Category Archives: Politics

Lijia Zhang on gender, China’s sexual revolution and prostitution in contemporary China (Interview: part 2)

My grandma was a prostitute-turned-concubine; my mother a frustrated worker and victim of the political campaigns; and myself a factory-worker-turned writer, making the best out of new opportunities. These stories illustrate the changes Chinese women have gone through.

Lijia Zhang is a role model for women across China and worldwide. Zhang’s mother dragged her out of school, sold her textbooks and forced her to take a job at a factory making missiles capable of reaching North America so she could contribute to the family income. Watching her dream of studying at a university dissolve as she spent her days checking pressure gauges among a roomful of condescending older men, she may have resented her position but Zhang knuckled down to work nonetheless. Frustrated by her limited opportunities as a young woman in a male-dominated industry, she taught herself English and got a degree though the factory programme. That was just the start; her determination and courage never failed.

lijia-paintingYears later, Zhang is an internationally renowned writer and public speaker, known in world media as an expert on China, and one of the few (“probably the only”, she says) Chinese writers writing in English actually living in China. To many of her readers and listeners, China may be a far off place. But for Zhang, it is her background, home, and her every day reality. Her presence is a vital sign: she hasn’t given up on China. She is still here, speaking, writing and fighting for what she believes China needs.

A proud women’s rights advocate, she has become an regular speaker at Beijing’s Literary Festival, held every March at The Bookworm in Sanlitun. Her most recent appearance last Saturday was tainted by the absence of fellow speaker and LGBT activist, Xiao Tie, who was turned away by Beijing police at the door. Talking about women’s education, sexual autonomy, and China’s new anti-domestic violence law with Australian historian Claire Wright and British reporter Bidisha, Zhang acknowledged that Xiao Tie’s detention demonstrates the ongoing need for a strong feminist movement in China and the imperative demand for greater women’s rights.

Zhang has two teenage daughters, who live with her in Beijing (the elder attends university in England) and have utterly different lives from her own. Zhang says she sometimes finds it hard to understand what drives her daughters, unable to assimilate her own poverty-stricken upbringing in Nanjing with their privileged cosmopolitan lifestyles, rich with opportunities she didn’t have. Nevertheless, the open-minded relationship she describes makes her seem like a pretty cool mother to have.

Part two of the interview explores themes of gender, sexual freedom, China’s sexual revolution and Zhang’s upcoming novel, Lotus, about the life of a sex worker in contemporary China [excerpts from Zhang’s first book, Socialism is Great!].

Freedom and Sexual Freedom

Do you think your opportunities are restricted by your gender?

I can say that in the factory, for women it was a lot more difficult. The higher you go the fewer women there are, which is one of the reasons that made me interested in writing about women’s and gender issues. Women’s position in society really tells a lot about what’s going on, how civilized the society is.

You wrote that your mother never explained periods, pregnancy or childbirth to you – she said that you were born from her armpit.

I guess being born from an armpit sounds more acceptable, less embarrassing, than being born from a vagina!

[excerpt] No one in my family ever mentioned the word “sex” or even implied it. When I was little I once asked my mother, “Where was I born from?” She said it wasn’t the sort of question for a child. I insisted, so she replied that I was born from her underarm, the same answer many of my friends heard from their parents. Underarm? How bizarre! There did not seem to be a hole there.

How do you think being sheltered affected your development into adulthood?

It means I wasted less time on my looks. You know, we were self-conscious about the body, but we didn’t have makeup, so we wasted less time on it. My daughter is so different! She is very beautiful and she is aware of that fact. We were just traveling in Ethiopia, a poor country, and even traveling in public on the bus she was putting on makeup, on the bus! Whenever I wanted to take a photograph, she said: “No, I don’t want a photograph. I haven’t got any make up on.”

Your early relationships with men seemed to be a catalyst for you dreams of escaping factory life in the 1980s.

That hasn’t changed. I still like a clever man. For me that’s more important than looks. I’ve always been conscious of my being uneducated, so I always find an educated man, an intelligent man, attractive.

