When Values and Commitments Collide

8 February 2016

Myanmar (formerly Burma) is frequently in the news as people trying to escape oppression and poverty take to the seas by their hundreds in the worst of conditions and personal safety. This takes me back to 2013 when our travels took us to this beautiful but impoverished country; where we experienced not only the best and a sense of the worst of what Myanmar has to offer; but also how, on very rare occasions, our personal values and commitments so safety can collide.

The sheer magnificence of the temples, pagodas and stupas made up for frequent travel delays and frustrations; as the stunning beauty, the food and the atmosphere of ‘Welcome to Myanmar’ and most of all the people put so much into perspective. There are poor people, in a country which is only just opening to the western world, but they want to share what they have with you, be it their pride in their incredible heritage, their amazing humour, their music, their food, and their thirst for knowledge. Myanmar is overwhelmingly a Buddhist country, and the devotion to Buddha exceeded anything we had ever seen before in our international travels... and this was the seed for our values/commitments collision.

During our stay we visited a number of islands in the Myiek Archipelago, most were uninhabited and we swam to shore and planted footprints on virgin white beaches. Two islands were inhabited. The inhabitants were the Moken People, traditional sea gypsies who had travelled and lived on, and from the sea, for thousands of years. Recent government restrictions have curtailed much of their traditional lifestyle, and they now live in what we would view as very primitive conditions, while still relying on the sea, and some domestic produce, for subsistence.

Our boat owners provided basic medicines for them, and they asked for nothing more from us, money had little or no value to them. They proudly showed us their school, their homes and their temple. They also told us that they were building a new temple 300 feet up the hill from their village. Temples of course are sacred places, and the Buddhists always walk barefoot in them, a rule the Mokens also applied during the construction of the temple. We were invited to join them and see how the temple construction was progressing... dilemma... do we stay totally faithful to our commitment to safety and refuse to enter what was essentially a building site without protective footwear and safe systems... or do we apply a value of humility and join these beautiful people barefoot and share in their pride and joy? Humility won the day. We carefully made the barefoot journey up the hill and picked our way through the stones and rubble to admire the craftsmanship of the Mokens. The women and children made the same barefoot journey... with sacks of sand and piles of bricks on their heads.

The outcome was sore feet and ankles, an amazing feeling of humbleness, a connection, some understanding, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude and privilege that we had been able to share this time with them. Our commitment to safety is undiminished; but watching the news on TV takes me back to the day when humbleness had to win the day over basic common sense.

PS: Don’t let this stop you from visiting Myanmar - it is a life experience.

Also see more postings in the Risk Dimensions Blog.