(Commentary) – What is Burma? This is a question a lot of Danes ask themselves when they hear the name of the former British colony. I have to admit that I didn’t know that Burma existed when I heard the name at the beginning of 2011.
My education on Burma began when I decided to take a course at the Danish folk high school Krogerup. The course was divided into two sections. The first part took place at the school, learning through classes and reading about the country. The second part involved a visit to the country.
We would spend 10 days in a country ruled by a military regime that suppressed its residents. Burmese people lived in perpetual fear of getting thrown into jail if they expressed themselves politically. That was my expectation.
But there was a big gap between learning about Burma and actually being there, as I discovered.
‘Mother Land Inn” was written on a piece of paper, held by a thin man in a skirt. He smiled at us and led us out to the bus that would take us from Yangon Airport, where we had just landed, to our guesthouse.
The heat was overwhelming and a smell of sweat filled the bus after our 11 hours in an aircraft from Denmark. We’d been advised by our teachers to dress conservatively with clothes down to our knees and elbows. As our bus bumped along the roads filled with potholes, the sights and sounds of Rangoon struck us. Gold-covered pagodas. As our bus went past, our driver smiled at us. Religion is a great part of the culture in Burma.
I recollected what I had learned in school. “We welcome people like you. People who want to know what is going on in Burma. And who will try to do as much as they can to help the situation.” That was what Aung San Suu Kyi said when students from Krogerup talked to her in April 2011. She said tourists staying in government hotels and looking at official sites wasn’t what the NLD supported.
I felt more or less like that kind of tourist as we stepped into the streets of Yangon. Even though the hotel we are staying at was private, and we are here to have political meetings. Thousands of eyes were looking at us with interest and friendly faces greeted us with, Mingalaba. The noise of honking cars and traffic was in the air. Red saliva landed on the ground here and there as we walked through the crowded streets with countless stalls and street vendors selling food. We stopped in front of a big red building. Here the father of Suu Kyi was killed in 1947. We took our pictures discreetly. It would arouse too much attention to pull out a camera and take a lot of pictures. I remembered a video of a Japanese man being shot while he was taking pictures during the ‘Saffron Revolution” demonstrations in 2007.
On the way to our first political meeting, the rain is pouring down and the windows in the taxi will not close. I had a feeling of going below the surface of the Burma that we saw the day before. Generation Wave was the name of the underground organization we are going to meet. It’s a group consisting of young people who express their criticism against the government through hip-hop, poems and songs.
Western pop tunes came out of the speakers at the Café Ritz and create a sound barrier between the backroom we are in and the rest of the café. “We fight for freedom, for our real life” said a thin Burmese woman. She said that they wanted a normal life and for the Burmese people to know who they are. In a few days, they are going public. An atmosphere of pressure filled the room, but they are smiling. A man with glasses tells us that going public could have major consequences for their future. They are smiling, but their shifting glances say they are unsure about what is going to happen. The man with glasses says that the government has promised to change. Generation Wave will test if the government will keep its promise.
I am amazed by their courage and shared their fear even though as a Danish citizen I have never had to fight for anything. I felt like a spoiled child. These young, smiling people sitting in front of us are fighting for democracy and risk going to jail. Democracy is such an integrated part of Danish society that we more or less take it for granted. Also, I find it creepy that Denmark isn’t focused on things happening in Burma. My idea of the Burmese people as a happy nation vanished as the meeting progressed. The members of Generation Wave are nervous about what is going to happen. But they are still smiling and joking with each other. Smiling like the rest of the Burmese people that we have seen so far.
Mandalay is our next stop. It is still dark at 5:30 a.m. as we wait at the Rangoon train station. Sleepy people sit on orange seats. The sounds of arriving trains fill the air. I am prepared for a 15-hour train ride on wooden seats. I am tired, and I wasn’t prepared for the train to be several hours late. The sun is up, and we are now on the road to Mandalay. The seat is uncomfortable, and our section of the train smells like animals. People constantly walk through the train selling Burmese dishes and candy. It is slightly annoying. I am sweaty, my back hurts, and I can’t find a good way to sit. My thoughts drift back to Denmark where the trains don’t jostle and the seats are soft. I am looking forward to stepping out of this train. Never again will I complain about the public transport in Denmark.
Big buses with white tourists are rolling into areas near the pagoda in Mandalay where we are going to watch a daily ritual in which monks receive their food. Our guide tells us to take off our shoes and stand to the side so we don’t disturb the people. The monks stand in a line with their alms bowls. The line is slowly moving toward large pots of food. Tourists with big cameras are passing through the line of monks, taking pictures as they pass. One Japanese-looking man taking pictures gives no respect to the ritual. It makes me angry to see how disrespectful he is.
Our driver pulls the car into another site. “The Triumphant Elite Of The Future” says a sign. The sentence gives me the willies. We are on our way back from Pyin Oo Lwin, a city of several large military academies. I think of Generation Wave who planned to drop their mask today. We are in the camp of their enemy. Kind of ironic, I think. I am afraid that the government’s promise to change is a play to the gallery and that members of Generation Wave are now in jail.
“There are pictures from Generation Waves’ birthday on their Facebook profile,” says one of the girls from my group. I hurry to see their Facebook profile. A picture of the group sitting with a birthday cake appears on the screen. I am so relieved. Looking through their photo album, the fear I have had since our meeting with Generation Wave slightly disappears.
“How can it be that in Denmark, we don’t know about Burma?” That question frequently slips into my mind. It may be because there is strict censorship in Burma, which prevents the world from knowing much about what’s going on. That argument would be a good scapegoat.
Sadly, the answer may also be in the way we use our sources of information in Denmark. I too am inclined to go on Facebook instead of searching for real news. We are uninformed even though we have access to all kinds of communication. That is frightening, I think.
This trip has clarified that there is a huge difference between learning about Burma in class and being in the country. My idea of what Burma might be wasn’t like the Burma I experienced. It has become clear to me that it’s important to enter the world as a global citizen and not only as a Dane.