Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Burma -- Nats or nuts planting nuts.

Painting "Our Lady of Scorpions" copyright Kyi May Kaung

"What the hell is a kyet soo pin -- kyet soo plant?" all the Conference attendees wanted to know at a closed door conference on Burma in Bangkok last July.

Someone told us it is "physic nut."

Now it seems that the junta in Burma is making people plant physic nut, even on their balconies in town.

This is somewhat reminiscent of Mao's backyard steel furnaces -- for which Chinese had to contribute their cooking pots and pans and farm tools in China's Great Leap Forward, which predictably, fell on its face.

It wasn't till China started using market reforms in 1978 under Deng Xiao Ping that it started to achieve the 10% per annum growth that has made it now into one of the world's leading producers and exporters of industrial goods.

Now Burma is using a policy like Mao's "to get rid of sparrows" in a nation wide campaign.

Read more on:

Physic nut looks like a hibiscus plant, without the attractive flowers.

Nats in Burma are the 37 spirits of the pre-Buddhist pantheon, most of whom are "green dead" and died a violent death. Some are based on historical figures such as the Yun Bayin (Siamese King) Mae Ku of Chiangmai, taken to Burma as a prisoner of war.

The junta should not be so scared of Burmese democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. After all, she is worshiped like a saint, (or a nat?) and is already a legend in her lifetime.

A country covered with kyet soo plants will hardly hide her story.

Copyright Kyi May Kaung

Friday, May 25, 2007

Poet Martin Espada interviewed by poet E. Ethelbert Miller

For my Burmese friends -- nothing can be more relevant than poets who write about oppression. See Foreign Policy in Focus.

Originally published in March, but then poetry never goes out of date. At least not good poetry.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Wild River Review special edition on Wine, Women and Song.

Painting (left portion of) Las Vegas Black Apsaras, copyright Kyi M. Kaung. (Right portion can be seen in an earlier blog)

I just saw a blurb on NewPages.com describing Wild River Review as

"a cutting edge online literary magazine," presenting "a world of voices in conversation."

In this issue, see especially poem "Tall Naked Ships in Spike Heels" by
Jennifer Williamson and
an interview of Sci Fi writer Bill Kent.

I once took a one day workshop with Kent in Philadelphia, during which he described how

to jumpstart one's imagination and write it down fast when the Muse strikes.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lesson in Tight Editing --

from the Anaheim Ballet. All in 2.18 mins. Already viewed by almost one and a half million people.

Is this success or is this not?

Sprawling, hemming and hawing writers please note the dramatic beginning, middle and end.

Best writing course I've ever attended. You may try the writing and editing, but please don't try the dancing at home.


Guest book reviewer Lila Snow on Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning

Photo "Red and Black Koi" copyright Kyi M. Kaung


This book was published in 2005. A group of American tourists go to China and Burma. The repressive regimes make you wonder about the wisdom of this trip. The group has two children, a 12 year old girl and a 14 year old boy.

The girl manages to smuggle a puppy across many check points. The boy is thought to be a God who can make people disappear because he does that with card tricks and that is what causes serious trouble.

The group has a secret documentary film maker and a not so secret TV veterinarian. When the group goes off on an excursion and disappears, without this veterinarian they would probably never be heard from again. He is an expert at getting attention. Fortunately he drinks and missed the boat for the excursion because of a hangover.

When the group disappears and the news is broadcast on CNN, 73% of Americans want to invade Burma and a fair number say, “Nuke ‘em.” This is scary.

Amy Tan is knowledgeable about ethnic groups in Burma and the political problems there. The book is rich in so many ways. Tan made her name with THE JOY LUCK CLUB writing about an ethnic group she knows well --- her Chinese family, but SAVING FISH is a quantum leap into a totally different body of knowledge. She writes extremely well. This is her seventh book.
Artist Lila Snow is represented by International Visions Gallery in Washington DC. She is the author of a memoir, WITH A NAME LIKE TUCHMACHER. This book review is published here with Lila Snow's permission.

Monday, May 14, 2007

In Memoriam Chao Tzang Yawngwe -- July 25, 2004

Replica of Thai (Tai or Shan) palace at 2006 Chiangmai Flower Show.
Photo copyright Kyi M. Kaung. The Yawngwe Haws at Goodliffe Road, Rangoon (accidentally burned down) and in Yawngwe were much more modest than this. Golden yellow color is royal Thai color.

This tribute was published in an abridged version in The Irrawaddy in 2004.


Yesterday a friend in the media sent me a short email note. “He passed away at 6.30 this morning (Sat). I have just talked to his brother Harn.”

No doubt she was preparing a radio tribute.

Eugene Chao Tzang Yawgwe, activist and scholar, was one of the sons of the late Saw Shwe Thaike, first president of democratic Burma that existed immediately after Independence from Great Britain. Eugene was an unusual human being who combined insights from experiences as different as armed struggle for the freedom of his native Shan States, to a later life of political activism and scholarship.

In addition his father the Yawngwe Saopha, (in Burmese -- Nyaungshwe Sawbwa) was the head of not the biggest but certainly the most powerful of the hereditary Shan States. My mother indeed, with her fond memories and love of the Shan States always referred to the Nyaungshwe Sawbwa as Sawbwa Gyi “the great Sawbwa.”

