December 26-30th, 2006
Memories of Burma/Myanmar
By Lois Joy
“Kiss softly at first. The surface can be sensuous, sweet and luscious,
but under the surface lurks vicious, needle-sharp danger.” In his book,
“Land of a Thousand Eyes,” Peter Olszewski describes the lush
green-leafed kiss me softly plant that hides one-inch thorns, a perfect analogy
to life in Yangon, Burma. I was intrigued. I had to go there and see it for
Since I needed to have a stamp in my passport by December 28th, I would have to leave Phuket, Thailand to make another VISA run. After the dawn-to-dusk VISA run to Burma the previous month, I knew what I did not want to do: herded onto a bus to Ranong, Thailand, ferried across the Pak Chan bay to Burma, dumped into a long immigrations line in the mid-day sun, herded again back to the ferry with the precious in & out stamp. We saw the crisp $100 bills changing hands. The twenty-minute Visa, they call it. I’d been there, done that; there had to be a better way. So I jumped through bureaucratic hoops to get a legitimate 30-day tourist Visa, stating “retired” as my occupation. Writers, photographers, and journalists are not welcome there.
December 26, 0800: As I wait in the lounge of the Phuket airport, my knees shake with anxiety and trepidation, while my head swells with excitement and anticipation. I will board a flight to Yangon (previously Rangoon) in less than an hour. By the end of the day, I will be in a country of river plains historically hid from the world by rising mesh curtains of misty, mysterious mountains; a country of intrigue and a long history of bloodshed, “voodoo socialism,” and repression of the peoples; a place where—in royal times—princesses were strangled and princes sewn into velvet sacks and “gently” beaten to death with paddles.
In a chilling precursor to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China a year later, hundreds, maybe thousands, of students and protesters were methodically slaughtered during September of 1988 (see sidebar). After the bloodbath, a new junta was formed, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which still runs the country. The rightful head, Aung San Suu Kyi, a beautiful modern day princess elected by 80% of the populace, languishes under house arrest, where she’s been for 11 of the last 17 years, since her election in 1990. An elegant women whom the locals still call “the lady,” she is a perpetual thorn in the side of the ruling military junta.
Yangon had been a sad symbol of the decline brought about by the dysfunctional dictatorial regime of General Ne Win. Stories claim that he bathed in dolphin blood while he turned a once prosperous nation into perhaps the worst economic disaster of all of Southeast Asia. Yangon is a strange, yet dignified city that reportedly welcomes tourists. In three weeks, paid hotel receipt in hand, I was able to get a one-month VISA through Green Travel (located in the hallway, next to KFC, at Robinson’s in Phuket-Town). Yangon was the capital—and is still considered the capital by most of the world—but recently the junta built a new capital in the mountainous jungle of the interior. Perhaps they feel protected there, but no one wants to follow them into a dismal hibernation. The embassies are all in Yangon; Thailand has just spent millions of bahts to complete a new one there.
Yes, I can imagine what you all are thinking. In my story, “Flatlining” I told you that I’ve had enough of always “living on the edge.” So why am I traveling to Myanmar—and on my own yet—since Gunter’s not interested in visiting a repressed country? First, I have an irrepressible curiosity to find out how people live under a brutally repressive regime. Second, it’s possible. I have my VISA. Third, I have an implacable writer’s urge to tell their story. My flight for Bangkok is called. I am on my way.
At the new Bangkok Airport, I walk and ride moving sidewalks in modern metallic
tunnels for miles, it seems, until I come to a terminal way at the end of
the hangars for Yangon. I have two hours to wait, but the clerks at the gate
look at my boarding pass and assure me that I am at the right gate. Seated
on the high tech chrome mesh seats, I wonder at the man across from me; he
has such a vacant dullard-like stare. I focus on writing in my journal. The
noise level increases and the seats are filling up. I hear a lot of chatter
that sounds like Chinese. Strange. All of a sudden, most of the group rises
to form a line.
“Why they are all leaving when no flight has been called?” I ask a smart-looking Asian businessman with an attaché case at his side.
“Oh, they just see the plane on the tarmac and begin to crowd already; but I’m sitting because all the passengers have to disembark and that will take some time,” he answers in perfect English.
I look at the plane through the floor-to-ceiling glass. It is not Thai Airways. I turn to the businessman. “Where are you going?”
“Singapore, of course.”
“But this is the gate D6 for Yangon.”
“This is gate D6, but for Singapore. They could have changed it. Better check.”
My heart is in my mouth. I rush toward the attendants. “You told me this was the gate for Yangon when I entered.”
“Now back at Gate D1. Don’t worry; not boarded yet.” I rush back the long walkway, up and down steps to the first gate, heart pounding and mouth dry. The lounge is still full of passengers, even though the boarding time has passed. The sign as I enter says Yangon. I explain why I’m late. The attendant wonders why I am upset that the new gate was never announced. “We haven’t boarded yet,” she says calmly and smiles. I sit down on another chrome mesh chair across from a bored man who is staring vacantly into space. I recognize him as the man I was sitting across from at the previous gate. When did he leave and how did he know the gate was changed? I wonder. Perhaps he’s not retarded, after all! “Better not get too caught up in my writing,” I warn myself.
“Welcome to Royal Orchid Service…please place your hand luggage
underneath the seat in front of you…” I am relieved to be finally
seated on Thai Airways Flight 202 to Yangon. I smile at the purple-and-lavender
orchid design of the seats, the deep purple of the carpets and pillows. Orchids,
my favorite flower, along with purple, my favorite color. Good omens. The
slender flight attendants greet the passengers, looking smart in their fuchsia
blouses and pencil-slim purple skirts, wine-and-purple scarves around their
necks, thick dark hair pulled back into buns with pert black bows. After we
take off, one of them greets me with a broad Thai smile and asks me whether
I want red or white wine. I am leaving the familiar Land of Smiles for five
days and entering the Land of a Thousand Eyes, where I haven’t a clue
what to expect. It never ceases to amaze me how one can merely hop on a jet,
rise above the clouds wrapped in a cocoon of steel, and land in a completely
different country and culture.
I sit back and read a Review of 2006 in the Bangkok Post. The new Bangkok airport opened less than three months ago is already overloaded; they are talking about using the old one as a commuter terminal. The article lists a litany of complaints. The September coup is rehashed. In Thailand, a military junta has also taken control, but that is different than in Burma; they had to because the duly elected Thaksin administration had become corrupt. And besides, the junta had the tacit approval of the King! They do plan elections, perhaps in October of 2007 after the new constitution has been drafted. In Southeast Asia, I’m finding that democracy has shallow roots.
I go back to reading the Review. In November of 2006, the Bank of Thailand announced capital controls to stem the rise in its currency, the baht, only to partially rescind them the following day, after the market dropped 15%, a record one-day fall for the Thai Stock Exchange. The editorials have not been kind.
And what will the government-censored Myanmar Times have to say about their year? Will it be similar to the China and Vietnam censored press, or will it be even worse?
Lunch is served. I lift up the aluminum foil, expecting a Thai meal. To my surprise, we have pork roast, spaezle, and green beans with mushrooms for lunch. This could be Lufthansa! But no, before we disembark, we all receive an orchid corsage. A cute, elderly Japanese couple shares my row. She says “tank you” as she attaches the orchid to her floppy hat while he attaches his to his baseball cap.
Customs is long, hot and involved with three forms to fill out upon arrival. I pick up my baggage from the lone carousel at the dilapidated airport that is painted green and gray, like army barracks. My Burmese guide, Stevin, from Dieter Travel is there to meet me. He has an air-conditioned car and driver. So far, so good.
We drive to the Dusit Inya Lake Resort, about 10 minutes from the airport and half-way to downtown Yangon. As in most Southeast Asian resorts, I am seated in the hotel lounge and offered a juice drink, while a clerk comes to me to fill in the forms. The outside of the huge hotel is off-white, imposing, but somewhat austere. Later, I find that it was built by the Russians during the “socialist” era. The lobby is tastefully furnished in gold and ecru, with wicker and rattan furniture. It is quite grand, with many conversation areas, and—surprisingly—a Christmas tree and Gingerbread House at the entrance to the elevators. I am pleased as punch with my room: spacious, with a king-size bed, a writing desk, and a seating area facing the TV. Maroon drapes frame patio doors running the length of the suite, with a billowing white curtain in the center. A complimentary pint of Mandalay Rum sets on top of the mini-bar, which contains Myanmar’s own brand of coke and soft drinks for $1 each. TV stations include a local Myanmar station and a Japanese station as well as CNN, BBC, ESPN, Discovery, and a movie station with English movies and/or subtitles. The closet contains slippers and robes to use and plenty of wooden hangers (not attached to the pole, for a change). And the bath has a huge six-foot tub.
After a late afternoon nap, I take a walk around part of Lake Inya. The hotel
complex is set on 37 acres, and has curving walking paths around part of the
Lake, one leading to a gazebo with a great sunset view. Lake Inya is five
times larger than the popular Lake Kandawgyi, but it is mostly hidden from
view; a walk or drive around the perimeter reveals only that something is
probably on the other side of the earthen berms. The lake stretches Pyay Road
to the west and Kaba Aye Pagoda Road to the east. Certain areas are off limits
to the general public, occupied by state guesthouses and ministerial mansions.
Reportedly, the U.S. is building a new embassy on this lake. Before the reclusive
dictator Ne Win died in 2002, he resided on one end of the lake while Aung
San Suu Kyi resided on the other. For years before his death, Win and Kyi
resided like powerful Nat locked in a battle of wills. “The Lady”
still lives there, at No. 54, under house arrest (see sidebars).
While my thoughts turn to Burma’s tumultuous past, what I see is a bucolic scene: fishermen on shore and in canoes, rowers from the club across the lake, birds swooping down for fish. I’m carrying my SLR camera with interchangeable lens and snap away happily until the sun drops—a deep-orange ball that doubles on the shimmering surface. I watch the unfolding drama from one of the teak-and-wicker chairs set on a gazebo along the path, the only person there. I am at peace. I pray to my God for the people of Burma.
I go to my 5th floor room and then downstairs to eat in the main dining room. It is quiet and low key, filled with families and couples, half of them western, the other half Asian. The stairs to the balcony are festooned with green, gold and red brocade with a small Christmas tree leading up to the stage. Orchids abound throughout the room. On my table is a centerpiece—an artificial poinsettia with a red candle. I order from the Burmese section of the menu; it is similar to Thai, but less spicy.
December 27: The City Tour. A buffet breakfast is included with my room.
A white-capped chef expertly flips omelets, next to trays of bacon and sausage,
pan fried potatoes, and an array of fresh fruits and pastry. For the Asians,
there’s rice porridge, noodles and stir-fries. A misty morning view
of Inya Lake greets us. Determined rowers in long canoes criss-cross the lake,
paddles in sync, reminding me of the rowing club at home in San Diego on Sail
At 0830, I meet Stevin in the lobby for the city tour. We drive past a street with white-helmeted soldiers and sawhorse barricades. “That’s Suu Kyi’s house,” Stevin says. “Don’t point your camera.”
