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Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon

Title: Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon

Author: Jessica Mudditt

Publisher: Hembury Press, 2021

Prologue

June 2016

The tide was out. But when it came back in, the waves would lap at Daw Myint Shwe’s house. Pointing towards the ocean, she told me the erosion was so bad that she’d been forced to move her bamboo shack four times, but could only ever move it a little further inland. She had lived in the area her entire life and was now in her sixties, but even so, she wished that she could start again in a safer place. The problem was that she didn’t have the money. And every year, the Bay of Bengal crept closer in.

As my translator asked Daw Myint Shwe another question on my behalf, my eyes strained to make out the horizon behind her, so muted were the colours of the landscape. The hazy sky seemed to melt into the taupe mud flats, where shallow pools of water looked like shards of broken glass. Debris was scattered across the soggy sand on which the three of us stood: a ripped blue tarpaulin, cracked ceramic bowls, coconut husks and discarded fishing nets.

The next person the United Nations had lined up for me to interview was U Myint Swe, who lived slightly further inland. Raising his voice to be heard over a noisy gust of wind, he told us that his main worry was for his three young children, who had to cross a river in a small boat to get to school.

‘During the wet season, when the waters are high and rough, U Myint Swe worries that the boat will capsize,’ my translator said. ‘He says that no one in the fishing village can afford life jackets – not even if they all chipped in together to buy them.’

U Myint Swe’s family was stuck in Labutta Township in the southern, low-lying Ayeyarwady Delta: the only jobs were there, near the coast. Even so, he only made about two American dollars a day as a fisherman.

‘Nowadays the weather is often too foul to go out in – and on those days he earns nothing,’ my translator said. ‘But he says he is grateful for the weather warnings that are broadcast through speakers at the local monastery.’

In 2008, there had been no warning before Cyclone Nargis swept through the 115 villages in U Myint Swe’s township and left 85,000 people dead in its wake. He told us several times that he was still haunted by the death and destruction he had seen, and I suspected that his current worries about his children were exacerbated by previous trauma.

But as arresting and poignant as these stories were, I was struggling to focus. My attention kept wandering from the people the United Nations had sent me to interview for a series of articles on climate change to my husband’s visa situation. Sherpa is from Bangladesh and getting a visa for Myanmar – or anywhere, for that matter – had never been straightforward. But in the four years we had been living in Yangon and working as journalists, it had never taken as long as it was taking this time around. He had submitted his passport to the immigration department three months ago, but when his go-between, Aye Chan Wynn, started calling to find out whether the visa was ready, his contact at the department wouldn’t return his calls. I was worried that Sherpa’s passport had been lost, as nothing else seemed to explain the delay.

I spent the next day in a village on an island so remote that accessing it required a two-hour journey by longboat. I was anxiously hoping for an update on the visa, but my phone lost reception soon after we set off through the mangroves. The island had no electricity and supplies of clean water were limited. Stagnant water, however, was abundant: it pooled under the residents’ shacks on stilts, so the mosquitoes bred incessantly. Later, I suspected it was our lunch in the village that gave me a painful and lasting bout of colitis.

While I was on the island, I met a young woman called May Thazin who worked at a prawn farm for fourteen hours a day. The work was seasonal, so she and her husband scavenged for crabs to get by in the off-months. She said that most of her friends had moved several hundred kilometres away to Yangon in search of a better life, but she was deterred by the bad stories she’d heard from those who couldn’t make a go of it and were forced to return. Her only fun was watching Korean soap operas on a solar-powered television.

When I got back to the bare bones guesthouse at dusk, there was still no news on Sherpa’s visa. He said that Aye Chan Wynn would keep trying to make contact and would go to the department in person if he had to. I lay in bed that night with an aching stomach, morosely thinking of my husband’s uncertain visa situation and how vulnerable Myanmar was to climate change. The United Nations was working with the government to boost resilience in places like Labutta Township – including practical courses on what to do in an emergency situation – but I could see that the challenge was immense. Everyone I had met depended on agriculture for a livelihood, and the need to take out high-interest loans to rebuild homes and farmland following a natural disaster trapped them in a continuous cycle of poverty. The UN had hired me as a sort of in-house journalist to draw attention to the need for urgent action.

After doing an interview at a government department in the morning, I farewelled my translator and hopped back in the UN’s oversized 4WD. With my completely silent driver at the wheel, I continued on to the drought-ravaged plains of Magway region in central Myanmar, where I heard harrowing stories of how a particularly terrible flood in 2010 swept entire families away in their beds one night. In the late afternoon, a surprise storm caused flash-flooding that almost made the road impassable on our way out. From there it was only a few hours to the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, where I was scheduled to interview members of the environment ministry and work from the UN’s office. I was on the tail end of a ten-day mission, and my loneliness was compounded by Nay Pyi Taw being a bizarre place without a heart or soul. A visit there always left me feeling blue.

The junta abruptly moved Myanmar’s capital city to Nay Pyi Taw in 2006 and it was built in secret, possibly using slave labour. Nay Pyi Taw is the only place in Myanmar with 24-hour electricity and decent internet speeds. It is flat, deserted and massive: New York City is just a sixth of its size. But it wasn’t a case of ‘build it and they will come,’ as not even the embassies could be convinced to move to the purpose-built city, which is nothing short of dystopian. It is divided into ‘zones’ for retail, government, hotels and so forth, and it has a zoo that cost a fortune to build but scarcely sees any children pass through its gates. There are also oddities like the restaurant in an aeroplane that is parked out the front of a palatial hotel.

As we sped along an empty twenty-lane highway, my phone pinged with a text message from Sherpa.

‘Hey babe. Great news. My passport is ready to be collected. Aye Chan Wynn will go to the immigration department now to pick it up.’

I was so relieved that I wanted to cheer. We pulled up at an enormous hotel that looked like a wedding cake. I checked in at the vast, empty lobby, then unpacked my things and took a shower, humming all the while.

I’d been enjoying the warm water for a couple of minutes when someone started violently banging on the door of my room.

‘I’m in the—!’ I began to shout, but was drowned out by a deafening roar. It sounded as if artillery was hitting the building, so my first instinct was to crouch. As the ground beneath me gave way, I realised it was an earthquake. I tried to grab the bath rail but missed: my hands were covered in soap suds and wet hair covered my face.

The shaking lasted maybe a minute, and it was the most terrifying minute of my life. When it stopped, I stood there dripping wet and praying that it wouldn’t start again. With trembling hands, I wrapped a towel around me, then I went online and discovered that the epicentre of the 6.8 magnitude earthquake was 250 kilometres away in Magway region, where I’d just been. Photos were appearing on social media of the moment the earthquake struck Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, leaving dozens of the ancient structures lying in the dust. One person was killed.

Still frightened, I called Sherpa. He listened to me recount the experience and said how sorry he was that he wasn’t there to comfort me. And then he said he had something to tell me. I could tell from his tone that something was amiss.

‘Aye Chan Wynn picked up my passport,’ he said quietly.  ‘There was no visa inside. They wouldn’t say why they didn’t give me one.’

I felt unsteady on my feet all over again.

* * *

Three days later, I was back in Yangon and Sherpa and I were heading to the airport in a taxi through torrential rain. His plan was to get a visa from the embassy in Bangkok, while I would stay put in Yangon with our cat, Butters. But we were worried that he wouldn’t make it out of Myanmar at all – and that he may even be arrested at the airport. Overstaying a visa by several months could be considered a crime under local laws. It didn’t matter that it had been impossible for Sherpa to leave because the immigration department had his passport. We were scared and hadn’t slept.

The taxi ride through the rain seemed to take forever, but we eventually pulled up out the front of the new international terminal. It had opened just the previous week after years of hype about its refurbishment. A small group of taxi drivers in grotty white singlets and longyis, a long sarong tied at the waist, stood out the front and spat red daubs of betel nut onto the freshly laid cement as they waited for a fare. One fanned himself with a newspaper as he stood there shooting the breeze with the others, his gut protruding like a balloon and his singlet rolled up above his nipples. It looked like he was wearing a cut-off sports bra.

Sherpa handed over 6000 kyat to our driver, which was about US$5, and we leapt out of the taxi. He hadn’t any luggage, apart from the small backpack he took to work every day, into which he’d tossed a couple of t-shirts and his shaving gear. If he got out okay, it was only going to be a quickie visa run to Bangkok and back.

I shivered as a shot of icy air met us as we walked inside the terminal. The carpet was a sickly green with mustard-coloured swirls, but there was no denying that the place looked a lot more modern than it used to – the previous incarnation was more of a shed. The airport’s bigger size made it seem emptier than usual, but I took the upgrade as a reassuring sign that Myanmar was eager to be part of the global community after decades of self-imposed isolation. I hoped that perhaps it wouldn’t be heavy-handed in its treatment of outgoing foreigners like my husband.

Please just let him leave.

I squeezed Sherpa’s hand one last time before reluctantly letting go. He looked edgy and unsure of himself, which I knew wouldn’t bode well when he fronted up to the immigration counter. Our eyes locked for a second and we mouthed a quick ‘I love you’ – the most affection it was appropriate to show in the conservative Buddhist country. I wanted to run my hand through his mop of curly black hair but he was already walking away from me.

