Tag Archives: Myanmar

Whistle Help in Myanmar and Beyond

indexNew Orleans     A couple of years ago in Oakland, I ran into Rhoda Linton, who I’ve known since the late 60’s when both of us were welfare rights organizers with the National Welfare Rights Organization, she in Brooklyn and me in Massachusetts. She had been working on a brief documentary on an interesting campaign she was helping out on in Myanmar. Turns out before welfare rights and her participation in the famed Syracuse University community action training program featuring Saul Alinksy, Warren Haggstrom, and Fred Ross, she had been a Peace Corp volunteer in a rural area of what was then called Burma. Now having retired, she had gone back there and reconnected to that time in a new century.

She was talking about an interesting campaign. I tried, unsuccessfully to get her to write something about it for Social Policy, and to lure her into participating or helping when the Organizers’ Forum had its international dialogue in Yangon in 2013. Stumbling around though the other day, I found a copy of her film “Whistle Help” (see below) describing the campaign, and coincidentally, though she had only posted the film on YouTube less than six months ago, the film was finished around the same time we were in Myanmar. I wish we could have seen it in action! Rhoda may be reticent, but no reason for me to be, and it was an interesting mini-campaign of sorts and one that could roll a lot farther than Yangon and Myanmar.

The issue was simple. Women, as one interviewee said, “young, old, and middle-aged” in the sardine-packed bus system of Yangon often were groped, touched, and generally sexually harassed by men on a regular, everyday basis. They mostly endured it with some “shame” as another said, but it was all so common that most every woman interviewed seemed to have some experience with the problem, some as recently as last week, and all kept vivid memories of it.

Women started talking to women, no doubt with Rhoda’s help, support, and organizing, and over time an organizing committee of fifteen women, mostly young, started meeting directly and talking about the issue and eventually what could be done about it. From some of the camera shots the unmistakable footprints of her organizing workshops were everywhere, so it was easy to see Rhoda’s fine hand behind the scenes with flip charts here and there and diagrams of actions with targeted pressure.

What they decided to do was get on the streets at early morning bus stops, wearing their campaign t-shirts for Whistle Help, pass out leaflets, and, mainly, pass out whistles. Yes, whistles. The whole point was to encourage women to wear the whistles and keep them handy, and of course to use them liberally on the bus and let out as shrill a sound as they could to shame any man who messed with them again. The women on the film said this went well. One commented that some of the male hawkers even helped them unravel the whistles and distribute on their busses. This is an example of trying to use film as an organizing tool, so it was meant to agitate and promote, obviously and appropriately. A cut-line at the end of the film said that the campaign distributed 30,000 whistles. The campaign was trying for a culture shift, so here’s hoping!

Whistles are easily obtainable and cheap. This problem of sexual harassment on public transportation is also ubiquitous on jammed trains in Mumbai, Buenos Aires, London, and New York. Action is needed and women everywhere can identify with this and participate.

It’s too much to hope for a hula hoop kind of fad here, but it’s not hard to imagine women picking up whistles everywhere in the world where this is an issue, and letting their lungs blow loudly for help whenever and wherever this happens. That’s what Whistle Help could be about.

Whistle Help


Lessons for My Father, Part 2, the Darker Side

IMG_0298Yangon    Don’t get me wrong.   A visit to Yangon is amazing, but it’s no walk the park.

·      Let’s take walking for example.   There has been some work on streets and sidewalks, and in fact I regularly saw a pothole patching team in the central city.   The new sidewalks are interesting.  First they are about 2 feet at the curb, I assume to put the walkers and workers above the street flooding in the monsoon season.  Sometimes there is a ramp going up, but more often there are a couple of loose rocks arranged to get you up the curb.  Nonetheless all of this is good, because every other sidewalk is a shopping or parking area, so most folks have to walk in the street, which has its own challenges.

·      Public transportation is one of those challenges.   The buses are all private companies with routes like the collectivo system historically in Buenos Aires.   The drivers and touts work on commission for a piece of the farebox, averaging $10 per day the driver and $5 for the tout, but it’s a 6 AM to 9PM hella day, and the buses are packed out with people.   For walkers they are worth a wary eye, because they also careen at top speeds on their appointed routes.

·      The electricity problems we discussed are vexing for more than just development.   Everywhere there is valuable equipment like a TV or a refrigerator; there is an industrial sized surge protector.  Early in our visit there was a brief surge, which blew out the adapters of any in our delegation who had anything plugged in, including an adapter connected to nothing.  Between Chaco and I we lost 5 or 6 plugs.  A couple of hours of adventure in the electronics district a dozen blocks away found a Lenovo that worked and some other fixes, but it all cost money.  One of our number lost an Apple plug, which was a whole different matter of heavy searching and a bigger hit to the pocketbook, since Apple Computers, and in fact no Smartphones are common here.   A Sim card for a Smartphone can cost close to $1000 we were told.

·      Then there are the various “south side” problems that 50% of our crew encountered on the visit and all of us worried about constantly.   Most were caught unaware and brought low, one thought a cup of tea on the street, others were less sure.  In my case on the last day of our visit, the Lucky Seven was anything but.   The Lonely Planet guidebook for Myanmar described the Lucky Seven as the favorite tea shop in the city.   I noticed that it was less than two blocks from our hotel, furthermore the author described the mahinga dish, a sort of soup, as among the best in town, so that’s what I ordered in a moment of sublime recklessness on our last day.  Let’s just say that I made it through a tour of the fascinating National Museum with Chaco, and I answered the bell for our last meeting with the head of the Federation of Trade Unions of Myanmar, but by 6PM I was in bed and am only moving, barely, now as we get ready to roll for the airport in another hour or so.  Thankfully, cipro is available over the counter in generic form for about one dollar for the treatment regime or they might have had to leave me here.   Don’t leave home without it!

I just wanted to share a couple of caveats for visitors, and I’m not even counting the forced labor, lowest wages almost in the world, crony capitalism, chilling fears about censorship, military government, and some of the other issues we’ve discussed throughout the week.