“I am surprised that people are walking through.”
“Yes, they are residents of this street along Lake Inya. When they get to her house, they have to detour to the next street; they cannot even walk past.” We talk about her for awhile. “We call her ‘the lady,’ he says. “We all respect and like her very much.”
“How long do you think she will be under house arrest?”
“I think something will happen soon. They are fixing up the front of her house. Why would they do that if there weren’t going to be some TV cameras there?”
Rumors abound in Myanmar and hope springs eternal.
Farther along, I do stick my telephoto out the van window to catch a group of monks going out on their morning alms rounds. There are as many as 500,000 monks in Myanmar and over 50,000 monastic communities, called kyaung. Every Myanmar male is expected to takes up temporary monastic residence twice in his life: once as a samanera (novice monk) between the ages of 10 and 20, and again as an hpongyi (fully ordained monk) sometime after the age of 20. “This isn’t always followed here in the city, says Stevin. Many of these boys you see here are from the countryside. Their families have great merit and prestige when their sons take up the robe and the bowl.”
Everything a monk owns must be offered up by the lay community. Every morning you see them out on the streets to collect their alms (food) which must be eaten on that day. Upon ordination, a monk is offered three robes: lower, inner and outer. In Myanmar, the robes are maroon; in other countries, they tend toward orange or saffron. A monk is allowed to possess a razor, a cup, a filter (for keeping insects out of the drinking water), an umbrella, and an alms bowl.
A few minutes later, we arrived at the famous Schwedagon Paya, as much as
a must-see in Yangon as the Eiffel Tower of Paris and the Statue of Liberty
in New York. But unlike the monuments of those western cities, claims the
Lonely Planet, Myanmar, the majority of the pilgrims are locals, and its meaning
is deeply religious; it proudly stands for the ancient and timeless. It amazed
me how entwined this magnificent holy place is in the hustle and bustle of
the city, its great golden stupa dominating the skyline from every high place.
Rudyard Kipling called this great bell-shaped temple “a golden mystery…a
beautiful winking wonder.” The temple is the most sacred of all the
Buddhist sites in the country, one which all Burmese hope to visit at least
once in their lifetime. The great golden dome rises 98 meters above its base.
According to legend, the stupa is 2500 years old, but archeologists suggest
that it was built sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries. With numerous
earthquakes, its current form dates back to 1769.
“It contains 60 tons of gold,” says Stevin as we enter. More is being added every year by pilgrims who purchase a sheet of gold leaf and add more to the base. I did the same. It becomes sort of a rite of passage.
As I walk through the Paya, I watch the worshippers, the many flowers and other offerings placed at various Buddhas and other statues. The brightness of the rising sun on the gold is awesome!
I come across a nun who is bowing to the ground many times. “Wait and watch,” says Stevin. “After praying for her wishes to be granted, she will lift this stone, which will become light as a feather.” I motion to her, asking permission to take photos. She nods her assent. Then I silently wait, as she bows, prays, and then lifts the stone.
In Myanmar, the women who live the monastic life as dasasila (10-precept
nuns) are often called thilashin (possessors of morality). They shave their
heads, as the nun in this photo, and wear pink robes, and take similar vows
upon ordination. Nunhood isn’t considered as prestigious as monkhood,
mainly because nuns do not perform ceremonies and they keep only 10 precepts,
the number observed by male novices.
Gaining my courage, I ask a young novice to pose for me as well. Then I decide to add some more gold to the Paya. So I purchase a paper of gold leaf and apply it to one of the many Buddha statues. After that, we see yet another Buddha, this one reclining with smaller attendant Buddhas around it. As I leave the grounds, I take another look at the very top of the stupa. It glows golden against the deep blue of the sky, a wonderful heritage for the Burmese people.
Next, we drive to the Chaukhtatgyi Paya. We enter a large, metal roofed shed, not that attractive, but the inside is worth seeing: a huge reclining Buddha almost as enormous as the one in Bago, but not as well known. On some days, fortune tellers on the surrounding platform offer astrological and palm readings. What amazed me were the huge feet at the narrow end of the figure, replete with what must have been an early type of reflexology.
At a viewpoint from the park along the eastern shore of Kandawgyi (Royal Lake), I take a photo of a reinforced concrete reproduction of the Royal Barge. Called the Karaweik (Sanskrit for garuda)—the legendary bird-mount of the Hindu god Vishnu—many of the locals deride it as a monstrous creation of the government, but it has become an attraction in its own right.
Our next stop: the National Museum, established in 1952, but never opened
until 1996. It is an imposing five-story building with 200,000 square feet
of exhibit space. Cavernous and not well labeled, it is somewhat drab and
depressing. The government could well put some money into it, for it is filled
with wonderful treasures of the Burmese. The 8-meter high Lion Throne of the
last Burmese king is most impressive, about 150 years old, made of Yamanay
wood and gilded in gold. Taken to Kolkata for display there, it was returned
to Myanmar upon its independence in 1948. There is quite a bit of other royal
regalia, plundered by the British but returned. “You’ll find the
best of the Burmese collection still in the U.K, in London’s Victoria
and Albert Museum,” says Stevin. Examples of Burmese 19th century woodcarving,
archeological finds, old maps, and a display of traditional musical instruments
fill the upper floors. Wonderful oil paintings hang on bare plaster walls
in semi-darkness. The fourth floor, called the “Showroom for the Culture
of National Races” was most interesting; about 40 mannequins are dressed
in the various ethnic groups of the country.
