...where the weather is hot and the atmosphere is peaceful. It's the calm before the storm, the storm being the New Year Celebration and the infamous Water Festival which starts today, Saturday April 13. I'm getting the impression it's like being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and Times Square for New Years. We have an expectation of getting continually soaked by water cannons and blasters, and assured that my sins or bad karma or both are being washed away. Another reason not to drink the water.
Joanna and I are here to flesh out the plans for a US - Burmese production of Ben Jonson's Elizabethan-era comedy, Volpone, which we plan to produce with our friends in Thukhuma Khayethe (Art Travelers Theatre Co.) with whom we've been training and performing since 2009.
Our first visit four years ago was under the watchful eyes of the military dictatorship, which kept the beloved lady Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Our last visit a year ago had seen Suu Kyi released and elected to Parliament, and a new "open" era coming in (hopefully). Now a year later, we are getting the skinny from our friends on how things have been going.
If you have been following the news, you may be aware that there have been recent clashes and bloodshed between the Buddhists and the Muslims. To understand where this comes from, we have to take a step back and remember our cultural history.
First, the name Myanmar vs Burma. In the Burmese language, and we are talking history here, the name of the country when written in official King's court documents is Myanmar. When the commoners speak it, they say Burma. This notion of having special words for the King and other words for commoners is not rare in world languages. The British, having had colonies all over the place including here, referred to this territory as Burma, partly to stick-it to the former royal rulers. But there are a lot of ethnicities and religions: the majority are Buddhist and ethnic Burmese, but there are also Muslims, Christians and Hindus who are Shan, Karin, Mon etc etc. When the military took over somewhat after the Brits left, they changed the name to the more "inclusive" Myanmar (inclusive sounding, though the military was primarily Burmese, paranoid and brutal to anyone remotely dissenting).
There is a good primer and political update on this Burma - Myanmar - US relations issue at the Washington Post.
With that background and even a vague understanding of world politics, its pretty easy to guess what happens when a formerly oppressed people gets a taste of freedom and democracy. They use their new-found voices to yell at each other. Every under-educated charismatic bullet-head now figures their opinion is better than the next guy, and they get on the radio and say "ya know, these [insert ethnic group here] people are dirty and smelly and taking over our way of life. They should leave." So yeah, there are ethnic tensions, these days particularly between the Buddhists and the Muslims. Myanmar shares a border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, and the politics are akin to the immigrant situation between the US and Mexico. Arizona, anyone?
More to the point, our friend Thila Min (director of TK) reports that people are happy to take their rights, but not the responsibility. Freedom of speech can be used for good or for evil, but nobody wants to be responsible for the evil their speech might unleash. Sound familiar?
Thila's English is very good, but I wouldn't have thought he knew a word like "crony", which he uses a lot to describe another problem: rampant crony-ism. There is a great deal of deal-making, land grabbing and back scratching between politicians, connected merchants, and foreign interests, all to the detriment of the poor and middle class that the new openness was supposed to help.
But, by and large, there are "onward and upward" kinds of changes going on. We've been staying in the same neighborhood through these years, and just in the last year we have seen many new and modern homes spring up, gigantic hotels, new car dealerships, all in formerly vacant lots. I don't know if they are getting any business, but the construction companies must be making a killing. The members of Thukhuma Khayethe also hear the siren call of business opportunities outside of theatre work. One of the finest clown-actors I know, Soe Myat Thu, is getting a lot of work instead as an English-French-Burmese translator for all the foreign business people descending on Yangon.
But the theatre work does go on. We have had some great meetings with Thukhuma Khayethe about our co-production of Volpone, and we're learning more about the culture and seeing how it might manifest in the play, which is exciting.
Next: swimming in the Water Festival.