Burma/Myanmar Delegation 2014 Report
American Women for International Understanding (AWIU)
January 5 – January 16, 2014
Day 1: A View of Yangon
Meeting the People of Yangon
The Mon village named Dagon existed on this site since the 6th century A.D. It was renamed Yangon (meaning end of strife ) by the Shwebo King Alaungpaya when he captured it from rebel Mon leaders in 1755. The city gained in importance only after the British occupied it during the Second Burmese War in 1852, made it the capital and trading and commercial centre of Burma, and renamed it Rangoon. Again renamed Yangon after independence from Britain, the city is currently an amalgamation of British, Burmese, Chinese and Indian influences and is known for its colonial architecture, which although decaying and beyond appreciation, remains an almost unique example of 19th-century British colonial capital. While in the city of Yangon, we met with political, educational, and business leaders of Burma.
After a good nights sleep at the Summit Parkview Hotel, the first group of delegates were ready to get started on the morning of January 5th. First stop was the Scott Market, then we were off to the docks. The ferry ride, brimming with people, bicycles, chickens and baskets, was across the confluence of Yangon and Bago Rivers. It was at short journey to the other side.
When we got off the ferry we were told it was one of the poorest areas in Yangon. Hit hard by the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, when 200,00 people were killed, this area still hasn’t recovered. Everyone climbed into a trishaw and off we went on an hour long tour of the area. The drivers of the trishaws rent them out daily because they can’t afford to buy them. Most of the young boys have dropped out of school to help support their families.
Bamboo and tin are cheap and plentiful, so they are used for most buildings. The state run hospital is free to people in need, but Myanmar ranks in the bottom 3rd for health care in the world and has a lot of catching up to do. Also shown is a home of nicer quality with a tin roof.
We made a stop at the Dalle Middle Monastery, Kyaung Monastery and Orphanage. The school takes in orphans, children of single family parents and children of families in need of assistance. The monks in Myanmar take on the task of educating children.
Wedding Season in Burma
Back at the hotel where a few more Delegates had arrived, we were able to see a number of weddings with elaborate receptions and gorgeous attire for both men and women. January is the start of the wedding season.
Just in time for our first lecture called, “History in a Nutshell: Bagan to the Present.” Professor Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt did an outstanding job in educating us on the history of Burma. He briefed us on the demographics, the geography, the geology beginning 40 million years ago, and the cultures including the influence of the Hindu Brahmins, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Portuguese the Dutch, and the British. Dr Khin Maung Nyunt was a master in helping us understand the many different ethnic groups and their influence on current political issues. He told us of the restrictions he had been under as a professor when the government told him what he could and could not say in the classroom. But now he is under no such restrictions, which led to a very open and informative beginning for our Delegation.
Off to the “The House of Memories”, for our first Burmese dinner. Built over 100 years ago by the British, it was later used as the office of Aung San. Aung Sun was Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s father, a leader of the movement to gain independence from Britain. He was assassinated in 1947 about six months before Burma achieved independence. Myanmar celebrated 66 years of independence on January 4 while we were there.
Day 2: In Yangon – Ancient History and History in the Making: Working for Peace and Democracy
Understanding the Historical Buddha
Notwithstanding unforeseen travel delays, all Delegates had arrived in Yangon. Our first stop was Shwedagon Pagoda, no doubt the most revered site in all of Burma with a history that began some 2,500 years ago. We were reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s observation: “Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon — a beautiful, winding wonder that was nether a Muslim dome or Hindu temple spire … The golden dome said, “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land that one knows about.”
Not being able to decide whether we wanted to see it early in the day or at sunset, we did both, walking up hundreds of steps and exploring every facet of the Pagoda without shoes or socks. To see it, as well as learning the history of Buddhism, was an amazing experience. Around every corner was another surprise — we even met the wedding couple from the day before, as both natives and tourists wanted to document this day with photos. The marble floors heated up as the day went on, happy that we made the trek early. The stupa is a 99 metres (325 ft) and gilded in gold. Just west of Kndawgyi Lake, it sits on top of Singuttara Hill, thus dominating the skyline of the city. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese with relics of the historical Buddha and three of his predecessors enshrined within. We were told that an exact replica of Shwedagon Pagoda is in Naypyidaw, the new capital of Burma.
From history and awe, we transitioned to reality of the political struggle encountered by many over the last forty years under a military dictatorship. Our meeting with Generation 88 was both sobering and encouraging.This group of impressive young activists, imprisoned for their leadership of the student protests of 1988, is actively working to bring peace and open society to Myanmar. Most of the current members of Generation 88 have been imprisoned for more than half of their young lives. Arrested and charged for criminal offenses for their leadership of the student protests in 1988, they currently continue their political activism by organizing coalitions intent on changing the current government by peaceful means. They were arrested in 1988, released in 2005 and rearrested in 2007. One couple who both have responsible positions with Generation 88 were married and had a baby during their short release, but had to return to separate prisons, leaving their baby with her parents, when they were rearrested in 2007. On January 13, 2012, the last of the political prisoners were released from prison. When asked what kept them going in prison their response was: Buddhism; Flexibility; and a Good Sense of Humor. Their Yangon office has 50 people working tirelessly to unite the many interests including the more than 100 ethnic groups in Myanmar who have been fighting for independence, not necessarily a democracy. When asked about sexual trafficking, they acknowledged that trafficking across the borders is a problem. Women are being sold to China as brides, on the promise of better lives and the hope of escaping poverty. We were both moved and impressed with the dedication of these young people.
