The British ruled Burma for more than a century but when they went in 1948 they left an artificial conglomerate of ethnocentric states whose only common goal was independence. Once that was achieved, the new "democratic" government in the hands of the Burman U Nu, faced armed rebellion from all parts as it reneged on the 1948 Panglong treaty that had promised autonomy to the various ethnic groups that made up the country.
In 1962 a military revolutionary council led by general Ne Win, took over to lead the country towards socialism. The country has been in a state of "controlled" turmoil ever since, with periodic peaks of agitation such as student disturbances in 1974 the massive 1988 demonstrations that ousted Ne Win and led to the formation of the present junta called the "State Law and Order Restoration Council" (SLORC), led by General Saw Maung.
The SLORC changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and promised elections but maintained a totalitarian style of power. Elections were held and lost in 1990. The military immediately stepped in and imprisoned, exiled or killed the elected members of the National League for Democracy opposition party. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero Boyoke Aung San, became internationally known as the champion of democracy and human rights in Myanmar. In 1997 the SLORC changed its name to "State Peace and Development Council" but it is still known as SLORC which has almost become a bad word.
For more detailed information on the political situation you may wish to visit the following sites: Free Burma, Burma Campaign Aung San Suu Kyi . To see the SLORC's side of the coin, visit the Myanmar Gvt. Site.
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I had visited the Shwedagon pagoda when I was here in 1973 so this time I kept a second visit there for the last and spent a couple of days in downtown Yangon before going to Taunggyi in the North. I stayed at the Garden Guest house, next to the Sule pagoda seen here, for 6 $US a night.
The Sule pagoda is not as impressive as the Shwedagon pagoda but it is nevertheless an important downtown landmark. It derives an important part of its revenue from the rental of the shops around it. The inside ring seen below is a haven of quiet from the noisy traffic outside.
Almost 90 percent of the population are Buddhist but there are about five percent Christians, almost four percent Muslim and one percent Hindus.
Below left, a new clock tower for the Buddhist monastery near the downtown market and a few Buddhist nuns on the right.
This handsome Mosque stands just next to the Sule Pagoda.
And this Hindu Temple is not far, next to the downtown market.
Judging only from the diverse places of worship, Myanmar looks like a land of freedom and tolerance but if you scratch the surface you quickly realise that there is little room for dissidence in that country.
As always, the most evident symptom of a totalitarian regime is its complete control over information. Slogan posters, like this one proclaiming that the dictates of big brother only reflect the desires of the people, are frequent. Personally I don't think that anyone believes such propaganda but the SLORC must be getting some mileage out of it otherwise they would not bother. Maybe they only serve to remind people that big brother is watching them.
There may be freedom of religion and freedom of private enterprise but I found little evidence of freedom of political opinion. Wherever I go, I like to find out what people think of their governments and leaders. It is also an easy ice-breaker for generally, everyone has an opinion of how things should be run.
Here, you can talk about religion, money, sex, but anything that comes close to politics is taboo. People are afraid to voice their opinion, even to an independent foreign tourist. All government employees from top to bottom have to take an oath that they will not discuss politics between themselves nor with anyone else!
I am a regular user of the Internet not only at home but also when I travel. I use cybercafes two or three times a week to keep in touch with friends at home and in the countries I visit. I have found easy access to e-mail everywhere in the world except here where the Internet is reserved for the military and a select few business concerns trusted by the government. Being isolated incommunicado for a month contributed to my impressions about Myanmar. Especially after coming from China where cybercafes are popping up everywhere and where at least one Post Office in every town offers Internet access for 10 yuan per hour (1.25$US/h).
I was not particularly interested in the local politics anyway and quickly made my way to Taunggyi in the Shan State because I had come here mainly to learn something about the ancient religions and customs of the many diverse ethnic groups living side-by-side in this part of the world.
The Taunggyi market, I thought, would be a good place to meet some of the minority hill tribes that live in the Shan State. I did identify and meet some Shan people who form the majority here. This lady shopping for fish and the two below were Shan. The lady on the left, medical doctor Nang Mynt Twe spoke English. She recognised that she was Shan but carefully avoided my questions about how the Shans were treated by the Burman central government.
Here is a common market scene in Myanmar, a monk doing the morning rounds with his black begging bowl to gather his daily food ration. They eat once before noon and not at all until the next day.
The two ladies below told me they were Burman. The Burmans are not easy to identify because their skin colour varies from light to dark while Shans are all light skinned and the Karens are generally dark.
Here, two Karen women of the Pa'o branch are buying rice from a Shan girl. The woman on the left below is wearing a blue trimmed black vest of traditional Pa'o design and the one on the right is also probably Pa'o.
Ethnic identity (other than Burman), is not valorised in Myanmar as it is in Yunnan. As a matter of fact, it has been reluctantly explained to me in Mandalay, that most hill tribes avoid wearing their traditional dress at other times than festivals so as not to draw attention to their non Burman identity. The person who told me this did it reluctantly for he feared it might be taken to be a criticism of the Burman military regime.
I discovered that this couple was of Intha stock because Dr. Nang interpreted for me. They were my age and were wondering what in the world I as doing all by myself so far away from my home... I don't blame them, sometimes I don't know myself.