Emma Thompson's Burma / Myanmar Diary: Part fifteen

Friday, April 27, 2012 - 15:57

Emma's son gets to wander around the magical site of Bagan (Myanmar's answer to Angkor Wat), while Emma and Joanna Kerr head back to the capital for a conference. Feelings of jealousy soon subside as Emma's understanding of this country hits a deeper level.

We rise after about 45 minutes repose, to leave the hotel at 5 and drive to Bagan airport – this, in order to allow us to see Bagan which is Angkor Wat multiplied, apparently.

We drive onto a huge plain (it’s 16 square miles) surrounded by mountains and covered in low forestation. From the green mantle poke the pointed, crumbling hats of the red stupas and pagodas (well over 2000 of them) where the monks of the 11th century lived and studied. They don’t live here any more but they do visit and anyone who wishes to pay their respects to the thousands of Buddhas who reside here are welcome to do so. It is breathtakingly beautiful and all the more because it is virtually untouched by tourism or any modern development. We have only a few minutes to visit a temple and walk in the sticky heat between the acid-green grasses and the rust-red temples in a state of awe. I am jealous because Tindy is going to stay here all day and talk to one of the activists about Buddhism.

 Jo and I must board a plane back to Yangon / Rangoon for a Women’s Conference at the Australia Club.

On the plane, however, I stop feeling jealous. I have had the extreme good fortune to be sat next to Ja Nan, the woman from Shalom. She gives me a two-hour open university course on the armed conflict.

File 7492She reiterates Aung San Suu Kyi’s firm feeling that before any kind of reliable election can be held, the rule of law must be re-established. She says that even amongst the majority military wing of government, there are more diverse views than one might think. But civic education programmes are vital for a population that has had no practice in government for an entire generation. She wonders if the UK would fund this, because it’s a “conversation” that will have to be had before the Constitution can be properly reformed.

The complexities of the variously formed United Nationalities Federal Council and the Border Guard Forces are too much to be rehearsed here but after the flight I felt shored up with valuable information and far more aware of the many conflicts and issues at play in this extraordinary country.

It’s worth remarking that Shalom’s view is that ethnic grievances are genuinely represented by armed groups and the Government must engage, compromise and negotiate with them before anything like a democratic process can be developed.

Cumberland sausages are being served at the Australia Club, which has a nostalgically ex-pat atmosphere.

The speakers are Professor MyintMyintKlin, a writer named, simply, Ju, a rock singer/doctor called PhyuPhyuKyawThein, me and Jo (Joanna Kerr, ActionAid's CEO).

The first thing that is apparent to all concerned is that it is a momentous event that this coming-together of women is possible at all.

File 7372Joanna Kerr

Jo speaks about fear of feminism and reminds the audience that in her view, it’s about equality and exposing deep-rooted ancient systems that actively maintain inequality. She also says, as she has been saying eloquently since we arrived, that if proper attention is not paid to equality between men and women and the country is simply opened to capitalist forces controlled by the markets we are all too familiar with, then they can wave goodbye to any real improvement in women’s rights for the next century.

The professor, who is in her 80s, gives us a history lesson on the Bagan era. Apparently in those days all the large brokerage houses were run by women. She presents an ancient portrait of feminine power that intrigues and inspires us all.

Ju explains that ‘stereotype’ isn’t a Burmese concept and she tries to define the term, because, as she says, it’s time to challenge the stereotypes.

After the speeches, we attend an ActionAid reception and then, more dead than alive, Jo and I return to the hotel to find Tindy full of enthusiasm about his day in Bagan. He says one thing he’s learnt about Buddhism is that it teaches people not to want to achieve great things. This may produce pride and pride is unacceptable. Interesting. Buddhism can be an immensely punishing, guilt-driven faith. I guess that’s true of them all.