Dr. Soe Aung
Our meeting with Dr. Soe Aung gave us a whole new perspective on the health care delivery system in Myanmar. Currently he is working with UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, Global Alliance and others to try and bring better health care to Myanmar. There is no insurance system for the country, the wealthy go to private hospitals. Some of the problems they face are: polio coming in from Bangladesh, immunizations and care for babies, TB, HIV, and malaria. The health care system is trying to concentrate more on the rural areas, but there is a real shortage of trained medical assistance. One of the biggest problems is the low wages for doctors (about $12 per month) and the difficulty of training the number of medical professionals needed to provide adequate care. The government provides midwives for the rural areas, but the population exceeds the supply by 5,000 to one. UNICEF has worked to provide training for “Traditional Birth Attendants,” women who have had minimal training to help deliver babies.
Day 3: In Yangon – Visit to the U.S. Embassy and Zin Mar Aung, International Woman of Courage in 2012
Meeting at the U.S. Embassy with Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Department of State
Our meeting with the U.S. State Department Deputy Chief of Missions, Virginia Murray, left us very impressed with the size and scope of the challenges facing the current government of Myanmar as it continues its transition toward a full fledged democracy. Accompanied by USAID Democracy Officer, Andrea Sawka, and Political/Economic Officer, Shayma Jannat, Ms Murray briefed us on a wide variety of programs and goals where U.S interests intersect with Myanmar’s programs. She briefly explained AID’s Midwifery support; their National Dialogue on women’s issues that addresses human trafficking; and their efforts to work with ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya, the largest ethnic group not yet granted citizenship. Ms. Murray also described the challenges facing the current Myanmar government: their upcoming 2015 elections; the March 2014 census that will attempt to quantify ethnic populations; the visibility of chairing ASEAN, especially with so many needed internal reforms; the meetings of the Eight Dialogue Partners where Burma must play a lead role in brokering issues involving the South China Sea; the need to continue its efforts toward a nationwide ceasefire for the first time in 60 years; and working on a Myanmar Code of Conduct that will withstand greater scrutiny as IMF and the World Bank encourage foreign investment. These discussions increased our knowledge of current issues and heightened our interest in topics covered by the organizations and citizens of Burma we met with throughout our Delegation.
The family home of Aung San Suu Kyi
We stopped to see what we could of Aung San Suu Kyi’s family home. Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of Parliament and the leader of the National Democratic League. As we traveled throughout many areas of Burma, we found a fierce loyalty to Daw Suu Kyi and many look to her as the only hope for the future.
Yangon School of Political Science
Our meeting with Zin Mar Aung was much anticipated as we had remained in contact after meeting her at the U.S. Department of State where she was selected as an International Woman of Courage in 2012. At the age of 25, Zin Mar Aung was arrested and held as a political prisoner for eleven years. Released in 2009 she founded two organizations: theYangon School of Political Science and Rainfall, an organization that works for gender equity in Burma. The Yangon School of Political Science educates young people about the democratic process and encourages them to take an active part in political issues. It was inspiring to see the hard work and dedication she and her colleagues demonstrate. They are committed to making changes in Burma through the democratic process.
Colonial District of Yangon
Stopping at the famous Strand Hotel for High Tea also gave us an opportunity to walk around the old colonial district where we saw street side markets and natives meeting to chat with friends over tea and snacks.
Day 4: Mandalay – Famous under British Rule – Famous Now
The Royal Palace, Mandalay
Mandalay is the second-largest city and the last royal capital of Burma. Located 445 miles (716 km) north of Yangon on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River, the city has a population of one and half million. Here the country maintains many of its Chinese business relationships.
Silk Weaving in Amarapura Village
The silk weaving workshop in Amarapura, a village near Mandalay, allowed us to see how they wove intricate and beautiful pieces on big looms. Couldn’t resist the shopping next door.
The Mahagandayone Monastery
The Mahagandayone Monastery monks, mostly young boys, walked with their bowls to received their major meal of the day. More than 1,000 monks live and study together – only religious subjects can be taught as mandated by the government. The food looked to be simple, but nutritious. All food and other costs are donated.
U Bein Bridge
The famous U Bein Bridge that is featured in every guidebook of Burma and is located at Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura. The 1.2km wooden bridge is made of teakwood and was built in the mid of 19th century. It is the longest teak bridge in the world. The bridge crosses both farmland that is flooded in the rainy season, but where workers are farming a variety of crops including corn and vegetables during the dry season. It also spans a river where we watched fisherman in small boats catching fresh fish.
Mandalay School Fine Arts School
Although tired, we were rejuvenated when we visited the Mandalay Fine Arts school – the first time non-Burmese visitors were allowed in 40 years. We watched the students learn skills in drawing, painting, copying the classics and sculpture, but the highlight was watching their young students perform the classic dances to the accompaniment of their traditional xylophone, harp, and other Burmese instruments. The students were very engaging and well-trained and it was a unique opportunity. The government pays for the schooling and the parents pay for their supplies and housing.
The Famous Kuthodaw Stupa
A visit to the Kuthodaw Stupa, at the base on Mandalay Hill, was built by King Mingdon to house 729 whitewashed pagodas erected in 1872. All of the Buddhist scriptures (Tipitaka) were engraved on stone zayat tablets and veneered with gold leaf for the first time. Reportedly, it took 2400 monks six months to recite the text, often referred to as the world’s largest book.
A brief stop to view Mandalay Hill gave us an opportunity to watch the nuns as they arrived to climb the many steps to the top. Nuns seemed more inclined to smile than their male counterparts.
