Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Burma - Stolen Property

In 1987, when I was seventeen, my mother, stepfather (Chris) and his two children from his first marriage moved to Rangoon, Burma and I stayed back in the U.S. at a boarding school. For three years I traveled to Burma – half way around the world – every summer and Christmas vacation. I enjoyed Burma but I took it for granted. I didn’t know at the time that it would linger in my heart forever.

Burma stood isolated from the world and traveling there was like going back in time. We caught a rare glimpse of Asia of what it must have been like before post-war modernization. The country had changed very little from the English time, had only grown shabbier. For us, Rangoon, a green city of low buildings, brooded over by the gold magnificence of the Shwedagon Pagoda, brought about a sense of romanticism for the exotic, for the days of the British Raj, temple bells, and Kipling.

In 1886 Britain had conquered the decaying Burmese kingdom and had begun its rule of Burma. Britain ruled until after the war in 1947 when General Aung San took command of Burma’s independence. Only months later he was assassinated. The country thrived briefly under U Nu, then the long slow slide toward Ne Win who staged a military coup in 1962. The Burma Socialist Program Party was founded and proclaimed itself to be Burma’s sole political party. When my parents arrived, Ne Win was still in power. The once “gem of Asia” had metamorphosed to the status of “least-developed country” with one of the most devastating human rights record in the world. Rampant corruption and insufferable callousness in the regime created a breeding ground for such things as forced labor, child labor, torture and ethnic cleansing of Burma’s minorities.

Despite decades of poverty and oppression under military rule, it was the events in the summer of 1988 that propelled Burma onto the front pages of newspapers worldwide. A peaceful uprising of unprecedented scale took place as Burmese all over the country poured into the streets. An entire nation stood together against their rulers and their army. In response, soldiers fired into the crowds of demonstrators, including in front of the U.S. Embassy. More than 3,000 people in Rangoon were killed, far greater than the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

In an election promised by Burma’s rulers, perhaps to appease international outrage, the National League for Democracy, the leading opposition party, won by a landslide. But the regime took power. They placed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and voided the election.

The country was given the name Myanmar. It was likely an attempt to erase the history of British rule, and the echoing and haunting shouts for democracy. I refuse to call Burma Myanmar. It is a racially tinged name, a slight to the large numbers of Burma’s minorities. “Myanmar” does not conjure up thoughts of temple bells and Kipling, but unpleasant reminders of political repression and economic ruin. Like a placard proclaimed in a demonstration in front of the U.S. Embassy, “Burma – stolen property.” The people of Burma continue to live without freedom and democracy, silenced by imprisonment or murder.

My mother told me that during the height of the democracy movement in 1988 she had come to work early and discovered a hand written sign on the embassy gate. It said, Help Burma. Knowing it would be ripped down my mother untapped the corners carefully and hung the sign in her office. When she left Burma she took the sign with her, as a remembrance. My parents bid farewell in 1990 disgusted and broken-hearted with mixed emotions of nostalgia and cynicism. The anger and frustration of the injustice, of the utterly unfairness of it all never left them – or me.

Many things were memorable about Burma but not the food. I don’t recall relishing any particular dish. Chris said to me recently, “Burmese food is too oily. I don’t like it. It's a cross between Chinese and Indian food but the worst from each cuisine.” We had a cook who prepared Burmese food and I often went out to eat at the local restaurants in Rangoon. I remember eating fried crab claws, curry and rice dishes, and mohinga, a bowl of noodles in a broth that is topped with condiments such as eggs, dried peppers, and dried fish. A few times I was invited to a home of a Burmese and I would be served spicy food with nothing to drink. This was typical since drinks are not often served with meals.

In trying to remember an interesting meal in Burma I recalled one odd restaurant in a northern town called Taunggyi in Shan State. The restaurant was run by Chinese that specialized in Shan noodles. In the window, that faced the street, was a big sign that read, “absorted noodles” and a picture of three smiling but plucked, roasted, and strangled Peking ducks. The place was dank and dirty and the owner was a young man with hair so short he looked bald. He objected to our taking pictures in the restaurant but he joked constantly and we never knew when to take him seriously. Our waiter clowned around. He took two round, pie-shaped packages of uncooked noodles and tossed them from hand to hand as if they were pizzas. The place, with its setting and cast of characters, made us think of a remote frontier spot in an adventure movie like “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Today, many years later, it’s not the Burmese food that stands out in my mind but the people. I pray that their voices are heard around the world. They are calling out for help, their words powerful and lucid, and still, drowning in desperation for hope.

Fish Curry

2 lbs fish, diced
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large onion, grated
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cayenne
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 TBSP fish sauce
1/3 cup water
8 scallion, chopped

Rub fish with turmeric and salt. Heat oil on high and fry on both sides for 3 minutes. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. To the pan, add garlic, onion, ginger, and cayenne. Stir and add tomatoes and fish sauce. Cook for 3 minutes. Return fish to pan and add water. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Add scallions and cook for 3 more minutes. Serve.



  1. Hi Jennifer.
    What was the dish you made for Burma? It looks very interesting!

  2. Burma needs help!

    Hi Jennifer,

    The cuisine part of the stolen property makes me feel like going there to eat varieties of Shan, Kachin, Chinese, and some Karen traditional food though. On top of everything, it makes me remember of my mother, Kitty, as you mentioned about a cook. Was she the one you mentioned?

    The story makes me recall on campus scenes of Rangoon University, from where I narrowly escaped by sneaking out via an emergency exit after my class was called out, just right before the riot policemen and army soldiers surrounded the campus, hardly found my way to come home (actually to my "angel" that you know) , few minutes before students were defeated with tear gas and, when they fell down, their heads were beaten with batons and their bodies were thrown into trucks (they were injured but still alive). Those were just few scenes that I eye-witnessed. Demonstrations went on for about 6 more months. Then, it was followed by the army coup that ruined the whole country. (Note: Burmese soldiers did not distinguish who were involved or not, but they liked to hit everyone before them.) I survived because I was protected by the "angel" when many students were chased down on the way for them to reach the Karen territories and then Thailand. Schools were shut down for 3 years. Burma was without education for students. It was like the sun set on the campus. Many friends were still in Rangoon, many missing, many were killed, and many escaped to Thailand. Some returned after suffering from malaria and loss of friends. Schools were reopened after a long shut down. I returned to the campus to continue the Master Program. Again, it was on and off so often, so I made up my mind to change my way from the campus to the computer training center until I left Burma.

    I was one of the few advantaged students who were allowed to study in the United States. However, I never forget Burma, my country of birth. When I saw how developed the United States was, I always wished to see Burma the same. Whenever I travelled I brought along a camera to take pictures of infrastructure, sceneries, and buildings. I created video clicks and sent to my friends in Burma. I told them that I wanted to see Burma was one day like that, and at my time.

    I do not lose hope. I do not want people of Burma lose hope. One day, I am sure I will see Burma a peaceful country. It is dependent on all individuals. It is not an easy goal to achieve. Democracy is a long journey. Especially in this December 2009, I wish peace in Burma, peace in the United States, peace all over the world, and peace be with you all!

    With best regards,

    Help Burma!

  3. K'neh,

    Yes, it was your mother Kitty whom I mentioned as our cook and I remember her with great fondness. She had a warm loving soul and a glowing smile. I have video of her and I will make a copy for you.

    Thank you for giving us a glimpse into the tragic events at Rangoon University during the demonstrations. It's important that the world know what happened and your insights are enormously invaluable and much appreciated.

    I am so thankful that you made it out of Burma and I know you tirelessly do what you can to help your people.