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THE STATE OF THE GAME

Stranded in Burma
By Daniel Tonnesen

He's your only chance for a bit of magic. He's the guy you watch. Whether he's at bat, on the bases, or in the field, your attention is sucked to him. You can't help it.

He goes from first to third on a routine single, not even thinking about stopping at second. When he hits, he'll turn a single into a double and a double into a home run. In the field, he's got that Latin liquid out there. The way he moves to a groundball, the way it settles in his glove just long enough to be swept back to his throwing arm, the rifle shot to first, and then the hop he makes when heaving it around the infield after he throws the runner out has the essence of sweet Dominican about it. The guy can flat out play. So why aren't they lining up to sign him?

Because he isn't Dominican.

He plays his ball in Burma (Myanmar), and the nearest scout is three thousand miles away looking for the next Ichiro. The best he can do is to ply his magic in the Rangoon International Softball League (RISL) against the likes of me. With us, your hopes for entertainment lie in humor: the optimistic dive for a ball that might have been caught a decade ago but probably not; the headfirst slide into third that lands with a soft plop six inches short of the bag. You see a hand reaching like the fins on a fish out of water as the tag is applied and the runner comes up spitting dirt; then you laugh harder and sip on a beer. That's what he's got to work with. It's like Picasso growing up in the Maldives and spending his life arranging seashells.

Maung Maung Tin is thirty-one years old. He first picked up a glove at ten to play softball at the American Club. He played in the Little League organized by American parents working at the diplomatic mission in Rangoon (now called Yangon). His father, U Chan Tun, was a driver for the embassy and the kids of local staff were invited to play. Twenty-one years later, where are those American kids? They're not stuck in Burma. But could any of them throw this kid out taking that extra base?

When he was sixteen, Maung Maung played his first RISL season on the same field at the American Club where we now hang out, eat burgers, and watch each other flounder away on the diamond. His first year was spent playing in right on a team of Burmese players that his father organized. At seventeen, the year after he finished school, he was home at shortstop. He's been there now for fourteen years. A year and a half ago, just before his thirtieth birthday, Maung Maung picked up a real baseball for the first time.

 

We sit together in the dugout. Maung Maung's eyes are dark brown and soft, set in a thin face with full lips and a pencil-thin mustache. He is a small man but does not seem like it when you watch him play. As we talk in English he is unsure, and it seems difficult to believe that this is the same ferocious and supremely confident competitor that I see on the field. To add to his Caribbean look, he's got the dark skin of his South Indian Tamil roots. He can still speak the language of his roots. The waves of Indian immigration to Burma began after the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824. The British brought them in as dockworkers, then laborers in the rice fields, and then to the rubber plantations. Traders in Indian labor made huge profits. Many of these were Indians. Amitav Ghosh explains it in his novel The Glass Palace:

 

Baburao welcomed everyone to the shade of the tree. Once the crowd was thick and deep he began to talk in the reverential manner of a reciter of The Ramayana. He spoke of a land of gold, Burma, which the British Sarker had declared to be a part of India. He pointed to the tasseled shawl that hung around his neck and invited his listeners to touch it with his fingers; he held up his hand so that everyone could see his gold and ruby rings. All of this, said Baburao, had come from Burma, the golden land. Before going there, he had had nothing, not even a goat or cow. And all of these can be yours too . . . all you need is an able bodied man to put his thumbprint on this piece of paper.

 

So, they went. The recruiters toured India and offered free passage to the Golden Land in exchange for their labor. The men who bought the contracts from the recruiters did not keep great records, and a serious system of bonded servitude resides in the past of many Burmese Tamils. Perhaps not much different from the family histories of many a Dominican shortstop.

Maung Maung has worked as a taxi driver and carpenter to pay the bills. He has no wife or family. But for lunch money, bus fare, and a "physical potential" stipend, he now plays baseball for a living. Or at least he practices seven hours a day, six days a week. I ask him, "If you don't have baseball, you've got to go to work?" He nods.

"They are feeling happy to focus their dream," Hitomi Iwasaki says to me as we sit in the dugout she helped make happen. "Happy is important, don't you think so?" U-Law, a Japanese NGO (Non Governmental Organization) is footing most of the bill for Maung Maung and his teammates. Mrs. Iwasaki is the country rep. The rest of the money comes from Lions Clubs of Japan, local charitable organizations, and the pocket of director Hitomi and her husband, Toru. They are also donating their time.

Mr. Iwasaki has dedicated his life to international public service. He began his twelve-year UN career with the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) in New York, then spent the next three years with the Japanese development agency JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) as a country rep. Now he has dedicated one year to this commitment. A downward career spiral?

He loves it. His hands are dirty. His main responsibility is the coaching—the building of a diehard team spirit and daily hitting of fungoes and groundballs. Hitomi runs the office.

While Toru was working with UNDCP in the French Congo, Hitomi, who is trained as a nutritionist, got involved with primate conservation. She learned a lot about dealing with third world governments and how to

get things done.