As we passed The Royal Palace, the evening sky had a golden hue and the water was calm and blue. See our photographer’s masterpiece as she captured this beautiful sight. The walls are a mile long on each side and surrounded by a deep moat, remaining as they were built, with 12 gates when, in 1885 when the British entered the city and ousted King Thibaw Min. During World War II the Japanese captured the palace that was later bombed and destroyed by the Allies. Few original buildings remain and the rest was reconstructed in the 1990′s.
Day 5: The Amazing City of Mandalay – Lawyers Council, Jade and More…
Mandalay, a city of horns honking, motorcycles, and ladies with goods piled atop their heads. The second largest city in Myanmar and the former capital. The city is the economic and religious hub of upper Myanmar. A city of culture whose fine arts include gold leaf, lacquer, weaving bright silks and cotton fabric, carving intricate patterns in wood and marble. Our morning was spent visiting their studios.
After lunch we found ourselves at the famous Jade Market learning how jade is grade and marketed.
U THEIN THAN OO
In the evening we met with an attorney, U Thein Than Oo has a long history of activism, having been arrested as a political prisoner three times for a total of more than 25 years, first under Ne Win in 1976, then in 1988 just five years after becoming a lawyer, and again in 2001. He currently is pursuing several important cases including a writ submitted to the Supreme Court claiming the government took property illegally and without compensation. He is very active in organizing the consortium that will meet mid January to consider proposed changes to Myanmar’s constitution. The three major issues under consideration are: 1) To reactivate a democratic Fed/State Union (Myanmar is now a unitary state); 2) To determine whether the 2008 Constitution should be amended or abolished; and 3) who and how a new Constitution should be redrawn to ensure inclusiveness.
Day 6: Rolling, Rolling, Rolling Down the River
Up again at dawn, we loaded our luggage, a formidable task were it not for the local porters who carried it from the bus down a steep rocky hill to the boat that would be our transportation for the day.
We traveled down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) from Mandalay to Bagan which was named by the British as the “Road to Mandalay.” The Ayeyarwady begins in the Himalayas and travels south for 1,350 miles. It is still a major means of transporting products and it provides rich delta soil for farming. Until 1962 Burma was the world’s largest exporter of rice because of this rich wet delta.
As we left Mandalay and all along the beautiful green riverside, we couldn’t quit taking pictures of the many, many golden spired stupas in the distance. This was our introduction to the thousands we would see when we reached Bagan.
We were the only passengers on our flat boat whose crew cooked a wonderful lunch for us as they guided us down river.
A leisurely, but a brisk day, we relaxed for the first time since reaching Burma.
On board were two individuals that kept us occupied. One was a traditional Burmese fortune teller. He uses an astrological system which is based on the zodiac of stars, planets and the time of birth and age. Only time will tell whether his predictions were accurate.
After a break with tea, a gelled dessert, bananas, watermelon slices and mandarin oranges, we heard from a doctor about the basics of Burmese traditional medicine, which is a combination of Indian Ayurvedic and Buddhist teachings. The therapeutic use of herbal and mineral compounds are used. He was available for personal consults.
The deck hands used long poles to test the depth of the river. Late in the afternoon we hit some sand bars and it took awhile for the boat to back off and get to the deeper channel.
As the sun did splash down to the west, and we all took photos of the sunset. It was then time to have a little fun. After 11 hours we approached the jetty at New Bagan and made our unsteady way off the boat and along a single plank to the embankment, where helpful men, and some children, helped us climb up the steep bank. After a 45 minutes bus ride we were happy to finally arrive at the Razagyo Hotel.
Day 7: Balloons Over Bagan
Not all of us had the experience of taking a hot-air balloon ride over the ancient ruins of Bagan, but some did and it was a marvelous way to see the still existing 3,000 temples, most of which were built between the 9th and 13th centuries.
All of us were able to see these from the higher levels of the Dhammayangyi Temple as we climbed narrow, winding, stone staircases in our bare feet. No shoes or socks allowed. The panoramic views of a landscape dotted with stupas, pagodas, and temples are hard to capture on film and even harder to describe. Those we visited first were the later ones built in the 12th century. Think, before Chengis Khan, this society of builders was amazingly advanced.
As we entered the pagoda area we were deluged with hard to resist little girls with beautiful smiles, selling postcards and other small items. Except for one instance, they were very respectful as we entered the temple. If they followed us, they were quiet as the tour guide gave us explanations. Many seemed exceptionally smart, speaking a smattering of many languages, and often aspired to be tour guides when they finished school – a good occupation in Burma.
U Zaw Weik
Following a visit to the Myingaba Village where we watched the fascinating and intricate work of lacquer making, we met with U Zaw Weik, Minister of Tourism for the Bagan Zone, at the beautiful Eden B.B.B. Restaurant. He ably explained the history of the temples in Bagan where 4,000 were built between the 11th and 14th centuries, 3,000 of which still exist and 300 of which still house beautiful paintings. Bagan is working now to achieve UNESCO approval for the Ananda Temple as a World Heritage Site. He detailed the thousands of works of art contained in the temple, some of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world such as the glazed stone paintings. He also talked about the looting that had been done over the years such as the statute of Vishnu riding on Garuda from their only Hindu temple and the Hope Diamond which was originally embedded in the forehead of an 11 meter high Buddha. Superbly informed, he relayed the history of Bagan. They are now working on a master plan for sustainable tourism as they expect the number of tourists to increase from 600 – 700 thousand in 2010 to more than three million in two years.
