I don’t usually do this. Use “I” when I write. Well, of course I write a lot, because this is my job. I am a freelance reporter and have been working in Myanmar for more than a year now. It is a very difficult job, but I don’t regret my choice. My life is full of wonderful encounters, adventurous, sometimes dangerous but never boring – well except when I am waiting for days for an interview that never comes but that’s another story. The only thing is that I always have to worry about money. I work with my companion and in a good month we make, together, around 1000 €. Enough to survive in Myanmar. Don’t imagine we actually get a regular salary. We got to ask and ask again to get our money and this is very tiring.
Some newspapers never pay us or very very late, we get a 100 from this one, 200 from another… We don’t save any money and each time we have to go back to France it’s an economic tsunami for us. The working conditions of freelancers is a topic in itself, but here is not the place to talk about it.
We never stay too long in Yangon, the economic capital of Myanmar, because accommodations are way too expensive. To rent a place monthly is almost as expensive as in Paris. So we have to stay in guest-houses and for 15 – 20$ a night you get a room almost decent, for a tourist. When you work there, this is a different story, it’s like we live in a parallel world. Too much noise or electricity shortage can ruin the writing of a good story.
Recently we found this cheap place, where we are the only customers. Weird. But the place is quiet, WiFi almost decent. We fell sick, traveller’s disease, fever, the whole package and had to stay there in our room to rest, during the day, which we never usually do, always
finding a place to visit, an event, someone to meet. That’s when we realized where we were, and what made me want to write this story. You see where this is going? Well, not quite. The guest-house is not a brothel. It’s weirder than that.
I am a proud feminist. Being a feminist in Myanmar is challenging. Women’s rights are not really a priority here. You still hear stuff like: a girl’s virginity is her most precious possession. When you buy sanitary pads -yeah tampons are very very hard to find-, the cashier always makes sure to put them in a different bag, a black not transparent one to really really hide them, in a way I felt ashamed to buy these for the first time since I was 13. And I am 27.
I am always asking myself a lot of silly questions. I love to wear tank tops and shorts. Girls don’t do that there. So should I stop doing it? Am I shocking people? Am I helping women, this way people there get used to girls wearing whatever clothes they want? I smoke, my hair is short, I have a tattoo on my back, I drink beers and sometimes I speak too much and too loud. If you see a woman like that in Myanmar, give me a call. So what should I do? I remember, when I lived in Thailand, my Thai teacher told me I was helping women there to emancipate because I am a smoker. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I have used this as a reason not to quit since then.
Let’s go back to Myanmar. Women’s conditions are bad. There is no other way to say it. It sounds odd in a country where the icon is Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman. A few months ago, some NGOs complained that not enough women were involved in the peace-process. Some ethnic groups are still fighting the Burmese army, it has been going on for decades.
Reaching a cease-fire agreement is a key issue in Myanmar. So these NGO people went to check how the situation evolved, a while later. There were more women yeah. In the back, cooking for the men, very far from the negotiations table.
Rape is used by the Burmese army as a weapon against ethnic tribes. People never talk about sex, girls and boys don’t like to use condoms, so their main contraceptive is the morning-after pill, that you can find in grocery stores. There is no word in Burmese for “vagina”, except insults. The vagina is seen as such a dirty part of the body there is not even a word to say it! Because a vagina is so dirty, you should never clean -guess who does the cleaning?- girls underwear with boys clothes. It could hurt their manhood.
In Myanmar, people don’t usually have sex before marriage. Well, of course, it’s more OK for boys. But for girls who are not virgins anymore, it’s like having expired. When a girl accepts to do it, it’s because the boy promised her they would get married someday. It’s like an advance on what he will get later. At this point, I want to say a lot of boys and girls
don’t think like that in Myanmar. They are aware of women conditions and sexism and they actually give a damn about it. But unfortunately they are not a majority in the country. People still have trouble understanding that women’s rights are a high priority issue.
So, when a young couple wants to have sex, what do they do? Do they do it in their homes while the parents are away? Yeah, think about what the neighbours would say. No, they go to a cheap guest-house and they rent a room for a few hours, no questions asked. I know, this is creepy. And you have not even seen the room. Dirty -don’t ever look under the bed- but with a red light bulb, for the romantic atmosphere… So every afternoon, couples come and go in the guest-house. Trust me, the walls are not thick.
In a way, I am proud of them. It’s forbidden but they find a way. But it also scares and disgusts me. People here never talk about that. Of course there are topics like cease-fire, elections or civil war. But I strongly think making sex a normal and natural thing would solve a lot of issues. More freedom, for women and men. Less rapes. Less STDs. Less unwanted pregnancies. Maybe people would get that a woman having her period doesn’t make her dirty or inferior. And yes, why not , women free to do whatever they want, chose a career, their clothes, if they want to keep a baby or not. Renting a dirty room to have sex with your girlfriend/boyfriend can be seen as a revolutionary act. But it doesn’t really improve the situation and it is so sad…