This is my last post about Myanmar and I’m devoting it to impressions of the people and politics. Since there is heavy censorship I thought it best to publish this after leaving. Warning – its a long one.
We almost visited Myanmar in 2010, but held off due to the elections that had just been held. The first ones in decades it was touch and go how it was going to go. The dust had just settled from ill-fated Saffron revolution and cyclone Nargis. Plus, the National League of Democracy, NLD had boycotted elections and was urging visitors to stay away. So we did. Fast forward to 2014, the sanctions that previously rendered Myanmar as pariah state have been lifted and the NLD officially lifted its tourism boycott. There has been much coverage in the news about Myanmar’s reforms and efforts to attract foreign investment. So just how democratic is the country and are the people benefitting from this new found connection to the global economy?
Myanmar ranks 156 out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Meaning that bribery as a means to get anything done by the government at both a macro and micro level is almost a given. While the military has ‘officially’ released the reigns of power, it still holds much sway – both in public and private sphere (think crony capitalism). On 27 December, a few days after leaving Yangon the Yangon Central Development Committee (Y.C.D.C.) held elections. The English language local press had headlines criticizing the lack of transparency and the voting limit laws. Despite having more than 8 million people, only 400,000 people could vote. This was due to strict eligibility requirements which did not allow those that did not have a long history of residency to register. Furthermore, voting was limited to one person per permitted household. Finally, candidates had to approved by the military. I was surprised by the candid articles given that freedom of the press in Myanmar is ranked 169 out of 179 by Transparency International.
In autocratic environments power can manifest in curious ways. In Yangon we were struck by the absence of motorbikes. For those experienced Asian travelers, being in the country’s biggest city with no motorbikes in kinda surreal. So we asked Nancy, the Canadian expat at her Tuesday night art gallery party – her story was that a high ranking government official had an accident on a motorbike and banned them the next day. In our day with M. & W. (its wise not to use names of those who speak candidly about Myanmar politics) we asked if this was true. Their version was different, apparently there was a confrontation with a motorbike gang and the police, where the gang verbally assaulted the police and gave them the finger. The next day motorbikes were banned in Yangon city limits. We heard this version in other areas of Myanmar, too. Whatever the truth, clearly the ability to issue decrees regardless of reason still exists. Ah, the perks of almost absolute power.
As per the Lonely Planet we were careful not to initiate political discussions with locals, so we were surprised that some freely brought up their views on Myanmar politics. Aung San Suu Kyi was often referred to as as ‘Our mother’. In almost every home, restaurant and hotel we visited there was a picture of her and her late father Aung Sun, who was the father of Burmese Independence. He’s an interesting character: In WW2 he sided with the Japanese and fought against the British, but after a few years of being on the receiving end of Japan’s ‘Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ decided the British weren’t so bad and joint the allied cause in Asia. He was assassinated in 1947 and now many markets, streets, important buildings and the like named after him. Now his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi , who was 2 at the time of his death, is widely revered and in monasteries we saw framed pictures of her and various monks. While her party the NLD is the official opposition, according to the 2008 constitution there is a clause that specifically prohibits her from being the president ( because she was married to a foreigner and her children hold UK passports). The military based party also holds veto power over any legislation. A national election is due to be held in 2015 of which I will follow with interest. Will reforms continue or will the military follow the way of Hun Sen in Cambodia, the wily and extremely corrupt political operator who, despite reforms, has managed to have political power dating back to his time with the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese backed government or will reforms progress further? Those we had conversations were encouraged when we told them that we’d seen footage of the monk’s protests in 2007. They were happy to know that people around the world know about them and support them in their struggle.
I read an article about foreign investment in Myanmar in the Jakarta Post today which mentioned that the per capita GDP is $1000 USD, so it remains a very poor country, this rises to $3,000 in Yangon. Despite this we saw very few people that appeared without basic sustenance – as I’ve mentioned in previous posts plentiful food available and in the countryside villages almost every home had its own garden plot. In one village we noted it was a ‘two cow’ & cart in the drive kinda place. There were lots of modest homes, but we saw more concrete than bamboo. Most of the country still relies on wood to heat homes and cook meals – this along with illegal logging are the two primary deforestation concerns. Then you see modern innovation, such as the villages around Kalaw without conventional electricity that had mini solar panels in each garden with a line running back to the house.
