In 2015, I spent the week before Christmas in Rakhine State in south-west Myanmar, near the Bangladesh border. I was working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization doing emergency media and communications after major floods some months before. A cyclone in Bangladesh had dumped heavy rain across 12 states of Myanmar, temporarily displacing 1.7 million people and destroying more than 840,000 acres of food crops. It was my job to tell the stories of some of the subsistence farmers and other vulnerable people who had been affected. By sharing their stories online, with journalists, or in written documents such as fact sheets, I was reminding donors and the wider public that these people still needed help to get back on their feet.
I was based in the capital, Yangon, but had travelled with colleagues to Rakhine, more than 570km away, to meet affected farmers and their families. By the time I visited, most people were back living in their homes, but they were running out of food. Either the soil was still too sodden, or their precious seeds and animals had been washed away and they had no money to buy more.
Rakhine State is not one of Myanmar’s tourist destinations. Until recently, it was home to most of the estimated one million members of the ethnic Muslim minority, the Rohingya, living in Myanmar. These Rohingya have been subject to “extreme violence and discrimination”. They can’t claim Myanmar citizenship, their movement is restricted and they’re often shut out from schools, hospitals and markets. According to the World Bank, around three-quarters of people in Rakhine State were living in poverty.
Then in 2017-2018, after an explosion in violence by the Myanmar security forces, more than 800,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, reporting murder, rape and the burning down of their villages. It led to some of the most devastating stories and images I’ve ever come across. Including the soldiers who ripped a baby from his mother’s arms and threw him into a fire. Alive.
The villages I visited just two years before that may no longer exist. Many of the people who gave me their time and told me their stories may be dead.
Even in 2015, things were tense in Rakhine. We had to submit an itinerary and seek travel permission from local officials and were escorted by a government representative.
In one Rohingya village we visited, families had just been able to afford to rebuild after their houses were burned in earlier attacks, six years before. Now the floods had swept through, destroying crops, carrying livestock away and damaging homes all over again. The village consisted of timber houses on stilts, dirt streets and a centuries-old mosque with faded blue paint on the arched walls inside and grey lichen staining the tiny minaret outside.
I met a petite 45-year-old woman, Daw Swe, who sewed shirts and embroidered headscarves to support her family. Wearing a white headscarf with green embroidery around the edge, she worked quietly at her pedal-operated sewing machine, while her daughters cut cloth on the wooden floor behind her. A bamboo frame supported the tarpaulin walls of her two-bedroom hut. Clothing and household goods hung from timber beams under the thatched roof. In front of her hut, she sold some cans of soft drink and water for extra income.
Her husband worked as a field labourer but had been unemployed after the paddy rice crop was washed away in the floods. Daw Swe rented a sewing machine but was behind on repayments since the disaster. She owed around $46 and said it would take her a year or more to repay that debt.
I dug out the cash I had in my pockets and bought several shawls with hand-stitched decorations for about $5 each. I knew she was charging me more than double the price she charged the villagers. But she didn’t blink when she quoted the price and I didn’t blink when I handed her the money. She then insisted on giving me a can of Coke from her shop.
The difference between Daw Swe’s life and mine would have been excruciatingly clear any time of the year. But that week, right before Christmas, I was also trying to order presents online for family flung between Sydney, London and Dubai. It was a particularly poignant clash between the two worlds I straddled every day: the poverty of the people I met, and my own privilege.
For weeks I’d been getting up at 5am – the only time the internet worked well enough for online shopping, even in Yangon. In Rakhine, there were only six hours of electricity a day, making it even more of a challenge. I would quickly type in my credit card details for each purchase; a photo book for my parents, a CD for my grandparents, a shirt for one of my sisters. Card number. Expiry date. Security code. And voilà, the bank paid and I would pay it back later.
On the morning we were leaving Rakhine, we had arranged to meet at the cars outside the hostel at 5:30am. Children were already out on the dusty street, and across the road, the man in the tea shop was preparing for another busy day, stoking his fire and filling tea pots with water.
I balanced my laptop on the seat of the four wheel drive and stood at the open door, using a remote device to access the weak internet and searching a handbag website for an extra present for one of my sisters. The handbags were elegant, individually photographed and displayed against a crisp, white background with neat black text describing their features.
Suddenly I realised the government official was looking over my shoulder. Embarrassed, I flipped my laptop shut. I felt like the ultimate out-of-touch white girl. A walking stereotype. Who shops for ritzy handbags while she’s standing in hiking boots on a dirt road in an area where people struggle to feed their families? I wondered quickly whether I could explain. But what would I have said? It’s OK, Australians spend billions on Christmas presents each year? Not helpful. So I slunk onto the car seat and stared out the window, mortified.
Daw Swe would struggle for a year to repay the $46 she owed on her sewing machine. I had just spent that on a National Geographic subscription for my great aunt.
One week later, it was Christmas Day and I was back in Yangon. I logged onto the Sydney Morning Herald website. The first sentence of a lead story hit me: “Furious shoppers have taken to social media to complain about missing Christmas hams, turkeys and seafood in their shopping orders from Australia’s two largest supermarket chains…” One shopper described it as her “worst nightmare”, another said she couldn’t sleep because she was “so stressed”. “No duck fat for Christmas roast potatoes,” she said. “No pudding for Christmas dinner desert [sic].”
I would have rolled my eyes at those exaggerations under normal circumstances. But with the image of Daw Swe at her sewing machine fresh in my mind, the shoppers’ comments seemed even more obscene.
By a twist of fate, one woman was born in a village in Myanmar and struggles to survive; the other laments a lack of duck fat for her roast potatoes. So arbitrary and so unfair.
That year, it was the Muslim woman in majority Buddhist Myanmar who reminded me of the real meaning of the Christian celebration of Christmas.