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Trip Report Burma at Last!

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As a child, I saw a photo of the temples at Bagan rising out of the peach-colored mist at sunrise. I knew I had to go there.

To go or not to go?
While I had wanted to visit Burma since I was a child, it wasn’t until this year that I actually made it to Burma. I, like others, was concerned about the brutal junta, and did not want to do anything to support them.

The first time I planned a trip to Burma was at a time when the country had recently opened to tourism. “Opened” is a misnomer really, as one could visit as part of a group tour for not more than 7 days. Thai Air had such a tour, leaving from Bangkok. While I dislike group tours, I wanted to go so badly and since it was the only way to get into the country, I decided to go. I had done my research with what was available (not much) and had talked extensively with a friend who had been there. We already had tickets to Bangkok. Just as I was about to book, ASSK asked that people boycott Burma. So I booked a trip elsewhere in SE Asia.

I planned trips two more times as it appeared that the government was loosening its iron grip on the people. The second time, they had released ASSK, who was traveling around the country. I was ecstatic, and immediately planned a trip. Then government forces attacked ASSK’s entourage in upper Burma, killing somewhere between 8 and 80 people, depending on which reports you read. Of course, I cancelled that trip.

I continued to watch and each time there was some thawing of the relationship between the pro-democracy forces and the government, I would again look at planning a trip. The most recent time I planned a trip before this was derailed by the government forces shooting peacefully demonstrating monks in the streets of Rangoon.

A number of people whose opinion I respect had opted to travel to Burma. Typically, they said it was important to travel to Burma to put money into the hands of the people. Some also noted that the presence of people from other countries could serve as encouragement to the people of Burma; they would know that others cared about them and their plight. Others pointed out that travelers were sometimes the only conduit for accurate information from the outside world, given the government’s blocking of many news outlet websites, email and such. While those are all reasonable arguments, they didn’t feel compelling to me. How would my visiting help the people change their circumstances?

Finally, I was convinced that it was time to go see for myself. I read extensively, including books by ASSK and by pro-democracy supporters who do not support the boycott. I went looking for ways visitors like myself could have a positive impact.
I researched the ownership of the hotels and chose ones without government connections. I flew on non-government airlines, though Tay Za, the general’s son-in-law owns Air Bagan. But given my itinerary, I had no choice. I hired taxi drivers and a horse cart driver on the spot, and tipped generously. We were conscious of trying to spread our money widely. We purchased directly from craftspeople whenever possible.
We were aware of the arrangement the Pa-O people have whereby they are allowed to charge visitors to their previously closed areas, and the ethnic group is allowed to retain the money. In talking more with the two Pa-O guides we had, we learned more about this arrangement and how it came to be. The Pa-O (as well as a number of other ethnic groups) had been at war with the government for decades. These groups were fighting for independent states, for self-rule. This arrangement, whereby the Pa-O could collect and retain monies for their own projects was part of the cease-fire agreement with the government. The Pa-O also require that visitors have a Pa-O guide for their foray into Pa-O territory, thus adding employment for their tribal members.

The Pa-O are one of six ethnic groups that have signed cease-fire agreements with the government and have gotten this kind of concession. This seems to me to be a significant step forward in relations between the government and the ethnic groups, and a step forward in having some control over the group’s economic development.

We were delighted to add our dollars to the Pa-O’s coffers on this trip, and look forward to being able to use our tourist dollars in support of other ethnic minority groups in Burma on a future trip.

Talking Politics:
Every visitor is cautioned not to talk about politics with locals, as the locals may suffer for it. So while we did not initiate such conversations, we heard plenty, especially in the aftermath of Obama’s ASEAN speech which occurred during our first few days in Burma.

Our experience last year at the time of the election was that Obama was a symbol of change for people in SE Asia (as well as elsewhere). The US electing Obama was seen as the US re-joining the world community.

We had many conversations with people who referenced Obama’s ASEAN speech, and already saw the possibility of a closer relationship with the US, US investment in the country, and greater economic development for the country. There was a palpable excitement.

Many people told us their stories. Quite a few of the people we met were university students or ready for university when the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations were violently quashed by the government. Those were times of tremendous hope followed by tremendous trauma. One man told us that he and his friends, who were students at the time, had demonstrated, and that his friends were arrested and put in Insein prison. When we asked where his friends are now, he said “all gone.”

For those who were students or ready for University, their educations were interrupted and often, permanently derailed. Even when the government re-opened universities several years later, they closed the main Universities in Mandalay and Rangoon and required that students attend small, decentralized “universities” throughout the country. Many professors left the country after the 1988 uprising, so there were not enough qualified instructors. Many instructors in the decentralized “universities” did not have University degrees.

We heard stories of instructors who were trying to teach their students by being a chapter ahead of them in the text books, who admitted they didn’t know or understand the material. A program in computer science, for instance, had three computers for 30 students and an instructor with no experience in the computer technologies he was trying to teach. Students graduated with no hands-on experience. We met people with University degrees driving taxis or horse carts, acting as guides or working in hotels. All said there are no jobs for them in their area of study.

The people value education highly, but perceive the government as not wanting educated people who think and question, but people who obey without question. And still, the people see education as the country’s only hope for advancement.
A number of people told us of relatives who held government positions who retired after the 1988 uprising as they did not want to work for that government.

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