With a budget that adds up to a fraction of what a minor leaguer will make in a year, the Iwasakis have a dream to promote baseball as a means for self-improvement and as a way to fight drug addiction in Burma. "We are supporting the dream of youth. Some are resilient to drug abuse; others are not. Why? They respect selves. Love of Mother does that. Sports too."

Maung Maung's skills are central to their plans of getting support from the Myanmar Ministry of Sport. The Iwasakis hope to send a baseball team to a Southeast Asian competition before their one-year commitment ends. They told me there are teams out there. The support from the ministry is no easy task, given that the government loathes taking any risks and is financially strapped. Government bureaucrats sit in dimly lit offices under fans that may or may not work, depending on the electricity supply and if their offices are near the residence of an important general. They don't make waves. They try to keep their jobs. Very little happens in this country without the direct approval of some bigwig, so progress is measured in very small increments. Supporting a sport perceived as uniquely American does not exactly encourage cooperation.

United States-Burmese relations are strained. A few years ago, Larry Craner, State Department Assistant Secretary, said in a speech, "[W]e are disappointed and frustrated by the recalcitrance of the SPDC [State Peace and Restoration Council]. . . . Our patience for progress in political transition is running out and we, along with the UK and others, are considering all options, including further sanctions." (Further U.S. sanctions were imposed in August of 2002.)

Before WWII, Burma exported as much as 3.5 tons of rice per year. It is a land with tremendous natural gifts. Its rubies and jade are said to be the finest in the world. Unfortunately, most of the profits from this mono crop culture went to the British. After the war, Burma gained independence from Great Britain, but political instability reigned for over a decade until General Ne Win took over the country in a military coup in 1962. His "Burmese path to socialism" devastated the country and padded a lot of green-khaki pockets. By 1987, the year Maung-Maung first played an RISL game, Burma was one of the ten poorest countries in the world. All that potential.

In 1988 the people of Burma rebelled and were brutally shot down in the streets in a bloodbath which predates that of China's Tiananmen massacre by a year. That event continues to intimidate people here on a daily basis. In 1990, the regime greatly underestimated its people and conducted a democratic election in full confidence that they would win. Instead, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 of the 485 contested seats. The regime barred the elected officials from taking office until a new constitution could be written. Then they put Suu Kyi under house arrest.

The regime renamed the country Myanmar, but Suu Kyi and the NLD refused to accept this change and that is why the United States, in a show of support to her, continues to call Myanmar by its colonial name, Burma. (This is also why the league which has showcased Maung-Maung's talents is the RISL, for Rangoon, and not the YISL, for Yangon.)

I asked Maung Maung about the political events of 1988-1990. "What were you doing?" He laughed. "Playing softball."

He's never played in a baseball game, only the mutated version that takes place on a softball field. But he likes to win, so he trades in the baseball once a week for the inflated, lobbed softball, moves to our field that has more quirky dimensions than Fenway, and tests his mettle in seven-inning contests against a clownish international array of weekend warriors. Nine teams in all. Instead of a Joe Frazier to awaken the greatness of Ali, he's got a snaggly-toothed hillbilly who thinks Kentucky basketball should be above the law; an ex-cricket player who brings the bat with him to first base; and me, a guy who retired at age twelve after his last campaign as a utility infielder with Frank's Pharmacy. Hardly the material to inspire the hero's journey.

In the first year before getting sponsorship to play baseball, Maung Maung's softball team was called the Panthers. The Panthers practiced a special type of sportsmanship. They laughed when opponents dropped balls. They never swung at a pitch when a poor old sod was having trouble hitting the black mat strike zone. They laughed at fat guys digging out a base hit, and Maung Maung's natural leadership qualities were no exception here. He laughed hardest and he laughed first. It is funny; it's just not something that people of my tribe publicly laugh at. Maung Maung loved it. It was a Sunday afternoon and he had a good time. He would get in your face, say "No batta, no batta," then run down a flyball in left field that he had no right to catch. Sometimes he caught it behind his back. With the very ease with which he nullified your best efforts, he insulted you. He was good. His competitiveness is something that you'd like to make a tincture out of to sell at Wal-Mart. If you could make him a team player, he'd be great. This is what Mr. Iwasaki is doing.

Sports and traffic consciousness are the two areas where the Burmese people, so generous and gentle in all other things, turn carnivorous. A game involving two Burmese teams will turn into a taunt fest by the opening pitch. This style of trash talk is not ours and makes us foreigners mad on the softball field. We're bringing our ideas of good sportsmanship into Burma and behind the guarded gates of the American Club expect them to abide. It just doesn't happen. The fact that he is so good doesn't help any. A guy who laughs at you, then takes an extra base while you waddle after a dropped ball does not inspire love.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2004 issue.

—EFQ

 

DANIEL TONNESEN is a teacher of language arts and social studies to middle school kids. He has been an international educator in Sri Lanka, Burma, and now South Africa, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a lifelong Giants fan, and as a kid once rode in Willie Mays's pink Cadillac with "Say Hey" on the license plate.

© 2004 Daniel Tonnesen

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