Officially, the population of Myanmar (not including Chinese, Nepalese, Indian and other groups) is divided into eight nationalities—the Bamar (Burmese) Shan, Mon, Kayin, Kayah, Chin, Kachin and Rakhaing—but the government then divides these into 67 subgroups. The Burmese make up 68% of the country, and not surprisingly, are the rulers. From the top military generals to the tri-shaw drivers, the Burmese believe that being Buddhist is a key aspect of being Burmese, so the Myanmar media reports daily on the merit making of top officials who visit the country’s Buddhist places of worship. The Burmese language is the language of instruction in all schools. Non-Bamars speak Burmese as a second language.
The sarongs, turbans, and other ethnic styles of dress are prevalent— even on the streets of Yangon. For example, most men wear longyi (sarong-like lower garments); only the boys tend to wear t-shirts and slacks or jeans. The Chin State borders India and Bangladesh. Their women wear poncho-like garments woven with intricate geometric patterns. Their tattoos are amazing; they cover most of the face, starting just above the bridge of the nose and radiating out like a spider web. Even the eyelids are tattooed. The Kachin have mostly adopted western clothes that adapt to harsh seasonal extremes, but the men’s longyi is a colorful indigo, green, and deep-purple plaid. During festivals, the women wear finely woven diamond-patterned skirts and dark blouses festooned with silver medallions and tassels. The Kayah (Red Karen) settled in a mountainous area that is completely closed off to travelers. A significant number now live in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. The Kayin (also known as Karen) are 7% of the population of Myanmar, but they are divided into numerous subgroups, and therefore, do not achieve the cohesion needed for political clout. Some are Christian and others, Buddhist. Both men and women wear longyi with horizontal stripes. The Mon were one of the early inhabitants of Myanmar and their rule stretched into what is now Thailand. They were gradually conquered by neighboring kingdoms. During the pre-colonial period, Mon Buddhist sites—including Yangon’s Schwedagon Paya—were appropriated by the Bamar, who also borrowed their taste in art and architecture. The Naga are settled mostly in the mountainous region of eastern India known as Nagaland, but some also live on the Myanmar side of the border. When the British arrived in the 19th century, the Naga were a fearsome collection of tribes practicing headhunting and for many decades, they managed to resist British rule. During WWI, the British recruited 17,000 of these warriors to fight in Europe, which created a feeling of camaraderie, uniting these tribes into an independence movement. During festivals, the men wear ceremonial headdresses made up of feathers, tufts of hair and cowry shells, and carry wicked spears—a fierce look that is African, Amazonian, and Polynesian all rolled into one. The Rakhaing, in a state bordering Bangladesh—are a “Creole” race—a mixture of Bamar and Indian—and have borrowed culture from the Indian subcontinent. Most are Buddhist; a minority are Muslims. Skilled weavers, their longyi are intricate and eye-catching. The Shan (a Bamar word derived from Siam) call themselves Tai, and in fact, are related to the Thai populations in neighboring Thailand, Laos and China’s Yunnan province. At one time, they fought the Bamar for control. Today, they make up 9% of the population. Traditionally, they wore baggy trousers and floppy, wide-brimmed sun hats, but now the town-dwellers dress in longyi. Shan women are admired throughout Myanmar for their beauty and light complexions.
You may have heard of the ‘wild wa’ as headhunters in books about British colonial days. The Wa decorated their villages with the severed heads of vanquished enemies to placate the spirits that guarded their opium fields. (Apparently, they only stopped the practice in the 1970s.) The upper Salween River in northern Shan State was never completely pacified by the British. Nowadays rumors abound of the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army, supposedly highly militarized producers of opium and methamphetamine. They often make headlines in neighboring Thailand, due to border skirmishes.
We leave the museum early afternoon. I have absorbed what I can; now all I can think about is food.
Stevin told me yesterday that he would be my “banker” until we could exchange money on the black market. Before lunch, he makes his transaction. The black market rate through contacts at the restaurant is 1,200 kyat (pronounced chat) to one U.S. dollar. If we had searched out a money changer downtown, we could have obtained today’s rate of 1,079 kyat. “I never can understand how it works,” says Stevin, but the ‘going rate’ changes daily. There are three rates here in Yangon,” he explains, “the government rate—which no-one uses unless they have to—7 kyat to the dollar; the official rate, 450 kyat; and then the black market rate. Don’t change over $20 at a time. In most places, you can use American dollars.” Our waitress brought my kyat in a beautiful lacquered jar.
As we consume rice with chicken and vegetables—not as spicy as Thai—Stevin
explains more of the strange financial machinations that the Burmese face.
For example, the government discourages long distance calls by charging $1,500
for a Myanmar SIM card for a cell phone, available to officials only; on the
black market, they cost $3,500. “How do you manage?” I ask. “I
see you using one.”
“I have to, for my business, so I rent one from the military for $50 per month. An international call is about $5 per minute additional, but a local call is only 15 kyat.”
On the way back to our hotel, we stop at a gas station and I learn more: the petrol through the government is 30 octane; Stevin buys 90 octane, which runs better. It is $2.75 per gallon. His ‘90s vintage Toyota Corolla cost him $40,000. The 2004 Nissan Ultima I own could be imported for about $70,000-$100,000. A 2006 would be out of sight. A year 2000, four-wheel drive Land cruiser would cost about $400,000. Stevin points out WWII vintage trucks still on the road. “Everyone who manages to buy a car here becomes a mechanic because there are very few parts and as you can see, our cars are very old. Expensive, because of the high import tax. Even so, new cars can be obtained. I have seen a government official in a $250,000 Mercedes Benz.”
