It’s hard to know where to start when talking about a country that you don’t know what to call. In February 2011, during the Vietnamese Tet holiday, I visited the country known to some as Burma and to others as Myanmar.
While both names refer to the majority Bamar ethnic group, “Burma” remains associated with the British colonial era, a troubled era and one that I, a thoroughly reconstructed sort of Brit, have no great desire to associate myself with. Burma was something of a sideshow to the British; governed as a province of India, its civil service was largely drawn from India and from other non-Burmese, preventing local people from benefitting from the country’s prosperity. The country never seized the British imagination in the way India did, and there was little attempt to conform to its customs. A particular sticking point was the “Shoe Question”, the refusal of the interlopers to take their shoes off when entering Buddhist temples and other holy sites. Spotless as the colonial socks may have remained, this had the side-effect of focussing nascent Burmese nationalism on Buddhism, a focus that remains today.
So what of Myanmar? The country’s name was officially changed in 1989 by the reassuringly-named
SLORC (State Law and Order Committee), the ruling military junta perhaps best known for keeping opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and overturning her party’s election victory in 1990. Despite a move from Soviet-style central planning in the ’60s and ’70s to a capitalist model, the junta has been in place since 1962 and shows little sign of going away. It is considered to be one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes, and its mismanagement has seen the country become one of the poorest and most corrupt in the region. Despite continued unrest, the junta rolls on, its access to natural resources and the willingness of neighbours to buy them allowing a ‘select’ few to line their pockets as the poor become poorer.
“Perhaps a million dead, millions more displaced, an economy in ruins, and a robust military machine designed to fight the enemy within have been the main stuff of Burma’s postindependence history”
Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps
Eating lunch in Bangkok airport before the flight to Yangon, a man asked me where I was flying on to. Hearing the answer, he asked, shocked, “Why on earth would you want to go there?” It is true that there are challenges to travelling in such a place – no ATMs, no official currency exchange, creaking (if any) infrastructure, limited press and internet, and the difficulties of travelling ethically and giving money where it is most needed and most deserved (which is to say, not to the government). But it’s also true that with a people so warm and welcoming, a history so diverse, and a country so breathtakingly beautiful, the current regime is selling its people very, very short indeed.
From here on June 2nd 2011.