Emma Thompson's Burma / Myanmar Diary: Part sixteen

Monday, April 30, 2012 - 10:41

Emma and Joanna Kerr join AA Myanmar's Country Director Shihab when he meets a government minister and in a change of atmosphere they sample the buzz of an Activista youth networking event. Tindy does his best to catch the eye of a local beauty but will she respond to his flirting?

We start our day with a meeting at a huge Government building with the Yangon Chief Minister. ActionAid needs his support and Shihab has no idea how much he knows about the organization or whether he approves of its work.

Apparently all government officials here speak good English but refuse to use it. Therefore the entire meeting will be in translation.

The room is lined with flock-covered armchairs and features a lot of cotton lace and gold-lacquered Kleenex dispensers. The Minister wears a blue longhi and green velour flip-flops that sit half off his feet. He seems very comfortable and in the mood to communicate.

The problem with translation is that Myanmar speakers use a great deal of words and translation takes a long time.

We talk about orphanages – there are many and the Minister is clearly proud. Jo says that research has shown they’re really not the best place for kids to develop in and he politely says that research was probably undertaken in a place with completely different cultural values. He clearly wants our support and not our criticism.

Nonetheless he maintains impressive eye contact. I can’t help liking him. In the waterfall of words I hear the phrase “human rights”. Later, Shihab explains this is a big deal. That phrase has been outlawed for decades. Here, the Minister tells us, girls have entirely equal rights.

Actually, says Ni Ni, who has been translating expertly, in Rangoon that’s partially true. It’s just not the case in the rest of the country.

After 1½ hours, which is 45 minutes longer than we were promised, we repair to a Youth Networking event run by Activista.


File 7510Fund raising for Activistas


This is extraordinary because in the buzz of stalls and chatter of students we really could be anywhere. It feels so open and free which is ironic because last year when they ran the same event, four people were arrested and detained.

I am encouraged by the sight of a red ribbon and the presence of gay and lesbian activists. It’s small, it’s urban but it’s a start.

After this we have a long debriefing session with ActionAid staffers. Their main complaint is that there aren’t enough opportunities to really take their work further. They feel they need more support. Jo and I promise we’ll try and drum that up.

That evening Tindy and I take some of the staff, the ones we’ve made friends with, out to dinner at a wonderful outdoor restaurant. Very good spicy Thai influenced food but – tragically – no alcohol. Tindy flirts all night with a beauty he spotted when he arrived.


File 7504Tindy and local activists


“Forget it”, I mutter to him.


We get to bed early and alarmingly sober.

Read the final part of Emma Thompson's diary