MYANMAR: As democracy takes its first steps, the former Burma is joining the 21st century

A procession of young Buddhists studying to become nuns set out in search of donations for their local pagoda. Matthew Fisher/Postmedia News

MATTHEW FISHER
POSTMEDIA NEWS

Myanmar is easy to spot from the air on a cloudless night.

There is nothing but darkness for hundreds of kilometres the moment a Hong Kong-bound airliner leaves Indian airspace, where the surface of the Earth is heavily flecked with lights.

A daylight satellite view tells the same story in a different way. From space, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a pristine, emerald jewel compared with its eastern neighbour, Thailand, where large splotches of land have been cleared of trees.

The curse and allure of this Shangri-La is that it has been isolated for half a century. The generals who ruled the country with an iron fist so grossly mismanaged the economy that it remains relatively unspoiled by modernity and common afflictions that exist elsewhere, such as air and noise pollution. Although blessed with lots of water for hydroelectric power, few lights are visible at night because nearly 50,000 towns and villages are not yet connected to what little there is of a national power grid.

Myanmar remains far greener than Thailand because the Burmese have only fairly recently begun to fell Asia’s last ancient rainforest of teak and other precious woods. Also largely untouched so far have been: a rich bounty of mostly untapped oil and gas; gemstones such as jade, ruby and sapphire; and other minerals such as copper and gold.

Most Burmese toil at back-breaking jobs in the largely pastoral hinterlands. During a bumpy 14-hour journey along the old 700-kilometre, partly British-built road connecting Yangon to Mandalay, one sees repair crews comprised largely of tiny young women carrying heavy loads of crushed stones in trays that male labourers stack on their heads or shoulders. Working from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. under the intense tropical sun, these human beasts of burden each earn about 2,500 kyat a day, or about $3 Cdn.

Mynamar’s financial capital, Yangon, has a rather modest skyline for a city of six million people. But plans are afoot to transform the city and the deeply impoverished nation’s economy through foreign investment after nearly half a century of isolation. Matthew Fisher/Postmedia News

Small wonder, then, that Myanmar remains almost dead-last in the global wealth sweepstakes.

The view from a passing airplane or a satellite creates the impression that few people live in Myanmar. The truth is that 64 million Burmese inhabit an area the size of Manitoba. The country is a cauldron of tribes and faiths speaking a Babel of languages and nursing grievances that have produced longstanding conflicts in several states. Christians, Hindus and Sikhs have watched uneasily from a distance this fall – and not for the first time – as Buddhist nationalists in the west of the country ignored their own faith’s gentle message about peace and tolerance and savagely attacked the Muslim minority.

Sensing what a bonanza Myanmar might be, and burdened by few scruples regarding human rights or fair elections, the Chinese have been major players here for two decades. Korean, Japanese and India traders were slower off the mark, but they twigged to the opportunities a few years ago.

Now, as tentative democratic reforms undertaken by the quasi-civilian government that replaced the generals two years ago have begun to take hold – and following the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest – the West, Canada included, has been unravelling economic sanctions in a belated scramble for a share of the spoils.

But it is more than just the prospect of profiting that makes Burma special to westerners. Its enduring romantic appeal can partly be explained by Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, Mandalay, which begins:

“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Another British writer, George Orwell, celebrated Burma, too, but in a much different way. A former colonial policeman and a prickly anti-imperialist, Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, featured a dazzling description of a tiger hunt and chronicled the oppressive dyspepsia of life on the steamy margins of Britain’s failing empire.

Burma tugs at western hearts because it is a vestigial remnant of an Orient that no longer exists elsewhere except in books and photographs. The exotic Singa-pores, Shanghais and Saigons of yore have been erased over the past few decades by skyscrapers and other glitzy trophies heralding Asia’s growing economic might.

Repairing an old road built by the British is backbreaking work that is largely the responsibility of Burmese women who haul loads or crushed stone up to half their weight. Matthew Fisher/Postmedia News

Myanmar, with its trove of dilapidated imperial buildings, bucolic landscapes of palm groves, forests of teak, monasteries and gold-domed pagodas and the inspiring piety of its Buddhist monks and nuns, remains mostly as it was a century ago.

While western dress has become de rigueur across much of Asia, another throwback here is that most Burmese still choose to wrap their limbs in a cloth known as a longyi. In keeping with tradition, large numbers of women and children and more than a few men also continue to daub their faces with thanakha, a distinctive pale yellow paste made from bark.

Not that everything is paradisical. The generals continue to have a disproportionate say in politics. While some reforms have been initiated, there are still political prisoners, albeit fewer than a few months ago. Because of enduring trade sanctions, international credit cards are still not accepted, so tourists and businessmen alike must carry with them large wads of pristine U.S. bank notes.

There are only a few reasonable hotels, dreadful telephone connections and not nearly enough English speakers to support the business and tourist explosion that is looming.

Still, until now, the pace of life in Burma remains unhurried. Visitors are warmly welcomed. Highly unusual for Asia, drivers and pedestrians are still mostly deferential.

As fond as westerners may be of the otherworldly Myanmar that exists today, few Burmese in this rundown living museum find life to be charming or pleasant. They hunger for change and want it now.

Catch the old Burma while you can. It is disappearing fast.





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