I was sitting on the sofa one Sunday morning when the phone rang. I didn’t want to get up. I just wanted to do nothing. I finally grabbed the phone, and it was Ko Kyaw Shwe, a friend also lives in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been so busy with my work and personal problems, that this is the first chance I’ve had to call,” he said.
His voice was indeed tired. I asked him whether he was sick; “Unhappy,” he said. “I had sent a video camera to Burma with a trustworthy person. My younger brother took the camera and shot video at a relative’s ahlu (a ceremony to collect offerings for monks). He was arrested because he didn’t have license to take video. Now he is in detention center!”
Oh my God! I thought. In Burma people even don’t have the freedom to take video at a relative’s ahlu? “Is the situation really that bad, Ko Kyaw Shwe?” My voice shook.
“I must tell you, it’s worse than that,” he voice was trembling, too. “My village in upper Burma has 70 or 80 houses. We typically plant bean and sesame, and after the harvest, we have ahlu. My small village used to busy the whole year. But now, the village is a ghost town. The farms have been seized; land owners are landless. My other younger brother is included in those who have had their land confiscated.
“As you know up-country is so hot you can’t farm after 10 a.m. People get up early and go to farm as early as 3 or 4 a.m. Before the sun becomes a torch at 9 or 10 a.m., the farmers come back home. At about 5 in the evening, when the heat relents, they go back and farm for another four or five hours, then call it a day…That’s how our lives have been forever.
“But these days, army units have been posted at villages. The Union Solidarity and Development Association’s Swan Arrshins (who are backed by the military government) harrass the villagers. Now, women who go to the fields early or come home late are raped. Rebellious men who respond back are reported or waylaid. The villagers don’t dare go to the fields. The village has become as a cemetery.”
I murmured “Oh God!” throughout the whole phone conversation. What was happening in Burma? People used to help others, and make friends so easily. The villages used to reverberate with the rhymes of saing (Burmese orchestra) and drums. Burmese used to say that blood is thicker than water, but now they are bullying each other, filing complaints against each other, becoming informants and sending their fellow villagers to jail.
Most Burmese are poor and uneducated. They don’t realize that the government is playing “divide and conquer.” In this situation, people are oppressed by government-created loathing and suspicion. If people are fighting among one another, they have no time to consider the issues facing the nation as a whole.
The inability to associate freely prevents people from looking at the real situation and agreeing on a response. People are adrift in a sea of trouble.
As I learn more about what’s happening in Burma, I yearn to change life for the people there, and end my pleasant, lazy Sundays here in Pittsburgh.
Click here to read Khet Mar’s bio.