HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Entering Myanmar: Yangon

Before diving into Myanmar, I'd just like to share that I have booked a one-way ticket back to the U.S. for October 17. After these travel posts I'm going to write about my reasons for leaving, and the reasons it will be hard to leave. (Long-time readers should have a decent idea of what those are.) I plan on keeping this blog running even after I head home, at least until I figure out what's next. I plan on continuing to live abroad, so once a new country is decided on I'll create a new blog with an appropriate name. Until then, I hope you enjoy what's left.

Myanmar is easily the most politically controversial country I've visited. It is ruled by an authoritarian military junta that has been accused by international organizations, foreign governments and domestic critics of genocide, ethnic cleansing, involvement in transnational opium rings, and the use of child soldiers, forced labor and systematic rape. As a result some people and organizations have boycotted traveling there, since it could be seen as tacit support of the government.

This all began back in 1962 when General Ne Win was installed during a coup that ousted a messy but democratic government which had been set up when Myanmar (or Burma, as it was then called) gained independence from the British in 1948.

Ne Win then proceeded to run the country into the ground. Communication with the outside world was shut down and Myanmar effectively disappeared into a black hole of isolation. Everything was nationalized, the press was muzzled, and the military commanded all aspects of society. Education, healthcare and infrastructure were ignored while a huge military machine was built up to fight an array of enemies: Chinese-backed Communists, and numerous private armies backed by Myanmar's many ethnic minority groups. Ne Win was an ardent Burmese nationalist, meaning there was no room in his country for groups like the Shan, Karen, Wa or Kachin, who mainly live in Myanmar's border regions. His efforts to crush these groups led to the 20th century's longest civil war, a slow burner that rarely made headlines. In the 1990's the government began to gain the upper hand and a number of peace treaties were signed. However, large swathes of the country remain off-limits to foreigners, and violence still flares up from time to time.

As a result of all this Myanmar is a mess. It is one of the poorest countries in Asia, with an economy based almost entirely on agriculture. Internet penetration is minimal. Few international corporations would invest because of economic sanctions put in place by the west in response to the government's human rights abuses. Until recently it seemed that the country would remain in the dark, ruled over by an iron military fist.

Then, things began to change. In 2008 a new constitution was ratified, and in 2010 general elections were held. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won in what many considered a fraudulent vote. However, the government began implementing dramatic reforms aimed at moving towards democracy and an open economy. The story picked up speed in 2011 when Aung San Suu Kyi, who I'll talk about later, was freed from house arrest and her National League for Democracy party was allowed to register to take part in elections. Steps were made to curb rampant corruption, and media censorship was relaxed. These reforms are ongoing, and the world has responded. The EU has lifted some of its sanctions, and the U.S. is considering re-establishing diplomatic relations. The future is still uncertain, but with a population of 60 million Myanmar is one of the last large, untapped markets in the world. If things go well the economy could explode.

It was into this situation that our plane descended from Bangkok, arriving at Yangon's gleaming airport on a muggy, overcast morning. I wasn't sure what to expect in Myanmar, but given the country's militaristic recent past I thought there would be plenty of soldiers around. Instead there were billboards advertising international products lining the streets, numerous construction projects, flashy villas and upscale restaurants. Of course, there were plenty of examples of Myanmar's poverty: overcrowded, rickety buses; people living on the street; children hawking flowers at stoplights; but this city of 4 million was bustling with commerce.
While walking around downtown I noticed stalls selling books written by Aung San Suu Kyi. This was banned until the recent reforms kicked in. Suu Kyi is Myanmar's most prominent democracy activist, and the former junta's number one political enemy. After spending time abroad she returned to her homeland in 1988, just as Ne Win was stepping down and massive pro-democracy demonstrations, called the 8888 Uprising, energized Yangon. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) seemed poised to win elections scheduled for 1990, but then the military cracked down violently and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. The NLD won the election, but the military nullified the result and stayed in power. Suu Kyi remained a thorn in the government's side for the entirety of her house arrest, holding regular gatherings where she spoke to crowds through the front gate of her Yangon home. Since her release from house arrest in 2011 Suu Kyi has returned to the fore of politics in Myanmar, with her party winning 43 of 46 available seats in parliament during a 2012 by-election. The fact that her image is now seen all over streets in Yangon (and elsewhere) shows just how dramatically things have changed here.
The following day we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest site in  heavily Buddhist Myanmar. The temple complex is a riot of gold, statues and stupas, making for an incredible sight. Since I know next to nothing about Buddhism I'm not going to bother with explaining its significance, but I will have another post just for pictures of the Shwedagon, as it is utterly spectacular.

Downtown Yangon was an intriguing mix of modern high-rises, pagodas and crumbling colonial buildings left over from the British years.
Modern commerce and the Sule pagoda
City Hall
On our third (and final) day in Yangon, just before seeing Despicable Me 2 in 3D at a packed cinema for $3, we came across a curious Coke event at a fire station. As we walked by we noticed a big crowd and several TV cameras inside. I asked a Western woman in a Coca-Cola shirt what was going on, and she explained that Coke was promoting the launch of a new bottle design in Myanmar. Coke returned to the country last year after a 60 year absence thanks to the previously mentioned economic sanctions, and now that Myanmar is finally opening up it has set up a production plant. Coke had brought in two of Myanmar's most popular singers, Sai Sai and Bobby Soxer (I only know those names thanks to subsequent Googling), to meet the families of the firefighters at this station. Volunteers at a tent out front were passing out bottles to passersby, and we looked on in amusement as children, adults and elderly people snatched bottles and happily guzzled them down. There were smiles all around, and a few people managed to come away with armfuls of Coke. Here was capitalism at street-level: one of the biggest corporations in the world entering a new market with smart PR - the people who saw this will now forever associate Coke with helping the relatives of firefighters.

I don't normally drink soft drinks but it was a hot day, so Anthony and I grabbed a couple of bottles as well. A Coke photographer then took a picture of us, covered in sweat, smiling with our drinks. I expect to see myself on a billboard whenever I visit Myanmar again. After witnessing the bedlam surrounding this giveaway it was obvious that the people of the country are hungry for the things we take for granted. It is a place on the move. And we were moving on as well after an enjoyable stay in Yangon - on to Bagan and its famous temples in central Myanmar.

Oh and here's an interesting fact: until Coke returned to Myanmar last year it was one of only three countries where the drink wasn't available. The last two holdouts are Cuba and North Korea.

1 comment:

  1. Great article thanks so much! I remember it when we visited a small section of the river during my trip to Burma. More information on Burma is here: http://www.travelindochina.com/blog-articles/welcome-to-burma/ - may be useful to fellow South Easy Asia travellers.