Together with the Mongpawn Sawbwa Sao Sam Htun, who died after the same assassination attempt in which Bogyoke Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father died, Nyaungshwe Sawbwagyi probably was among the most progressive of Shan leaders and one of those who believed most in the Panglong Agreement.

Although to this day the spirit of Panglong, with its basis in racial and ethnic equality, can be said to be alive among those of us who believe in democracy, in Burma/Myanmar (Burma slash Myanmar, as a careful non-profit administrator says; very prophetic that “slash”) it is all but badly dead, mortally wounded.

Greatness is a matter of the heart and soul, of openness of mind, of magnanimity. Eugene’s family and mine go a long way back. When the war broke out and the Japanese army invaded, my father was an education officer in the Shan States. My parents were newly married and my mother had lost her father, of a stroke at sadness from leaving a home in Moulmein to looters. Nyaungshwe Sawbwagyi gave refuge to about 40 families like my parents – in the forest near a stream – Yatsauk (Lauksauk in Burmese). As a result my mother’s memories of the war were “like a picnic in the woods with wild birds.” Most of these families were Burman.

In Rangoon, Eugene and his siblings lived in a big wooden house, a haw or palace on Goodliffe Road. Due to his younger sister Ying being my classmate at school, I visited there once -- for the day, as we used to say. Other classmates of a gossipy nature would never believe it when I said everything was very calm and the Mahadevi and the other aunties and all the children and half brothers and sisters sat down and had tea together. Ying said “We’ll go and visit Eugene,” who was in a vast bare room, reclining on the floor propped up by triangular cushions which I did not know then were Tai(Shan) in style. Eugene in those days was slim and pale and looked a bit like the male version of the princess on a pea. Ying and I at that time talked almost all the time about our wish to become writers. Little did we know that life would give us more than enough material to write about. Sometimes, I think, too much. We did not chat with Eugene long. He was about 7 years older than us, and at that age 7 years is a vast gap. Ying and I were then about 14 or so.

I cannot remember now whether I visited the Yawngwe haw while my father was still alive or after he died. In any case, life began to change for all of us; for me because of my father’s death in a car accident and for the Yawngwes because of Ne Win’s 1962 coup. We lost touch after that and it was in the early 1980s, in America, before I was again in touch with Ying.

In the early morning of March 2, 1962, Ne Win staged his coup. The night before my mother together with Kitty Ne Win had been a judge at a beauty contest in which my friend Naw Louisa Benson was a contestant. In the morning we heard news of the coup on the grapevine and for the first time, that deadpan announcer’s voice on BBS (Burma Broadcasting Service) announcing the next decree from the top.

Eugene has written about or spoken about the time of the coup: The gunshots in the night (actually early morning) during which he rolled out of bed instead of standing up, a reflex that certainly saved his life. Then crawling to his father’s room. His mother was in England, seeking medical treatment for a gynaecological condition. In 2000 I also spoke to Patricia Eliot, Sao Hearn Hkam (Nyaingshwe Mahadevi’s) biographer. “Trish” told me that the family had taken refuge behind stacks of Buddhist scriptures that the Sawbwagyi had had printed for one of his voluntary positions in a Buddhist association.

Eugene related how he came on the body of his younger brother Sao Myee, on the lawn that morning, shot by the soldiers who came to arrest their father. To this day, whenever I look at the photographs in Eugene’s autobiography, The Shan of Burma: Memoirs of a Shan Exile, or Patricia Eliot’s The White Umbrella, my heart jolts when I see pictures of Myee Myee. He was the same age as my younger sister and if he were alive now he would be 57 or so.

When I met Ying again in Princeton in 1987 at first I was reluctant to ask about her family, especially Eugene. In Burma, the military government had published the information – that is, disinformation, that Eugene had fallen in battle, as a leader of the SSA (Shan State Army.) So it was only after our 3rd or 4th meeting that I broached tentatively to Ying “And Eugene?” “What about him,” Ying said in her usual brusque manner, “He’s not dead, he’s alive and well in Canada.” I knew I should not ask the details of how they got out of Burma, as it might endanger people who had helped them.

It was only in 1997, at a Free Burma Coalition meeting in LA, that I finally met up with U Eugene again. He did not seem much changed, smiling and laughing. His younger daughter, he said, takes after her aunt.
After that I’d see U Eugene every few years or few months. I interviewed him for radio and he wrote up a message in Shan. He said he taught himself Shan as a young adult.

In 2000 when The White Umbrella was published I was all set to go and interview his mother the Mahadevi. But she was starting to loose her memory and Eugene was out of the country traveling, and then I got sick myself, and so I returned the air ticket that work had issued for me. I do regret it now.

But around 1995 I did have a chance to thank his mother in person for saving our family during the war. 1995 was the first year I went on the circuit, talking openly about my thoughts on Burma. Canadian Friends of Burma invited my mentors, Josef Silverstein and Ronald Findlay and me, to some of the first activist conferences on Burma, in Toronto and in Alberta. Since I have known Dr. Silverstein since 1984 and Dr. Findlay since the 1960s, it was good to step out onto the contentious Burmese arena with trusted mentors close at hand.

In Alberta I was standing at the podium reading my paper, when there was a soft rustling, like the sound of leaves in Autumn, riffled by a breeze. “Riffled” I just see in my dictionary, is the sound of pages being turned quickly, and it sounded like all the 40-50 people in the room were turning over their notepaper at the same time. I could not understand it; my paper must be boring them.

