Friday, May 9, 2008

I Still Call It Burma

Pathetically inadequate response to a devastating natural disaster, from a leadership that is stubborn to the point of national suicide. I’m speaking, of course, about Myanmar, although I guess the description also fits Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration. The deeper tragedy about the devastation in Myanmar following the cyclone is that it will now come to define this country that was once known as Burma. For years to come, the very mention of the name, Myanmar, will conjure up images of chaotic human suffering and pompous military leaders decked out in ridiculous uniforms. But the fact is, for several thousand years, Burma was a land of incredible beauty and human achievement. For my wife and I, Burma is still our favorite Asian country.

Until the nineteenth century, with the building of the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower, the second tallest manmade structure on earth was the Shwedagon Paya in Rangoon, Burma. For nearly a thousand years, only the Great Pyramid of Giza was taller than this great Burmese Stupa which was built as a place of worship for the Buddhist monks. At the base, the circumference is nearly a quarter of a mile around. And at the top of the giant 326-foot-tall central tower is a flawless 76 carat diamond. In my opinion, only the Taj Mahal in India can compare with the Shwedagon when it comes to ancient architectural perfection of design and construction.

Ignoring the U.S. State Department’s warning about travel to Myanmar, my wife and I obtained the proper visas and sailed to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in 2004, aboard a ship delivering cargo. The military rule there made life miserable for native citizens, but for visitors, Yangon was considered one of the five safest cities on earth. We went to study life in a Buddhist monastery, and we ended up studying the history and architecture of the Shwedagon. I am writing about this now, during the news coverage of the cyclone’s aftermath, because I’m perplexed at the failings of the media. (That should tell you about my naiveté). If the media organizations can drag out endless file footage showing the Myanmar Generals motoring about like little dictators, why on earth can’t the same so-called journalists produce one single photo of the most beautiful temple on earth?

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