Tag Archives: Burma

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].

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.

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


Gender Equality in China [Loreli Interview]

Zhende Gender whose work we first showcased last September, is a model global citizen. Dedicated to the cause of gender equality and h*#man r*ghts, [Zhende] keeps involved in activities around Beijing and greater Asia, blogging at Zhendegender.com

You are a professor here in Beijing. And you blog about feminism, mostly in a Chinese context. You interview fascinating female movers and shakers. Does this sound about right?

Yes, I am lucky to teach at a progressive Chinese university. I see roomfuls of young, mostly female, students every week, and I get to talk to them about issues that are meaningful to me, in the hopes of instilling the student with an understanding of the nuances of the world both in and outside China. I think I learn just as much from them as they do from me. It really is a two-way learning process.

I usually frame my work as blogging about gender, which includes feminism but encompasses a range of other issues too, including LGBT and women’s health issues. All of these issues interact, which is where we get intersectionality (or intersectional theory) – a contemporary feminism that examines how various cultural and social categories (such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.) intersect.

I’ve been writing about gender and women’s issues for a few years now, but only recently has my focus turned specifically to China and Asia. Living in China does not necessarily make it easy to write about China, and the women’s rights movement here is controversial and highly political. This makes it a fascinating and necessary topic to write about, but also holds potential dangers for anyone openly involved. The project is pretty new. So far I’ve published interviews with Chinese writers and activists, who are already in the public eye, but I’m planning to feature interviews with people from a wide range of backgrounds. My only problem now is getting around the language barrier.

Li Tingting (or Li Maizi), Xiao Meili, and Wei Tingting raising awareness of domestic violence.

How do you follow feminism in China, and even other parts of Asia (such as Burma)? How do you keep up-to-date?

Coming to Chinese, Burmese and other Asian feminisms as an outsider means a lot of background research was involved to build a base of knowledge. Having intelligent young Chinese students and friends is a huge source of information and inspiration. Most of my research I do simply by talking to people with similar interests – engaging with people on a topic that they enjoy is my favourite way to learn and to challenge my own ideas. I’m also part of a large group of Beijing-based Feminists, who arrange regular meetings to discuss various issues.

Attending events about related topics has been very useful too. For example the annual Bookworm Literary Festival and the regular events listed on Legation Quarter invite experts, both foreign and Chinese, to speak on contemporary Chinese issues. Many events about China will touch on gender relations in some way, whether or not the event is specifically about a related topic. If I’m curious about the way gender relates to the topic, I will ask. I’m one of those people who sit at the front and always ask questions!

If you were to look back on this time in history 50 years, what would you say is happening with females in China right now?

From my perspective, now is a time of major change. Feminism has gained serious momentum in the past 5 or 6 years, and a specifically Chinese feminism is emerging. Women’s rights issues are more widely regarded as important; issues surrounding women’s health are being taken more seriously and sex education is making progress in schools. LGBT rights have moved forward with the announcement that gay conversion treatment is illegal, and the first hearing given to a gay couple demanding their relationship be recognised as under marriage.

That said, progression continually comes face to face with deep-set traditional values that seem to have little grounding in contemporary life yet hold an established place in Chinese culture. Sex-selective abortion continues in its prevalence (13 mil. per year, 60% are unmarried women) and insubstantial (4 months) maternity leave is forcing women to leave their jobs. A large wage gap prevails in a majority of jobs and women’s education is stigmatized (Female PhD students are viewed as a third gender). Gender equality will continue to be a problematic issue with such a huge gender imbalance in China.

What are the latest major achievements and deeper challenges to feminism in China at the moment?

One of the latest achievements to gender equality in China is the domestic violence law, which came in at the end of 2015. It basically means that the police are obliged to intervene when they get reports of domestic violence, where previously the authorities were instructed not to interfere in peoples’ private lives.

Another ongoing controversial issue is the arrest and detention of the Feminist Five in March 2015. The day before International Women’s Day last year, seven campaigners were arrested for planning to distribute fliers about sexual harassment on public transport in Beijing and Guangzhou. Five of them – Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi) – were detained for 37 days. They quickly became a vanguard for women in China.

A year later, they went back to the site of their detention to have their one-year bail revoked and to collect their belongings. Three of them went back with their lawyer, but the case against them was not dropped. This means that they could be prosecuted at any time in the next four years.

These young women are not the type to balk at the threat and their detention kick-started an unprecedented era of widespread feminist activism across China. However, the on-going political opposition to the women’s movement, and the dangers associated with it, could be a major obstacle to the future of Chinese feminism.

You use this phrase ‘global feminism’ – what’s that all about?

