Culture under threat

“Is Culture at Risk in Myanmar?”

“Is Culture at Risk in Myanmar?”

by Jeffrey Brown via “

Rush hour in downtown Yangon means commuters jam small motor boats to cross the Yangon River. Photo by Mary Jo Brooks/PBS NewsHour

“In the immigration line at Yangon airport as I waited to present my passport the radio played — can it be? — “Red River Valley,” sung by a woman in Burmese. On the way into the city I see the driver take his seat on the right hand side — British style — as I’d expected. But then I realize we are driving on the right hand side–American style. Huh? Apparently, a ruling general once visited the U.S. and thereafter decreed that the Myanmar’s people should drive on the right hand side as well. But steering wheels stayed as they were. I am not looking forward to being in a hurry and watching — or perhaps closing my eyes — as a driver attempts to pass on the left, without being able to see until it’s rather (too?) late.

We are here to report on a country opening up to the world, politically, economically and culturally. A ruthless military dictatorship clamped down on all opposition, prohibited free expression and kept the country closed off and shrouded in a North Korean-like secrecy for more than five decades. That has begun to change in the last five years or so, dramatically in the last two. It’s tentative, uncertain — and some people we talk with are quick to doubt how far it will go — but it can be seen even in little ways and even in the first days here: The magazine in my hotel room features an article by the editor on how the ‘country is living a lie’ believing that real political reform will come from the ruling military. Just a few years ago that could not have been published. In a small shop I see figurines of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner long held under house arrest. On the streets there’s a great deal of construction. Not the ‘crane on every corner’ I saw years ago in Shanghai as it began its incredible transformation. But a beginning — money clearly flowing in, new office buildings (and soaring rents), some ‘hip’ hotels and restaurants, a city being reshaped. Modern buildings sitting next to grand but dilapidated older ones. . . .”