Then I understood as a diminutive figure with white hair walked in. People craned their necks backward and stretched them upwards and whispered, “It’s her.” I stopped reading as nobody’s attention was on me nor my paper any more.

The Mahadevi was dressed quite simply, even shoddily or carelessly and her hair was no longer the jet black I remembered. When she smiled one could see a broken tooth or two. It seemed incredible that someone so elderly and no longer in a powerful position, could still have so much charisma. At lunch she told me she had asked her son Tiger if this Kaung was the daughter of U Kaung, and on being told it was, she had come over. Time was very short and I decided I must thank her for that long ago time when she and her husband looked after my parents. Why, if my parents had died then I would never have been born. What if I never saw her again? And, in fact, I did not.

I ran after her into the ladies’ room, took her hand in both of mine and thanked her.

After the conference, in the cold of a Canadian evening, she sat stoically in the cab of Tiger’s truck. He had rushed into the seminar and forgotten to turn off his lights and the battery had run out. Tiger being a geologist, the truck was splashed liberally with mud.

Ying told me in 1997 that the military had been mad at her mother because when she was an MP for the Shan States, her mother had first started to call attention to the human rights abuses being perpetrated by the army in the Shan States.

My last memories of Eugene are also happy ones. In March 2002, the same trip indeed when we heard of the house arrest of Ne Win and daughter, at the end of a conference in Bangkok, U Eugene sat at breakfast near the swimming pool of the hotel we were all in. The Thai day was heating up and Daw Khin Ni Ni Thein and I were planning to go sightseeing in Ayuthya.

“Look” Ni Ni said, cocking her chin at Eugene, “always so niftily dressed.”

Eugene was wearing a silk shirt, whose colors shifted between peacock blue and purple depending on the angle the light hit it, the angle one looked at it. “Shot silk,” I murmured. Almost all his fingers seemed to have rings on them. We smiled and waved at U Eugene and I wrapped some fruit in a paper napkin for our trip.

At the Burma Studies Conference in Gottenberg, Sweden in September of the same year,
Eugene, as activist and scholar, gave the keynote address. Some of the things he said that night still stick in my memory.

Conferences like that are more strenuous than most people think. For one thing there’s the months of preparation to do the research and say something meaningful about one’s chosen topic. Then usually the events are crammed in so close within a few days that, as even my younger colleagues sometimes say, one needs to train like for the marathon to go to one of these.

As a result I was pretty tired by the time the dinner was over, and the keynote address was at night. My limbs ached and my eyelids were ready to drop. But I woke up with a snap when U Eugene started to speak.

He briefly related his life story. His time with the political groups at Rangoon University, his time in the jungle with the SSA, exile in Chiangmai. Of his decision to migrate from Thailand to Canada he said:

“Khun Sa wanted me to be his Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Since King Sihanouk ‘rescued’ the Red Khmer, he reasoned that I would likewise be able to clear up his opium warlord image and provide him with a mantle of legitimacy and respect. I realized that there was no way I could keep on refusing his invitation. So I left Thailand in 1985 and thus landed in Vancouver as an immigrant.”

Eugene ticked off the flaws of Burma Studies as a discipline. As I feel he was right on the mark, I would like to quote at length on what he said. Also that meeting in Gottenberg was the very first time that the old “Burma watchers” a group of people that Zarni called Orientalists, had sat down with activists for the very first time. So Eugene’s remarks were very appropriate.

He said that activists were forced by circumstances to make decisions “up close.” And so they lack an overall view.

“Scholarship on politics is important to obtaining a more comprehensive understanding of politics, to understanding the structures of power and relational dynamics within a power system.”

The flaws of Burma Studies as a field are

1. the politics of national unity
2. the international relations perspective which sees “Burma” as a monolithic nation state.
3. seeing society as undifferentiated
4. one dimensional analysis.

“Burma Studies is particularly weak in integration of theories with issues and problems.

“Burma Studies seems to float in a theoretical vacuum. It is based on West-centric models.”

“--- explanations offered by academics of chronic performance failure of Ne Win’s socialist-military regime do not shed much light in this regard. Failure is nowhere attributed to the failure or incapacity (more likely) of the regime to govern properly – but attributed to bad planning, corruption, drought, flood etc. And currently the humanitarian crisis, which is on everyone’s lips, has not been explained. It has become a given, something that simply is, that happened all of a sudden --- the fact that the ruling regime or government is the problem does not even enter the equation.”

At that very same conference, Dr. Alice Khin Saw Win, a physician, stated that 1988 and the social, political and economic disruptions that followed had a direct role in the AIDS crisis.

Dr. Chao Tzang Yawngwe concluded that memorable speech two years ago by saying
“To know what one is dealing with holds the key to effective action.”

As we go on with our lives, our loss as dissidents and activists as nothing compared to the loss suffered by Daw Nu Nu Myint (Mrs. Chao Tzang Yawngwe) and her family. We should try to remember the humanitarian goals and the belief in freedom and democracy of someone like Eugene Yawngwe.


