History and Her Story: The White Umbrella

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When an elderly man close to political circles saw me with this book, he was not shy to express his disapproval, “That book is so distorted.”  He served in the military for years and seemed to hold contrasting views with me on just about every major issue I could think of.  That’s when I knew this book had to be a gem.  Published 17 years ago, this book deserves a lot more publicity than what it has now.

Throughout my public school years, I did not learn history, only propaganda.

For instance, students are familiar with the national holiday celebrated on February 12th.  When I was in middle school, I remember entering state-sponsored, city-wide essay contests in honor of this Union Day. An official version of the store places Bogyoke Aung San at the center of this event, whereas this memoir presents this event as originating from a discussion among Tai princes of Shan states on how to best prepare for their autonomy upon the British departure.  Aung San was invited as a guest to the Pang Long Conference on Union Day, not its organizer, at the suggestion of student groups in Taungyi.

Yet, the diverse ethnic voices and details of the agreement were never highlighted in my classes.

If you grew up in the nineties in Myanmar, you are also familiar with the Myanmar government’s narrative of “a national unity.”  In the mainstream narrative that centers the majority “Burman” over a diverse multitude of cultures, only unity is a core value, when in fact it is only recently that the country as a whole is ruled with the power concentrating on Rangoon and later Naypyitaw. The British colonialism has been blamed for its “divide and conquer” style, and yet most of the Shan States long enjoyed their own autonomous ways and freedoms, before the British was ever in the picture.

Knowing is a process.  I guess I was sort of always aware of all this, but did not give much thought to this bias until recently, as embarrassing as it is to admit this now.  Only when you travel to Chin, Karen, and Shan States and notice how the local identity is held differently and how they do not buy into the official history, and only when you read books like this, that you painfully realize how the faulty versions of events have been drummed into your head from early on.

This book is perhaps one of my favorites I have come across on the history of Myanmar, which is usually told from the majority Burman assumptions.  This book gives an important perspective to meditate on.  Moreover, Sao has lived a remarkable, badass life!  She was born a Tai princess, became a First Lady of the first modern President of Burma, and later a member of the Myanmar Parliament, a rare feat for a woman in 1950s.  On top of all this, after her husband and  youngest son were killed, Sao went underground and became a leader of Shan State Army in sixties.  Such a strong, feisty woman!

Highly recommended. For more alternate histories of Myanmar / Burma, check out this reading list at GoodReads.

Here, Sao describes her visit to Rangoon under the British rule before Japanese came in.  Yangon / Rangoon is full of remarkable tales.

Sao also occasionally accompanied her husband to Rangoon.  There was a good unsurfaced road to the capital now, though they preferred to travel by train.  It took two days, a slower journey but less dusty and cramped.  When they arrived their schedule typically included state dinners and meetings at Government House, the official residence of the Governor of Burma.  It was a palatial three storey Victorian mansion set in a beautifully tended garden on an ample square of land that stretched all the way from Ahlone Road to the corner of Windsor and Prome.  Alighting from a chauffeured limousine at the mansion’s grand doors, they were greeted by a nine-gun salute, an honor prescribed in the prince’s Writ of Authority.

Government House was not the only building of note.  Under the colonialists, Rangoon had become Southeast Asia’s foremost city.  The new buildings south of the railway station were highly elegant: the Court House, the Port Commissioner’s Building, Grindlay’s Bank, the Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai, and the Bank of India.  Colonnaded and corniced, the gleaming white facade of the Strand Hotel faced the Rangoon River, where steamers crowded the jetties.  From here, the country’s major exports made their way down the river to the sea.  Burma was the world’s foremost rice exporter.  There was oil, too, carried by pipeline 376 miles from the Yengangyuang fields of north-central Burma, Britain’s largest far eastern oil discovery.

In contrast to the edifices of bureaucracy and finance, the country’s parliament building was a small two-storey building with an unadorned pyramid-shaped tile roof, as plain looking as an army mess hall.  Nearly invisible from Maha Bandoola Street, it sat within the Quadrangle, a square of land surrounded by three wings of the massive Secretariat Building.

Within the Secretariat’s endless corridors, Britain’s Chief Secretary presided over ten Secretaries, three Joint Secretaries, five Deputy Secretaries, nine Under-Secretaries, five Assistant Secretaries, seven Registrars, and a host of support staff of the Indian Civil Service.  They lived by the Secretariat Code, a huge volume crammed with correction slips and addendums.  Their windows overlooked the tiny parliament building, a fitting architectural arrangement.  The Secretariat was the source of the country’s true governance, not parliament.

