Is it Burma or Myanmar? You will hear both. Since 2011 the official name has been the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The military junta changed the name from Burma, the name used since the mid 19th century, to Myanmar in 1989. Rangoon became Yangon, and several other place names were also changed — all in an effort to rid the country of British era colonial names.
During our travels, we inquired. Which name did citizens prefer? The answer we always got was “Myanmar.”
Following is a brief history lesson – important to understanding Myanmar today.
Burma was a British protectorate from 1885 until 1948 when it gained independence. Civil war among minority groups followed until 1962 when General Ne Win took control and set up the world’s longest running military dictatorship. Industries were nationalized. Tourist visas were limited to one week. Foreign books and magazines were not permitted in the country. Burma was isolated. The economy was in shambles.
In 1988 peaceful protesters took to the streets. Their leader was Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Military violence quashed the protests, and in 1989 Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. (She was released in 1995, but put under house arrest twice again.) An election was held in 1990 with the NLD as the winner. However, the military would not relinquish power and many politicians were jailed.
The US and Canada imposed an investment ban on Myanmar in 1997, and in 2000, the EU intensified economic sanctions citing human rights abuses.
Protests broke out again in 2007, with monks taking a leading role. Thousands were arrested, 31 killed including a monk who was beaten to death. In 2008, the country was ravaged by Cyclone Nargis which left 138,000 dead. Shortly thereafter, in wake of criticism following botched up relief efforts, a long promised referendum on constitutional reform was held with the goal of creating a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”
Elections took place in 2010, boycotted by the NLD, with the military-backed party the winner. In 2011 a former general, Thein Sein, takes the helm as president and embarks on a series of reforms to direct the country toward democracy. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. A human rights commission was established. Press censorship was relaxed. Political prisoners were released. And, the door was open to tourists, as well as western companies for investment opportunities.
Those, and other changes that we witnessed, are encouraging. The real proof of democratic progress will come with elections in 2015. According to the current constitution Suu Kyi, the national heroine, is prohibited from running in the presidential contest because her late husband was British. However, the constitution is supposed to be amended to permit her to run.
Since her party won in bi-elections in 2012, Suu Kyi is a member of parliament. She is adored, revered by the people of Myanmar. Those we spoke to said she could easily win the presidential contest. Their hopes and aspirations lie with her. Will the constitution be amended? If so, will there be a fair election?
According to political commentary, Myanmar has gone too far to turn back the clock. Even without a constitutional amendment and Suu Kyi at the helm, economic progress marches on at a rapid pace. There are no Starbucks and Golden Arches yet in Yangon, but they are sure to come. In this frenzied metropolis, there are clean, modern restaurants serving western food, a few fancy five-star hotels and more to come, multi-lane highways. We found Wi-Fi everywhere we went in Myanmar– usually in the hotel rooms. Construction sites abound. Roads, even in remote areas, are undergoing improvement. More and more tourist sites are installing modern, much appreciated, toilet facilities.
Of course, all is far from golden like the country’s thousands of Buddhas. Ethnic violence between Muslims and Buddhists plagues the western part of the country. According to a United Nations investigation, at least 40 Rohingya Muslims, the persecuted minority group, were massacred in January. The government continues to deny the killings. Guides talked of corruption, a lack of education and opportunities for the poor.
“Before 2010, a Toyota (the car of choice in Myanmar) cost $22,000. Now it costs $10,000. But for the majority, $10,000 is still too much,” said one guide. (Guides did not want their names mentioned in conjunction with quotes. There is still a lingering fear of Big Brother.)
The influx of tourists is helping with more jobs — working in hotels, on construction of tourist facilities, as guides, drivers. That can only get better.
“Before 2011, there were between 700,000 and 800,000 visitors per year to Myanmar,” another guide said. “In 2011 there were 1.05 million tourists, and in 2012, 1.5 million. We expect 3.5 million this year.”
We are glad we got in before the rush. Our trip was booked with Asian Trails (www.asiantrails.info) During our 13-day sightseeing tour we had four different
guides and drivers, different ones for different regions. We flew from Yangon to Bagan, from Mandaly to Inle Lake, then to Ngapali Beach and back to Yangon. After the tour, we spent 10 blissful days at Ngapali, Myanmar’s unspoiled beach resort. Cost per person: $3,335, which included all transportation, ground and air, within Myanmar, all hotels, two meals per day (except at the beach where only breakfast was included), guide services and admission charges.
The guides all spoke English and were extremely knowledgeable. They pointed out the best places for photos and made sure we got sunset shots. Both guides and drivers were polite, courteous and obliging – often taking us to places that were not on the pre set itinerary.
The cars were comfortable and air-conditioned, with bottles of water and handi-wipes provided. The latter were indeed handy to clean dirty feet after barefoot treks through temples. We were delighted with our visit and Asian Trails.
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