Copyright 2004 Kyi May Kaung

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Economist and Friend of Burma: Louis Wallinsky (1908-2001)

Photo -- Young and Old Magnolia Grandiflora -- copyright Kyi M. Kaung

By Kyi May Kaung – written in 2001

Louis Wallinsky, Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of the Union of Burma under the late U Nu between 1952 and 1958, one of U Nu's closest friends and longtime friend of Burma died on Christmas Eve at his home in Washington DC.

At the time of his death Louis was still active as an advisor on things to do with Burma, especially with regard to the Institute for Community and Institutional Development which brings Burmese students whose education has been disrupted to study at international universities. ICID was set up by prominant activist Dr. Zarni who also founded the well-known Free Burma Coalition.

Zarni was very close to Louis Wallinsky who served on the board of ICID from its founding until the time of his death. It was natural therefore that I should first hear that we had lost Louis through an email that he sent.

Even if I had not heard of Louis Wallinsky many years before I first met him, I would still have thought him remarkable. He was a tall, thin man, with silver grey hair falling down the back of his head almost to his shoulders. His hair contrasted favorably with his black coat and he usually wore a black beret, that made him look vaguely French and "left bankish." He used a walking stick and even though at some meetings he asked to be driven home around midday as the business-at-hand had been addressed, he was usually alert and would give his opinions in careful, well-considered, succinct words. He also tended to be very direct.

At that time he was 92 or 93. It seemed to me Lou used words and thoughts with great economy and effectiveness. Whether that was due to natural inclination, his early training as an economist or to age I never found out. I did find out though that he had been in Berlin when the Nazis came into power. He had also written a play called "Heil Hitler!" At a private interview in his home in 1999, I asked him whether he still wrote plays. He said he stopped as he had had no success.

I had first heard of Lou in Burma in the mid-sixties when his book Economic Development in Burma, 1951-60, New York, Twentieth Century Fund was published in 1962. At that time the story at the Institute of Economics in Rangoon, Burma was that Than Nyun, later Dr. Than Nyun, had had to re-orient his dissertation topic because he had initially been focused on economic planning in Burma but then Wallinsky's book, which was very comprehensive, had "beaten him to the punch." The conventional wisdom at the time was that whatever research was done on that period was bound to be eclipsed by Wallinsky's work as Louis had the advantage of being a hands on economic planner with access to statistical records and documents, as well as to the democratic leadership.

In the relatively few years that I knew him, I did not have the good fortune to be one of Wallinsky's close friends. As Zarni wrote recently in an informal obituary, "His house was a hospitable stop for many prominent Burmese expatriates and exiles, including U Kyaw Nyein, Bo Set Kyar, Wendy and Marjolaine Law Yone," and others.

I saw Lou usually at annual ICID board meetings and once when Zarni moved away to work in Chicago. The farewell at Marjolaine's house was on another cold December evening, in rooms decorated with poinsettia and red berries.

Zarni was inaugurating ICID brochures, which I learned had been printed with seed money donated by Lou. I remarked on the design of the pamphlets and asked who wrote it and Zarni replied, "Uncle Lou and I."

As we said our goodbyes and started to leave, Lou wrapped his navy blue scarf around his neck and said, "We're going to miss our Zarni aren't we." I thought there was a hint of wistfullness in his voice.

Maybe because of this remark I got the idea in my head that I should like to interview Lou and ask him about the Burma he had known and so I made an appointment.

One brisk winter morning, I walked from Ward Circle near American University about a mile to the building on Massachusetts Avenue where Lou lived. (Before Lou died whenever someone gave me a ride and we went around Ward Circle it was always on the tip of my tongue to tell whichever Burma activists were with me that Louis Wallinsky lived "near here," but I was always worried that Lou living alone, somehow the information might leak and someone might harm him. Now that Lou is beyond all pain and hurt it is safe to say "he lived alone at his home on Massachusetts Avenue.")

I walked past a church, a synagogue and a stand of scant leaved beech trees on my way to see Lou.

I called up from the reception desk. Lou answered the phone and came down to the lobby. He looked clean and tidily dressed in trousers and a red and white checked flannel shirt. He said he'd tell me about the time he and General Ne Win, "bumped heads with each other."

The apartment must have been a big one as it had bookshelves, paintings and normal sized furniture in it and seemed to wind backwards into other rooms beyond the immediately visible living-dining room and kitchenette. A big bank of windows on the wall opposite the door we entered by looked down on the part of the building built into the slope. The dark polished wood dining table had place mats, a couple of pots with blooming white narcissi in them and a complete set of chinaware all stacked up on it. Lou said the widow of a close friend of his had just brought the flowers. They looked like they had been lovingly forced indoors to bloom early, but there hadn't been enough light and so the flower stems were long, lank and pale, and now soft and bent over. The china looked like it must be the set Lou had before he lost Mrs. Wallinsky. It looked like it was all stacked up ready to use so Lou would not have to bother with reaching up to shelves or opening and closing cabinet doors.

A big framed pencil drawing of former Prime Minister U Nu hung on the wall on the left. Lou said his sister Anna Wallinska, who was an artist, had made it. The drawing, which was about 36 by 70 inches, and quite large for a pencil sketch, was a rather good likeness. In the portrait U Nu looked fresh and round-faced as he did in photographs of him from the fifties. Lou said his sister was a painter and had painted in many different styles. The two abstracts flanking the portrait were collages made after she "fell in love with Shan handmade paper. After a time though her fascination faded and she made other things." The collages looked very modern although they must have been made in the fifties or early sixties.