The Minister also humbly told us of his charitable efforts, one of which was supporting the Shwe GU- Philanthropic Orphans Care & Training Center. After lunch we were able to go visit the children. Some of the children are orphans and some have homes with only one parent who cannot otherwise afford to send them to school.
Shezigone Pagoda at Sunset
A final highlight of the day was climbing the hundreds of steep stone steps of the Shwezigone Pagoda, built in 1,089 and an architectural wonder even today. From 160 feet high, we could watch the horse carriages, have an amazing panoramic view of thousands of stupas and temples, and watch the sun go down over Bagan.
A traditional puppet show ended our visit to Bagan as we enjoyed dinner in a beautiful outdoor restaurant.
Day 8: The Ananda Temple and More Treasures From Bagan
Based on the very interesting discussion yesterday by the U Zaw Weik, Minister of Tourism, we were particularly looking forward to seeing the famous Ananda Temple which is currently under consideration by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. A very busy site for locals as well as tourists, the Ananda Temple, considered the masterpiece of Bagan’s surviving Mon architecture. It was completed in 1091 and has a simple corridor with four large vestibules, each opening out symmetrically into entrance halls that surround the central superstructure. In each of the four alcoves is a giant teak Buddha lit from slits in the sanctuary roof, which consists of five terraces covered with terracotta-glazed tiles – the largest collection of tiles in Bagan. Atop the roof is an 168 foot golden stupa. The entire structure is in the shape of a perfect Greek cross. The temple is a place of meditation and learning. Each of the four main halls contains the same 16 Buddha images as the other three, enabling four groups of Buddhists students to receive instruction simultaneously. The central corridor has 80 reliefs depicting the life of the Buddha from birth to enlightenment.
We were also allowed to visit a small ancient building that originally housed monks assigned to the temple and contained terra cotta frescoes of daily life in the 11th century.
During our visit we met U Zaw Weik and his family preparing and sharing their mid-day meal with the monks. I loved walking the corridors, meeting parents from Burma who loved having us take photos of their children, and yes even the vendors, particularly the one who let me borrow her flip flops to use the loo.
Our afternoon visit to the Archaeological Museum was an amazing opportunity to see many of the treasures rescued from crumbling stupas that would otherwise have been lost to history. Our host, Daw Baby, Curator of the Museum which is the biggest museum in SE Asia, introduced us to the chief researcher who made the presentation. He also gave us a brief guided tour around the impressive and beautiful museum, pointing out a unique (one of two) beautiful bronze lotus bud that opens to a full flower; a painting found in the Pali forest and authenticated by UNESCO as 12th century depicting Buddha’s nativity – enlightenment – ascent to heaven; and a sacred scroll found hidden in the broken arm of a giant Buddha, obviously hidden there centuries earlier to preserve it.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering among the hundreds of brick stupas, some almost totally intact.
As evening approached we headed to the Old Bagan Jetty to wait with tourists from and locals for the awesome sunset over the Ayeyarwady River. As we waited we could see the villagers going about their everyday lives, many carrying big parcels or washing clothes in the river and many starting out in overloaded boats taking locals to the other side of the river to fish.
Day 9: By Plane, Coach, and Boat We Reached our Destination on Inle Lake
Floating Gardens on Inle Lake
From Mandalay, we flew to Heho Airport, south east of Mandalay, and due east of Bagan. Heho and Inle Lake are in Shan State that borders China to the North, Laos to the East, and Thailand to the South. The air was cleaner and the earth rich with productive farmland and trees. Traveling by coach over serpentine mountain passes with hairpin curves, we finally reached Naung Shwe, a relatively prosperous village with busy market filled with an amazing diversity of produce, fish, and other products located on the banks of Inle Lake.
After enjoying a non-traditional Burmese lunch of real tomato soup, a platter of fresh avocado and diced tomato salad with a lime dressing, a platter of pasta, three delicate slices of pizza, with three different toppings, chocolate crepes with real strawberries, we moved to the jetty for a 45 minute boat ride to our hotel. Boarding three long, narrow gondola style motorized wooden boats guided by a boatman (who didn’t sing) with a fourth boat transporting our luggage, we sat on our deck chairs, shielded with umbrellas, and rode in style.
The lake has many canals and dykes, but is only 6 miles wide, 12 miles long, and usually not more than 10 feet deep! As we wended our way through floating clusters of water lilies we spotted many of the traditional Inntha fishermen who balance on the prow of their little skiffs on one leg, while using the other leg to paddle the boat. This keeps their hands free to handle their nets and/or baskets and spears. The valley is hemmed by mountains which are forested by deciduous trees all the way to the top. The water was calm and smooth; the warm air and gentle breeze felt idyllic. On the hills to the east of the lake are the red scars and dirt roads of quarries and mines. After nearly an hour our boats turned into a small canal, lined with floating gardens, lily pads and hyacinth to be met by a gracious and smiling staff in Shan costume who greeted us with ‘Mingalaba’ (Hello) and juice and escorted us past their beautifully appointed Asian Style restaurant and along a garden path to a wonderful hotel overlooking Inle Lake.
As beautiful as the day had already been, we were quickly we were back down to the dock for another adventure: “Sunset over the Floating Gardens of Inle Lake.” Slowly cruising in open gondolas allowed us to make our way between floating masses of lilies, hyacinth and grasses that are pinned to the lake bottom by long bamboo poles, and are planted with tomatoes, bok choy cabbage, peas and beans. We entered a village on stilts occupied by tradesmen, cottage industries, gardeners of the floating gardens, fishermen and others. Rather than living on the banks of the river, they live entirely on the water. In full view on our way back to the hotel was a uniquely gorgeous sunset that kissed the water with its array of colors.