But if anything has changed, I place a lot more emphasis on how they must be nice people. I will not go for a man who is successful and clever, but not nice. Unfortunately, a lot of successful men are not particularly nice! Their focus on themselves and self-absorption gives them the drive to go far.

What is the link between your sexual awakening and your ambition?

It was all part of the rebellion. I was willing to be different, willing to try new things, and wanting to expand my world and life experience. In many ways I think I haven’t changed that much. My situation in life has changed, but fundamentally I think I haven’t changed.

How have attitudes toward sex changed since your life in the factory?

Oh, changed dramatically. I spoke with famous sociologist Li Yinhe recently. She conducted a survey in 1989, and some 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. Now very few people will have no sexual experience by the time they get married. So there’s been a huge change.

Could you give me some idea of how official attitudes and peoples’ personalattitudes toward sex compare?

One reason that a so-called sexual revolution has taken place is that the authorities have retreated from people’s personal lives, sex life included. When I first went to the factory, there was a scandal. A married man and an unmarried woman were discovered having an affair in my mother’s workshop. The couple got caught and the man was sent to a labour camp for three years. The woman was more or less ruined, I think she tried to commit suicide. So in the 1980s it was a big deal. Now it is no longer a big deal. Certainly the authorities are still urging people to stay loyal to their partners, but [infidelity] is tolerated. That is an area the government no longer try to control.

Having said that, it’s only tolerated as long as you don’t go over the top. A professor form Nanjing – in many ways a nice man, a good professor who looks after his mother – was organizing orgies. That’s not allowed. So this area is not completely left alone.

Has positive change been seen in the availability of sex education?

No, there’s not enough. While sex before marriage has become commonplace, there’s not enough sex education, especially among the rural population. There’s a standard example: when a couple get married and the woman could be getting pregnant, they’ll be given condoms and someone will demonstrate by putting the condom on their thumb. So the woman will still get pregnant and they’ll say, ‘Oh, how did you do that?’ They put the condom on the thumb.

Sex education is supposed to be part of the curriculum but it is not strictly implemented. So on one hand, there’s this explosion as the divorce rate is increasing, abortion rates are rising and STDs have rocketed. But on the other hand sex education is totally lacking.

What about women’s access to contraception and healthcare?

It’s quite free. But people don’t know how to use it, because at school, there’s not enough education.

You describe going for a backstreet abortion and having to keep it secret, even from your mother. How would you feel if one of your daughters were in a similar situation?

We just talked about this when we were just on holiday and they laughed. Both of them became sexually active at quite a young age. I remember one year, I think when my older daughter was fifteen or sixteen, I wrote her a letter to tell her not to: ‘Please don’t start your sex life too young, I think once you do that it may generate emotions you find difficult to deal with, but if you have to, then use contraception for goodness sake.’ She hugged me but she hinted that by then, she’d already done it. That’s the norm. I think it’s just peer pressure in some ways. If you haven’t got a boyfriend, you’re not successful. It’s so stupid.

How do you as a family compare to other Chinese families?

Oh, we talk about this stuff. Yes, we talk about sex. But, it’s quite funny. My daughter said, ‘of course, by the time you wrote me the letter, I knew everything.’ Because they have access to the internet and pornography.

Just thinking about my daughters, they seem really immature. My elder daughter is nearly nineteen. She has no sense of money, but she is smart in so very many ways.

Do you think you were like them at their age?

No. We always had so little food; maybe they have had things come too easy for them. Whenever my mother came back home, we were always thinking about whether she had enough to eat. My father was very selfish and we never liked him very much.

I just had a conversation with my daughters, you know they are so vain. For me, more than anything else, I think they must be good, decent human beings. But they are a bit self-absorbed, a bit selfish I think. Maybe it is just a generation thing, I don’t know.



Your new book, Lotus, is about a sex worker. Why did that idea arise?

Before she died, I discovered my grandmother was a sex worker. She was an orphan and sold into a brothel. She met my grandfather on the job and then became his concubine.

How much did you learn from her about that part of her life?

