Sue Arnold: What has happened to my family in Burma?

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The Independent Online

Maybe it's better that I don't know which pongyi-chaung, the Burmese word for monastery, my cousin Maung-nyi is living in these days. It would make watching the news from Burma even harder to bear if I knew that those long columns of monks peacefully demonstrating against the most brutal government on earth, surrounded by armed soldiers in Rangoon and Mandalay included my cousin Maung-nyi.

That isn't his real name of course – God knows it wouldn't help if the authorities knew that he had a journalist aunt in England. Last time I heard from my family in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State up near the Chinese border, he was in a monastery close to Pagan. He left home to become a Buddhist monk a year before my last visit to Burma, in 1995, leaving a brief note for his family to say that he would probably never see any of them again.

A Buddhist monk has no worldly ties and only five material possessions: saffron robe, sandals, fan, sun umbrella and begging bowl. When my grandmother was alive she would set aside a portion of rice and vegetables every day for the pongyis. In the morning as soon as she heard the monastery bell ring she would hurry to the road with her offering and out of respect the monks would take care not to step on her shadow. It might bring her bad luck.

We stopped getting letters from Burma soon after my last visit. It may have been a coincidence – I went in as a tourist not a journalist – but as my Aunty Betty whispered as we climbed the rickety wooden outside staircase to her flat in Moletsaungon, the Rangoon equivalent of Tower Hamlets, "there are spies everywhere". Someone was bound to know she had had a foreign visitor.

The following year an acquaintance vaguely attached to the Foreign Office was going to Rangoon and I gave him a parcel for Aunty Betty. I wish I hadn't. He didn't take a taxi, he took the chauffeur-driven Embassy limo, since when we haven't even had the usual jasmine-scented Christmas card.

I hope the absence of letters is simply because my relatives can no longer afford stamps. Twelve years ago my aunt said that the price of rice had gone up 10 times in the past year and the quality was appalling, but fortunately friends in the country helped them out.

I remember on one of my visits taking the train from Thazi to Rangoon (we had air tickets but the plane had broken down – there are only two tourist planes) and it was full of people with sacks bulging with vegetables. As the train slowed down on the outskirts of the city they threw them out of the windows to people waiting by the side of the track.

In the last letter I got from my niece, a maths student at Mandalay University, she said that since the university closed she had been earning money for the family recycling bottles.

"Don't worry about us aunty," she wrote. "I go to the pagoda every day to wash and wish and gain merit. We will be alright." One of my many memories of Burma is my niece in her flower-patterned lungyi standing behind her grandmother's chair at the table fanning the old lady with palm leaves tied to a long stick to keep her cool while she ate her supper.

Respect for old people does not have to be taught to Burmese children, it's instinctive. And modesty too. Please Susan, my mother used to say, when you go to my country cover your arms and don't wear short skirts. The Burmese respect other people's feelings, you do the same.

How many of the younger members of my huge extended Burmese family, I wonder, are out there marching with the Buddhist monks. What has happened to my nephew To-To, 17 when I last saw him and hoping to become a doctor? In 1925, the only foreign medical degree acceptable in Britain was from the Rangoon Medical School. It was To-To who told me that the last box of chocolates I sent to them by post arrived minus the chocolates. The menu card and individual paper containers were still in place, just no chocolates.

Why, when Burma is teetering on the brink of disaster, do such inconsequential details of missing chocolates and palm leaf fans crowd my thoughts. Because, I suppose, it's easier than imagining what could be happening to all my uncles and aunts and cousins and nephews whose beautiful serene faces smile out to me from photographs so peacefully, so tolerantly.

On our last day in Rangoon in 1995 my daughter and I had tea with Aung San Suu Kyi at her once-elegant but now crumbling hose in University Avenue.

She was still allowed visitors in those days and a telephone. We sat in a room dominated by a portrait of her father, General Aung San, Burma's most charismatic political leader assassinated in 1947, and drank green tea from tiny flowered cups.

Four years earlier, she had won a Nobel Peace Prize, but what good had it done, I wondered. She is her country's democratically elected leader, but here she was a prisoner, voiceless, powerless. She listened, a tiny, graceful figure outwardly serene but the passion inside her was almost tangible.

"Imagine a huge, shimmering lake," she said, "not a ripple on the surface, absolutely still. But, underneath, there are thousands and thousands of fish swimming and darting and swooping until, suddenly, they leap above the water into the sunlight. That's Burma." Please God she's right.