|Before heading into Burma, a military regime, headed by the hard-boiled Gen Than Shwe, we grappled with the idea of going. There are those who believe that by heading there you are showing support for the regime. It is somewhat true, as there is no way of avoiding spending American money there entirely, money that inevitably ends up in the greediest of hands. However, the single most compelling reason why one should go is the fact that the Burmese people want you there; not every Burmese individual, just an overwhelming majority of those we've met. Several people spoke openly to us about the Myanmar government, as well as of their hopes and desires for the future. Those conversations have forever changed us, by putting real faces to the stories we heard.
Just recently the UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, who visited the regime, was unable to make any diplomatic progress. He was put up at a government guesthouse, and the officials tightly controlled his schedule. He was refused a visit with Aung San Suu Kyi (aka the 'lady'). The regime clearly exploited the visit. He was invited to observe the National Convention, where he met ethnic leaders. Currently, the senior general Than Shwe is busy solidifying plans to build a new "Peace Pagoda" in line with past kings. To this end he has met with many senior military leaders and a number of important monks. This is a new project aside from building "a modern nation with a flourishing, disciplined democracy". General Than Shwe will stay the course, at least as long as it takes for him to secure the future safety of his family, till then there will be no relinquishing of power. In Burmese politics, his safety comes first.
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose political party won in the 1990 elections, is still under house arrest, and was for 11 out of the last 17 years. An estimated 1100 political prisoners are rotting in Burmese jails. Education and healthcare are crumbling. Malaria, Aids and TB are on the rise, as is malnutrition in children living in urban areas. The government reportedly spend $22000 on Aids. Forced labour is a fact of life, as is fear of imprisonment for speaking your mind. Paraffin and wood are major sources of light and heat. Streets in major cities are completely dark, and people work by candlelight. The military supplies 2 hours of electricity daily.
Meanwhile, huge pockets of natural gas have been found offshore. China and India are wheeling and dealing, and the regime is rubbing its hands together in joy, excited about the possibility of getting even richer. They might even throw in some forced labour to the package, to build the pipeline connecting China to it's middle east oil by going directly through Burma. The US keeps its course too, but the military junta has no use for it anymore, they made new friends now.
Would I go back to Myanmar having seen more things for what they are? Yes, I would, if only to re-visit some of the incredible people we've met on our first journey there. They are the hope for the future.
Back in Yangon after a long overnight bus trip, I recuperated from a cold/flu. I followed Agnes around while looking for food, and she was taking pictures. It was actually a good way to see if I had learned more about patience on this trip. Have I? I think I did pretty well. We had a nice dinner in an Indian Restaurant and wondered how it is that we come from Canada yet some people are born in Burma. Maybe it's the Karma lottery! Sometimes traveling and seeing the less fortunate makes you really appreciate everything and question the nice meal that you just bought. Yet there we sat in a nice restaurant enjoying a good meal while all over the world there were people with less. People in Myanmar generally seem happy. They have strong family ties and the community around them is strong. Most cannot think about purchasing TV's or washing machines let alone clean water. And yet somehow they seem happy. Just yesterday I talked to a Burmese living in Bangkok for the last 4 years. He's working to save money to go home and start a business. I find it incredible that he wants to go home to a country controlled by the current government. The saying "Home is where the heart is" is so true. Yet some people choose to leave and make new homes in different cities or countries. Sometimes for better or worse. I asked him if tourists should go to Myanmar. He thinks it is a good thing. Would I go back to Myanmar knowing what I know about it now? Yes! I think that it's important for the Burmese to get contact from the outside, to learn maybe one word of English or just to see that there is choice on our planet. Going to Myanmar was an incredible experience and one I will not forget soon.
It's such a strange world indeed. Remember when you have a nice dinner to take the time to really enjoy it and the company you are with.