School is not free, neither is health care. The orphanage associated with the monastery we visited was paying off malaria hospital bills. We saw loads of children in their school uniforms (white shirts and solid green longyis – like sarongs that are worn widely by men, women & children) biking and walking with their stacked stainless steel lunch containers to and from school. So adorable & friendly. M told us that his village did not actually have a school – which is hard to imagine. The remote areas of Chin, Shan and Kachin states have seen decades of low level civil war which has deprived them of such basic facilities – these areas are off limits to foreigners. Primary school goes up to age 11 and most of the school kids we saw were of that age. Some locals talked about inaccessibility of education due to cost. We saw evidence of this first had – they were few girls older in school uniforms, they appeared to be working in markets. The ‘Traffic Light’ tea shop appeared to be a family business, with service provided by their two young boys working very long hours. W. There is no doubt that people would love to have their children in school if they had the means. W. is from a village outside Mandalay and he proudly told us about his single mother who worked in the fields and was a seamstress to send him and his siblings to secondary school and university.
What was common throughout the country with all the super friendly locals was that the young people in particular want change are hopeful for the future. We met some people like M. who were very political and wanted to be part of the change. His dream is to work overseas, save money and come back and build a school in his village. W. wanted to finish his law degree. T. who we met in Kalaw, a young businessmen is the local representative for the NLD. Then others, were not so political, such as Joe our second trekking guide who wants to be a famous trekking guide like his ‘uncle’ and famous mentor Sam (thanks to the Lonely Planet). The other common characteristic was their admirable English. Joe took us to meet his English teacher who resided in this British area stone home beautifully perched on a mountain side in Kalaw, she graciously gave us a tour & in perfect grammar school English explained the history of the house. This place looked was amazing and would not look out of place on Vancouver Island. Then there was M. was self taught and found Spider Man movies particularly helpful. Of course there was the influence of music as the Kalaw rock starts informed us. Even the young kid who ferried us and our bikes across Inle Lake associated Canada and his knowledge of English to Music. ‘Canada – Bryan Adams’, we were delighted that he did not cite ‘Justin Bieber’ like most of the other locals. When I asked ‘Bieber’ out of surprise he promptly responded with ‘Bieber – no like’. Hey kid, you’re ok in my books.
Myanmar by comparison to other South East Asian countries is expensive. Hotels are about double. For mid-range we paid $80 – $140. The most expensive at Inle Lake, a boutique hotel which almost doubled its rates in the November to February high season. According to a Swedish family we met they said their guide told them that in general the cost of living is higher for locals than in neighbouring countries. We had wondered, I just assumed that the double accommodation cost was somehow ending up in the coffers of the military and its cronies. My cynicism believes that this government wouldn’t be opening its doors so eagerly if it wasn’t making money off of it. Fortunately, as independent travelers you can give your money through goods and services to the people. As usual we bought as close as we could to the source of labour and bought souvenirs at fair trade cooperatives.
Of course, given the monk penchant for smart phones and our obsession with watching them use them to enhance monk-ly activities, we just had to find out how much the smart phones cost. Joe told said ‘not expensive like 10,000 – 15,000 kyat’ which is 10 – 15 USD. Huawei, the Chinese tech giant appears to have saturated in Myanmar. This the same company that Canada, Australia & the US have all banned from domestic telecommunications contracts due to suspected cyber terrorism.
South East Asia is an interesting place to observe the whole US versus China (People Republic) battle for hearts and minds play out. Those we asked were pro-China, seeing it as a source of economic opportunity. While America wins hands down for culture and the influence of ‘democracy’. The locals based on what they’re used to do not see the same monied political & partisan dysfunction that I see, to them America still represents a better way It is no question better than what they’ve got – freedom of the press, relatively free elections, better access to education & to healthcare (if you’re insured). Which brings me back to my query at the beginning of this post – just how democratic is Myanmar and which way will it go? The China model of authoritarian capitalism offers a reform path that is more palatable to those currently in power. I think it will come down the issue if the people’s desire reform be satisfied purely by consumerism or will they want more of what of democratic civil society. Based on the people that shared their stories and their vision, they want the latter, but I’m not sure they’ll get it without a fight or a lot of external pressure. I know I’ll be watching with interest.
If you’ve managed to read through this marathon post and would like see rather than just read about our trip, we’ve started to post our photos online. So far, Yangon is up, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dvanv333/ looking very out of place on our dive photo site. Enjoy.