Friday, September 21, 2018
From Sept 3, 2018--Kyi May Kaung--Asylee from Burma--why we needed this week of tears.
An Asylee from Burma: Why we needed this Week of Tears. By Kyi May Kaung, (Ph.D.) If Senator John McCain and Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin has not existed already and had not lived their good, full lives, we would have had to invent them. Why? Because this era of d. j. t., intentionally spelled without caps, is leaving a bad feeling in our mouths. I have however, written his initials with periods or full stops, because I would like his “era” to come to a full stop, one way or the other, but it needs to stop. One spliced photo on Twitter showed McCain on one side with the caption Hero, while trmp on other (intentionally spelled without caps and a vowel—rhymes with “shrimp”) has the caption Zero under it. How very appropriate. What is less than Zero? Of course negative numbers. That man is a negation in all senses of the word, maybe negative 100%. A vacuum. A nonentity. He’s often been characterized as full of bombast: “This space here (pointing to his chest) which is empty” (by James Comey in an interview) and generally operating out of fear which causes him to be excessively boastful and needy of affirmation, even as he does and says spiteful things. This week of tears has hopefully washed it all away. The daily distractions, the “look at this, look at that,” “What about Hillary’s emails?” “Look what I’m doing meeting Kim, look what I’m doing meeting Putin.” Well, what about all of them? The endless strutting about. Nothing will come of nothing, as Shakespeare wrote Cordelia saying in King Lear. How d.j.t. must be spinning in his early grave of a bed, as McCain lay in state in Phoenix AZ, as well as the Capital Rotunda, as Joe Biden, Meghan McCain, Lieberman, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama made beautiful and TRUE speeches, and Renee Fleming sang Oh Danny Boy in the National Cathedral, as McCain was mourned by his loving wife and family and his mother, as he was laid to rest in Annapolis by the Blue Angels flying in Missing Man formation, with the boom from breaking the sound barrier coming massively after, as his coffin was placed on a caisson drawn by black horses; as Aretha got three or four open casket viewings, dressed to the nines with Lamboutin high heels, similarly distinguished and sincere eulogies, a popular singer in a short skirt, a fleet of pink Cadillacs, and large bouquets of matching pink and mauve roses. How he must have wished to be both McCain and Franklin. But he will never be. How he thought of the military parade he so wanted. But— he will never be loved and mourned as Aretha Franklin and John McCain have been. He’ll be erased quickly from human memory. Like one inconsequential, nonsensical, bilious, vile tweet. * I come originally from Rangoon, Burma, still under a military dictatorship despite having had three elections since 1990, and having democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as “State Counselor” with no real power. So it’s really a fake or faux democracy. Others and I warned as much when I helped Columbia University convene a panel in 2012 on the Rohingya in Burma. The Burmese junta was even as we spoke preparing its planned genocide or military operation and psychological warfare against the Rohingya, a subset of Burmese Muslims living in Western Burma, which they insist on calling “Bengali” which implies, and the junta and its apologists also say it explicitly, that they came in from Bengal or Bangladesh, whereas in truth they were always there, since at least the tenth century, and as Nobel Laureate economist A. K. Sen said on our 2012 panel, in truth the borders were drawn between them, by the British in the late 19th century. Prof. Sen himself is of Bengali origin, lived in Mandalay, Burma, as a child before his parents left Burma. Great Britain colonized Burma in three big chunks, after three Anglo-Burmese Wars, the first one in 1824-26, and the last in 1885. The first war was the one which decided the present-day borderline between Bangladesh and Burma, at the Naaf River. Since the 1970s, the junta then under the father of all the dictators, Ne Win, engaged in disinformation and what it itself openly called psychological warfare. I lived in Rangoon through 1967 and the anti-Chinese riots , and due to eye witness accounts provided to me every evening through an Inner Party Member cadre of the BSPP party who lived in the back cottage of my mother’s house, I believe the riots were instigated by junta agents in mufti. The things such as alleged rapes of Buddhist women by Muslims in 2012 smacked strongly of manufacture by the MIS or Military Intelligence Service, as well as photos of an undamaged gold necklace allegedly destroyed by a Muslim goldsmith by running it across an assay stone. So how come the victim knew to take a photo of the necklace before it was allegedly broken? I haven’t seen any photos of the broken necklace. The junta employed many people for psycho warfare including a well-known fiction