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With any visit to a new place, fully knowing a country is impossible, much less with a brief visit to one city, especially if that city one of the wealthiest cities in a poor country. But from my few days in Yangon that were jam-packed meetings, interrupted by torrential rain, and where I was bothered by very determined mosquitoes, I learned that this is an extremely complicated nation striving towards healing, reconciliation, and unity, a nation that I would love to visit again and again in the near future. The society is marred by well-known cancers: the absolutely reprehensible treatment of the Rohingyas, the exclusion of other ethnic groups for the sake of a cohesive national identity, and extreme poverty that is stunting a generation of children. But who said transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democratic society was easy?
I sat in the window seat of our bus throughout our time in Myanmar, and quietly watched people living their lives. I tried to control my attitude and told myself that this was not a voyeuristic exercise, but one of learning and absorbing another’s culture and way of life. Like in any other country — rich or poor, democratic or not –, I watched men and women hustling, trying to make a living by selling coffee under dirt-covered umbrellas, young kids selling gum and tissue packs, and young school girls wearing green longyis with Barbie backpacks walking, hand-in-hand, to wherever they needed to go. I watched young boys, maybe 12 or 13 years old, teasing their girl classmates on the streets, trying to get a rise out of them. Prepubescent flirting, I call it. There were older girls, maybe late teens or early twenties, wearing heavy eye make up (much like myself) complete with Tha Nat Khar, strolling around in their skinny jeans with swag in their step.
I must admit that the familiarity of what I witnessed from my window seat was relieving. Yes, there is much, much more to people and their realities than what meets the eye, but the familiarity of life on the streets in a country that has been notorious for being closed off just until a few years ago, revealed that humans truly are experts at surviving. The brutal Burmese dictatorship failed to strip the dignity and self-determination of its people, and they eventually failed at sustaining its regime. I suspect that this country will take decades to reverse damages done by the previous government, and to work toward a peaceful domestic existence. But as an outsider, I am thrilled that the country has made the first critical step of transitioning out of authoritarian rule, and is making strides to achieve what its people have been fighting for for so long. I have no doubt that this recent history can, and will, be repeated in the last few remaining dictatorships in our near future.