One Day in Mandalay


One Day in Mandalay,

Far away

From here.

Freedom reigned.

I have been trying to finish writing this poem for maybe 15 years. I don’t know if I started when I heard about the man who rescued his sister from a heroin processing camp. Maybe it was when I met one of Mommy’s distant cousins and she told us that teachers in Burma only get paid 10 kilograms of rice and 1 litre of cooking oil a month (that’s it). Maybe it was hearing about Burmese Mizos being forced to work for months on the roads with no pay. Maybe it was when I watched Bridge over the River Kwai, one of the classic films of all time. Maybe it was meeting and seeing so many Burmese trying to earn a meager living in Mizoram. It was definitely before I was invited to Burma to help out during the mautam famine.

This poem was going to be one of those hopeful, but bittersweet poems. I was going to repeat the line “One Day in Mandalay” in every other stanza. I was going to write about a better future in Burma. The city of Mandalay would represent all of Burma. It would evoke its exotic past when Burma was the 4th richest country in Asia and not its miserable present.

Also, since Mandalay is so close to Mizoram, I always imagined traveling overland from Champhai to Mandalay. It would be a tough, slow ride over the mountains. Yet, I love rice paddies and bamboo jungles. It would be worth it. The thing is, up until now, it has been virtually impossible. The Chin State has been a no-go area for foreigners and Burma lives under a brutal dictatorship. The ethnic minorities like the Chin and Mizos in Burma have been mercilessly persecuted. To be one, was an automatic qualification for refugee status in the USA. My poem was my fanciful imagination that all that had ended. I never really believed it would actually happen in my lifetime.

Just like I saw the Berlin Wall, but couldn’t imagine it falling, things have changed in Burma. Free and fair elections were just held and the results are almost finalized. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy have won an overwhelming majority. Despite being in power for nearly 50 years, the military dictatorship appears willing to hand over power to a democratically elected government. It has been a long journey.  Aung San Suu Kyi or “Mother Suu” spent 15 years under house arrest. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and only 24 years later has her long struggle for her people’s freedom been successful.

Freedom has come to Burma before I could finish my poem. My unspoken hopes have been realized before I could dare put them down on paper. It will improve the lives of millions. It will fundamentally change the future not just of Burma, but the Indian states of Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. It may even change this family’s future. Even though so much of the world’s attention is focused on the terrorist attacks in Paris, today I’m looking to Mandalay.

One Day in Mandalay

The people say

“Nothing ever changes”

But it did