Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Waiting On Wednesday (43) Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins + My Burma Photos

Long time no WoW pick, but this one's worth breaking my ban! I went to Burma with Daniel back in 2001, and it was an eye-opening trip. We had the chance to talk to citizens and hear their stories - even though they were scared, they wanted to be heard so badly. And that's why I am sure this is an important novel.

Here's the summary from Charlesbridge:

A refugee and a child soldier challenge the rules of war.

Narrated by two teenaged boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of Burma's many ethnic minorities, this coming-of-age novel takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma.

Chiko isn't a fighter by nature. He's a book-loving Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family's home and bamboo fields. Timidity becomes courage and anger becomes compassion when the boys' stories intersect.

Also check out

If you are going to BEA, Mitali will be signing copies of the book on Wednesday from 12:30 - 1 pm at the Charlesbridge booth (#2859). I'll be there!

I also wanted to share a few pictures with you from my trip:

The government wants its people to play nice with visitors. They need the foreign cash that tourism brings.

A child we met on a tour of a village near Kalaw. She spent all day picking and drying tea leaves.

A couple from the North we met in Bagan. We were the first foreigners they had ever seen. We assume this picture has a special place on their mantel.

And, an article I wrote shortly after my trip for a travel website:


There is quite a debate these days whether one should visit Burma or not. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's democratically elected leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has asked tourists NOT to come. Many guidebooks, including The Rough Guide series have asked tourists to respect her request and do not publish a guide to Burma. However, there are also well known democratic leaders in Burma who want tourists to come. Lonely Planet's Burma guide has a good essay outlining this position.

Now, obviously, I must be with the second group, since I went to Burma, right? Well, actually, I think people should decide for themselves how they feel, after they look at both points of view.

First of all, where does your money go when you visit Burma? If you go with a tour group, it is pretty hard to avoid stuffing government coffers. You don't have much control over where most of your money goes, and you won't have much contact with the average person who can benefit from your tourist dollars. As an independent traveller, however, you have a lot more control over who gets your money. If you stay in privately owned logding, hire independent guides, and use non-government owned transportation, you are helping ordinary Burmese citizens to earn an honest living. Less independent tourists means less opportunity to earn money and more temptation to simply beg to surivive. Those kids in the Bagan temples always trying to sell you something can be annoying, but it is much better than if they would be reduced to begging.

Those in favor of "boycotting" the boycott use free exchange of information as a major support for their view. Contact with tourists gives many Burmese the only form of free exchange of information that they can participate in (in a country where merely owning a modem will get you 10 years in prison!). We brought many current news magazines with us and they were very grateful. Before we went, we had heard that most people were reluctant to complain about the government, but they have apparently become bolder as a result of having contact with travellers. All of our guides were eager to discuss the political system with us and to offer their numerous criticisms. They are encouraged by the fact that people from other countries are taking an interest in their situation.

What about the human rights abuses allegations? The government's travel restrictions to certain "safe" areas virtually assures that outsiders will not witness any human rights abuses firsthand. One of our guides told us that slave labour is being used to build the railroad between Loikaw and Taungyi in Shan State. How it works: government officials decree that one member of each family must work 1 day a week. In the case of our guide's family, he was the chosen one. However, he was able to pay someone else to serve for him. Some argue that tourism in Burma directly contributes to Human Rights abuses, because the government forces people to build roads, etc to attract tourists. However, it is my impression that the government only conducts such forced labour activities in areas that tourists cannot enter (often due, at least in part, to safety issues such as rebellious tribes). How can these projects possibly be related to attracting tourists if tourists are banned from these areas?

Now I don't pretend to be an expert on this issue, and the things I have brought up here are only the tip of the iceberg, and my personal opinion as someone who has visited recently, so please do check out some other sources before you make your decision. However, I can encourage you to go as an independent tourist, if you do decide to go.

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme started by Jill at Breaking the Spine.

This article was originally published by Lenore for Presenting Lenore. It cannot be republished without express written permisson. If you are reading this elsewhere, it has been stolen.


bermudaonion said...

Thanks for letting me know - I've added the signing to my BEA calendar.

Amy said...

Yeah, I don't have anything else yet for that slot so I'll add this to the list. Sounds great.

Also, wow, you went to Burma! How cool is that! Thanks for sharing pictures, and your short essay. Sounds like you had a really great time.

Mrs. DeRaps said...

I first learned about Burma when I studied George Orwell's life in preparation for teaching his books. It has such a sad and disturbing history and its current situation is not much better. Thanks for suggesting this title--It might in nicely with the World Lit course I'll teach in the fall.

Heather Zundel said...

Traveling as an independant tourist intimidates me, but it is something I want to do. I think it is really cool you went like that because your money went to help the average person. That is one reason why I like doing humanitarian aid work. I like getting to meet the people firsthand. After being in a rural part of Thailand and then going to a much more touristy place, there was a distinct shift in the feel of the place. Meeting the people felt more real to me, and I like that.

Liviania said...

Thanks for the essay on traveling to Burma - you brought up points I haven't heard before.

Word Lily said...

I'm greatly looking forward to this book, too.

So cool that you got to visit Burma! I just read EVERYTHING IS BROKEN by Emma Larkin, which talks about some of the things you mentioned here, although it doesn't talk about tourism. Have you read it?

Deborah said...

oh gosh, i have to get this book. my dad is from burma..he immigrated in 1979 and has only been able to go back once since then. i really would like to go one day. unfortunately the area where he is from is completely blocked off from travelers.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This sounds fabulous Lenore; thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Carina said...

I've already got this one on my wishlist, it looks great!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I have seen the cover for BAMBOO PEOPLE around and will definitely try to pick up a copy.

Anonymous said...

This novel looks awesome. Love the cover!

Zibilee said...

The book sounds very interesting, and your pictures and article were also wonderful. I don't know much about the situation in Burma, or the aspects of traveling there, but I think that what you shared with us was really eye-opening and important. Thank-you.

Amanda said...

I saw this book on Goodreads and thought it looked interesting. It's great to hear about the country from your first-hand experience. =]

Christy (A Good Stopping Point) said...

I really liked hearing about your trip to Burma and your thoughts on the debate about visiting there as a tourist. I don't think I knew that there was this debate.

I like reading travel writing, and I read a fantastic article about Burma by Patrick Symmes last year, called "The Generals in their Labyrinth." Hope you don't mind that I link to it as it really is such a good article:

Beth Kephart said...

She does such important work.