writer. * I came to the USA for graduate studies because I applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship without knowing it was a Fulbright. Things were so paranoid that the seven of us were told not to go to the US Embassy to study for our TOEFL exams. (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language.) I became eligible to apply because the professor of economics at that time removed the upper age bar of forty, because he wanted his relative, my nemesis, to be eligible. This man got left behind “by one preposition.” After the exam, the man’s wife came to check with me whether the correct answer was “behind the door, under the table.” When I told her it was, she left crestfallen. The first group of candidates were told not to apply again, as they failed their language tests. The candidate for Transportation Economics was going to come to me for English language lessons. Besides three tests of English, including the Georgetown Test, there were medical tests and tests on subject matter. Ne Win had cut off relations with America when he staged his coup in 1962. As a result, I later found out, all the Fulbright fellowships which would have come to Burmese went to Chinese students. I met several Chinese exchange students while I was at Penn, and met one at Merrill Lynch in 1987, in one of the World Trade Towers in New York, which was later blown up on 9/11/2001. These Chinese scholars went back, most to high level positions in Beijing. In 1982, when the seven of us Fulbright awardees came to the USA, Ne Win opened the door a crack because his favorite daughter Sandar Win failed her entrance exams for medical school in London due to her poor English. We were seven out of a population of 68 million. One economist, one person from the commerce department, one statistician, two historians, one geographer, one engineer. We were all over forty as we “waited” those twenty years. The engineer had to return to Burma due to a heart condition a few months after we arrived in the USA. Sandar Win’s Wikipedia page used to call her “dictator gynecologist” but the label has since been removed. During that time, in Rangoon, there was a spate of English language “clinics” to correct people’s English pronunciation. I happen to have good English as my father was sent to boarding school at Taunton when he was young, and then went back again for his MA from London University, which he received in 1929. Due to having spent so many years there, he spoke English at home. Besides that, my parents were in England for three years and English was the first language I learned. I still think in English, and maybe I dream in it, and after a very bad experience at a Burmese language radio station in D.C. 1997-2001, I am seriously thinking of giving up Burmese for good. It won’t harm me. Several of my mentors have already done so. My father used to read poetry to me, T.S. Eliot, A.E. Houseman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas when he got back from work as a senior official at the Education Ministry and was stressed out by daily fights with the education minister, no doubt of a political nature. He was avidly interested in the world and in Burmese politics, but I was between the ages of ten and twelve, not even a teenager yet, and all I can remember was him saying, “Pretty soon politics will be so dirty good people will not like to engage in it.” He wanted him and me to write a book of political questions and answers, “You ask the questions, and I will answer,” just like Indira Gandhi’s book with her father Pandit Nehru, but I had lived a very protected life, and hardly knew what politics was. I was unable to think of a single question. The book never came to be. He died when I was thirteen and he fifty two. In 1962, Ne Win staged his coup in the early morning hours of March 2, now celebrated as Tatmadaw Ne, or Mother Army Day. My sister’s classmate Saw Myee, son of Saw Shwe Thaike, the Sawbwa (Chieftain) of Nyaungshwe or Yawngwe , the biggest Shan State, was shot point blank as he grabbed a ceremonial sword off the wall and aimed it at the soldiers who came to arrest his father. Then followed mass nationalizations, people becoming poor overnight, lots of deaths, our friends leaving, for India, Hong Kong, China, Iran, Australia etc., usually on one way tickets and with C. of I. or Certificates of Identity, typed sheets of paper with photos attached, not proper passports. One classmate of mine, an Indo-Burman woman, got in the newspapers because she tried to smuggle out her own jewelry in a handbag with a false bottom, but eventually managed to leave. This sort of thing continued into the 1970s and early 1980s. We went up country and saw marble Buddhas all with their heads hacked off for export via the black market. As everything was scarce in Burma, every yard of cloth, things like rubber flip flops, folding umbrellas, instant noodles, birth control pills, came in on the backs of porters from the Burma-Thai border in the southeast. There were endless stories, such as that of a woman with thirty yards