2011
06.02

“This is Burma’, wrote Rudyard Kipling, ‘and it is quite unlike any place you know about.” So begins almost every account one reads about this country; and rightly so, for this statement is as true today as when it was written over a century ago. Though the ruling power of Kipling’s days has long disappeared and even the country’s name has changed, Burma remains a country stuck in 20110606_Burma_1231-2-Edittime, not allowed to progress into the future, and therefore worlds apart from the nations that surround. While neighboring countries such as India, China, and Thailand catapult themselves into the future, Burma remains hidden in the past, isolated and ostracized by the international community, and suffering from the rule of the world’s most harsh and oppressive regimes. Yet, within this time-warped country exists a paradox that makes it so incredibly important and appealing. Burma may just be home to some of the world’s most welcoming and friendly people.

For centuries the people of Burma have been ruled with an iron fist. From the kings of old to the current military regime, the country has traded hands from one oppressive ruler to the next. In the early 19th Century, the British arrived and by 1885, they had taken over the entire country. With British colonialism came great changes in the demographics and infrastructure of this once-feudal society. Large numbers of Indians were introduced to work as civil servants and the Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. Railways, ports, schools and prisons were built, but it was the British companies who became rich while the Burmese only grew unhappy with the colonial rulers who refused to respect Burmese culture and traditions. The British were driven out during World War II by 20110607_Burma_2440-2-Editthe Japanese who had linked with the Burmese Independence Army. Yet, their harsh and arrogant conduct only alienated the Burmese who, towards the end of the war, switched sides and fought with the Allies to expel the Japanese.(1)

In 1947, Burma was on the road to independence led by Bogyoke Aung San, an early activist for nationalism and leader of the Burma Independence Army. When elections were held, Aung San’s party won an overwhelming majority. But on July 19, 1947, a gang of armed political rivals stormed an Executive Council meeting and assassinated Aung San along with six of his Cabinet members. Thus began one of the world’s longest running civil wars, a struggle that continues even today with reports of four bombs exploding simultaneously in the country as I prepare this entry.

Things took an even greater turn for the worse when, in 1962, General Ne Win led a military coup d’etat and began a 26-year rule that would plunge Burma into the dark ages. Instituting policies under the “Burmese Way to Socialism”, almost all aspects of society were nationalised or brought under government control,crippling the country’s economy and bringing Burma to a virtual standstill. During this period, Burma became one of the world’s most impoverished nations.  In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression led citizens to pack the streets in protest.  General Ne Win responded with the full force of the military and anti-government protests were violently suppressed.  There were massive confrontations between the military and pro-democracy demonstrators which resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths over a six-week period.

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The protests ended when General Ne Win was overthrown by members of the military who formed a governing body called SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), declared martial law and promised to hold democratic elections. Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic daughter of Bogyoke Aung San, emerged as the leader of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The Burmese people rallied around Aung San Suu Kyi and awarded the NLD more than 85% of the votes in the 20110607_Burma_1810-Edit1990 election. However, SLORC refused to allow the NLD to assume its parliamentary seats, arresting most of the party leadership and placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remained for almost 15 of the next 21 years.

Though offered freedom in exchange for exile, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to leave Burma and for her efforts towards peace and democracy, she was awarded theNobel Peace Prize in 1991. Four years later, she was released from her home, only to be rearrested and placed under house arrest again. For years, the United Nations worked to broker her unconditional release and at the US-ASEAN Summit of 2009, President Barack Obama personally advocated for the release of all political prisoners in Burma, especially Aung San Suu Kyi. On the evening of November 13, 2010, six days after a widely-criticized general election, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

After the 1988 uprising, the military government officially changed the English translations of many colonial-era names, including the name of the country to “Myanmar”. Rangoon was switched to Yangon, Pagan to Bagan, and Irrawaddy River to Ayeyarwady River, in an attempt to purge the country of traces of colonialism. Yet, many opposition groups and countries (including Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and United States) still refer to the country as “Burma”, as they refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the ruling government nor its authority to rename the country or towns in English.(2)

The sun rises over the 2000+ pagodas at Bagan in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

After SLORC annulled the elections of 1990 and refused to step down, the country has remained under the rule of a military regime led by Than Shwe. Under his command, cease-fire agreements were made with ethnic guerrilla groups and plans were announced to create a new constitution. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and, in a surreal turn of events, the capital was relocated from Yangon to the remote city of Naypyidaw (meaning “Adobe of the Kings”). In 2010, a “democratic election” was held in which the Union Solidarity and Development Party won 80% of the votes. The results were widely disputed and claims were made that the military regime engaged in rampant fraud to achieve its results.(2)

In response to the election, President Barack Obama said:

“When peaceful democratic movements are suppressed, as in Burma, then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent. For it is unacceptable to gun down peaceful protesters and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade,” said the president. “It is unacceptable to hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime. It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see.”

