Obama deepens ties with the youth of Southeast Asia (or “The day I saw Obama”)

President Obama at Yangon University on 14 November 2014
President Obama at Yangon University on 14 November 2014

When Obama became the first US president to pay an official visit to Myanmar in 2012, I camped out at Yangon International Airport for hours in the hope that I’d catch a glimpse of my all-time favourite politician. Whilst it was pretty exciting to see Hilary Clinton give a stately wave from the backseat of a black limo, Obama himself was more elusive. I went off to work at The Myanmar Times, while my determined husband Sherpa spent the next seven hours traversing the sealed off streets – and was ultimately rewarded. That night, Sherpa showed me his Smartphone footage of Obama passing in a car as bystanders whooped joyfully. The regret I felt about not having played hooky that day lasted almost exactly two years, until Obama returned to Yangon and I was given the opportunity to see him in the flesh.

Obama the orator in full swing
Obama the orator in full swing

I’m not going to hide the fact that I’ve suffered from “Obamania” since Barack first shot to fame as a youthful senator making a bid for the White House. In fact, one of the first articles I ever published was on Sky.net – it was an editorial celebrating his ultimate victory. While I never seem to tire of making drunken pro-Obama arguments to “the cynics”, many of my friends and acquaintances no doubt did a long time ago.

Thus, the fact that I am on a hiatus from journalism until March failed to deter me from applying for a coveted position in the White House Press Pool at Yangon University on November 14, where the US President was scheduled to take part in a town hall session with representatives from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Institute. Even though it felt pretty silly, I decided to apply to the US embassy to cover the event as a blogger.

“Don’t ask, don’t get,” I said to Sherpa by way of sheepish explanation.

As for Sherpa, who is the editor-in-chief of Myanmar Business Today, it seemed a fait accompli that his application would be accepted (which it was, happily).

In an email to the US embassy press contact, I pasted links to the half dozen articles I’ve written about Obama over the years (as well as a special report on his visit for The Myanmar Times in 2012). For good measure (?!) I also dropped in the fact that my blog contains an Obama category (which is otherwise categorised by country). Although I believe the US administration is among the world’s most progressive, I was still completely shocked to receive an email confirming my application the next day.

Thanks to the White House for including me among the press pool for the event
Thanks to the White House for including me among the press pool for the event

I woke up on Friday feeling nervous – like I was about to take an exam or something. It was really very stupid. I struggled to eat my omelet before blow-drying my hair (I never do that) and then pottered around the house with a total lack of concentration. I set off at 1pm: three hours before Obama was due to come on stage.

The first cab driver dumped me at a sealed-off intersection near Aung San Suu Kyi’s house – which is miles away from Yangon University. Groups of men wearing NLD armbands were lounging in the park with tiffin containers. I showed one group the directions I’d printed out, but they seem disinclined to stand up and help me translate them to a taxi driver. After several unsuccessful attempts (for which I don’t blame the cabbies – Yangon’s roads had been turned into a mess of dead-end streets), a couple of kind young girls stopped to help me and I was soon in taxi number two. As it was only an hour until the cut-off time for media admissions, I was flooded with relief when Yangon University finally came into view. I caught sight of my friend Joe and felt even more relieved to know that I must also be somewhere near the west entrance – the only one we could enter. However before I had time to leap out, the driver was zooming across Hledyan overpass. I walked back a kilometre or so in the heavy drizzle while sweating profusely. Both sides of the six-lane  road were lined with bored looking soldiers.

Lighting test
Lighting test

When I finally arrived at the gate, I gave my name to the embassy personnel and held a business card at the ready. A man scanned several pages before telling me, “Your name isn’t on the list.”

That’s a horrible phrase in every circumstance, but for this one in particular it was heart-breaking. While glancing at the names and organisations of the permitted media crew, I realised I’d told him M for Mudditt, not J for Jessica. He flicked back to the J section and my name was promptly crossed off.

The next step was the most intimidating – being cleared by security for entry. A dozen odd men wearing suits and civilian dress (I assumed some were members of the secret service) were handling the procedure, which started with another name check.

Secret service!
Secret service!

I handed over my bags to a giant of a man and was told to wait while a sniffer dog inspected them. I watched anxiously as the dog’s handler unzipped my handbag to allow the German Shepherd a closer look – I didn’t know what type of article would be deemed inadmissible at such an event, or what the consequences would be for possessing it. Anyhow, after being swiped back and front with a metal detector, my bags were returned to me and I was handed two cookies in cling-wrap. I obviously looked muddled, for the the man grinned at me and said, “They’re from the US Embassy.” They were really good.

No doubt a much needed snack break prior to Obama's address
No doubt a much needed snack break prior to Obama’s address

I soon found Sherpa and other familiar faces in the Diamond Jubilee Hall. It was an exciting scene to take in, with massive US and Myanmar flags and a tonne of security personnel talking into earpieces. The waiting music included tracks by Nina Simone and the Buena Vista Social Club: “how typically cool,” I thought to myself.

Members of the White House press corps arrived – a few of whom looked like Chelsea Clinton’s cousins. But President Obama wasn’t due to appear for another two hours and I wondered how on earth we’d pass the time – which was passing more slowly by the minute. However as it turned out, the waiting period was a half hour less than we expected, and offered us the chance to play “Swap the rumour/fact.”

Yangon University's Diamond Jubilee Hall
Yangon University’s Diamond Jubilee Hall

One journalist told me that 800 members of White House staff were in town to assist with preparations for Obama’s visit to Myanmar, which also included an ASEAN conference in the capital of Nay Pyi Taw (weary journalists informed me that it wasn’t much chop). Another journalist told me that Burmese police officers had visited the homes of some foreigners in the middle of the night for Obama-related purposes (what the purpose could have been was unclear to us). Another said that Obama’s visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house earlier in the day had lasted two hours. He showed me a Facebook album someone had posted called “Kissing Photos” – it included the one below.

Source: Facebook
Source: Facebook

When I later started chatting with a member of the US embassy, I tried cross-checking my facts. He insisted it was all nonsense and to divide the number of staff and visiting periods by at least half.

Sherpa and Jess in a high state of excitement
Sherpa and Jess in a high state of excitement

When the stage lighting was suddenly switched on, a ripple of excitement passed through an already excited crowd. I’d opted to stand in the still photographer’s section because the text section had an inferior view (and I was told I allowed to choose because I would be both writing and taking pictures).

“And now, the President of the United States, Barack Obama!” said a voice over the loudspeakers as the American anthem played.

The million dollar smile
The million dollar smile

I stood awed – I’d sort of expected Obama to be preceded by a brass band or something. But there he was, just 10 or so metres in front of me. And he’d started talking, but I couldn’t hear him. I guess that’s what’s called being star-struck – it lasted for about 15 minutes. I madly took photos while trying to balance my recorder on my bag or jot down notes (which was unnecessary, because the entire transcript of his speech is here). I was unaware that I’d also been stumbling into the journalist next to me from the Associated Press, who was doing her best to record a steady image of Obama. With great professionalism, she slid one hand firmly across my straying bag whilst keeping her other hand on the equipment and staring straight ahead. I later saw her leave the university compound at a quick trot.

My vantage point
My vantage point

Although I’d been initially disappointed to learn that Obama would not be giving a speech as such, but would instead take part in a Q&A session, this more unusual format turned out to be incredibly inspiring to witness – particularly to see him interact with young people. Clearly, he likes them a lot. He began by saying, “Whenever I travel the world… one of the things I most enjoy doing is meeting young men and women like you. It’s more fun than being in a conference room. And it’s also more important — because you are the young leaders who will determine the future of this country and this region.”

Southeast Asia's enthusiastic young leaders
Southeast Asia’s enthusiastic young leaders

Obama’s administration launched the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (which currently has 10,000 representatives) “to deepen America’s engagement with the next generation of leaders in government and civil society, in education and in entrepreneurship.”

Makes sense to me. As does this:

“… the future of this region… is not going to be determined by dictators or by armies, it’s going to be determined by entrepreneurs and inventors and dreamers and people who are doing things in the community. And you’re going to be the leaders who make that happen. Your generation has greater potential to shape society than any generation that’s come before because you have the power to get knowledge from everywhere, and you have more sophistication and experiences than your parents or your grandparents. “

After speaking about Myanmar’s reform process, which has seen “setbacks and false starts, and sometimes even reverses,” Obama went to quote a Burmese saying – in Burmese, to the delight of many of the guests.

“So for those Americans who don’t speak Burmese as well as I do,” he continued, “That means, ‘Dive until you reach the sand, climb until you reach the top. Keep persevering.’

More applause.

Obama's administration unclenched its fist for Myanmar whilst it was still very much a rogue country
Obama’s administration unclenched its fist for Myanmar whilst it was still very much a rogue country

However Obama’s repeated references to troubled “Rakeen” State did not go unnoticed by the feisty young crowd.

The first person to ask a question teased Obama for his error – to which Obama responded by saying, “I am still working on my pronunciation.”

Needless to say, each time Obama called for the next question, a flock of hands waved wildly in the air, each competing for his attention. He explained that he would alternate from boy to girl, because “societies that are most successful also treat their women and girls with respect.”

