A Myanmar State of Mind

2 Feb

A Myanmar State of Mind

by Daniel Opacki

The other day in
classroom a middle-aged student asked me, “How long does it take to know all of
the English words”? Considering his question, I recalled an article I read that
mentioned the smartest people in the English speaking world know only about 5 to
7 percent of all of the English words known. When I told him and the class he’d
never know all of the English words, and why that’s so, the expression on his
face went from a smiling eager curiosity to defeated. I felt bad for him and
cheered him up some by explaining that it’s not necessary to know all the
English words but it’s necessary to know how to say the ones you have learned.
We started the lesson about strategies for pronunciation of relative vowels in
one and two syllable words. 

As for me, the
one word I keep thinking about lately is melancholy. I’m in a sad and
thoughtful state of mind theses days. Since I left Myanmar, and not being able
to put certain concerns past me, occasionally I look into my photos and find a
treasure trove of memories and scenes and visions. 

Very often the
wanderlust compelling me to flit around like a Golden Monarch butterfly on a
California coastline breeze has taken me to the realized brink of my grandest
potential without allowing me to wallow for very long over the threshold. The
moments I’ve had meeting some of the worlds best people only happened because I
consider them that way in spite of the flaws they carried with them as all
humans do. These days people expect too much of other people, and forget that
we are all humans with more flaws than assets when considering the good or harm
we can achieve.
                           School-aged children working on the Yangon streets were happy to have their photo taken

The first time I
met Aung San Suu Kyi was one of those monarch butterfly moments. In 2010 one of
my students was a girl whose parents worked in government service and she
herself was never able to leave the confines of her home inside a Mandalay government
housing area. Her first time to visit Rangoon was at age fourteen. She said
she’d never been more than a couple of hundred yards away from her home until
that time. I was the first native English speaking person she’d had a
conversation with and being a devout Buddhist, as her teacher, she elevated me
onto her pedestal of Buddhist thought and I, as her teacher, was the most
important person in her life absent her parents. 
Zynne was staying
with her Auntie in Rangoon in order to learn English hoping to proceed on her
way to University somewhere abroad (America was her choice), and for well over
a year in her life, and still today, I was a guiding principle for her and an
example of how to relate and interact with people. Socially, she was stunted
and had a hard time making friends due to her irremovable opinions. The one
thing she had in common with many other young students was her devotion to
Aung San Suu Kyi and Democracy. 
In classroom in
2010 at the American Center very few university aged students spoke above a soft
whisper when talking about The Lady and democracy. During my first term of
classes, during the introductions going around, I’d asked students to name an
important person in their life and to say why that person is important. With my
humble, soft-spoken polite students we stood in a circle and one-by-one named
an important person. They started by naming a father, a mother, a monk, the
name of a teacher, one a brother and finally “Aung San Suu Kyi” was named
by petite Arakan student named Chit Cho Cho. Immediately she was shushed by
five or six students and one female even scolded her loudly, “We can’t say that!”
Chit Cho Cho stood erect and leaned forward and declared angrily, chest heaving
hard as if ready for a fistfight, “I admire Aung San Suu Kyi!” More voices
rose, one at her defense, others telling her not to say that and finally mine
concluding the exercise with some smiles and quick thinking for a new activity.


                                While monks study at an Inwa monastery children take a break to play games
It was during such a period in Rangoon when speaking
publicly the name Aung San Suu Kyi made one subject to harsh scrutiny or
worse that Zynne had asked me to join her with her Auntie and Uncle for a
Christmas breakfast on December 24th 2010. This kind of invitation
wasn’t uncommon, and I accepted because Zynne was a unique and intriguing
student and a fine person. I was asked to arrive around 8:30 and although I was
curious at the time why a devout Buddhist family would care to host a Christmas
breakfast, I just assumed they had Christian friends and wanted to have a
reason to gather and give a treat for the holiday so I didn’t ask about
After I arrived to Zynne’s home I noticed the preparations
for a large group of people, tables and chairs were set up outside under green
tarps and a lot of people, caterers, also photographers were coming and going.
When I asked Zynne about all of the activity she told me that Aunty would be
coming. I thought she meant her Auntie, who she lived with while studying in
Rangoon, and said so. Zynne smiled and her friend laughed and then Zynne told
me, “Auntie is Aung San Suu Kyi and she’s coming for breakfast”. Zynne couldn’t
tell me about it prior to me being there and she kept her secret well. But she
wanted me there early to protect me from being noticed by the inevitable police
and government Special Branch who would be watching her every move and with
whom she met.
I was concerned about being present where The Lady would be,
especially so soon after her release as she hadn’t even made a public
appearance at that time except at the NLD office after her release. I wasn’t concerned for my safety; I was worried I’d
get booted out of Burma over being there. However, the Burmese dealt with this
sort of thing often and I felt foolish worrying about myself when everyone told
me to relax, that I’d be inside and needn’t worry. My host’s were watching over
me and knew how to protect me.
Before Aung San Suu Kyi arrived everyone else came before
her. They met, sat and talked or stood talking seriously, ate Monhinga and
other delicious Burmese treats and then had 3 in 1 coffee or tea, and smokes.
The leadership of NLD was there, as were many of the Lady’s friends and several
important religious people from Protestant, Catholic, Islam and Buddhist

Her old friends were the most animated and excited and
everyone else from the caterers to the NLD leaders was obviously invigorated
that morning. I met many of them; spoke with those who spoke English and made
some good friends and contacts. Down the road I got some great invitations from
some of them for similar celebrations like weddings, parties and social and
political gatherings where, the rumour would go around quietly, “The lady is
coming today”.  Some times she showed,
other times not. But regardless of her appearance, or not, she always had a place
set in waiting. It wasn’t out of boast or pride people set a place for Aung San
Suu Kyi at their function but it was out of respect for her place amongst the
people of Burma that she was always welcome.

That’s how it went for the monarch butterfly in Burma. An
invitation by devout Buddhists to celebrate a Christmas breakfast found me
sitting by the side of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world’s most admirable leaders.
In my eyes she is the worlds most respectable leader, flaws and
all. She is a human after all, prone to make misjudgments and mistakes, but not
prone to lacking courage.
                                    Ko Tha Dja with Aung San Suu Kyi and Zynne on December 24th, 2010
That glorious morning for over three hours during speeches, a
Christmas mass with sermon by the Pastor of Judson Church, some Buddhist
prayers, singing Silent Night and Jingle Bells, and more talk, some banter and
chatter, all in Burmese, I sat three feet away from Auntie Suu. From time to
time I caught Zynne giving me a big smile with her eyes watery and happy.
It was no accident I was there that morning, the only
westerner, and definitely not an important one with a special title or
diplomatic status. It turned out Zynne’s blood relative Auntie was at one time
in the past a special assistant to the Lady and married to one of the NLD’s
high ranking officials. When Suu Kyi asked Zynne who I was in Burmese, Zynne
told her I was the teacher she’d mentioned. We chatted briefly and she said to
me, “I’m sure we’ll meet again.” 

Zynne later gave me a DVD of the whole affair entitled
“Daily Give Us” and I watch it from time to time. It sometimes takes effort to
be hopeful, as one get’s older, and sometimes hope can be recharged through
sentiment and examples stuck in the past on DVD’s. There does come a time when
one is faced with doing something more than thinking and hoping and wishing and
waiting for change to come. If one doesn’t do something, melancholy settles in
and time begins to rot at the roots and spreads too fast to the top of the tree
where ideas learn to fly. Like the monarch butterfly, we don’t get to choose a
great deal of what happens in life. We some times have to soar on the wind and
make the best of where we land.

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