It's 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Yangon (also known as Rangoon), and I am trying to explain to a student that when she analyzes irony in Hamlet for her MA thesis, she may want to consider politics and the ways in which Shakespeare commented both on Elizabethan England and the nature of power more generally. Ophelia doesn't even come up in the conversation. I pause for a moment to adjust the feeble fan near my desk, imagining a Danish winter. The parallels between the play and the political situation in my host country are glaringly obvious to me, with Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a murdered leader, in place of the prince. Dare I say something? Is my student oblivious to this matter, or is she choosing to ignore it, knowing the fragility of human rights in the emerging democracy? Is she able to speak freely or speak of freedom?
I faced this dilemma with the first student I met in Myanmar, (1) and similar questions arose in the following weeks. Our conversations grew increasingly open, but even in anonymous course evaluations at the end of my stay, many students were indirect. One used the third person to describe the cultural estrangement between the United States and Myanmar: "Most of the students do not exactly know about the literature in US. Thus, they want to explore more and more but some barriers and difficulties make them delay. They are very thirsty for knowledge, if the US helps them, they will be the best friends forever."
I encountered these students in February 2013, when I served as the first U. S. Fulbright scholar in a Myanmar public university in close to thirty years. The excitement and sense of privilege that accompanied the experience were tempered by anxiety that I might unintentionally jeopardize my students or the reception of future American scholars through my actions, speech, or appearance. Yet literature was chosen for my Myanmar venture because, according to the project overview I received, "American literature is not a sensitive subject with the Ministry of Education and thus a good area." This sentence was to haunt me almost daily. I was assigned to meet at least once with each of the 27 second-year MA students to talk about their theses, to facilitate a "train the trainer" workshop for up to 70 Yangon-area university faculty members, and to participate in events elsewhere, including a Muslim women's empowerment group that was interested in discussing lesbianism, among other topics. Yet my primary activity was a workshop for close to 35 first-year MA students which met for six hours weekly.
I approached my work from a critical human rights perspective. I met Westerners everywhere who worked for international agencies, ranging from those protecting displaced persons to UN mine sweepers, from census advisors at glamorous cocktail receptions to Mennonite missionaries in an elegant restaurant. At functions for a visiting delegation of American academics, human rights workers jockeyed for attention. Women affiliated with NGOs to promote reproductive health haggled for jade in the market. I wondered whether the local economy would collapse if the human rights workers left, remembering Linda Polman's assertion in The Crisis Caravan (2) that some NGOs appear to exist primarily to perpetuate themselves. Without NGOs and foreign missions, translators, drivers, secretaries, and cooks would find themselves without work.
Human rights talk was pervasive among Westerners and often turned to aspects of Myanmar culture that were presented as "backward" or morally inferior as opposed to being results of a lack of resources. (3) Moreover, the individuals from more developed nations often failed to distinguish between cultural differences that were the result of poverty and those that were consequences of political or religious oppression. While the circumstances were intertwined, these situations provoked me to think about human rights discourse, both in terms of the texts I was teaching as well as in terms of who speaks on this topic, for whom, and in what setting.
My experience learning and teaching in Myanmar also came at an important juncture in the opening of the country: Coke had only been reintroduced a month earlier. The quota for imported cars had been raised within the last year, so sparkling Chinese Cherys wove between rusted Toyota Corollas spewing fumes. The preferred currency was crisp one hundred dollar bills, and adjacent restaurants charged anywhere from $5 to $30 for similar meals. After student riots in the late 1980s, many undergraduate-serving institutions had been expelled from the capital. Yangon Technological University had only returned to its Soviet-built campus in the fall of 2012. Individuals my age reported breaks in their education when universities were shut for years. Americans had not been allowed on the campus of the University of Yangon until Obama's visit three months prior to my arrival.
In the month I visited, dramatic changes continued to occur. Desmond Tutu made an unexpected trip and delivered an address critical of Myanmar's human rights record, drawing parallels between South Africa's history and the lives of Myanmar citizens. His presence in the country and ability to say what he did marked a major shift. Press freedom increased that month as well. The U.S. embassy informed me that journalists who were interested in my visit would not be welcome on campus. I made laborious plans to meet one reporter outside the university's gates so she could photograph me with the classroom building in the background. Yet on the appointed day, I was surprised to find that she had been admitted and waited for me in the building's entryway. While one faculty member appeared askance, the interview took place right there, and U.S. embassy staff declared this a first in recent history.
Experiences inside and outside the classroom yielded multiple opportunities to reflect on and theorize about the nature of global rights, marginalization, and reciprocity; I was able to compare how women in Myanmar and the United States respond to concerns relevant to disadvantaged populations, even as I confronted issues arising from post-colonialism and male privilege daily. Yet the most intriguing parts of the experience were the silences, evasions, and hesitations that constantly interrupted conversations about the opportunities for gaining civil rights in the shift toward democracy. Slowly, we were able to use literature to draw implicit parallels and to open conversations about "sensitive" topics so that in the end, the experience was transformative for all of us. Lena Khor refers to a human rights "regime," based on a Western essentialist view of human rights. (4) The discourse in my classroom was based on an assumption that the United States was not the world's exemplar in this area, even though on occasion students' questions cast me in the...