Mingalaba from Myanmar!

Friday, April 9, 2004
To go or not to go to Burma was the question - their government is a militant regime and some people say that visiting the country is supporting the government. Others feel you are only deserting the people of the country by further isolating them. We read up the subject, weighed the pros and cons and decided that we should go. If you are conscious about the way you spend your money, most will go to the people, not the government. Before I came to Burma I didn't really know a lot about it, and so maybe neither do some of you. You might find a little background information interesting so you know how the country arrived at it's present state...

For over 100 years, Burma was a colony of Britain. Then, World War II broke out. After the war was over, Bogyoke Aung San, a Burmese military leader, went to London to request freedom for his country. The Queen granted his request and he is now considered the father of Burma’s independence movement. Unfortunately, one month later, he was assassinated in a military coup. This military regime has been in power ever since.

The government controls all newspapers, radio and TV. Email and internet is forbidden as well as any foreign news. There are virtually no hospitals for any civilians, only for the military. School is not free so most can not afford to go, plus there are no jobs for them when they finish anyway. Passports are not issued and people can not leave the country. There is no recognized legal system; the government just does whatever they want and slave labor is one of the more pleasant ways they treat their people. In 1988 the people got sick and tired of the regime – the students staged a peaceful protest outside the university calling for democracy. Within six weeks over 3,000 men, women and children were killed. They even shot the nurses who trying to care for the wounded. The university was shut down.

Even though this all happened, the regime was blind to the fact that they were hated by the people, so they held an election in 1990 expecting to be re-elected. But they weren’t. Bogyoke’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, ran for president of the democratic party and won by a landslide. The military regime threw Suu Kyi and forty members of her party in jail. Some of the prisoners were killed, others tortured. Some still remain in jail, some are “missing”. Suu Kyi was eventually released from jail, only to be placed under house arrest.

Not much has changed in Burma since the military regime took over; the government just sucks the country dry of it’s resources and keeps it’s people down. Burma is the 5th poorest country in the world despite it’s plethora of oil, precious stones and other natural resources. Many of the students fled to the jungles and borders of Burma and are fighting the regime from there. This (and a thriving opium and narcotics trade) is the reason why as a tourist you must only visit “approved” places in the country. Almost all borders are off limits to foreigners. Day trips are allowed at two places along the Thai border but to visit Burma for longer than an afternoon you must fly into Yangon, the capital, or take the occasional flight to Mandalay, a northern city.

The military regime has done a good job of hiding the reality of their country from foreigners. The unsuspecting visitor may not even notice that anything is amiss, especially if they fly from place to place. We spent almost 3 weeks taking buses around the country and if you look you can not miss the open quarries where women and children are turning boulders into rubble so that roads can be built. Then, on the roads, you see children not even 10 years old placing these small stones a handful at a time onto the road to make repairs or widen the lane. Everything involved in making a road is done in the most manual way possible; and all under the scorching sun. Food and accommodation for the workers all takes place under tarps on the side of the road. They eat, sleep and breathe the dust of that road. Evidence of this work could be seen on every inch of every road we drove on.

Even in a society such as the one I have described, there are many who have managed to defy the regime either through friends in the right places or through people supporting them from around the world – or maybe both! We were lucky enough to meet just a few. We met a very outspoken man who boldly described his reality and the reality of his country to us. He talked to us about how aggressive the regime is and how it has affected him and his family. Not all of them are still alive.

We met another interesting troupe of people called the Moustache Brothers. They are a trio of comics famous among the Burmese. They incorporate satire (political and otherwise) and dance into their act. They had been famous for years and years traveling the country and entertaining the Burmese people. For some reason, their political satire was tolerated by the regime for all this time. Then, they decided to stage a very public performance in front of the house where Suu Kyi was under lock and key. For this act they were given 7 years in prison (mostly hard labor). They also achieved notoriety around the world. Major newspapers on every continent ran articles about the brothers. Some have even interviewed them since their sudden release from prison in 1991. Most of the edgy stuff from their routine has been removed, but they welcome foreigners into their home every evening to meet them and stay for some comedy and dance. The Brothers claim that the media has saved their lives. The worldwide media attention given to them has protected them from the regime. If anything were to now happen to them, the world would know about it the next day. They were pretty funny too!

Despite their government, we had a fantastic visit to Burma… you don’t meet the government (fortunately!) you meet the people and the Burmese are among the most friendly and welcoming people in the world. They are actually excited to see you and everyone says hello. Little kids are wide eyed when they look at you and they always smile. Maybe foreigners give them a little hope and insight about the outside world they are isolated from, or maybe they are just laughing at the way we dress. Some just want to sell you bananas or postcards.

After the serious tone of this newsletter, here’s some FUN facts about Burma:

  1. Almost all men and women wear a longyi (pronounced lawn-gee). A longyi is kind of like a skirt except there are no curves in it for your hips! It's very wide at both the top and bottom and is always floor length. One size fits all! They have a certain way of folding and tucking the extra material at the waist. If you are royalty, you fold and tuck your longyi differently.
  2. In Burma, handmade cigars are called cheroots. I don’t know much about cigars, but a retired New Zealander we traveled with for a little while claims they are fantastic and he smoked them non-stop. Dad – you can expect a few in the next package!
  3. The betel nut is probably the worst thing about the Burmese – I think they learned it from the Indians. The betel nut is this brown nut that they chew up until it is full of saliva and then they spit it into a leaf and wrap it up. It is then shoved back into their mouths. They suck it like a piece of hard candy all day long, occasionally replacing it with another. The thing is, it’s NOT like hard candy. It turns your spit brown and you constantly need to spit. And they do. Everywhere. Even the women. You can tell who chews and who doesn’t because your teeth turn almost entirely brown from this lovely habit.
  4. Many Burmese women, and some men, wear a pale yellow paste on their face called Thanaka (pronounced tin-akha). They wear it to keep their faces out of the sun. It's a kind of sunscreen and skin whitener all in one. Basically though, it looks like war paint! Most women wear it brushed on both cheeks - not like blush though, it goes straight across the cheek. Others just smear it all over (including ears sometimes!) and it looks like they never washed off the soap from their shower.
  5. Burma has most of the world’s teak trees. Teak is the world’s hardest wood and is very desirable. The regime is trying their hardest to cut down every teak tree in sight and is selling them to the Chinese. They seem to be doing a pretty good job too, because often enough we would see giant piles of “inventory” stacked up on the side of the road awaiting shipment. We saw thousands and thousands of trees in these stockpiles.
  6. There used to be so many rubies in the rivers that it appeared that the rivers were running red! The area where those rivers “flowed red” is called Mogok. Foreigners are only allowed to visit here by permit only. A permit basically means that for a mere few hundred dollars a day you get a government escort, car and driver to accompany you on a pre-planned government-approved itinerary. The escort takes notes about your every move.
  7. The most religious site in Burma is called the Shwedigon Pagoda. It’s a gigantic temple covered in 60 tons of gold leaf. Even if you are not a Buddhist (um, like me) it’s still an amazing place to visit. How often can you watch an orange sun set on 60 tons of gold leaf??
  8. A stupa is a Buddhist religious monument that is kind of cone shaped and pointy at the top. Usually they are covered in gold or whitewashed. In Burma, there are millions of stupas everywhere you look. I’m not exaggerating when I say millions either. Anytime you look out into the countryside, the whole landscape is dotted with them.
  9. In 1989, the country officially changed the English name of it’s country from Burma to Myanmar – which is what they call their country in their own language. Coincidentally, their language is called Myanmar as well. If you were a Burmese person, you are now a Myanmar person. It doesn’t appear though that this change has caught on in most of the world – just today, a mere 15 years after the name change, I read an article in Thailand’s largest paper about the country. There was no mention of Myanmar… only Burma!
  10. Monks are everywhere. In Burma they all dress in red robes and they seem to be more traditional than other South East Asian countries. The women wear light pink robes with some brown. Most monks and nuns carry umbrellas – the sun would burn their always shaved heads if they didn’t. You actually see both the monks and the nuns walking in groups from house to house chanting. They are not supposed to have any money, so the people feed them. They get a little spoonful from each house they visit.
  11. Like other countries around here, most of their vehicles come from Japan. Except in Burma, there are no junkyards. It seems that cars and buses never come off the road. Despite the fact that there are a reasonably small number of cars for 54 million people, the pollution plumes out of the exhaust pipes at an alarming rate. The stuff that comes out of the back of buses and cars is thick and black. One hour of walking around a city and your skin is coated.
  12. In a country of 54 million people, there are only 700 foreigners living there - and even they have a hash, which we went to. We met 40 of the 700 foreigners in one afternoon!
As for tourism, we got to see quite a bit in 3 weeks. At Inle Lake we got to see the famous leg rowers and the floating tomato gardens. In Bagan we took a horse and cart around the 3000 temples built there. We only went inside about 15 of them though! In Mandalay we hiked barefoot up to the top of the hill and peered into the former palace. Also, we were two of 16 foreigners to visit the Golden Rock Pagoda on the day we hauled ourselves up that mini mountain. Down south we went to see the world’s biggest reclining Buddha. It’s been a work in progress for over 10 years and they are nowhere near completion! We also went to the beach on the Andaman Sea and at an ancient capital city we walked across the longest teak bridge in the world.

Now we are back in the “civilization” of Bangkok where we met up with Rob’s friends Nick and Anne. We will be traveling to Malaysia with them in a few days!

Hope all is well! Regards, Alison


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