Not far from the Secretariat was City Hall and Sule Pagoda.  Squat and bulbous, the pagoda sat at the hub of the several busy streets, the widest being Sule Pagoda Road.  From morning till past sunset, the spicy-sweet smell of Indian curries and the garlicky steam of Chinese noodles drifted onto the road.  The restaurants defined Rangoon’s cosmopolitan nature for, above all, this was a city of immigrants: 250,000 Indians and 40,000 Chinese outnumbered the 160,000 Burmese, who were mostly landless laborers.

The British influence skirted Sule Pagoda and traveled like a vein north, following the flame trees of Prome Road past the Governor’s mansion, the Good Shepherd Convent and Girl’s School, the exclusive Pegu Club.  Haunts of the wealthy clustered around the city’s two picturesque lakes – the swimming and boating club on Royal Lake, and the yacht club on Victoria Lake, which the locals knew as Inya Lake.  Between the lakes lay Golden Valley, a suburb of well-built mansions and bungalows.  Just east of Golden Valley, imported thoroughbreds thundered around the Race Course’s grass oval.  In a satellite town beyond the city’s northern limit was Mingaladon International, one of the most modern airports in Asia.

Rangoon was impressive but Sao didn’t enjoy her visits.  She hated the city’s heat; even the water tasted too warm.  At get-togethers, conversation was limited to a bewildering tangle of political gossip; the Burmese parliament had become a nest of corruption, intrigue and racial tension.  Trying to follow all the charges and counter-charges in the newspaper made her head ache.

Behind the Brand @ Cici

Hillary: The woman behind Cici clothing line

Lately, I have had to initiate difficult conversations at work. As I cruise through my mid-twenties, I have also begun measuring professional success and satisfaction through a different set of yardsticks. When I shared this with one of my best friends, she emailed me this article in the morning and told me that it is better to start valuing yourself and letting others know to value you while you are still young. It is a life skill.

Overall, with the opening up of Myanmar, I would say that it is actually a very fortunate time to be a single, twenty-something professional woman in Yangon, especially as a repatriate. We really cannot complain. I feel grateful for all the opportunities, timing, and generous help from trusted advisers, mentors and supervisors at work and outside of office.

While things are fairly comfortable for repatriates and large companies with access to capital, it is also worth reflecting that most of Myanmar’s youth is faced with massive insecurity over job readiness, English skills and other training opportunities, the same way most of mom and pop stores struggle with the trade opening of the country. What matters more is employment for the critical mass, as someone wise said at Euromoney a few months ago.

Amidst all of this, I must say I am very impressed with Hillary, the mastermind behind the new clothing line Cici, aimed at dressing young, modern professional women of Myanmar. As a fresh graduate of Swarthmore College and a family with roots in retail and garment industry, Hillary has appropriately taken up her role as a bold business entrepreneur, handling the media, staff and guests expertly and with so much grace. I just love how much the brand is in sync with the woman behind it.

For her first collection, she invited real young professional women instead of models to walk her debut show, which was a real fun experience! The young savvy designers behind the line also made an offer to some of us to give them English lessons in exchange for cute clothing. Deal!

Day -5

Day -5

Project Cici

Day -5

-2 Hours: Hillary graciously handles media

-2 Hours: Hillary and media interviews

-1 hour: remove the consequences of heavy handling by makeup artists...

-1 hour: Removing the heavy handling of makeup artists…

Zero hour

Zero hour

Thank-yous

 

Myanmar interfaith marriage ban: Women – not monks – decide who they can have sex with

Conflicts. Wars. Power struggle among men. Sometimes, it happens in the name of honor. Sometimes in the name of protecting women. But really it boils down to nothing more than the classic male competition. Us against them. Thinking goes something along the line of it will reflect poorly on us if my/our women are with them. Marking of territories. How women are feeling doesn’t matter, doesn’t enter into the equation.

Who women have sex with, when and how remain some of the oldest and most clichéd preoccupations of societies across the world, especially so in a long isolated country like Myanmar. It is a public affair. Religious leaders want to have a say in it. Politicians want to chip in their two/three cents. Patriarchal institutions want to confine what women shall and shall not want or do.

A one-month old draft legislation in Myanmar now wants Burmese women to get permission from parents and local authorities before marrying someone of a different faith. She can be put in prison for ten years should she fail to abide by the law. The draft law is now being led by a political party and a monk, saying “this law is my dream” and that he is just trying to “protect women” and his nation. Well, the draft law is surely a nightmare for those that treasure liberty, gender equality and individual rights.