He goes on to inform me that there are no motorcycles allowed in the city of Yangon, because of the government’s fear of snipers. “I thought the top guys moved to a new capital in the interior.”
“There are still plenty of them here in the city. They think it is easy to shoot from a motorcycle.” Yangon is so different from Hanoi or Saigon, where the cycles gather at stoplights en masse. Here the residents here mostly walk or use pedicabs, peddle-driven side carts.
“How many military total?” I ask Stevin.
“About 400,000. That’s a lot for a population of 60 million. About 11-12% of the population of Myanmar live here in Yangon. 70% of the Burmese live off agriculture. Because business is so difficult here, there are not that many jobs available for them in the city.”
“So this country is not so crowded then.”
“About 70 people per square mile, compared to 940 in neighboring Bangladesh—only Yangon and Mandalay have lots of people.”
I’m happy to go back to my room to digest all that I’ve seen and heard. I turn on BBC to catch up on the world news. Then, my head in a daze, I take a nap before going out again to explore the area around the hotel.
I pass by a group of boys playing a game similar to volleyball but with a smaller ball that they kick around or hit with their heads. Later, I check it out in Lonely Planet Burma. The game is chinlon, called “cane ball” in Burmese English. The ball is 12cm in diameter, made of woven rattan. In the casual version, any number of players can form a circle and keep the chinlon airborne by kicking it soccer style from player to player; there is no scoring. In formal play, six players stand in a circle with a 22-foot circumference. Each player must keep the ball in the air using a succession of 30 techniques and 6 surfaces on the foot and leg, allowing five minutes for each part. Each successful kick scores a point, while points are subtracted for using the wrong body part or dropping the ball. The version I watched, using the net, uses the same rules as in volleyball, but only the feet and head are allowed to touch the ball.
I head toward the Lake Inya path again; this time I’m using my telephoto lens. I sit in the gazebo to watch the golden orb disappear into the lake. An army band from the base nearby plays a Burmese version of taps.
BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Should tourists go to Burma?
In the last of a series of articles from inside Burma, the BBC's Kate McGeown
asks whether tourism helps or hinders the local people. It has golden pagodas, beautiful beaches and welcoming people who badly need a better income.
It also has a repressive military regime accused of serious human rights abuses,
and a detained opposition leader who has repeatedly urged people not to visit.
So should tourists go to Burma, or is it better to stay away?
According to Burma Campaign UK, which lobbies for human rights and democracy in the country, the decision is obvious. "Once people know what the issues are, they invariably choose not to go," said Mark Farmaner, a spokesman for the group.
“We don't believe the benefits of travel outweigh the disadvantages.” Richard Trillo, Rough Guides spokesman "It's impossible to go there and not give money to the government. From the
moment your plane hits the tarmac, you're lining the military's pockets." In fact, according to Mr Farmaner, Burma is unique in that many of its human rights abuses are directly connected to the military's decision to promote tourism.
"Much of the country's tourist infrastructure is developed by the use of forced
labour," he said. "People have been made to construct roads, airports and hotels, and thousands more have been forcibly relocated to make way for tourist
areas." It is because of the close link between the tourist industry and the government
that Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house
arrest, has on several occasions asked tourists to stay away from Burma. "Tourism to Burma is helping to prolong the life of one of the most brutal and destructive regimes in the world," she told reporters once. "Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime."
But the problem is that, on the ground, many local people are extremely glad to
see foreign visitors. "It's very difficult," one tour guide said. "I really respect Aung San Suu Kyi, and I understand why she wants a boycott, but then we desperately need tourists' money here - not just for me but for other people too."
Even people not employed by the tourist industry seemed genuinely happy to see me during my trip. Arriving there, I was greeted by an elderly man who thanked me for coming - a remark which was repeated throughout my trip. Many people were anxious to ask about life outside the country - not just about politics but literature, art and, of course, football.
Others said they wanted foreigners to understand what was happening in Burma -
which a steady stream of politically conscious tourists will undoubtedly help to do.
It's the best place I've ever been to
Emma Smale, tourist to Burma . One BBC News website user, Emma Smale, had a similar reception when she visited Burma with her boyfriend last year.
"The people were so nice and friendly, and we were always well-received. I think
they definitely wanted us there," she said.
"Once they were confident enough to speak to us, they were also really interested in asking about life outside their own country."
Ms Smale made sure she was well-informed about the issue before making her
decision to travel to Burma. "I definitely respect what Aung San Suu Kyi said, but I felt I had to see the place for myself," she said. Ms Smale does not regret her decision to go. "It's the best place I've ever been to," she said. "It's had a huge influence on me."
There are compelling arguments either way, and the subject even divides the
publishers of some of the world's best-known guide books. Lonely Planet has made the decision to publish a guide to Burma because it believes its role is to provide balanced information so travellers can reach their own conclusions.
"We can ensure people know the facts so they can make an informed decision,"
said spokesman Stephen Palmer. "We can also advise people so they can minimise the money they give to the government, and maximise the amount that goes to ordinary people."
But critics say that by publishing in the first place, Lonely Planet is encouraging tourists to visit the country. The Rough Guides travel company has taken a different stance, choosing not to
publish a book on Burma until the political situation improves. "We don't believe the benefits of travel outweigh the disadvantages, so we actively encourage people not to go," said spokesman Richard Trillo.
The debate goes on. But whatever governments, campaigners and tour agents have to say on the matter, the decision is ultimately up to you.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/06/19 23:48:56 GMT
© BBC MMVII
Sidebar: 2 Myanmar Is Left in Dark
© New York Times
November 17, 2006
Myanmar Is Left in Dark, an Energy-Rich Orphan
By JANE PERLEZ
SITTWE, Myanmar — In the balmy waters of the Bay of Bengal, just off the coast, an Asian energy rush is on. Huge pockets of natural gas have been found. China and India are jostling to sign deals. Plans are afoot to spend billions on new ports and pipelines.
Yet onshore, in towns like this one, not a light is to be seen — not a street lamp, not a glow in a window — as women crouch by the roadside at dawn, sorting by candlelight the vegetables they will sell for two cents a bunch at the morning market.
Paraffin and wood are major sources of light and heat. People receive two hours of electricity a day from a military government that is among the world’s most repressive.
But attempts at outside pressure to prod the government to address its people’s needs and curb abuses have faltered, in large part because China’s thirst for resources has undermined nearly a decade of American economic sanctions.
Critics say that Washington’s policy has handed Myanmar, formerly Burma, to China. Still, as President Bush prepares to meet with leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Vietnam on Nov. 17, one topic on his agenda will be how to keep up the pressure. He is not likely to find cooperation, not from rivals like China and Russia, nor even countries like Singapore and Indonesia, which trade freely with Myanmar.
The Asian energy rush is the latest demonstration of how the hunt for oil and gas, and China’s economic leverage, are reshaping international politics, often in ways that run counter to American preferences.
In many respects, with the rise of China’s economic power and its unflagging support, the government here has become more entrenched than ever, people inside and outside the country say.
“What can we do about it?” said a well educated man here, when asked about the plans to sell the gas abroad in the face of the deprivation at home. “What good would it do to protest, what would we get?” People were too afraid of the 400,000-member strong army supplied by China, Russia and Ukraine to complain, he said.
In numerous encounters in Myanmar, where most speak with extreme caution to foreigners and almost always anonymously for fear of jail, people joked sardonically that China was the “big daddy” and that soon it would “own” Myanmar. “China is a good friend of the government, not of the people,” one woman said. “They are like brother and brother-in-law.”
The Bush administration has pledged that it will not let up on its sanctions against the government until it releases the opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 11 of the past 17 years.
Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party won an overwhelming victory in elections in 1990, and Washington insists that the government recognize those results, and release an estimated 1,100 political prisoners.
The Bush administration says it plans to file a Security Council resolution at the United Nations in coming weeks condemning the government for its human rights abuses, and tightening sanctions further.
The United Nations under secretary general, Ibrahim Gambari, met with the junta leader, Gen. Than Shwe, on Nov. 11 in Myanmar and urged the government to mend its ways on forced labor and political prisoners. The meeting ended inconclusively, United Nations officials said.
With so much energy and other resources at stake, and given its preference to shun outside interference in internal politics, China’s leaders are seemingly unbothered by what is happening inside Myanmar.
China’s National Development Reform Commission approved plans in April to build a pipeline that would carry China’s Middle East oil from a deep water port off Sittwe across Myanmar to Yunnan, China’s southern province. This would provide China with an alternative to the Strait of Malacca, which it now depends on for delivering its oil from the Middle East.
Though no date has been announced for work on the new pipeline across Myanmar, the military appeared to be getting ready to build the deep sea port on the island of Ramree, to the south of here, local people said.
In another sign of the importance of Myanmar to China, the chairman of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, Fu Chengyu, said in a speech this year that the company would focus its investment in the medium term on two countries: Myanmar and Nigeria. Engineers at the company, known as Cnooc, are currently exploring for oil on Ramree, and the company has rights to other oil deposits in central Myanmar, according to Myanmar government reports.
India, thirsty for energy to fuel its own fast-growing economy, sees Myanmar as a place where it needs to contain China. In the late 1990s, democratic India switched its policy toward Myanmar from antagonism to friendship.
And Thailand, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, spends about $1.2 billion a year for Myanmar’s natural gas, giving the military government badly needed hard currency.
In conversations with people in a number of towns, a portrait emerged of a universally unpopular, deeply corrupt government. People told of worsening poverty, a collapsed education system and a health care system that could deal only with those who paid. Tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS were rampant, they said.
The government’s budget for its AIDS program in 2004 was $22,000, according to a recent health survey by John Hopkins University Medical School.
The junta leader, Gen. Than Shwe, 73, whose early military training was in psychological warfare, was described by many here as a master manipulator of his minions. He insisted, apparently out of fear of a coup, that the capital be moved this year from Yangon, formerly Rangoon, to a new site in the jungle, Naypyidaw.
The move, costing millions of scarce dollars, was in step with the general’s belief that he marched in the footsteps of the old Burmese kings — the name of the new capital means “Royal City.” Then, as now, there was a fierce line between the rulers and the ruled.
For the first time, health workers said they were discovering severe malnutrition among children in urban centers, a true anomaly in a lush country that was once the world’s biggest exporter of rice.
In Mandalay, the second-biggest city, almost naked children with distended stomachs scrounged on the riverfront. In one village on the Thwande River on the west coast, nomadic families were too strapped for food to offer any to visitors, a traditional courtesy in Myanmar.
“Why is there severe malnutrition in this Garden of Eden? Because people are poor,” said Frank Smithuis, a physician who has worked in Myanmar since 1994 and heads the Doctors Without Borders, Holland, medical programs. “People are going from three meals to two meals to one meal. One meal a day just isn’t enough.”
In the village of Leat Pan Gyunt, south of Sittwe, villagers said they could afford to send their girls to school for only three years. The local school consisted of one dirt-floored room for all grades from first to eighth. The desks were planks of wood supported on two bricks.
Afraid of protests by students, the government dispersed the University of Yangon to sites outside the capital.
At the new Magway University, the medical students were learning surgery from books and videos, without working on human corpses because the government refused to pay for formaldehyde, two people familiar with the situation said.
In contrast to the deepening poverty — Myanmar’s per capita income is calculated at $175 a year, far below neighboring Bangladesh — the military leaders were amassing fortunes, people said.
The latest evidence was a video leaked to a Web site, http://www.irrawaddy.org/, based in Thailand, of the recent opulent wedding of General Than Shwe’s daughter, Thandar Shwe. The video showed the bride, with her father alongside her, decked out in a necklace of six ropes of large diamonds, her hair looped with diamonds as well.
For those educated people who want change, the path is treacherous.
“I don’t want to waste myself in jail,” said one woman, who had two relatives imprisoned. “They were not the same when they came out.”
In a similar vein to the dissidents in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the woman said she believed change had to come from inside the country. But unlike Poland under Soviet rule, no unions are allowed in Myanmar, and most kinds of formal associations are considered suspect.
She said she held classes at her home on how to be more confident, how to strategize. She was trying to spread her classes to Buddhist monasteries and Christian churches, she said.
“Only education can change people because people don’t know anything,” she said. “Only about 10 percent of the people know what is going on.” Sometimes she was in such despair, she said, that she believed that the only way to win against the government was “to think like them.”
“But we can’t think like them,” she added, “nobody thinks like them.”
Not all opposition groups that work outside the country believe that Washington’s hard line is serving the best interests of Myanmar or the United States.
With its policy of isolation, the Bush administration was allowing China, and to a lesser extent, India, to have a free hand in Myanmar to the exclusion of the United States, said Aung Naing Oo, who spent a year at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and who is the author of several books on Myanmar.
“The geopolitical situation favors the Burmese military,” he said. “China and India both want to support it, and the Asian nations have no teeth.”
Still, on a recent trip to Vietnam, a delegation of Myanmar officials heard something that astounded them, he said. They went to find out why Vietnam had become so suddenly prosperous.
“The Vietnamese said one word: ‘The Americans.’ The Burmese could not believe that after fighting a war Vietnam was friendly with the United States.”
Sidebar: 3 Orwellian state, with teashops
BBC NEWS | World | Asia-Pacific | Burma: Orwellian state, with teashops
Burma: Orwellian state, with teashops
The BBC's Kate McGeown has just returned from Burma, where she talked to people about life under its repressive military regime. In the first of a series of
articles, she gives her impressions of a nation the international community
seems at a loss to know what to do with.
As I stepped down from the plane onto Burmese soil, my head full of warnings
about spies watching my every move, I was pleasantly surprised to find friendly
faces rushing to greet me.
"Thank you so much for coming," said an elderly man, smiling through
Where was the Orwellian nightmare I had been warned about? Where were the police ready to cart me off to jail because they had found out I was a journalist?
The sun was shining, the people were open and friendly... it seemed like any
other Asian country. I found it hard not to wonder what all the fuss was about.
But it did not take long to find evidence of Burma's darker side.
Barely 20 minutes along the main highway from the airport, I saw a road leading
off to the right that was completely shut off by heavily-armed police. The tight security was not surprising, given that the road led to the home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose term of house arrest had been extended just days before my arrival.
Local people never mention Ms Suu Kyi by name - they just call her The Lady, a
term of deference towards a woman whom many Burmese, probably the vast majority,
believe is the rightful leader of their nation.
Despite spending more than 10 of the last 17 years as a prisoner, she remains
the main symbol of resistance against the military regime that has ruled Burma
for four decades, and which often uses fear and intimidation to keep people in
Against this backdrop, Burma's 50 million citizens carry on with their daily
lives as best they can. Down the road from Aung San Suu Kyi's house, the people of Rangoon queue for the city's crowded buses, huddle in shops with working generators during the frequent power cuts or play their own version of the Thai national lottery.
Then they do what all Burmese do, and stop in one of the many teashops to gossip
about the weather and the football. But that does not mean that their anger at the military regime has disappeared. If you talk to someone about their life, any veneer of contentment will usually evaporate.
One day, as we drove past a peaceful rural scene of villagers ploughing paddy
fields with their oxen, I asked my taxi driver for his views on the political
situation. He had been singing a song to himself, but his face suddenly turned red and
angry, and he said: "I hate the people who rule this country. My hatred of the
government knows no bounds." In fact he got so upset that we had to stop the car so he could calm down.
Another man became equally animated when I asked him about the secret military
informants who lurk around ever corner. "They're like a virus - a disease ripping this country apart," he said. "They are everywhere, and they see everything we do. "So many of my friends have been caught and jailed over the years - some for doing hardly anything. So many lives have been ruined."
It is hardly surprising that emotions run so high. I was only in Burma for a short time, but I quickly found out how uncomfortable it is to be under surveillance - albeit by a somewhat amateur spy. On my first day, a man walked into the lobby of my hotel and pretended to read a newspaper near where I was sitting. He did not turn the page for 20 minutes, but the real giveaway was that the paper - a week-old copy of The Straits Times - was upside-down. Despite the obvious personal risks of talking to a foreigner, many Burmese people were still willing to put aside their fears and share their lives with me.
