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"This is Burma," wrote Rudyard Kipling, "and it will be quite unlike any land you know about." Indeed, though Kipling penned those words over a century ago, the statement is no less true today. Burma - in part because of its politically motivated isolation from the rest of the world - remains unique. The country's novelty results from its geography, people, culture, religion, and history. Burma is at once a land of poverty and wealth, oppression and freedom, despair and hope. It is among my favorite places in the world.
One can hardly speak of Burma without mentioning its politics. Merely looking through these photographs, you might deem Myanmar and its people beautiful - without gaining any comprehension of the challenges those people face. Don't peruse this show and signup for a package tour to Myanmar! Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta for over forty years. Its people are not free. Its government is ranked near the bottom of numerous lists measuring human rights, tolerance of dissent, economic vision, corruption, etc. And yet, the answers to solving the country's myriad problems remain elusive.
I first traveled to Myanmar in 2003. (Perhaps it's worth explaining the names. In an attempt to purge the country of names that gained favor under British rule, the government officially adopted a new set of monikers less than two decades ago. Rangoon - the country's capital and largest city - became Yangon; Burma, Myanmar. Despite the official changes, many in the activist and international community continued to use the old names, presumably as a show of disapproval of the ruling junta. That said, having traveled to the country twice now, I generally use the new names. Why? Because that's what the people use. Most commonly, they refer to themselves and their language as "Myanmar." I very rarely heard the name "Rangoon," although one might argue in this case that the difference is primarily one of anglicized spelling. Throughout this show, I use the new names almost exclusively. The primary exception is my use of Burma, which is randomly interchanged with Myanmar for the simple reason that I want people to recognize that both labels refer to a single country).
So, yes, I first traveled to Burma in 2003. There for only two weeks, I was overwhelmed. People ate with their hands. Most, including the men (I quickly joined them), wore longyi, Burma's traditional sarong-like garment. Buddhism was a central part of everyday life. Yangon exceeded expectations; Mandalay fell short. The road between the two cities was an experience of its own. I explored the amazing temples of Bagan, the unique beauty of Inle Lake. And I fell in love with the people. Nowhere else had I encountered people more curious about the outside world. They were friendly, respectful, generous, and smart. And I left convinced that I must learn more. I knew of the political challenges the country faced and hoped to find ways to help.
And so I read. I read about Aung San Suu Kyi. I read about the country's history, religion, and culture. I began tracking news on the Web and joined several organizations working to improve the situation in Myanmar. My love for the country grew, yet at the same time so did my confusion about how to help. The United States, European Union, and other Western powers have (for admirable reasons, I'd say) refused to do business in Burma, attempting to pressure the ruling generals to reform. But it hasn't helped. Neighboring China is the government's lifeline, with Thailand and others playing lesser but still significant roles. Tourism boycotts have been enacted. They seemingly haven't helped. In Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar boasts one of the most widely respected political leaders of our time. But she's been imprisoned in her own home for a good portion of the past sixteen years. She is the elected leader of the Myanmar people (more on this in my composite dedicated to Daw Suu), her party winning an overwhelming majority of the vote in 1989. Yet neither she nor any of the other elected leaders have ever been given power. Many are imprisoned or dead today.
Do note that I am not condemning the organizations seeking change in Burma. Many of them are filled with good people. And at least they're paying attention. At least they're trying to help. It just seems to me that our tactics have been ineffective. It has been over sixteen years since the bloody uprising in Myanmar, four decades since Ne Win and his military buddies seized power. Isn't there something else we could do to accelerate the process of change? (I ask this question rhetorically, as I don't pretend to have an answer.) We must be critical of our methods and tactics given the results they've produced in recent years.
This could, of course, change tomorrow. The Myanmar government could release Aung San Suu Kyi and begin implementing democratic reforms. But, having returned from a second visit to the country in early 2005 (this time, I stayed for over a month), I have my doubts. The current top dogs, led by General Than Shwe, are more rigid than the previous leaders and equally despised. Despite laws against discussing politics, when one-on-one, the Myanmar people talk. A monk friend just shook his head: "At least Kyin Nyunt (a former prime minister recently relieved of duty) makes merit by supporting Shwedagon. Than Shwe does nothing good." A twelve-year-old boy whispered to me in an Internet cafe, "General Than Shwe is a playboy." I'd winked at him after noticing the words displayed in the search box on his screen: "Aung San Suu Kyi." He didn't get many matches due to government filters but hardly seemed deterred. I didn't say a word - just a literal wink and a smile. He leaned over and volunteered his opinion of the general. Incidentally, it is precisely for interactions like this one that my love for the people grows. He may have been checking football scores as well, but how many twelve-year-olds do you know who sit in front of their computers searching for information on political leaders? I can guarantee it wasn't school-related; he was exploring on his own. I know - it's hardly a fair comparison. Were others subject to similar oppression, the number of youngsters drumming up information on political dissidents would climb. That said, I still admire the Myanmar people for their bravery and resilience in the face of significant strife.
As is the case whenever my topic is Burma, I digress. This is meant to be an introduction, not a detailed analysis of the political situation in the country. But I'm going to resist the temptation to strike the previous paragraphs because the diversion hints at the breadth and significance of the political challenges in Myanmar.
Myanmar is a country of approximately 50 million people (a bit larger than Canada). Its primary religion is Buddhism, practiced in some form by about 90% of the population. Its geography is shaped by the great Ayeyarwady River (formerly Irrawaddy). The country is mountainous in the north, flat in the south. The Ayeyarwady fans out into an alluvial plain where its arms stretch to the Andaman Sea. Neighbors include India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand. (See this map for global context.) You'll learn more about the country in the text that accompanies the show's 200 images. In addition to my own observations, I have on occasion pulled text from Pascal Khoo Thwe's book, From the Land of Green Ghosts. Beyond justifying the use of his words here by stating that his observations are often more relevant than my own (Khoo Thwe is a native of Myanmar), I'll leave details of his book to other segments of the site. From the Land of Green Ghosts was featured as the November 2005 ONEWORLDIMAGES.COM "Book of the Month."
So with that, away we go! "Mingalaba," by the way, is the Myanmar equivalent of "hello." While the greeting is widely used in some parts of the country, in other places usage is rare. And Myanmar children, it seems, prefer shouting "HelloByeBye" or "HelloWhatYourName" when greeting their foreign guests. Despite this, "Mingalaba, Myanmar!" seemed an appropriate way to welcome you to this fascinating and beautiful country.
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