Myanmar (Burma)

1 Nov

For October break this year, several of us traveled to Myanmar. Alas, Orestes did not make the trip with us as family obligations took him home to Chicago. However, I liked the country so much that I will be bringing him back one day! He also benefitted from his absence since I brought him lots of loot, including a smuggled Myanmar beer or two. ūüėČ I like to start these posts with a little bit of history, partly because I suspect my mom enjoys it and partly so that I remember in the years to come. Here goes: Like many of the countries in Southeast Asia, Burma/Myanmar has a complicated history (colonialism not so helpful it turns out). Way back in the day, the Bamar, the largest ethnic group in the region, had a thriving empire. They conquered several other tribes in their vicinity, developed a writing system, and built the amazing pagodas of Bagan. At one point, they stormed into the kingdom of Siam (Thailand) and chopped all the heads off the Buddha statues in Ayutthaya. Things were going fairly well for the Burmese until the British realized the potential for natural resources (rice and teak, among other things) the country contained. A trio of wars followed, culminating in 1885 when the British marched into Mandalay, the then-capital of the Burmese Empire, and deposed King Thibaw. They shipped him and his daughters off to permanent exile in India, and incorporated Burma into British India. As an interesting side note, Thibaw was the last of the Burmese royal line, somewhat due to the fact that when he gained the throne, his ambitious wife had 79 of his closest relatives massacred to avoid any potential rivalries. Thibaw then proceeded to have only daughters.

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Burmese writing looks like eyeballs…

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Or aliens with little antennae

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Either way it’s snazzy

Understandably, the Burmese and other ethnic groups weren’t so thrilled about British rule, particularly because the British proved to be culturally insensitive (among other offenses, they refused to take their shoes off when visiting temples). They also opened the gates to a huge influx of Indian and Chinese immigrants, and went around changing the names of cities and towns willy-nilly. Within short order, various independence movements sprang up. One leader and soon-to-be national hero was a student turned general named Aung San. Then WWII happened. The independence movement tried siding with the Japanese, which panned out badly, then switched sides and joined the Allies. Long story short, post-war Burma gained their independence,¬†including an agreement with the non-Burmese ethnic groups that gave them 10 years to decide if they wanted to be independent or not. All seemed to be headed in a productive direction. An election was held, and Aung San’s party won by a landslide; he is considered by many to be the pivotal member of the independence movement. Sadly, he was assassinated (by the military?) shortly after the elections. The government went to pieces and the hill tribes began revolting. The end result of this chaos was that in 1962, General Ne Win staged a military coup to “help” the country, nationalized everything in the name of socialism, and threw the most prosperous country in the region into an economic meltdown.¬†Burma has been ruled by a military junta ever since. Various uprisings and subsequent violent crackdowns have happened periodically, most notably in 1988 and again in 2007. A widely debated number of political prisoners remain behind bars without trial, although over 3,000 were released less than a month ago.

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Aung San’s face on a modern t-shirt

Officially, Myanmar is ruled by a semi-cilivian government led by¬†president Thein Sein who was elected in 2010. Unofficially, General Than Shwe still pulls all the strings. Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi (known as The Lady to her followers), heads the National League for Democracy (NLD) the main opposition party. They won the elections in 1990 by a landslide, but the military refused to hand over power. Aung San Suu Kyi has been on house arrest on and off since 1989. She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She is currently free but afraid to leave the country since she would most likely be denied re-entry. I recently learned that the U2 song¬†Walk On¬†is dedicated to¬†her struggles. Burma’s official name was changed to Myanmar in 1989. It was meant to be more inclusive since the Bamar are only one of the many ethnic groups in the country; however, the NLD and several countries (including the US) refuse to use this title since it was changed without consulting the people. The UN recognizes Myanmar as the official name – I like the inclusive nature of the title, so I have chosen to use Myanmar during these posts. The majority of people we talked to on vacation called the country Myanmar, and themselves “Myanma people”.

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Aung San Suu Kyi and her father

I had a lot of apprehensions about traveling to Myanmar. I expected to find a country with little infrastructure, lots of poverty, and hesitant feelings about outsiders. Due to sanctions and government restrictions, travel opportunities to Myanmar have been extremely limited. The country officially opened for tourism in 1992, but in practice it is only the last few years that have seen any tourism industry begin to develop. Around 2 million tourists visited Myanmar last year, which sounds like a large number but is hardly anything compared with the 26.7 million who visited Thailand in 2013. Many parts of the country are still restricted to foreigners due to ongoing conflict with the various ethnic groups (and brutal suppressions), and many countries maintain economic sanctions against the military junta. I expected traveling there to be frustrating and accommodations to be rustic at best. Turns out, a lot of these notions were accurate. The roads are in horrible condition, there is extreme poverty, and some of our transportation was a little wonky. That being said, I absolutely loved Myanmar. The country is amazingly beautiful and looks quite different than Thailand. The people are incredibly friendly. Almost everyone we met waved hello, offered help, and wanted to chat. I tried to snap photos of daily life in action, and did my best to ask permission when in earshot. No one said no! I’ll post about the places we went later, but for now here are some pics of the Myanma people in action.

* A¬†few photos were stolen from Jen or Michelle, two fellow travelers ūüôā

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