My folding umbrella is broken from use, but I pack it anyway, with a silk longyi, which I may never wear, and a couple of hand-carved Buddha statues. So many questions unanswered. How much has the country really changed? Is there hope for democracy in Burma/Myanmar?
Flying out through Bangkok and Beijing brings perspective. Both airports are a shock, their endless designer shops, Prada and Louis Vuitton, compared to the two-dollar earrings at tables in the Yangon airport, where you walk outside and up metal steps to get on the planes. Twenty years ago, I spent two months each traveling in Thailand and China, but now these mega-airport malls, passengers with overloaded luggage carts, are unrecognizable.
The Burmese, the rich ones privileged enough to travel, must see this contrast. Myanmar is comparable to Thailand, in land area, culture, and population, yet the countries are night and day different. Over a million Burmese immigrant workers see this too, as they ride the Bangkok sky train, or pass beach resorts on their way to work in the fields and on fishing boats. Fourteen million tourists there, versus 300,000 a year in Myanmar, a number which has gone down in recent years since the last round of protests and Cyclone Nargis.
Photo: Geoffrey Hiller
China is a fair comparison too, since it is communist and was once just as isolated as Myanmar was during the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ years. When we visited China in 1987, westerners were such an oddity that ‘staring squads’ of Mao-jacketed adults followed us around, even in major cities. We faced the same strict regulations as we did that same year in Burma, forced to stay in certain hotels and use special foreign exchange currency.
During my one-day layover in Beijing, I take the train and subway- with English maps and audio, high-tech ticket machines- and am dumbfounded. No pushing, no bicycles, no spitting, armies of young people wearing Abercrombie-knock-offs, though the same gray haze of pollution. Granted it must be different in rural areas, and this is after the building spree for the Olympics, but still, French baguettes, and Haagen-Dazs ice cream for $5?
Somehow, Myanmar got left in the dust. This backwardness is in no way romantic, especially when the poverty is due to willful political repression. Ignoring US and European trade sanctions, Asian countries are doing business with Myanmar, importing raw materials, exporting machines and technology. And programmers- the Russians, along with the Chinese, are helping the government keep tight control of the internet. Even officials’ computer networks are censored, so they cannot read this either.
But it’s a finger in the dike. The Burmese will slowly but surely enter the world. The question is, who- only the generals and their business cronies? One minister’s grandson recently convinced him to unblock Facebook, and it has quickly become the most popular destination on the web. Yet the internet is used by only one percent of the population, limited to those who can afford the price in an internet café. Everybody else is biding their time.
Photo: Geoffrey Hiller
August 14- As I finish this final post, Aung San Suu Kyi has just made her first political trip out of Yangon since 2003, to Bago. So far without incident, despite veiled threats by the government. Only 50 miles, but this is huge. I imagine the thousands of bystanders along that highway. The real test is whether this visit to speak in public to her supporters will be reported, with a photo. No airbrushing.