There are no safe clinics for Myanmar women to give birth or get necessary healthcare. Girls are usually the first in a household to be taken out of school when faced with economic pressures. About ten percent of families in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta are having to discontinue education of their children because they do not have enough money for food purchase. Alcoholism is on the rise, and Myanmar is one of the few last standing countries in Southeast Asia (and the world) without proper legal protection against domestic violence. A comprehensive gender equality legislation is far from reality, and the focus group was asked to change the name of the draft law on gender equality to a new name that includes “protection.” Why are politicians and religious leaders so concerned with interfaith marriages given the scope and depth of present challenges?

Though I believe in core principles of Buddhism, recent events in Myanmar makes me ponder a Margaret Atwood quote: “Any religion is a shadow of God. But the shadows of God are not God.” And it escapes most sane people when Buddhist monks are forcing women to seek patriarchal permission with legal implications of ten years in prison to make an important life decision such as marriage.

It is as if the society doesn’t trust the ability of a Burmese woman to make decisions for herself. The male knows better. And the funny thing is that this assumption is not even hidden. The chairperson of the Theravada Dharma Network blatantly stated as follows: “Our Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves.”

Thanks, but no thanks.

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for 0ur bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions – predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different;” not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others – parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children – that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons. Women everywhere are finding the courage to do this more and more and we are finding that courage both in our study of women in the past who possessed it and in each other as we look to other women for comradeship, community and challenge. The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”

– Adrienne Rich, Claiming on Education, 1977

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Thank the kitchen gods

Happy Mother’s Day in advance. It’s only three days away. Order flowers. Make her a card. Bake her some cupcakes. Get her a pass to that fancy spa she has been eying on for weeks. For a change, let’s get her pampered instead.

Whenever I think about my mom, or “career moms” in general, my admiration for them is with a strange mix of intimidation. In a way, the situation resembles that of a novice hiker gazing to the peak of whatever hill she is resolved to climb – with wonder, curiosity, and a constant stream of self-reassurances. And it shouldn’t be this way.

Many moms in Myanmar are stay-at-home moms, and so are an increasing number of highly trained moms in the US choosing to drop out of workforce. When I was in college, people usually told me that a student can only get two out of three things: a good GPA, a fun social life, or an impressive track record of extracurricular activities. While I know many students that seem to have had it all, a similar tri-lemma arises here. When you become a mom, it is as if you can get only two out of these three: being a good mother, having a fulfilling career, or keeping the ‘spice’ in your marriage. Why? Because the roles are so conflicting.

Role models ranging from Anne-Marie Slaughter and Shery Sandberg to French mothers have reached different conclusions. But the bottom line seems clear: the future of feminism desperately needs participation from men. As women penetrated into the formal economy sector in the past decades, their responsibilities at home have never receded. The new freedoms are beginning to enslave women in double-duty shifts: fabulous professionals by day and glamorous moms and wives by night. It’s really scary.

Things in Myanmar are slightly different. With the help of extended family and relatives, there is some help releasing maternal pressures. But Burmese husbands also tend to be less involved, adding a different twist to the American story. Ha and by the way, thank god for the sexually repressed nature of the conservative Burmese society: married women are usually not expected to look glam all the time, like in the States. The nature of career has so far been different although things are changing fast now. Without many multinational companies in the country, most women have worked in family-owned businesses: family farms or mom n’ pop stores with very flexible hours. It will be interesting to see how this trend will have changed in ten years’ time, when there are more corporate jobs available and when the long isolated country gets immersed in prevailing trends and new, modern biases without the former “protection” of self-imposed isolation.

In any case, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. My point is, what an amazing job our moms have done today! How have they navigated their way to today? What are they feeling? Do they feel fulfilled? By how we the children have turned out to be? With their career path? And their marriage, even? Are Burmese moms today happy?

Happy Mother’s Day!

Daily Bread by Barbara Kingsolver

The clink of tin cups in the kitchen
rouses my ears. I close my book,
hold my place with a fingertip while
I listen: to the measuring cups,
little quarrels of half against quarter,
then the sifted hush of the flour.
There will be kneading,
there will be punching down,
and rising and rising again,
the press of increase constrained
by the small square box in the oven,
the immutable passage of time,
and finally a home and a hunger filled
with fragrant gold.
I return to my reading, but first
I thank the kitchen gods
for what marriage is: throughout this
immutable passage, these square
impossible constraints, these petty clinkings
of half against quarter, and oh
this needing, oh this falling and this rising,
I am blessed
with a husband who makes bread.