Burmese Days

Few countries have been enshrouded in such mystery in recent years as Burma/Myanmar (the name was officially changed by the military government in 1989). From a distance one reads of the secretive military dictatorship clamping down on all form of protest and almost isolating the country; the protest of the Buddhist monks against price rises in 2008 when some 31 monks were killed; the long house arrests of Aung San Suu Kyi (The Lady), leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), from 1990 to 1995, 2000 to 2002, and 2003 to 2010, initially after the elections which the NLD won in 1990 were declared null and void. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and now, after her release in November 2010, is wined and dined by world leaders, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, and especially Barack Obama. She is very much a President-in-Waiting, and photos of her and her father, Aung San, are on sale on every street corner.

Aung San was the leader of the Burmese independence movement during the period of the Second World War. He first received military training in Japan, but then switched the allegiance of the Burmese army to the British in March 1945, helping the British to prevail over the Japanese two months later. In January 1947 he negotiated an independence agreement with Britain, and then his party, the Anti-fascist People’s Freedom League, won an overwhelming victory in the ensuing elections, but in July 1947 he and six colleagues were gunned down. There followed successive military dictatorships while the economy, once one of the wealthiest in Asia, disintegrated.

The military party won the 2010 election, boycotted by the NLD, and considered fraudulent by many, but, surprisingly for many, has introduced a number of liberal measures, granting amnesties to more than 200 political prisoners, introducing new labour laws that allow unions and strikes, relaxing of press censorship, and allowing the currency to float. Economic sanctions have been lifted by Europe and North America, Aung San Suu Kyi now said she hoped foreigners would now visit Myanmar, and the flood of tourists began…

Myanmar is in! The snowbirds come to escape the drudgery of the European and North American winters. And the tourist infrastructure can hardly cope. Hotels at twice the price I find in the Lonely Planet Guide are difficult to find, and plane reservations are tricky.

The tourists come for the culture shock; the quirks: men in skirts, rather longhis, the standard masculine attire here. To ride in cars with a right-hand drive, as in the UK, but you drive on the right-hand side of the road, as in Europe and the Americas – in 1970 the government decided to further distance itself from the colonial past by driving on the right – but continued to import old Japanese cars (Japan drives on the left). And for security reasons, no motor bikes may circulate in Yangon.

And bring a full bag of dollars, and only fresh clean greenbacks, for anything creased and old and dirty is not accepted. It is a country where ATMs are in their early infancy, and forget about credit cards, Macdonalds and Starbucks. And only 5% of the population own a mobile phone, one of the lowest percentages in the world. The tourists come for the smells and crush of the markets, the cheap gifts, the remarkable lack of hassle despite the poverty, the temples and stupas, and to see the male and female monks in their crimson robes holding their begging bowls. It is a country which is still in the 20th century, where you can smoke almost everywhere, where you don’t bother about a seatbelt, where you even get a paper non-virtual hard copy airline ticket, and in the most important airport in the country your luggage is weighed on a set of 1960s Avery scales, in pounds and stones, of course – I remember stretching up to put a penny in the slot of one of them to see if I’d already reached six stone in 1964. 

But things are rapidly changing. I read that the price of SIM cards has come down from $600 to $100, and, by the proliferation of mobile phone shops, it looks as if they are much much cheaper. ATMs seem to be springing up. Motor bikes may be allowed into Yangon. The carpetbaggers have already been and gone. The price of lands has risen rapidly; the number of business visitors rose 64% in 2012. China is building an oil and pipeline right through Myanmar. And Thailand, Japan, the US, France, the UK and Germany are all important stakeholders in the new Myanmar.

As a result of the three Anglo-Burmese wars, 1824, 1853, and 1885, the Burmese kings were defeated, and all of Burma became part of the British Empire. Chinese and Indian immigration to Burma was encouraged. In central Yangon and Mandalay there is a large Indian population, with both Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, and the Chinese population in Yangon is beginning to celebrate New Year.

Burma was not a popular colonial posting for British officials, many of whom were insensitive to local traditions, especially that of taking off their shoes to enter temples. Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) worked as colonial policeman in Katha, in Northern Myanmar, and his dislike of Burma, colonial officials, British wheelers and dealers, and also the Burmese themselves, is clear in his novel Burmese Days. Indeed, this experience of the colonial was to a large extent responsible for turning him into a socialist.

But the Brits left a number of buildings in Yangon, which give it a colonial air: the dark red, or crimson brick Post & Telegraph building next to the Law Courts in a similar style; the classical Customs House, the colonnaded Inland Water Transport Office, and the exclusive classical Strand Hotel. And right in the centre of city is the huge and dilapidated also dark red brick Colonial Secretariat Building. Indeed, it seems that the dark red brick style caught on as a number of recent buildings have followed it.

Unlike some of my colonial predecessors, in the temples I do take off my socks and shoes and wear a longhi over my shorts, and in the Shwedagon Paya, dating back to 1485, I walk in the clockwise direction of all the visitors. The proliferation of the elaborately roofed pointed pavilions, the many Buddhas in their temples, and their followers and disciples is overwhelming. My Lonely Planet waxes lyrical: “You emerge from semi-gloom into a dazzling explosion of technicoloured glitter, for Shwedagon is not just one huge, glowing zedi (stupa). Around the mighty stupa cluster an incredible assortment of smaller zedi, statues, temples, shrines, images and tazaung (small pavilions). Somehow, the bright gold of the main stupa makes everything else seem brighter and larger than life” (p.45).

This is the big tourist attraction of all Myanmar, and we take our pictures and mingle with the locals, who are here praying, burning incense, meeting their friends, doing their homework, picnicking, for the visit to the temple is a family outing, to escape for a while from the cramped living conditions of most Burmese.

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