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What a little girl taught me about Myanmar

  • Do children like her even have a chance? What will happen to her in the future? Will she be able to go to school?

By Khoo Ying Hooi

My job brought me to different parts of Southeast Asia but not Myanmar. Recently, I finally had an opportunity to visit Myanmar for the very first time. While I was very much looking forward to experience a country that I have never visited before, I was not sure what to expect although I have read about the country.

For many Malaysians, they would probably associate Myanmar to Rohingya crisis and the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi. But, I have always believed that we will never be able to really understand a country unless you visit and experience it. I was lucky enough to be able not to only visit Yangon or also known by its colonial name of Rangoon, but also Mon State. Mon State is an administrative division of Myanmar, sandwiched between Kayin State on the east and the Andaman Sea on the west.

Yangon used to be the capital of Myanmar from 1948 until it was superseded by Naypyidaw in 2006. The organizer of the conference that I attended to was very kind to arrange a tour for the participants to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, also known as the Golden Pagoda. I was rendered speechless when I first stepped into the pagoda. The pagoda was absolutely monumental, and during night-time, the golden glow gives a feel of as if I have stepped into another dimension, accompanied by the sound of a meditative blend of chanting, gongs and bells.

The next day, during the journey to Mon State that took around three hours, I became aware that I was stepping into one of my biggest adventure that I have never expected. Gazing through the car window, I could feel through that this is the right place for me. I could not stop smiling and thinking, to find myself in an unknown place, yet to feel so comfortable and warmly welcome. The programme in Mon State that I was involved took three days, and it was one of my best experiences ever as I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic participation of the local communities and how much eager they were in learning new things.

Myanmar declared independence in 1948 after being a British colony for more than a century, just a year after the assassination of nationalist leader General Aung San, whom was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Representative democracy did not last long until the military coup in 1962, led by General U Ne Win for 26 years. In 1974, a new constitution was constituted by Ne Win based on an isolationist policy with a socialist economic program, that was when the country’s economic situation deteriorated tremendously. 1988 marked another turning point of Myanmar’s history, whereby it witnessed the mass protests led by students that killed at least 3,000. That was when Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence as the leader of the NLD. A year later, she was detained and spent more than fifteen years in detention.

In 1990, the junta held elections in which the NLD won 392 of 485 parliamentary seats but the military government did not recognize the results. That triggered the clamp down on dissent, and forced the imprisonment of many NLD politicians, with some went into exile. After decades of isolation, significant political and economic reforms then took place since 2011. The NLD won a landslide electoral victory in late 2015 that gave it the majority in the parliament, though the military continues to dominate important ministries.

For decades, Myanmar has seen staggering changes. While state censorship has been relaxed, political prisoners have been released, and foreign investment has started to increase, but concerns persist especially about the role of the military in domestic affairs, the issue of ethnic minorities, and the pace of constitutional reforms. Despite these challenges, whoever have made their trip to the country including myself can never forget this beautiful country. This country is certainly captivating with its friendly and welcoming people.

I went back to the pagoda on my last day in Myanmar on my own by foot. While I was very much attracted to the street foods along my way to the pagoda, what struck me the most was that, while walking towards the entrance of the pagoda where the staircase was, several children approached me with a plastic bag. I was not able to understand them initially, but later on I realized that the plastic bag was for me to put my shoes in with some fees as the pagoda being a sacred place has a no-shoe policy.

At one point, I was almost brought to tears by the insistence of one little girl on giving me the plastic bag, I finally got her some food as I was not intend to go to the pagoda. I could not stop thinking about that little girl on my way back to Malaysia. At such a young age, she has lots of different obstacle in her way, but she never erase the smile on her face during our encounter. Thinking about what will come of her. Do children like her even have a chance? What will happen to her in the future? Will she be able to go to school? I do really wish I could do something more for her.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)



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