Behind some rundown sixties buildings rise the golden turrets of the Shwedagon Pagoda. There are a million celibate monks here, and half a million nuns….
 

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We are sitting barefoot on the floor with all the staff, talking. Shihab is so impressed with the Fellows that now ActionAid wants to work exclusively with them. [My son] Tindy is excited about meeting them, “because I am young too!” he hisses at me pointedly. “Are there any old Fellows?” I ask. “No,” says Shihab.
 
Our conversation quickly highlights some major differences between the work that must be done here and that of other countries.
 
The first stumbling block is that most people have no idea they have rights. They have been rendered powerless by twenty-six years of dictatorship. They rarely do any development without the involvement of an NGO, creating a disastrous dependency, the very model for bad aid.
 
Another big difference is that there probably still exists a complex spying system, so that everything undertaken is reported on. Naturally, this makes any community feel extremely nervous and it’s certainly not conducive to the building of freedoms in thought and speech that have been so conspicuously lacking here…
 
In the face of these challenges it doesn’t surprise me to hear that ActionAid is involved in policy-making – there is, for instance, no law against domestic violence and the deputy director general wants the organization to help develop one.
 
We talk about money – 85 percent of their budget goes into the projects, which is very impressive. People here live very modestly. Two young female physiotherapists who look, to me, no older than my 12 year-old daughter Gaia, tell us they’ve been running a project for the disabled since 2009 with no money at all. There were so many people disabled by the cyclone that people came on board to help willingly...
 
Central to all of it, the great golden Sule Pagoda towers over us. The European-style apartment blocks, their stone balconies split with weeds and painted in cracked and peeling reds, limes, violets and indigos are reminiscent of Cuba.
 
The Strand Hotel costs $600 to 700 a night, I am told, but looks out onto broken roads where barefoot migrant labourers play enthusiastic football. The river Yangon flows by and by a banyan tree I find two shrines, one to Kali and one to a Burman spirit God. Someone lays flowers before Kali as an offering…

We enter the Sule Pagoda. It is the Full Moon Day of Thadingyut, which is the lighting festival and all the houses and streets throughout Burma are to be brilliantly illuminated, with tea-candles if not electric lights. Soaked in sweat, I watch as the faithful light candles and incense in front of all the lit-up statues of Buddha.
 
One woman picks up a plank and hits a huge bell with it. Ni Ni explains she is ringing to allow her dead to reach nirvana. I am allowed to have a go but only if I’ve done a good deed. I wonder if going out in the grip of vicious jet lag and a sudden, acute desire for solitude and a cold bath counts as a good deed. Tindy hits the bell – it is a beautiful, plangent noise. “See?” he says. “I’ve done lots of good deeds”…
 
Wanna sits with me – he is 22 and from a village North East of here. It’s the last village before you reach the sea, he says.

“I miss the sounds of the waves. But there is no electricity, no roads, no schools, no clinics and it’s five hours by motorboat to the town.”

So, he says, his “battle” began when he wanted to go to high school.

“The only way to achieve it was by rowing two and a half hours each way. Then when we got there, there was no teacher so I just asked older students to teach me.

I wanted to go to [university] but my father was a fisherman who earnt $8 a month. He wept when he told me he couldn’t support me. Thirteen members of my family died in the cyclone and 400 others from my village. After that everything was gone, but my family made me go back to school.

The cyclone opened up huge possibilities for INGO’s – the government didn’t let anyone in for 18 days until international pressure forced their hand. But it saved me, in a way, because I started work as a volunteer for Save The Children and got a couple of casual jobs.”
 
I stare at Wanna, his untroubled, unlined face and wonder where he’s found his strength.
 
When we get back to ActionAid we hear that hundreds of political prisoners are to be released tomorrow. Apparently there are upwards of 60,000.

Hopefully this is prelude to many more releases. Everyone is happy but also nervous of what the apparent opening up of this country will unleash. Will the government just sell everything off to the highest bidder?...

Wednesday

 
This jet lag is monstrous. Neither Tindy nor I can sleep even with the aid of pills…

One interesting thing – as a foreigner arriving for tourism, I would not, I don’t think, be able to tell that this place had been in the grip of a savagely repressive military junta for decades. The city and its people do not reveal it. In fact as Tindy points out, it seems so much more open and alive than Liberia whose trauma is far more immediately perceivable…
 
Apparently 25 percent of the military voted for the release of political prisoners. He thinks the reforms have teeth but it will be important not to exclude the army. He mentioned encroaching risk from unscrupulous Chinese border interests. The mind reels. Transparency is everything. I wonder how they will achieve it after so many years of secrecy…

I wonder what they are all going to do – the decks are crowded with children’s plastic chairs upon which we perch, sweating. A man sells small plastic bags full of quail’s eggs. A woman, her cheeks smeared with a pale paste of some sort, carries a tray of chopped watermelon on her head. Most of the women and children have this tree-paste on their faces. It protects them from the sun. Children sell fruit-flavoured gum and cigarettes. They are exquisite, their faces pleading but not tragic.
 
