Why Burma? Perhaps you've heard a little about this misruled land. Maybe you know that the ruling military regime has renamed the country Myanmar. And perhaps you've even heard calls for complete boycotts of all business and tourism to the country. So why did I travel to Burma? Because who else will tell you their story ...
To understand the current situation in Burma, we have to return to the late 1940's. A young general by the name of Aung San became a national hero when he negotiated independence for Burma from the former colonial rulers of Britain. Months later, Aung San was assassinated by jealous political rivals. The country entered a period of shaky, unstable governance until 1962 when a military general and former ally of Aung San's, Ne Win, took over the country in a coup. The country took a turn for the worse.
Dave and the General.
A statue commemorating the national hero, Aung San.
Burma under Ne Win quickly became a disaster. Influenced by communism, fascism, and a range of bizarre superstitious beliefs, Ne Win's heavy-handed policies quickly sent Burma from being the world's largest rice exporter to a land of severe poverty and third world status. The army prospered, however, and was used to crush all opposition. Eventually, public unrest forced Ne Win to resign in 1988. The people were hopeful, but all enthusiasm was quenched when the military consolidated power and assumed control over the country, renaming it Myanmar. Over the years, the military has not hesitated in its use of excessive force ... perceived opponents have been imprisoned and tortured, public demonstrations have been broken up with guns and bloodshed, villagers have been forced into service as human shields and minesweepers in the military's ongoing effort to control the rural areas, and all information in and out of the country has been tightly monitored.
Signs of a military regime. But it's the People's desire ...
Amidst the turmoil, one courageous woman has stood firm in the face of brutal repression. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of General Aung San, the national hero. Her concern for her people has led her to stand against injustice in a quest for peace and democracy in Burma. For this, she has spent much time under house arrest, and her supporters are continually harassed and imprisoned. One week before Jeff and I were to visit this desperate country, Aung San Suu Kyi and a group of supporters were attacked by pro-government thugs. Innocent lives were ended as people were beaten like animals with bamboo canes. Aung San Suu Kyi was once again arrested and many others simply disappeared.
Dave at the edge of Inya lake.
(Read below for significance of this lake.)
Our trip to Burma was a learning experience ... to put a face with the problems read about in books. What an incredible country and people! Friendly smiles abound, but you can be sure that under the surface a painful struggle exists. The population has remained isolated from the rest of the world for years. Life may appear normal to the foreigner, but occasional glimpses of fear reveal that something lies beneath. Part of our time in Burma was spent visiting significant locations, such as Inya Lake. In 1988, this lake was the site of a particularly gruesome event when student protestors were beaten and drowned beneath the waters. Along the edge of the lake, on University Avenue, the house of Aung San Suu Kyi rests. An attempted visit was denied by guards at a military road block.
The roads of Rangoon.
Jeff and Dave visiting a national
treasure of Burma, Shwedagon Pagoda.
Isolation indeed. No McDonalds in Burma.
To get a taste of rural Burma, we decided to take a day trip to the village of Twante. Burma is not exactly tourist friendly, so finding the proper transportation can be an adventure in itself. After finally locating a "trustworthy" vessel, we boarded and set sail for the village. Here we got a glimpse of how ordinary Burmese live. We also found out that ordinary Burmese do not speak English. But fortunately, we found one extraordinary fellow, whose English skills were more than enough to help us find a bus back to Rangoon.
The boat to Twante.
Don't miss the ferry back to Rangoon.
Burma is an excellent example of how not to run a country. Tourism is not recommended as much of the money supports the ruling regime. Independent traveling with the objective to learn about the present situation, however, can be an effective means of spreading the word, and can encourage locals who live in isolation. If you decide to go to Burma, travel purposefully.
Remember Aung San Suu Kyi.
Learn about her country.
Pray for Burma.