Yet despite the ensuing applause, neither girls nor boys seemed to want to follow the rule, with boys raising their hands during the girls’ turns and vice-versa. But it was an excellent point to make all the same. When two girls sitting next to each other both wanted to ask a question, Obama asked if they were friends. When told that they were, he said that a game of rock, paper, scissors should determine the outcome. When one won with rock over scissors, Obama and the girl agreed that “she rocked.”

Who's next?
Who’s next?

Later, a young man was chosen to ask a question, but when Obama saw that he was holding a piece of A4 paper with questions listed on both sides, Obama confiscated the paper and jokingly told him to just go ahead and ask one (“I’ll read the rest,” he assured him).

Confiscating the plethora of questions to keep up the pace
Confiscating the plethora of questions to keep up the pace

When the crowd erupted into laughter when a law student asked Obama what he would do if he were president of Myanmar, Obama’s first reaction was diplomatic: “Well, let me just say, you’re always popular in somebody else’s country. When you’re in your own country, everybody is complaining.”

Hmmm, what would I do if I were president of Myanmar?
Hmmm, what would I do if I were president of Myanmar?

Nonetheless Obama did go on to state that Myanmar’s priorities should include completing the transition to democracy, holding the 2015 elections without delay, constitutional amendment to create a fully civilian government, and new laws to protect freedom of expression – particularly for the press (who continue to be intimidated, silenced and even murdered in Myanmar).

Obama’s emphasis on the importance of national, rather than ethnic unity, was a point well worth making, as ongoing tensions between hard-line Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar has left hundreds of people dead and thousands living in grotesque conditions in IDP camps in Rakhine State.

“If people think in terms of ethnic identity before national identity, then I think over time the country will start breaking apart and democracy will not work. So there has to be a sense of common purpose,” Obama explained.

President Obama clearly enjoyed interacting with young people
President Obama clearly enjoyed interacting with young people

The session lasted an hour and 20 minutes (I know that because I looked at the time log on the AP journalist’s video camera). And when it did, a mood of elation seemed to have filled the room. How much each individual took away from the rousing calls to action and thought is of course impossible to know. But to watch young people from 11 different countries reach out to try to shake Obama’s hand as he slowly made his way away the room seemed to indicate that at least some of his messages would not be forgotten. That’s important, because Southeast Asia still has a long way to go in terms of becoming democratic societies – and also because present governments and regimes appear disinclined to follow through on that.

Vying for a handshake
Vying for a handshake

Sherpa and I wandered out of Yangon University feeling dazed by the experience. We felt that beers were most definitely in order, so we lugged our cameras and assorted bags through throngs of people until we finally reached a popular beer station called Ko San.

We sat down and ordered two Tiger beers.

“Sorry, no beer today,” said the waitress.

Her explanation for the complete lack of alcohol was simply “Obama.”

Final farewells
Final farewells

Perhaps Ko San’s management team had decided that Yangon’s youth couldn’t be trusted to keep the peace after such an exciting event. But we couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t a decision Obama would agree with.

 

 

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French elegance at the right price: A review of Alamanda Inn

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 4 September 2014

Alamanda Inn
Alamanda Inn

In a city where the cost of living is increasing at an almost unfathomable pace, Yangon’s Alamanda Inn Bar and Restaurant is bucking the trend by maintaining its reputation for top quality meals at reasonable prices.

French citizen Natasha Schaffner opened the restaurant and bed and breakfast on Bahan township’s leafy Shwe Taung Gyar Road four years ago. From day one, she said, Alamanda Inn has attracted a steady stream of customers.

The gardens surrounding the guest rooms
The gardens surrounding the guest rooms

“When we first opened, we had a lot of guests from the American embassy: they liked our steaks very much. And, oh, the chocolate mousse: everybody loved it! I was working 16 hour days because there were just so many people,” Ms Schaffner told Mizzima Business Weekly.

She added that there’s never been a need to do any marketing whatsoever, leaving bookings up to word of mouth and websites such as Tripadvisor, where former guests and diners have posted a string of highly positive reviews. Another factor Ms Schaffner attributes to Alamanda Inn’s popularity is the reputation it’s established as being good value for money – particularly in comparison with other French restaurants in Yangon, such as Le Planteur.

The De Pecheur salad
The De Pecheur salad

Due to the absence of active marketing (you won’t even find it on a Facebook page) and the unassumingly small sign on the side of a particularly quiet street, many newcomers to Yangon may be yet to discover its charms. During the dozen or so times I’ve dined at Alamanda Inn, I’ve also found that most taxi drivers haven’t heard of it (should this happen to you, ask for Air Bagan’s head office, which is better known as a landmark and a short hop away from Alamanda Inn). During my most recent visit, however, my cab driver immediately recognised the name and said, “You are French, yes?”

The old adage of judging the authenticity of a restaurant’s cuisine on the basis of the number of nationals who choose to eat there is applicable to the high standards Alamanda Inn maintains: the drifts of conversation overheard are almost always spoken in French.

Alamanda Inn is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but it isn’t a place to booze into the night because it closes at 11pm. Yet a romantic dinner it guarantees, because the atmosphere is relaxed, sophisticated and intimate.

A superior room
A superior room

The prompt service by local staff in attractive orange silk blouses and lungyis also makes it an ideal place for business meetings conducted over lunch. It’s also a convenient option geographically, as it’s around a 25 minute drive north of central Yangon (which is a small price to pay for the change of scenery it provides from the hustle and bustle of the downtown area).

Meal portions are generous – many main dishes are accompanied by a serving of creamy mashed potato so large it’s difficult to consume in its entirety. There are also pleasant added touches to the overall dining experience, such as the ceramic jar filled with water that arrives on the table the moment you sit down; the fact that no taxes are added to your bill, and a menu tailored specifically for children which includes a choice of a main course and dessert for just K6,500.

Happily, the mark-up on local Myanmar Beer is less than most establishments, with a draft costing K1,500 and a large bottle K2,500. In addition to a long list of aperitifs (which cost between K2,500 and K4,000) there’s also a handful of choice cocktails, as well as cider imported from Normandy.

Leafy surrounds
Leafy surrounds

While French classics such as tartines, crepes (sweet and savoury) are naturally prominent and the sauces accompanied with the fish, pork, beef and chicken mains are by and large French in their flavours, Alamanda Inn also serves up Myanmar fare (which is often a component of the daily specials) and local wines (in addition to French ones).

Also on offer are tajines, a North African stew of spiced meat and vegetables cooked slowly in an earthenware pot, as well as cous cous and pastas. Lighter options include a selection of 11 salads, which range in price from K2,500 to K6,500. The De Pecheur salad (K6,500) includes a refreshing assortment of shrimps, squid, pomelo, rocket lettuce, lime juice and roma tomatoes.

Ingredients are sourced from local markets whenever possible, and in the early years, when items such as cream and butter were far more difficult to obtain, Ms Schaffner would simply adjust by changing the menu. However she said that until relatively recently, the uncertainty inherent in obtaining certain ingredients was one of the biggest challenges she faced in running a French restaurant. Another major challenge was acute electricity shortages. She recalled that on some days there was no electricity whatsoever, and that she and her family would sleep in the open air restaurant when the nights were particularly hot. Due to the negative impact it was having on her business, Ms Schaffner invested in a costly generator six months after Alamanda Inn opened. Wifi is free and particularly speedy.

“Why that is so, I have no idea – but many people come here because they know our connection is good,” she said.

Yum
Yum

No doubt another means of being able to keep prices down is due to the fact that Alamanda Inn’s restaurant relies on a dozen odd large ceiling fans rather air-conditioning to keep patrons comfortable. Shade is provided by a sloping thatched roof supported by enormous wooden beams, while the open air sides are surrounded by abundant tropical foliage.

Alamanda Inn’s 10 cottage like hotel rooms lie in a secluded spot behind the restaurant. A superior single room is priced at USD$90, while a double is $100 and a family room is $140. Deluxe rooms include a bath tub and balcony and cost $120 per night. Breakfast of muesli, fruit, a baguette, omelette, juice and coffee is included.

Alamanda Inn is located on 60/B Shwe Taung Gyar Road, Bahan Township, Yangon

For more information, call (01) 534 513, email alamanda.inn@gmail.com or visit www.hotel-alamanda.com

“Terror in the Mind of God” author visits Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 2 October 2014

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer at The Strand Hotel in Yangon
Professor Mark Juergensmeyer at The Strand Hotel in Yangon

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer is an American sociologist and a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of more than 20 books and is best known for his award-winning studies of religious violence and global religion. Among them is Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2003), which is based on interviews with religious extremists around the world, including those convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, Hamas leaders and abortion clinic bombers in the United States. During a recent visit to Myanmar, Professor Juergensmeyer spoke to Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about why religious violence is increasing throughout our world and the factors contributing towards this alarming trend.

What brought you to Myanmar?

I’m here as a tourist, to enjoy Myanmar’s beauty. But wherever I go in the world, I am always interested in the relationship between religion and society. So I’m also here to learn. One of the wonderful things about being a professor is that we can take the time to sift through ideas rather than publishing something immediately; unlike journalists. I’m here to listen to different voices, which may turn out to be useful in the future.

What’s your perspective about religious tensions in Myanmar?

