The new face of Burma

Haze on Bagan temples

What would most people think when hearing about Burma? Not something very glorious. Today, Burma has a reputation of being an impoverished country led by a junta dictatorship. In many travel guides, the question of whether it is good or not to go to Burma is still asked. If you go there, that means you support the dictatorship. I have read “Along with North Korea, Myanmar / Burma is one of the most obscured countries in the world”. Just like Cuba and Iran, Burma is still under economic sanctions from the United States. There may be a light of hope though, as very recently, on the 25th November, Barack Obama met Burma ruler Gen. Than Shwe, before meeting also Aung San Suu Kyi, a key figure of the Burma opposition.

Actually, I was about to entitle this post “Tales on Burma” to show to what extend the reality is quite different from the hell on earth described by the western media. First, during the worst times of junta, life is Burma had nothing to do with, say, life in North Korea, China in the 60’, the Khmer in Cambodia, and so on. And now, the good news is Burma is not a dictatorship anymore. You feel a real wind of change in Burma. Today, everywhere can you see portraits of the opposition figure “The Lady”, nobody is afraid of speaking to foreigners; Burmese people can travel freely out of the country, Internet is now widely accessible. This was not the case only 3 years ago.

Several distinctive periods shaped Burma’s identity. Empires like Pagan or Mrauk U left numerous stone monuments.

British colonialism from 1886 to 1947 left elegant buildings in the main cities and boosted Burmese economy and administration. Many Indians arrived as civil servants, construction workers and traders. Rangoon became the capital of Burma and an important port between Singapore and Calcutta.

Following World War II, in 1947, Aung San managed to gain independence from the British and became Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma, but he was assassinated by political rivals shortly after. He is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi.

In January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, but starting from 1962, the country was hit by a coup d’état and almost all aspects of society were put under strict control by the government, followed by Soviet-style nationalization and central planning. As a result, Burma became one of the world’s poorest countries and is still recovering slowly from this period.

Since 2010, the government has started to make series of reforms towards democracy, mixed economy, and social peace. These reforms include the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, general amnesties for political prisoners, relaxation of press censorship…

Aung San Suu Kyi, also known in Burma as “The Lady”, is the key figure of the Burma opposition. She remained under house arrest for almost 15 years, until 2010, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

While being in house arrest, her brother, an engineer who lives in the USA, tried to sue her for living in their mother’s house without paying him compensation. His behaviour made him looked as a fool in the media.

Aung San Suu Kyi has always been revered in Burma and throughout the world for her courage and charisma. In 2010, French movie director, Luc Besson, depicted the story of her political ascent and eventful family life in “The Lady”.

Although Burma was not a communist country, it has tried a planned economical system and had a military trade agreement with USSR. Friendship between Burma and the Soviet Union is symbolized by this example of typical soviet architecture – The Inya Lake Hotel, Yangon (built 1964-66)

Yangon Soviet Hotel

Instead of Burma, one should write Myanmar (Burma) or with a / sign. In 1989 the military government changed the name of the country to “Myanmar”, which spawned fierce debates. Many countries continue to use “Burma” because they do not recognize the legitimacy of the government to rename the country. “Burma” continues to be used by the governments of many countries, for example the USA, the United Kingdom…However, the United Nations along with Russia, China, India…uses “Myanmar”. Both Burma or Myanmar are derived from the name of the majority Burmese Bamar ethnic group. There is a difference in that Burma refers to the Burmese people, and Myanmar refers to the inhabitants of the country. The same words exist in Russian for ethnic Russians (Russkie) and inhabitants of Russia (Rossianye). Bordered mainly with Thailand, India, China, Burma is a mosaic of ethnicity with over 60 million people.

Artcraft made by Burmese girl

Despite being very rich in natural resources, the Burmese economy is one of the least developed in the world. Rudyard Kipling once said of Burma that “It is quite unlike any place you know about”. It’s true this country differs widely from its neighbours. You have the feeling of being back in the past. Manual work is still prominent. Seeing peasants plowing with cows is quite common. I saw women sieving pebble from sand in a river to use for road construction. Despite her hard work, one of them was quite talkative and smiling.

Burmese girl roadworker

Due to high import taxes, vehicles such as cars, trucks, tractors, boats in the street are old. Some are repaired with wood or wires.

Burmese tractor

Burma is reputed for its abundance of gems and precious metals. Burma produces 90% of the world’s rubies whose red stones are prized for their purity and hue, such as the rare pigeon’s blood ruby. It produces also quality blue sapphires. Because of deplorable working conditions in the mines and because the profit go to the junta, many jewelry companies, like Tiffany, Bulgari or Cartier refuse to import Burmese stones. Well, to import directly, as Thailand buys the majority of the country’s gems.

Burma main agricultural product is rice, which is partly exported. Burma produces also two-third of the world’s teak.

Another source of income for the Burma economy is tourism, which was encouraged by the government since 1992. However, since 2007, tourist industry sees a staggering growth year-on-year, now reaching 100%. A few years ago, you could see Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda almost empty of western tourists. Today, the majority of visitors are European. It is not Rome yet, but at this pace, you can expect that it could become a second Angkor Vat within 2 or 3 years.

As there were many powerful kingdoms on Burma territory, Burma landmarks are very numerous. Temples, palaces, scenic landscapes…Burma is twice as big as France, so it’s impossible to visit all of them, and we don’t suggest you try. You’ll see pictures of a few of them: Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan.

Mandalay biker

Situated in a mountainous valley, Inle Lake reminded me a green Venice. Only much bigger. The highlight of Inle Lake are the villages on poles and traditional fishermen.

Inlay lake kids

Fishermen, living in one of the fifteen villages on poles on Inle Lake, use a very picturesque way of catching fishes. Fishing is done by means of a conical net that the fisherman thrusts to the bottom of the lake. This is done while the fisherman stands precariously with one foot on the stern of his pirogue and twists his other leg around a long oar that he uses to propel the boat.

Inlay lake fisherman

Fisherman at Inle Lake holding a long oar and pulling up his net

And what about the famous Bagan?

Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom. Bagan lays in a plain from which In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Pagan Empire and the Khmer Empire were the two main powers in Southeast Asia. Bagan prosperity started after 1050, when King Anawrahta developed the Pagan Empire and decayed in 1277, when the first Mongol invasion began.

Bagan is a place, which is hard to describe by common words, much easier with poems, scents, birdsongs or sunrise photographs of the more than 4,000 Buddhist temples emerging from the morning haze.

The most memorable feeling I had in Bagan was hiking at 6 am among temples and fields, totally alone. Most temples are freely accessible and so you can explore the interior on your own. Some temples have stairways leading to higher levels, thus offering stunning views of the Bagan plain.

Bagan North Guni Temple

Bagan North Guni Temple

In all of them, you are welcomed by giant Buddha statues, inspiring calm and respect.

Buddha face Bagan 2

You must always take off your shoes in temples, even if they are abandoned. This is sometimes not a very pleasant experience on dirty floors in old temples, as many are inhabited by bats.

Buddha Bagan temple

Buddhism, precisely its Theravada branch, is the main religion in Burma and it pervades all tiers of Burmese society.
Being a Burmese is being a Buddhist” states a local saying. As every boy is expected to be a monk in a certain period of his life, it is very common to see young boys wearing monk cloths, walking bare feet, and asking for offerings.

Burmese child monks

A young girl at Bagan temple

Burmese girl Bagan

Don’t even think of touching these cute little monkeys: They are protected by an army of feroceous adult monkeys at Mt Popa, in the vicinity of Bagan.

Popa monkeys





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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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