They told me about their healthcare system, their schools, their views on the government and the extraordinary decision to move the country's capital to what was, until a few years ago, a rural backwater.
One day a tour guide showing me round one of the Burma's many pagodas turned to me and whispered: "Please let other people know what it's like for us here. We
need the outside world to understand."
In this series of articles, I will do my best to answer his request.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/06/13 22:48:38 GMT
© BBC MMVII
Sidebar: 4 Country profile: Burma
Country profile: Burma
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is ruled by a military junta which suppresses almost all dissent and wields absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions.
The generals and the army stand accused of gross human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labour, which includes children.
OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | MEDIA Prominent pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has had various restrictions placed on her activities since the late 1980s. In 1990 her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in Burma's first multi-party elections for 30 years, but has never been allowed to govern.
Politics: Burma has been under military rule since 1962; the regime stifles almost all dissent
Economy: Burma is one of Asia's poorest countries; its economy is riddled with corruption
International: Burma is seen as a pariah state by the West, which maintains sanctions; China is its main ally
Military-run enterprises control key industries, and corruption and severe mismanagement are the hallmarks of a black-market-riven economy.
The armed forces - and former rebels co-opted by the government - have been accused of large-scale trafficking in heroin, of which Burma is a major exporter. Prostitution and HIV/Aids are major problems.
The largest group is the Burman people, who are ethnically related to the Tibetans and the Chinese. Burman dominance over Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Chin, Kachin and other minorities has been the source of considerable ethnic tension and has fuelled intermittent separatist rebellions. Military offensives against insurgents have uprooted many thousands of civilians.
A largely rural, densely forested country, Burma is the world's largest exporter of teak and is a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. It is endowed with extremely fertile soil and has important offshore oil and gas deposits. However, its people remain very poor and are getting poorer.
The country is festooned with the symbols of Buddhism. Thousands of pagodas throng its ancient towns; these have been a focus for an increasingly important tourism industry. But while tourism has been a magnet for foreign investment, its benefits have hardly touched the people.
OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | MEDIA • Official name: Union of Myanmar
• Population: 50.7 million (UN, 2005)
• Capital: Seat of government moving to Naypyidaw, also known as Pyinmana, from Rangoon (Yangon)
• Area: 676,552 sq km (261,218 sq miles)
• Major languages: Burmese, indigenous ethnic languages
• Major religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam
• Life expectancy: 57 years (men), 63 years (women) (UN)
• Monetary unit: 1 kyat = 100 pyas
• Main exports: Teak, pulses and beans, prawns, fish, rice, opiates
• GNI per capita: not available
• Internet domain: .mm
• International dialling code: +95
OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | MEDIA Head of state: Than Shwe, chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)
Senior General Than Shwe is the country's top military leader and heads the SPDC, the body of 12 senior generals that oversees the running of the country and makes the key decisions.
Mr Than has steadfastly ruled out a transfer of power to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).
In 1993 he established the National Convention, a reconciliation process aimed at drawing up a new constitution. However, the general is said to be in no hurry to allow political change and talks have been boycotted by the NLD.
Born in 1933 near the town of Mandalay, Than Shwe joined the army at the age of 20. His career included a stint in the department of psychological warfare. He was decorated more than 16 times during his career as a soldier.
He is said to be introverted and superstitious, frequently seeking the advice of astrologers.
Power struggles have plagued Burma's military leadership. Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was sacked and arrested in 2004. The former premier, who said he supported Aung San Suu Kyi's involvement in the National Convention, was seen as a moderate who was at odds with the junta's hardliners.
• Vice-chairman of SPDC: Maung Aye
• Prime minister: Soe Win
• Defence minister: Than Shwe
• Foreign minister: Nyan Win
• Home affairs minister: Maung Oo
OVERVIEW | FACTS | LEADERS | MEDIA The state controls Burma's main broadcasters and publications. For the most part, the media are propaganda tools and tend not to report opposing views except to criticise them. Editors and reporters are answerable to the military authorities.
The English-language daily New Light of Myanmar does publish many heavily-edited foreign news reports from international agencies, but its domestic news content strictly adheres to and reinforces government policy.
All forms of domestic public media are officially-controlled or censored. This strict control, in turn, encourages self-censorship on the part of journalists.
The BBC, Voice of America, the US-backed Radio Free Asia and the Norway-based opposition station Democratic Voice of Burma target listeners in Burma.
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has placed Burma among the bottom 10 countries in its world press freedom ranking. It says the press is subject to "relentless advance censorship".
• Kyehmon - state-run daily
• Myanmar Alin - organ of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)
• New Light of Myanmar - English-language organ of SPDC
• Myanmar Times - state-run English-language weekly
• TV Myanmar - state-run, operated by Myanmar TV and Radio Department - broadcasts in Bamar, Arakanese (Rakhine), Shan, Karen, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Mon and English
• MRTV-3 - state-run international TV service
• TV Myawady - army-run network
• Radio Myanmar - state-run, operated by Myanmar TV and Radio Department
• City FM - entertainment-based, operated by Yangon City Development Committee
• Democratic Voice of Burma - opposition station based in Norway, broadcasts via shortwave
• Myanmar News Agency (MNA) - state-run
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/10/18 10:00:36 GMT
© BBC MMVII