While there is certainly a spotlight on the religious and ethnic tensions confronting Myanmar, my perspective is a global one: I see it happening it everywhere. So in that sense there is nothing unusual about Myanmar and its people should not blame themselves or feel that there is something especially wrong with their country. Obviously there is reason for concern about the intolerance and hatred we are seeing, but what’s happening here is no different from what’s happening elsewhere; including in my own country of the United States. In the US there has been a rise of the religious right, who are very strongly outspoken and sometimes very harsh in judging anyone who isn’t a Christian; particularly those who are Muslim.  Those who are deeply religious and conservative in America are very hostile to [President] Obama; to globalisation and to the Mexican, Chinese and other people migrating to the US. They feel their way of life and everything they associate with their world is under siege. And that’s true of Buddhism in Myanmar as well – just as it was in Sri Lanka during the civil war.

Why is religious conflict so widespread?

Religious conflict and violence isn’t a new phenomenon and although it could be explained by local conditions, that wouldn’t explain why it’s become so prevalent. Could it just be sheer coincidence? To me that seems a little weird. So if it’s not merely coincidence, what is it? That’s the question I’m focused on. My belief is that there are forces exacerbating religious-based violence. We are living in a period of great upheaval, in which the national identity is challenged by a new phase in modern history. The world is moving away from the idea of the nation state and the illogical conflict between socialism and capitalism and into a global era. These days everyone can immediately be in contact with anyone in the world because of cell phones and the likes of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. It also makes us feel as though we can be anywhere in a virtual sense. On the one hand, these forms of technology are very egalitarian because we each now have a voice – but it can also be problematic because not all these voices are “nice” voices. As a result, we are all experiencing a loss of identity and location in the global world and this makes us question our identity as members of a nation of people. So to me it’s not surprising that religion has resurfaced in public life. Internal devotion has always been there, but at this particular moment, religion has re-emerged in the public sphere.

But surely religion never left the public sphere?

Indeed: it never left, but since the European Enlightenment [during the 17th and 18th centuries] the nation state was created and the idea was that the state was secular and something devoid of religion. The very idea of the nation state didn’t exist before the European Enlightenment, nor did the notion that there are two spheres of public reality – the religious and the secular. The nation state came to the rest of the world much later, as part of the baggage of colonialism. That is to say, when the colonial powers left, nation states remained as supposedly secular states. That was fine in a sense, although there is one persistent problem – who is the national community and who does it represent? And so for some 50 or so years after independence in many parts of the world, there is a kind of groping for an understanding of nationhood. What I see across the world is that in this global era, the nation state no longer has the strength, the inviolability, and the sense of “This is the way it is and will always be.” There is a sense of the nation state under siege as an essential artifice. Then we must ask, who are we as a national people? To me it’s no surprise that religion has come back into our imaginations to fill the gap. For example, many Americans will tell you: “We are a Christian country.” However globalisation has several faces: one is a defensive reaction against it while the other is an acceptance of diversity and different cultures. People feel glued together as citizens of a common place. That’s the positive side. So there are two opposite things happening simultaneously. An interesting example of the positive face of globalisation occurred in Cairo during the early, optimistic moments of the Arab Spring. In the beginning it was wonderfully eclectic. [Former president] Mubarak’s thugs would be sent into Tahrir Square to break up protesters – and often chose the time of prayers to charge, as that was when the protesters were most vulnerable. Yet when the Muslims were praying in the square on Fridays, Cairo’s Coptic Christians would encircle those praying to protect them and on Sunday mornings the Muslims would circle around the Christians. That’s an example of cosmopolitism; of a global future where we protect one another.

Unlike many other academics who are interested studying religion, such as Richard Dawkins, you are not an atheist. In your early life you wanted to become a Methodist minister and you remain a practicing Christian. How do you reconcile your own faith with the academic study of religion?

It is very rare to find an academic who goes to church and admits to a being a practicing “anything” – a Christian, a Jew; whatever. It’s not popular within academia because academia is supposed to be the life of the mind; a rational path that is not the so-called mythical path of religion. But quite frankly, I’ve never seen a contradiction between the two. To me, religion is like art – it puts you in touch with a sensibility to life; a sense of an alternative reality and the feeling of being so finite. It makes humans more humble in the face of the awesome powers of the universe – well, at its best that’s what religion brings. At its worst, religion is people imagining that they are somehow privy to powers and insights that others aren’t. To my mind that’s a perversion of religion. I would also add that I am kind of a religious groupie – I feel akin to every religious tradition. If I’m in a Buddhist temple I feel a great sense of awe. Yesterday I spent some time sitting and meditating at the foot of a Buddha [image] here in Yangon and I felt overwhelmed by the power and beauty of the moment. I feel the same way in a mosque: I can take part in prayers and get a sense of what it means to be a part of that tradition and experience a feeling of awe in the face of divinity. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest and religion was always a broadening thing in a place where people could be very narrow minded: it brought us out of our shell. I first became aware of other cultures through my uncle, who was a missionary in China and told incredible stories. For me, religion broadened the mind and widened my imagination.

One of your arguments is that religious extremists take a long term view of their involvement in so-called holy wars and becoming martyrs, which makes it difficult to see an end to religious conflicts.

Well, yes and no. Such people are acting in the sense of what I call an “imagined war”. War is moral absolutism, where one side is absolute good and the other absolute evil – you have to imagine that in order to be able to kill somebody, because it’s one of the worst things a human can possibly do. Things are never that straightforward, which makes war a powerful act of imagination. It’s also very powerful because it’s a world view that gives purpose and can be enormously intellectually satisfying because it resolves anomalies – when you “understand” who the bad people are, everything falls into place. For those who are extremely anxious about the world, it helps them to see things as a being in a state of war.

Why do some wars last so long, while others are much shorter in duration?

An imagined war sustains itself by and large through the collaboration of a shared vision. If people stop believing in it, everything falls apart. It’s a bit like the Cold War. Everyone in my generation thought it would last forever. It was just beyond belief when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and suddenly the gates were opened. And when a war is over, it’s over – there is no going back. While there are problems with President Putin and Russian nationalism, it’s not a recreation of the days of the Soviet Union. The first violent religious movement I studied wasn’t a Muslim, Christian or Jewish movement: it was a Sikh one. I was living and lecturing in India’s Punjab State and I found Sikhs to be wonderful, gregarious people. To see these young men suddenly swept up in violence during the insurgency [that began in the 1970 against the alleged mistreatment of Sikhs by the Indian government] was terrifying. A whole generation was wiped out. And Mrs Gandhi thought she would fight fire with fire: but she herself was later killed by her Sikh bodyguards and the battle went on until the 1990s. One of the least reported aspects of the war was: ‘How did it come to an end?’ So I travelled to villages that had been at the centre of the conflict to try to understand. One man, whose brother had been a militant leader, said something very poignant to me. When I asked him why the war came to end, he replied by saying, “There are times in Sikh history when young Sikh men go to battle and there are times when they don’t. That was then and this is now.” That was all he could say. Like the Cold War, it just kind of collapsed. What I’m saying is that these imagined wars can disappear as quickly as they’ve arisen.

One section of Terror in the Mind of God is titled, “Why guys throw bombs”. Why are men disproportionally involved in acts of violence?

There are a lot of simple answers to that question: we could take a biological approach and say it’s the damn testosterone. Or we could use a Freudian explanation that guys blow up bombs when they can’t explode other things – that it’s a symbolic sexual release. While both explanations are entirely possible, as a sociologist rather than a psychologist, I look for sociological explanations. In traditional societies in particular, men are responsible for what goes in the public sphere and women are responsible for the home. When something in public life goes awry, men perceive it as a humiliation. And humiliation is one of the most powerful emotional forces in the world: nothing produces violence so directly. This could explain the male predominance of wanting to reclaim their honour. When I interviewed one of the heads of the Hamas movement, I asked him what is most misunderstood about Hamas’ goals – in the West particularly. He said to me, “You think we are struggling over property and about place – and while it is about that, it’s also about something more – it’s about pride. He used the word izzat, which represents more than pride, honour and respect; it means the total opposite of humiliation. Whilst I hate to put that in gendered terms – it often is by those who support it. Even Gandhi spoke of the “manliness” of the struggle of non-violence.

Is there any quick fix to at least reduce the violence or is simply too complex?

I think it’s very important for religious people in particular to challenge extremism. For example, after Malala [Yousafzai, 14, a Pakistani schoolgirl, who spoke out against Taliban policies banning women from having an education] was shot in the head by the Taliban, she said, “This is not Islam.” There is also enormous tension among Jews across the world about the conflict in Gaza. Some believe the war is being fought by the nation state of Israel, while others see it as a religious based conflict. There are Jews who are very critical of what the Israeli government is doing and I think it’s very important for these voices among religious communities to be raised loud and clear.

 

IN PHOTOS: Beyond Bagan’s temples

Ayeyarwady Riverbank
The most elegant laundress I’ve ever seen

Temples are to Bagan what canals are to Venice: they are overwhelmingly its most defining feature. And of course they should be, because there are more than 3,000 of them and some date way back to the 9th century – and those that didn’t succumb to crummy “restoration” jobs are incredibly beautiful. But just for a bit of fun, I decided to post a photo essay of Bagan – sans temples. I admit this in part due to the fact that Bagan is so photogenic that I came back from a trip there in January with hundreds and hundreds of shots (as no doubt we all do…).