I think it is pretty clear by now that feminism is making waves the world over. Here in China, not only is there a burgeoning curiosity to learn about the way feminism operates in the west, but China is claiming feminism as its own. While the label ‘feminist’ means a person who believes we must work toward gender equality, women and men in the UK are experiencing very different challenges to gender equality than those faced by people in China, Burma or elsewhere in the world. While labels can be useful, feminism means different things to different people. I see feminism as a tool for change – it must be applied in new ways in different contexts, and however much we support one another, we cannot fight other peoples’ battles for them.

I use the phrase global feminism because disconnects between western feminist strongholds and developing world feminism can often be misconstrued. There is no reason a western feminist ‘we’ must set the agenda for a developing world feminist ‘them’. Chinese activists are navigating the way toward gender equality using a contemporary Chinese feminism, on their own terms. Nonetheless, Chinese feminism still embodies the principles by which feminists around the world are bound together.

Super-badass activist Xiao Tie

I read on your blog that a super-badass feminist Xiao Tie may be in some sort of trouble. What gives?

She is indeed a total badass. Thirty-year-old bisexual LGBT activist Xiao Tie is the director of Beijing’s LGBT Centre and one of Beijing’s most prominent young figureheads. Her campaigns for LGBT rights have gained international attention, most notably those protesting ‘gay conversion’ treatment, that is still a widespread problem in China. The authorities are aware of those facts. I don’t think she is in immediate trouble, but she has been prevented from attending events (ie. a discussion of Women’s Rights in China at The Bookworm’s Literary Festival this March) with the threat of detention. This threat could be realised at any time, so she has to monitor her every interaction, whether in public on or social media.

Xiao Tie is among a group of young activists who campaign for gender equality and LGBT rights. The ‘Feminist Five’ and their allies are prominent figures in the press (both national and international) and are thus potential targets for the authorities, wumaodang (the fifty cents party) and criticism from Chinese citizens. They are fully aware of this risk, but they are not likely to stop working towards what they believe is right for the country.

Is the Chinese word for ‘feminism’ as stigmatized in Chinese as in English? 

This is a really fascinating and complex topic that I actually covered with my students this week. There are two Chinese words for feminism, sometimes used interchangeably. Both hold somewhat different connotations as each emerged in a specific historical context.

An early translation was 女权主义 ‘nuquan zhuyi’ (women’s power or rights + ism), denoting a militant demand for women’s political rights reminiscent of the earlier women’s suffrage movements in the West and in China. It has distinct militaristic connotations.

The women’s movement later took a very different direction, and the identity of Chinese women thus came to be defined by state organisations, like the ACWF (All China Women’s Federation), exclusively in terms of an official discourse on gender. Use of the term ‘feminism’ was rejected and ‘forbidden’ within this discourse from 1949.

Feminism returned to China during the 1980s, and the new translation proposed in the 1990s was 女性主义‘nuxing zhuyi’ (femininity + ism), which emphasises gender inequality rather than women’s rights, and is seen to have a richer set of cultural and political meanings than the earlier term.

The word feminism is stigmatised in the west because it connotes previous incarnations of feminist thought that have since become less popular. Thus the need for naming developments in feminist thought in ‘waves’. Second wave feminism – the bra-burning era – is part of the reason contemporary feminism is often treated with such reticence. Fourth wave feminism (which is where we’re at now), encompasses intersectionality (or intersectional theory) and operates on the basis that feminism can and should work for every – and I mean every – individual within their own unique social context.

My students tell me that女权主义 ‘nuquan zhuyi’ holds connotations closer to second wave feminism, and女性主义‘nuxing zhuyi’ is probably closer to fourth wave feminism. It depends who you talk to, but from what I understand, ‘nuquan zhuyi’, the stronger of the two, is used much more often, whether colloquially or among writers and feminist thinkers, even though the word is not recognised by the Party.

How can we [any reader] help the situation?

First off, get informed. Learn about the nuances within gender equality movement wherever you are in the world – by reading, attending events, asking questions – and challenge your existing views by talking to people about theirs. Second, go to events and support the cause – whether it is a charity event at the LGBT center, an discussion run by Lean In Beijing, or an event that gives you the chance to talk to experts about what more you can do. Many of the organisations will take donations and are eager to find volunteers. You can even by a Chinese ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt from Xiao Meili’s taobao page.

This interview was originally published on Loreli on 12th May 2016.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bones Will Crow

Desert Years
Tin Moe

a strand of grey hair
a decade gone

In those years
the honey wasn’t sweet
mushrooms wouldn’t sprout
farmlands were parched

The mist hung low
the skies were gloomy
Clouds of dust on the cart tracks
Acacia and creepers
and thorn-spiral blossoms
But it never rained
and when it did rain, it never poured

At the village front monastery
no bells rang
no music for the ear
no novice monks
no voices reading aloud
Only the old servant with a shaved head
sprawled among the posts

And the earth
like fruit too shy to emerge
without fruit
in shame and sorrow
glances at me
When will the tears change
and the bells ring sweet?