Not very much, but my grandmother was a very important person to me, somebody that brought me up. You wouldn’t imagine that she was a concubine, but I am curious how she coped, and what her life was like. My grandma’s story inspired it but I didn’t know any details.

Later, one year when I was in Shenzhen for work, I was staying at a hotel and my hair was dreadful, so I went to get a haircut. The women just giggled and said there was only one person who knew how to cut hair and that person was not around. Then I saw that there were no hair shavings on the floor. So I just looked at them all, wearing very low cut dresses.

Have you unearthed anything that’s brought you moral quandaries or personal danger?

No, no personal danger. But I discovered that many people have the same fantasy. People ask me: are these prostitutes beautiful? They’re just normal women – some are ugly, some wear more makeup, they wear more revealing clothes, but they are just normal women.

Their lives are very complicated. All the prostitutes I have met help their family. It is out of obligation but it also makes them feel good. They know prostitution is wrong so they argue, ‘look I’m helping my family, you cannot say I’m a bad person.’ Also, because they have money, they improve their position in the family, who are proud of them, which gives them a lot of pleasure.

I stayed with them, those prostitutes. I was really interesting. I asked one woman, ‘what’s your favourite [food]?’ and she said, ‘toast on jam.’ She had begun to experiment with things; in the village you would never have heard of such things. I went to see her mother. I asked her what to buy for her mother, she said, ‘buy something my mother hasn’t tried.’ So this was all part of her trying new things. I bought her mother a durian.

Why does the world need to know about China’s sex workers?

Prostitution is just a device, a window to show the tensions and the changes. You can pack in so many important issues: migration, women’s position, the gap between city and rural.

What challenges did you face when researching Lotus?

Part of the biggest challenge is their life is so far removed from mine. One of my friends said: ‘try and work as a prostitute, you can satisfy your sexual needs, and you can make some money, and do your research.’ Imagine, if I had to work as a prostitute! I know I have lots of choices in life, so it’s difficult to identify with their life.

They’re just humans, they’re very complicated. I really had lots of fun. They talk a lot about breasts and some of them have implants. One woman’s implants go sideways! You know, just awful. Before they are successful [with a client] they often go to the back room – they really compare their breasts!

I went to another of the prostitutes’ home to visit her family. She had become quite successful, she had bought her family a flat and she no longer lived in the village. She went back because she was supposed to be sweeping the tomb for her stepfather and when she arrived she put on high heels. High heels! When we were walking to the mountain she was wearing high heels. To show [her change in status].

Sounds like you quite enjoyed that process.

Of course, yes. But it took me so long! I worked as a volunteer, distributing condoms. If we hadn’t met, how could we have language, what would we talk about? If they’re not in my life, it would be difficult to imagine. So many small details in the book are real.

Lijia Zhang’s novel Lotus will be available in 2017, published by Henry Holt & Co.

Read on: Lijia Zhang on ambition, writing and her public role in contemporary China (part 1)

Excerpts of this interview were published on Caixin in February 2016. Check out my Caixin debut here: Redefining the China Dream.


Are you proud?

My friends and I outside the embassy in Seoul

This photo was taken three and a half years ago in Seoul, South Korea, on the last day of a month-long protest. We had our blue and red signs printed at a little shop near Korea University in Anam, where we were all studying for the year. They read:

The world is watching; are you proud?

We were protesting the repatriation North Korean defectors. For months, my friends had been teaching English to North Korean students who’d made it, somehow, to Seoul. We’d learned about the famine and poverty in North Korea. I’d seen a tiny glimpse of it for myself at the Joint Security Area, on the 38th parallel – ie. the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). My friends saw South Korea as a benevolent, faultless player in this and the USA as their ally, while surrounding socialist states were the big bad wolf.

We made little difference to the protest. It had taken us so long to find that we only made it for the final few hours. The whole thing was already on the Korean news – several people had been sitting in a tent outside the embassy for weeks, there were people on hunger strike, and suddenly four white foreigners show up? We did get our faces and voices on the news, little clippings of interviews in English, that many people probably didn’t understand. We were just the token white people (hopefully) adding a minor spike to the viewership on this story. We heard nothing of it after that, and we all left the country a month or two later.

