Thursday, May 10, 2007


After spending 10 days in Bangkok working on my visa to Myanmar (Burma) (Wikipedia article) I was able to fly into Yangon (Rangoon). I met a French Canadian, Emanuel, at the Bangkok airport who was also traveling alone in Myanmar so we spent the next few weeks traveling together. We spent a few days in Yangon before heading to Mandalay where Emanuel started having some stomach problems that cleared up in a few days. We went to Kalaw where we decided to join a group that was doing a three day trek to Inle Lake (see blog). After that we headed to Bagan (see Wikipedia article) to see the 4,400 temples (see pics).

The US government has imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar because of the continued social unrest between the government and various ethnics groups. These sanctions have caused the banks to pull out of the country which means there are no ATM's. Of course prices are cheap and I spent a total of $315 over 18 days. The first question local people ask is where we are from and even though I say the US they still treat me like anyone else and are very friendly, always ready to help or just practice their English. They tend not to talk about political things especially in larger groups because they're not sure who is listening. The food is not the best and takes some getting used to. The transportation is some of the worst I've experienced so far and getting from one place to another can be trying even for experienced travelers. Internet is hard to find, expensive, slow, subject to power outages that can last for hours or even days, and all major email providers are blocked by the Myanmar government.

A few days before I arrived in Yangon several key members of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters were met by more than 50 people led by a local Secretary U Nyunt Oo and beaten up leaving two members badly injured and are now hospitalized.

Myanmar is currently ruled by inward focused elite who are wary of their neighbors, fearful of foreign influence, and in a constant state of civil unrest between the 135 ethnic groups. The first major kingdom was founded in 1044 when King Anawrahta took the throne by force, unified the country, founded Theravada Buddhism, and began building Bagan's first temple. Over the next 200 years they built over 4,400 temples in a condensed 42 sq km area making Bagan one of the most remarkable sites in Southeast Asia (see pics). The Burmese refer to this as the 'Golden Era' but in their ambitious building spree the left the city bankrupt and vulnerable to attack. By the end of the 13th century the Mongols from China destroyed the Pagan Empire.

Over the next 500 years Myanmar was divided by the various ethnic groups until 1767 when it became unified enough to conquer the Thai kingdom of Ayudhya. Over the next 100 years the Burmese ruling elite became inwardly focused and failed to notice Britain increasing its presence in the area and by 1886 Britain controlled the country. The British transformed Myanmar over the next 60 years starting with the exile of the royal family and then building infrastructure to support the export of rice, teak, and minerals. However they made no attempt to industrialize the country and to this day still relies on agriculture, teak, minerals, and as well as being the world's second largest producer of opium, accounting for 8% of entire world production and is a major source of narcotics, including amphetamines.

One of the consistent themes in Myanmar history is being a pluralistic society where economic position is determined by ethnicity. This was reinforced during the British rule where Europeans controlled much of the export trade and appointed the non-Burmese ethnic groups to serve as police and army for domestic control. The independence from Britain was led by Aung San who is a legendary hero in Myanmar. In April 1947 he was elected along with his cabinet to prepare a constitution for an independent Myanmar but three months later, Aung San and six of his Cabinet were assassinated by their political rivals.

After Myanmar achieved independence a 'nationalist' movement took hold of the country. This movement was dominated by the major ethnic group of the Bamar and was strongly anti-Chinese and anti-Indian as well as suspicious of the other ethnic groups. The failing economy and the government emphasis on the 'Burmeseness' of Myanmar seem to be the prime causes of social unrest. Corruption has become rampant and inflation has forced to people to rely on the 'black' market for most of their daily staples.

In March 1962, a military coup led by General Ne Win overthrew the elected government ushering in the military rule that has deliberately isolated itself from the social, political, and economic forces that have swept over the rest of Southeast Asia. The military arrested political and ethnic leaders, closed down the parliament, demolished the federal structure, and eliminated the Indian and Chinese business class.

The economy deteriorated to a point that in 1987 the United Nations gave Myanmar 'Least Developed Nation' status, recognizing it as one of the world's 10 poorest countries. In 1988, the Burmese army violently repressed protests against economic mismanagement and political oppression. On 8 August 1988, the military opened fire on demonstrators in what is known as 8888 Uprising and imposed martial law. The Western governments reacted and pressured the government to hold elections in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero Aung San and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, led the way for the National League for Democracy (NLD) to claim victory in the upcoming elections but was place under house arrest in July 1989. NLD was able to win more than 80% of the seats when the elections were held in May 1990. The government responded by arresting the NLD leaders and declaring the elections null and void. Subsequently, the military retained power and released Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 but in September 2000 was again placed under house arrest and continues to detain her (see Wikipedia article).

In September of 2006, the U.S. led effort to include Burma on the United Nations Security Council Agenda finally passed allowing the U.N.S.C. to discuss officially how it will deal with the human rights situation in Burma. In November of 2006, the International Labor Organization announced it will be seeking charges against Myanmar over the continuous forced labor of its citizens by the military at the International Court of Justice.

Daily Budget – 20,000 kyat – ($US 16.00)
Private Room – 5,000 kyat – ($US 4.00)
Internet (per hr) – good luck
Dinner – 3,000 kyat – ($US 2.40)
Beer (small) – 300 kyat – ($US 0.24)
Load of Laundry – 2,000 kyat – ($US 1.60)
Average Bus Trip – 15,000 kyat – ($US 12.00)

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