MYANMAR IN POST-COLONIAL ASIA - By Yeow Choo Lak
Editor’s Note: The following is a guest essay from Dr Yeow Choo Lak, my former dean and thesis adviser when I was taking Master in Theology degree in Singapore. He is the former Executive Director of The Association For Theological Education in South East Asia, Dean of The South East Asia Graduate School of Theology, Co-Editor of The Asia Journal of Theology [1981-2002]. Former Executive Director/Dean of the Henry ‘Opukaha`ia Center for Pacific Theological Studies in Hawai`i, 2004-2007, and Honorary Provost of the Hawaiian Theological Seminary, 2008-2011. Member of Faith & Order Standing Commission, WCC, 1983-1998. Former President of World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutes. He has written several books, the latest being “Loving Hawaii.” – Fred Vergara
Things do change!
Friends of churches in Myanmar were working in a post-colonial Asia on missional ministry with meager materials in the margins with the marginalized wherever the marginalized were, experiencing God’s mercy in the mini miracles that mysteriously materialized.
One such ‘mini-miracle’ happened on December 11, 1974 in Yangon, Myanmar [formerly, Rangoon, Burma]. It was 10 in the morning in Bogyoke Aung San Market [known as Scott Market to the British], a popular place to shop for souvenirs. Suddenly, people started to scatter. Shopkeepers pulled down the shutters. Anxiety, panic, and fear were in the air.
My colleague and I sniffed trouble and walked briskly back to our Thamada Hotel. ‘Thamada’ is ‘President’ in Burmese but, due to the centuries-old Burmese-Thai rivalry, ‘Thamada’ is ‘Common’ in Thai.
Sure enough, from the safety of our hotel roof top we saw military fire-power streaming into the heart of downtown Yangon. Tanks and trucks [known as ‘lorries’ in Burma, when Burma was under the British colonial masters] full of soldiers with rifles all ready for action, rolled past our hotel.
Less than 500 yards from our hotel, monks in their saffron robes, students, workers, and office workers in their longis [sarong or wraparound] were steeling themselves as they faced steel. Tanks rolled into the demonstrators. Rifles crackled. Columns of smoke especially from the nearby train-station were clearly visible from our hotel roof top. We saw a train on fire. The thick crowds thinned off at the water-fronting grand Strand Hotel as tanks and rifles injured and/or killed demonstrators. Arab Spring happened in Asia some four decades ago.
Many citizens in Yangoon were demonstrating against General Ne Win’s [military dictator since 1962] military regime for their lack of respect for the body of their beloved U Thant, third Secretary-General of the United Nations. The Burmese are famed for their Buddhist gentleness. Seldom is there any exchange of harsh words, let alone bloody deeds. Usually placid [some people would even say, ‘timid’], it was miraculous that the demonstrators had gotten angry enough to storm the street. More demonstrations, internment, and massacre of ‘dissenters’ followed in the wake of the December 1974 killing field till the recent release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 1995.
In her own quiet but supremely effective way, the heroic daughter [appropriately known as ‘The Lady of No Fear] of the great hero, General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi, paved the Long March towards democracy in Myanmar.
The visit of President Barack Obama to Myanmar is epochally significant, pregnant with promises of a democracy the Myanmar people have been dying for. It has not escaped the attention of those who know that President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar takes place in the Jubilee Year of Myanmar’s road to independence [1962-2012]!
In the past five decades or so, Myanmar has aligned itself with China, militarily and commercially. For Myanmar to turn to America is a shot in the arms of democracy-lovers all over the world. Beijing must be re-assessing its relationship with Myanmar now that China’s oil pipeline running from Myanmar to China seems to be flowing into Washington! One could reasonably and arguably conclude that North Korea, too, may want to go the Myanmar way some day!
Asians can comfortably and easily identify themselves with President Barack Obama and his wise, non-cowboy foreign policy. President Barack Obama wowed Asians when he bowed! At long last, here is a rare American President who speaks their body language! Asians understand how much power and humility there is in a bow. ‘Since the election of Barrak Hussein Obama [to the wild delight of Indonesians], it has become much less fun to hate America. It’s much harder for radical Islamists to drum up support among the great majority of moderate Indonesian Muslims,’ so wrote an American working in Jogjakarta, Indonesia.
In a post-colonial Asia, there is no need to remind Asians of the time when cowboys whipped their back and lassoed their land.