Arrived safely back in Bangkok after two and half weeks in Myanmar…still alive and with all limbs!
It was a really cool trip and a big eye-opener. Before i delve into the details further, i’ll give a quick background of the country and the situation.
Myanmar is the country formally known as Burma. The name change which happened around 20 years ago, is one of many changes adopted by the military junta that makes up the government. Many of the major towns also underwent name changes to remove the British influence from the country – the fact that the name Burma was given to the country due to it’s majority population of Bamar people…didn’t really matter.
Back in the day, Burma was part of the British Empire, and along with many other countries, the people strove for freedom. A movement led by Bogyoke Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi‘s father) eventually secured the country independence in 1948, despite him not living to see it. Aung San is still regarded as the country’s greatest hero…being the bringer of freedom. However, due to some side switching by General Aung San during the war (he was originally trained by the Japanese and helped to fight the British during WWII, then switched and sided with the Brits) and some other internal conflicts, the country decended into chaos and there were rebel groups fighting with the new government, and with each other. The situation is quite ironic as General Aung San, and some comrades, formed the first Burmese Army when they were trained by the Japanese, so by the time they won their fight and got their freedom, it was essentially a military government in power.
With fighting all over the country and the economy worsening, something had to be done. After ten years of conflict and fighting, the government began to get the upper hand and bring the country under control. Power changed between two main figures, U Nu (Aung San’s protoge) and General Ne Win, often voluntarily and with the use of the army to help bring law and order to the country. However, by 1962, General Ne Win was getting unhappy with the fact U Nu had been in power for a while and forcefully seized the reigns. He abolished the parliament and set up his own 17 member Revolutionary Council! Unfortunately, at the time this wasn’t seen as such a bad thing – the Burmese Army was viewed highly being set up by the country’s hero and the same army that fought for their independence. General Ne Win’s party has been in power ever since.
After suffering for a number of years, the people joined together and took to the streets in 1987/88. Spurred by the fact that Buddha had said the country would become free on the date of 8-8-88 the people took part in anti government demonstrations and prodemocracy rallies. Ne Win eventually stood down as chairman in order to try and solve the situation, however continued to control the party from the background. With the government seeming to be losing it’s power they resorted to the only means that armies understand and murdered some 3000+ people over a six week period and brutally crushed anyones hopes of a democratic government. The people still fought on and by the time the third successor to Ne Win took control in September 1988 under the new title Slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council) he promised to hold a democratic election in 1989. The opposition rallied together and formed the NLD (National League for Democracy) and championed their enigmatic spokesperson Aung San Suu Kyi.
The government tried to appease the crowds by a number of cash injections into the economy, but rather than hold an election in 1989, they arrested and detained Suu Kyi, eventually putting her under house arrest. Thinking that the situation was under their control, the government held an election in May 1990 and the NLD won 82% of the votes (despite the government moving whole villages and trying to rig the election). Slorc banned all NLD representatives from the parliament and used their moment in the spotlight to raid offices and arrest it’s members. Since the election over 100 elected parliamentarians have been imprisoned, exhiled or killed.
In 1995 Aung San Suu Kyi was eventually released from house arrest (after a number of international awards including the Nobel Peace Prize), alongwith many other party members who had been imprisoned, and began to give speechs outside her home. The road was promptly blocked to all traffic so that people could not go to listen, and hundreds of people who attended her meetings or speeches were arrested and imprisoned. In the years after 96 her travel was severyly restricted and she attempted to leave Yangon (the capital city) and was forcefully brought back to her home by the military. in 1999 her British husband (and Oxford professor) was refused entry into the country and soon after died of cancer (after having not seen eachother for 3 years), and by 2000 on her second attempt to leave Yangon, she protested by sitting in her car at the blockade for 6 days before being returned to her home where she was again placed under house arrest.
After 2 years and secret talks with the government, she was unconditionally released and began touring the country and visiting supporters and NLD offices. However, just 1 year later in May 2003, while touring with a large group of NLD members, they were attacked in the Sagaing district (near Mandalay) and over 100 party members were killed. Aung San Suu Kyi spent a number of months in prison with many of the other party members who had survived and began a hunger strike. She was eventually transferred back to her house in Yangon where she has yet again been placed under house arrest, and where she remains today.
Today, the situation has barely changed since 1960. The military government is still in power and the atrocities they’ve committed over the years can rival Pol Pot, Mao and other such reforming dictators. The army doesn’t sit in the same light that it used to as the Burmese are aware of their situation. The rich have conitinued to get richer and the poor have got much poorer. Foreigners have severly restricted travel rights around the country, so the areas of extreme poverty are kept out of the photos, and the shiny gold pagodas are pushed in their faces instead. The ever intelligent government has imposed lots of changes and reforms on the country…but none of them seem to be having much beneficial effect for the people.
– They demonitised the two largest bank notes so that everyone who had them instantly lost all their money.
– They made an overnight switch of the side of the road for cars to drive on (from the left to the right) but since most people are too poor to buy cars, the majority of the cars in the country are older than 30 years and therefore right hand drive (so much so that oll booths are on the right hand side of the car, despite the fact you drive on the right hand side of the road), most of the public town buses are left from the colonial days and are around 85 years old.
– The exchange rate of the country is fixed at 6 kyat to the dollar, despite the unofficial rate being 1250 and the biggest bank note being 1000 (less than US$1).
– All media is heavily censored and full of propoganda.
– Many educated people were moved from their homes and forced to do manual labour on farms
– Most building work and public work is done by forced labour from the citizens or by prison labour (including building of many new roads and buildings for the visit Myanmar year of 1996, building of most the tourist attractions, cleaning of sewars and drains, gardening etc etc).
Unfortunately today China is one of the governments biggest supporters, and the opening of the border between the two countries has seen (or hasn’t seen as the case may be) a huge flow of trade for the illegal teak wood loggers, cocaine producers and diamond and gem stone smugglers. The Chinese government openly supports the junta’s policies – which has now changed it’s name from Slorc to the State Peace and Development Council after hiring a (guess who??) US PR agency to spruce up their image for the world media!! Glad to see that American firms still like to make a quick buck out of dictators who steal money from their people…does the world ever really change??
So….all this leads me back to the start…and my time there. It took me a few days to work out what was odd about the place. Sure it’s poor…but it’s different to other places that i’ve been which are equally poor. The key difference i noticed is that it’s more than destitute, it’s delapidated. It used to be rich. There used to be nice buildings and expensive new cars…well…they’re still there…just they’re not so nice and not so new anymore. They have the worst roads i’ve ever seen, it’s a miracle that the ancient cars still run!
I stopped writing this post earlier as i had to go out (probably just as well cause it’s pretty big!!), so i will add more about my experiences in Burma soon.