I recently visited the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar for three weeks. Probably still better known by its old name of ‘Burma’, this Texas sized nation of about 50 million people (no one really knows for sure, but that is what the World Bank estimates) is made up of numerous ethnic groups, a number of which have been in armed conflict with the government for decades. A military junta seized power in 1962, overthrowing a democratically elected government and has – until several years ago – pursued isolationist, politically repressive and economically unsuccessful policies that turned this bounteous realm once known as the ‘Golden Land’ into a failed state just a little short of North Korea.
Compared to my first visit thirty years ago when the consequences of decades of heavy handed oppression and mismanagement by the junta were all too apparent, today there are many signs of a revitalizing economy and the sprouting of liberalization. In the urban areas, decay and downtrodden faces have been replaced by bustling activity, extensive construction – and way too many cars. Tourism, too, has tripled in the last year alone, providing a much needed infusion of foreign capital.
The same junta is still in charge, but its leader now is comparatively more progressive and this tendency is being encouraged by a policy of engagement by foreign governments, the most visible consequence being visits of President Obama and then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2012. Giving both hope and further momentum to the forces of democratization, both Obama and Clinton met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party ‘National League for Democracy’ and Nobel Peace Prize Winner who was released from house arrest in 2010, which she was placed under after winning elections in 1990 that would have made her head of the government, had not the Junta intervened. The daughter of the man who led the nation into independence in the late 1940’s – and was then soon assassinated, she is without a doubt the defacto leader and inspirational figure of the nation.
Her picture adorns walls in public places as well as private homes, is on calendars and T-shirts, as well as in wallets. Even the smallest village seems to have an NLD office. Myanmar was a long time and important piece of the British Empire, yet English, at least, good English, is in remarkably short supply in there (another consequence of military rule, I’m told). Mentioning Aung San Suu Kyi coupled with ‘Obama’ and ‘Clinton’ is a surefire way to bond with just about any Burmese. It is also a way to distinguish yourself from the hoards of French tourists who seem to outnumber all the other visitors from abroad combined.
My time in Myanmar was spent in the heartland of the country, which is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Burmese (or ‘Bama’). I spent time in the major cities of Yangon (once known as Rangoon) and Mandalay, as well as towns and villages surrounding Mandalay. I also had the good fortune to have had an introduction to a homeopath in Yangon, with whom I had already established an email correspondence. With typical Burmese graciousness, he picked me up at the airport and spent a good part of a week showing me around, inviting me to his home where we discussed both homeopathy and the state of his country.
Dr. Hla Min Sein is the son of a formerly prominent homeopath, U Sein Maung, who, according to his son, was persecuted by the military government for practicing homeopathy shortly after it seized power in the early 1960’s. A homeopathic school and professional association, both of which were directed by U Sein Maung were disbanded, homeopaths of Indian origin returned to India, and homeopathy was for all practical purposes extinguished as a treatment modality. After being released from prison, U Sein Maung maintained a low profile, removing to a remote village where even now, well into his 80’s, he still runs a free clinic. Taking advantage of a relatively less repressive atmosphere, Dr. Hla Min Sein along with his wife, Daw Kyu Kyu Lin , both trained by his father, have established a homeopathic practice and are actively engaged in attempting to restore the homeopathic profession in Myanmar.
While language barriers were a major obstacle during my trip, I was able to learn something of the way Hla Min Sein and his wife practice, as well as the challenges they face both as practitioners and advocates of homeopathy. Without access to homeopathic pharmacies in Myanmar or abroad, they rely on couriers to spirit remedies from abroad. Without access to the broader international homeopathic community and homeopathic literature, they must solely rely on their own training, clinical experience and a few basic reference materials. Despite these difficulties, they are extremely dedicated, enthusiastic practitioners.
They both treat many patients with severe pathologies such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. At the time of my visit, Dr. Daw Kyu Kyu Lin was also engaged in the treatment of a great number of monks who had been injured by government forces during a protest.
Through Dr. Hla Min Sein, I was introduced to another student of his father’s who practices homeopathy in the town of Sagaing, near Mandalay. Dr. Myint Oo has a small clinic, really nothing more than a hallway attached to a store room stocked from floor to ceiling with many forms of homeopathic and herbal remedies. Language was even more of an impediment between us than in Yangon, but from what I could glean, he was able to escape the government clamp down because he had certification as an herbal practitioner and prescribed homeopathic remedies under that guise. His practice seemed quite eclectic – he used single homeopathic potencies and ‘complex remedies’, which are combinations of a number of remedies used to treat a specific pathology, as well as herbal tinctures. His clinic seemed fairly quiet and I could not discern what kind of clientele he served.
On the other hand, Dr. Myint Oo’s 20 year old son, a recent college graduate who works with his father, is intent on training as a homeopath either in India or elsewhere abroad. I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a good part of 3 days on the back of his motorcycle as he guided me to many spectacular sites in and around Mandalay.
Hopefully, with the efforts of people such as Drs. Hla Min Sein and Kyu Kyu LIn, as well as a more open society and access to the internet, homeopathy will once again begin to flourish in Myanmar. Certainly, it is my intent to play a small role in facilitating this process.