I’ve just finished a visit to Burma – Myanmar – a place I last visited in 1991. That visit was one of the most important of my life – a truly cathartic experience, one from which I emerged in many ways transformed. Even now, more than twenty years later, it remains one of the most important times of my life.
Many things have changed in Burma since 1991: the rapid political and economic changes in the last few years have seen to that. There was nothing like the high-rise buildings that are sprouting all around the centre of Yangon back then – nor the almost overwhelming levels of traffic. The stultifying bureaucracy and feeling that almost anything would be blocked or forbidden has also mostly gone – arriving at Yangon airport was just like arriving at almost any other international airport.
Some things, thankfully, have not changed. The gorgeous light at dawn and dusk. That characteristic aroma, mixing spice and dried fish, salt and chilli. The shining golden pagodas poking up from between the buildings in town and the green forests and jungles in the countryside. The immense feeling of time – the lack of hurry, the lack of urgency. And, most importantly, the wonderful welcoming nature of the people. Even back in 1991, when Burma was in the grip of one of the most murderous and oppressive military dictatorships in the world, that was the thing that I noticed most about the country. Everywhere I went, people welcomed me with smiles and open, interested questions. With tea and tamarind, a seat and some shade. Not out of desperation, or a chance of relief from oppression – but a simple, honest, human welcome.
The same was true this time. The people were without exception great – we travelled a fair bit, staying in a variety of places, and met a lot of people. The same (British) friend who I visited back in 1991 was again my host – now married to a Burmese artist, and with a half-Burmese daughter – and we met a wide variety of people, from former political prisoners to Buddhist monks and a Catholic nun who runs an hospital for women and children living with HIV. We went to local restaurants and bough food from street stalls. We visited pagodas and other sites. We took taxis – and in every case the people were friendly, open, and smiling. The day before we left, one old tax driver asked us where we were from, and when I said England he smiled even wider, and said ‘great country’.
That set me thinking – was the old taxi driver right? Is our country great? When we prepared to leave Burma, and I read that The Times had named Nigel Farage ‘Briton of the Year’, I really started to wonder. Coming up to the end of 2014, I think The Times may be right – Nigel Farage may well be the ‘best’ representative of what Britain has become. His party, UKIP, shows quite how far we’ve fallen – and quite how sad and desperate a state we are in. Where the Burmese show welcome, openness and happiness we display the opposite: hostility, xenophobia and closed-mindedness.
And there’s no reason for it. Britain isn’t ‘full’. Immigrants have next-to-nothing to do with all the various problems we face. They didn’t cause the financial crisis. They don’t impose upon our creaking health service – quite the opposite, they’re what keeps it alive. It’s not immigrants who keep rents high and wages low – or even contribute to those high rents and low wages. The exploitative economy and dysfunctional housing market are nothing to do with them. They don’t make our benefits bill higher – again, quite the opposite, they’re contributors, not a burden. .And yet, as Farage and UKIP’s ‘rise’ shows, we do our very best not to make them welcome. The reverse. We blame them for things we shouldn’t. We believe the lies we’re told and assume and expect the worst – all Romanians are thieves, all Muslims either terrorists or terrorist sympathisers and so on. We elect an MP who openly advocates forced repatriation. Our ‘major’ political parties play the same xenophobic tune, effectively accepting that immigration is a ‘problem’ and failing to challenge the lies and misinformation that underpin that belief. Rather, there’s a race to the bottom – let’s see who can be the most xenophobic, the most unpleasant, the most full of viciousness and scapegoating.
Seeing Burma again, meeting Burmese people again, reminded me how much we’ve lost. How much humanity we’ve lost. How much grace, how much humility, how much openness we’ve lost. We’ve forgotten how to make people welcome. I hope that in 2015 we can start to remember again. Sadly I doubt it very much.
Photo of the author by Htein Lin.