The Burma Diary: Part 3

A series of reflections on my most recent trip to Burma.
By Jan-Philipp Sendker

Yangon, in the fall of 2013

Today a Burmese friend took me to the countryside—to be more precise, a suburb of Yangon. It was about an hour drive through heavy traffic, passing several large construction sites. After a while things slowed down, and I noticed familiar sights: kids playing soccer on the streets, people strolling around, tea houses on the sidewalks packed with customers. The streets became narrower, wooden buildings and huts replaced the stone houses, water buffaloes crossed the roads. We took a few turns before ending up in a narrow, dead-end lane. We parked the car and within seconds were surrounded by kids smiling at us, laughing, curious what these strange visitors were up to.

My friend and I walked to a small house, and he introduced me to an older couple he wanted me to meet. The husband was a thin, almost frail-looking man in his sixties, but with a very firm, determined voice. His wife invited us inside.

The hut was about 200-square feet. There were altogether twenty people living here, the wife told me with a shy smile.

entry 3The walls were decorated with flowers, Buddhist monks, and photos of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, the founder of the nation. In the middle hung a very large, almost poster-sized picture of a beautiful but serious-looking teenage girl, one of the couple’s daughters.

We sat down. The woman offered us some tea, while her husband brought out another picture of their daughter. It showed a young girl covered in blood, being carried away by two doctors.

She was 18 years old when she died, her father explained. Shot and killed by soldiers. One among several thousand unarmed students who were mowed down by government troops in the summer of 1988, because they were demanding an end to military rule. Her parents have been fighting for justice ever since. They have been detained. They have been threatened by the secret police.

“We used to want to see people punished,” the man said.  “But not anymore.”

He noticed my surprised expression and smiled briefly.

entry 3.2“You don’t want the people who are responsible for killing your daughter brought to justice?“ I asked.

They both shook their heads, slowly but firmly. “We don’t fight for a trial,” he replied. “We fight for a memorial for all the people who gave their lives for the freedom of the country. We want their sacrifice to be remembered and not forgotten. Remembered at a public space in Yangon, where they died.”

Revenge seemed to be the last thing on their mind.

It is one of the fascinating contradictions in today’s Burma that people are allowed to commemorate uprisings and their victims. They are allowed to mourn the killed, but not allowed to ask: who were the killers? Where are they now? When will they be punished?

“If we ask those questions, it would be the end of the reform process,” my friend whispered. “Because the killers are still in power.”

He had a point. But to me it seemed that this couple had learned something more: for them, justice means more than just punishing the guilty.

After more than an hour, I left the house deeply impressed by this wise and humble couple.


The Burma Diary: Part 2

A typical street scene in Yangon, the largest city and former capital of Burma

By Jan-Philipp Sendker

A series of reflections on my most recent trip to Burma.

Yangon, in the fall of 2013

I strolled around downtown Yangon this morning. It was hot and humid but I didn’t mind, I like the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia.

People were smiling and returned my greetings just as they always have. The streets were full of tea houses and vendors selling fruits, vegetables, newspapers.

I walked into a book shop and could not believe my eyes: on display was the current issue of The Irrawaddy, a monthly political magazine published by Burmese journalists in exile. It is very respected, but highly critical of the military regime, and had been banned in Burma since its foundation in 1993. Not long ago, just being caught with a copy of it could have gotten you sent to jail. Now it was on sale in the heart of Yangon. I bought a copy and checked to see if they even had an office in the city. They did, just two streets away.

I found the address, walked up a few stairs, and knocked on a door with a sign Irrawaddy. Nobody answered. I opened the door cautiously. Six young people were working in a cramped office, too busy to pay much attention. At least they had AC…

Luck was on my side. The editor of the English edition, Kyaw Zwa Moe, was in the office and he was kind enough to spend some time with me. Over the next few days, we met a couple of times and he told me his amazing story. He is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man in his forties, who looks at least ten years younger.

Kyaw Zwa spent eight years in jail as a young student. His crime: he had dared to criticize the government. Life in prison was hell, he told me. Five inmates in a cell eight by eight feet in size. No toilet. Not much food. Visitors were only allowed every two weeks for fifteen minutes. His most frequent visitor was his mother—until the day she was killed in a car accident.

“Many inmates went crazy eventually,” he said in his soft voice. “They were so full of anger and hatred, they could not take it anymore.”

But not him. He never lost hope. “‘I will be released one day,’ I told myself over and over again. It became my mantra.” There is not even a trace of anger in his voice when he talks about those stolen eight years. “I don’t regret the time in jail,” he said. “I learned so much about life, about people, about myself. It was a university of life.”

After his release, he fled to Thailand. He was then able to study journalism for a year at Berkeley, and went back to Thailand to work for The Irrawaddy. A few months ago he got a visa to live and work in Yangon as a journalist. He is still wary about how long the new freedom will last. “The struggle for democracy has just begun,” he said, happy to be part of it.

Until recently the magazine was funded by donations from international donors, but now, it has to become financially independent. Not an easy task.

If you are interested in Burma and want to know more about the country, I can only encourage you to check out their great website:

The Burma Diary: Part 1


By Jan-Philipp Sendker

A series of reflections on my most recent trip to Burma.

Yangon, in the fall 2013

I am back. Traveling to meet old friends, see places I haven’t been to, doing research for another novel. I spent some days in Yangon, walking the streets, sitting in tea houses, talking to strangers and friends. Here are some of my notes, thoughts, questions and observations, from the first few days.


It looks like Yangon is changing from a very laid back capitol to a typical Asian even-more-city. Even more cars. Even more traffic jams. Even more construction sites. Even more mobile phones.


Had dinner at a nice restaurant. At the table next to me was a group of eight young Burmese, all in their early twenties. They had dinner but nobody was talking. I watched them and it took me a little while to find out why not: Every body was playing with their smart phone. Awkward.


I am wondering if it is easier for a Buddhist to forgive since they believe in Karma and reincarnation. Wrongdoers will be punished in the next life. A question I will keep in mind.


It used to be very easy to meet friends in Yangon. I did not even have to announce my visit to the city. I just called or showed up and everybody always had time for a tea, a snack, dinner, a long chat. That has changed. Now everybody is busy. We have to plan a dinner days in advance. Their schedule is full. “We are all so busy, transforming ourselves,” a friend told me. “If you don’t change, you stay behind.“


And then there are place that remain the same. The magical Shwedagon Pagoda, for example. Crowded from sunset to sunrise, people praying, meditating, families eating and chatting, kids playing.

Nothing had changed. Or so I thought. I found an ATM machine right on the upper level. And another one. And another one. Why for Buddha’s sake do you need a cash teller right next to the worlds most famous pagoda?

Just around the corner I notice a “Free wifi zone.” People are surfing the internet  on this holy site, I can’t believe it.

What does the Buddha say: Change is life’s law.


Traffic is heavy and most people got their drivers license rather recently. But the way they drive is similar to the way they conduct other business. They are patient and passive drivers. Rarely do I hear a horn. They don’t jump lanes. They don’t try to cut you off. When I wanted to cross the street, it did not take long for some one to stop and let me walk. In China, I could have waited a whole day…


I asked my driver how the country is changing and what effect it has on him and his family. He thought about it. “The police don’t stop us anymore to ask for money. That is a change.” We were sitting in a tea house, it was pouring outside and he paused to think. “I had to renew my license recently and did not have to pay a ‘token of appreciation’ to get it done. There was even a sign and a phone number in the office I could call to report bribery.”

“There is less corruption?” I asked, surprised.

He smiles. “On a small scale yes. But still the same people in power. Still the same when we talk about big projects.”