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Daw Suu's Letter from Burma #13
- Subject: Daw Suu's Letter from Burma #13
- From: carol@xxxxxxx
- Date: Sun, 18 Feb 1996 21:03:00
Mainichi Daily News, Monday, February 19, 1996
BURMA: WHERE EVEN HOSPITALITY IS REGULATED
-- VISITING RITES
Letter from Burma (No. 13) by Aung San Suu Kyi
The Burmese are reputed to be one of the most hospitable people in the
world. When I was a child I took it for granted that formal invitations to
lunch or tea or dinner were issued only to foreigners. Burmese friends
simply dropped in and shared whatever you happened to be eating. And there
was always enough for visitors, however unexpected. Often friends would
suddenly appear in the evening, hot green tea, plum candy, fried beans and
/laphet/ (preserved tea leaves) would be brought out and there would be an
impromptu party. Sometimes the conversation flowed so happily and the
atmosphere was so congenial the guests would decide to stay for the night.
That would be no problem at all: some smooth /thinbyu/ mats, pillows and
mosquito nets and any room with a fresh breeze bowing through would be
instantly transformed into a pleasant guest dormitory. Night would descend
on a household replete with food and the sense of hospitality well discharged.
There is no tradition of inns or hotels in Burma. Visitors from out of
town stay with friends or relatives for as long as it is necessary.
Considerate guests come laden with food and other gifts and everybody enjoys
the opportunity to exchange news of births, deaths, marriages, mild scandals
and success stories. Sometimes guests stay on so long the hosts become a
little restive. But there are also guests so cherished their visit is
extended day after day at the behest of the hosts. Having guests to stay is
an informal and elastic process.
Hospitality is no longer so simple. Apart from the high food prices that
make most people hesitate to impose themselves on friends, staying overnight
in a house other than your own involves more than friendship, good
conversation an a cool mat. Visitors must make up their minds before too
late an hour if they intend to stay the night because their presence has to
be reported to the local Law and Order Restoration Council (LORC) before
nine o'clock in the evening. Failure to "report the guest list" could
result in a fine or a prison sentence for both the guest and the host.
Nobody may go away for the night from his own home without informing the
local LORC as well as the LORC of the place where he will be staying. The
authorities have the right to check at any time during the night to see if
there are any unreported guests or if any of the members of the family are
missing. Households which shelter members of the National League form
Democracy or their supporters tend to be subjected to frequent "guest
checks" these days.
These periodic checks can be a mere formality conducted with courtesy or
they can be a form of harassment. There are no lack of cases where the
authorities have marched in the dead of night and flung up mosquito nets to
ascertain that the sleeping population tallied with the names and numbers on
Form 10. Form 10 is the list of all members of a family. In some
households which comprise more than one nuclear family there may be more
than one Form 10. Domestic employees who sleep at their employers' homes
also have to be registered on Form 10 or they have to be reported as guests.
A person may be registered on only one Form 10 so if it is necessary for him
to be entered as a member of another family fro some reason, his name has to
be removed from the original family list.
During the days of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party, Form 10 played a
central role in the daily lives of the people of Burma. It was in
accordance with the household members listed on the form that it was decided
how much a family was entitled to buy of such essentials as rice, oil, salt,
chilies, onions, soap and milk powder from the government cooperatives.
Today the cooperatives no longer supply consumer necessities so Form 10 has
ceased to be important in the economic life of the average family. However
it still features large in the family's social life because it decides who
may or may not spend the night in a house without reporting to the authorities.
And what can happen if a family fails to let the local LORC know they have
an overnight guest? Both the guest and the host are liable to minimum fine
of 50 kyats, or to a prison sentence ranging from two weeks to six months.
Since 1988 the cases of prison sentences meted out to unreported guests have
increased hugely. Some of the cases are tragicomic. A young man caught
spending the night as an unreported guest was taken to court together with
his host. The court handed down a prison sentence of six months to the
guest and two weeks to the host. The host, a hospitable man with a long
experience of paying fines for his unexpected and unreported guests,
involuntarily clicked his tongue against his teeth in astonished disgust.
The acting magistrate heard the loud click and promptly changed the sentence
on the host to one month's imprisonment for contempt of court. The price of
hospitality in Burma can be very high.
* * *
(This article is one of a yearlong series of letters, the Japanese
translation of which appears in the Mainichi Shimbun the same day, or the
previous day in some areas.)