Burma

Apologies for the non-4 wheeled V8 nature of the latest blog post – automotive shenanigans will be resumed shortly!  Anyhow, Burma…

This month marks the 25th anniversary of some of the most significant events in the history of modern Burma.  In early August 1988, mass demonstrations for democracy were violently suppressed, with thousands of people losing their lives.  Despite this, a few weeks later Aung San Suu Kyi stepped into the limelight by enthralling half a million people with her rallying speech calling for democracy, before going on to lead her party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – to a resounding election victory, winning 80% of the available seats in the 1990 election.  Unfortunately, the military government’s response to this humiliation was to declare the election void, make the NLD illegal, and place Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the following 20 years.

For most of those years, she has campaigned against tourists visiting Burma, as their presence both lined the pockets of the military junta which ruthlessly held onto power for over five decades, and also appeared to legitimise the regime.  However, in late 2010, Suu Kyi and the NLD changed their stance, suggesting that independent travelers should visit Burma, see the country for themselves, and tell the world what they saw.

A few weeks ago, I answered the call and did just that.

So what did I see?  I saw a thousand smiling faces belonging to the most friendly, unprepossessing group of people you’re ever likely to meet.  I saw a proud traditional culture where men still wear sarongs and women take pride in applying shimmering yellow thanaka paste to their faces.  I saw golden pagodas soaring skyward, exotic monkey-thronged temples clinging precariously to mountainsides and endless wildernesses untouched by man’s destructive tendencies.  And I learned just how unlikely the smiles and beauty are, for I also saw police heavy-handedness, political injustice and people struggling to eke out an existence in a nation left impoverished by 60 years of military rule.

Like many tourists who visit Burma, my first port of call was the Shwedagon Pagoda in northern Rangoon.  A stirring sight, this spectacular tower of gold sweeps skyward from its broad base to a needle-like summit 99 metres above the ground, on which sits a crown made from thousands of diamonds and rubies.  Monks and normal Burmese folk circulated around the sacred behemoth, lighting incense and prostrating themselves, for this is most sacred Buddhist site in all Burma and in many ways, can be considered to be the symbol of the nation.  Because of this importance, the Shwedagon Pagoda has often been the centre of both religious and political struggle.  In 1946, Burma’s revered champion of freedom, Aung San, addressed crowds from the Pagoda calling for independence from Britain; a wish which was granted in 1948.  More recently, 25 years ago this month it was the location his daughter – Aung San Suu Kyi – chose for her famous pro-democracy speech which inspired half a million Burmese people who were desperate for change.

Shwedagon Pagoda

After visiting the pagoda, while wandering aimlessly around the scruffy-yet-charming city centre I found myself in the middle of a confrontation between street traders and the police – who were aggressively loading up trucks with the confiscated belongings of every street trader around me.  As I walked away from the confrontation, for hundreds of metres word was spreading, and traders who’d not been targeted yet were frantically packing up their stalls and moving them out of reach of the heavy-handed police.

To escape the kerfuffle, I turned up a side street, and a few minutes later I was passing more police trucks, each one with about 60 regular looking guys shoehorned inhumanely in a cage covering the load area.  Not wanting to linger and ask potentially awkward questions, I once again walked on, but despite not knowing the full facts of what I’d seen, my scepticism regarding the Burmese government continued to grow.

My second day in Rangoon coincided with ‘martyrs’ day’, a public holiday which remembers the assassination of Aung San and his allies 6 months before Burma gained independence.  Walking near the Shwedagon Pagoda on this auspicious day, large crowds were gathering, arriving on foot and crammed into buses, while waving the flag of the National League for Democracy party.  Predictably, the area had been sealed off by a large number of well-armed, strutting policemen, and reinforcements in riot vans shadowed the gathering.  Not one to linger around heavily policed political gatherings – especially ones held on ‘martyrs’ day’ – I kept my distance, as in recent memory such gatherings have been suppressed violently, most recently in 2007 when the protests of 15,000 monks and their supporters were broken up with tear gas, beatings and deaths.

That evening, I hit the road to Mandalay.  No longer the romantic pilgrimage of the famous Kipling poem, my journey consisted of about nine hours on an overnight bus, the windscreen of which bore the slogan ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done IN earth, as it is in heaven.’  As we pulled onto the road to Mandalay, I wondered just how far ‘in earth’ the slogan was referring to, and kinda hoped it wasn’t referring to six feet under the earth, as the journey took us along a road which the UK Foreign office recommend not to travel by night.

Other than the bus’s headlights, the darkness was complete.  Unforgivably, 75% of Burma’s population still don’t even have electricity, meaning the countryside is utterly black at night.  With nothing to look at other than the rain scudding around the headlights, my tired mind pondered the nation I was travelling across, and tried to make sense of its current situation.

When Burma gained independence from the UK in 1948, it was the second wealthiest nation in South East Asia.  Unfortunately, the subsequent 65 years of independence have not been kind, thanks mainly to its governance by a military junta which took power through a coup in 1962.  Under military rule, things have gone downhill fast, and Burma is now not only one of the poorest nations in SE Asia, but was also recently found to be the second most corrupt nation on earth, with only Somalia scoring worse.  The nation’s GDP per capita is a shocking US$450 per person, and the regime is accused of indulging in many of the human race’s less noble traits, including ethnic cleansing of minority tribes, use of child soldiers, slavery, holding political prisoners and the oppression of freedom of speech.  However despite the government’s general incompetence in improving the lot of its citizens, it’s managed to line its nest rather well, both through sales of the countries abundant raw materials, and the fact that virtually every decent-sized business in the country diverts a fair amount of money to the regime.

