Monday, October 13, 2008

Myanmar: Twenty-eight Days in the Golden Land of Burma (Part I)

"Most people are familiar with the old name, while Myanmar is relatively new and does not yet hold the same romantic, golden and timeless images that the name Burma does. Moreover, much of the available literature on Burma is from a time past (namely the 1950s and 1960s) and refers to the old names of towns and cities. By comparison, that of recent years has concentrated specifically on the country's political situation which has received world-wide attention." - Saw Myat Yin, in 'Culture Shock! Burma'.

Chapter One - To go or not to go

In this travelogue I use both 'Myanmar' and 'Burma' interchangeably but personally I prefer 'Myanmar', although this is interpreted by some as favouring the military government which, in 1989, changed the country's name to Myanmar because 'Burma' was a colonial inheritance. Burma was indeed the name given to the country by the British, and in doing so they attributed the country to the Bhamar (Burmese), ignoring the numerous other peoples living within the state's boundaries (Shan, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine - to name but a few). Myanmar had been the name of the country previously and is more correct, because it means something like 'Union of Tribes'. Even under British rule translations of official documents in the Burmese language used 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma'.

This is arguably the most controversial destination I have been to. The military regime, in power since 1962 and now operating under the name 'State Peace and Development Council', is internationally known for its lack of respect for human rights. They are totally undemocratic, oppressive, violent, use forced labour in (re)construction projects and are suspected of being guilty of genocide. A UN Human Rights Commission resolution mentions "a long list of abuses, including summary executions, torture, abuse of women, systematic forced relocation and widespread forced labour". So why would anyone want to go there ? After all by doing so one is effectively funding a non-elected, dictatorial government and ignoring the calls by Amnesty International and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic opposition in the country, to please stay away. Well, it's not easy to make that decision. I think each and every potential visitor needs to think about the various pros and cons of going; personally, I feel that isolating the country is not the right thing to do. It's been isolated for several decades and prolonging that period is definitely not going to displace the current regime. Instead, what the people there really need is information about the world outside. Each tiny gateway of information helps to bring awareness.

The opposition in Myanmar may have all the knowledge in the world, but if the common people are uneducated that amounts to nothing. The people are shouting for democracy but, to be honest, only very few of them know what it actually means. What they need is not necessarily democracy - it took most Western countries centuries to evolve politically to what they are today. What Burma needs is change. Democracy implies a lot more than 'change', more than just holding free elections. If the masses are uneducated, if the country is wrecked economically, if there powerful opium warlords with huge private armies are operating in the country, and if there's internal ethnic strife, democracy (as defined by the West) may even be an outright dangerous path to take. Educating the masses will take time. Restoration of the economy will too, and there's always the risk that the sudden introduction of a totally free market will lead to China economically swallowing up the country (which has already started even under present conditions). Many small traders will face bankruptcy and the population will struggle even more (just look at the Former Soviet Union to see how well off the people there are now). Will a democratic government be able to eradicate the drug lords ? Very unlikely - we need only look at what happens elsewhere in the world. Add to this that opium is part of the way of life for more than a just handful of Myanmar people and consider also the ever-present corruption; it is very likely some VIPs in a government chosen by the people will have a lot to gain from the drug trade. Finally there's the internal strife which will not end before the government agrees to far-reaching autonomy for certain states/regions. Will they allow that ?
In my opinion a transitional government is the way to go. No longer a military government but a council consisting of democratically elected civilians as well as representatives of the Tatmadaw or military forces. Only that way could the current leaders be convinced to surrender power, and only that way will the country gradually change instead of very suddenly with all the attendant problems.

Awareness is not going and telling the people they need a better government. They know that already. Telling them the answer is democracy and that it will solve everything is a lie. Telling them what I have written in the previous paragraph is not a good idea either, because it is simply my opinion. Bringing awareness is sharing facts, asking questions and discussing problems with the advantage of the information available to an outsider. The people in Burma are very eager to learn about other countries and they'll all tell you they're very glad to see foreign independent travellers. Several seriously pro-democratic people told me they reckon Aung San Suu Kyi is wrong in stating all foreigners should stay away, but that actually she's only referring to the tour groups.

The information gateway is bi-directional, too: the local people can tell you their views, dreams, wishes and you can observe and learn. Travellers can share impressions, views, opinions, experiences with people at home, thereby extending international understanding of the problems of Myanmar. This exchange of facts certainly does more good than tying yourself to a lantern-post and chanting anti-government songs !

I've already mentioned the economical problems. They're very real and as a result the population is struggling, suffering. As a traveller in Myanmar you're definitely not just funding the military junta but your money is also helping the local folks. Admittedly, only a select few (mostly people in the trade business) but that's still better than none at all. Money gets injected into a community, that's the important thing. If I give a donation for the construction of a school I'm helping the local community (albeit on a small scale). If I give money to the poor people cleaning the roads of mud then that money is theirs, not the government's. If I buy toddy candy from a bloke who's just been tapping a palm tree, that money will buy him food. If I give money to a seriously handicapped person who gets no support at all from the state and can't work, then I've actually helped him. Better a handful of people than none at all.
If those opposing travel to Burma think the government is missing out on lots of money, they'd better think again ! There's an enormous cash flow to and from China, Thailand and other SE Asian countries. Although the government happily collects all the tourist dollars they can get, they won't lose much sleep over the fact that people are staying away.

Travellers can never be a solution to the economic or political problems of a country but at least they may be able to help a little. And together they can help quite a lot - if they're sensible. I sincerely think the pros outweigh the cons if you're visiting as an independent traveller, not as a member of a tour group. I would be lying if I said that I went to Myanmar solely to help the people. I wanted to see the famous monuments, experience other cultures, and to go where few others go. If I couldn't do that, I saw no point in going at all. But travellers looking only at the personal gain or attributing more value to it than is genuinely beneficial to the local people would do better to stay away.

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