News stories take on increased significance when we’ve actually visited the place being covered. For example, we've recently been reading more about the effects of a harsh winter on the lives of ordinary people in both Tajikistan and China. As we read these stories, images of the people we’ve met become superimposed on a piece of news that we might otherwise regard with detachment.
We now follow Myanmar (Burma) more closely, as well. Just a few days ago, the junta (military government) there made news by announcing another “road map to democracy” and elections in 2010.
We’d like to be optimistic. Unfortunately, our recent experience in Myanmar tells us that the skeptics may have a more accurate read of the situation.
To See for Ourselves
We had been interested in visiting Myanmar for a while. Our interest was piqued further by the recent Buddhist monk-led protests (so-called Saffron Uprising) there in August-September 2007.
When the news first broke, we were concerned. That concern slowly yielded to hope as we watched scenes of defiant monks and locals protesting price increases and standing up for their freedom. We witnessed what looked like a sustainable movement, but the protests eventually subsided and the situation began to settle down.
A few months later, we made the decision to visit Myanmar. Friends questioned our decision, “Are you sure you want to go there? Is it safe?”
Based on our research, we believed it would be safe for travelers. So last month, we carried our hope with us to Myanmar. During our visit, our safety never seemed in question, but the condition of Myanmar’s road to democracy did.
Are You Spies?
We never initiated discussions about politics or the junta. The people in Myanmar were eager to do that for us. So long as they felt comfortable in their surroundings and were certain that no undercover police were around, they spoke openly with us. They shared stories about how military police would surreptitiously snap photos of demonstrators during the day in order to take them away from their homes at night. Police presence was minimal. That is, if you only happen to be counting those in uniform.
In the face of all this, the people of Myanmar are resilient, resourceful, and creative. Locals know how to go about their regular business without attracting attention. They obtain information through word of mouth, by listening to shortwave radio (BBC, VOA, RFA) and by reading correspondence from relatives living abroad. If our experience with the internet was any measure, all of these information sources are heavily monitored and censored.
What’s Behind the Blackouts?
Our own communication challenges were not only limited to circumventing blocked internet, but also navigating frequent power cuts. The purpose of internet controls is straightforward: to prevent the flow of information.
Blackouts are a bit more difficult to understand. In Myanmar, electricity would run rather sporadically for most of the day and usually shut off around dusk. This meant that any home, guest house or business wishing to operate during the evening would need to use a generator.
Compared to every other resource-starved region we’ve been in, this is an odd approach. Because light and heat are more available during the day, electricity is often wisely conserved in favor of darker and colder evenings.
Cynics we spoke to explained that Myanmar's electricity distribution strategy was connected to the business interests of high-ranking officials with connections to the petroleum industry. They suggested a simple dynamic: turn off the electricity (lights and heat) at night and people will be forced to run diesel-powered generators to supply their needs.
Does Poverty Equal a Poor Country?
“Myanmar is not a poor country. I’m not saying that there isn’t poverty. There is, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” one man offered.
The point that he was getting at is that Myanmar has resources: vast tracts of fertile land, teak forests, gems, and veins of gold and natural gas. Unofficially, the country supposedly even does a lively opium trade with China and Thailand.
The fact that many people in Myanmar remain desperately poor doesn't seem to be due to endemic laziness or lack of resources. Across Myanmar's diverse ethnic groups, people appeared relatively hard-working and resourceful. The issue seems to be more a matter of what government chooses to do with the resources at its disposal and how it “manages” the economy than with the failure of its people or its land.
Locals are quick to tell us that the junta and their friends control all business deals. As a result, average citizens don’t benefit from the country's natural resources. They see supplies drop as the government exports them; prices rise and purchasing power is diminished. Ultimately, increased petrol prices prompted the demonstrations in August and September. This was the tip of an iceberg of frustration. While resources were being extracted, deteriorating infrastructure and diminishing services (electricity, health care and other) were offered in exchange.
The government also appears to enjoy squandering their resources on boondoggles like re-locating the capital of Yangon (Rangoon) to Naypyitaw, a Pleasantville-style planned village of suburban dreams, subdivisions and empty well-lit streets. We passed by it on the train; it was surreal. Large tracts of land and freshly laid wide boulevards in the middle of the plain remain empty but ready for the elite while the rest of the country struggles with rolling blackouts and failing infrastructure.
When we heard that the junta announced elections in 2010 as part of Myanmar's democratic road map, we weren't particularly hopeful.
Skeptics say that the government's “free elections” may not be so free. We too have a hard time believing that the military would voluntarily cede political power and the economic power that comes with it. After all, wouldn’t opening the internet, allowing journalists back into the country and freeing a few prominent political prisoners offer some steps on the real road to democracy?
Hope for Real Change?
There is one country that we believe can influence Myanmar towards real change given both its economic influence on and its proximity to Myanmar. Unfortunately, we can’t tell you which country that is until after we visit China for the second time this spring.
Oops, I think we just gave away the answer.
Reflecting on Our Decision to Visit
Given all this, we are glad we visited Myanmar when we did. We wanted to see what life was like for real people. In doing that and spending our money consciously and wisely, we are confident that we did more good for ordinary people than we did for the government.
We're looking forward to sharing more impressions of Myanmar – its diverse people, food and culture – through our writing and our photography.