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12.18.15 Issue

by Oliver B. Pollak

I studied Burmese (now Myanmar) history in London in 1970. We planned to visit but the birth of our son and a teaching job at the University of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) interfered. I wrote a book about Burma, without going there. Burma fell to military dictatorship in 1962 with a repressive closed country policy and censorship. As a Burma watcher of 46 years, I maintain a fondness for Burmese food and its people.

The Burmese Democracy movement, led by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner “The Lady,” 69 year-old Aung San Suu Kyi; the stagnating effects of international sanctions prompting “opening up”; and transition to civilian rule, made Burma an attractive destination.

The Open Society Foundation sponsored by George Soros, President Obama’s 2014 visit, and Viking Cruises’ repeated blandishments as “proud sponsor” of PBS Masterpiece Theatre, convinced us that the time to strike Burma from our bucket list had arrived.

Our agenda included local cuisine, temples, pagodas and stupas, craft industries, and imagining George Orwell as a policeman in Burma, 1922-27, transformed into his 1934 novel Burmese Days. Our cruise on the Irrawaddy and visit to Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Bagan, and Mandalay were better than we could have imagined.

We walked from our Yangon hotel to Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, built in the 1890s, that serves the remaining 15 or so Jews in a city of 5.2 million people. The crowded sidewalks were treacherous, red splotches of betel were ubiquitous, free range dogs scurried at our feet. People sensed we were going to the synagogue and pointed us in the right direction.

There were about 2,500 mostly Sephardic Jews in Burma before 1940, described by Ruth Freedman Cernea in Almost Englishmen, Baghdadi Jew in British Burma (2007). Jews fled the Japanese invaders, some returned after the war. Since the 1962 coup, they have been in steady decline.

Moses Samuels maintained the synagogue until his death in early 2015. His son, Sammy, a Yeshiva University graduate and owner of Myanmar Shalom Travel, keeps the Shul open. Today, they get more visitors than the size of their congregation.

Burma’s Buddhism is charming, but not completely inoffensive, and has dealt harshly with Muslim minorities in certain parts of the country, as well as some minority ethnic tribes. Omaha is the home for about 4,000 Christian  Burmese Karen refugees.

Tourism has picked up. Fancy riverboats transport visitors on the Irrawaddy. People tell you what they think about politics though they harbored suspicions that the military leaders would not give the popular vote full credit. This openness was unimaginable a few years ago. There was scant evidence of an armed military presence.

We observed the build-up to the Nov. 8, 2015 general election. Posters of “The Lady” were everywhere. If Burmese democracy is fortunate, it will follow Canada’s recent experience where Liberal Justin Trudeau assumed a position once held by his father Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Burma’s democratic leader, “The Lady,” is the daughter of the nationalist hero Aung San, assassinated in 1948.

Denying the democratic voice would be disappointing to the Burmese majority, the free world, and potential investors ready to improve Burma’s infrastructure. An open Burma would be good for Yangon’s Jewish tourist attraction.