Walking along the streets of Rangoon, former capital of Burma, leaves one overwhelmed with omnipresent life fitted in every corner, every piece of space in the city. Tiny chairs taking over most of the payment giving a rest to way too big for them adults, food vendors sweating over the hot oil pot or selling home made delights from the tray put on their knees, children playing football in the narrow alleys overlooked by the balconies dressed in colorful laundry, cars, trucks and unidentified vehicles squeezing in between each other in a traffic that denies any known physical law. Over that a cloud of scents and smoke, around an orchestra of noises, bringing from time to time a delightful bell of the sugar cane vendor. Rangoon is blue from longhis - the traditional men’s outfit wrapped around their waist, white from painted colonial buildings and golden from buddhist pagodas. Wreathed in a fumes of tea or coffee and sincere smiles. Burmese are an extremely nice and hospital people, always welcoming and willing to talk. Unless you want to talk about politics. It’s easy to forget along that friendly conversations, that we’re in the place on earth when for one unfortunately expressed opinion one can go to jail for years.
Myanmar, as Burma has been renamed in 1989, has been ruled by the one of the most strict dictatorships - military junta, that took over the power through a coup d'état in 1962. For 50 years now, generals changed that beautiful, rich in natural resources country into a land of poverty and fear. Censorship, political arrests, validation of human rights, collapse of educational system, isolation from the outside world, practically non existing health care system, economical mismanagement and many other crimes of the government agains their own people has made life unbearable for Burmese people. Any attempts to raise against the regime ended with a bloody respond from the generals. In 1988, initiated by the students “8888 Upraising” led to thousands of deaths and arrests bringing even more suppression from the junta. Dramatical situation, especially poverty on the edged of starvation for many families, not being able to pay raised prices for public transport and as a result not being able to get to work or trade, not to mention visiting families or sending children to school, arouse into an extraordinary event for the Buddhist country. In 2007, Burmese monks started a protest march, known today as Saffron Revolution. While monks are sacred in buddhist tradition, reaction of the military junta sending army against them and opening a fire, shook minds and hearts of the people, taking away hope for change. Only recently, under a pressure of foreign countries, generals seem to open a door for some dialog. Releasing from house arrest and allowing taking part in the election for Aung San Suu Kyi - the icon of fight for democracy, may be a sign of incoming change. May, because only a year ago talking to Burmese young generation it was difficult to find any hope for that in their statements.
Whenever there is attention brought to young Burmese generation, born and raised in the regime, it focuses on the political issues. Yet, for those 18-28 years old girls and boys Burma is not about the regime. It’s about serving their country despite the political situation and within values and culture that their’ve been raised in. What strokes the most is the attitude of those young people towards an oppressive reality they live in. In any Western country that situation would cause rebel, protests, anger and fighting reaction. Not here. As much as with a calm voice young Burmese people talk about struggles they face, you cant’s hear anger in their voices, you won’t find violence in their words. One would think that it comes from fear, from significant consequences that military junta would punish anyone who speaks or acts against it. But that’s not it. They do act in their way, fearlessly. What seems to stand behind that peaceful attitude, is deep-rooted culture and way of seeing life. Burma, being so successfully isolated by the system from the outside world, remained pure in it’s culture and traditions, incomparably less influenced by the western world than any other Asian country.
Despite the fact, that life in their own country limits possibilities to choose life path that they dream about, rarely any of Burmese youngsters talk about a desire to live abroad. Not even in search for the better live but to be able to do what they dream about. “I wanted to be a journalist” says Zoncy, 30 years old artist and performer “ but you can’t be a journalist here. I tried, I worked in the newspaper but it was impossible to write what I wanted to write. Censorship is so strict that even not political stories are being changed. This is not journalism, I’ve quit”. She talks about giving up her dream with a smile, the same calm smile that catches out attention many times while listening to Burmese youngsters. There is acceptance hard to understand behind it.
Young people in Burma are maturing early, they choose their profession going to the university at the age of 16 or 17. Every Burmese boy has an experience of staying in a monastery and living monk’s life behind him. Their primary goal is to be a pride for their parents, supporting them is what their expected to do and believe is a right way live. That respect for parents and older people together with values and religion makes them sometimes difficult to comprehend with a western mindset.
-Katarzyna Zofia Tolwinska-