Burma, aka Myanmar, gained its independence from Britain in 1948. Like most European colonists in Asia and Africa, the British arbitrarily created Burma out of a diversity of ethnic groups and languages. In Myanmar today there are over 135 languages spoken by many different cultures and ethnicities. Most Burmese are Buddhist. A few are also Christian and Muslim. Until recently a military government has ruled with violence and repression. The military government has believed that if it gave up too much power the country would balkanize like Eastern Europe. In the last 50 years all this has lead to an incredible amount of violence by the Burmese military and ethnic groups against other hill tribe peoples in the eastern part of the country and Muslims near Bangladesh. And yet today there is hope for this country. The economy is growing rapidly and the country is opening up politically. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won in a landslide in November, and even though the military banned her from becoming president, the “Lady” will be the de facto president of the country once the military hands over the reigns of power. Even with the recent economic growth, Burma remains a very poor country where half the population lives on less than two dollars a day. Most foreign tourism has concentrated around Enle Lake and the temples of Bagan. Until a few years ago the town of Hsipaw was off limits to most foreigners and there are still several areas where hill tribe trekking is not possible because of fighting between different ethnic groups. We visited a nunnery in Hsipaw where 210 girls lived. For most of these girls, this nunnery is an orphanage: a safe place to eat their meals and go to sleep at night. Visiting the nunnery I felt sadness. I also felt humility and gratitude.
During the day the older girl nuns, and boy monks from the monastery, walk the streets to beg for food. They return once they have received “merit” from others in Hsipaw and their tin bowls are full of food. This experience has given me pause to think about my privilege as a white, American male who grew up with loving and well educated parents. I am not wealthy, but I have enough means to travel simply. These children will never have my same opportunities in life. How do I remain in humility and gratitude? How do I remain conscious of those who weren’t born into my same privilege? How do I make a positive contribution to this world beyond my own society and “tribe”?