After this beautiful sunset cruise through the floating gardens, we returned rather late to meet with two of our speakers who, themselves, had traveled more than 45 minutes over rough and winding paths to reach our hotel. We were honored to meet with them and they enthusiastically told us about their projects. U Thet Htun, a village elder had organized, managed and found sponsors for the Mainthouk Youngmen Development Orphanage for many years. Before the independence of Burma, there was only one primary school in Mainthouk village. Although this improved in the 1950s, students who had finished primary school, but were too young to work, had few alternatives. So the Sayadaw of the Mainthouk Anauk Taung monastery and the head of the village established a private middle school. The number of students continued to increase and in 1959 the village formed an association to take care of the children who were poor and homeless. Many of the children are orphans; others have only one parent. The orphanage offers them housing and education until age 18. Now, 54 years later, the orphanage houses 34 boys and 59 girls who live at the orphanage and attend school at the monastery where they learn English and Math. We so admired the efforts of U Thet Htun and the villagers that the next day we made a boat, truck, motorbike visit the orphanage where we saw their facility, met the children, and made a donation.
Our next speaker was Daw Mu, who was also a Lake Village dweller of the sub tribe of Shan and is a member of the micro loan committee of eight who are working to develop a microloan network. Two of the village elders are appointed by the government; the other six are selected by the villagers. She described how the program works: 65 women have received microloans since 2011. The interest rate is 2.5% of which the bank gets 2.0%. The rules are strict with oversight by the government and a requirement to repay the principal annually. Most of the loans are for small amounts — $20 or $30. While the rules require that the loan recipient have their own business and some of the loans have gone to support businesses such as agricultural, sugar cane, pigs, and a home grocery store, other loans have been granted to pay off critical debts. The village committee manages the granting and repayment of the loans. The recipients are in a group of five; if one of the recipients fails to make repayment, the other four are responsible. To date, all of the initial funds granted by the government have been repaid. The villagers believe it is currently too difficult to get bigger loans – the repayment costs exceed the value of the loan.
Day 10: A Full Day on Inle Lake
After experiencing the market, we wandered through a most amazing site of ancient stupas from the 11th and 12th century in the village of Inthein. Untouched by human hands, they remain rich in texture and color.
U Khun LarIn the afternoon we met with U Khun Lar, Leader of the Pa-O Tribe, the second largest in the Shan State (1,000,000 members living in the hills above the Lake and 150,000 who live on the Lake). He grew up in the hill country during the many years of rebellion and fighting against communism and the military of Burma. He survived and paid his way through the university by smuggling cows over the hills and through the jungle from Burma to Thailand. Initially serving as an interpreter, he worked with other countries and with multiple tribes as they fought for 8 years in the jungle. In 1991, the government signed a cease-fire and ceded them enough land to build a Lakeside Hotel, the first in the area. Initially building 20 bungalows and a hotel, it has become a profitable enterprise and currently recruits workers who have graduated form Pa-O schools in the hills. By virtue of his success, the tribes no longer grow opium; they now participate in conventions and elections, and they have primary schools in every village; middle schools in bigger villages, and high schools where needed. They are a substantial voting block, generally supporting the current government.
A Visit to the Main Thouk Orphanage
Meeting with In Thar Village Elders
We returned to our hotel by moonlight and a flash light to meet a consortium of In Thar village elders of Lake Dwellers who were allowed to organize in 2010. Prior to that time, it was illegal to have a committee of more than five. Since 2010, they have had candidates competing in elections with four succeeding in regional and governing council elections and one, who met with us, who succeeded in national elections. Their population is small – about 170 thousand on the Lake and 400 thousand country wide. Their goals are to preserve their culture which is a concern with increasing tourism. They have had some success in economic development and transportation and hope to increase endowments for those students who pass their matriculation exams and want to continue professional training. A primary concern is sustainability of the Lake, particularly water flow from canals and creeks and moving more water to remote areas. The current President has provided some equipment for dredging and maintaining dykes in the dry season, but the biggest issue is maintaining the quality of water in the Lake. They are trying to get more surface water by collecting water from the mountains that is safe for drinking and bathing and piping it to the Lake. The Japanese are supporting this project.
Day 11: From Inle Lake back to Yangon
National Democratic League Officers, U Tin Oo and U Nyan Win
Once again rising early so that we could fit as much as possible into our last day, we left our beautiful hotel by boat (six to a boat); transferred to a coach, then plane from Heho to Yangon, stopped for a brief view of the three prized white elephants and made it in time for a meeting with the top two officials of the National Democratic League (NLD). The NLD is the party of Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi. After years of house arrest, she is now a member of Parliament, but cannot be elected President unless the Constitution is changed. Changing the Constitution requires more than a 75% majority of each proposed change plus a referendum of 50% of registered voters (not just those who vote). Because at least 25% of the Assembly is appointed military, it has not been possible to achieve changes, but hopes are high that changes will be made before the 2015 election – changes that will permit “The Lady” to run for President.
Our afternoon discussion was equally lively as we were greeted in style by the UMFCCI, Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Myanmar Business. Members who met with us included U Htun Naing Aung, U Thet Lwin Toh (Jackie), U Hnin Oo, U Aung Myint, U Tran Aung, U Moe Myint Kyaw, and U Myo Myint. An impressive organization composed of industry leaders and businessmen (and one woman) who are working together on issues of tourism, environment, engineering, energy, water works, production of fruits, flowers, produce, fisheries, manufacturing, and other issues so important to the future of Myanmar. They eagerly shared their experiences and concerns and were interested in any support or suggestions we might offer. Like others we met in Myanmar, they were friendly, candid, open to new ideas, and seemed genuinely glad to see us.
