Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner


Oppressed by Too Much Talk of Oppression

By Robbieana Leung

Furrowing my eyebrows tightly together, I squinted through the window of the Yangon City Orientation bus. I was trying to find a sign of citizen oppression from the tyrannical military regime that I had heard so much about. All the documentaries and articles provided by Semester at Sea reflected a Burma that rotated around the extreme oppression that violates human rights and democracy. Carefully looking between the rows of logs laid along the road for possible hidden signs, all I could jot in my notes was “piles of logs, placed in neat rows by tractors. Fuchsia lilies in pond by rail road tracks.” As my bus passed thatched huts in the midst of green bushes and muddy grounds, I found myself wondering, are rural inhabitants slavery targets of the regime, as a documentary had said? But evidence was nil. Even when we reached the city, there was still no sign of oppression, oppression, oppression…

That was all I heard. That was all they talked about in my Semester at Sea classes - the suppressive government and suppressed peoples. Despite being told that much of the suppression is covert, I expected some kind of subtle but noticeable sign that showed dissatisfaction of the government. I was too intimidated to ask locals how they felt about the regime, having been cautioned that the consequences for those I questioned would be interrogation and possibly a jail sentence. Monique Skidmore’s article, “Darker than midnight: Fear, Vulnerability, and terror making in urban Burma,” effectively silenced me, by convincing me that it was unethical to “ask questions about a subject that will heighten fear, cause insomnia and worry, and break through the carefully constructed mental barriers that filter the regime’s propaganda and fear making exercise” (11). Although keeping silent might have been the right thing to do, I was frustrated that I was not able to get a glimpse of “real life” through the eyes of a Burmese. I guess the government had successfully managed to oppress foreigners, too, by keeping me silent out of the fear that any questions would endanger the locals.

I had many mixed feelings during the trip - I wanted to believe the oppression was real. After so many articles and testimonies, it had to be. Yet, a stubborn part of me protested “seeing is believing.” Through my own eyes, it was easy to believe that the oppression was not there. I was upset that I had been almost falsely “set up” by SAS to see oppression due to all the military regime hype and warnings that was fed to me prior to stepping into the country. Perhaps my “LOLA” skills needed sharpening and I needed to get off the tourist track, which was highly monitored by the government. But had I been ignorant of the military regime’s abusive acts towards the people, I would have never guessed about the hidden sadness within the country. I did not even notice the silencing of the people, which Skidmore mentions. My tour guide was indeed silent about being anti government if indeed that was her position, but she did not have “a blank exterior persona: listless eyes in wooden bodies,” as Skidmore had seen (10). She constantly told jokes and laughed, reminding us the one thing to tell people back home about Myanmar is that it is a beautiful country, which was somewhat of a curious thing to say if Burma was as oppressed as the media insists.

The majority of my Burma education was about the military regime, which did not even match up to my experience in the country. All I had seen was beautiful temples, poverty and beggars, which were common traits of the previous four countries I had visited. Even though I was in Burma for a week, I feel like I know it less now than I did before. I had arrived confident that I would get some sense of the oppression, but instead I left feeling confused and discouraged. The only major oppression I experienced was mental oppression from all the preconceptions I had of Burma that did not appear to be true.

Return to course home  Send me your comments: