Reid Lidow, a junior political science and international relations major in USC Dornsife, had just arrived in Burma. Raindrops were creating quite a cacophony as they pelted the tin rooftop overhead. He was starting to get concerned that the noise would block his recording device from clearly registering the conversation he was having.
That would be a less-than-ideal start to a very ambitious research trip.
In a turn of events more fortuitous than he could have imagined, the 20-year-old found himself seated across from a national icon in Burma, by spontaneous personal invitation that very afternoon when Lidow set out to try and meet with him sans appointment. Lidow was interviewing U Win Tin in his home office, where the two conversed over tea and biscuits and the sound of the rain. One of the founders of Burma’s National League for Democracy and a respected journalist, the 83-year-old spent 19 years as a political prisoner until his release in 2008.
“U Win Tin is so well-read and well-published; he was just an excellent person to frame the beginning of my research in Burma. He was like a teddy bear,” said Lidow, commenting on Win Tin’s warm personality.
The fact that this meeting even took place was the result of preparation, luck and considerable gumption on the part of Lidow. This past July, he traveled to Burma (also known as Myanmar) alone as an independent undergraduate researcher.
The class “Introduction to Asian Security Affairs” taught by Dan Lynch, associate professor of international relations in USC Dornsife, this past Spring inspired Lidow to independently travel to Burma and continue his studies on the topic.
Lidow wanted to research the Burmese political landscape at a time when the country is undergoing significant change and development. He had compiled a well-researched list of people that he wanted to talk to and set out to find them. A lack of Internet access and phone service made scheduling appointments in advance nearly impossible.
“It was basically on-the-ground scrambling for me,” he laughed.
During his two-weeks in Burma, Lidow managed to get interviews with various other officials, including the CEO of the Myanmar Book Center, a large book importer and distributer; and U Tin Oo, former Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Armed Forces and Chairman of the National League for Democracy opposition party.
“The biggest challenge was landing the interviews and getting the dialogue going,” he said. “Though it would have been easy, I could not allow myself to get scared going in there with an empty appointment book. I had to just go in and put my head down and work.”
Many interviewees gave Lidow an hour or more of their time.
“They were excited and eager to talk; they complained of a drought of academic scholarship from the U.S. in Burma,” he said. “So they wanted to talk with me.”
The undergraduate’s interviews resulted in an opinion piece he wrote about United States-Burma relations published in the Asia Sentinel newspaper. The leading newspaper of the liberal Burmese opposition, The Irrawaddy, also printed the piece.
“Sometimes even we seasoned academics can have a hard time getting our op-eds published,” Lynch said. “Reid breezed right through the process.”
This is a crucial time in Burma. In July, the Obama administration eased sanctions against the state, governed by a military junta from 1962 to 2011, and opened up channels for American investment. The first U.S. ambassador in Burma since 1990 arrived the same month. In a landmark special election in April, representatives from the National League for Democracy, including chairwoman and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, won seats in Burma’s parliament for the first time. After submitting his opinion piece to Asia Sentinel, Lidow departed on a separate trip to North Korea as part of the East-West Coalition, an educational nonprofit organization.
“When I got back, I still hadn’t heard from the Sentinel and I thought, ‘well, shucks,’ ” he said. “Then, just out of curiosity, I ‘googled’ the title of my piece, and boom! I got a hit from the Asia Sentinel. I knew that The Sentinel is partners with The Irrawaddy, so I took a look and sure enough, it was there too.”
Lidow expressed deep gratitude toward Lynch for helping him bring his research trip to fruition.
“Professor Lynch really helped me in preparing the right questions to ask,” Lidow said. “He gave me credentials that put me in Burma and steered me toward success. And success was all about the right background knowledge, the right questions and the right set of mind going in there.”
Since his opinion piece, Lidow was published again — this time in the Korea JoongAng Daily, one of the main English language papers in South Korea associated with the International Herald Tribune.
He wrote a first person account of his six-day trip to North Korea in mid-August.
“North Korea really packs an emotional punch,” Lidow said. “It hits you right in the gut. You’ve got poverty, political issues, the separation of families between the North and South. But, [being there] you get to put a face to the name of North Korea. The regime is one thing but people are another; the people are really wonderful.”
Comparisons have been drawn between contemporary North Korea and Burma as it was a decade ago, which is part of what attracted Lidow to the enigmatic state. In an independent research project, he plans to compare the two countries in part to examine how the reforms in Burma could create a potential model for future liberalization in North Korea.
“The big takeaway for me from this trip was that I’m now actually informed and able to speak passionately about these issues. This is a trip that answers very few questions and raises a tremendous amount. I’d like to go back at some point. It is such a complex area of the world.”
Read about Lidow’s experiences in North Korea in the Korea JoongAng Daily.
Listen to Reid Lidow's speech on sustainability at the USC Dornsife Campaign Launch on March 9, 2013.