Now, I only hear North Korea mentioned for two reasons: 1) A few of my new undergraduate students speak Korean because they are from Northern Chinese towns very close to the border; 2) Ex-pats who work here semi-illegally have to go on regular visa-runs outside China, and Pyongyang is quickly becoming a cheap and easy option.

It is not as though the danger has gone away. But, rather, information about North Korea is restricted to propaganda. The communist dictatorship seems to have begun to think about how the rest of the world views North Korea. I wonder if our views of North Korea will change?

Sarah Silverman’s recommendation to Lenny: Lady Parts Justice

I’m a Lenny subscriber. So I’m treated to intelligent, witty, Feminist writing at the end of every week, when I need it most. Lenny’s weekly letter picks me up just as my Friday evening is setting in (I’m 13 hours ahead of NYC). On the way home on the Beijing subway after 7 hours of teaching last Friday, I scrolled through my emails with one hand, the other gripping the bar overhead and my bag sat on the floor as I overheated in the crush of people.

I was sufficiently distracted from the morass of warm bodies around me that I almost missed my stop.

The first piece last week was Sarah Silverman’s interview for Lenny, by Lena Dunham. Silverman is awesome. As is Lena (I’m going to call her Lena because I want to be her Bee-Eff-Eff. Lena’s the reason I signed up for Lenny, but I’ve stayed for the content). Silverman’s comment, “I lead with my thighs” has stuck with me for days as I strutted around feeling powerful in tall leather boots this weekend.

The big recommendation I took from Silverman was a mention of Lady Parts Justice:

L: What is a moment of overcoming the patriarchy that you have witnessed or taken part in this week?

SS: Lizz Winstead, who started Lady Parts Justice (and the Lady Parts Justice League), made an app called Hinder that looks like Tinder but presents/exposes politicians who are anti-choice. It’s satirical and informative and brilliant. She is an unsung hero of feminism who works tirelessly, and I love her.

I immediately looked up Lady Parts Justice and immediately enjoyed what I found there.

Yes, these interviews are parodies (just listen to the names of the businesses), but that doesn’t mean this kind of thing isn’t actually happening in employee healthcare plans across America. Women’s reproductive rights have long been under fire, but since the Hobby Lobby decision, a woman’s body is all too often subject to her employer’s religious beliefs. The combination of humour and political issues simply makes it even more potent.

The front page gives you 5 reasons to join Lady Parts Justice (LPJ):

  1. Because women decide elections and if we get together, blow this shit up in a smart and funny way, we just may be able to get folks to sit up, take action and reverse this erosion of rights.

  2. Because neanderthal politicians are spending all their time making laws that put YOUR body squarely into THEIR hands.

  3. Because extremist goon squads exist in EVERY statehouse in America and are sneaking in tons of creepy legislation. We’re staying on top of this shit so you can stay on top this shit.

  4. Because you use birth control.

  5. Because you like sex and it’s not all about having babies. Think about it, if it were there would be no room to stand.

If that’s not enough to convince you, try this:

Sarah Silverman’s got it down! Again, humour and politics combined with just a hint of satire. I genuinely think LPJ could make a huge difference to the lives of American women, and, later, women around the world.

As Silverman mentioned in interview with Lenny, Lizz Winstead and LPJ have just released Hinder – an app that looks like Tinder that exposes American politicians who are anti-choice. Check it out:

So, of course, I immediately downloaded Hinder. Unsurprisingly, Hinder hasn’t branched out into Chinese politics just yet… but if I weren’t already excited about my first trip to the US this summer, this has got me bouncing in my seat. I can’t wait to use it.

Read on

In reaction to Hobby Lobby: On Choice, Contraception and Woman Power

In reaction to media sensationalism surrounding abortion: ‘If you got a bit ol’ butt? Shake it’ Nicki Minaj’s abortion

Aung San Suu Kyi wins Burma (Myanmar)’s landmark election with overwhelming majority

I can barely believe this is true!! I had hardly dared hope this would really happen, but Aung San Suu Kyi has won a huge majority in Burma’s elections held last Sunday.

