Tuesday, 17 March 2015

MYANMAR: 1-13 MARCH, 2015

Here we are in far-flung Myanmar, a land of contradictions in South East Asia.
For many, many years, it has been closed to the rest of the world and has been governed by a military dictatorship. They don’t even know how to spell freedom. Express a political opinion loudly and off to prison you go to be tortured, beaten and mistreated as you cannot even imagine.

For the past 3 or 4 years, Myanmar has opened its doors, tourism is booming and some of the primitive charm of the place will doubtless disappear after a few years. In the villages and in the cities, native costume, the longyi, is still worn by men and women. To us, it appears to be a skirt but we have now seen so many different ways of wearing this very practical, versatile piece of fabric, which takes 4 days to spin on the loom. Most of the population wear a face paint: Thanaka. It is a natural cosmetic, sunscreen, anti-aging and insect repellent. It is worn in lovely designs on faces.

The country is divided longitudinally by the Irawaddy River. This serves for transportation and for irrigation for the whole country. We are cruising for two weeks on a river boat on this river.

85% of the population is Buddhist. There are a million temples scattered all over the country. Stupas and temples all fall under the umbrella of pagodas. There are ONE MILLION pagodas in this country.

The history of this country is a stormy one. The British and Japanese have both occupied Myanmar. Aung San finally achieved independence for Burma back in 1948. From 1962 to 2011, the country was ruled by a military junta that suppressed almost all dissent and wielded absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions.
The generals who ran the country stood accused of gross human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labour, including children.
The first general election in 20 years was held in 2010. This was hailed by the junta as an important step in the transition from military rule to a civilian democracy, though opposition groups alleged widespread fraud and condemned the election as a sham.

It was boycotted by the main opposition group, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) - which had won a landslide victory in the previous multi-party election in 1990 but was not allowed to govern. This magnificent lady has been under house arrest on and off for many, many years and is the daughter of the hero of the nation, Aung San. She won the Nobel Peace Prize a number of years ago. She married a British man and the military changed the constitution so that she could not run for President, ostensibly because of this marriage. There is a wonderful movie called “The Lady”. She is so named because for years the military forbade anyone to call her name as they felt so threatened by the people’s love for her, thus they took to calling her “The Lady”. Suu, (as she is often now called), was unable to leave the country to receive the Nobel Prize or even to go to her husband' s side in England when he recently died as she knew that she would never be allowed to re-enter the country. The military also refused to give he husband or children a visa to visit her. This is Suu below. 
A “sort-of” civilian government led by President Thein Sein - who served as a general and then prime minister under the junta - was installed in March 2011.The constitution rules that 25% of seats in parliament must be held by the military.
70% of the population lives in remote villages. Many have no electricity. One sees an occasional solar panel.

The young girls below put on a performance for us at their school. 

The population of the country is 52 million. There are 135 different ethnic groups. Hence the legal name of the country which is “The Union of Myanmar” …getting all these different ethnicities to come together and unite was no mean feat.
Life expectancy for males is 63 years and females: 68 years. 
In recent years, there have been a series of reforms which are much needed. Human trafficking still exists. Children disappear and are forced to enter the army. Opium production takes place in East Myanmar. The government sells off the forests to the Chines (all the lovely teak wood) and there is so much corruption that the people likely never see this money. There is lots of natural gas exported by Myanmar and the country produces oil but once again, what happens to this  money?
We loved the villages but most of all, we loved the Burmese people. They are happy, smiling people who are content working their land and living off it. The average villager never sees television and the media is government-controlled anyway.

The above picture is a group of kids who were pure delight. I quizzed them on some English words and we sang and laughed together. They were so smart. 

Most families have a motor bike. Distances are so great that they could not get around without this. This picture is not of bottles of pop or water, as you might expect, but of how gas for these bikes is sold...by the bottle!

One evening, we went to see U Bein bridge: The longest teak bridge. We went out on small boats and watched the sun set. 

We started our cruise in Mandalay and cruised south to Yangon. Water levels were very low in the river and one day we got stuck on a sandbank….for 26 hours no less!!! That was quite an experience and it took three tug boats to pull us out. They got all passengers off the boat also which helped somewhat to lighten the load! In all my years of cruising (30) I have never encountered such an amazing crew. Viking River Cruises did a fabulous job and the hotel manager, Evelyn, was phenomenal. Our two Burmese guides, Mumu and Nyo were also exceptional.
We had many different activities in order to get a feel for the country. One was a tri-shaw ride. Fabulous. This man earned his fee riding me up the hill.

In Yangon, we began to see real hope for the country. It is a lovely, bustling city and the prices are right. There are many Universities throughout Myanmar: Students are beginning to demonstrate and express their displeasure with the government. This requires great courage as this is not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination.
There will be an election in November this year. Let us hope for magic for this troubled land. Do try to visit Myanmar one day, it is fascinating. We loved it. 
Stay tuned. India is next...for three weeks!

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