Impressions of Myanmar in 2000
Impressions are made up of small bits and pieces of information and are therefore superficial compared to the in-depth evaluations that can result from the professional analysis of an exhaustive database. My overall impression of Myanmar were positive with respect to the people and negative concerning the government. But these are only impressions.
It started poorly. The Myanmar embassy in Ottawa had told me it was possible to enter Myanmar from China by the Muse border post but their consulate in Kunming declared that the Yangon airport was the only authorized entry point for strangers from non contiguous countries. I therefore travelled via Chiang Mai and Bangkok because that was cheaper than flying directly from Kunming to Yangon.
It seems that the flow of information is not very efficient between various administrations of the country for I met an Australian couple in Mandalay who had just flown in directly from Chiang Mai. This did not give me a good impression.
I finally got to Yangon where I got a night bus for Taunggyi in the Shan state, not far from the famous amphibious villages built by the Intha tribes around magnificent Inle Lake.
I visited the markets in Taunggyi, Naungshwe, Heho, and Pyin U Lwin in the hope of taking photos of the ethnic minorities as I had done in China where they are recognized as nationalities and where the people are proud to wear their national costumes to show their distinct identities. I was therefore very disappointed to see almost everyone dressed the same way. I took a few photos for my web site but they are less colorful than those I took in China. It was explained to me that minorities here tend to dress like the Burman majority to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities who have at times, exerted a fierce repression towards the Shan, the Kashin, the Chin and the Karen to name only the most important of the people dominated and marginalised by the military dictatorship presently in power.
The junta claims it has signed peace accords with most of the rebel groups that were fighting for the autonomy they had been promised by the 1947 Panglong Treaty which has never been respected by the central government. It is however reasonable to doubt the cessation of armed conflicts claimed by the junta because more than half of the country is still out of bounds for strangers. I think there is probably no more than a temporary cease-fire because the problem of the rights of the minorities remains unsolved.
It is very difficult to find out what is going on, even for someone here, because the media are very closely controlled and everyone I met, (small merchants, civil servants and businessmen), were afraid to talk politics. A courageous ex-student confided in me that "Military Intelligence" had informers everywhere and that extreme discretion was required because "people were disappearing".
The official English language daily, "New Light of Myanmar", systematically presents a smug and often infantile vindication of the government's actions (the State Peace and Development Council led by general Than Shwe). It gives a bad impression and one can only guess the kind of biased propaganda that the Burman language media deliver. The opposition, if any, is underground or abroad and the universities have been closed since 1996 following student manifestations in favor of Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the hero Aung San, father of national independence from Britain. Her worldwide notoriety and her Nobel Peace Prize no doubt explain why she is still alive.
Here and there, huge billboards proclaim the People's support to the Tamataw (Armed Forces) in the struggle for Peace, Order, Morality, Development, National Unity and against Neocolonialism, Corrupting Foreign Influences and... Aids! You have to see it to believe it, you would think you were in China during the Cultural Revolution!
The people endure that dictatorship without a murmur. They are very poor and their first preoccupation is to survive day-to-day. The average civil servant earns only 15 dollars a month and the wages of manual labor is only half of that. The people must certainly suspect the imposture that the regime represents but without a free press and Internet, it is difficult for them to realize to what extent their country has retrograded relatively to the progress realised in neighbouring countries. Everywhere, they have remained hospitable and friendly in spite of the xenophobic propaganda of the government.
They take solace from their miserable living conditions in their religion that associates the cult of good and bad spirits (the Nats), with Therevada Buddhism which is practiced here like in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Temples, monasteries and places of pilgrimage have grown rich from the donations of poor people who deprive themselves to gain merits in order to be born to a better life in a future existence!
It is difficult not to be upset by the sight of these credulous and innocent populations submerged into the darkness of misinformation, of ignorance and superstitions and isolated from the rest of the world by a more and more prosperous junta that dominates it completely.
I would have preferred to remember only my impressions of the interesting cultural diversity of the ethnic groups found here or of the surprising beauty of the innumerable temples built around Bagan between the 11th and 13th centuries but the miserable social and political conditions that I have observed here have eclipsed these positive aspects and have left me with a bitter taste in my mouth