Stores selling Buddhist trinkets and the like line the inside of Bagan's most popular temple entrance walkways
Stores selling Buddhist trinkets and the like line the inside of Bagan’s most popular temple entrance walkways

Okay, so this is a shot taken from within a temple – but still arguably within my “no-temple” theme ;)

A Padaung woman in Old Bagan
A Padaung woman in Old Bagan

Photographing female members of the Padaung tribe (also known as Kayan Lahwi) is somewhat controversial, as many quite justifiably believe that doing so contributes to a “human circus” state of affairs – that is, paying money in exchange for a picture. In the late eighties and nineties, thousands of Padaungs fled to neighbouring Thailand and soon enough, the “Long Neck” sections of refugee camps became a hot tourist attraction, and remain so to this day (recently, the Padaung people have expressed a desire to return to Myanmar, but complained they are being prevented from doing so). The woman pictured was operating a traditional weaving workshop in Old Bagan which is of course geared towards tourists – I bought a scarf and took some shots…. judge me as you will! I’ve read several different accounts of how the brass-coil tradition began – my favourite is the one that claims the coils were devised as a means of protecting Padaung women against the threat of tiger attacks (tigers tend to aim for the jugular).

Padaung textiles
Padaung textiles

Looking back at this photo makes me wonder why I chose a black and white scarf…

Ayeyarwady River
Ayeyarwady River

Taking a stroll along the peaceful banks of the Ayeryarwady River is recommended, as it offers a chance to observe people going about their lives in a non-touristy type of way.

A couple of Bagan's varied transport options
A couple of Bagan’s varied transport options

I took this shot from the back of a horse and cart on the first morning we arrived. It was fun in a novelty kind of way, but we only did it the once as it’s much slower than hiring electric bikes (which was terrific fun, cheaper and highly recommended). It’s also possible to hire taxis or conventional motorbikes – but the latter, while being pleasantly cool with AC, doesn’t allow you to travel along the narrow paths – so you’ll end up walking and sweaty anyway. Plus, electric bikes are clean, green and easy to operate. Be careful when travelling along sandy paths though, as you may, like me, veer out of control! No scratches though – I soon learnt my lesson and learnt to slow down…

Penny for your thoughts...
Penny for your thoughts…

 

My husband and I shared the shade of a tree with this boy for a while. He looks as though as he’s on the move somewhere.

Beers, a picture perfect sunset, private boat and epic temples - what more could you want?
Beers on a chartered boat with a picture perfect sunset and epic temples – what more could you want?

Hiring a boat and cruising around the river during the late afternoon hours was a highlight of my experience in Bagan. It’s also possible to have a romantic, candle-lit dinner on a small sandbank with terrific views of the temples at sunset – but Sherpa and I were happy enough to stick with liquids!

A vendor selling fried snacks
A vendor selling fried snacks

 

This snack-food vendor’s thanaka had a distinctively blueish tone – despite paying a visit to the Thanaka Museum in Nyaung Oo, I never did manage to find out why… The museum itself is so-so – and for some reason, keeps two sad monkeys in a cage out the front.

Buddhists often lay flowers inside the shrines, where a huge Buddha is often to be found
Buddhists often lay flowers inside the shrines, where a huge Buddha is often to be found

 

Zarganar: My prison memories and quest to free Myanmar’s political prisoners

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 4 September 2014

Zarganar: Beloved Burmese comedian, former political prisoner and human rights activist
Zarganar: Beloved Burmese comedian, former political prisoner and human rights activist

Zarganar is widely considered to be Myanmar’s most popular comedian, as well as being a prolific writer, poet and filmmaker. An outspoken critic of the former military junta, the four-time political prisoner, whose real name is U Maung Thura, spent a total of 11 years behind bars. He was released in 2011 during a presidential amnesty granted to prisoners of conscience. In an exclusive interview with Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt, Zarganar spoke about his campaign to secure the release of remaining political prisoners and military intelligence officers, as well as his unlikely friendship with a murderer known as Buffalo, who helped him find the path to forgiveness.

What are you currently working on?

I have so many plans, but my focus at the moment is on securing the release of every remaining political prisoner. I’m on the clarification for political prisoners committee, which is trying to formally clarify the status of 32 people who were excluded from last year’s presidential amnesty. The government classifies these individuals as criminals and terrorists and therefore refuses to recognise them as political prisoners. They were found guilty of bombing and setting fire to a village in Shan State, as well as murder and rape. None were provided with a fair trial and I strongly believe the rape and murder charges are false. As members of the Shan State Army, their objective was political: they attacked an area where government troops were living – it was a battlefield at the time. No one was killed when the village was destroyed. Most have been in prison for at least a decade and we feel that enough is enough.

Our committee has called on the government many times to have these 32 people reclassified as political prisoners and to set them free. Unfortunately, it seems that the government has no intention of carrying on with the process of releasing all political prisoners. No further amnesties have been granted since January 1 despite the fact that President U Thein Sein pledged last year that there would be no more political prisoners left in Myanmar.

What progress is being made towards having those prisoners released?

Last March, an important meeting took place between the government and civil society groups, but I wasn’t able to attend because I had kidney stones and needed an operation to remove them. In previous meetings, I’ve always taken the role of moderator and facilitator – I am the only bridge that exists between the two sides. During that meeting there were a lot of disputes, with both sides blaming the other – and now most committee members want to resign. But if we disband the committee, those 32 people will die in prison. We cannot destroy their hope. So my goal is to try to persuade members of the government and civil society to return to the table for discussions.

You are also working to obtain the release of former military intelligence officers jailed in the aftermath of the purge of Military Intelligence in 2004. What motivated you to take up their cause?

Some of the former military intelligence officers who remain behind bars were actually the ones who sent me to prison and tortured me. But I have forgiven them. I think it’s important to bear in mind the context of the country’s past political situation. These people are human beings and my fellow Burmese citizens, so I feel I must support their release. And every member of the committee agrees and has signed a petition in support.

This evening I will meet with U Soe Thein, Minister of the President’s Office, to discuss the possibility of arranging a meeting to review their cases. I have also requested a meeting with the Minister of Home Affairs, Lieutenant-General Ko Ko. And last weekend I had the chance to discuss the release of both political prisoners and military intelligence officers with President U Thein Sein and House Speaker [Thura] U Shwe Mann. All so far have expressed their agreement.

Was it your first meeting with the President?

No, I’ve met the President several times but it was my first visit to his farmhouse in Nay Pyi Taw. It has a very nice view. The purpose of me being there was to get footage of him on the farm, which will be shown as part of a youth festival and exhibition on International Peace Day on September 21.

I got some great shots of him sowing rice in a paddy field and preparing food for his cows while dressed in a cotton western-style shirt, rather than traditional Burmese dress. People will see him as a normal man rather than the president of the country and they will hear him say that he is creating programs to support the youth and farmers and that he will keep up the momentum of the peace process. In the film he says, “Farmers are the fathers of our country – and I am the son of the farmers.”

The President himself is a keen farmer; before joining military he’d had a lot of farming experience. Nowadays he’s very interested in planting crops and breeding cows.

However, the project also gave me the opportunity to discuss the release of political prisoners and military intelligence officers in more detail after our meeting in the President’s office on Saturday [August 23]. This was very timely, because my aim is to have every prisoner released on International Peace Day. President U Thein Sein said he agrees with my position and will discuss the matter with the special security and defence committee, of which he serves as chairman.

How much public support is there for the release of former military intelligence officers? Could there be a public backlash if they are released?

Possibly, because some Burmese still fear the military intelligence and would feel angry about it. I can understand their point of view – I have Burmese friends in Singapore and the United States who also totally disagree with me on this. But I tell them that I was the one imprisoned and tortured, not them. I lost so much in my life as a result of military rule. Both my parents died while I was in prison and I didn’t get the chance to see their dead bodies. My wife and two children left Myanmar about eight years ago and are now US citizens. My wife refuses to return to Myanmar because she doesn’t trust the government. You could say our marriage has broken down. But although the junta ripped my family apart, I don’t want revenge. I just want to see my country improve.

Is your ability to move forward without bitterness something you attribute to being a practicing Buddhist?

No, it’s not concerned with Buddhism. While in prison I read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. In it he writes about why it’s important to forgive and forget. As for me, I have “edited” his sentiment: I can forgive but I’ll never forget [laughs].

Your ability to forgive those responsible for the suffering you endured goes beyond abstract forgiveness.

As you know, I was sent to prison four times. The second time was before the elections in 1990, when I received a five-year sentence and was sent to Insein prison. At the time, the prison was extremely crowded and political prisoners shared cells with criminals. They often stole my food and were generally very rude people.

I was sharing a cell with a murderer called Buffalo. During the uprising of ‘88 he killed at least 20 people; mostly police. He told me he slit their throats. Yet he was very smart and I came to love him because he supported all the political prisoners. If we didn’t get food, he would do something about it. He had many connections with the wardens and was able to get things we couldn’t. We were roommates and friends for two years, from 1990 until 1992.

Then, when I was transferred to Myiktyina prison in 2008 I was reunited with a lot of my friends – including Buffalo. He’d been released in 2005 and had promised me he’d never kill anyone again. ‘Why did you do it?’ I asked him. His reply was that the person he murdered was a member of the Special Branch. He’d got the death penalty but it’s been commuted to a life sentence. I think he has 13 years left to serve.