Our last and final meeting of the trip was over dinner. Professor Than Nwe a member of the Myanmar National Human Rights was our speaker. It was an informal meeting where we were able to ask any questions regarding human rights that had not yet been answered in sessions with other speakers. Most of our questions focused on the rights of women, the laws governing marital assets, and reporting of abuse. Professor Than Nwe was very informative and straight forward in her responses. The divorce rate in Burma is very low; their is no custom of providing dowries; marriages are not arranged; and husband and wife share their assets equally. While it is not unheard of for a husband to bring another wife into the marriage, it is not a common practice.
Before the Beginning — On our Way to Myanmar/Burma
Robin Winter Odem (on left) is the first to leave the U.S. on her journey to Myanmar. She made a quick stop in China to see Magda Fehema Skarkasi, and they traveled together to Yangon.
Other members look forward to the Delegation
Merle Cherney writes as she and Judith Jaiaitis leave Chicago to join the Delegation. In just a few hours I will be in the air on my way. My journey started last summer when I joined American Women for International Understanding. The first thing I did was to sign up for the AWIU delegation to Myanmar. After many months of conference calls with fellow travelers learning the history of Burma, reading books, hearing from people who traveled or lived there, and talking to people from the State Department, I’m on my way. While in Myanmar will be meeting with the U. S. Embassy and many of the local organizations. This promises to be a very worthwhile trip to truly learn about the people of Myanmar and hopefully make a difference in their lives. AWIU has truly broadened my view to the plight of the people of Myanmar. Merle Cherney
Gayle Morin is the first to arrive in Yangon.
From my bedroom window I can see the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is pretty impressive even at night. The pagoda is covered with real gold, “shwe” being the Burmese name for gold. Its spire is studded with rubies, sapphires, topaz and more than 2,000 carats of diamonds.
I arrived at midnight last night, sans luggage, so it gave me a good excuse to buy a Burmese blouse and longyi, beautiful fabrics with colorful woven or embroidered designs. Both men and women wear longyi which are very comfortable.
Because I arrived on January 4, a day ahead of the Delegation, I was able to join the festivities of the Burmese Independence Day which celebrates their independence from Britain. Six months after the assassination of Aung San (father of Aung Sun Suu Kyi), U Nu became Prime Minister on January 4, 1948 at the astrologically auspicious hour of 4:20 a.m. when the Union of Burma officially became an independent nation.
While waiting I was also able to spend the day exploring the city with our guide, M Cho Cho. She works for Myanmar Voyages who planned our entire itinerary in conjunction with Global Travel.
M Cho Cho with young Burmese girl who is learning to excel at sales.
Arriving early also gave me a day to prepare before the arrival of other Delegates, including my sister, Joan Poulos
Joan Poulos and Gayle Graham Morin
Delegates Khadduja Ghinniwa, Magda Fehma Sharkasi, Merle Cherney, Judith Jakaitis, Robin Winter Odem, Gayle Graham Morin, Jasna Svarc, and Guide, Cho Cho
Jasna Svarc send first picture of Burma
Draft Itinerary for the Delegation – Burma at the Crossroads
BURMA AT THE CROSSROADS
Itinerary for AWIU Delegation to Burma (Myanmar)
12 Day Trip January 5 – 16, 2014
Days 1 – 3 Yangon
A Mon village named Dagon has existed at this site since the 6th century A.D. It was renamed Yangon (the ‘end of strife’) by the Shwebo based King Alaungpaya when he captured it from rebel Mon leaders in 1755. However, the city, gained in importance only after the British occupied it during the Second Burmese War in 1852 when it became the capital and the trading and commercial centre of Burma. The British called the city Rangoon. The city is an amalgamation of British, Burmese, Chinese and Indian influences, and is known for its colonial architecture, which although decaying and beyond appreciation, remains an almost unique example of 19th-century British colonial capital. While in the city of Yangon, we will meet political, educational, and business leaders of Burma.
Days 4 – 5 Mandalay
Mandalay Hill: The 230 meter hill is dotted with monasteries and temples. At its top are famous pagodas and temples. It is beautiful at sunset as hundreds of monks make the trip to the top.
In addition to visiting workshops in silk weaving, embroidery and gold leaf making, the Mandalay Fine Arts School, and the Mahagandavone Monastery, where we will see and learn from thousands of monks, we will visit the Kuthodaw Paya which houses “the world’s largest book”, 729 marble slabs of Buddhist scriptures.
Located at the foot of Mandalay Hill and built by King Mingdon in the 1800s, 729 white stupas within the complex contain the complete text of the Tripitaka, Theravada Buddhism’s most sacred text. In the afternoon we will meet with a Member of Parliament to discuss reforms in Burma and in the evening we will visit the Mandalay Night Market.
Day 6 Mandalay to Bagan
To reach Bagan, the birthplace of the Myanmar civilization located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, we will take a private charter river boat and visit a typical rural village on the riverbank.
Days 7 – 8 Bagan and Villages
Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid 9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. It has the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world, with many dating from the 11th and 2th centuries. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on this 42 sq km plain in central Myanmar. Approximately 2,200 remain today, in various states of disrepair. Marco Polo once described Bagan as a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes”.
In Bagan, we will visit four of the most unique temples and pagodas; learn from officials of UNESCO about the excavation and protection of these archaeological wonders and meet with a local NGO in the Minanthu Village.
