Myanmar to Bangkok - Culture Shock

Trip Start Feb 26, 2010
Trip End Feb 26, 2011

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Well we got a knock at the door at 5:30am, a quick shower then down for breako before a free lift to the airport. We said our goodbyes and changed our remaining Kyat back to US dollar it wasn't a huge amount but we got about 10 dollar back so it was better than a kick in the teeth (obviously I had intended to spend the last bits of money on drinking however through lack of sleep and pure exhaustion I could not manage it).

We got to the airport and sadly looked around at the last views of the knackered old white Toyota Corolla Mark 1 which we had become so fond of and entered the airport building to get back to tourist exclusivity. We made a point of taking the worst notes and smallest notes that we could find to pay our departure fee of ten Dollars each, despite having good money left we had an argument with the officials saying we had no other money and they would have to take it otherwise we could not leave the country and would have to live on the street in Yangon for the rest of our lives (with the crazy looking dogs). Eventually despite the moans and groans of the queue behind us they took the money they will probably not be able to use and we got on our plane back to Bangkok. Our next blog will be from Krabi in Thailand, we do not like doing too much flying but when we have spent money getting into central Bangkok then waiting a few days to get train tickets (which are about the same price as our plane tickets) it would be far more expensive. For those that don’t know the Lady and I spent a month in Thailand about 4 years ago so we have done most of the big sights there.

Well we saw lots of the railways in Myanmar but due to the train running at night on the Mandalay line and the money going into Government pockets we did not do Stevie T’s suggestion of the death railway nor will we be able to visit the bridge over the River Kwai which we also hoped to do. Anyway as promised here is my latest rant about Myanmar we have spoken to many people while we have been here some people quite happy to talk about their situation and the Government / political situation and some who obey the law and just keep their mouths firmly shut.

Myanmar is a country with a population of about 60 million people, approximately 15% of the population are in the military (so say 9 million), and approximately 4 million are monks. The democratic leader of the people is called Aung San Suu Kyi and she is currently under house arrest in Yangon. Everyone sees her as the catalyst for the revolution. We think this is odd considering elections are due to be held later this year. That is how much faith the people put in a fair election process. She was due to be released a few years ago however she fell victim to the regime. One evening an American tourist swam to her house prison, her house backs on to a lake, after being alone for so long she let him in only for a raid of the house to be carried out immediately. She was therefore sentenced to further imprisonment for her crime. The America tourist apparently received $5 Million US for his role in the process.

The monks are therefore the second most powerful group in the country (in terms of numbers at least) however they are a little screwed as a large percentage of the monks are actually military spies who are trained by the Government at an early age to infiltrate the organisation to ensure the Government are absolutely clear if and when any plans are being put in place. Estimates given to us by various people suggest 5 – 15% are fake monks. Saying that there are secret police everywhere listening to conversations and following people suspected of not being 100% behind the regime.

Most countries in the world have imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar. So you do not get any Coca Cola (although a few shady imports are available), there are no banks, no ATMs, no fast food, there is just nothing you would normally see. As happened in Iraq when the sanctions were imposed the leaders of these countries just seem to get more greedy. The most upsetting thing I think we have seen while we have been here is the huge number of logs everywhere. The leaders have essentially stripped 95% of all the natural teak forests leaving only 5% remaining, however they are well on with this last 5%. They have now allowed inward investment for oil and natural gas (on a profit sharing basis with the leaders of the country). The sanctions on these things are not worldwide however with China taking much of the oil and gas and the logs apparently go to Thailand. The Thai’s then chop the wood and give it the Thai stamp before exporting around the world including the UK.  This is meaning the sanctions are not actually really benefiting anyone but the Government (in my eyes anyway), they are getting richer and richer and the strong links to the Chinese, Thai and Indian governments is making the Government stronger whilst making the people poorer.

