Posted by: viaprograms | January 12, 2010

VIA’s Founder, Dwight Clark, Leads Burma Study Tour

In November 2009, 16 alumni and friends of VIA had the opportunity to visit Burma on a two-week study tour led by VIA’s founder, Dwight Clark. Prior to departure, participants received recommended reading material to help bring them up to speed on the current situation in Burma including the upcoming elections and current leadership. Participants in the Bay Area gathered for an informal get together a month before departure.

On Sunday, November 15, the group arrived in Singapore, where they met with experts on Burmese history and culture, became acquainted with each other and connected with Mark Nelson, a VIA alum living in Singapore. Then it was off to Yangon on Tuesday.

At the airport, the participants were met by local secondary students who would act as hosts and cultural guides for the two days in Yangon. Prior to the start of the program, the participants received email addresses for the students and were able to begin building relationships Meeting with these students and learning about their lives was highlight for some of the participants. A briefing by UNICEF staff and a visit to a local NGO introduced some of the nation’s social challenges.

The group flew to Mandalay, the historic capital and the country’s second-largest city, on Saturday, November 21. During the three days in Mandalay, the group visited one of the area’s largest monasteries where thousands of young monk study Buddhism and were able to engage in informal conversations with the monks and local students. They also met with a Buddhist priest who, in 1994, decided to build a completely free school for children whose parents couldn’t afford a public school. The school now has 7,000 students and a medical clinic. Participants met with staff of an HIV-AIDS NGO located on the school grounds. The stay included site-seeing visits to the Golden Palace Monastery, a pagoda with the world’s largest stone books and a lacquer-ware workshop to better understand the intricate process involved in producing on of the country’s best-known crafts, as well as a sunset view of the city and surrounding area.

On Tuesday, November 24, the group floated down the Irrawaddy river on a nine-hour boat trip to reach the fabled plains of Bagan, once the world center of Theravada Buddhism. A local guide introduced the participants to some of the 800-year-old temples, pagodas and stupas in the area as well as a local marketplace and a village-based toddy-palm enterprise.

The group returned to Yangon on Friday, November 27 for a final luncheon with the local students hosts before departing for Singapore. An informal reflection in Singapore preceded the group’s final flight back to San Francisco.

VIA currently has two volunteers posted in Burma. Since leaving VIA, Dwight has been leading intra-Asia tours, introducing Asian college students to other Asian cultures. In addition to a Burma trip, he leads an annual Contemporary Southeast Asia Issues tour.

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