Peace Corps for Burma? Not Yet!

– Gerald R. Scutler, RPCV, Ethiopia

Gerald R. Scutler is the pseudonym of an RPCV who plans to return to Burma soon. Writers who criticize the military junta are routinely denied entry to the country.

Although Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average per capita income of just over $300, it won’t become a Peace Corps country anytime soon. It’s like one of those desperate Latin American military dictatorships where PCVs in the mid-sixties left after two years advising Peace Corps planners that the agency was wasting its time unless it found a way to overthrow the government. Part of the Peace Corps conventional wisdom in those days was that volunteers in Asia learned to be contemplative, volunteers in Africa learned to laugh, and volunteers in Latin America learned to be militant. Now it’s Burma, renamed Myanmar by the generals after they seized power in 1962, where you go to learn to want to join an insurrection.
My partner Joe and I spent three and half months last winter roaming around SE Asia – I’m a writer, he’s a photographer – including two weeks in Burma. The place reminded me of Ethiopia, which I re-visited in 1988 during the brutal Mengistu Haile Mariam Marxist dictatorship, in the way that the whole society seemed clinically depressed. The poverty was awful, the economic and ideological class structure was rigid, there were spies everywhere, and you could go to prison and be tortured to death for expressing a thought.

The late-September uprising in Burma, mass demonstrations led mainly by Buddhist monks, did not surprise us. Tensions were simmering when we were there in April, and this summer when the generals raised fuel prices by 500 percent, making life for most Burmese all but unlivable, the rage exploded. The deadly force used to halt the protests was no surprise either. In 1988, the Myanmar military shot or bludgeoned to death over 3,000 students marching in support of the Nobel Laureate and elected head of state Aung San Suu Kyi, then as now under house arrest. This year’s death toll of perhaps a few hundred could actually be considered a step in the right direction. But the ruthlessness is still hair-raising, with reliable reports of monasteries trashed, many hundreds of monks beaten and imprisoned, and secret mass cremations of the dead – some say of the badly injured but alive – at the Rangoon crematorium.

Many human rights organizations support a boycott of tourism to Burma. This ban is meant to complement the economic sanctions against Burma by much of the West, sanctions rendered largely meaningless by massive investment in mineral-rich Burma by India, Thailand, Malaysia and especially China. But the Burmese we met, while supporting the sanctions, disagreed with the tourism boycott. They were glad to see us and our dollars. Par Par Lay, the Burmese comedian imprisoned for seven years for ridiculing the regime, urged us to send friends to Burma so they could enjoy its otherworldly beauty and quiet hospitality and then go home and spread the story of Burmese suffering. Par Par Lay is now back in custody for carrying alms to protesting monks in Mandalay on September 26. Last year 263,500 tourists visited Burma’s golden temples and other attractions. Now tourism has slowed to a trickle, hotels have laid off workers, and taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are sinking even further into social and economic squalor.

What can be done? Not much. Support Burmese pro-democracy groups financially. Or even go there and spend money on non-government-owned businesses. After the 1988 uprising, the socialism-for-the-rich economy was liberalized somewhat, allowing a small mercantile class to begin to emerge. Some anti-regime groups are urging a boycott of the Chinese Olympics next summer, unless China changes its tune and pressures the junta to reform. Some people are already e-mailing the Chinese Olympic Committee saying they have dropped plans to attend the games. The address is . Joe and I had planned to raise money for the restoration of a crumbling temple in Moulmein (Kipling: “By the old Moulmein pagoda lookin’ lazy by the sea”) that’s overseen by a volubly anti-government abbot we met. Now we think we’ll just donate to pro-democracy groups and otherwise revisit Burma in February or March and help out individuals.

Burma’s tragedy is especially sad and galling because so much of the region, beset for so long by wars and inept governance, is making progress. Thailand, despite its own coup-prone military, is charging ahead with its tourism-based booming economy, and has also become an Asian medical center. Vietnam still has a Leninist political system but a market economy. Saigon felt like some razzle-dazzle combination of Hong Kong and Fort Lauderdale, and Hanoi was a little like Paris except with heroic statues of Ho Chi Minh instead of Balzac. Cambodia is still run by thugs and is pretty ramshackle, but its economy is starting to sputter to life, too. Laos lags economically, though tourism is catching on. Luang Prabang, the old royal capital high above the Mekong in the northern mountains, was one of the loveliest places in Indochina we had a hard time leaving.

Laos is also the locale for an excellent Peace Corps-like project. Sasha Alyson, a pioneer of gay publishing in the U.S., moved to SE Asia when he ran an adventure-travel business for several years. Now he’s helping run Big Brother Mouse publishing, which he founded with some young Laos. They put out children’s illustrated story books in Lao and English, the country’s first such publications. Trekkers are urged to carry them to rural villages and leave behind books instead of candy. Joe took some to an Akah-tribe isolated elementary school, and both kids and teachers were mesmerized. Check out Sasha’s Web site Actual Peace Corps programs are in Thailand, one of the agency’s oldest, and, as of this year, Cambodia.

Gay life, by the way, ranges from the gaudily robust in Bangkok (Tennessee Williams on Bangkok: “The name says it all”) to the discreetly resilient elsewhere in the region. Tolerant, accepting Buddhism has no opinion on the subject, and neither do any Southeast Asian governments. There’s still some social prejudice in conservative rural areas, but not much that’s severe.

In limpid, gorgeous Inle Lake, Burma, we visited a floating silk-weaving loft. Among the dozen or so women busy at their intricate hand looms was one old Intha-tribe man. Our guide told us it was “strange” for a man to be doing this kind of women’s work. When we went over to him, we saw that the man’s design was unusually complex and very beautiful. And when he looked up at us and smiled, we were sure we saw a familiar twinkle in the old artisan’s eye.

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