We’ll see the sunset view from Dhamayazaka Temple.
Days 9 – 10 Bagan to Inle Lake
After a flight, a coach ride to the Nyanug Shwe Shan Chief Residence (now a museum) and an open-air boat on the lake, we will meet with members of the Pa-O National Organization, visit with silk weaver owner, and observe other artisans working on their floating gardens in Nampan Village and Inntha fishermen at work.
We will travel by boat to Kyauk Daing Village Market Day where all of the Inle Lake’s tribes come to do their shopping.
We will also visit several villages and meet with a local micro loan network; visit the Mine Thauk Village Orphanage; and observe the Mine Thauk sugar cane cottage industry.
Days 11 – 12 Back to Yangon
Back in Yangon we will meet at UMFCCI with Myanmar’s most successful business men, continue other scheduled meetings, and visit Scott Market.
Say Goodbye to the wonderful people and the ancient sites of Burma.
Learning about Burma: Judith Cefkin, U.S. State Department Senior Advisor for Burma Briefs AWIU Delegates
Delegates to Burma participated in a teleconference in mid December to hear from JUDITH CEFKIN, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT SENIOR ADVISOR FOR BURMA and DAVID SEQUEIRA, BURMA DESK OFFICER.
The briefing focused on the history, economics, and current issues facing Burma, now officially called Myanmar. Topics discussed included the current status of Parliament; key challenges, commitments and reforms; the move toward easing media censorship; additional steps to encourage economic development, and efforts to advance the peace process with ethnic minorities.
Infrastructure continues to be a major challenge to business investment. Myanmar today is one of the least prosperous countries in Southeast Asia. It was closed to foreign investment for many years, but has recently begun opening up to free markets. Ms. Cefkin described recent efforts to improve the investment climate through AID programs and the creation of new international business opportunities.
The State Department observes and encourages US investments in the country. With improvements in the investment climate, including protections against corruption and improvements in infrastructure, international business investors will begin to promote development and production in Myanmar that will provide jobs. U.S. entities are particularly interested in the areas of agriculture and health.
The peace process with its ethnic states continues unresolved. Burma has not had internal peace since before World War !!. There are 135 different ethnic groups within the country. They share borders with six other countries, all with distinct ethnic, cultural, and often religious differences. The US supports Burma in its efforts to resolve long-standing conflicts, and to establish a peace process that accommodates religious and ethnic differences. New elections will be held in 2015. There are a number of constitutional changes which would help the election process. Who is eligible to serve as president of the country is an issue under discussion as well as the changing role of the military. The military by law has 25% of the seats in Parliament and a number of designated ministries are headed by the military. The growth in civilian control is one of the issues being considered.
We also discussed a number of areas the Delegation may wish to learn more about when meeting with organizations while in-country. These included both positive and negative issues including the religious violence that has occurred in the last year; promoting women’s empowerment and combatting violence against women; internally displaced migrants; the military’s role in government; drafting children to serve in the military; Burma’s recent leadership in the ASEAN conferences; and the work with the University of Vermont to increase resources that are available for the education of Myanmar citizens. Mr. Sequiera, offered to work with us to recommend organizations we may want to meet with.
AWIU described its history of delegations and outlined its current goals. In addition we noted that:
- Delegates pay their own way;
- Delegates generally make small donations to one or more non -profit organization they meet with during the delegation;
- AWIU has a grant fund and often awards grants to individuals or organizations that Delegates recommend we support on a longer term basis.
We are grateful to the State Department officials who provided information and perspectives that will be very useful to us. We look forward to their recommendations for other meetings that would be mutually beneficial while we are in Myanmar. The presence of women leaders from other countries is seen as a favorable step toward opening up relationships with citizens of Myanmar. Conversely, the opportunity for AWIU to meet Burmese women and others who are working toward religious tolerance and respect for democracy will provide a greater understanding of their challenges.
U.S. State Department Issues Statement on Burma/Myanmar Independence Day
Burma Independence Day is January 4th and the AWIU delegation starts their meetings on the 5th
On the 3rd John Kerry US Secretary of State Issued the following statement
Secretary of State
Delegation Note:Burma is currently Chair of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)
Teleconference Briefing on Myanmar Refugees
All member of the Delegation learned more about the Karen (Burmese) refugees in Thailand during a teleconference with a student from Georgetown University who has worked on Burma issues in DC and in Thailand in summer of 2013. Below is a summary of the briefing.
BURMA DELEGATION TELECONFERENCE
December 28, 2013
SPEAKER: KEILA FRANKS
SUBJECT: KAREN REFUGEES IN THAILAND
Gayle Morin introduced our speaker, Keila Franks, who is a senior at George Washington University studying International Affairs with a focus on Asia. Last summer, to gather information for her thesis, she lived in several Karen refugee camps in Thailand. Her original intent was to focus on why refugees did not want to go back to Burma, but she quickly discerned that very few refugees wanted to return because the education in Burma was inferior. Her focus turned to, “How education needs to change in Burma before refugees will return.”
Keila also interned in Washington D.C. with an NGO, “The U.S. Campaign for Burma.” This organization studies U.S. policy regarding Burma and is an advocacy organization that focuses on human rights. One of their projects lobbied to require U.S. investors to report on the effects of their investments on the peoples of Burma.
History: In 1948 the Burmese became independent from England. At that time, the Karen minority, about 7 % of the Burmese population, believed they had an agreement with the Burmese government that they would achieve local autonomy. The Karen have their own language, custom, and often are Christian rather than Buddhists. For decades they have fought fiercely to gain the right to govern themselves, which they have never achieved. The resulting civil war lasted until a cease fire agreement was signed in 2012. Many Karens fled to Thailand. Another minority group, the Kachin, also fought for their Independence. Currently, the Karen have given up on Independence but hope to be an autonomous state.