Election commission says National League for Democracy has won staggering majority in parliament, ending decades of military dominance

Announcements of the results have been eeked out over the past five days, slowly allowing a positive picture to emerge but preventing outright celebration of the NLD win. Despite speculation that the slow release of results might foreshadow some kind of trick played by the ruling party, the final result is undeniable. The NLD successfully won more than 329 seats of the 491 contested seats (67%), thereby holding a majority (the Burmese military or Tatmadaw automatically hold 25% in accordance with a constitutional amendment). Unless these numbers are wrong, that means only 8% of the vote went to the USDP and minority parties combined.

Image via © Mark Baker/AP
Image via © Mark Baker/AP

Although Aung San Suu Kyi is banned from the presidency under an army-drafted constitution, her party will now be able to push through legislation, form a government and handpick a president. 

The ruling party have given every indication that they accept these results and will facilitate the hand-over to NLD gracefully. The President’s spokesperson announced on Wednesday that the USDP intend to “obey the results”, and Min Aung Hlaing, Burma’s commander-in-chief, sent congratulations.

US President Barack Obama called Aung San Suu Kyi to congratulate her earlier today.

This is really happening!

Read on

Open Mouths: Free Speech in Burma

Other sources:

The Guardian: Aung San Suu Kyi wins Myanmar’s landmark election

The Guardian: Aung San Suu Kyi plans to lead Burma (Myanmar) if her party wins election

Burma (Myanmar) elections: The day after

The positive news this afternoon came early: some say
The positive news this afternoon came early: some say this was a misinterpretation of the ruling party chief conceding his own seat.

At five past three (China time) today, I saw some fantastic news, via the Guardian’s breaking news app:

Myanmar elections: ruling party concedes defeat to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party

This was the best news I could possibly imagine. I shared it. But I knew it was too good, or at least too fast, to be true. Many sources said there may be no finalised results for weeks after yesterday’s elections. Unless the USDP, the ruling party that seized power in 1962 in a previous incarnation, had decided to throw in the towel and simply hand the reigns to the NLD? For some reason, I had doubts about that.

NLD voter’s finger dyed with indelible ink © Chit Mwaye (via Facebook)

Since this announcement, many have speculated that this was a misinterpretation. The ruling party chief may have simply conceded his own seat. Although perhaps this reinterpretation is one way of saving face for the party as a whole? Reuters reported that acting chairman Htay Oo literally said “We lost” in an interview today. The Guardian later reported him saying, that the USDP ‘has more losses than wins’.

By the time I write, initial results have begun to come in. Every single one of the first 12 seats to be announced went to the opposition party, Suu Kyi’s NLD. By five thirty China time, 16 of the 17 announced seats have gone to the NLD. This is excellent news for the Burmese people, who have not experienced a truly free and fair democratic election in 25 years.

The Union Election Commission’s Election agenda for today’s results

Three of the first fifteen successfully elected NLD candidates are women.

However, Burma (Myanmar) is a big country. The first constituencies to be announced are in Yangon and surrounding districts. Yangon is the country’s largest city and the area predicted to concede most seats to NLD. There is a high likelihood that other areas of the country will not yield such positive results for the NLD.

Nonetheless, the NLD are expected to will a large majority of the 498 available seats. Burma has a first-past-the-post electoral system (like the UK), which means the NLD must win a majority, but will probably have to share power with (several) other represented parties. 

Suu Kyi has warned her supporters against gloating over NLD successes, trying to encourage NLD celebrations without increasing existing tensions between the NLD and other parties (particularly the USDP).

Three voters show their ink-stained pinkies. This prevents voters from voting more than once, an effort to ensure free and fair elections. ©Hlaphyo Tun (via Facebook)

Celebrations began outside the NLD headquarters in Yangon hours ago.

