And another thing...

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May 28th 2013
Published: May 28th 2013
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I write from Saigon after a successful night sleeping in the Bangkok airport before my early morning flight! I've managed to find a good value hotel and have enjoyed a little explore of the area before Sam and Harry fly in tomorrow. Vietnam already looks to be full of intrigue - floods of motorbikes, Socialist posters competing with Buddhist flags, and a new style of architecture which I have not yet seen - the many-tiered roofing so common in the far east. Lots of those famous "lamp shade" hats worn without irony, and some lip-smacking food ready to be sampled, from what I've so far seen. I am currently a Dong Millionaire, having exchanged a $100 bill for the Vietnamese currency at the airport!

Annoyingly, the useless people at the Bangkok poste restante could not find my letter. They spoke hardly any English, and I was forced to give up my angry protestations after a 3-hour struggle against a tide of ineptitude that I hadn't expected from the sleek modern city of Bangkok. This left me in a bad mood (I watched "The Great Gatsby" to cheer me up) and that lingering annoyance has just been reawakened and exacerbated by the news that a parcel I sent home from Kolkata has been raided by the UK Border Agency. Anyone who's seen the Sky 1 TV show on these sadistic sloths will know they are pathetic people, but why would they confiscate 3 kilos of fine quality Bangladeshi tea!? Especially when the attached letter said it was for my Grandparents. Also nabbed was a Gurkha knife for Charlie (perhaps fair enough, although it was an awful one; it couldn't administer a paper-cut) and 3 Indian beer bottles to add to my exotic collection. The box I'd bought also arrived broken. I feel like going up to the UKBA blockheads at Heathrow and demanding 3 kilos of PG Tips and a Stella bottle as compensation. Oh well.

The object of this entry was just to give a little bit more information about Burma. It occurred to me that I've learnt a great deal about a country that I could previously not identify on a world map, and one that has struggled mutely with a military dictatorship for decades, while Western eyes are fixed on happenings in the middle-east, or on threatening China and North Korea. Burma is, according to the many locals I've had the pleasure of talking to, at a pivot in history. Finally, after a 50 year struggle, democracy seems to be looming on the horizon for Burma (or Myanmar, as the generals have renamed the country). In 2015 they have another election scheduled, and surely the generals must give way if the popular party wins. Undoubtedly, though the advent of democracy would seem inevitable due to globalisation, the trade sactions imposed by the west, and the internet age, there is one lady who has had Burma's freedom on the top of her agenda for her whole adult life, and she deserves to be better known.

Aung San Suu Kyi, or simply "The Lady" to the adoring Burmese, has fronted the battle for democracy with her hugely popular NLD party (National League for Democracy). The party did in fact win the first election for years at the turn of the millenium, but the landslide victory was denied by the ruling generals, and the army took over 2000 of the party's politicians as prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for around 10 years following her success. During this time, her husband was dying of cancer in the UK. He was denied entry into Burma to visit his wife before he died, and his wife could not leave Burma for fear of the certain exile if she ever left. Her husband urged her to stay in Burma, and he died without his partner by his side. The tragedy in this family is symbolic of the political, social and economic disasters that the non-elect army dictatorship were steering Burma into.

I state these "facts" from memory, but having heard them from multiple sources on the well-developed Burmese rumour-mill. One shocking stat that is frequently repeated, is the state of Burmese healthcare, which is one of the lowest in the world. In other SE Asian countries, at least $25 per head per year is spent on the health service. In Burma, it's just one dollar. Not the best place to get ill. The country is also rich in natural gas and other resources that it happily pumps into the neighbouring Chinese monster, which pays well. The money stays with the generals, and rarely benefits those who need it most. Around 7% of the GDP is spent on education, while 28% is spent on the military. That's a stat that surely rivals North Korea. I didn't find this stat surprising though, because in every town, city and village I visited, there was at least one huge army base on the outskirts, with high barbed-wire walls and stony-faced guards looming over them. It's the equivalent of Langton Green having an Aldershot military base plonked next to it. My theory is that this huge force of soldiers effectively dampens hopes of rebellion - an army unit would be on sight within minutes, and they've been known in the recent past to kill protesters. To finance this huge investment in brute force, the government simply prints the money when it needs it, throwing ordinary honest businesses into disarray through inflation.

Despite all this doom and gloom, I really sensed that Burma is on the up. Their papers are full of booming sales projections, rising tourist rates and freer lending from banks. Foreign investment and NGOs are moving back in after the long-existing tension has begun to abate. Obama has visited (he's on loads of T-shirts in Yangon) and Aung San Suu Kyi has had her first talk with Chinese diplomats in 15 years. It's an exciting time for the people of Burma, and many of them know it, and are positively bursting to tell curious tourists. I will watch with interest, and so should you!

PS. Not a political rant - more of a "consciousness raiser" as Richard Dawkins puts it. It's a fascinating situation that has unfolded in the blind spot of out media coverage over the last couple of decades.


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