A boat at sunset near the U Bein Bridge in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

Indeed, while the the Myanmar government puts on a show for the international community by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and holding a “democratic election”, such overtures are plagued by fraud and mischievous intention aimed at gaining favor and diverting attention from a military regime that engages in widespread and systematic human rights abuses. There exists no independent judiciary in Burma and censorship of the media is widespread, from news fabrications to Internet restrictions, both intended to limit access to news from international sources. Repeatedly, consistent reports emerge of forced labor, human trafficking, child labor, and the use of sexual violence as an instrument of control, including systematic rapes and taking of sex slaves by the military. Thousands of men, women, children and elderly are forced to work without pay and against their will. According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, there are over 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, at least 1,300 of whom were imprisoned after unfair trials. Recruiting and kidnapping of children to the military is commonplace, with an estimated 70,000 children serving in the military. Most alarmingly, yet ignored by the international community, there have been 2011.06.07_HDR_18-Editwidespread reports of the systematic abuse of ethnic minorities, verging on ethnic cleansing, especially in the case of the Karen and Rohingya people who have been marked for extermination.(3)

The military regime has gone to great lengths to conceal these atrocities from both the Burmese people and the outside world. But in August 2007, the harshness of the regime was showcased on the international spotlight when thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets in protest of the military regime which had suspended fuel subsidies, skyrocketing fuel prices as much as 500% overnight with food and other commodities following suit. Millions of people across the country were unable to perform even the most basic tasks and in a profound act of defiance, Buddhist monks marched in protest and overturned their alms bowls, refusing to accept alms from the Burmese generals. When demonstrations were broken up and dozens of monks injured, the Buddhist clergy union demanded an apology. In response, soldiers raided dozens of monasteries beating and killing monks, according to eyewitness accounts. The brutality continued the next day as soldiers opened fire on the streets of Yangon, killing nine unarmed protesters, including Kenji Nagai, a Japanese journalist. Monks continued to be detained and abused and accounts emerged of a crematorium burning night and day to destroy evidence of military brutality.(4)

The 2007 protests, dubbed “The Saffron Revolution”, were the biggest show of dissent in Burma since the demonstrations of 1988. The brutal use of military force against peaceful, unarmed demonstrators was characteristic of Burma’s oppressive regime, but it was the violence against monks that shocked the world and the people of Burma who are predominantly Buddhist. In a society that holds monks at the highest reverence, to assault or kill a Buddhist monk is considered one of the gravest sins a man can commit.(4)

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Condemnation of the military regime was widespread throughout the world, but the reactions of Western and Asian nations were minimal in contrast to the atrocities committed over decades of harsh and oppressive rule. Sanctions were imposed on the regime by the U.S., European Union, and Canada which prohibit trade and investment with Burma. The assets of 14 senior Myanmar officials were frozen in U.S. banks and institutions. Western nations demanded the military regime release detained protesters and engage in talks with members of the pro-democracy movement and ethnic groups. Also, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement “strongly” deploring actions of the government against pro-democracy demonstrators and calling for the release of all political prisoners and remaining detainees.(4)

Many believe that the sanctions against Burma have been a complete failure. They argue that the policy has only harmed U.S. and European economic interests by restricting trade with Burma, while strengthening the hand of China and India who have increased trade and investment within the country and helped generate considerable income for the military regime and reduced any incentive for them to implement urgently-needed reforms. Most importantly, the sanctions have done nothing to improve the living conditions or human rights of the Burmese people, only narrowing the opportunity of private individuals in Burma to expand their economic, social, and cultural contacts with the citizens of the West.(5)