of fabric wound around her body, jumping off the Moulmein train to avoid the customs inspectors, falling into the Sittang River and drowning. Many more stories like these have come from the border, some working themselves into the footnotes of my Ph.D. dissertation at Penn, and finally into my short fiction. By the mid-1970s, most of my colleagues at the Institute of Economics had left. Those with Western post-graduate degrees found it a bit easier maybe to get teaching positions overseas. Some left without firm job offers, even as U.N. volunteers in African countries. I began to see that something was very wrong, so I applied for that scholarship, and fortunately got it. I had lived in Burma between the ages of seven and forty. For twenty years it was under the socialist system of the military dictatorship. For eight months in 1968-69 I studied for a diploma in economic planning in Warsaw, Poland, and that was another experience in the dead of winter. In Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek had just tried to reform during what came to be called the Prague Spring, but had been forced to resign by the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968. We (my sister and I) arrived on separate scholarships in Warsaw in the autumn of 1968. There we found SGPiS (now called SGH) the Warsaw School of Economics had just purged its Jewish professors such as Michal Kalecki. When the 1968 Polish political crisis unfolded, Kalecki retired in protest against the wave of antisemitic dismissals and firings that affected many of his colleagues. The single graduate student who dared to befriend us told us that Kalecki’s graduate students at the time were left in limbo. He died in 1970. So I have experience of living under socialism in Burma as well as in Poland. Socialist economic planning does not come out in neat little equations like the way another Polish professor indicated on the blackboard. In reality, things were quite scarce. The school cafeteria had a big basket of one type of rye bread only, that no one could eat, still every day there was the same amount in the cradle-sized basket, maybe because the bakery had a production quota set in weight. I asked what they did with the old bread. They told me it went for pig food. Poland was still on coal and we were glad we moved to the dorm, rather than staying in rooms in a house where we were originally assigned, which was in the suburbs. We shared a dorm room, and used the communal kitchen and the communal bathroom. In the mornings, men came to the pavement and shoveled coal into furnaces on the ground floor. One day the snow fell, drifting down against a red brick wall in big white flakes. I was enchanted and could not concentrate on the lecture. The lectures were all in English. I graduated first in class, writing on the problems in Burmese economic planning. Poles were kind and helpful, maybe because they had to help each other under an oppressive government. Imitating the Russian language teacher Ms. Vinogradova who had taught us Russian in Rangoon, to prepare us for Poland, my sister and I each bought one red and one yellow sweater, and wore those daily. My Polish friend called us the bedronki or lady-birds. Polish women are not so large, but they are beautiful, but in the government department store believe it or not, there was only one very large blue coat for a seven foot woman. Probably the coat factory had its targets set by monetary value of output. So they made a small number of very large expensive coats. Finally, our new Polish friend Elsbieta took us across the Vistula River to the black market full of plump, short, little old women in red folk scarves, and finally I got my winter coat, which I wore till Spring in May. * In America, I was twenty years out of date on arrival, and so had to take refresher courses in economics in Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been in love with liberal Boulder ever since. In 1988, when the country-wide pro-democracy demonstrations broke out all over Burma, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, I told my childhood friend Yasmeen who was going to Wharton, “If anything happens to her, I am going to do politics.” Well, she got arrested the first time in 1990, but won the elections despite being under house arrest. Unknown even to my friends and family, reading about economic planning in the Soviet Union in the stacks at van Pelt Library on the University of Pennsylvania campus, I had checked out the books on someone else’s carrel and then started to read to the left and right of the Russian ascension numbers. It was a lovely experience, like having a secret lover named Political Science in the library stacks. In Burma we could not study Pol. Sci. and it consisted of only Marxism and one text book. I started with Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets, and now have two copies, as I thought I was going to move and packed one copy, then could not find it and bought another, but it is worth it. When I got to the Burma books, the accordion-style folding shelves