My Last Post About Myanmar and Rakhine State

August 31, 2014

GraftonPondThis will be my last post about Myanmar (Burma) before I transition my blog over to a focus on my photography and various writings – short, short stories, musings, perhaps some poetry, and glimpses into northern New England and mid-Atlantic America.

I’ve hesitated to write anymore about Myanmar since my departure in May, but its periodic nagging – and more recently its constant nagging – has made me realize I need to put this segment of my blog to rest with one final post on my experience in Rakhine State where I lived and worked from January to May of 2014. I believe what’s prompted me has been this morning habit of mine to abuse myself of the news headlines on the internet. The news I’ve been reading has been so grim I decided some weeks ago to care for myself first before I open the news by 1) meditating and praying at my altar when I first get out of bed, even if it’s for five minutes, 2) stretching and doing some yoga, again, even if it’s just for five minutes, and then 3) sitting quietly with my cup of coffee and listening to the early morning sounds of nature at my open kitchen window.

Then I open the news and the world comes crashing down: war in Ukraine, war in Gaza, war in Syria, war in Iraq, Ebola in West Africa, murder in… well, just close your eyes and plop your finger down on some portion of the U.S. map, police corruption and abuse, civil war in Libya, plane crashes, some sports star abusing his partner, and yes, children starving and people suffering in racial and ethnic conflict-ridden Rakhine State, Myanmar.  Should I go on? I think you get the point. Why do I abuse myself with such poison every morning?  Part of me says because I want to “keep up with current events”; the other part of me says rather shame-facedly because perhaps I’m part nihilist. Many mornings I say this must stop, but it goes on in a behavior not unlike a crack addict. I say it will stop, but I put the proverbial pipe to my mouth each morning and light it.

Mostly, these days, I ask myself why humans behave like we do. I live in what I believe is a stunning landscape on a dirt road surrounded by forests, fields where turkey graze and night time skies so dense with stars I sometimes feel I could reach up with an empty glass, pour some of the milky way into it and quaff its essence. Yet today I went for a walk down my road and into a part of the forest where I thought I might find some edible mushrooms only to have picked up six beer cans at the side of the road thrown from the few cars/trucks that ply this back road. “Why,” I asked myself, “would anyone want to throw garbage from their vehicle in such a pristine setting? Don’t they see the beauty around them?” Then I thought, “I guess not. For them this road is just a means to an end: a route to get them from point A to point B. They take all this beauty for granted.”

Hogback Mtn

 You might be asking by this point what all this has to do with Myanmar and Rakhine State. Well, this does:

Garbage at the Sittwe Hotel

But I guess that picture is more than just about Rakhine State. It’s about human beings and how we treat each other and this earth. This is the beach outside the hotel where the humanitarian community was forced to live after the March 26/27 riots that destroyed the offices of nearly every humanitarian organization working in Rakhine State. Over 300 humanitarians who dedicate themselves to helping desperate women, children and families who are victims of violence, prejudice and an indifferent government were forced to evacuate Rakhine State after they were attacked by angry Buddhist mobs. Yes, believe it or not – angry Buddhist mobs. Only about a third of the community was able to return after the riots because there wasn’t enough room to house everyone in the Sittwe Hotel – the only place the so-called democratic government permitted us to stay. And this was what the beach looked like outside the hotel.

Each weekend families with their children, young men playing soccer (futbol) and young lovers would come to enjoy the “beauty” of this location. I always got a chuckle when my staff would ask me on some Monday mornings whether I took some time to enjoy the beautiful beach at the Sittwe Hotel. It seemed like everywhere I turned everyone seemed clueless to the filth. But then again, where was anyone to go with the filth?  The government didn’t supply any refuse bins or collection. There was no enforcement of littering laws, if there were any laws at all!  I’d see police dispose of cigarette packets and candy wrappers like they were throwing a leaf to the wind.

But what disturbed me the most was the unseen horror of that beach – more wretched than all the garbage. One evening a friend of mine in the humanitarian community invited me out to one of those little stalls under the coconut fronds that were casting shadows under a nearly full moon. He treated me to a couple of beers. As we sat there the older woman serving us kept nodding her head and lifting her eyebrows to my friend as she made insinuating gestures toward a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 13 years old. My friend kept saying “no” to her. I asked him what was going on. He replied that the woman was the girl’s mother. She wanted him to “rent” her – to go out to the unlit beach and have his way with her. She was selling her own daughter. This answered my question about how this Muslim family could have a stall on the beach where most other Muslim families were fenced inside camps guarded by armed police and military. He said it was because they pay the authorities.

As a father with a daughter, my stomach turned inside out.

On my second to last evening before my departure from Rakhine I walked out to the beach with my camera. I never really explored the northern part of the beach because various people told me there were aggressive dogs in that direction. I was leaving Rakhine and I wanted to see it. Screw the dogs. So I took my camera out at sunset and walked. I saw one indifferent dog sniffing for crabs and a few fisherman pulling in nets in the distance. The human bustle kept itself to the neighborhood of the hotel. This is what I encountered:



Sunset At Sittwe Hotel


The following morning I returned to the beach. Monsoon storm clouds were forming. That time of year was approaching – torrential, unremitting rains day in and day out. I thought it so starkly beautiful. But then again, I wouldn’t have to live with it for the next few months.


I realize now as I look back on these photos that I’m so pleased to have images showing a more beautiful side of one of the harshest places I’ve ever lived and worked. While I lived there I was attacked by angry Buddhist monks. I was sworn at by passing pedestrians for no reason other than what they thought I represented. I was forced to live sequestered in a hotel MyOfficewith other humanitarians because our offices and houses had been destroyed by angry citizens who didn’t like that we treated everyone equally.  I was spied on by the Myanmar government and threatened and accused by so-called village elders in front of elected Myanmar government officials who still wore their military uniforms that stunk of a junta that has suppressed and abused its people for 50 years and still does. I walked across garbage-strewn beaches where parents prostituted their children for the right to make a meager living if they paid off those same military and police personnel who wouldn’t think twice about beating them or chasing them from their shacks if the bribes ever stopped.

And yet I can retain forgiveness in my heart for all of it. Finally, I can. Though I can’t relieve myself yet of the regret for not being able to do something to change it. I want to change so many things that are so far beyond my power. But I look at those beautiful pictures of Sittwe beach at sunset and at least tell myself there’s some beauty there, at least as long as it stays beyond the reach of those who are indifferent and ignorant.

For those Buddhist monks who attacked me and those two extremist village elders who helped plan the attacks on the humanitarian community I leave you with this from the Dhammapada. I doubt they would even know what the Dhammapada is, though they call themselves Buddhists.

“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.”

“For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law. People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.”

I send all my blessings to my humanitarian brothers and sisters who remain dedicated to justice, peace and the eradication of suffering for all the victims of prejudice and hatred in Rakhine State. Thank you for blessing me with your gifts, laughter and those constant reminders to not take it personally.

Stay tuned as this Myanmar blog closes and I turn to a new focus through the lens of my camera and musings through the simple life here in Vermont and where else the road may take me.


All content copyrighted © Stephen Tavella

8 thoughts on “My Last Post About Myanmar and Rakhine State

  1. Steve, I applaud your desire, like a lot of us, to try to bring justice, love and peace into the world. My heart is heavy that you had to endure this ugliness or that anyone has to. I do know how we will ever evolve out of this but somehow I am optimistic that we will. Keep on keeping on…keep your love bright.

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