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Life lessons from living in Burma for two years

Roscoe McDonald recounts his foreign experience

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Aung San Suu Kyi (Graphic by Ian Davino)

Aung San Suu Kyi (Graphic by Ian Davino)

Aung San Suu Kyi (Graphic by Ian Davino)

Eleanor Dudley, Editor-In-Chief

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The airport could be anywhere in the world, it’s bustling and filled with travelers from all countries waiting in lines and clutching passports.

But once you past the visa line, everything changes. There are men dressed in longyis (long cloth skirts) chewing betel nuts that leave the ground littered with red marks, taxis weaving in and out while strangers attempt to carry your luggage to earn a small profit.

For junior Roscoe McDonald, the unforgettable experience was only the beginning.

McDonald spent two years in the Burmese capital city Yangon while his father worked for a telecom company. This however, was not his first time abroad– his family lived in Jordan during his early childhood but moved to Seattle when he was six. In July 2014 they once again set out for a foreign country.

“We just decided what a great opportunity, we get to go into a country that is opening up and what better thing to do than move the whole family there,” McDonald said.

The opportunity was a remarkable one. Living in a developing country during the tough transition to democracy is quite a different experience from growing up in Seattle.

“The roads were questionable at best, the driving was downright scary –people drove right-hand drive cars on the right side of the road–no traffic laws to speak of. It was an incredible culture shock,” McDonald said.

While in Burma, McDonald attended a prestigious international school along with the wealthiest children in the country. He observed  the stark economic divide in Burma, and saw the power and wealth of military families.

“There was this one girl who was a freshman in high school who had her own Lamborghini and all the newest things she could ever want and weekly trips to Singapore and that kind of thing,” McDonald said.

This kind of affluence was harshly contrasted to the pervasive poverty within the country.

“I did a lot of community service when I was there so I helped build a school by Bagan and the amount of poverty that was there was huge,” McDonald said. “ It was just crazy the wage differences, like you’d see this really nice park that looked like it was just made and then squatters living in parts of the park.”

The country of Burma, renamed Myanmar by the controlling military junta in 1989, has faced an upward battle to modernization and western democracy. In 2012 President Barack Obama became the first US President to visit Burma.

“I was there when Obama was there, the traffic was terrible,” McDonald said.

During his visit Obama expressed hope and support for the democratic process in Burma but also urged civilians and leaders to be wary of ethnic divides that would blockade progress. The majority Buddhist country has long faced volatile relations with the oppressed Rohingya minority, many of whom are Muslim and live in refugees camps in the Rakhine state. McDonald believes it is important to understand the Rohingya population are not immigrants, and that the Rakhine state is multi-faceted.

“They’ve lived there for generations and generations and they have as much right to the land, in my opinion, as the other Burmese people do,” McDonald said. “Sometimes people talk about Rakhine state as being this wasteland of just refugee camps but there are also beach resorts there. I went up there for Christmas and we went to a fancy beach resort and if you didn’t know that that was going on then you’d be none the wiser.”

While living in Burma, he witnessed firsthand the bigotry and hatred towards Muslims.

“I remember I had a friend in Burma who went to my school who was Bangladeshi and Muslim and there were parents who really frowned upon him just being in the school,” McDonald said. “There were Burmese Buddhist parents who didn’t want their children to be going to school with somebody who is Muslim, which is completely ridiculous in my opinion and downright racist.”

This ethical conflict has recently reached new heights after a group of Rohingya radicalists attacked military and police stations in August, triggering a wave of ethnic cleansing in the country. In response to this violence, the de facto leader of the country Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-time leader of the National League for Democracy and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been deeply criticized at home and abroad for her lack of response.

“She is playing to nice with the military. She’s allowing the refugee camps in Rakhine state to keep going and she’s not doing anything at least that we can see to stop it and she should be doing stuff because that’s what her party is based on,”  McDonald said regarding Aung San Suu Kyi. “She was an excellent martyr. She was a great cause to fight for, but she isn’t the leader that people wanted her to be.”

After his time in Burma, McDonald appreciates the luxuries of living in a developed country. In Burma, drinking water was delivered twice a week and the tap water came directly from lakes unfiltered. He recalled a time when the government abruptly shut off water for a week, except for a couple hours a day, and his mom stayed home to fill jugs of water for bathing, cooking, and cleaning.

“I no longer take power, internet, water, or reliable food sources for granted, McDonald said.

McDonald also learned a great deal about power dynamics and politics after living in a country with a tumultuous and complex history of authoritative rule followed by hope for democracy.

“Nothing is solid. Everything can change at a moment’s notice,” McDonald said concerning politics. “Aung San Suu Kyi was all for the keep going, we can do this, go further, do new things but now she’s just like ‘oh no we are just going to keep doing it the way it was’ and that’s the way it worked.”

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Life lessons from living in Burma for two years