Mawlamyine, Myanmar – November 26, 2016
Or should it be a world of uncertainties?
Two months ago I was boarding a plane in Boston to SE Asia not knowing what my itinerary was going to be.
Twenty days ago I arrived in Myanmar anxious to travel around this unknown and fascinating country.
Two days later it was election day in the USA.
The day after, my excitement gave way to disbelief. I remained speechless as I followed the results minute-by-minute from one of the few places where you can find good internet connection in Yangon.
I’m sorry for bringing this up but I need to make a parenthesis before continuing on my adventures.
I’m sure you are upset and tired of reading about Trump. I understand. It doesn’t look good and it isn’t getting any better as days go by. But I can’t help myself. It was too much of a shock to see one more of The Simpsons’ prophecies coming to life.
I’m no political analyst and have no intention whatsoever in becoming one. What I really enjoy are anthropological studies – a fancy way I call “people watching” – and I apologize in advance to my American friends for my honesty – maybe bluntness – here. But I must say I find it an intriguing phenomena that the next US president is a showman.
For me it is quite a natural process for a country where you have TVs everywhere. TVs and hundreds of TV channels – who really watches all those channels? For me it’s an expected election result for a country that judges electoral debates based on the way candidates interact with the cameras, how they articulate words more than ideas and policies, on the color of their ties or blazers. A country where reality shows cover pretty much every topic you can imagine, and where the Kardashians are the example of success to be followed.
I’m sorry my dear American friends… But I can only say I saw it coming that a reality show host becomes your president.
And I really feel for you; I feel for your country I learned to love; I feel for Jack and Sophie, for Yara’s nephews and nieces, for all the kids that have to live not only through a Trump presidency, but who will have to fix what he’s going to leave behind after four – hopefully only four – years in the Oval Office.
I truly hope that after this shocking result people realize that reality shows actually have scripts, that there’s some kind of control behind the scenes – even if it’s only to decide what scenes are going to be aired.
Trump on the presidency, on the other hand, is a free rider. The future of the USA and the world is completely uncertain right now. The direction it’s pointing doesn’t look good from where I’m standing.
Enough about the uncertainties of a superpower and the world it influences. Let’s talk about Myanmar and the beauties and challenges of a country in transition, where the future is as uncertain as the USA.
Myanmar is a country at a crossroad. I looked for a better description, but couldn’t find one. It is a country with full potential to develop economically, socially, and politically in a positive way, but struggling to deal with what was left from decades of military dictatorship and young and fragile democracy.[i]
In twenty days I visited the lively cities of Yangon and Mandalay; Kachin’ state capital Myitkyina; hills and villages between Kalaw and Inle Lake; breathtaking Bagan; and George Orwell’s Mawlamyine.
I didn’t follow a logical itinerary; instead I planned according to friends’ schedules. After all, how cool is it to visit a region with your local friend? Or attend a traditional Burmese wedding of another friend’s colleague? This time I preferred to go where friends were, even if it meant a lot of long-distance and time consuming traveling from one place to another, as well as shorter periods of time in each place.
It also means I have quite an extensive list of places to go for my next time in Myanmar: Putao on the very north of Kachin, looking at the Eastern Himalayas; Sittwe and other parts of Rakhine state, region struggling with ethnic and religious conflict; Naypidaw, the ghost-town capital and surroundings; Dawei, the southern coastline and border with Thailand. So many places to be seen that I’ll have to come back soon 😉
Myanmar is definitely a place to visit. It’s changing and it’s changing fast. I wish it changes for the better, although some people I’ve talked to are not as optimistic as they were right after the election last year.
People here look beautiful in their longyis. I love, LOVE men in longyis! How charming they look! The women are super elegant, always matching the colors of their long tube skirts with their tops. I can’t recall seeing obese people even though food is pretty oily. I was told oil is a sign of wealth in Burmese culture. My tummy complained, still no obesity.
The landscape reminds me a lot of Brazil. All the way from Mandalay to Bagan, and from Bagan to Yangon, I was transported to the Cerrado and its veredas. Cities like Yangon, Mandalay, and in a smaller scale Myiktyina reminded me of Northern Brazil and places like Manaus, Belém and Fortaleza. Street dogs, just like in Thailand, the lack of sidewalks, and drivers that speed instead of stopping when they see you trying to cross a busy road also brought me memories of my home country.
Nevertheless, people here are as welcoming as Brazilians, if not more. When not too shy they’d greet me with beautiful smiles, return my “mingalabar” – hello in Burmese – and even start a conversation, sometimes followed by a request to take a picture with me. Often they offered to help when I looked lost – and I had to face my own prejudice and fear of being swindled. Brief notes on the places I visited here.
What I’ve seen and heard so far corroborate my idea that this is, indeed, a fascinating country. There are many areas where a foreigner cannot go due to conflicts between the Burmese Army and local armed or minorities groups – the most pressing currently being the one in Rakhine state involving the Muslim minority (for more on Rakhine’s recent conflict development check this and this).
Together with my “wow” lenses, of curiosity and excitement for the simple fact that I’m finally here, I always carry my geographer view and intuition. And I can’t help but think that this is a country embedded in a lot of tension.
The most obvious refers to an uncertain future: how will the government deal with the ongoing conflicts? Why Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a Peace Nobel laureate, does not address them?
Not so obvious, are the right policies being implemented to contribute to an effective development and inclusive society?
Even less obvious is the way the government and the Army[ii] take over the territory and express their power over it.
In Kachin state, for example, there is a campground where families from the south of the country are living. They were brought by the government to work on the installation and maintenance of power lines. My first question was “why bring people from the South? Why not hire locals?” Well, “very good question” replied my local translator. For him there’s an unofficial strategy to colonize regions like Kachin – where 98% of the population is Christian – with Buddhist Burmans.
On another occasion, my guide made a comment about “the need for Christian buildings on top of hills, because the Buddhists are taking over and building Pagodas everywhere.” For a geographer like me this is more than fascinating. This is the pure expression of how power expresses itself on a territory. I’m fully aware I have a very partial picture of the complexity involving religion and ethnic minorities here, thus I must confess that after his comment I viewed the Buddhist presence in the country in a different way, with more skepticism than I’d even like to.
This uneasiness and discomfort only make me want to learn more and more about Myanmar. And to follow closer how the current uncertainties will unfold and impact the social, economic, and political development of the country.
[i] Last presidential election happened in November 2015 and new government took over on April 2016.
[ii] That is independent from the Executive.