Everyone wears beautiful pointed bamboo hats.
 
Our driver has bought us necklaces of jasmine – it is a festival today – its scent mixes with the diesel fumes. I watch two lovers grinning at each other and am suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to weep. Jetlag of course, but also the poetry of the place.
 
The boat is a floating market of sorts. I discuss the perils of cigarettes with a young vendor who looks about 8 and tells me he is 12. He’s half Gaia’s size and works on the boat from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m. He says his parents aren’t working – he doesn’t know why. He’s happy he’s got cigarettes to sell…
 
Everyone is very amused when told that Tindy is my son. Oh! They say. Your skin is black! Hers is white! How interesting! And they yell with mirth. Wherever Tindy goes, people smile and point and come to ask him questions. They find him very beautiful, and will often stare, slack-jawed with admiration for ages. Tindy finds this immensely enjoyable. In fact, we don’t see a single black person for the entire week. No wonder they’re so fascinated…
 
Quiet, funny, wise and charismatic, Aung Sang Suu Kyi is everything you’d want in a modern leader. I have her to myself for a bit and we talk politics. She is very clear.

“There must be no indecent haste in this process”, she says.

There is real change, she feels that strongly and it may allow her to take the stage again. She believes the president is an honourable man who wants reform and has genuine intentions. She remembers a meeting, years ago, when he was the only general who would talk to her party. One thing that had struck her very forcibly when she went to his house was that his wife had hugged her.

“That’s very unusual here,” she said, eyes twinkling, “and it carries more weight than you might think.”

The rule of law is the first thing that must be reestablished. Everyone in the West talks about elections but there can be no safe elections without the rule of law. The Generals must be included. Everything she says is related to compassion. What most strikes me is her level of confident integrity. The balance of her mind and body seems enviably complete…

Dazzled, we repair to a tea-shop where we meet two people who were imprisoned by the junta. They are inexpressibly moving – in 1988 the man (and we cannot yet use their names which speaks for itself) was studying English at university whilst running a car agency to support his studies. He was a student activist and was arrested and sentenced to 26 years in jail.

He spent four days being interrogated in a military camp. I do not enquire about the details. He spent 5 years in solitary confinement. “I wrote poems in charcoal on the walls of my cells” he says. After 20 years he was released, suddenly and without explanation.
 
His wife of five months was arrested in 1988 – she was a chemistry student. She was in and out of prison many times and each time returned to activism. These two knew each other by name but had never met.
 
Then on September 18th 2008, they were released on the same day. The man went to meet the woman at the prison gates and they fell in love. Ni Ni sits behind us, silently weeping…

The conversation moves onto trade. The couple thinks the government should be trading with everyone, especially the EU and U.S. China and India too.
 
Jo says that most trade liberalisation only benefitted a very small group: the importers, exporters and shareholders. She says the majority of people in Burma will benefit little without powerful social policies in place to control the certain ravages of an untrammelled free market…

As we stagger about in our sticky, gritty-eyed state, Jo points out that owing to the staggering expense noone has a mobile phone. It is profoundly noticeable how much more aware of each other people are – how they look at one another, talk to one another and engage with what’s going on around them...
 
Thursday

 
After what is almost certainly 5 hours sleep but feels like 2, we are at the airport.
 
It’s 4:15 AM and we are off to Mandalay. Mandalay. What a magical word it is…

Mandalay airport is a gigantic building with no one in it…
 
We’re visiting one of the 71 villages ActionAid works with in the dry zone – just to get an idea of how they deal with the many hardships and how ActionAid has been helping.
 
After a pee-stop at the tiny office we proceed by oxcart over tremendously rutted roads. Tindy and I fling ourselves into the back of the cart and it sets off loudly.  I cannot recommend oxcarts over rutted tracks, picturesque though it undoubtedly is. The bone-rattling it causes is enough to waken a corpse…
 
A woman of 25 called Thin Thin Tin explains how fellowship works: “ActionAid was introduced to this village by three field assistants. The elders got together and were asked to choose someone to become their village fellow.

They chose a boy but he wasn’t interested and my dad was the village head and asked if I was interested and I was. I was surprised he asked, because I had to fight for my education. My parents wouldn’t send me, I used to just walk eight miles and make them teach me.”
 
Explaining herself in front of the two elder people is clearly not easy, so when I take her aside with Ni Ni, she finds it possible to enlarge on her life. She tells us that having got to school, the teachers would often beat her for being late. “I challenged them,” she says.  “Finally the headmaster agreed to stop beating students for lateness.”
 