Lou asked if I would like a cup of tea. He boiled some water on the gas stove in a small sauce pan which had a few pieces of dried noodle in it. I asked how he managed and he said he "managed fine," there was a woman who came to do the cooking. I asked if he was writing his memoirs and he said no, he was putting his papers in order, "besides I look after myself, and it takes longer you know." He gestured cavalierly towards his books and confided, "I've forgotten everything I've read in those books," and laughed. I laughed too, envying him his vantage point of age, which allowed him to value the real things of life versus the stuff in books.

He sat down in the brown leather chair that he said was his favorite. I sat down on the sofa across from him, facing the window. He wanted to know why I wished to interview him. I said because I wanted to ask him about his impressions of Burma.

We talked first of the Pyidawtha Plans with which Lou Wallinsky, as a member of the firm of Knappen, Tibbets, Abbot and later McCarthy, had been intimately involved.
I asked if it was true as we had been taught in our economics class at Rangoon University that the Pyidawtha Plans had to be abandoned because the Korean War boom ended and the price of Burma's rice exports fell. Wallinsky said that was true but also the government was able to find other sources of foreign exchange and about 80 % of the projects were completed.

He talked about the Burma Pharmaceutical Industry, which he said was "U Nu's baby." He said that at first U Nu was not too happy with him, as an economic advisor he "was younger than the PM (U Nu)" "But he got used to me later," Lou said. I told Lou that at the time the Rangoon wags used to call BPI the "Burma packing industry" because everything was bought from overseas and then the pills were stamped in the factory in Rangoon; that it was such a pity but Myanmar was now becoming known for other kinds of pills; speed pills not vitamins. Lou said U Nu once gave an order that a piece of land be cleared of "junk" that was lying on it so that the land could be used for a project and was "mad when he drove by a few days later and the land had still not been cleared."

From this I gathered that attention to detail, in other words micro-management, was not unique to the present military rulers of Burma, though of course U Nu's administration was much more humane.

Lou said that U Nu had struck him as an extremely intelligent man. When I asked if he could reflect on the characteristics of the civilian leadership of democratic Burma in contrast to the present rulers, Lou replied that he really could not as he had no knowledge of the military. He said as economic planners for the U Nu administration, their firm had concentrated only on economic matters and had not advised on military matters at all.

A reliable source told me that KTA(M) had been kept on after what Wallinsky called "the first coup of 1958" (the Caretaker Government) and also after "the second coup of 1962." According to this source, Fritz Werner, notorious for connections to Ne Win and his regime, which are purported to continue on a warm footing to this day, was "advisor on military matters" in the early sixties at the same time Wallinsky was economic advisor.

This source said "Dr. Wallinsky and Dr. Werner" were known as the two foreigners advising the Revolutionary Council, though on completely different matters. They had separate briefs and no connection with each other.

In Burma as a student I had attended briefings by U Thet Tun of the CSED (the central statistical organization) in which U Thet Tun had told us an anecdote about going in a helicopter to see if there were enough bamboo forests as raw material for the paper factory. I had heard that a few years later all the bamboo bloomed and then died and there had been a pulp shortage. But Lou did not talk to me about the paper mill.

I asked Lou if it was true that U Ne Win was extremely charismatic. "He wasn't charismatic, only a few women found him so," Lou muttered. He continued thoughtfully, "Anybody with a certain level of power is bound to be charismatic, the question is whether it is true charisma or emanating from power." He then told me of the three occasions in which he had observed Ne Win at close quarters.

The first time was at a dinner party. General Ne Win came with his wife Kitty but was very quiet, Lou said. He appeared affable and courteous. Wallinsky said he thought Ne Win was unsure of himself and his social skills.

The second time he saw Gen. Ne Win was at the golf course. Lou said he used to go to play golf with another American who was a Fulbright professor and this time they went in his friend's car with his friend's driver at the wheel rather than in his car.

"The driver pulled up rather quietly in front of the building. There was a man standing there, bending down with his foot on the railing, tying his shoelaces. He was startled by the car pulling up silently behind him. I saw it was Ne Win. He was livid. He yanked open the front door, pulled out the Burmese driver, and started to punch him. My friend wanted to go to the driver's aid but I prevented him. I knew that when Ne Win came to play golf he had a full security contingent with him and anything could have happened."

Having in a way grown up on Rangoon stories about the general's violent temper; how he had hit a Chinese man on the golf course with a golf club because the man was obstructing his path; how he had pummeled a scholar who had imbibed too much at the annual research conference dinner for insulting Kitty and so on, I was not really surprised by what Lou told me. I was in fact expecting to hear something like that. I asked whether the attack was pretty vicious and if the victim had fallen to the ground.

Lou replied that by that time he and his friend had hastily gotten out of the car and the driver had not fallen to the ground because he was up against the car.

Lou also told me of the time that Gen. Ne Win kicked the butt (literally) of the foreign diplomat who was ahead of him in a reception line. I asked if Gen. Ne Win was Chief of Staff at that time and Lou said "No, he was head of state. It was after the coup."

I asked Lou why he thought Gen. Ne Win did things like that, and Lou said he thought it was because he was insecure and was afraid of things he did not understand, like foreigners.