I crossed both my fingers behind my back and whispered ‘please, please, please’ under my breath as Sherpa approached the counter. Please let luck come our way. After all the time we’d spent in Myanmar, it was probably inevitable that its superstitious ways had rubbed off on me.

I watched on from behind a set of glass doors as Sherpa held up his green passport to the immigration officer, whom he was speaking to deferentially in Burmese. I held my breath. A minute passed, then two. Sherpa had his back to me and I couldn’t read the officer’s unchanging facial expression. He called another officer over. Another couple of minutes passed as they conversed. Just when I couldn’t bear to watch on any longer, I saw Sherpa reach for his wallet to retrieve the wad of US dollars he had ready to pay in overstay fees. As he was waved through to passport control I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. The months of worry were over.

Sherpa turned back to look at me from where I stood in the departures’ hall. His large brown eyes were lit up with happiness. I grinned back and made a stupid thumbs-up gesture, feeling giddy with relief.

I had no idea that this was the last time I’d ever see my husband in Myanmar.

About the Book:

After a whirlwind romance in Bangladesh, Australian journalist Jessica Mudditt and her Bangladeshi husband Sherpa arrive in Yangon in 2012 – just as the military junta is beginning to relax its ironclad grip on power. It is a high-risk atmosphere; a life riddled with chaos and confusion as much as it is with wonder and excitement.

Jessica joins a small team of old-hand expat editors at The Myanmar Times, whose Burmese editor is still languishing in prison. Whether she is covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, getting dangerously close to cobras, directing cover shoots with Burmese models, or scaling Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, Jessica is entranced and challenged by a country undergoing rapid change.

But as the historic elections of 2015 draw near, it becomes evident that the road to democracy is full of twists, turns and false starts. The couple is blindsided when a rise in militant Buddhism takes a personal turn and challenges their belief that they have found a home in Myanmar. (Read the book review by clicking here.)

About the Author:

Jessica Mudditt is a freelance journalist whose articles have been published by The Economist, BBC, CNN, GQ, The Telegraph and Marie Claire. In the lead up to the general election of 2015, she became the first foreign journalist to be appointed on staff at Myanmar’s state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. She also worked as a consultant for the United Nations and the British Embassy.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

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Interview

How the Impact of the Hiroshima Blast Lingers

An exclusive interview with Kathleen Burkinshaw, author and the daughter of a survivor of the first nuclear blast that bloodied the history of mankind three quarters of a century ago

Kathleen Burkinshaw

The best introduction to Kathleen Burkinshaw is that she a humanitarian. She wrote a novel that has been taken up by the United Nations as a part of its peacekeeping effort. She has been actively participating in efforts to ban nuclear weapons, including presenting with Nobel Laureates. Kathleen Burkinshaw, the author of The Last Cherry Blossom, a book that is in the process of gathering further accolades, is a peace activist who talks of the effects of the nuclear war. She is the daughter of a hibakusha, a survivor of the Hiroshima blast that took place seventy-five years ago. Burkinshaw still suffers the impact of her mother’s exposure to the Hiroshima blast, where the protagonist of The Last Cherry Blossom, based on her own mother, sees her father die of the exposure and loses her best friend in the middle of a conversation. In this exclusive, Burkinshaw talks of the book, why and how it came about and the impact the bomb continues to have in our lives.  

Why did you write your book? Tell us your story. 

When my daughter was in seventh grade, she came home from school terribly upset. They were wrapping up World War II in their history class, and she had overheard some students talking about the ‘cool’ mushroom cloud picture. She asked me if I could visit her class and talk about the people under those famous mushroom clouds, people like her Grandma.

I had never discussed my mother’s life in Hiroshima during World War II. My mother was a very private person and she also didn’t want attention drawn to herself.  But after my daughter’s request she gave me her consent. She bravely shared more memories of the most horrific day of her life. Memories that she had locked away in her heart because they had been too painful to discuss. 

The main reason, my mother agreed (aside from the fact her granddaughter asked her), was that she knew students in seventh grade would be around the same age she was when the bomb dropped. She was 12 years old. She hoped that students could relate to her story and by sharing her experience, these future voters would realise that the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, should never be repeated.

I received requests to visit other schools the following year. I began to write about my mom and August 6th after teachers requested a book to complement their curriculum.

I told my mom about this request. Later that week, she sent me a copy of her most treasured photo from her childhood. It is the one of her and her Papa (which is in the back of the book). When I looked at the photo which I remembered from my childhood because it always had a place of honor in our home; I realised there was more to her life than just war and death, she had loving memories as well.

