The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta renamed itself in 1997, has one of the world’s worst human rights records. Amnesty International and other groups condemn it for committing widespread and systematic human rights abuses against the country’s ethnic minorities, including destruction of villages, forced labor and sexual violence. The Muslim Rohingya people in the northern state of Rakhine (also called Arakan) were stripped of their citizenship under a 1982 law, and the junta’s military offensive against the autonomy-seeking Karen in the south has been particularly brutal.
The junta is also known for its suppression of a free press. Not even a story about the Jews, a near-extinct minority, is beyond suspicion. An article about the dinner reception I attended, co-written for the Myanmar Times by Gabrielle Paluch, one of the 10 or so Jewish expatriates in Burma, and Burmese reporter Pan Eiswe Star was initially deemed unfit for publication by the Myanmar Press Scrutiny Board (PSB). “In Myanmar all the articles are scrutinized by the PSB. We cannot complain to them,” wrote Star in an email. Gmail and Yahoo are blocked, at least in theory, and the government’s Orwellian newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, routinely urges its readers to “crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.” A popular local joke holds that George Orwell, who served in Burma from 1922 to 1927 as a British imperial policeman wrote two books about the country: Burmese Days and 1984.
With the exception of Aung San Suu Kyi’s confinement, Burma’s affairs rarely make the front page of Western newspapers. But the bloody crackdown on orange-robed Buddhist monks who rose up in protest in 2007, followed by the devastating 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which flattened the delta region and left 150,000 dead, has kept the country in the news. A particular source of international outrage was the junta’s delaying and blocking of aid in the aftermath of the cyclone. Israel was one of the few countries allowed to offer direct aid, through MASHAV, the country’s equivalent of the United States Agency for International Development. Sammy, who was then working for the American Jewish Congress in New York, bought a ticket home and, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, smuggled a suitcase full of water purification tablets and medicine into the country.
This year’s Jewish dinner reception in the Park Royal’s Grand Ballroom came on the heels of 77-year-old dictator Than Shwe’s announcement that in 2010, Burma would hold its first elections in 20 years. Many observers believe the elections will be neither free nor fair, if held at all, and most Burmese I met were reluctant to even broach the subject. But as the wine flowed and chatter filled the air, I sensed that there was still a kernel of hope at the gathering, a sense that change, for Burma—and its Jews—could be coming.
One May day in 1960, 11-year-old Sally Joseph, her mother Florence, and her two younger sisters boarded the M.V. Worcestershire, a passenger ferry docked in Rangoon. She remembers little of the journey, except for the last night. “The sun never came up, and I thought to myself: what kind of a place is this?” recalls the 62-year-old Los Angeles resident, a genial woman with graying hair and remnants of a British accent. The family had arrived in England, along with other Burmese expatriates fleeing the waves of xenophobia and socialism sweeping Burma.