I asked her why her parents didn’t want her to go to school. “It’s because there’s no money for transport and they worried about my security. But I said, look it’s my mind and it’s my body. I will learn how to protect myself.”
 
This tiny, frail-looking creature must be made of steel. “Being courageous taught me to be courageous,” she says…

We join Jo, who has been talking to a Women’s Conference – they’ve been discussing domestic violence, which is rife. Collectively, the women march to whatever couple needs help and they prevent the man from thumping his family.
 
“It’s quite easy to stop them because they’re nearly always drunk”, says May Thet Htwe who is 50 and looks 70.
 
The thing that Jo and I have noticed, even in the ActionAid staff, is that no one really talks about themselves, their feelings or their problems and especially not the women.
 
Culturally, Burma is even more patriarchal and repressive to women than countries like Ethiopia (which, with its mixture of Islam and dictatorial socialism, is not a great place to be poor and female).
 
A graph like a spider’s web illustrates the imbalances: men, apparently, deal only with income. Women do absolutely everything else, so much more that their health suffers. They must always be the followers.

Only men are allowed a social life. In this village, things are discussed, but any important decisions must be made by the husbands. All the signatures, legal and otherwise, must be male…
 
Friday

 
This event is the Fellows Conference. There are thousands of fellows in Burma but these are the representatives from each area of the country…
 
Unfortunately, it all kicks off with the chicken dance. The Burmese are all in heaven, the westerners are all appalled.
 
Every fellow here has spent at least two years working in a village – one that they either know well, are from, or have some connection with.
 
The vision statement is pretty impressive:

“The fellows are a force for change, developing themselves and other young people to take a leading role at regional and national level to bring about a just, peaceful and democratic society where all ethnic nationalities are united and enjoy equal rights.”

 
The rest of the day is spent learning about everything the fellows do. Largely, they begin their work through children. They teach hygiene, they bring health-care and mosquito nets into communities. They help start up small businesses, like piglet-raising, making washing-fluid, and also help save money to buy machinery.

All this is done with the co-operation of community and local government. All ActionAid does is to provide the fellows with training in leadership, community capacity raising, voter education, civic education, human rights, report writing, accounting, awareness and much more.
 
There are a lot of exchange programs too – because after the two-year immersion, it’s important they don’t stay in just one village…
 
They also establish libraries in their communities – newspapers are useless and covered with large headlines announcing, amongst other things, that the BBC is all lies and slander.
 
The testimonials convince me even more that training is by far the most useful contribution that anyone can make to this country – or any country, for that matter. Even the simplest things – one of our companions from ActionAid, KhinKhin, is 29. She learnt how to type in 2008 and before that hadn’t even seen a computer…

Another speaks of how effective the awards for children were in an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp in Kachin state.
 
Another tells us he has been networking with armed groups to help maintain medical supplies. Armed groups. Ha. More on that later…
 
Now it’s our turn to make recommendations to the Fellows...
 
The extraordinary woman from Shalom, Daw Ja Nan, speaks about one of the main obstacles to everything the Fellows are doing and indeed to the development of democracy itself: ethnic conflicts.
 
She explains that the constitution does not recognize ethnic division….
 
There is a lot of ethnic cleansing and people – especially along the borders with China, Thailand and Bangladesh - fear the return of rape and pillage hugely. The IDP camps have no support. We cannot visit these parts of the country, nor can ActionAid work there for they are deemed too dangerous…

Jo and I sit with two women, Marien Tun, 26, and Khin Lin, 29. They both look much younger than their years, Khin Lin in particular, who might be 15. We have seen them in high spirits with the other fellows, expressively and animatedly describing their work and the feeling of joy and confidence it gives them. But here, away from all the excitement and upon more personal ground, it’s a different story.
 
Both girls, it transpires, have experienced huge discrimination from family and neighbours, since childhood and in relation to the work they’re doing now.
 
Marien says her relatives and neighbours treat her as worthless. Khin Lin says she was raised by aunts who told her girls didn’t need education, shouldn’t ask questions and should only do as they’re told. The aunts say this Fellows work is not a girl’s work. She still has to ask her aunt for permission to leave the house. At 29.
 
Marien rubs Khin Lin’s tiny shoulders – she sits, looking utterly stricken, staring into the forest with huge tears flowing down her cheeks. Marien says she wasn’t allowed out after 6. “I used to have hair I could sit on but I didn’t feel free, so I cut it!”
 …

“So why do you keep doing it?” asks Jo.
“Because I have a brain and I can decide what’s right for myself. So I carry on.”
 
When we ask Marien to describe her upbringing, she takes off her shawl and holds it up, letting it wave in the breeze.

