A Tiny Window on the U.S., Prized by Those Peering In
24, Nov 2006 09:33
For a United States worried about its tarnished image in the world, the bustling center is testimony to how an accessible library, seminars and courses in English can burnish America’s reputation and comfort those living under autocratic rulers.
The center is so cherished in this poor and oppressed nation with a passion for books that attendance far exceeds that at the American library in democratic New Delhi.
The junta of Myanmar, formerly Burma, regards the United States as a prime enemy, chiefly because Washington has imposed economic sanctions for nearly a decade. Washington also insists that the government recognize the 1990 election, which was won overwhelmingly by the political party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, even though she was under house arrest. (She remains so.)
Still, the government has allowed the American Center to operate.
“We’re here to say this country deserves better than it has got,” said Todd Pierce, the public affairs officer at the American Embassy who runs the center. “This country is a classic closed society where the tea shops and the role of rumor are very large. So this is a place that says, ‘Let’s throw it open.’ ”
The requests come thick and fast. Someone wanted books by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. (“On order,” Mr. Pierce replied via the bulletin board.) Someone else wanted the collected poetry of John Berryman. Also on its way, Mr. Pierce replied. There were requests for books on starting online businesses. And more comics, please.
Mr. Pierce has revamped the interior of the whitewashed villa (formerly the North Korean Embassy) with fresh paint; handsome, made-in-America reading lamps; and tables and chairs that are often full, leaving readers to spill onto the floor.
In addition to the information services, Mr. Pierce has introduced lighter touches to draw the crowds. The center had an open house with door prizes for the 800 people who turned up. An ex-political prisoner won a copy of a chick-lit novel, “The Princess Diaries,” by Meg Cabot.
All of this has led to a near doubling of the membership, to 15,899, from about 8,000 in July last year.
Some Burmese say they are reluctant to visit the center, fearing persecution by the government, which operates a pervasive intelligence network. On some days, rumors circulate that the center is surrounded by the military. When that happens, attendance often drops just a bit, Mr. Pierce said.
“If someone is not comfortable in coming, I respect that,” he said. “The vast majority of people who come are not political. Some government people come — they have to keep up with Vogue and W, too.”
On a nearby street corner, tea shops have sprung up where people who have been reading or studying can relax, gossip and eat. Mr. Pierce says he regards it as the “campus.”
At midday recently, a young man carried a thick book from the library — “Nongovernmental Organizations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” — while he nursed a cup of tea. Was he nervous about coming to the center? “It’s my right to have human rights,” he said.
Despite the government’s distaste for foreign influence, the American Center is not the only place for Burmese to find things out. There is the British Council, a less sprightly equivalent, and various news media outlets.
Just after sunrise people can be seen walking around with transistor radios glued to their ears listening to shortwave broadcasts in Burmese by the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
More than two-thirds of all radio listeners said they tuned to the BBC World Service, according to a recent BBC survey.
The government also allows American and European popular culture of different sorts — often, it seems, as a diversion from declining living standards.
Ultra-law-and-order movies like “Judge Dredd,” with Sylvester Stallone, are a favorite on the television sets of tea shops, where Burmese dawdle over small cups of sweetened, milky tea.
At 2:30 a.m. one recent day, live screenings of two European soccer games — Arsenal vs. CSKA Moscow and Manchester United vs. FC Copenhagen — captivated an audience at a makeshift cinema of young men dressed in traditional sarongs, Buddhist monks in ruby-hued robes, and even women.
As vibrant as the American Center is, it is actually a relic, one of the last examples of what used to be a common and important tool in Washington’s public diplomacy. After the cold war ended, Washington closed almost all the libraries it had set up to project the ideals of the United States as a welcoming democratic nation.
At downtown city addresses in countries prominent and obscure, the libraries provided books, information on scholarships, and sometimes just quiet space to do homework or read a newspaper.
With the terrorism threat now, the libraries, if they exist at all, are usually hidden behind the walls of fortresslike American embassies that many local people feel are too forbidding to penetrate.
Even in India, the State Department has ordered the free-standing library to move, on the ground that it does not have enough security.
Here in Myanmar, the open and inviting nature of the American Center, the availability of tea just across the way and, of course, the wealth of information seem to be truly appreciated.
Just consider this note among the 40 or so on the bulletin board: “Every moment of my time spending in this library is paradise.”
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