Sunday, May 4, 2008

PEN World Voices: Burma: A Land at a Crossroads

Note that I wrote this before the horrible cyclones and devastation of the last few days in Burma. It breaks my heart to see this happen to Burma. My prayers go out to all its people...

This event was dubbed as a panel discussion on "the possibilities of peaceful change in the aftermath of last years bloody response to the protest by Buddhist monks." What else are you going to talk about in a discussion of this type. Well, it seemed like everything but the Monks uprising was discussed. It was more like a history lesson than a discussion on current events. What happened last October was only mentioned in passing.

The participants in the panel were Ian Burma author of "God's Dust: A Modern Asian History" and "Murder in Amsterdam" and Thant Myiut-U, a western educated author of "The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma," and it was moderated by Dedi Felman of World without Borders.

Going into this event, probably like most Americans, knew very little about Burma. I know the name Aung San Suu Kyi. I know that she's been under house arrest for a really long time. But what I didn't know is how long and violent the history of Burma is. How long the struggle has been to deal with being at the literal crossroads of Asia.

Burma is not like the other countries that Britain colonized. Burma was supposed to be a easy win for the British: go in with a few men, conquer the country and subdue its people, then take what was valuable from the counties coffers. Easy. Only not. The country launched a violent insurgency. (Gee, where have I heard a story like this before?)

So what am I to make of the abridged history lesson that has been downloaded into my brain in a single hour. Was I supposed to walk away empowered? Well, I wasn't. I walked away confused and discouraged. The problems presented seem so big and complicated and far away. I suppose that was my biggest problem with this presentation: distance. The information, the people, everything seemed too distance from the events. I know that something happened last October not just in 1988 and 1948. I know that the people need support today. I went to this event hoping to get a sense of what I can do. Literary people, it seems, are not adept at doing this. They sit on the armchair of time looking back to assess what should have been or could have been. Is that what literature feels so out of touch? Is it simply because it is by its nature "out of touch"?


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