Anyhow, he supported me in prison once again – he even got me a mobile phone so that I could call my friends and relatives outside Myanmar! Buffalo was a very popular inmate and he was powerful too, amongst both inmates and wardens. He had many privileges and often did repairs at the wardens’ homes. And whenever he re-entered the prison compound, he was never searched. Buffalo also had his own small business – and a corrupt one, yes. Some of the inmates were very wealthy jade merchants or human smugglers and he’d ask them if they wanted a “comfortable stay” when they arrived – in return for cash payments, of course. He’d then use the money to obtain mobile phones and other things from the wardens. Everyone was dependent on him.

One day Buffalo told me that a member of military intelligence was being held in a separate compound from ours. That person, it turned out, had tortured me very badly. He once buried me up to my neck and drove a jeep very fast towards me while shouting that he was going to crush my skull. He terrified me. When I told Buffalo this, he offered to have him killed, saying that no one would ever find out. I refused and said I wanted to meet him instead.

Buffalo agreed and when I saw him, I said, “Uncle Colonel, do you remember me?”

He did and we shook hands. He used to be such a big man but had grown very skinny – and very depressed. His family was also in prison so he could only eat prison food, which was totally inadequate.

I’ll never forget what he said to me next. He begged me to forgive him for what he did to me and he wept. I think it was from that time on that I was able to forgive.

But I did say to him that day: “Are you insane or were you following orders from your superiors?”

He cried a lot and said it was all his fault; that all the blame was his. I wasn’t sure whether to believe that though.

Afterwards I got Buffalo to give him my coffee every morning, as well as some vegetables and dried fish. On the day I left prison I bid him farewell him and promised to work to secure his release. That made him cry. I still send him food parcels and books every month.

Is your focus on the release of certain prisoners or a broader range of issues?

My focus isn’t only on the prisoners. I want to move our country forward and I believe that introducing a federalist system of governance is very important, as well as changing the constitution so that the military aren’t allocated 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

Are you confident these changes will occur before the general elections due late next year?

No, I’m not. The general elections of 2015 are not my heartbeat, you could say. My vision is 2020. But civil society groups need to start working together with the government, the opposition, the military and the ethnic minority parties in order to achieve these long term goals, such as power sharing between the states and union level government. One positive development is that during meetings last week that involved the military and ethnic minority groups, it was agreed that members of the military will start taking part in classes on federalism.

With so much going on in your life, do you have any time left to tell jokes?

I do still perform, and as a comedian, I often use humour to get my point across. For example, when I met with senior members of the military quite recently, I said to them, “Do you know how you can get 100 percent of the peoples’ love?”

“How? How?” they asked me.

“Well, if you completely withdraw from parliament you will get all of their love: every single person will applaud you and want to kiss you.”

They laughed at that. But I don’t believe the military will withdraw before 2015.

Would you like to become a politician?

I’ve always been interested in politics and since I was a young man I’ve read many books on the subject. My mother stood as an independent candidate – which at the time was something I tried to discourage because I thought that as a literary person, she lacked knowledge about politics. Ultimately, she didn’t listen to me and she didn’t win.

As for me personally, I didn’t try to enter politics despite my interest in it because the only route available was through the ruling party at the time, which didn’t appeal.

Nonetheless, politics has been at the centre of my career as a comedian. Nowadays a lot of people are asking me, “What do you want to do now – arts or politics?”

My answer is that I want to be free. I want to sing songs, dance, make films and write articles, novels and poems. I’m so happy doing those things. And although I would like to dedicate 100 percent of my life to politics, the time isn’t right. I want to focus on moving our country onto the right path and encouraging people – especially young people – to participate in the process. I want to be like Arsenal’s coach Arsene Wenger – he’s very good at scouting for new blood in football. I want to keep searching for new blood to serve my country.

Note: On 7 October 2014, 3,073 prisoners were released in a mass presidential pardon. President Thein Sein wrote on his Facebook page that the decision was made in the interests of “humanity, state peace and stability, rule of law and national solidarity”. Among those freed was former former Brigadier General Thein Swe, a senior member of Military Intelligence and the father of Sonny Swe, co-founder of The Myanmar Times and now Mizzima’s chief executive. Sonny Swe also served nine years in prison before his release in 2012.

Click here to read my news article on Sonny’s release.

Click here to read an interview with former Brigadier General Thein Swe

 

Fox News comes unhinged with Dr Ablow’s racial slurs against Obama

Keith Ablow. Source: Cable Kooks
Keith Ablow. Source: Cable Kooks

The racial slurs levelled against President Obama this week by a member of Fox News’ ‘Medical A Team’ (whatever that means?!) Dr Keith Ablow have made headlines around the world – and for good reason. Ablow has accused Obama of seeking to infect Americans with Ebola because “his affiliations are with Africa.” While reductionist statements are common among US conservatives, his took offensiveness to an entirely new level.

Ablow’s conspiracy theory may be summarised as follows: Obama is not acting in the best interests of Americans because he is African and therefore ideologically opposed to sealing off US borders with Ebola-infected countries.

His premise begins with the president’s name itself.

Dr Ablow said: “This guy [President Barack Obama]… has names very similar to two of our arch-enemies, Osama, well, Obama. And Hussein. Hussein.”

While speaking with Fox News Radio, Ablow accused the president of believing – “if only unconsciously” – that the US has inflicted a “plague of colonialism” on the world and that travel restrictions on African countries would thus be unfair.

Whilst Ablow’s arguments are too ridiculous to dismantle piece-by-piece, a quick glance over his Wikipedia page reveals that the psychiatrist-cum-media-personality is no stranger to controversy - and may in fact court it, as I will endeavour to illustrate below.

Yet before documenting Ablow’s most notorious gaffes in recent years, may I not-so-respectfully point out that his own name is rather unfortunate in the context of his profession as a psychiatrist (he wanted to get personal, right?). And come to think of it, does “Ablow” not sound a little like “Ebola”? Hmmm… must be sinister…

According to Wikipedia, “Ablow has made a number of controversial statements, including psychological assessments of various celebrities he has never examined that have drawn criticism from other practitioners in his field, as well as from various organisations and groups which were offended by his comments.”

Remark 1 - 

On August 12, 2014, Dr Ablow said that First Lady Michelle Obama “needs to drop a few [pounds].”

He apparently continued on this track whilst appearing on a television show aired later that month: he told female panelists that they too needed to lose weight.

Remark 2  -

During the 2012 Republican primary elections, Ablow penned a column arguing that Newt Gingrich’s three marriages made him more qualified to be president.

He wrote: “When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.”

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative was one of many who publicly voiced criticism over Dr Ablow’s remarks.

“At some point, you have to wonder when shamelessness crosses the line from character defect to psychopathology. If only Dr. Leo Spaceman were a Republican, he could have a lucrative career on Fox,” he said.

Remark 3  -

In April 2011, Ablow wrote a health column for FoxNews.com which criticised designer Jenna Lyons for publishing an advertisement that showed her painting her young son’s toenails a shade of hot pink.

Ablow asserted that gender distinctions are “part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race”.

Despite the ensuing controversy this caused, Ablow held firm (in contrast to the subsequent apologies he proffered following the outcry over remarks 1 and 2). He re-posted the column on his Facebook page as proof of his conviction.

Remark 4 -

Ablow is keen on volunteering diagnoses for public figures, despite the fact that he has never personally treated them. One of the most notable concerned Vice President Joe Biden: following Biden’s speech in the 2012 VP Performance, Ablow wrote a column for FoxNews.com that suggested he suffered from dementia.

Shrink-cum-media-personality

Whilst Ablow is indeed a qualified psychiatrist, the bulk of his professional time is spent in media. In addition to writing health columns for FoxNews.com, Ablow has published 15 books and made countless TV appearances – including the Oprah Winfrey Show. He is also a radio broadcast regular and his articles have appeared in a variety of print publications.

Ablow hosted his own TV show for a little over year, before it was axed in 2007 due to ratings that averaged out at one percent of America’s TV audience. On October 17, 2006 “The Dr Keith Ablow Show” secured an exclusive interview with John Mark Karr, who falsely confessed to murdering the child beauty pageant star, Jon-Benet Ramsey. Ablow surreptitiously videotaped his source and afterwards stated that John Mark Karr was a “textbook case of pedophilia” and would pose a threat to society after being released from prison.

Ablow severed his ties with the American Psychiatric Association in 2012, when he announced in a FoxNews.com column that he had “resigned in protest” – but neglected to mention the reasons for doing so. The column was titled, “Be wary of the American Psychiatric Association” and you can read it here.

Ever the optimist, in January 2013 Ablow expressed an ambition to take part in politics. Despite a complete lack of experience, Ablow suggested he contest the seat left vacant by John Kerry as a Republican candidate. He backed down two months later to make way for other Republican hopefuls.

No doubt President Obama isn’t losing sleep over Ablow’s latest remark - yet the fact that Fox News and others continue to give Dr Ablow air-time is both worrying and incomprehensible to many. Surely there’s a better candidate out there?

