I’m going to start this blog entry with a sentence I unfortunately have to use by far too often…
It has been a while since my last entry… but things have been quite busy the last couple of months and in order to finance a recreational research trip to Thailand, Burma and Indonesia I actually had to undertake some paid work (which was quite a pleasure though).
I decided in the late summer of last year to go back to Burma and Thailand in order to see what is going on in the countries I have read so much about lately. The visit to Indonesia was just to get to know a new country and culture; and compared to the other countries I have been visiting across the South East Asian region, it is quite a different experience. But I will stick to the main focus of the blog and this time on Burma as it has experienced the biggest change ever since my last visit to the region.
People across the world could follow the late political and economic developments easily as they made it to the main stream media by far more often and also in a very positive manner – mostly at least. The plan was to visit Mrauk U (an old temple city in the Western Rakhine state of the country) but this endeavor was shut down at a fairly early stage of the trip as it was not possible to visit due to an ongoing clash between the Muslim and Buddhist population in this area; the dispute arose after a Buddhist woman was raped by several Muslim men. The clashes resulted in dozens of casualties on both sides, thousands of refugees and hundreds of homes burnt down. It has become fairly quiet around the issue although it is not resolved yet. The government has avoided stepping in although tried to maintain the rule of law by increasing its presence in the area. Several human rights groups have blamed the government forces though for taking the side of the Buddhist side and therefore neglecting the Muslim minority – we are talking about the Rohingya people, who, according to the UN, are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The UN has urged the government to do more in this matter but so far has not been able to come up with a solution acceptable for the government.
I cannot tell you more about the issue, as I was not able to visit the area. The people I spoke to though were aware of the issue, but still, had no real point of view on the matter. Whenever the topic came up, the answer I got mostly was something like this: “Oh yeah, the Rohingya…”. So the people did not really intend to talk about the issue; neither did Aung San Suu Kyi (and her NLD), who has failed to take a clear stance on the issue.
Speaking about the Lady. It was not hard to notice that many things have changed. Her picture can be seen all across the country and she is more present than ever. This is the change I have noticed the most. Last time, seeing her picture anywhere was rare to impossible. At a public event around the light festival in Yangon, there was a booth run by the NLD in order to promote their cause and party. It was great to see them experiencing this sort of freedom in order to promote their political attitude and endeavor. In general the presence of the military around the former capital was very little to non-noticeable. Even a visit to the compound where Aung San Suu Kyi has spent so much time under house arrest was possible this time – a trip that was not even to think of two and a half years ago. On my last day and my trip to the airport I took the little detour to visit the house, which left me in front of a very highly secured compound, surrounded by high walls, a big and massive entrance door and barbwire on top of the surrounding walls – it did not really feel like a too pleasant place to be kept under house arrest for more than 15 years.
Depending on the age group I was talking to there was a different sense of freedom and ease of handling with the past and the present. The older generation still felt a little anxious talking to foreigners about certain topics (e.g. the time of the dictatorship of Ne Win); the younger generation did not really care talking about any of these topics, but I think this comes with the experience made with the military and its cruel way of ruling. The younger generation was happy to experience freedom and life rather than think about anything that could dampen their mood; fair enough and good for them that the focus has shifted from the dark to the bright side of life.
The biggest presence of the army I have seen around was near Mawlamyine in the Mon state. This was due to the Southern headquarters of the army down there – still the army did not really interfere with the everyday’s life in the region. One thing though, it was not possible to go further South as big parts of the country are still closed for the public (or actually foreigners). The government has still not resolved most of the issues between them and the ethnic minorities.
Just recently, the government has admitted to have launched some airfare on the regions inhabited by the Kachin minority; according to them it was only to keep supply routes open but some video material provided by the Free Burma Rangers showed a different picture. So there is still a long road to go for the (surprisingly) reformist government in charge. The Mon minority in the Southern part I went to was free to promote their party though and the people showed their support publicly as could be seen by several signs on houses on the road from the Golden Rock down to Mawlamyine.
The people of Burma are one pleasant group of people to deal with. The teens and tweens seemed very interested in speaking English, talking to foreigners, taking pictures with us and showing us what has changed for them. Listening to mainstream rock or pop was something I hardly came across the last time, but this time the “kids” were showing us on their smart phones and mp3 players the music they are listening to now – Western, Asian mainstream music from all over the world. Although they maintain a good amount of their own music – so it is basically like in every country, a good blend of national and international arts is making up the whole scene. Phones in general were a thing hardly anyone possessed only a short way down the road, but now many more people can afford to buy a SIM card as the phone market has been opened up a little. It is still not yet a free market as we know it. The older generation as well was very welcoming and talkative but you could feel the difference and ease of talking about certain topics. Still, the people in general are very friendly and lovely towards foreigners no matter where you go and it was very pleasant to see this has not changed so far.
The day before I arrived in Yangon another famous person visited the country. People were very excited by his appearance, a little bit more than by my visit but this is quite understandable – I did not arrive with an entourage of three airplanes, the lack of funds forced me to take a normal flight.
The person I am talking about is US President Barack Obama came to visit the country on his first trip after being reelected in November. He went to Yangon to meet up with Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. Quite a statement that he did not go to the capital city but the old capital where Aung San Suu Kyi is residing; he basically made Thein Sein come to Yangon, which is a strong statement in itself in favor of the Lady and against the military leadership. People were mentioning his name wherever we went to as they thought we were Americans maybe. I tried to make clear that Obama is not my president but this did not really matter – I did not really bother either. We will see what the impact of the visit is, but it is definitely involving expanding bilateral economic trade as well as improving ties with the military. The US even invited the Burmese army to take part in a joint exercise with the Thai army, which is a statement towards China, showing support for Burma and trying to cut the strong ties of the Chinese with the military there. The generals are aware that Beijing became too strong over the last years and this was one reason that the country decided to open up and try to establish – for the sake of it let’s call it – a democracy over the last more or less two years. The day I went to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Prime Minister of New Zealand was there for a visit as well (a shame the red carpet was not there for me and my friends). More and more high caliber politicians are due to visit the country over the course of the next months and Burma will see a lot of economic expansion by this. One hope from my side is that the country will not lose its beautiful culture and nature for the sake of the economic development. On the other hand, the people deserve nothing less than reaching a higher level of standard of living and therefore economic development seems to be a good way.
These are pretty much the changes and developments I have noticed during my visit to the country. The impression of Burma being a beautiful, friendly and lovely country created by its people and their hospitality has not changed. I hope on my next visit I will notice changes towards a better standard of living for the people but having changed neither their mindset nor their culture, as this is maybe the most beautiful thing you can see within this South East Asian diamond.