in Mandalay
Lu Maw on stage at his home in Mandalay

Why open up now?

Koko said that he can speak freely (fairly freely) now, because there is an election coming up on November 8th. [8] The date was announced about a month before I met Koko in August 2015. Normally, though, one has to be very careful when speaking about politics.

The upcoming election is an excuse for Burmese citizens to speak freely, for a change. I saw signs outside shops, billboards in the city, and houses blaring music and displaying posters. On September 6th, exactly nine weeks before election day, political parties were finally able to campaign and so began parading through Burmese cities to rally support. The USDP volunteers were sparse and sour faced as they drove around Mandalay. NLD on the other hand, were cheery and plentiful; in each neighborhood people poured out of their homes and businesses to greet the motorcade and big bus decorated with the party logo and a huge image of Aung San Suu Kyi, topped off with resounding music and a team of beautiful dancers on the roof. Zin Mi, Lu Maw’s daughter, recounted the rallies leading up to the 2010 election [9], when her uncle Par Par Lay was still alive. In those days, the famous comedian joined the motorcade on his motorcycle, garnering support for the NLD. He told people: do not be afraid. They liked and trusted him, so many emerged to show their support for the NLD due to his encouragement. Zin Mi grinned at me with every new piece of information shared; apparently not many foreign tourists have shown a deep interest in the Burmese elections, let alone bought an NLD t-shirt. Fondly remembering her uncle, she assured me that she is not afraid.

Campaigning begins, in Mandalay, two months before the November election
Campaigning begins, in Mandalay, two months before the November election

However, many peaceful activists and human rights defenders have recently been arrested and imprisoned in the run up to November 8th. Showing no fear is not enough.

Why open up to me?

On several occasions, people asked whether I was Burmese. They did not simply ask where I am from. Instead, they wanted to know: ‘Is your mother Burmese? Your father?’ and I soon believed that I look a little Burmese. Perhaps it was just a case of wearing the right clothing (a longyi, t-shirt and sandals) and behaving modestly? While I was wearing my NLD t-shirt I got the thumbs up wherever I went – even from a security guard in customs at Mandalay airport – a sign of appreciation for the NLD. But I’m not convinced a Burmese man (for it was mostly men) would truly believe an Englishwoman to be Burmese, despite my being dark-haired and tanned. No, I believe these curious passers-by were trying to gauge their audience, trying to judge whether my apparent interest in their country rendered me safer or more dangerous to divulge honest opinions to. The bright red NLD shirt, it seemed, encouraged NLD supporters to communicate with me upon common ground: a mutual love of democracy and hope for Burma’s future.

On meeting the elder Burmese woman on the street corner, I was not yet wearing an NLD shirt, just a large, heavy backpack, sunglasses and loose trousers. It was clear to everyone around me that I was a tourist, not a local, nor was I living in Yangon. I had just arrived in Yangon and was quickly approaching my final week on a 28-day visa. I knew virtually nobody in the city, and likely had no relationship with any kind of minister or official.

Koko gave me the impression that most foreigners he’d met had not asked him about political matters. The Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar (Burma) instructs tourists to tread carefully when approaching Burmese people about political issues. Is it surprising that that wariness becomes fear under the watchful eye of the military junta? Tourists passing through can hardly be expected to put their safety at risk when they’re just trying to see some more golden pagodas. Yet this young man could hardly have been more eager to discuss details of the Burmese political system, when asked. As soon as he understood he could trust me not to rat him out to the Burmese government, all he needed was a prompt. It is clear that on the Yangon street corner, a quick glance was all that this woman needed to rest assured I was safe. Others asked whether I am Buddhist. Everyone I spoke to found an (any) excuse to begin talking with me and, later, turned the conversation towards politics.

A tourist is trustworthy; I evidently do not work for the Burmese government, nor am I a spy. It is far easier to divulge frustrations about the government to me than to another Burmese citizen; foreigners do not pose the threat of destroying Burmese peoples’ lives. [10]

In the grand scheme of things, foreigners do not matter inside Burma. But outside? Foreigners have potential for far greater power outside Burma. Tourists go home and tell the world how kind the Burmese are, how cheap their trip was and how beautiful the scenery is. All this is true. But what tourists should be telling the world is: People in Burma are oppressed and we can help.

How have people helped?

Comedians such as Lu Maw and Zarganar have gained notable international attention for decades. Their names are in Lonely Planet guides and Lu Maw relies on guidebook-toting tourists as his audience. Since early 2011, the Burmese government has shown signs of reform in international relations with the EU and UN; the government committed to releasing all political prisoners by 2013, after they had ended Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest (November 2010) and allowed the NLD to return to formal political process. [11]

Lu Maw gives a statement about the election at his home in Mandalay
Lu Maw gives a statement about the election at his home in Mandalay

Various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are working in Burma (Myanmar) and doing a lot for people’s general wellbeing, particularly in small communities, but are limited as to their influence upon the political system.

Amnesty International has been conducting research and aid work in Burma since May 2012. AI reports state that positive changes have occurred and the Burmese government have taken some steps in the right direction, but major human rights abuses continue. Their most recent report shows: ‘Despite ongoing political, legal and economic reforms, progress on human rights stalled, with some backward steps in key areas.‘ In fact, it seems that repression has actually increased in the past two years, with high numbers of people being imprisoned for exercising their rights ahead of the November 8th election.