had been folded together for so long, it felt James Bondish as I put my finger on the button and the shelves of brittle paper books folded out. The university had consulted with an architect to see if the floors of van Pelt could hold the weight of all the books, and had installed the accordion shelves when the answer came back in the affirmative. When the Burma book shelves got to about six inches from my sides, they stopped, even though my imagination did not and I saw myself squashed to death, blood seeping out of the closed shelves. * Eventually, in 1994 I was able to complete my dissertation and get my degree. But I thought I was weary of teaching and wanted to do something for the democracy movement in Burma, so for three years I did the job I got, writing and analyzing for a Burmese language radio station on M. St. in Washington, D.C. But I was subjected to job harassment by the section head, whom I think was undercover working for the Burmese junta. After that period in hell, I worked with the D.C.-based Burmese Democratic Government in Exile (National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma) as a Senior Analyst. The last thing I did for them in six months in 2008-09 was a twenty page executive summary, A Plan for Democracy and Development in Burma. This plan is published in the appendix of my memoir, A Time to Write, Not Just About Burma. I wrote the economics section and simplified the academic papers the other contributors sent me. I am glad in the light of what is happening now with the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh that I successfully resisted the points the non-Burmese sub-contractor wanted to put in, about repatriating refugees. I wrote that no one should be sent back to Burma until the situation normalizes. In 2012 the Exile Government lost its funding and is now defunct. I say “the dissidents have all become dinosaurs” and have disappeared. I can’t even get people together to organize a reunion dinner for old times’ sake. * The 2016 election results threw me for a loop because I was certain Mrs. Clinton would win. I hadn’t paid any attention to Trump and, now in shock and ashamed of my complacency as regards America while I focused on Burma, I had to do major research to catch up on Mr. T. It is a daily activity, ongoing. I find that his behavior and reliance on executive orders (direct orders) is very like the original Burmese dictator Ne Win. Pronounced “Nay Win” which means Bright Sun. The womanizing, the “I know everything stance”. Ne Win once called the Burmese-English dictionary being compiled by uncrowned national laureate poet U Wun a. k. a. Minthuwun “half-baked bread” even though he himself had only about five years of education and was a postal clerk. Minthuwun was the father of Peter Wun (Htin Kyaw), Aung San Suu Kyi’s long time deputy and bodyguard head and now the nominal president. Trump may have spent 25% of his time in office golfing , but Ne Win did “better”—actually beating up a man who spat on his wife Kitty’s shoulder at a formal reception, and hitting someone ahead of him on the golf course with a golf club. The late Dr. Louis Wallinsky, who lived in D.C., told me during a radio interview that he witnessed Ne Win box the driver of the car which pulled up silently, surprising Ne Win who was bent over near a low railing, tying his shoelaces in front of the Rangoon Golf Club in the 1950s. You know, dictators don’t like silent, unexpected approaches from behind. During the major demonetization of 1964 , Ne Win’s Chin guards kept their fingers on the triggers of their rifles when I and other university staff were on the stage of the Convocation Hall, helping with punch cards. I was afraid to sneeze. I was so relieved when he left and his guards left with him. His economic advisor, Soviet-trained U Ba Nyein, then came up onto the stage, walking unsteadily, his deputy produced a bottle of whiskey hidden in their umbrella, someone found two glasses and they took a shot each. The deputy later married one of my nieces. In the 1950s, Wallinsky was economic advisor to the democratically elected P.M. U Nu – the religious “Mr. Tender.” Wallinsky was in the car with a Fulbright scholar, American, and he told me he had to restrain his friend from intervening as he recognized the strongman, who was then head of the Burmese Army. In conclusion, I want to say as Trump is “zero” we need Heroes— We need to find and emulate our Heroes, and stop letting T’s tweets swing us this way and that like dumb oxen. Right now it looks as if just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, well, Mr. T. tweets. We have to save ourselves and our children and grandchildren, our democracy, our culture, our values, our institutions from the intentionally set bonfire. Be vigilant. Kyi May Kaung holds four degrees, a BA and an MA in Economics from Rangoon University and an MA in City Planning and a Ph.D. in Political Economy from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in the Greater DC Area and paints and writes full time now.
Posted by Kyi May at 2:41 PM