The Blog

Burmese Days

There is... a desperate need for help in restoring and maintaining the fabulous wealth of historical monuments across the country, ravaged by years of instability, war and neglect.

You get a sense of the transitional nature of this country as you get into your well-used 1980s right hand drive Toyota for the drive to downtown Yangon. Driving on the right in a right hand drive is not the safest of situations, even before I recalled that the military had decreed this change some years ago but omitted to ensure cars also changed: in fact there are very few new cars, only a couple of cheeky yellow left hand drive taxis and a smattering of SUVs owned by the wealthier middle classes.

It is almost a metaphor for the country itself: less than half way through a period of manifest, difficult change but prevented by a sclerotic bureaucracy from faster movement. The regulators want change, the drivers want change, but the machinery is stuck in the past.

This ambiguity filtered through my first two days in Yangon. I met several writers from a collective called HOME, including three who had been imprisoned and one who had been under sentence of death. They undoubtedly feel freer than before but live and work under the ambiguity caused by the new, more liberal constitution being at odds with 'existing law' which still sits on the statute book. At least they can now respond with a challenge in court, if challenged themselves. Zarganar, Myanmar's most famous comedian and one of those locked up, told me of how he had written in jail without paper, scratching his text with a bamboo stick onto plastic sheets covered with fresh whitewash from his cell walls. All had been through trials and stresses of this kind and worse.

In this improving political climate we are developing close ties with the local literary community. I suggested to the writers from HOME that facilitation, aided by the British Council, for translation workshops and more contact with UK literary festivals might provide the catalyst for greater understanding and readership of their work. Myanmar society is a literate one: bookshops exist even in small towns, and people read copiously. Our library in Yangon is well-used and well-stocked. People are keen to learn and to become newly creative after a period in which any innovation in the arts was frowned upon.

Another sign of ambiguity came with a visit to Gitameit, a music school in a most unlikely backstreet in Yangon; with old vinyl records decorating the outside walls and the sound of Chopin's Études emerging from a Yamaha grand in an old shed. Gitameit is in the process of training a whole new generation of musicians from all ethnic backgrounds and classes in Myanmar. They study hard. There is a choir (and very good it is too) singing Burmese songs as well as ones by Lennon and McCartney. Chamber groups play Schumann Trios as well as fusion with Burmese traditional instruments. They rely on donations and some money from a Swiss Foundation; but receive nothing from the government.

There is also a desperate need for help in restoring and maintaining the fabulous wealth of historical monuments across the country, ravaged by years of instability, war and neglect. Sitting in historic Bagan, home still to 2000 Buddhist temples and now straining under the growing weight of tourists bent on exploring this previously unknowable nation; I cannot help feeling that time is short. The creativity and capacity for innovation of the Burmese people is not in doubt. All of us - and not only the British whose colony this once was - are needed to help in many ways.

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