Part of a trip through Southeast Asia encompassing Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia’s Sumatra, Brunei, Malaysian Borneo, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Myanmar

– visited March/April 2015 –

I had first come into contact with Myanmar in 2003. I met a British traveller who told me about a strange place called Burma that he had recently visited. It was difficult to get into that country and people did not know about the September 11 attacks as the government had total control over all media. In all this, he had suddenly met an old, poor looking man who addresses him in the finest Oxford English learned in colonial times.

As I enter Myanmar in March 2015, I do so on an easily obtained eVisa. No need to visit any embassy, just go online, fill out a form and receive a confirmation via e-mail. Everybody is running around with a smartphone, even some temples have free Wi-Fi, the antennas well visible on the walls. People have learned long ago about September 11.

Myanmar is subdivided into seven regions and seven states. That reflects the ethnic composition of the country. The regions are home to the majority Bamar people who constitute about two-thirds of the population. Their home are the lowlands of the Central Burma Basin. Towards the borders of Myanmar, the territory gets mountainous (rising up to 5,881 metres at Hkakabo Razi) and is mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities, the other third of the population. 135 distinct ethnic groups are recognized and the seven most important ones have their own states. Tensions between the majority population and the ethnic minorities have strongly influenced Myanmar’s history up to this day.

Burma had been a part of the British Empire and until 1937 a part of British India. During World War II, Burma was occupied by Japan and became independent under Japanese “supervision”. British forces retook the country in 1945 and it finally achieved independence in 1948 as the Union of Burma. Aung San, its first premier still under British occupation was hailed as the father of the Nation although he was assassinated before the handover of power. Independent Burma had its fair share of troubles and as the ethnic minority groups pushed for more autonomy the military leadership staged a coup d’état in 1962. The country has been under direct or indirect military rule ever since (ending only after my visit in November 2015). The military junta brought all aspects of society under its control and embarked on the Burmese Way to Socialism.

In 1988, economic mismanagement and political oppression led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in what became known as the 8888 Uprising. Thousands of demonstrators were killed, leading a general to stage another military coup and to form the State Law and Order Restoration Council nicely abbreviated as SLORC. Its Declaration No. 1 set four goals for the country: to maintain law and order, improve transportation, improve the humanitarian situation and hold multi-party elections. SLORC also changed the country’s official English name from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar”.

In May 1990, the first free elections were held in almost 30 years and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Aung San, won 80% of the seats. The military junta, however, refused to cede power and continued to rule. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. She could not accept the price as she had been under house arrest since 1989 already. 

Pressure for change started to build up in the late 2000s. The Saffron Revolution of 2007, named for the robes of the monks who participated, was dealt with harshly by the government but led to increased economic sanctions on the regime. A constitutional referendum in 2008 paved the way for democratic reforms, the plan was to create a “discipline-flourishing democracy”. In order to achieve that, one quarter of all parliamentary seats would be reserved for appointed military officers, the Ministry of Home Affairs would fall exclusively under military control ad anyone married to a person who was not a citizen of Myanmar would be barred from running for the office of president. This provision was clearly meant to make Aung San Suu Kyi, still the oppositions flag bearer, ineligible for the presidency because of her (long dead) British husband.

Elections were held in 2010 and won by the military controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party. The opposition, with Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest, boycotted the election. In by-elections in 2012, the National League for Democracy finally competed and won 43 out of 45 available seats. As I visited in March and April of 2015 new elections were scheduled for November of that year and the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi was widely expected. All over the country, you would see her picture.

The country was still not peaceful. Civil wars had been a constant feature of Myanmar’s socio-political landscape since the attainment of independence in 1948. These wars are predominantly struggles for ethnic and sub-national autonomy, with the areas surrounding the ethnically Bamar central districts of the country serving as the primary geographical setting of the conflicts. As a tourist in 2015, you still needed special travel permits to visit the minority areas. But things seemed to be improving and Myanmar clearly on a path to become a country like any other. 

During my visit, I grow concerned as I realize that the opposition, widely respected in the Western world, are foremost Bamar nationalists. They oppose the renaming of the country which was meant by the military as a signal to minorities that Myanmar is not only a country of Bamar. There are other warning sign and I start to wonder if the people longing for true democracy in Myanmar are setting their hopes on the wrong horse.

Mandalay

Mandalay has a name that I associate with beauty and an exotic place. The reality is a lot blander, in most parts Mandalay is a faceless big city. It has a few attractions though, the old royal palace, the temple complex on Mandalay Hill, the Mahamuni Buddha Temple and the Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery. Around Mandalay a tourist circuit has developed that centres on the wooden U Bein Bridge that stretches for hundreds of metres across Taung Tha Man Lake. The circuit includes a few other sights and also souvenir shops, interesting as long as this includes massive wooden carvings or a workshop to transform gold into gold leaf. Gold leaf is important, pious Buddhist stick it onto the Buddha statues in temples.  

Inle Lake

The bus ride to Inle Lake is my first contact with a peculiarity of Myanmar. Night buses leave early in the evening but tend to arrive at ungodly times like 3 AM in the morning. Inconvenient, but no problem in low season as the hotels easily accept early arrivals without any additional charge.

Inle Lake is a beautiful lake where people live on and with the lake. Food is grown literally on the lake, on banks of grass from the lake. Tours are cheap, the full-day boat ride is 15$ and you can share the boat with five people which would bring the price down to incredible 3$. I share the boat with a Japanese traveller, the only downside is that our boatman does not speak any English and cannot tell us much about what we see. The people work on the boats, fishing, harvesting plants from the lake. We enter the stilt villages, visit a weaving workshop and attend a session about cigarette making. In the early afternoon we reach Phaung Daw U Pagoda. Nowadays, there is even an ATM at this pagoda only accessible by boat. I started the day with not enough power in my camera. A fully charged battery gives me roughly 2,000 pictures but a battery charged only 25% gives me less. I try to save energy and get 617 more pictures but, in the end, for the first time in all my travels I am out of battery. No more pictures of the beautiful lake, no pictures of the temple of the cats, where cats live in their island temple.

Inle Lake is also threatened. It has developed into a tourism centre with numerous offers for lake visits, hikes and day trips. The infrastructure cannot cope. What happens if the waste-water is not treated and discharged into the lake? It dies at some point, taking the livelihood of the people, who live off the lake, with it. I hope they manage to institute protection mechanisms before that happens.

The other day, I rent a bike and cycle along the lake. I stop at something few people associate with Myanmar, a winery.

Bagan

Another early, early morning arrival in Bagan. Bagan is one of the most amazing sites I have ever seen. From the 9th to the 13th century it was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom. The Bagan plains, cut in half by the mighty Irrawaddy river are graced with 3,822 temples and pagodas. Some of them are small, some are just amazing, some are ruins, some are empty, some are full of pilgrims, some have intricate carvings and others are plain. The whole complex is just magnificent. It is hot, I am visiting in early April and the dry season heat is beginning. In the mornings and especially evenings people try to chase a beautiful sunrise/sunset over the temples.

One day I rent a bike and the other day I choose an e-scooter. A cheap Chinese design, powered with a normal car battery, I am told to come back to town midday to get another charged scooter. I try to get around that, saving the time, and pay by pushing the scooter home at the end of the day.     

Mount Popa is a day trip from Bagan. A rock that rises vertically like a pedestal is topped by various small temples. A small hiking path is allowing people to reach the top. Begging macaques line the way.

Naypyidaw

Construction on a totally new, planned city started in 2002. In 2005, it was suddenly declared the new capital city of Myanmar and renamed Naypyidaw, the “Seat of Kings”. It has been planned on a massive scale, with areas of town grouped into certain functions. Distances are long. I am on a pass-through visit not considering it worthy enough to spend the night. I strike a deal with a taxi driver who carries me around for a few hours. We stop at the Uppatasanti Pagoda, which is designed on Yangon’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda but lacking all the charm. The pagoda is on an artificial hill and looking around, I see more green fields than built up areas. Roads are of a massive size and empty. The one leading past the parliament and presidential palace has twenty lanes. (!) I can overlook a long stretch of the road and there are more lanes than cars. The road clearly has been planned as a staging ground for military parades with a viewing/exposing platform for dignitaries.

I skip the zoo and visit the Gems Museum as the only other attraction. Naypyidaw is supposed to have hundreds of thousands of inhabitants but I wonder where they are. Myoma Market, the commercial centre, is not of a size fitting for such a city.

From the modern train station, I take the night train to Yangon. The tracks are bad. The seats are comfortable but as the train rumbles over the rails, I twice wake up and think that now, finally, we must have been derailed.

Yangon

Yangon is everything Naypyidaw is not. A vibrant city that has grown over centuries into what it is now: a messy city full of energy. Parks, old colonial buildings and the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda. I spend hours there and I could spend days, just watching people come and pray.

One day, I cross the river and take a bike to cycle to the small Baungdawgyoke Pagoda. It is famous for the pythons who have decided to make it their home. They lounge around the statues, or relax in the donation box. As constrictor snakes they are not venomous and not dangerous for people.

The celebrations for the Buddhist New Year in Myanmar are called Thingyan. The festivities last several days and bring many countries in South-East Asia to a halt. The days before see a frantic scramble to get home. I had planned on heading to Thailand overland but now I fear getting stuck along the way. As I meet a friend in Bangkok, I decide to take the plane. On my last day in Yangon the “festivities” start. Traditionally, Thingyan involved the sprinkling of scented water in a silver bowl but nowadays it has developed, at least for some people, into a free for all water battle. Next to MahaBandoola Garden water sprayers have been installed, in front of my hostel the young lads have filled several barrels and are waiting for potential victims. It is hot, so most people are prepared and do not mind. An older lady passes on a bicycle rickshaw. She raises her hand, “no, not me”, her demand is respected.

Epilogue

I wrote this text about Myanmar in July 2020, more than five years after my visit. Unfortunately, the hopes for the future of Myanmar have not been fulfilled. The National League for Democracy celebrated a sweeping victory in the general elections held in November 2015. Its leader Aung San Suu Kyi rose to the newly created position of State Counsellor, a position more powerful than the presidency (from which she was still barred by the constitution). Unfortunately, she did not prove to be the champion of democracy and human rights that many expected her to be. Voices have been risen to revoke her Nobel peace prize. The flashpoint is the Rohingya genocide. The Rohingya is a Muslim minority that had been living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for hundreds of years. The 1982 Myanmar nationality law had excluded them from citizenship, they were usually classified as “stateless Bengali Muslims” implying that they belonged to Bangladesh (but certainly not the territory they were living on). In 2016, insurgent attacks on border posts led to a military crackdown that soon, aided by Buddhist civilians, became a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Out of an estimated 1 million Rohingyas about 900,000 fled to Bangladesh. Tens of thousands have died. Yes, the military is still powerful but Aung San Suu Kyi has not risen to the challenge, has not defended the Rohingyas, has even refused to call them by their name, justified the military actions and developed good relations with the military. In a well-publicized case, two Burmese journalists for Reuters have been imprisoned for reporting on government atrocities. Myanmar is one of the most beautiful countries that I have ever visited. Currently, I do not want to visit again, as I would feel the need to talk with people about the ongoing Rohingya conflict. I fear the actions of the army are hugely popular and there is no reflection on what is going on.