Lou also told me about the time they went to a formal ball in connection with some charity or other. "Mrs. Gore Booth (the wife of the British Embassador) was there, and she was just a lovely lady. I stood in line to dance with her and so did Ne Win. Mrs. Gore Booth had a dance card on which all her dances were lined up. As she stood near us she dropped her card on the floor. I stooped down to retrieve her card for her and Ne Win bent down also. We bumped our heads against each other and from the impact, I gather he must have been quite stunned too." I couldn't help thinking that there was something metaphorical about Lou's recollections.

Of U Nu, Lou said how much he admired him and how intelligent U Nu was. He said, "He might not have been the best person to be Prime Minister, but he was certainly the best there was around. Certainly his colleagues and associates respected him enormously and deferred to him."

Of Wallinsky himself, Zarni wrote:

"Of Russian Jewish immigrant parents who later immigrated, Lou was born in London in 1908. His father was active in the US Labor Movement in New York, from whom Lou seemed to have picked up his strong social conscience. He studied economics at Cornell, City College of New York, The New School, and Berlin, served as consultant to the United States War Production Board, then became Financial Director of the World ORT Union where he supervised its chain of some 80 vocational training schools for Jewish displaced persons in the D.P. camps of Germany."

I asked Lou whether his Jewish background had made him more empathetic towards the plight of oppressed people like the Burmese. Lou said it certainly made him more sensitive to such issues.

Zarni continued:

"Lou's later work concentrated on problems of economic development, culminating in his Associateship with Robert Nathan, the capacity in which he led an economic advisory team to Burma for six years. As economic consultant he worked in 18 countries. In retirement he served as Director of a special International Commission of the World Jewish Congress studying issues facing world Jewry. In addition to professional publications which include "Economic Development in Burma" and "The Planning and Execution of Development," Lou (also) wrote a play. Lou had set up a scholarship/research trust fund at Cornell Economics Department and donated, to the Southeast Asia Collection at Cornell Library, his correspondence with prominent Burmese nationalist and ethnic leaders, as well as Burma papers.

"Lou had this trademark -- no nonsense social attitude, while being proper. He had his own personal shortcomings, as we all do, but he lived a very rich and full life. Three of the most memorable stories Lou shared with me include his experience seeing, with his wife Dorothy, a ghost going through their bedroom in the residence in Rangoon, his sitting on Emma Goldman's lap during an organizers' meeting at his parents' place in New York, and his having to walk backward after an audience with the Shah of Iran in Teheran!

"I will miss him deeply. Lou is survived by a son and two daughters. The memorial service for Lou is scheduled to be held in New York on March 23, 2002."

The last time I saw Lou was this summer. Another board meeting. That morning I just happened to pick the taxi driver from hell, who drove me in circles for 45 minutes until finally I recognized the house where the meeting was usually held. Late. The meeting was already in progress. New members, exciting new developments. Lou was sitting at the head of the table, his back to the windows. He was in shirt sleeves and as neat as ever.

Outside the trees had a young green color on them. The azaleas were ablaze and someone had brought in a big branch of pink frilly ones and stuck it in a vase on the sideboard. We had coffee and cheesecake.

I once wrote a poem in which all my favorite people, all my favorite things were all together in one room at the same time.

Among the people in this poem were Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, the late Professor Michael Aris.

I realize now that must have been how I felt that morning.

In November FBC had a conference at American University. I decided to read some family oriented poems of loss on the last day. There were so many panels to attend, there was hardly time to talk to Zarni. He said he would sit by me at dinner. Even then, time has now grown very short. Zarni pulled some family pictures out of his wallet and slid them towards me. I took a look, and then nudged his arm and passed them back. He carefully tucked them in his billfold. The speeches had started.

After dinner he got up and said he had to go, he had to see Uncle Lou. Would I be reading the poem about the death of the father that I had translated. I said I would if I had time. Zarni had also lost his father in the previous year. I thought how many people there must be like that.

"Go, go," I said to Zarni, sounding like my grandmother, "it's much more important that you see Uncle Lou." I wondered how Lou was doing this winter. Zarni hurried off.


As our interview of 1999 drew to a close the winter light outside Lou's windows faded softly. The room inside seemed to have an inner light of its own. I got up and got ready to leave, thanking Lou and apologizing for taking his time, for perhaps tiring him. Asking too many questions. Lou smiled and protested, "I'm never tired by something like that, it invigorates me."

Louis Wallinsky, Rest in Peace.

Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.) currently works for The Burma Fund as Sr. Research Associate. She is writing a book on Economic Transitions in a Democratic Burma for the Fund. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the views of The Burma Fund.


(Author’s Note: I wrote this in 2001. As I was not able to publish this obituary anywhere at the time of Louis Wallinsky’s death, despite repeated attempts, I am publishing it now on my Blog. I did the interview of Wallinsky described above under duress at “the workplace from hell.” The manager in charge then did not allow me to broadcast the interview – no reason given, but he implied that Wallinsky was “senile already,” something patently not true. I did the interview on my own time, on my day off.

After Louis’ death, two other Burmese broadcasters from 2 different radio stations asked me for sound bites of Louis’ voice, which only I had. I gave them to these 2 friends, who mentioned my interview on air.)