That’s when I knew I needed to start the book months before the bomb. I wanted to show the culture, the mindset, and the daily life in Japan during the war. I intended to give the reader the view of the last year of WWII and the atomic bombing through the eyes of a 12-year-old Japanese girl-something that has not been done before.

Your book explores colours of Japan. How different is it from US?

The Last Cherry Blossom (TLCB) discusses life in Japan during WWII. I wanted to show how the Japanese citizens viewed their political leaders — very different from the US. I also wanted to show that Japan had been at war for 14 years (they invaded Manchuria in 1931) by the time of the atomic bombing — they were out of so many natural resources, as well as the young soldiers. The majority of the Japanese soldiers were fighting out in the Pacific. So even though Hiroshima was once a strong military port, in 1945 it was mostly elderly, women, and children. In addition to that, the firebombs dropped on Tokyo decimated that city and other areas in Japan had endured Allied bombing. The US did have the horrific Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into the war — but no other US cities with citizens endured bombing after that.   However, what I really wanted to emphasise was the similarity between the two countries.  The children in Japan like my mom, loved their families, worried might happen to them and wished for peace. Exactly the same as the children in the US.

When and why did your mother move to US? Did your mother find it difficult to adjust?

My mother met my dad (a white American serving in the Air Force at a base close to Tokyo) in Tokyo. They married at the US Embassy in Tokyo in 1959. His time serving ended shortly thereafter and they moved to the United States.

Yes, my mother found it difficult to adjust. My mother didn’t expect the prejudice and racial slurs against her. She figured it was 14 years after the end of the war and she was on the losing side. She didn’t tell them about the atomic bombing-she wanted to have the least amount of attention. She told everyone she was from Tokyo. I didn’t even know she was from Hiroshima until I was 11.

She wasn’t a shy person. She was intelligent and determined. She learned English and became a citizen within 5 years of arriving in the US. She had a job at an electronics company and made circuit boards that were on Apollo 11. Unfortunately, the town we lived in had very few Asian people and none of them were Japanese. When I was born, she “Americanised” (her word) our home. She wanted people to know that I was an American so I would not experience racist actions. However, being one of the few Asians in elementary school, I experienced quite a bit of prejudice and racial slurs, anyway.

My mother was the bravest person I will ever know. She lost so much on August 6th, 1945. Yet, she never lost her ability to love.  

The UN has taken up your book as part of its peace process. Tell us a bit about that.

In December of 2018, John Ennis, the Chief of Information and Outreach at the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) contacted me after reading The Last Cherry Blossom. He felt very strongly that the book should be used in classrooms to future voters. Nothing like it has been written before from this point of view of a 12-year-old girl. He told me that it would be designated a UNODA Education Resource for Students and Teachers. I was beyond happy that a book honoring my mom and what she experienced would be on that list. Later in 2019 UNODA invited me to the United Nations in NYC to discuss my book at the UN Bookshop as well as to participate in a workshop for NYC teachers on how to add nuclear disarmament to their curriculum. It was a surreal honour to be a presenter with Noble Peace Prize winners Dr. Kathleen Sullivan and other members under the International Coalition Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for the Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons!

What exactly do you do to create an awareness about the nuclear issue?

In addition to interviews like yours I have spoken at teacher conferences, school librarian conferences throughout the United States. In addition to that TLCB has been on many school lists so I have had opportunity to speak with students, future voters all over the world! For example, I have had the joy to speak with students in Hiroshima who have chosen TLCB to be their 6th grade read for 4 years in a row. The students also made my first book trailer. The latest group of students I had the joy to speak with were in India! 

I feel that the more I can discuss my mother’s experience so that students can relate and connect to the devastation, horror, and loss my mother and her family endured — they leave that classroom as future voters knowing that nuclear weapons should never be used again.

Do you think after the holocaust another nuclear war is likely? How do you see the role of your book propounding peace?

People have asked me 75 years later — why should these stories still be told? Well time passes, and technology changes but the need for human connection through emotions is timeless. So, I feel that while statistics and treaties are very important — if we can’t get people to understand/relate to the humanity under those now famous mushroom clouds, then none of the numbers or science is going to matter. And if it doesn’t matter because there is no connection, then yes, we are at risk of repeating the same deadly mistakes again.

I hope that TLCB relays the message and an emotional impact that two paragraphs in a textbook could never do. I want readers to understand that NO family should ever have to endure the hellish, horrific deadly destruction that MY family has.

I lived with the scars of the atomic bombing during my childhood watching/reacting to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) effects on my Mom and  I still live with it each day with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (chronic, progressive neuro pain disease that affects the sympathetic nervous system). Doctors have said that the damage to my immune system from the radiation my mom was exposed to from the atomic bomb, attributed to this.

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This was an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Click here to read the review of The Last Cherry Blossom.