Friday, October 06, 2006

#53 Myanmar, or is it Burma?

Tonight (Saturday) we dock in Yangon, Myanmar.

It used to be called Rangoon, Burma and still is by many. In preparation for our visit, we’ve been reading about Burma – Burmese Diary by George Orwell, Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin, and Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Before this trip when asked about our ports of call, we would recite: Mexico, Hawaii, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Myanmar… and get a quizzical look. Yea, before this trip, the country formerly known as Burma was not on my radar either.

Early in our voyage, I met a gem of a couple, Tom and Dianne Klein, educators from Ohio, who recommended Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin as an excellent example of creative non-fiction. Larkin, writing under a pen name to avoid retaliation from the current brutal military regime, travels to sites where Orwell lived in Burma and learns the locals view Orwell as a prophet, given the distinct similarities between the current repressive Myanmar government and that described in Orwell’s 1984.

During a brief uprising in support of democratic rule in 1988, the Myanmar government ordered thousands shot in the streets and thousands more thrown in prison for conduct detrimental to the state. Reacting to the resulting international outrage, the government agreed to democratic elections where the opposition movement garnered over 80% of the vote. The government ignored the election results and put Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic opposition leader, under arrest. In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. U2 wrote “Walk On” about her struggles and dedicated the song to her. That song is banned in Myanmar where she remains under arrest today. This September, the United Nations Security Council voted to formally add Burma to its agenda.

Today, citizens of Myanmar are living the 1984 big brother nightmare. For example, visitors must make up their mind early if they intend to stay the night because their presence has to be reported to the local Law and Order Restoration Council by 9 pm. Failure to “report the guest list” could result in a fine or a prison sentence for both the guest and the host. Nobody may go away for the night from his own home without informing the local LORC as well as the LORC of the place where he will be staying. The authorities have the right to check at any time during the night to see if there are any unreported guests or if any of the family members are missing.

We’ve learned that a few students will not be getting off the ship at this port so as not to financially support the military. And faculty have told us Desmond Tutu will be sailing on the fall 2007 voyage of Semester at Sea under the condition the ship does not dock in Myanmar. Our plans are to spend the next few days in the port city of Yangon and in Mandalay, the cultural heartland of Myanmar.

Yours in approaching Myanmar,

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