* All Words and Images on this Blog copyright Kyi May Kaung. All rights reserved, including in media not yet invented. This article may not be mirrored, copied, disseminated or reproduced.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Tribute for the late Taw Myo Myint -- Burmese Dissident

Wandering Jew Flower -- Photograph copyright Kyi M. Kaung
Mother demonstrating the war in Iraq with fake coffins at Arlington National Cemetery -- August 2004.
Photograph -- copyright Kyi M. Kaung.

Taw Myo Myint, political activist, Burmese dissident, wife and mother and my good friend, died of breast cancer in Los Angeles two days ago. It is with the heaviest of hearts that I sit down to write this on my laptop. I wish that this onerous rite of mourning were not something I have to do, for Taw and her loved ones, and also for those in the struggle who remain and have no other alternative but to go on. And also for myself, because at such times as this one does not know what else to do but write.
Taw was untiring in her efforts for social justice and political change in Burma. She told me often, she and her husband U Khin Maung Shwe, and their young daughter Stephanie (Htet Htet) were the only ones demonstrating with handmade signs in front of the UNOCAL building, rain or shine, continuously almost every weekend for months on end.
I first met Taw when she invited me to stay at her house in a predominantly Spanish speaking suburb of LA. It was 1997 and I was going to my first conference convened by the Free Burma Coalition at UCLA (University of California in LA). Friends that I knew previously through my marriage and who were allegedly close to Secretary 1 (Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt), the head of the MI or Military Intelligence, had just told me obliquely that I was unwelcome in their home because “the monk had told them not to admit two legged guests.”
I felt four legged and realized my friends (should I call them former friends?) were getting cold feet because I told them I was coming to FBC. A mutual acquaintance in the pro-democracy movement, Ohmar Khin, told me that whenever she herself was in LA she stayed at Taw Myo’s, and gave me Taw’s phone number. I was already booked into a cheapy motel near UCLA, but when U Khin Maung Shwe and a friend picked me up at the airport and were about to drop me off at the motel, I realized I would meet and be able to interview more people at their home, and it would be easier as a non-driver in LA to stay with them. And so I checked out of the motel after paying for one night, and moved to Taw’s guest room, which was really Stephanie’s room.
For the duration of the one-week conference, Taw and U Khin Maung Shwe had about 20 people camped out with them. One seldom sees generosity like that especially in America and Taw and her family were subsisting on U Khin Maung Shwe’s salary. It was not as if they were millionaires with very deep pockets.
Taw cooked meals for the whole group of us. Her husband and other volunteers drove us back and forth to campus and to El Segundo to demonstrate in front of the UNOCAL and TOTAL offices, protesting the natural gas pipeline in southern Burma which uses forced labor. In deference to my age I was in a room by myself, two other women guests were sharing the next room and Htet Htet was with her parents. At the back of the house and garden were other small buildings, which I later found out were occupied by long term residents who were political asylees and refugees from Burma, and whom Taw and U Khin Maung Shwe were helping by giving them a place to stay till they got on their feet again. All the male guests were sleeping on the floor in the living room lined up like sardines.
It was not at all difficult to interview the political activists one after the other at Taw’s kitchen table in addition to the interviews I conducted on site at UCLA. I even recorded a program of nursery rhymes with Htet Htet singing and Taw humming along.
Taw told me of an incident in Burma when she was on a bus alone and a soldier had come up and started inspecting the insides of everyone’s Shan bag. The soldier found a long needle used to sew up gunny sacks holding rice in the bag of a young man. “Isn’t this a weapon? Are you denying this is a weapon?” The soldier demanded. He took the young man off the bus and while the young man was knealing, pleading at his feet, he kicked him so hard in the face with his army boots that, Taw said, the skin on the young man’s face peeled backwards upwards and his face started bleeding. Then, with his wounds still raw, he was marched off somewhere and no one on the bus ever saw him again. I could see from the expression on Taw’s face as she told me this that she thought the young man had probably been arrested or shot.
Taw told me about participating in the 1988 mass demonstrations in Rangoon and then of fleeing to Thailand through the jungle with her husband. She described hiding under piles of dry leaves to elude SLORC forces. At the refugee camp she set up a mohinga stall as a way of providing employment for the refugee students. Her daughter was born in America.
Our ride to El Segundo for the demonstration had elements of humor in it, because the well meaning neighbor whom U Khin Maung Shwe had asked to drive the second car, the one we were in, to El Segundo, apparently had left/right confusion and could not read road signs fast enough, so we kept getting lost in LA and barely got there in time. But the demonstrations – planned by FBC, including artist/writer Edith Mirante, went off well and beautifully. At one point we were all in the small lobby of either the TOTAL or the UNOCAL building, accompanied by the FBC legal advisor, the students shouting slogans to “Get out of Burma!” and the voices reverberating off the glass walls through the impossibly green and shiny leaves of the potted plants. We were back in the square in front of the building by the time office security realized what was happening. On getting home we were relieved we were in the U. S. of A., and not in Burma, where we would have become instant “guests” of the military regime.
Taw and U Khin Maung Shwe were arrested once in Los Angeles, after they chained themselves to a truck to protest the pipeline. In spite of protestors chained and locked to the wheels, the driver of the truck tried to move it a few feet, and Taw sustained a back injury. At that time Stephanie was still only about four years old, and while her parents were in the lockup, had to stay with friends. Taw told me that the feeling that she had as the big steel doors clanged shut was indescribable.
After my first visit in 1997, Taw became a close friend of mine, who would listen patiently while I related all my trials and tribulations in the democracy struggle. She helped set up NLD (LA) -- for Liberated Areas, not Los Angeles. She continued helping recent asylees. A famous poet stayed in their house for months. I joked with her sometimes on the telephone “Shouldn’t you be putting salt in the hearth to get the guest to leave? Can’t you try to be less generous?” I urged her to set up as a non-profit so she could legally ask for donations and apply for grants. Then at least she would get some help. But as a descendant of the last royal family of Burma (she was descended from Pakhan Gyi Supaya, the sister of the last king Thibaw) she was a proud, independent minded woman and preferred to do it with her own funds, in her own way.
Some of the people she helped were indeed ingrates and rewarded her and U Khin Maung Shwe by bad mouthing them in California dissident circles. I used to try to remonstrate with her, “This is getting like the famous Burmese saying. (The dog) sleeps on the piece of leather, and gnaws at the leather’s edges. Can’t you try to be less kind?” but I knew even as I was saying that, that a good person cannot stop being good, in the same way as it is futile to try to straighten out a crooked person, like putting a dog’s crooked tail into a bamboo tube to straighten it out.
I last saw Taw in person in 2001. She still had a couple of semi-permanent houseguests. I made a fruit cake for the big birthday celebration of one of her guests, which was being held at her house. On an impulse she opened her kitchen drawer full of mismatched cutlery and gave me a bamboo ladle, that was new and that she obviously liked herself. I tried to refuse it but she kept pressing it on me, so I brought it home.
She noticed the cancer only about 8 to 9 months ago. I knew her to be a very religious person and I was a bit concerned that like Daw May Kyi Win, the Burma-born librarian at the Burma Studies Center in DeKalb, Illinois, who died of cancer soon after diagnosis and refusing chemotherapy, Taw also might “accept her fate” too easily and stop fighting the disease.
As it was, she did have chemotherapy. I tried to check on her every 2 to 3 weeks by phone. Always, she tried to come to the phone, even though the last time I spoke with her, she was obviously very weary. I did not talk long. I told her I wished I could come and see her, stay at my niece’s and come and visit her for a short while.
We joked about her hair growing back and how cool it must be with this new short haircut.
The day she died, I realize now, I woke up depressed. I thought it was just Monday or winter blues when the sky is so often gray. I had a stomach upset and so I decided to boil myself a barley porridge using the ladle Taw gave me. I forgot the pot and the barley burned and parts of the ladle were blackened, like the bamboo craft toys from Kyaikhtiyo pagoda festival.
At least now she is beyond pain.
My heart goes out to her entire family: U Khin Maung Shwe and Htet Htet, Taw’s parents in Burma, her brother in law in China, and I send sincere condolences and metta (loving kindness) with this tribute.
As one of the famous Burmese dissidents, the founder of FBC, now trying engagement with Burma, once said, “What people discount is love.”
We do a lot of things for love of other people, or for love of the truth, or due to our desire to keep the faith and find and create a better future for those we love.
Taw Myo Myint knew who she was and was not afraid of dying. She was one of the most exemplary and fine human beings I have ever met.
Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.) is a writer and political analyst based in Washington DC.
· Note: I am publishing this on my blog site over two years after Taw Myo Myint passed away because whenI sent it out at the time, none of the editors I sent it to, decided to publish it.
· Taw Myo Myint died of stage 4 breast cancer at an LA hospital on March 13, 2005.
· All women, please have regular gynaecological checkups, self-examinations and mammograms.
Copyright Kyi May Kaung. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Fan mail from the Burma-Thai Border --