Taking a stand against hate speech in Myanmar: an interview with Nay Phone Latt

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 18 September 2014

Nay Phone Latt: Former political prisoner and blogger, MIDO founder, PEN Myanmar secretary and campaigner against hate speech
Nay Phone Latt: Former political prisoner and blogger, MIDO founder, PEN Myanmar secretary and campaigner against hate speech

Former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt is the secretary of PEN Myanmar and executive director of the advocacy group, Myanmar ICT Development Organization (MIDO), which he founded in February 2012. In April the 34-year-old launched a campaign against hate speech on social media called Panzagar (“Flower Speech”). He spoke to Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about his passion for information and communications technology and his efforts to create a more tolerant society.

What sparked your interest in ICT?

It was during the 18 months I spent in Singapore from 2006 that I learnt how powerful it can be when used effectively. Myanmar was completely different back then – we had very little electricity and even less access to the internet, whereas in Singapore, my friends never needed to shut down their computer or to log off from Gmail.  I started working as the editor of an online magazine and my friends taught me how to blog. I really enjoyed it because I could write whatever I wanted and in my own language. So when I came back to Myanmar I wanted to keep blogging – but at the time even using Gmail was illegal. I knew of the dangers of blogging so I never posted political content on my own blog – not even during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. I used to send articles to my friends with blogs overseas. However just before the Saffron Revolution I organised a seminar called “Why we blog” to try to introduce people to this type of technology – but after that I became well known to the military government.

Were you aware of the risk you were taking by promoting blogging in Myanmar then?

Yes I was, but that was also partly because I come from a political family – my parents and grandparents were NLD members and I was a NLD youth leader. I knew I could end up in prison at any time; so many people were being sent to jail. So it wasn’t a big shock when I was interrogated. I was forced to hand over my Gmail password – I was told I would be hung if I refused. I had several different accounts and I gave military intelligence a password to an account that I thought was “safe.” However they found a cartoon of [Senior] General Than Shwe that someone had sent me and I got a 16-year sentence for that. I got another five-and-a-half years for owning a VCD of one of Zarganar’s performance that was a bit critical of the regime.

How did you react to such a harsh sentence?

The thing that saved me was that I knew I wasn’t alone – so many of us were in the same situation. Zarganar was also in Insein prison at the time, although we weren’t able to talk to each other because we were kept in separate parts of the prison. And although the food was really bad and we couldn’t go outside, I had a daily schedule that kept me from getting too bored. I spent an hour reading, meditating, learning English, relaxing ? and I also taught some of my cellmates about ICT.

What were your reasons for founding MIDO?

I decided to set up MIDO because Myanmar’s political situation had changed somewhat: things were more open. However the problem is that although the country is more open and there are new forms of technology available, awareness about ICT remains very low because it’s not a subject taught in schools. The only people who have a chance to learn about ICT are those who can afford to attend a costly private school. And the University of Computer Studies in Yangon lacks basic facilities. So the first project I set up was ICT training for staff at local organisations, who were able to learn how to use the internet effectively and why hate speech is dangerous and unacceptable. We were invited to run classes for members of the Chin Youth Associations last September and we also have connections with the National League for Democracy, of which I’m a member. I’ve given lectures at NLD headquarters around the country as well as many other different organisations. I’d also like to work with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information to create a long term solution for addressing the gap in our education system regarding ICT, but so far it hasn’t happened.

Why did you decide to campaign against hate speech?

I am really worried about our country’s future. The religious conflicts that exist aren’t a new problem – it’s been a technique used by every government, including the British administration. If we look back throughout our history we can clearly understand the phenomenon as a “divide and destroy” tactic used to prevent people from being united and therefore more powerful. But the problem now is that the young generation are spending so much of their time on social media that they aren’t learning about this and don’t understand the real perspective behind the violent events that are taking place. Our reading culture has changed – attention spans are shorter and most young people just want to digest very small amounts of information. For example, when I post an article on my Facebook page, in less than a minute there are so many “likes” – but they obviously hadn’t even had time to read the article! This is one of the reasons why I don’t keep a blog anymore – and I know of other bloggers who have also given up. However I do have plans to write a book about my time in prison – but I want to focus on the positive things that happened, rather than all the negative stuff.

What’s the most common justification you hear from those who believe hate speech is acceptable?

People say they have the right to express themselves however they please. We respond by explaining the difference between saying something like, “I hate you” and “I hate them and want to kill them.” Some forms of hatred are very dangerous for society and shouldn’t be tolerated.

A poster for MIDO's Panzagar campaign against hate speech
A poster for MIDO’s Panzagar campaign against hate speech

Who are the targets of hate speech?

It’s a big problem in Rakhine State, but hate speech has now spread from previously being targeted towards the Rohingya people specifically to Muslims in general. There’s also a lot of hate speech about foreigners in Rakhine State. Hate speech against the gay community has flared up over the last six months after the media reported the marriage of a gay couple. Then there’s hate speech about China – not against the people but their government. Although internet penetration rates are still low, the problem is getting worse and my concern is that it will continue to worsen unless people take action.

Describe your involvement with PEN’s research project on hate speech.

We are monitoring four aspects: print media, online media, social media and content on VCDs. I’m responsible for monitoring social media, which is mostly scrutinising Facebook accounts. I take screen shots of pages that contain hate speech. It’s a three month project and we’ll publish a report of our findings on International Peace Day on September 21. We’ll distribute the report to members of the government and civil society groups so that people become more aware of the issue, and hopefully take action. It will also be available to download on PEN Myanmar’s website.

What forms of hate speech exist in the media?

Following the riots in Mandalay, for example, there were some very problematic statements made by members of the [regional] government. We believe that statements that incite hatred and violence should not be published and editors need to start taking responsibility to ensure this. The problem is that there are so many new journals now, but very few journalists – as well as editors – are well trained in media ethics. Some lack any concept of it.

Are those using hate speech fanatics?

There appear to be two types of people using hate speech – some are doing it intentionally while others are actually paid staff. I don’t want to discuss who it is that might be paying people to spread hate speech, but the fact that some people are constantly online and within a minute after posting something on their Facebook account there are an enormous number of “likes” and “shares” indicates that it’s an organised activity by a large group of people. I’ve also noticed that many pages share a lot of similarities and use the Buddhist flag or national flag, or an image of the Buddha as profile shots.

You were in jail when Time magazine named you one of its 100 “Courageous Heroes” in 2010. Were you aware of the honour?

Yes I was – a warder told me. It gave me strength and it was also a very useful thing for political prisoners in general, as well as for me personally. After I received the award, the warders knew that I was known in the international media and organisations so they didn’t dare to treat me as badly as others, particularly the criminals, who were regularly beaten. I was even allowed to start receiving English-language books from my parents – I told the warders that I would tell the international media if they didn’t allow it! My parents visited me every month and exile media groups would then call them to ask what I had said. Knowing that I hadn’t been cut off from the outside world was very good for me.

British International School opens in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly in April 2014

A graphic of BISY's front building
A graphic of BISY’s front building

The British International School Yangon will open its doors to pre-nursery and primary aged pupils in August 2014. It is governed by the UK-based, not-for-profit British Schools Foundation (BSF), which operates a network of nine British international schools in 10 countries. Mizzima Business Weekly talks to headmaster Adam Johnston.

Why did the British International School Yangon feel that the time was right to come to Myanmar?

Members of our board had been coming to Yangon quite regularly to get a feel for the market and we were aware that there was a strong demand among expats. Some families have a mum or a dad working in Yangon and flying back on the weekends to Bangkok where the children go to school, which isn’t ideal. A similar sort of thing happened in terms of the demand for international schools in Kuala Lumpur. BSF opened a school there in 2009, using exactly the same programme we are in Yangon: we’re moving into an already refurbished building. [The school plans to expand into a purpose facility will be completed by 2016-17]. Within 12 to 16 months of that opening we had 180 children enrolled and another 50 banging on the door, so to speak. A year later we were able to move more than 200 pupils into the new campus.

Headmaster Adam Johnson
Headmaster Adam Johnson

What are some of the features of Yangon’s campus?

We’ll have maximum class sizes of 20, and Mac laptops will be connected to interactive whiteboards – the largest ones available. We’ll also set up an iPad programme that begins from Year Four. Part of the latest learning assessment material is conducted through an iPad, and children will be able to use this technology for photos, downloads and all sorts of things. But we’re not going to go crazy on technology. We’ve had a lot of training from experts who have come out from the UK and have helped us to create the best methods of utilising iPads for educational purposes. We’ve heard about what other schools are finding difficult and what not to do.

The campus building itself has a huge amount of natural light – it has two sections which are made completely of glass and all of our classrooms have large open glass sections. This will also allow parents to be shown around and to see what’s being done. I want them to see the kids enjoying their work and our teachers in action. Teaching is a bit of a drama performance – you must engage students. And without a doubt, some of the teachers I have coming from our Kuala Lumpur campus are entertainers!

The Early Years classrooms will all have doors leading to an outside learning area, which will be undercover from the sun and rain. This will allow for continuous learning to progress from the inside to the outside of the classroom.

Graphic of BISY's library
Graphic of BISY’s library

Can you please describe the British national curriculum?

There’s a focus on a certain amount of academic rigour, but we also have the flexibility to incorporate extra elements into it. As a British school, we want to get beyond the regular curriculum. It’s not that it would be wishy-washy though. For example, I’ve just spoken to two companies who are in the process of creating 10 cellos, 10 violins and 10 violas which will be tailor made for children from Year 2 to Year 6, along with saxophones and trombones.