Very little money is spent on healthcare, schooling or social issues and the people continue to live in abject poverty despite the absolute raping of the natural resources of the country as quickly as possible to prop up the regime. In 2007 Cyclone Nargis pretty much flattened the country, international aid agencies mobilised and soon lots of products were imported, only to end up in the hands of the Government who then made them available on the black market actually selling this aid to their own desperate people. As a further example of just how cruel this regime is a famous local film star went to one of the worst hit areas buying medicine and other things from the black market (i.e. the Government) to distribute to the needy. He was found guilty of some trivial crime, was sentenced to 45 years in prison and forced labour camps without (fair) trial for portraying the Government in an unfavourable light.

In terms of human rights we spoke to several people who gave examples of how business owners and property owners had been asked if they would relinquish their assets for people high up in the military regime (these can be local generals rather than the real big cheeses). The options were sign over the rights to land or business and move on somewhere else, or, be shot in the head there and then. An individual story like this may be extreme but we heard it from more than one person. You must question what is happening to all the money well the answer is twofold. There appears to be a huge domestic spend on increasing the size of the military and infrastructure. We have personally seen military barracks under construction in a couple of places which you would not believe, we are talking km and kms of 'acquired land’ with hundreds if not thousands of huge buildings either already built or nearing completion (all obviously built using the free forced labour workforce). The second place this wealth ends up is in the hands of the senior military commanders / rulers of the country. The top General sends his grandchild to school every day to Singapore (obviously not in the poor education systems whether private or state run in Myanmar) by private jet to return to the capital each evening. At the recent wedding of one of his daughters the gifts alone came to a value of $50 Million.

That brings me to the next point the new capital city. The capital has been both Mandalay and Yangon but has been moved to a new location in the centre of the country. Basically nobody can get into the capital city even the Generals own family have to be stopped, searched and checked they are that paranoid. We have also heard that none of the head of the military are allowed to visit each other they are that paranoid that each one of them is out to get the others thus increasing their share of the profits. The new capital has cost an absolute fortune to build and again forced labour has been used to build a large amount of it.

Another example of the Governments disregard of its people is evident in Bagan. Essentially the central town had encroached toward the temple area. Overnight the Government decided to move everybody out and start to remove the houses the following day. Looking at the place this has been done very well as there is no evidence that a huge town existed there only a few years ago. Again this demolition was probably done with forced labour so cost very little, we were not told about any compensation offers for the residents but I can guess the answer is 0.

We spoke to a bloke in a bar who told us about how the military check to see exactly who is living where in that they kicked the door of his elderly parents home in at 01:00 in the morning just to take a list of names of people living there before deciding if they needed relocating. This is apparently quite commonplace just to see who is where when.  Also all internet based e-mail i.e Hotmail is banned which makes the Chinese and Vietnamese restrictions on internet sites seem veritably liberal.

We personally have been dragged off overnight buses at gunpoint (not with a gun in the back but the guy telling us to get off the bus had a gun) for passport inspections and so the military could ask us questions / find out where we were going. This obviously also happened to the locals but I guess they are used to it. On one journey we were unloaded 3 times.

We spoke to the owner of one privately run business who initially refused the military request to operate a two tier employment system. Essentially he was given the opportunity to offer any vacancies to the family of military personnel before normal members of the public, when he refused they roughed him up a little and told him he would either die or lose his business. He now employs family members connected to the military before anyone else.

We spoke to a man in a restaurant in Kalaw who suggested that over half of all guest houses in Kalaw are now run either directly for the military or by close family members, ten years ago all of them were privately owned. We were told by someone in a bar in Kalaw that all the privately owned guest houses have to pay bribes to stay open and offer free accommodation to anyone in or connected with the military or the regime. If they refuse, and only due the fact that they can’t afford it, things are made very difficult for them and they usually get their license revoked.

We heard stories of tourists having their photograph taken on trains by who they suggest were plain clothed officers. One woman was followed every single day for two weeks and every guest house she went to were told to record exactly where she was going, what she was doing at any time. They even phoned to ask the owner what she was looking at on the internet. We here that someone else got moved out of the room next door so they could listen to her through the wall. It is simply crazy, crazy stuff.