Supporters have been singing songs dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi in anticipation of a potential election victory. They sang a song titled ‘The Strong Peacock’, which is a reference to the NLD party logo that shows a golden peacock and star on a red background.

They sang: “She is the people’s leader that the whole world knows… Write your own history in your hearts for our future, so the dictatorship will end. Go, go, go (away) dictatorship…”

So, although the USDP have not entirely conceded power to the NLD (as perhaps many were led to believe), the Burmese people are in high spirits (despite the reported downpour dampening outdoor celebrations) as the initial election results are revealed.

Election results will likely not be clear until Tuesday (tomorrow) at the earliest. And what the potential NLD victory actually means for the country may be a long time coming. But now is definitely a time of change in Burma, as the NLD slogan “Time For Change” has been promising for decades.

Read on:

The Guardian’s live election results: Myanmar elections: ruling party ‘has more losses than wins’ says chairman – live | World news | The Guardian.

Reuters report: Myanmar ruling party concedes poll defeat as Suu Kyi heads for landslide

Aung San Suu Kyi resolved to form reconciliation government, to lead Burma from ‘above the president’

Tomorrow, Sunday 8th November 2015, is election day. Burma (Myanmar) is in desperate need of change, and, if democratic process is adhered to, the people of Burma will soon have the change they deserve. This is a huge moment for the Burmese people who have fought for freedom and democracy on many fronts for many many years. They have got so close to success countless times.

Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of their national hero, freedom fighter General Aung San, is now (and has long been) the country’s best hope for a truly democratic future. In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is the main opposition party fighting for freedom of speech and other basic human rights for the people of Burma. The military government seized power in 1962 and has ruled ever since (first as State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) later as State Law and Order Restoration (SLORC) and now as the Union of Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), headed by Sein Thein.

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

Aung San Suu Kyi is the nation’s favourite politician, fondly referred to as Daw Suu, or The Lady. Unlike other Burmese leaders, who seem only to care about maintaining and increasing their power over their people, Daw Suu tours the country to meet the electorate at every opportunity. Which has been tough, mainly because the military government kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for vast stretches of time, to prevent her from rousing the masses and inciting protests.

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. At that time, 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. So, whatever happens, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become Burma’s President.

Despite appearances of democracy, subsequent elections have been rigged in various ways. NLD boycotted the October 2010 general election, as Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Since the 2012 by-elections, Aung San Suu Kyi has held a (largely nominal) seat in the Parliament. But, according to the constitution, 25 per cent of the Burmese Parliament must be made up of unelected military representatives.

To an outsider, the situation looks bleak. But Burma is full of hope. Burmese residents have been campaigning all over the country since early September, blasting NLD themed songs, displaying posters, parading the streets and generally being vocal about using their right to vote. Burmese nationals who are resident elsewhere have also been exercising that right, coming out in droves to vote in the Burmese election from Singapore last month.

Plus, for the first time, the European Union will observe the elections, sending 150 monitors from all 28 member states to the country of 51 million.

Aung San Suu Kyi is hopeful too. Her unwavering determination has buoyed the Burmese people for over 26 years. She is resolved to lead Burma if the NLD wins the election tomorrow, and that maintaining democracy is essential no matter what the result. Rising above the constitutional amendment preventing her from leading as president, she vowed to rule Burma in a role ‘above the President’. Rather than exorcising the military governing bodies from Burma completely, she has stated that she would lead a reconciliatory government. Aung San Suu Kyi has told journalists at her house in Yangon:

“Even if we win 100% [of the vote], we would like to make it a government of national reconciliation,” she said. “National reconciliation is the foundation of our democracy.”

Of course reconciliation can only occur if there is national recognition of the will of the majority. Tomorrow is the key to Burma’s future.

Read on

Open Mouths: Free Speech in Burma

Other sources:

The Guardian: Aung San Suu Kyi plans to rule Burma in a role ‘above the president’ 

The Guardian: Aung San Suu Kyi plans to lead Burma (Myanmar) if her party wins election

The Guardian: What is happening in the Burma (Myanmar) elections?

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]

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).