Our first stop in Myanmar (which, by the way, was called Burma until the government changed the country's name in 1989 when they replaced a slew of British colonial names) was Yangon (formerly called Rangoon, as in that ubiquitous crab appetizer that shows up on Chinese take out menus everywhere). We arrived in this hot sweaty former country capital after a quick flight from Bangkok. I wasn't expecting too much from Yangon , but was prepared to make the most of our short stay. Because it has the only international airport in Myanmar, we knew we'd be here at the beginning and the end of our trip.
We were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves quite enjoying walking around this city. As we've been doing with most cities we've visited recently, we're less interested in any specific "sights" and much more fascinated by venturing into back alleys and spending time sitting in tea houses or street food stalls sampling the local fare. What we found was a city that reminded us of the things we liked about Thailand (noodle stalls and fresh fruit vendors on the street) as well as some characteristically Indian traits (paan stains on the sidewalk, sweet and milky chai tea available everywhere). Luckily, it was missing the trashy tourists we had grown weary of in Thailand, as well as the livestock taking up valuable sidewalk real estate we had tired of in India. The best of both worlds? Maybe!
So, we spent a couple days eating our way through Yangon (more on that later!), taking numerous cold drink breaks (it was over 100 degrees) and visiting the Shwedagon Paya, despite still being in temple recovery after India and Nepal. This dazzling Buddhist stupa--the country's most iconic religious monument--towers about 100m into the air and is completely covered in real gold. The paya sits at the center of a large complex full of temples, Buddha statues, shrines, pavillions, and smaller stupas-- all drenched in tons of gold as well. As we would see throughout our travels in Myanmar, the country loves its gold stupas, but nothing we saw came close to Shwedagon in terms of its pure brilliance. Frankly, I am shocked (and thankful) it has not been used in a rap video yet.
We left Yangon a little heavier, happier, and excited to return here at the end of our stay in Myanmar.
We've visited countries such as South Africa with a sordid political and social history, a few such as India where class- and gender-based discrimination is rampant, and at least one--Uganda--where the current political reality is somewhere between worrisome and deplorable, but none can compare to Myanmar in terms of its government's repression and persecution of dissidents. There's an ongoing debate as to whether travel in this small country nestled between India, China, and Thailand is ethical. The military government has historically dealt ruthlessly with all opposition, imprisoning anyone who speaks out against the conditions in the country, or in favor of any facet of democratic representation, or anyone who even tries to pass information, photos, or videos regarding the political situation to the outside world. They hold hundreds of political prisoners. And it's not just limited to residents: in 2007, as recounted in the Oscar-nominated film Burma VJ, a Japanese man was shot point-blank by military police for filming a peaceful protest.
Things have been starting to change, however. Protests occurred for a few days in 1988 and 2007, and a brutal crackdown followed in both cases. The most outspoken and charismatic figure in the opposition is Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. She has spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest for her political speech and organizing, even making the impossible choice of not attending her husband's funeral in England, lest she not be allowed back into the country. In 1990, elections were held, and Aun Saung Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming victory, but the government refused to accept the results and did not cede any power to the opposition party.
Before 1992, all travel within the country was banned to foreigners. After that, travel was only allowed on tours organized by the military government, or tourism companies closely linked to it; there was even a requirement that tourists spend money only in so-called Foreign Exchange Certificates rather than the local currency, so that the government could track where tourists were going and what businesses they patronized, and so that they could take the lion's share of any profits derived from tourists. Since the late 1990s, the government has been trying to open up to foreigners and increase tourism, even announcing "Myanmar Tourism Year 1996", but Aun Saung Suu Kyi urged foreigners not to come while the military was in power and opposition groups were so uniformly punished. The appeal worked, with tourism numbers that year falling well below the government's hopes, but since then things have been moving in a different direction.
In recent years, partly perhaps due to the events of the Arab Spring, the government has taken steps to open itself up to the rest of the world politically and economically, and in terms of their stance on tourism, but they have a ways to go. Seemingly democratic by-elections were held during our stay with Aung San Suu Kyi breaking her promise not to stand in any election as long as the military generals were still in power. This act speaks to her confidence in the changes that are happening, and she has also reversed her longstanding wish that foreigners not visit the country. However, the military still controls 60% of parliament and all the executive posts; and while we were able to travel independently instead of on a government-sponsored tour, there are large areas of the country that are off-limits to foreigners, and we were required to stay in hotels and guest houses officially sanctioned by the government.
All this forced us to question whether we wanted to travel in such a country, and to think deeply about where our tourism dollars are going. Some say that traveling to the country supports and validates the actions of the military government, but in the end, we decided to make the trip. We felt confident that given the way we travel, the vast majority of the money we spend in the country would end up in not in the pockets of the generals, but in the pockets of the kind and hardworking hotel- and restaurant owners, taxi drivers, handicraft vendors, and street peddlers that we would have most of our interactions with. We were sure that we would meet warm, outgoing, and happy people excited about the future of their country, and as you'll see in the next few posts, we couldn't have been more right. Finally, we felt that by visiting during such a period of immense change, we would be showing physical and financial support to the positive steps forward that the country and its government are making.
Confronting this difficult situation also had the effect of making us aware of how lucky we are to live in America with, despite its problems, a culture where we can say nearly anything we want with the protection of law on our side. It also made us consider the other things to which we give tacit approval by putting our money toward them. If we must consider the effect of spending our tourism dollars in Myanmar, then how should we feel about contributing our tourism dollars to a state like India with social conditions we can not support, or, for that matter, how should we feel about living in the United States, with its embarrassing history of selective foreign policy, and paying taxes to support wars and other causes we don't believe in? I'm not sure what the answers are, except to say that you would have to live under a rock in order to keep any of your money from falling into the hands of a corporation or nation with values you don't believe in. All we can do is think hard about the decisions we make and do our best to support positive change.