Amnesty International is calling upon the Burmese government in a new campaign to free prisoners of conscience, launched October 8th 2015. Read more about prisoners of consicence here, about AI work in Myanmar (Burma) here and here.

Oxfam’s most recent work in Burma has been focused on providing aid for victims of the flooding in Northern Burma in summer 2015. Oxfam works to improve governance in Burma, tackle poverty in rural farming and fishing communities, and help improve women’s rights and access to leadership roles.

However, donating to Oxfam will not direct your money towards helping people specifically in Burma, as it is a major international organization helping people worldwide every day. Read more about their work in Burma here.

US Campaign for Burma, Burma Campaign UK and Burma Partnership are just a few of the smaller NGOs dedicated entirely to improving lives in Burma.

How can you help?

  1. Petition international representatives in Burma

Help Burmese voices be heard by signing Amnesty International’s petition to the European Union, UK, USA, Australian, and Japanese representatives in Burma. Click here to help free all prisoners of conscience.

  1. Write to a local representative

You may need an international organization to help you petition international representatives in Burma itself, but you can petition your local representative without a middleman. You can use the form provided, adapt it or write your own message, but make sure to include the hyperlinks therein. Scroll down for instructions on how to contact your local representative.

Click here for the form. 

Contacting your local representative:

If you are in the UK –

There are various Ways to Contact Your MP. Here’s how to Find your local MP.

If you are in the USA –

You can Contact your Representative. Or Contact your Senator.

If you are in Australia –

Search to Find Your Electorate here or Find your local Member here. Read the Guidelines for contacting Senators and Members. Also read How to Get Politicians Attention.

If you are in South Africa –

To contact your Ward Counsellor you must contact the Customer Care centre of your municipality. Ward counsellors have offices and consultation times. To contact your Municipal Counsellor or MMC, find their contact information on your municipal website (all the municipalities have websites). To contact your Provincial Counsellor (MEC) you must go through the relevant departments (e.g. if you want to contact the MEC of Health for the Gauteng Province, look on the Department of Health website for the contact information).

If you are elsewhere –

It is highly likely that you know far more about how to contact politicians in your country than I do. If you’d like my help, or if you know how to contact your local politicians and would like to see your country added to this list, please contact me.

What else can you do to help?

  1. Get informed

I am just one recent visitor to Burma with an opinion based on personal experience and what I have been told by locals. You can read more about international relations between Burma and the European Union here, and about the United Nations work in the Asia Pacific region here.

That said, the international community seems to focus on the appearance of positive change (such as the announcement of a second democratic election following 2010’s election) as opposed to the harsher realities that NGOs are focusing on (such as prisoners of conscience and flood victims).

For a reliable pro-democracy report, I read The Guardian’s news about Burma.

  1. Help others get informed

Please share this article and/or the links therein – repost on your social media pages and email all your friends. The more people understand the current situation in Burma, the bigger difference we can make to further democratic progress in Burma.

Read more:

Lu Maw and The Moustache Brothers: Skirting Comedy Limits in Myanmar on NYTimes

David Pilling’s biography of Burmese comedian Zarganar

All images taken by the author.

[1] Children trying to sell things at tourist sites opine that they cannot afford the fees for extra tuition, not the actual school fees.

[2] Burma is one of the few countries in the world where parents are more educated than their children, due to a major decline in education standards since the military government seized power in 1962 (first as State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) later as State Law and Order Restoration (SLORC)).

[3] NLD = National League for Democracy, pro-democracy opposition party founded by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988; USDP = Union of Solidarity and Development Party, headed by Sein Thein, current President of Myanmar.

[4] This autumn, the NLD began to circulate leaflets simply showing people how to ensure that their vote is counted. This included instructions on how to avoid spoiling the ballot and where they can go to vote.

[5] Monks can in fact vote. A few influential monks have drafted a bill preventing Rohingya Muslims from voting in elections and marrying Burmese Buddhist women.

[6] Burmese comedian Zarganar is famous for his satirical puns and wordplay, criticising the dictatorship. Unfortunately, the authorities know him too – of the past 30 years, he has spent over 10 in prison.

[7] A-Nyeint is a traditional style Burmese entertainment. Shows typically last all night and include a range of performances by different groups of actors, dancers, musicians, opera singers, and comedians.

[8] This is not the first election to have raised hope for the people of Burma, but is perhaps the first in 25 years that NLD have any chance of winning. The NLD won an overwhelming majority of votes in 1990, but the military junta refused to relinquish power.

[9] NLD boycotted the October 2010 general election, as Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Few were surprised that the USDP won.

[10] The stories I heard of foreigners doing real damage involved tourists reporting a stolen item to the police. Whoever is accused (it often comes back to the bus driver if the item disappeared during a bus journey) may face long-term imprisonment, despite the lack of concrete proof.

[11] Aung San Suu Kyi has held a (largely nominal) seat in Burma’s Parliament since 2012. In 1990 the SLORC amended the constitution stating that anyone with foreign children cannot be President. This ammendment was designed specifically to keep Aung San Suu Kyi out of power – she and her late British husband, Michael Aris, had two children, Kim and Alexander. They were 15 and 13 on her return to Burma in 1988, shortly before house arrest began. Aris died in 1999).