Monthly Archives: May 2012

5 Stories From The New Myanmar

Last month, I took a trip to Myanmar to see what effect the rapid political changes have been having on that country. I first wanted to focus on the ethnic rebel areas on the periphery, so I headed to Thailand and the border areas where many of the insurgent leaders, refugees and human rights organisations are based. It’s worth remembering that many of the problems in Myanmar/Burma stem from the problems of dealing with these rebels. It was concern that the country may be dismembered by these independence movements that helped trigger the military coup of 1962 that set Myanmar on a path to dictatorship and economic ruin.

I traveled into Shan State and met with one of the rebel armies, the Shan State Army (South). Although the new civilian government has been eagerly signing ceasefires with several groups, all sorts of horrible things are still happening and many promises are not being kept. Let’s not forget, also, that this lovely new civilian government is responsible for breaking a 17-year ceasefire with rebels in northern Kachin state, leading to the displacement of 75,000 people and a torrent of human rights violations. The military is keen to secure key resources in these areas.

Part of the SSA rebel camp at Loitaileng.

Many in these areas were sceptical that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is willing and able to address the ethnic question. They were keen for the international community not to remove sanctions while the violence continued. They were ignored.

Local commander General Sao Kur Guern, who lost his right arm in fighting many years ago.

Here’s my story on that: Myanmar’s minorities say it’s too soon to lift sanctions

I then went to the refugee camps around Mae Sot further south along the border (that’s where Rambo lived in the last – ridiculously violent – film). Conditions in the camps can be pretty bleak, and their uncertain status means many are essentially stateless prisoners, but they were very picturesque (in a MASH kind of way) and set among stunning mountains.

Mae La refugee camp, home to thousands of Karen refugees.

Pastor Simon, who runs a Bible School in Mae La refugee camp, points at the bullet holes in the church pew where Myanmar military stormed in during a service in 1988. They relocated the whole church across the border.

The increased international interest in events inside Myanmar mean donors are increasingly shifting their cash away from these areas (even though their donations were relatively small and they surely have enough for both), causing problems for the camps and a vital hospital on the border.

Read: Funding cuts for Myanmar refugees

Then it was off to Yangon, where the story gets a bit more positive. For the political dissidents who once faced long sentences in jail for the slightest whiff of protest, the changes have been sudden and overwhelmingly positive. In the slums, however, hope for tangible improvements is still a long way off.

Yangon at night. Pretty.

Conditions in the Hlaing Tharya slum on the outskirts of Yangon were not pretty.

Most cars in Yangon have seen better days, thanks to a ban imposed on car imports in the 1990s.

Cautious optimism as Myanmar starts to shed the grime of oppression

I then visited Myanmar’s bizarro capital, Naypyidaw – surely one of the emptiest capitals in the world. It was very odd. They had a zoo with some baboons and not much else. I spoke with one of the new members of parliament from Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD. He said the swearing-in ceremony was “boring” but the battle against hardliners in parliament when resumes work in July will be anything but.

A baboon at the zoo. They also had giraffes and a fat leopard.

The ludicrously empty motorways in the capital.

Read: Myanmar’s ghost town capital at the centre of driving reforms

On my last day, I attended a strike by women from a wig-making factory on the outskirts of Yangon. Strikes are a pretty new phenomenon in Myanmar and the administration are still trying to figure out how to deal with them. A couple of weeks after I left, several towns and cities saw the biggest demonstrations since the civilian government came to power, as people voiced their anger about crippling electricity shortages. As more and more citizens find their voice, and realise they have the right to protest, the civilian government may find it difficult to address the many grievances that have been building up over the decades. That is when the true test will come.

Striking wig factory workers.

Read: Myanmar government in balancing act after protests

Oh, and for a bit of sight-seeing, I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda complex, which is one of the most incredible religious monuments I’ve ever seen.

Buddha-sanctioned napping spot

I polished off my trip by being utterly confused by this sign at the airport. For all the sweeping political changes, remote-control cars are still not welcome apparently: