By Marianne Villanueva for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on November 30, 2009

Several years ago, I participated in a conference of Southeast Asian writers hosted by the House of World Culture in Berlin. The panel I was on consisted of a Vietnamese writer, a Cambodian writer, a Burmese writer, and myself. Until then, I knew precious little about Burma, although I had grown up in the Philippines, a Southeast Asian neighbor.

Even after the conference, I was still so ignorant that one day, when shopping in my neighborhood Costco and catching sight of a particular license plate, I very excitedly e-mailed the Burmese poet I had met in Berlin, Kyi May Kaung.

“Guess what!” I wrote. “I saw a black Escalade in the Costco parking lot today, and it had a license plate that said MYANMAR!”

Kyi’s response was tart: “If the plate said MYANMAR, then they are with the junta.  Only the junta refer to Burma as MYANMAR.”

In retrospect, I realize the arrogance of it: a black Escalade with tinted windows, its occupants shopping in Costco, proudly heralding their association with the Burmese junta, with the despotic rulers of a forgotten country, whose citizens are poor and who are trapped, as surely as Aung San Suu Kyi herself is trapped.

If only I had waited by that car, all those years ago! I should have waited to see who walked to the vehicle. I should have taken their picture with my cell phone and posted it all over the Internet.

I kept up the correspondence with Kyi. I was stung by my ignorance. I made it a point to educate myself. But an increasing number of Westerners seem to be looking the other way when it comes to the undeniably autocratic Burmese regime—a complacent avoidance of the bloody facts.

In May of last year, a horrible cyclone called Nargis made landfall in Burma. The consequences were dire. It has been called the worst natural disaster in Burmese recorded history. Such was the cynicism of the regime that even the dollars sent by humanitarian organizations went into the rulers’ private coffers. Kyi sent urgent e-mails: “Send to this organization, not that one. Please be careful where you send your aid!”

Yet I have heard friends and relatives rave about trips they’ve taken to Burma, about how beautiful and “unspoiled” the country is. Does the poverty and the fact that so many of the people in the countryside cannot afford vehicles of any sort amount to “unspoiled”? Does it call forth nostalgic images of Somerset Maugham novels? 

This year, in a May blog post, Arthur Frommer condemned travel to Burma, even for humanitarian reasons. In the September 2009 issue of Condé Nast Traveler, a reader’s letter was published stating that she was outraged by Frommer’s “strident opinion.” She herself had just traveled to Burma and had had “haunting experiences” of “a country defined by misery yet with the most gracious, resilient, and gentle people.” She wrote that her trip gave her the opportunity “to understand the tremendous hardships of day-to-day existence in Burma and what a difference one simple gesture can make in an individual life.”

Recently there have been a series of articles in the Economist that refer to the “icon” Aung San Suu Kyi as a possible “obstacle” to necessary political changes. One July 2009 article, “The Remarkable Aung San Suu Kyi,” presents the opinion of Burmese historian Thant Myint-U as follows:

“So Mr Thant says that development could bring about swift changes to the political landscape, as eventually happened in Indonesia. Development, in other words, could be the fastest path to democracy. Will the courageous Lady admit as much?”

Such an attitude infuriates me. This “courageous Lady,” who gave up her husband and children, who will ultimately give up her life, has never wavered. This, then, is her bitter reward for all those years of sacrifice and fortitude—being reduced to irrelevance by privileged Western writers.

The regime is clearly waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi to die. Already Western countries may be wavering in their support of sanctions; they’ve been watching China gain lucrative business contracts from the junta. A June article in the Wall Street Journal put it this way:

“The divide between Myanmar’s shining new capital, home to much of its military elite, and its commercial capital underscores the failure of a decade of U.S. and European sanctions, efforts to break the country’s military regime by cutting it off from doing business with much of the Western world. Instead, the country’s leaders and top businessmen have survived and even thrived by replacing Western buyers with Asian ones.”

Now there are signs that the Obama administration favors what Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell calls a policy of “pragmatic engagement.”

The ruling Burmese generals must be feeling very smug indeed.

Marianne Villanueva grew up in Manila and has since lived in New York and San Francisco. She has an MA in East Asian Studies, as well as an MA in Creative Writing, from Stanford University. She has three published collections of short fiction: Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Press), Mayor of the Roses (Miami University Press), and The Lost Language (Anvil Press of the Philippines).

Read Marianne Villanueva’s review of Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience and No Time for Dreams: Living in Burma Under Military Rule in the November/December 2009 issue of WRB.


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