Di Morrissey on Burma
My first real interest in Burma was piqued when my son, Nick, travelled there some time ago, and told me what an extraordinary country it was. He was so passionate that I began to take notice of the brutal political events that were occurring there. I realised, along with many, many other people what an amazing person Aung San Suu Kyi was and how repressed the people of Burma were under the rule of the military junta. As I became involved in activities which highlighted their plight, I became more determined to try and bring Burma’s sad story to as many Australians as possible.
Entering the country:
Visas can be tricky to obtain, but I finally got into Burma in 2011 and travelled around the country. I was there at the great moment of change, when the first chink of light appeared in the peoples’ dream of gaining democracy.
To be there during that moment of change was extraordinary. There’d been rumours and talk for a couple of weeks that some prisoners might be released. I was far up country in Mrauk-U where there was no phone service, and so was unaware of what was happening in Yangon until the Burmese Buddhist scholar with whom I was travelling saw a crowd in a tea shop gathered around a radio. We joined the crowd and everyone was jumping up and down in amazed delight that “Zarganar was out!” Zarganar is a performer and political activist who is idolised in Burma. He was arrested for criticising and making satirical remarks about the military regime. The euphoria was still there when we got back to Yangon as more prisoners of conscience were released. Now photos of Aung San Suu Kyi could be sold openly at stalls, and her face was all over the newspapers. Not all political prisoners were released when I was there, but now there was hope that they would be.
In the following months I watched the rapid escalation of events following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, in her election to parliament, and for the first time in more than twenty-five years, she was able to travel out of the country. Although she is in opposition, she is seen by the rest of the world as the face of Burma, now speaking in the British Parliament and accepting her Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to her so many years ago.
Events move forward almost daily and some of the sanctions against Burma are being relaxed. I am pleased that the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has decided to increase Australian aid to Burma. It will be interesting to see if Burma can move forward and not make the mistakes other emerging nations have made, especially in preserving their extraordinary history.
Burma is an ancient Buddhist country filled with the most extraordinary examples of Buddhist shrines, from the plains of Bagan studded with thousands of ancient stone stupas, to the glittering gold pagodas and monasteries that shine from jungles and mountain tops, to the iconic jewelled gold Shwedagon and Sule pagodas that rise above Yangon. The ancient Buddha carvings, statues and art which is so much part of everyday life for the Burmese, are all totally breathtaking. The landscape is beautiful, and due to the poor economy a lot of it is unspoilt. Local handicrafts continue to be made in the old tradition as tools remain primitive! But, Burma’s biggest asset is its people; gentle, friendly, polite, fun and extremely literate.
An unusual travelling companion:
My travels around the countryside were done in the company of a wonderful Buddhist scholar and teacher who, knowing my son taught Buddhist art history, assumed I was as deeply schooled in Buddhist philosophy and history as well. Since I wasn’t, it was a steep learning curve! Mr T, as I called him, was very proper and respectful, but as we stumbled through adventures (travel in Burma is still a bit of an adventure!) we became fast friends sharing food, a sunset beer and books! We still keep in touch.
I am returning to Burma this November to meet my son there, so that we can travel to parts of Burma together. We also plan to visit Sagaing (outside Mandalay) where I am helping to support an energetic monk build a school for young children at his monastery. The Australian Ambassador has kindly arranged the launch of my book in Yangon, and so I will have the opportunity to meet all my friends in Burma again.