Another aspect is that international schools adapt their curriculum to suit their environment: sometimes too much. When schools try to run two different curriculums side-by-side, for example, possibly along with bilingual learning, you don’t often hear success stories coming out of that.

I am, however, looking for a Myanmar language teacher and we may also offer Chinese, and we do want some local staff in our team. I’m not 100 percent sure at this stage, as it will all depend on who turns up on that first day. At the moment, 99 percent of the interest we’ve had in enrolments has been from Europeans.

A graphic of BISY's classrooms
A graphic of BISY’s classrooms

Will all the school’s employees be British?

We require our staff to hold British qualifications, or qualifications that are of the same standard and level as that required to teach the British curriculum. I myself hold an Australian passport, but I’m more experienced in teaching the British national curriculum than any other. I’ve received hundreds of CVs, however the minimum level of experience in teaching the British curriculum we require is four years.

A graphic of BISY's playground
A graphic of BISY’s playground

Do prospective students need to be fluent in English?

No. All students do some pre-entry assessment tests, which gives an idea of what level of English is spoken. It will be possible for one of our teachers to provide one-on-one literacy lessons for an hour during regular English lessons, working on phonics, grammar and sentence work. Yes, there would be additional fees but after the term is over we can then reassess whether a child can access a full hour of literacy in the classroom. You’d be amazed how a child can improve their language skills when they’re immersed in a one language environment.

For more information, visit http://www.britishschoolyangon.org or contact info@britishschoolyangon.org

Fees: Primary school fees are USD$19,300 per year plus a $5,000 enrolment charge, ($1,500 of which is refundable if three months notice is given of departure).

Mr Crispo serves up Yangon’s best pizza: A review of Parami Pizza

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 28 August 2014

Parami Pizza's prosciutto e funghi
Parami Pizza’s prosciutto e funghi

Francesco Crispo knows more than a thing or two about how to make a great pizza. For the past 12 years he’s been consumed with honing his craft, which was first cultivated while working under a renowned Italian chef in the Caribbean’s Dominican Republic for four years. The accountant-turned-chef was even born in Naples, which in the 16th century became the birthplace of modern day pizza. Luckily for Yangonites, Mr Crispo (whose name couldn’t be more apt) arrived in the commercial capital three months ago to become executive chef of Parami Pizza, which opened in Yangon’s northern township of Mayangone on July 25.

“We ferment the yeast for at least 24 hours before using it: if it’s any less than that, a person’s stomach may start to feel strange a few hours after eating a pizza,” Mr Crispo told Mizzima Business Weekly while furiously rolling identically sized balls of dough.

Mr Crispo said that most pizza chefs have their own individual style of creating a pizza base – his preference is for a soft yet crispy one, “So that you can hear the crunch.”

However he added that he always takes his customers’ tastebuds into account, which is why he thinned down the crusts a little since the restaurant first opened.

Parami Pizza's stylish interior
Parami Pizza’s stylish interior

Parami Pizza imports the finest quality Italian ingredients for its pizzas, such as flour, wild mushrooms and tomato sauce (as well as risotto, pasta, olives and coffee – to name but a few). However importing foreign produce is not without its obstacles in Yangon, as some of the ingredients have never before set foot in Myanmar and raise eyebrows when they arrive.

“Sometimes when our orders from Italian suppliers are delivered, the customs department asks us to supply additional paperwork before the goods can be released – they say they don’t know what it is we’ve had delivered. This can make things difficult because the delays sometimes result in us lacking every ingredient we need on any given day,” Mr Crispo said.

Francesco Crispo
Francesco Crispo

“But we always serve up the best food we can according to our supplies; even if that means having to apologise to customers for not being able to provide a particular item on our menu,” he added.

Another challenge Parami Pizza currently faces is the lack of reliable wood suppliers in Yangon. Strips of wood are generally sold on the street-side or bought from local farmers after being exposed to heavy monsoon rains, which is highly problematic for a restaurant seeking to cook pizza in the traditional Italian style using a wood fired oven.

“We’ll have to wait a month before our stock of wood dries out, so in the meantime our pizzas are cooked using gas. For more than 10 years I’ve cooked pizzas in a wood fired oven: wood is my baby!” Mr Crispo said with a somewhat bittersweet laugh.

He said he is so determined to have the wood dried out as quickly as possible that he heats it in the oven every morning when he arrives at work.

Parami Pizza's outdoor dining area
Parami Pizza’s outdoor dining area

Fortunately, Parami Pizza’s general managers Nat Hutley and Nico Elliot (who also established the highly popular Union Bar and Gekko Bar) were far-sighted enough to purchase a combination oven that allows the use of either wood or gas.

“In the past 10 years gas ovens have become very good – it’s difficult to taste the difference,” Mr Crispo explained.

Pizza prices start at USD$9 (for the Parami Special) while the Norcia pizza, which features artichokes, parmesan flakes and black truffles, tops the list at $16. The Prosciutto e Funghi ($12) is highly recommended and has already established itself as a favourite among diners, as it contains a delectable combination of ham, basil, tomato, cheese, king mushrooms and adorably tiny wild mushrooms.

However Parami Pizza isn’t limited to pizzas alone. Its menu includes a wide range of antipasto dishes, salads, pastas and risottos, a daily soup special ($4), as well as the Milanese specialty Osso Bucco (sheared veal shanks served with vegetables and risotto), which will set you back $24.

The coffee is excellent (and also includes liquor coffee) and there are Italian aperitifs such as Campari ($6), while cocktails are priced between $7 and $8 and include the romantically named, “Breakfast at Cipriani.”

Bar staff serving up liquid treats
Bar staff serving up liquid treats

Many of Parami Pizza’s 20 kitchen staff have worked in Italian restaurants abroad and although only around 50 percent speak English, Mr Crispo dismissed the idea that communication was a problem.

“I’ve often worked with kitchen staff who don’t speak English. It doesn’t matter because I show people how to cook; I don’t need to tell them,” he said.

“I love Myanmar people – here in Yangon I start my day with a smile. I’ve worked in 11 different countries and I believe that Myanmar people are the nicest. They keep me calm,” he added.

Mr Franceso’s days are long because he refuses to leave the restaurant until it’s closed and arrives before it opens (other staff work either the lunch or dinner shift). His sense of personal responsibility for his diners’ satisfaction is admirable – and the results tangible.

Pumpkin soup - one of the daily specials
Pumpkin soup – one of the daily specials

“I often get calls from customers after I leave a restaurant. When I left one particular restaurant in the UAE, customers continued to contact me over the following year. Some would send me photos of food on their smartphones with a message saying, ‘Look what they serve now!’” he said with a grin.

On the day Mizzima Business Weekly visited Parami Pizza, the inside dining area became increasingly busy from noon: to the point of virtually every seat being occupied (the outdoor terrace will open once the monsoon season ends). According to Restaurant Manager Ko Myo Paing Aung, the evenings are even busier.

“It wasn’t busy the first day we opened – but that’s not been the case ever since,” said Mr Crispo.

Parami Pizza is open daily from 11am until midnight and it is located on 11/8 (7th Quarter) on the corner of Malikha and Parami roads in Mayangone Township.

For more information, call (01) 667 449 or visit Parami Pizza’s Facebook page 

Strut it: Myanmar’s male modelling industry

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 7 August 2014

Models Kaung Sit Thway (left), Hpone Thaik (middle) and Kyaw Ko Ko Wai (right)
Models Kaung Sit Thway (left), Phone Thike (middle) and Kyaw Ko Ko Wai (right)

Former model John Lwin is the CEO of Stars and Models International and is arguably the most powerful force in Myanmar’s male modeling industry. He has 200 models on his books; some of whom include Myanmar’s best known film stars. In 1995, Mr Lwin organized Myanmar’s first fashion show and in December 2013 he acquired the copyright of Manhunt International, which will give Myanmar’s male models the first opportunity to compete internationally.

Yet Mr Lwin’s entry into the world of male modeling was completely accidental.

“In 1988 Myanmar completely collapsed and my father told me that if I remained here I’d have no future. He enrolled me in a three month English speaking course in Singapore, but I didn’t want to go. At the airport I cried and threw my shoes in protest.”

Stars and Models International poster
Stars and Models International poster

Yet within a couple of months, 22-year-old Mr Lwin began to enjoy his new lifestyle in Singapore and told his father he’d enrolled in a hotel management course. To supplement his father’s $500 monthly allowance, Mr Lwin began working in a cassette factory.

“I worked at the factory from 11pm until 7am and then slept on the bus that got me to college by 9am. I was very unhappy.”

While standing bleary eyed at a bus stop one morning, he noticed a woman sizing him up.

“I thought she was trying to steal my bag so I held it close. But then she said, ‘Do you want to be a model?’”

John Lwin's career as a successful male began in Singapore  in the 1990s
John Lwin’s career as a successful male began in Singapore in the 1990s

Mr Lwin had no idea what modeling involved, but when he was told he could earn up to $10,000 a month, he didn’t hesitate to arrange a meeting. Within a few months he was making $15,000 a month, travelling extensively throughout the region and in 1992 won the title of Singapore’s “Face of the Year.”

