We must all be earthworms before we can be lions: Myanmar’s struggle for transition.


“… And then you have to tell us what animal you’d like to be and why.” This question is part of the opening exercise of today’s class “Communication for change”. It is in part an icebreaker and an exercise in speaking English – but the real aim is to get to know each other better from the choice of animal.

I am currently at Chiang Mai University, coordinating a so-called training-of-trainers (TOT) at the faculty of Political Sciences, centred around good local governance topics. Our group comprises political party members, community-based organizations’ staff and – drum roll… – Myanmar government staff. Quite something!

My pick was the tiger. I picked it for its beauty, for its majestic-ness. My rationale was from a different order as it turned out. Only one participant mentioned something along the line of beauty: I want to be a rabbit, because it is soft and gentle. All others referred to characteristics of strength and the ability to have power over others. Their explanations reflected one of the major issues that Myanmar and its peoples are to overcome: that of inequality and ‘otherness’. Inequality between the 135 different ethnic groups and the big divide between followers of the different faiths. The elephant for example was picked as it is strongest of the animals.

Some of the picks like the aforementioned rabbit surprised me. “I want to be a male mosquito. It can fly and stay everywhere. It knows no life struggle.” A cow and a sheep were picked because they provide life essentials “but they cannot defend themselves.” A cat is cool, alert and active in emergencies but also seen as lazy and disliking hard work.

Most participants would want to be a lion. “Because the lion is the king.” The lion is seen as the first among all the animals and thus as the most powerful. Other characteristics attributed to it are its braveness and its ability to influence and to decide. It is seen as invincible. Carnivore eats others alive. Being a lion has its drawbacks too. People “fear you. It is difficult to organize things”, complicating the fact that democracy requires cooperation, compromise and civic participation

Other people wanted to be a bird. One said sparrow: “it is so nice”. But others would rather be an eagle. An eagle can fly higher than anyone. It can see all things and, consequently, can supervise (read: be in control). On the downside, an eagle cannot see details. Some participants wanted to be a dog, because of its faithful character and tendency to protect. Some chose it because they wanted to help others; others because “I want to serve my master”.

One lady picked the earthworm. For the first time ever in the trainer’s career did she hear this animal mentioned. It spikes everyone’s interest. The explanation for this choice is as straightforward as it is sobering: an earthworm can eat soil. In other words, it slowly but surely makes its way forward, it is not to be stopped by foreign objects in the soil that need to be gone around. It’s a metaphor for the struggle this ethnic woman sees lying ahead of herself, her people, and all in Myanmar. The road to democracy will be long, windy, and with many obstacles to be overcome. Perseverance will be an indispensable trait.

We’re almost another year on in Myanmar’s transition process that started in early 2011. The momentum is still there, perhaps picking up pace a little every day. Things are going a few steps forward and some back.

Divisions continue to run deep. Old habits die hard. But every time a participant steps out of his/her comfort zone my hope-o-meter pings in delight and adds another bar.

We must all be earthworms before we can be lions.

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