The book 1984 by Orwell we have mentioned a few times, it is seriously uncanny how similar this place is. In fact it is so similar that it is on the list of banned publications (although I suspect that is a very long list indeed). And just to add George Orwell is a bit of a hero in these parts mostly for writing Burmese Days which we have only just started reading so can’t comment on the similarities to today however Erica suggests that the British were very bad and ignorant as an occupying force and also ruled with an iron fist.

Erica edit:  I did read in the Lonely Planet that there is a humourous joke in Myanmar that George Orwell based not just one but three of his books on Burma.  Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984 - the parallels are there for all to see.

That said however as a direct comparison when the British did release Burma (Myanmar) in 1947 it was the most developed and richest country in the whole of South East Asia, it was streets ahead of the likes of Singapore, 50 years later it is the poorest with present GDP similar to Rwanda despite the huge raping of the country of its natural resources such as oil, gas, precious and semi precious stones and teak.

These examples seem so extreme and no doubt some of them will be exaggerated but still if even half of these things are true they are absolutely scandalous. This has been a very special place to visit, we are knackered, exhausted and emotionally drained, back in Bangkok airport Erica said embarrassingly "look they have a Boots and Burger King, I know it’s wrong but after sitting on piles of rubbish in some places in Myanmar I’m glad to be back in the west", we have only been back in Thailand for a few hours but it may as well be Manchester. We can’t remember seeing so many Thai people carrying iced frappachino half soya half skinny. Anyway I’m rambling again please if you like us and have a few minutes please have a quick look through the free Burma website and take a minute out of your day to write to Ban Ki Moon (UN) and / or your MP using their website. (I did get my letter off to Hazel Blears and look forward to her response the scanning of which will be another job for my mum then).

We can’t think of a better way to end this blog than to breach copyright law and copy and paste the lonely planet introduction to Myanmar.....

“‘This is Burma’, wrote Kipling. ‘It is quite unlike any place you know about.’ How right he was, and more than a century later Myanmar remains a world apart. Contemplate 4000 sacred stupas scattered across the plains of Bagan. Stare in disbelief at the golden rock teetering impossibly on the edge of a chasm. Encounter men wearing skirt-like longyi, women smothered in thanaka (traditional make-up) and betel-chewing grannies with blood red juices dripping from their mouths – and that’s just the airport! Meet the multitalented monks who have taught their cats to jump. Ride a Wild West stagecoach past grand British mansions. Trade jokes about the rulers who move capitals on the whim of a fortune teller. Indeed, this is Burma.

Isolated and ostracised by the international community, the country is in the grip of tyrants. Most travellers avoid a visit, backing the boycott, but the long-suffering people are everything the regime is not. Gentle, humorous, engaging, considerate and inquisitive, they want to play a part in the world, and deserve a brighter future. Turn back the clock with a trip to this time-warped country where the adventure travel of old lives on. This is the authentic Asia with creaking buses, potholed roads, locals who greet you like long lost family and not a 7-Eleven in sight. Forget the internet for a moment and connect with a culture where holy men are more revered than rock stars and golden buddhas are bathed every day at first light – in Mandalay, the Mahamuni Paya houses a buddha re-covered in gold leaf daily. Drift down the Ayeyarwady in an old river steamer, stake out a slice of Ngapali Beach or Ngwe Saung on the blissful Bay of Bengal, trek through pine forests to minority villages around Kalaw – there are so many experiences awaiting in Myanmar that one trip is simply never enough. It’s a country that fuels your emotions, stimulates your senses and stays in your soul.” Lonely planet website 2010

We arrived back in Bangkok to a whole new world.
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fishtails04 on

Me again! Didn't realise there was another entry - congrats, very well expressed. For several years I have debated whether or not to visit, given the request of Aung San Suu Kyi for visitors to boycott the regime... but I figure it has to be better to go and do what you did, avoiding filling government pockets, instead buying from/ staying with locals. Trip on...!

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