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Published: February 7th 2017
I got back from Myanmar and promptly came down with pneumonia. I do not recommend getting pneumonia. It is tiring, and I am bored with it. But now that I am recovering, it is time to finish up my Burmese blogs. Emerging Country
I don’t like the term “third world country,” it seems so condescending. So I’m taking a phrase from the financial pages: “emerging market,” or “emerging country.” Emerging seems to fit Myanmar very well; this is a country just emerging from the cocoon of an oppressive regime, and the people are curious about the world and eager to learn more about it. Books and More Books
There are bookstores and second-hand bookshops everywhere. In some parts of the city it is common to see a bookseller spread a tarp on the sidewalk and arrange his books for sale. Many of the books are in English, and even in grocery stores there are whole sections set aside for books for English learners. There are nineteen (nineteen!) daily newspapers. The thirst for knowledge is real.
Since I am incapable of walking out of a bookstore without buying something, I ended up chatting with the manager of
Friendly when he was talking to me,I had to coax him to smile for the camera.
a tiny book stall. The next day I came back to give him an American magazine I was finished with. He was so moved by that little act of kindness he insisted I sit and have tea with him.
One of the things I noticed was that people who had gone to school in the early 1960s or earlier spoke pretty good English. People who had gone to school in the past five years spoke pretty good English as well. But the folks who had learned English in the intervening 50 years or so were not proficient. While they may know the correct words, and could read English fairly well, their pronunciation was off, mainly because they had not had the opportunity to hear spoken English. This is what happens when your country is cut off from the rest of the world. Betel Juice
I had read about the chewing of betel nut, heck I’ve even visited the home of the “Gambier King” of Singapore. But I had never actually seen anyone preparing and chewing betel. I can tell you now that it is fairly disgusting. A betel leaf is smeared with slaked lime and wrapped around
nuns on their morning rounds
a piece of areca palm nut. This quid is chewed or placed in the cheek, much like chewing tobacco, and the resulting saliva is spit out. This leads to roads and sidewalks stained a rusty red from the betel, and people with a mouthful of ruined teeth.
Betel chewing is very widespread. I don’t recall seeing anyone in Myanmar smoking, but there were people preparing and selling betel quids on every street corner, and pretty much everyone who smiled at you showed you red-stained, broken teeth. Pagodas and Monks and Nuns
I like Buddhist temples, and can happily spend hours admiring their intricacies, or sitting in the cool silence of a temple hall. But even I became “templed out.” There are just so many! Many of them are very beautiful, but even the poorest neighborhood will have its pagoda, and monks and nuns are common sights around town. It is good manners – and a way to earn merit – to drop a few kyat in a monk’s alms bowl. The General and the Lady
Before I came to Myanmar, I was cautioned not to talk politics. It wasn’t all that long ago that a
Burmese citizen seen talking with a foreigner was going to be followed and questioned. What I found though, was everyone wanted to talk politics with me
. And those discussions invariably centered on “The Lady.”
I don’t presume to say that I understand Myanmar, much less the political intricacies of the country (heck, I don’t understand the politics of my own country, witness the 2016 elections.) But I have come to realize that to get any sort of handle on present day Myanmar you have to have a bit of background, and some understanding of “The General” and “The Lady.”
“The General” is General Aung San, variously called a resistance fighter, a nationalist leader, the architect of independence, and the founder of the Union of Burma. His picture once graced the Burmese money, and school children are still taken on field trips to his grave site. He is still a much respected figure in Myanmar. “The Lady” is his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, head of the National League for Democracy Party, and a well-respected person in her own right.
The much abbreviated version of the story is this: Aung San fought
for independence for his country, first from the British, then from the Japanese, and then from the British again. He brought together all the various armies and factions fighting for Burma, and signed an agreement with Britain promising independence.
He was assassinated shortly thereafter. Civil war broke out in the northern part of the country, and the military took over the government in 1962. It was supposed to be temporary; it lasted until 2011.
His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi continued her father’s fight for freedom and human rights. After working at the United Nations for three years, she became an official in the newly formed National League for Democracy. Even though the NLD won 81% of the seats in Parliament in the 1990 election, the military refused to hand over power. Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, however the military government would not allow her to leave the country to accept it. She was finally released from house arrest in 2011, due mainly to pressure from the international community.
In the election of 2015 the NLD
won the majority of seats in parliament, and even though Aung San Suu Kyi was barred by law from becoming president, it is no secret, either within Myanmar or outside, that she is the real power in the administration.
Today you see Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on calendars, key chains, t-shirts, and all manner of tourist tat. The Civil War You Never Heard About
A violent civil war has been going in northern Myanmar for the past fifty years. At last count there are about fifteen different factions fighting each other and the Burmese military. Add into that the turmoil caused by the drug trade, and you have a blood-soaked mess. Consequently, there are whole chunks of the country, primarily in the north and east, where a tourist needs prior permission to enter. This is an improvement from a few years ago when the Shan, Chin, and Rakhine states, among others, were off limits to foreigners.
Even if you are granted permission, this is still an active war zone. Aerial bombing runs were carried out by the Burmese military in December of 2016, and landmines continue to be an issue. This is not the place
to be a tourist. Should I Stay or Should I Go?
To quote the old song from The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?’
Myanmar is a beautiful country with a crumbling infrastructure, kind people, an active civil war, and, no, you can’t drink the water. If you are looking to see some history before it is all gone, by all means, visit. If you are interested in Theravada Buddhism, you will find lots to contemplate. But if you are looking for a place you can roam around at will and expect everyone to speak English, well, you should probably wait a while.
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