Myanmar | A Country Struggling to Find Democracy
Travel Dates | October 6th, 2017 to October 17th, 2017
Myanmar wasn’t my favorite country, nor the most uplifting, awe-inspiring, wanderlust-y travel experience. Yet its duality hooked me.
The gilded pagodas, brilliant smiles, and apparent cultural authenticity briefly convinced me to slide on rose-colored glasses. My confidence with Myanmar grew when I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in crowds of Burmese; there were no pushy tour guides, selfie-sticks, or iPad-turned cameras.
I only started to question Myanmar when I met Irene, a 73-year-old Dutch sculptor who began traveling to the then Burma, 18 years ago. She gently diffused my rosy-glow with a tour through Inle Lake.
The boat left at 7:30AM, which is quite early by Myanmar standards. Where Irene intended to take me was 3 hours away, and hidden away from typical tourist routes.
Irene was giddy; she had visited and taken photos of a family a few months before. Since, she’d printed them with hopes to hand deliver the copies.
We passed perfectly posed Burmese fishermen, alongside crowded pagodas, and made landfall at a small, obscure village. Perhaps by luck, she identified a lady from the pictures, and we were invited back to her home.
Once we arrived, Irene swiftly and meticulously presented the gift at the knees of the three generations of faces mirrored in the glossy photos. We all smiled, stumbled through hand gestures, sips of tea, and somehow promised another visit. Then off we went to settle in for a long ride back.
Here is where Irene let me in on a few secrets.
The very nice man driving our motorboat would only see about 3 USD out of the 40 USD we paid for the ride. Our social call to Irene’s friends meant informants in Nyaungshwe and throughout Myanmar would now watch me with scrutiny. Those fishermen are indeed too perfect, and are paid to pose for tourists.
I didn’t believe her at first, but my interest was piqued.
For example, I was too enveloped in conversation on the way to the village, that I hadn’t noticed the driver slowing down for us to snap some shots of the fishermen. The second cameras were put away, so were the smiles, and fishing nets.
It was well past dark, however I’d been crammed in a cabin all day, so I appreciated the mile-plus walk to the hotel.
I was within a quarter of a mile when a van stopped, and out stepped a man claiming he worked for the hotel. I was coerced into the bed of his truck, and then sat in silence just hoping to be let out.
He did release me at the hotel, and even kindly helped me from his truck. I stood unharmed, dumb-founded, and convinced Irene’s warnings were true.
How Do the Burmese Feel About It?
Again Myanmar was not my favorite place, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Since I left, I’ve mulled over every single experience, questioning if it was real or not.
I think many Burmese would have this same question. Before traveling to Myanmar and throughout the trip, I kept a watchful eye on the international news regarding the Rohingya genocide. I say international, because there were little to no domestic reports that discussed the violence.
I was able to find one local magazine published October 2017, Myanmar Insider, that acknowledged the subject. It cited Rohingya attacks on the Rakhine people that happened in October 2016, a full year ago. These occurrences were presented as if they were recent events.
The article states that “at least 86 Hindus have lost their lives while over 200 Hindu families…fled to the forests” to escape further Muslim terrorist attack. The report also declared Rohingya groups “stormed into [Rakhine] villages” and killed hundreds of “innocent ethnic Rakhine and Hindus by slitting their throats…stabbing them” and burning their homes to the ground, creating “significant chaos and destruction.”
I have been able to find articles that detail October 2016 attacks, yet the Myanmar police and army were targeted, not citizens.(1)(2) And when local Burmese are asked about the genocide, they have been told that the images from Bangladeshi refugee camps are fabricated, and disseminated by Rohingya groups to garner undeserved sympathies.
Truth be told, I don’t know what to think about traveling to Myanmar. I feel guilty contributing to a brand new democracy still struggling in the wake of a dictatorship. I don’t know how to feel about the lies told to the Burmese people.
All I can say is that Myanmar is, and will continue to be, fascinating. And for my next trip I intend to be a little more prepared to dig a little deeper.