Political turmoil in other states resulted in Shin, Shan, and other minorities fleeing to Thailand, but they are not found in the refugee camps.
Currently there are 128,000 in refugee camps in Thailand. Some of the refugees, who came to the border camps before 2005, resettled in the USA. 63,000 are in the U.S. now. Those leaving for the U.S. caused a brain-drain in the camps.
Many of the new Karen refugees are young people who have been sent by their families because the camp schools offer better education than is available in their Burmese villages. In the Thai camps, lessons are taught in Karen, with Burmese as a second language. Students also learn English in Thai camps.
The reason that many young Karen refugees who were reluctant to return to Burma is that they would go to schools that teach in the Burmese language in the regions controlled by the government. In regions controlled by the Karen National Union, the schools are under funded, and less modern. In short, the Thai camps offer more opportunity.
One problem for refugees who arrived in Thailand after 2005 is that they cannot be officially registered as refugees by the U.N. This is because of a Thailand government restriction, to discourage the influx. Although new refugees receive needed aid, they cannot be resettled in other countries without being registered.
The Muslim issue is complex: The Rohingya are people who originally came from Bangladesh. They are stateless. Even the younger generations, born in Burma, are not citizens. Other Asian countries, including Bangladesh, are not willing to accept them back as they flee anti-Muslim threats and violence in Burma. There are also internal fights between Muslims and Buddhists, often personal disputes which spread. Extremist Monks are involved in a campaign against Muslims. Refugees in Thailand are afraid to go back to Burma while this anti-Muslim sentiment exists.
There are a lot of Muslims living peacefully in Yangon. The situation is different in the rural areas. In Thailand, there is also a “them and us” mentality, the Muslims and Buddhists live in separate neighborhoods and do not identify with each other.
Questions and Answers:
Q: Does the Burmese government recognize that even the education in Refugee camps is superior to their own schools?
A: Yes. Burma is changing with a push for educational reform, but how much will benefit the ethic minorities is a question. For instance, the Karen to be taught in the Burmese language.
Q: What about women? Is there gender equality in Burma?
A: Girls in the schools are doing very well. The Karen women are tough, strong and very ambitious.
Q: Is there sexual trafficking among the Karen? Exploitation of women?
A: I did not experience that, or hear of it as an issue in the camps.
Q: Is there forced labor of the minorities by the government?
A: Yes, this is an issue. Military have forced villagers to be porters and to do the hard work.
Q: Did the more recent refugees describe any democratic progress in Burma?
A: Yes, the Border is fluid. They do see improvement and the Cease Fire has helped the Karen. But they are still very poor, with very little infrastructure, and their schools are inferior. A large problem is that the Karen leaders who are in prison have not been released. The Karen still cannot govern themselves.
Q: Given the new trend toward modernization, is anyone trying to preserve the ancient culture and their colonial history?
A: I do not know. The English colonial buildings are in bad repair Hopefully the Buddhist culture will be preserved.
Gayle Morin thanked Keila Franks. The next 20 minutes of the Teleconference was devoted to comments and tips from Kathleen Huston, Sharon Kolby, and Marlene [?} who are just back from a tour of Burma. Sharon recommended a tri-sha ride across the river from Yangon to see the village people, and a visit to to see the gardens at Governor’s Hotel in Yangon. She also warned tourists to not touch a Burmese on the head, or point with a foot. She offered to recommend some good restaurants in Yangon.
Delegation to Burma/Myanmar Begins January 5, 2014. American Women for International Understanding search for Enhanced Understanding in Burma
This Delegation emphasizes one of the three AWIU goals for 2013.
AMERICAN WOMEN FOR INTERNATIONAL UNDERSTANDING
Promotes woman-to-woman interaction and understanding worldwide through meaningful visits, grants, educational support, the celebration and support of the International Women of Courage, and participation of local chapters which act locally and affect globally.
Each year the AWIU Action Agenda sets the emphasis for support of women around the globe.
The 2013 AWIU ACTION AGENDA
1. Healing of violence against women. Inspired by the 2012 Balkans Delegation
2. Selecting an inspirational Women of Courage and working with her to send a delegation to her country. Local chapters develop a local project working with citizens living in the US from the country. Burma was selected for January, 2014
3. Education for women with an emphasis on literacy and communications. These educational efforts will be supported by AWIU grants and by local and international programs.
The Burma Delegation was inspired by Zin Mar Aung the 2012 International Women of Courage from Burma Here is her courageous profile
Zin Mar Aung is a former political prisoner, imprisoned for eleven years because of her political activism and has dedicated her life to promoting democracy, women’s empowerment, and conflict resolution in Burma. Following her involvement in the 1996 and 1998 pro-democracy student uprisings and subsequent imprisonment, she established a cultural impact studies group to promote the idea that democracy is compatible with Asian culture. She also created and leads a self-help association for female ex-political prisoners and a political science school in Rangoon, which teaches and empowers civil society activists in Burma’s changing but still challenging environment. She is also the co-founder of a women’s empowerment group, and is currently spearheading an organization to raise awareness of issues affecting ethnic minorities in conflict areas.
The very first delegation of women understanding women was to Russia in 1968 or 46 years ago. No pictures exist of that delegation–but only 5 years later and only one year after the US opened relations with China here is an AWIU delegation pictured on the Great Wall of China in 1973.