Translated  by Maung Tha Noe & Christopher Merrill

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 17.34.16

Bones Will Crow is the first anthology of contemporary Burmese poetry published in the West, with both the original Burmese (Myanmar) text and the English translation.

“It includes the work of Burmese poets who have been in exile and in prison. The poems include global references from a culture in which foreign books and the internet are regarded with suspicion and where censorship is an industry. The poets have been ingenious in their use of metaphor to escape surveillance and censorship.” (Arc publications)

“When that moment comes, it becomes very, very difficult for any regime – no matter how talented it is at the business of repression –  to put people back in their box, and I believe that it what we’re witnessing at the moment.”

from: Fergal Keane’s introduction to the Bones Will Crow event at SOAS, 24th October 2012.

In 2012, several of the contributing Burmese poets gave readings in London, UK. Some read only in Burmese, while others read their work in both their native language and English. This was my first exposure to Burmese culture; it marks somewhat of a turning point in my life.

Listen as two of the country’s most esteemed poets, Zeyar Lynn and Khin Aung Aye, read from their work and discuss the country’s budding literary scene with the editor of Bones Will Crow:

The Day (Before That Day)

The day before that day
A huntress held her breath
The day that annihilated itself
The day that dressed my wounds …

That day
With the cold-bloodedness of
A public executioner
Needed nerve to reconstruct itself …

That day
Of amnesia without special effects
Needed a genuine gasp for air
To purify its lungs …

That day
Could have been the moon jumping out
From the grim underside of clouds
That day
Could have been a ticket
For a journey that never began …

On that day
He switched off the song he’d been singing along to
I shelved the book I’d been reading
The nameless café bored him
And my aimless yacht anchored

In fact …
I achieved nothing
It was a day of horrid loss …
Horrifying disintegration …

In fact …
Uncertain were the days
The bitter days disfigured by experiments
They will never be resold
For the price I paid

In fact …
In life …
I was in the habit of abhorring

On that day
He mocked me
With the worst of words
I took all his barbs
And laughed them off

On the day before that day
Is it today
Is it really today?

The day before that day
I poisoned the arrowhead
That would shoot me down.

Translated by ko ko thett & James Byrne

from: Bones Will Crow: An Anthology of Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets
Edited and translated by Ko Ko Thett and James Byrne


Buy: Bones Will Crow (Arc publications, 2012)

Listen to Fergal Keane’s full introduction on Soundcloud

Taungbyone Nat Pwe

We slowed down as we passed a group of people collecting on the streets, shaking large silver bowls at us, rattling whatever was in it already. Were they collecting alms? Sitting astride a motorcycle, I leaned forward to ask my driver and thought better of it. No, they were not monks.

People danced as they shook their bowls. Speakers were set up by the roadside – some groups seemed to be attached to specific stalls or stands. Mainly they seemed more concerned with enjoying themselves than with collecting cash; there were miles of people just enjoying the festival feeling – for that’s what it was, a huge, annual, Buddhist festival.

As we drew closer to the festival, though, people really started collecting money. Cars slowed to give money, or simply threw bills out of open windows. Cash fluttered to the ground behind moving vehicles and someone would scramble to pick the money up.

Only a few times did I see any kind of tussle; mostly between kids, but once between two grown women. They both dove for it and crashed mid-air. It was film-like; the kind of movement you’d see in a testosterone-filled sports movie. But it was not comical. The festival spirit was not the only reason so many people were out collecting money. People wrestled. Kids ran out in front of moving traffic for it.

I saw a woman sitting in the centre of the road, between two lanes of traffic, breastfeeding her baby. A man passed on a motorbike clutching a boombox between his knees as it blared music. He drove hands-free, whizzing along the little road to Taungbyone through the rice fields.

As we got closer still, I saw more beggars. Dirty, sleeping children and very elderly women tending to small babies by the roadside. I guessed that knowing the sheer number of festival attendees in a generous spirit (or should I say extra generous? The Burmese are the most generous people I have ever met) would draw people from all over.

That ‘sheer number’ was far greater than I had anticipated. I struggled through crush after crush to get to the centres of the two stupas I’d been advised to see. It took me two attempts to have my little bunch of flowers blessed (touched to the statue of Buddha) before I could follow suit and join the festivities.

I first learned about Nat Pwe in Mandalay airport. A fellow traveller disclosed that it was due to start the day after we’d both flown in. Lonely Planet was vague about a specific start date for this annual late-August spirit festival. I gradually learned that it spreads out over several weeks moving from one of several main locations (near Mandalay) to the next, and finally ending at Mount Popa near Bagan. Without entirely meaning to, I attended Nat Pwe (literally spirit festival) in three different locations. Taungbyone is the biggest, most famous and, thereby, most popular among tourists.

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 theguardian.com © Mark Baker/AP
Image via theguardian.com © 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