“When I was very small, I was like this, free and lively and happy. Then they started to fold me,” she folds the shawl in half. “And fold me again,” she folds the shawl again and keeps folding it until it’s tightly squashed. The she mimes putting it into a box. “Girls must be like this – good, well-behaved, never escaping. OK, my parents don’t like my job but they will die one day and I will leave this place. Until they die I must stay in the box.”
 
Recently she tells us, she had a huge row with her father about all of it. He wants to control her and he says if he can’t control her behavior he will become mentally disturbed.
 
“So I try not to fall in love”, she says, smiling wryly. “I have worked out that I can either have my freedom or a family life. Not both.”
 …

Marien says that her hope is that if she takes care of the community with a good attitude, she will receive a good attitude in return. Karmic thinking. They both use the counseling methods they learnt from ActionAid after Cyclone Nargis on themselves...
 
I collapse into bed feeling ancient but completely – astonishingly – inspired. None of us has ever seen a group of people that have convinced us so compellingly of genuinely improved future for this country.

Something about their self-discipline, their powerful ethics, their confidence and joy makes it clear that if Burma invests in training its young people, they will bring long-lasting change…
 
Sunday

 
We start our day with a meeting at a huge government building with the Yangon Chief Minister. ActionAid needs his support and Shihab has no idea how much he knows about the organization or whether he approves of its work.
 
Apparently all government officials here speak good English but refuse to use it. Therefore the entire meeting will be in translation.
 
The room is lined with flock-covered armchairs and features a lot of cotton lace and gold-lacquered Kleenex dispensers. The minister wears a blue longhi and green velour flip-flops that sit half off his feet. He seems very comfortable and in the mood to communicate.
 
The problem with translation is that Myanmar speakers use a great deal of words and translation takes a long time.
 
We talk about orphanages – there are many and the Minister is clearly proud. Jo says that research has shown they’re really not the best place for kids to develop in and he politely says that research was probably undertaken in a place with completely different cultural values. He clearly wants our support and not our criticism…
 
Nonethless he maintains impressive eye contact. I can’t help liking him. In the waterfall of words I hear the phrase “human rights.” Later, Shihab explains this is a big deal. That phrase has been outlawed for decades. Here, the minister tells us, girls have entirely equal rights.
 
Actually, says Ni Ni, who has been translating expertly, in Yangon (Rangoon) that’s partially true. It’s just not the case in the rest of the country.
 
After one and a half hours, which is 45 minutes longer than we were promised, we repair to a Youth Networking event run by Activista.
 
This is extraordinary because in the buzz of stalls and chatter of students we really could be anywhere. It feels so open and free which is ironic because last year when they ran the same event, four people were arrested and detained.
 
I am encouraged by the sight of a red ribbon and the presence of gay and lesbian activists. It’s small, it’s urban but it’s a start.
 
After this we have a long debriefing session with ActionAid staffers. Their main complaint is that there aren’t enough opportunities to really take their work further. They feel they need more support. Jo and I promise we’ll try and drum that up.
 
That evening Tindy and I take some of the staff, the ones we’ve made friends with, out to dinner at a wonderful outdoor restaurant. Very good spicy Thai influenced food but – tragically – no alcohol. Tindy flirts all night with a beauty he spotted when he arrived.

“Forget it”, I mutter to him.
 
We get to bed early and alarmingly sober.
 
Monday

 
This morning we take a bus to Ming Galar don township on the outskirts of Rangoon and visit an organization called AFXB, which may become an ActionAid partner. It’s stunningly impressive, addressing virtually every problem on the ground including HIV Aids, which affects young people the most.

Assessing rates of HIV here is extremely difficult because there are no tests available. And we can only imagine the levels of stigmatization in a country devoid of information on the subject. They have 250 people receiving ARV’s from the Global Fund.
 
Here they run prevention programmes, vocational training, micro-finance businesses, night courses, and they teach young people how to speak up for themselves. Not only that, they teach parents how to listen.
 
Their organizer explains that in Burma, children are meant to be seen and not heard. They train children to understand their parents and negotiate with them. This kind of schooling breaks every cultural norm. It’s an inspiring space, filled with activity – I come across a group of teenagers talking about reproductive health.
 
Someone’s teaching people how to clap. Why? I ask.

It’s a form of collectivism. It builds confidence and belief in group power, I am told. An interesting starting block, more revealing of the previous levels of repression than anything else…

We go on a final visit, a tour of the central market, which is a truly glorious bazaar…. A ragged vendor comes up to me brandishing a copy of Orwell’s Burmese Days. I buy it…

On the plane I start the Orwell – typically damming indictment of British racism during colonial days which astonishes and shames.
 
There’s a love here now between the resident Brits and the Myanmars that incarnates the possibility of change. Orwell’s story no longer exists.

Thompson is an actress and human rights activist and has supported the work of ActionAid for over ten years.