As the bus rolled along, I mentally added up how much of the money I would be spending would be diverted to the regime.  According to my guidebook, of the US$350 my visit was costing, around $80 would end up in the governments back pocket.  Thinking back to the way aid agencies often advertise for donations using statements such as ‘your $80 can provide food and shelter to a family for 2 months…’, I wondered what how such an advert would read if penned by the recent military junta.  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Your $80 could pay for 1 child soldier, including their transport to one of the many areas of civil war between the regime and minority groups.
  • Your $80 won’t even come close to paying for a mobile phone SIM card (until recently the average cost of a SIM card was $1000, and hence mobile phones – the ultimate tool for organising popular protest – are still the preserve of the rich)
  • Your $80 would barely be a drop in the ocean when it comes to the 1.2 billion dollar cost of the new capital city the regime indulgently decided to build on a Greenfield site in 2005, despite the fact Rangoon had been a perfectly serviceable capital for the previous 130 years or so, and 33% of the nation still live below the poverty line and hence could probably use the cash.

At three in the morning, our bus pulled into a service area halfway along the Rangoon – Mandalay road, not far from the expensive new capital city.  To the right of our bus, a 24 hour cafe was doing fine trade from the passing night-buses, but the story to our left couldn’t have been more different.  A row of ramshackle roadside stalls stretched through the night, each with a few items of fruit bathed in the dim light of a battery-powered bulb.  Hunched over on a stool behind each stall was an old lady, hoping their night spent in a grotty bus stop in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t be in vein.  But nobody was buying, and they all had a look of failure on their faces.  As our bus pulled away I felt more moved by their situation than anything else I’d seen during my previous four months of travel.

Mandalay turned out to be not the exotic city which persists in the West’s imagination, but rather a dusty ex-capital which seemed to do everything required of a nation’s second largest city, but little else.  After a few days, I decided that I needed the spectacular back in my life, and so hit the road to the endless sea of temples that is Bagan.

Between the 8th and 12th centuries, an unprecedented frenzy of construction took place on this flat plain on the banks of the Irrawaddy, with temples and pagodas ranging from the size of a shed to 40m high being built wherever there was space.  It is estimated that at the height of construction there were around 4,000 temples shoehorned into this area of a few dozen square miles, and 2,500 remain standing today.  In isolation, each of the temples would constitute a fine diversion, but it’s the sheer number of them stretching into the distance which makes Bagan such a remarkable sight, especially at sunset when the glowing horizon is serrated by hundreds of their delicate spires.

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After a few days in Bagan my whistlestop tour drew to a close as I headed back to Rangoon, feeling sadly pessimistic about the future, despite recent changes in the way the country is governed.  It’s true that the military has recently opened up somewhat and handed over power to a civilian government; however it’s also true that behind the scenes, the same people are probably still very much in charge.  It’s also true that elections have been called for 2015, but despite recent improvements, it’s not clear how transparent these elections will be, especially as back in 2010 the NLD – the main opposition party – wasn’t even allowed to contest the election.  It’s true that many political prisoners have finally been released, but this is counterbalanced by the fact that the government continues to wage wars against minority peoples which turn tens of thousands of people into refugees every year.   And it’s also true that Aung San Suu Kyi is currently much freer than she has been at any stage since 1989, but as a perennial thorn in the side of the regime, she’s not exactly going unwatched, and has seen more than her share of false dawns over the past two-and-a-half decades.

A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Suu Kyi is in many ways Burma’s equivalent to Gandhi or Mandela, and her commitment to non violent protest is just as impressive as her more famous counterparts.  For instance, when she was placed under house arrest after the election victory which followed her rousing speech before a crowd of half a million at the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1988, she knew that if she decided to leave Burmese politics and return to her family, who were living in London, the regime would not stand in her way.  However, she also knew that were she to leave, she’d not be allowed to back into Burma.  Shunning the easy option, she stayed in the country as a prisoner of conscience.  For years she remained under house arrest, applying pressure as best she could, and raising the profile of her country’s plight.  And for years, the military government did much to make her life uncomfortable.  For instance in 1995, when her husband – Dr. Michael Aris – was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the military refused him a visa to come and visit her in Burma.  She could have given up the fight for freedom and left Burma forever to be with him.  But she didn’t.  Supported by her husband to the last, she stood by her countryfolk, stayed in Burma and carried on the fight.  Dr Aris died in 1996, and didn’t see his wife of 25 years for the last 3 years of his life.  For most of the ‘90s, Aung San Suu Kyi hardly ever saw her sons either, thanks to the government’s restrictions.  But still she stayed in Burma, and kept up her non-violent struggle for justice, just as she does to this very day.

So will her – and her supporters – bravery and determination pay off?  On the surface things are changing.  The Burmese government is being feted by foreign leaders for its recent conciliatory attitude, the political arena is more open than it has been for a very long time, and a trickle of inward investment has begun.  However the nation has seen false starts before, and remains skeptical.  As the Rangoon taxi driver who drove me to the airport to catch my flight back to Bangkok said to me, “Change?  There is never change.  Too many very rich people have too much to lose.  Maybe things will get better in 20 years, but not before.”  The fact that simply uttering this sentence to a foreigner still risks a lengthy jail sentence is an interesting reflection on how much change is still needed.

And so ended my time in Burma – a wonderful nation whose people both desire and deserve the opportunity to finally control their own destiny.  With the support of the rest of the world, there’s a chance that the elections in 2015 could prove the Rangoon taxi driver wrong and bring them the right to self-determination they so sorely deserve.  However without international pressure and support, there’s also a possibility the elections could turn out to be just another false dawn in this nation’s sad recent history.

So please, share this post and spread the word.

These people deserve better.

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