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Daw Suu's Letter from Burma #14

Mainichi Daily News, Monday, February 26, 1996


Letter from Burma No. 14 by Aung San Suu Kyi

	A couple of weeks ago some friends of mine became grandparents for the
first time when their daughter gave birth to a little girl. The husband
accepted his new status as grandfather with customary joviality, while the
wife, too young-looking and pretty to fit into the conventional idea of a
cozily aged grandmother, found it a somewhat startling experience. The baby
was the first grandchild for the "boy's side" as well, so she was truly a
novel addition to the family circle, the subject of much adored attention. I
was told the paternal grandfather was especially pleased because the baby
had been born in the Burmese month of /Pyatho/, an auspicious time for the
birth of a girl child.
	In societies where the birth of a girl is considered a disaster, the
atmosphere of excitement and pride surrounding my friends' granddaughter
would have caused astonishment. In Burma there is no prejudice against girl
babies. In fact there is a general belief that daughters are more dutiful
and loving than sons and many Burmese parents welcome the birth of daughter
as an assurance that they will have somebody to take care of them in their
old age.
	My friends' granddaughter was only 12 days old when I went to admire her.
She lay swaddled in pristine white on a comfortable pile of blankets and
sheets spread on the wooden floor of my friends' bungalow, a small dome of
mosquito netting arched prettily over her.  It had been a long time since I
had seen such a tiny baby and I wast struck by its miniature perfection.  I
do not subscribe to the Wodehousian view that all babies look like poached
eggs.  Even if they do not have clearly defined features, babies have
distinct expressions that mark them off as individuals from birth.  And they
certainly have individual cries, a fact learned soon after the birth of my
first son.  It only took me a few hours to realize that the yell of each
tiny, vociferous inmate of the maternity hospital had its own unique pitch,
cadence range and grace notes.
	My friends' grandchild however did not provide me with a chance to
familiarize myself with her particular milk call.  Throughout my visit she
remained as inanimate and still as a carved papoose on display in a museum,
oblivious of the fuss and chatter around her.  At one time her eyelids
fluttered slightly and she showed signs of stirring but it was a false
alarm.  She remained resolutely asleep even when I picked her up and we all
clustered around to have our photograph taken with the new star in our
	Babies, I have read somewhere, are specially constructed to present an
appealingly vulnerable appearance aimed at arousing tender, protective
instincts: only then can tough adults be induced to act as willing slaves to
demanding little beings utterly incapable of doing anything for themselves.
It has also been claimed that there is something about the natural smell of
a baby's skin that invites cuddles and kisses.  Certainly I like both the
shape and smell of babies, but I wonder whether their attraction does not
lie in something more than merely physical attributes.  Is it not the
thought of a life stretching out like a shining clean slate on which might
one day be written the most beautiful prose and poetry of existence that
engenders such joy in the hearts of the parent and grandparents of a newly
born child?  The birth of a baby is an occasion for weaving hopeful dreams
about the future.
	However, in some families parents are not able to indulge long in dreams
over their children.  The infant mortality rate in Burma is 94 per 1,000
live births, the fourth highest among the nations of the East Asia and
Pacific Region.  The mortality rate for those under the age of five too is
the fourth highest in the region, 147 per 1,000.  And the maternal mortality
rate is the third highest in the region at the official rate of 123 per
100,000 live births.  (United Nations agencies surmise that the actual
maternal mortality rate is in fact higher, 140 or more per 100,000.)
	The reasons for these high mortality rates are malnutrition, lack of access
to safe water and sanitation, lack of access to health services and lack of
caring capacity, which includes programs for childhood development, primary
education and health education.  In summary, there is a strong need in Burma
for greater investment in health and education.  Yet government expenditure
in both sectors as proportion of the budget has been falling steadily.
Education accounted for 5.9 percent of the budget in 1992-93, 5.2 percent in
1993-94 and 5 percent in 1994-95.  Similarly government spending on health
care has dropped from 2.6 percent in 1992-93 to 1.8 percent in 1993-94 and
1.6 percent in 1994-95.
	Some of the best indicators of a country developing along the right lines
are healthy mothers giving birth to healthy children who are assured of good
care and a sound education that will enable them to face the challenges of a
changing world.  Our dreams for the future of the children of Burma have to
be woven firmly around a commitment to better health care and better education.
* * *
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.