It’s time to get this show on the road! May 15 we embark on a tour to the Mon and Karen States east of Yangon. We are going to perform for children in the monastic schools.
Monasteries run schools for poor children of the neighborhood who cannot afford regular public school (which charges tuition) and for children taken in by the monasteries because they have no parents or their parents are too poor to care for them. Sometimes these kids come from far away remote places and, therefore, live permanently at the monasteries, even those who still have parents. Many parents are away working at the border to Thailand where there is a lot of trade, and the children were living with relatives until they came to the monastery. So, essentially, these children are orphaned. They are “economic orphans” as some have termed it.
When we first arrived in Myanmar, we were told that our initial plan of doing a tour around Mon and Karen States was not going to be possible due to security concerns with the increasingly sensitive political situation. Just in the past month, the situation has gotten worse with several bombings in Yangon as well as Mon State. The upcoming elections have created a lot of tension.
We are eager to bring our work to as many places as we can, and our Burmese friends were gung-ho to go as well. They know the local authorities well in the particular areas where they had planned for us to travel to and are not worried about getting permissions. (In Myanmar, foreigners, and locals as well, are not able to go just anywhere; you need to receive permission from the authorities, and especially if you wish to do such a thing as perform! Officially, public assembly of more than five persons is prohibited.) The embassy tells us to wait and see until after May 6, which is the deadline for all opposition parties to register for the elections and which might trigger unrest. In the meantime, plan on doing a local tour around the Yangon area. In actuality, what appears to have been a concern is the U.S. State Department visit coinciding with our being here, which could possibly cause friction. But everything goes smoothly and things are calm, so in the end we are informed it is fine to resume our original plan. Yey!
Off we go in our hired van, all seven of us plus a driver. We leave early in the morning on the 15th and drive all day until finally we arrive in the late afternoon – at the beach! Wow. Nice. Our first stop is the small beach town of Setse (southern Mon State). The plan is to do a show in the early morning in the midst of the market. How fun! Unfortunately, the permission initially given is revoked and we are informed we must leave the area. Because our performance in Setse was nixed, it is deemed prudent to forego performing in the bigger town next door as well, Mawlamyine, because it’s the same regional authority presiding over both, and while we’re at it, it’s best to skip going to Kayin (Karen) state altogether, because of the checkpoint we have go through. Things look a little tense. So it is decided that we will head straight back up to Kyaiktho (pronounced ‘Chai-toe’) and see if we can still do some shows there. I sure hope so!
But first we take a dip in the ocean! Mmmm… it’s warm like bath water! After hot and dusty days in Yangon, and a long drive, it sure is refreshing to be by the sea. And how nice to wake up on the morning of May 16 in a quaint little seaside hotel (ok, a run-down rickety shack) right on the beach on what just happens to be my birthday! Good timing!
Upon arrival to Kyaiktho after about a four-hour drive, we luckily get the green light to perform. We make our way up a little red dirt road to a small monastery compound. Stories of Buddha on giant placards line part of the way. A monk blows a whistle and after a minute children emerge from all directions, amass and trot off to the performing area, which is on a small hillside under a giant tree. We perform for about 200 children or so and they are a great audience, curious and excited.
After the show, we chat with the Sayadaw (meaning senior monk, or abbot, in Burmese), and Joanna asks him what issues we ought to address in our show, what do the children need to learn? Going to the toilet, says the Sayadaw. Many of the children come from the jungle and just go in the bushes, they need to learn to use the toilet. Unfortunately, I remark to myself, the toilets they have, at least the one I used, are so filthy it would be more hygienic to just go in the bushes! The toilets need to be kept clean if they are to advance good hygiene.