Dear Sayama,
Thank you for your sending message..
i'm usually visit to your bog....
That's lovely job...


Publisher's note: Sayama in Burmese language means Teacher (female)

Saya = Teacher (male)

I hope rare slipper orchids grow in my bog.

Special posting for lovers of flowers from Burma.

Watch Chinese botanist Yin Kaipu and American botanist Daniel Hinkley "go crazy" sighting rare species in "The Mother of Gardens" in N.E. China. It's just across the border from Burma in Yunnan and Huangdong mountains, my friends from Burma.

One wonders how many genera are still left in Burma, with mass environmental degredation.

As my former writing mentor James Rahn of Rittenhouse Writers Group used to say on reading my fiction: What will the flowers do next?

Clip from PBS' The First Flower, already posted on You Tube


Friday, May 04, 2007

Four young Buddhist novices gaze at ---

Burmese expat writer and political analyst Aung Naing Oo, sees recent oral history and our "necessary myths" in this realistic and "summery" painting from Burma.

Think about the happy art and the cruel reality in our land of sunshine and smiles.



Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Archives: From when Burma's Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was briefly free.

Featuring Burmese Democracy Leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s travels in 2003, from the web site of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (The NCGUB) – the Burmese Democratic Government in Exile:

Strengthening People’s Power for Democratic Restoration in Burma

By Zaw Oo with Kyi May Kaung and Zaw Win Hlaing

May 27, 2003.


My latest articles in Asian Fortune

1. East meets West in Cool Jazz: Bob James and the Angels of Shanghai


2. My article on Hla Ohn Mae, Burmese Dissident.


My archive at IISH, Amsterdam--