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To make matters even worse, on May 3, 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated the country with winds up to 135mph (215km/h) that left more than 200,000 people dead or missing and as many as 1 million people without a home. Villages were almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas were wiped out; the damage total rising to 10 billion dollars (USD). While Western nations rushed to respond to the crisis, Burma’s military regime hindered recovery efforts by delaying the entry of United Nations planes delivering medicine, food, and other supplies. Desperately-needed supplies waited in Thailand and Yangon airport while the Burmese government refused to issue visas for those delivering them. On May 9, 2008, the military regime officially declared that their acceptance of international aid relief would be limited to food, medicines and other supplies as well as financial aid, but would not allow additional foreign aid workers or military units to operate in the country. International condemnation followed with some accusing the regime of “genocide” since the Burmese government had deliberately denied storm victims aid, allowing for hundreds of thousands to potentially die from starvation, exposure, and disease.(6)

Recent years has seen little improvement in the country of Burma. Though rich in resources, Burma is one of the least developed nations in the world with an average growth rate of only 2.9% annually. Burma’s health care system is one of the worst in the world, ranked at 190th by the World Health Organization, the worst performing of all countries. Burma also ranks among the last in the world for GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth, access to agricultural machinery, car thefts, birth rates, hospital beds, personal computers, international bandwidth, and internet users.(7) Only 1.2% of the budget is spent on education and universities have spent much of the past 20 years closed with the military regime in fear of student-led demonstrations. All 20110620_Burma_4524-Editcurriculums and course material must be approved by the military and unlike most Asian nations, young people are not encouraged to learn English.(8)

Undoubtedly, one will find this brief history of Burma to be both grim and depressing. It is not my intention to upset you or even to deter you from visiting the country. In fact, in the entries that follow, I will do quite the opposite. For the Burma I discovered was a land of glowing smiles and unrivaled hospitality. Those who visit Burma almost always find the country to be one of the friendliest in the world, full of beautiful people who welcome you as if you are long-lost family and call “Hello!” to you from every direction as you walk down the street. This is not a country that one should avoid, but instead, one that we all should embrace. For the Burmese people deserve better than centuries of oppression and decades of isolation. As citizens of the same world, we owe them a chance at freedom, education, and prosperity, just as we have all been so lucky to enjoy. Whether by humanitarian efforts or simply a visit to the country, we can open unto these people a world that they have so long been denied. Yet, it is incredibly important that we understand and appreciate the history of their country and the struggles of the Burmese people in order to be responsible tourists who can positively impact their lives by our actions and through our travels without further contributing to their oppression. Especially now, as fighting resumes throughout the country and undoubtedly tourism will decrease, I hope that you will follow my upcoming entries detailing our travels through Burma and discover a people that desperately deserve our help.

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Here are a few tips to follow that will allow you to visit the country while minimizing the amount of money that goes to the government:

  • Visit the country as an independent traveler and NOT with a packaged tour
  • Avoid government-run hotels and stay in cheap family guesthouses
  • Use private bus companies for travel within the country and avoid government-run services such as Myanmar Travel & Tours, Myanma Airways, IWT ferries, Myanmar Railways
  • Spread the wealth and don’t take care of all your needs (hotel, food, drinks, guide, taxi) at one source, such as your guesthouse
  • Buy handicrafts directly from artisans

Footnotes

(1) Cited from:  http://www.lonelyplanet.com/myanmar-burma/history

(2)Cited from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma

(3) Cited from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Burma

(4) Cited from: http://uscampaignforburma.org/learn-about-burma/saffron-revolution

(5) Cited from: http://www.cato.org/pubs/trade/tpa-001.html

(6) Cited from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclone_Nargis

(7) Cited from: http://www.nationmaster.com/country/bm-burma

(8) Cited from: http://curriculumproject.org/education-in-burma

2 comments so far

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  1. One of the finest country I’ve ever been too. Very friendly people.

  2. The wonder of your story is a sad commentary on our failure as a privileged people to share our plenty with those less fortunate. To whom much is given, much is expected. The timeliness of your original work and its re-appearance now is inspired because it bridges the shadows of the past with the bright light of hope in the future. Both prose and photography blend to share a tragic story of past blight and abuse with the beauty of a resilient people…..and proves that the passion of a single person can affect the world for good.