On this note, at another monastery, the Sayadaw affirms the importance of teaching the children to wash their hands but informs us that the children often have no soap to use (and sometimes barely water). Well, not much use preaching hygiene if the elements to facilitate it aren’t provided. So, we are teaching the lesson of the importance of washing one’s hands to the kids, but we apparently also need to teach the lesson (to the adults) of obtaining soap and water! Is soap really that expensive that they cannot afford a few bars? Well, some of the people in these areas can barely afford rice, so I guess in the end they have to make a choice whether to eat or to wash. In the future, perhaps we had better bring soap with us and hand out to the kids as part of the show! But that soap will, of course, only last so long -- I wonder what an effective long-term solution could be for this hygiene dilemma. Something to think about. Any ideas?
Our second day (May 17) we drive to Kayin (Karen) state, after all. The monastery phoned and insisted we come. Apparently, the Sayadaw there is greatly respected and exerts a certain degree of authority. So we are able to perform without a problem. We had a little adventure getting through the checkpoint, which I will not elaborate upon here, except to say we made it safely through, not to worry! The monastery here is a huge compound containing several large school buildings. One of them has a mural on the wall with the Kayin national flag and an inscription in the Kayin language behind a small free-standing blackboard. Many students who come here only speak Kayin (as opposed to Burmese).
The Kayins are an ethnic group that has been embroiled in a fight for autonomy for over sixty years. Sporadic fighting continues and the ongoing insurgency has resulted in thousands of refugees and many orphaned children. Outside of the one main city, Hpa-an, where we are, there is very little infrastructure and limited educational opportunities. Thus, many children are sent to a monastery, such as this one, in order to receive schooling.
We visit another monastery (back in Mon state), very small and very much poorer, and upon arrival I notice a little girl standing in the doorway. I approach to say hello. The other couple of kids around us are curious and spontaneous and playful, as kids are, reacting to my goofiness as can be expected. She is very serious, and her expression does not change. She remains in the doorway, not moving, not reacting. I wonder what has happened to her that she is so sad? During the performance, I keep an eye on her, sitting in the front row, to see what effect the show might have on her, to see if she’ll laugh. Her face lights up in a smile for a moment. I am informed that she is newly arrived from a remote area of Kayin state. Many of the children here come from a mountainous jungle region, which is extremely difficult to access. In order to make their way here, the children have to walk for many hours just to get to the nearest road for transportation. Therefore, the children do not go back during school holiday, they stay here at the school year-round. These are the children we perform for today. (It happens to be summer in Myanmar, so school is out and many children have gone home – most to help their parents work in the rice fields or sell goods). This particular child’s mother had recently died and her father remarried a woman who apparently did not treat her kindly. They left to work at the border, as is quite common, leaving her behind. Finally, she was sent here. She does not speak Burmese, only Kayin. So sad to see her so sad! And I wish we could have stayed longer to play a little more. I hope that our visit lit a little bit of light inside her heart.
While in Kayin state we go to a second monastery as well, a smaller branch of the main one. This one is out in the countryside and we drive for quite a long time. I didn’t realize this when I jumped up in the back of the pick-up truck! It’s a long, bumpy ride in the hot sun. As we drive, I suddenly hear music playing and we come upon a group of kids in the middle of the road who surround our vehicle asking for donations. In return, we get a cold drink. Just what I needed! At the school, we perform inside with all the kids seated on the floor, dressed in sailor-style white and blue school uniforms. By the time we start the show, the room is packed. There are probably four hundred children and adults in attendance. As part of an improvised pre-show, I say hello to the kids and decide to demonstrate my newly acquired expertise in Burmese (How are you, my name is Anna, nice to meet you, etc.) But all I get back are blank stares. It turns out, they don’t speak Burmese! So much for that. Luckily, at lunch I had picked up a few Kayin phrases which I had written down in my little notebook. "Asso lassan!" (Hello! in Kayin, spelled phonetically). This goes over much better. How are you, I continue. Applause! Now we’re talking!
I have so many stories, but this will have to do for now. More may follow later.
All in all we perform at seven monasteries in Mon and Kayin states, one in Bago on the way back to Yangon, and four times in the Yangon area, for a total of almost 3,000 children.