“I was the only Burmese model in Singapore at that time and most assumed I was of Malay descent. But it wasn’t that I loved modeling – I was doing it for the money,” he said.

Five years later, Mr Lwin was approached by a famous Singaporean designer called Bobby Chng, whose clothes he’d modeled in the past.

Bobby’s offer to enter a clothing export joint venture was financially unappealing to a highly paid male model, but when Mr Lwin stumbled and fell on a pavement while racing to a fashion show, he started to think twice about his long term prospects (the damage to his chin alone lost him a week of work).

Mr Lwin agreed to set up Myanmar Asia Trading, which involved exporting male fashion wear from Myanmar to Singapore. His network of contacts in the fashion industry expanded and he was invited to organize Myanmar’s first fashion show in 1995. Its success prompted him to set up Myanmar’s first modeling agency, Stars and Models International.

How a male model is born

Along with those enrolled at his training academy, John Lwin regularly scours the streets of Yangon to scout for untapped male beauty.

Kyaw Ko Ko Wai
Kyaw Ko Ko Wai

“I saw one guy in a tea shop – I asked him to stand up to determine his height and asked if he’d like to be a model. He’s now making $50,000 a month,” he said with a laugh.

While Mr Lwin says he can’t put into words what the “X Factor” is, certain traits aren’t negotiable.

“I don’t want anyone over 25 – that’s getting old,” he said.

Unlike much of the rest of the world, a male model’s height (or lack of) isn’t a deal breaker in Myanmar, he said. However long hair and facial hair is. Those who look Korean are far more likely to become commercially successful, he said.

Furthermore, many male models incorrectly assume that advice on regular exercise and eating healthily can be ignored.

“They believe they can make it with their face alone – but that’s an unwise decision to make,” Mr Lwin said.

Some of Stars and Models International's contracted male models
Some of Stars and Models International’s contracted male models

Despite the fact that Myanmar has an abundance of attractive men of Indian descent, this is a no-go zone in terms of Myanmar’s modeling industry.

“I have one singer on our books who’s handsome but looks a little Indian. He’s on a 10 year contract and is doing very well because he has a beautiful voice, but when shooting his music videos, I usually never show his face. He’s Muslim and there are problems with Muslims, so it wouldn’t work,” Mr Lwin said.

Freelance fashion photographer Ko Taik told Mizzima Business Weekly that he often feels frustrated while shooting male models.

“Females are far easier to shoot. Women have more experience and their poses are more original. Males are more difficult because their poses are often awkward. They need a lot of direction from the photographer and getting a male model to relax is hard. They always seem to want to look powerful but a relaxed posture is almost always better. But if a male model has experience with a modelling agency they know what to do. And male models turn up on time, while women usually don’t,” he said.

While male models are, on the whole, less prone to egotism than their female counterparts, Mr Lwin takes a strictly no-nonsense approach when dealing those who step out of line.

John Lwin, CEO of Stars and Models International
John Lwin, CEO of Stars and Models International

“Sometimes I call a model and their mother answers the phone and says, ‘Talk to me – my son is busy.’ I’ve even had to drive to models’ homes, where I then stand out the front and scream at them. Then I freeze the model for at least three months – I give them no work whatsoever.”

“A lot of people in this industry are scared of me,” he added.

Mr Lwin said he’s recently adopted a new approach to keep his talent pool in check.

“I don’t let anyone become famous for at least six months anymore, because their heads just aren’t ready for it and they end up crashing. I make my models go through a lot of training and jobs like ushering before I allow something big to come along,” he said.

Manhunt – Myanmar’s biggest male modelling competition

John Lwin is an unapologetically ambitious entrepreneur and thus in December last year he acquired the copyright for Manhunt International – which for the past three years has been considered the ultimate platform for male models to gain exposure on a purely local level.

The local version of Manhunt has been headed by Htay Min Htun of Myanmar Model Management and attracts more than 300 competitors from across the country. Expats in Singapore also reportedly return to compete for the title. The competition is held in October and is aired twice daily on MRTV4 for a week. The winner receives 1.5 million lakh – half of which goes towards a modeling contract.

U Aung Paing Oo, 26, is a trainer at Myanmar Model Management and he told Mizzima Business Weekly that if further negotiations are unsuccessful, his company will continue to run Manhunt in Myanmar, even if it requires changing the name of the competition.

Model Kyaw Ko Ko Wai, who is also a trainer at Stars and Models International, was awarded second place in Manhunt’s 2013 competition.

Manhunt 2013 runner-up Kyaw Ko Ko Wai
Manhunt 2013 runner-up Kyaw Ko Ko Wai

“It was an experience I’ll never forget because it was so competitive. There was so much pressure to perform.”

The winners of Manhunt are often subject to various forms of gossip and backlash – rumours abound that the competition is predetermined to award those with close relationships with the judges.

“People say nasty things about the winners but our competition is fair and completely unbiased,” U Aung Paing Oo said.

Some are hopeful that by engaging with the internationally recognized Manhunt International competition, Mr Lwin will provide much needed opportunities for Myanmar’s male models, who are often subject to illegitimate business proposals.

For years, Mr Lwin has received a steady stream of emails from China inquiring about his male models, who propose shared contractual arrangements.

“I worry about the possibility of human trafficking – none of these people ever actually come to Myanmar to meet with me in person.”

Photo courtesy of Stars and Models International
Photo courtesy of Stars and Models International

Two years ago, Mr Lwin was contacted by an organization in Indonesia who claimed to be casting male models for a well known TV series that could purportedly lead to three year modelling contracts, international assignments and a salary of $8,000 a month.

“So we selected three models and flew to Indonesia for a meeting. On the first night, a gay man took us out for dinner and asked me if one of my models would accompany him for a drink later that night. I refused. His phone was then permanently off and we ended up having to pay for the hotel bill and airfares – which was contrary to the original agreement,” he said.

“Singapore’s male model industry looks for height, muscle build and a sharp face. Hong Kong’s models most often have chubby faces, while in mainland China, height and strong cheekbones are in vogue. Myanmar models often don’t fit these profiles,” said Mr Lwin.

No pay for editorial shoots

The possibility to work overseas is much needed, as Myanmar’s fashion magazines and journals rarely pay models for editorial shoots – whether it’s a cover or an inside spread.

“The model’s name and agency name is credited – that’s it,” Mr Lwin said.

He said that Myanmar’s models are willing to work for free to gain exposure; even movie stars don’t expect remuneration.

“The problem is that all models will shoot for free – they must come together and refuse to work without pay. I think the time will soon come when this changes,” he added.

While commercial product advertising pays well, the vast majority of local and international fashion labels are unwilling to shoot with Myanmar models.

“When we’ve approached men’s clothing companies for shoots – or even events like Myanmar Fashion Week – they tell us that the collars or what not might get dirty in the process and refuse to provide us with clothing. The local fashion industry has to change: how else can they market their clothes? Most often, models bring their own clothes to a shoot or a designer creates something for them.”

For those like U Aung Paing Oo, who never wanted to divert to the more lucrative alternatives of singing or acting, making a living as a model wasn’t viable.

“It’s difficult to make ends meet through modeling alone. I had to supplement my income by working for my father’s car import company. Working as a trainer is a much better alternative financially,” he said.

U Aung Paing Oo leading a modelling class
U Aung Paing Oo leading a modelling class

“If somebody just wants to be a model – he may get work twice a month and then needs to be ‘happy’ in his home for the rest of the time,” said Hpone Thaik.

Flocking female fans

There are of course upsides to being a male model – such as having a flock of female fans.

“Sure, I get a lot of attention when I go out. I’m a single guy and it’s fun,” Kaung Sitt Thway said with a grin.

Hpone Thaik, 29, is one of Myanmar’s top male models and he’s starred in several TV series, films and commercials. In July last year he married Myanmar’s superstar singer Chan Chan (who also models with Stars and Models International) and the couple have a five-month-old baby.

“I actually have more female fans now than I did before Chan and Chan and I got married. When I post pictures of my baby girl on Facebook, women write lovely things about me loving my family,” he said.

Hpone Thaik does have one memorable stalker though. For more than a year, he received hand-written love letters and phone calls from a young woman in Meiktila. She even posted him a CD containing images of international male models, complete with tips on how to strike a pose.

Hpone Thaik said he never felt stressed by her fanaticism, but was grateful when things finally came to a head. When the woman had learned that Hpone Thaik was in Magwe, she hopped on a motorbike and drove four hours just to see her idol in the flesh.

“When she saw that I was there with Chan Chan her face fell. She cried a lot and after that I didn’t hear from her again,” he said.

This article was featured as Mizzima Business Weekly's cover story on August 7 2014
This article was featured as Mizzima Business Weekly’s cover story on August 7 2014

Discrimination

“Most models come from middle class families. Wealthy young people aren’t attracted to modeling – they prefer to study and go clubbing and look down on modelling,” said Kyaw Ko Ko Wai.

He said that whilst some models have acquired reputations as socially immorally party-people, as well as being money hungry by seducing the wealthy.

However there are also known cases of “rich people dating models for fun – most wouldn’t marry them,” Kyaw Ko Ko Wai said.

According to Hpone Thaik, many sections of society assume that male models are gay simply because they wear make-up.

“Educated people understand the fashion industry and don’t share these views,” he said.

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