Our Daily Lives

Burmese Traveler Showed Her a Country's Fear

Friday, November 6, 2009

As the U.S. changes strategy on Myanmar, Stephanie Guyer-Stevens wonders about what it will mean for the country's women. Last summer, a young Burmese woman next to her on a plane was afraid to even say the name Aung San Suu Kyi.

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A Karen woman watches troops prepare for battle against the Burmese military.(WOMENSENEWS)--A few weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office said it would change strategy on Burma, backing off U.S. economic sanctions of Burma in favor of "engagement" with the military regime, which calls the country Myanmar.

Clinton is doing so with the support of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically-elected leader of Burma, who marked the 14th anniversary of her term of house arrest on Oct. 24.

As human rights organizations alternately express concern and hope about the new policy--hope that it could create the foundation for real stability in Burma--I can't help recalling a plane trip I took last summer, when I was flying home from Bangkok to California.

I sat next to a young woman from Burma, or Myanmar, depending on which name you want to use.

As it turns out, this was her first trip ever outside her country. "Had I heard about Myanmar?" she asked me.

When I told her I knew about Aung San Suu Kyi she visibly recoiled and said "I'm not interested in anything political."

I changed the subject.

Later, as our dinner was served, she confided in a low voice, "I really love Aung San Suu Kyi."

I told her I could understand that.

Circling Back to Politics

We went on to talk about more personal topics, our families and lives back home. I answered her questions about life in the United States as best I could. She knew about President Lincoln. Then we discussed President Obama and soon we circled back to politics.

I picked up a copy of Asia Week from the magazine pocket of the seat in front of me. It fell open to a photograph of a crowd of Aung San Suu Kyi supporters staging a demonstration, all wearing masks bearing her image.

The young woman recoiled again. Eventually her wave of concern seemed to pass and she looked around the crowded plane. Finally she told me, "In Myanmar we are not even allowed to look at her picture. We will be put in jail if we are found with a picture of her."

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