Tuesday, August 28, 2012

BURMA: MOVING FORWARD by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

BURMA: MOVING FORWARD, by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard


Copyright 2012 by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Published in the August 2012 issue of Zee Lifestyle Magazine

            It was the image of the calm but determined Aung San Suu Kyi quietly defying the ruling generals who personified Burma (or Myanmar) to me. Because of her, I monitored events in that country: in 1988 students had been massacred; in 2007 Buddhist monks had been beaten and killed; Aung San Suu Kyi herself had spent 15 years in house arrest; then in 2008 Cyclone Nargis devastated the country. For decades, life was bleak in Burma, but suddenly in 2011, for reasons analysts will spend decades discussing, the military junta dissolved itself and held a general election in 2010. Aung San Suu Kyi, or The Lady, as the Burmese lovingly call her, was elected to the lower house of parliament. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 of the 45 vacant seats in the lower house, still the minority, but it’s a beginning.
            A group of us, 16 in total, headed by John Silva, visited Burma last April right after the general election, just when Burma was opening up to the rest of the world. We were warned that April is the hottest time in Burma, but we didn’t complain because we knew we were witnesses to the country’s dramatic political change. 

For the first time tour guides could openly talk about politics, the generals, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Less than a year ago, they could not even mention The Lady’s name. The Burmese seemed surprised at the number of foreigners visiting their pagodas, markets, and museums. “Where you from?” several Burmese, including Buddhist monks, asked us. While we enthusiastically snapped their pictures, they too took pictures of us. We were as much a novelty as they were to us.
            Our first stop was Yangon, the former capital, which has retained its old world feeling. There are sparkling lakes, lush parks and colonial buildings, which even though neglected are still charming. At least for now Yangon is not riddled with high-rise buildings. It has numerous pagodas and temples including the famous 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, which houses eight miraculous hairs from Guatama Buddha. Called the heart of Yangon the Shwedagon is lavishly decorated with gold, diamonds, and precious stones; it is said that the umbrella at the top of the pagoda has nearly 5,449 diamonds, 2,317 rubies, and the tip is crowned with a 76 carat diamond.
            We stayed at the Traders Hotel, which was walking distance to the Sule Pagoda, another remarkable site. What impressed me most was the religiosity of the people in the pagodas, how fervently they prayed with their eyes closed, their faces serene.
Our hotel was also near Scott’s Market with its countless shops selling clothes, bags, antiques, gems, puppets, and other items. Shopping there and throughout Burma was great. Prices were good, although one had to haggle ruthlessly as prices are very elastic in Burma.  
From Yangon we flew to Bagan, a dry plain hotter than Yangon. The entire area has over 2,500 pagodas and temples; our guide said you only had to scratch the dirt to find ancient ruins. At sunset, we climbed to the top of a temple and viewed the surrounding temples and pagodas turn shadowy gray, their spires jagged fingers pointing at the golden sky — an unforgettable sight.
            Indeed Burma is very “photogenic.” At every turn there is an interesting image to capture. Inle Lake was another such place in Burma. The lake, which has an altitude of 2,900 feet, was pleasantly cool. The lake has villages around its shore, accessible via small boats.  Houses are on stilts along the shore. Fishermen have the most unique way of rowing; standing up they use one leg to row. People plant vegetables on floating garden beds. Here we saw other ethnic groups – the Padaung (or longneck Karen) and the Pa-O with their black and red clothing and turbans.
            One night it rained and the next day the lake was like a mirror, reflecting the mountains, sky, villages, and boats with Rorschach precision. It was still another precious image that stayed with me, along with countless other images of Burma.       

            It was in Mandalay where I started to get the feel of the real Burma as opposed to the tinseled tourist’s view. Despite its romantic name, Mandalay seemed more oppressed, dustier, dirtier. While we carried on and saw Mandalay’s tourist spots: the Teak Temple, Mahamuni Buddha, Palace Complex, and the Mahagandayon Buddhist monastery (where over a thousand monks processed for their 11 a.m. meal), I could see that the children were malnourished. This was disturbing, given the rich natural resources in Burma, including natural gas, lumber, tin, coal, precious stones, and agricultural products. Here to me was evidence that the country’s wealth had not filtered to the general population.
            On the way to Maymyo, a hill station near Mandalay, our guide Nan pointed out gas pipe lines that would go all the way to China. Nan complained that while Burma was sending its natural gas to China, the local people had to endure brownouts. It was true: our huge Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel had to turn on their generators at night.

Nan also talked about how the Chinese have taken their teak lumber, “even the roots.” Driving up the mountains to Maymyo, we saw that there were no huge trees, just recently planted ones. Nan talked about seeing totally denuded forests.
This made me think: If Burma’s products are going to Thailand, Hong Kong, India, Singapore, China, and Malaysia, some people in Burma are making money, so why are the ordinary people poor? Why is Burma one of the poorest countries in the world? 
I didn’t have the answers but I understood a little of what the Burmese have been clamoring for – basic freedoms and a better life. It was right for the generals to have taken steps toward democracy and hopefully a better future for the Burmese. 


 tags: travel, Burma, Myanmar, Asia, Buddhism, Aung San Suu Kyi,Yangon, Rangoon, Asia, tourism, Cecilia Brainard

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