Myanmar – a backpacker’s perspective
Written by Karishma Huda
Myanmar, a contradictory co-existence of a military dictatorship and a peace-loving people with lives governed by the principles of Theravada Buddhism.
Because Myanmar is rarely in the media (no coincidence, as the government forbids foreign journalists from entering the country), I was enthusiastic to talk to locals and learn the political realities of this mysterious place. I learned quickly that the fastest way to cease all conversation is to bring up politics, as people are forbidden to discuss it in public places – when a group of Burmese are huddled in a group, it is a matter of minutes before a policeman penetrates the circle and disperses the ‘potential conspirators.’
It is only behind closed doors that I learned of the overarching oppression that dictates people’s everday actions. Communication with the outside world is virtually forbidden, international news is in English so locals do not have the faintest idea of what’s going on, and the local news, with all its state propoganda, has a strong Orwellian slant. Not one person could even give me an accurate account of the number of tsunami victims in Myanmar!
Not to say that being kept in a bubble is the worst of the government’s atrocities. The country’s tourism is being built on the backs of 14 year old boys who are taken from their villages by the military junta and forced to do manual labor on roads, hotels, etc. A young man I spoke to broke down in tears when telling me that at the age of 15 he was captured from his village home, enlisted in the army, and forced to rape an 8 year old tribal girl at gunpoint. Another man from the Pa-O tribe in the small town of Kalaw was telling me the story of his 3 missing fingers – thirty years ago there was a militry invasion in his village, where he watched his brother be gunned to death, his sister raped (for which she later committed suicide), and in this chaos three of his fingers were blown off. As I learned during a stunning three day trek through villages in the Shan state, personal stories of massacre are a dime a dozen in the tribal areas.
Government workers complain that their wages cannot keep up with the skyrocketing inflation, and they believe that keeping people in subsistence poverty (where they are not starving, but have little means of getting ahead) is the government’s main tactic for diverting locals away from politics. After all, overthrowing the government are luxirous thoughts that those struggling for everyday survival cannot afford.
I found it difficult to fathom that a country so naturally rich in precious stones, teak, even oil, would be so impoverished – clearly, the government reaps the rewards and holds on to them tightly with an iron fist. (I suppose the economic sanctions, which impoverish the people more than debilitate the government, don’t help either.)
Brainwashing tactics are ferocious, as every Myanmar worker undergoes a month long training where they are taught to ‘love their country’ and ‘never oppose the system.’ Foreigners are reminded through big red billboards in English of ‘the people’s desire’- to be a pure nation free of ‘colonial influence’ and ‘foreign temptation.’ Journalists and activists are banned from the country, as are laptops, tapes, recorders, etc. In other words, as tourists we are asked to politely handover our dollars, smile, look, but never speak.
I asked people many times, just as I ask the people of Bangladesh, if the public is so unhappy with their governance, why not revolt? I was informed that the country had seen democratic leaders, and people’s protests were usually non-violent and led by the country’s monks who turned their alms bowls upside down in conmdemnation. The government did not hesitate to brutally slaughter all protesters, and people still vividly recall thousands of monks – whom they revere nearly as much as Buddha himself – slain en masse, as piles of red bodies and robes were thrown in the backs of pick-up trucks.
The leader of the National League of Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi (a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) is the country’s last hope. But she is old, and has been under house arrest for the past 20 years with no one to carry on her torch. The people are starving of leadership, of someone to light their way to freedom – so much so that locals tell me that they love Bush, and they wish he would ‘democratize’ Myanmar the way he did Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine.
Aung San Suu Kyi called a boycott on tourism, asking tourists to visit a free and democratic Myanmar. I was also urged by many to not visit the nation on moral grounds, and others warned me against it for fear of my safety (a huge misconception, as the Burmese would not hurt a fly and the government overprotects foreigners.) Against all caution, I came anyway, and am so glad I did. I found an unparalleled richness in culture, natural and architectural beauty, religion, and a people overflowing with kindness, humility, warmth and boundless respect. One of the subtle highlights of the trip was waking up at 6am to see lines of barefoot monks in red robes, carrying their alms bowls around their necks and going home to home to collect food. Travelling alone I never once felt alienated, for locals took me into their homes and monks into their monasteries, where they opened up their worlds to me with great pleasure. .
I was lucky enough to be in Mandalay (the country’s cultural capital) for the Water Festival, or Bumese New Year. Imagine, if you can, a massive water fight that lasts for five days – 10 million tons of water are pumped from the lake and ejected upon human bodies through fire hoses, buckets, water guns – you name it. It is a magical festival of solidarity, peace and fun. On one street, young people are gyrating to disco music on the back of trucks while hosing each other down, families are on motorbikes and their babies armed with water pistols, and monks are standing on the sidelines watching the chaos with impenetrable smiles (probably because no one dares to throw water on them!) The streets were so flooded it looked like monsoon, and yet not a single fight, act of crime, or even indecency or disrespect broke out. People were simply glowing like school children and having the time of their lives, asking me every five minutes, ‘are you happy?’ and I could honestly say I was. I kept thinking to myself, these must be the happiest oppressed people I have ever encountered.
As far as moralistic reasons are concerned, I’ve been told by locals that Myanmar needs tourists. With a crippled economy, thousands of locals are surviving simply off tourism. And unless toursits come and relay all they see, Myanmar will remain veiled behind an iron curtain. I saw the renowned Moustache Brothers, a family troupe that performs the traditional pwe (Burmese comedy, dance, and music). Due to their sarcasm towards politics, each member of the troupe has been imprisoned for seven years, and are currently blacklisted and banned from performing for locals. Yet because tourists came, learned of their talent and predicament, their story and name have spread worldwide. Because of the tourists’ demand to see their performances, the government now allows them to perform in their living room, but only for tourists – as one of the brothers told me, ‘tourists have kept pwe alive and our family from starving.’
Who knows what the future holds for Myanmar, although the people are not very optimistic. Cynics say that a military junta will stay in power and is needed if the country’s 135 ethnic groups are to live harmoniously. Others have given up on the fight, and are more optimistic about living this life as obediently as possible, despite the obstacles, so they may go straight to Nirvana and no longer endure this suffering through the cycle of reincarnation. This unbreakable faith governs their actions, and makes the people of Myanmar the most decent human beings I have ever encountered.
Myanmar is a jewel and a travel experience that shines brighter than all the rest. A word of advice – come see Myanmar before it turns into the next Thailand.