Kyanzittha Umin



A Portrait of Myanmar

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Towering, gilded pagodas, spectacular archeological sites, beautiful beaches, stunning mountains, traditional culture at the forefront of local life – these are just some of the reasons why record-breaking numbers of visitors have been beguiled by Myanmar since the easing of a tourism boycott in 2010. With Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party achieving sweeping victories in the 2015 general election, and a program of political reforms underway, the future finally looks bright for a country blighted for decades by civil war and economic stagnation.

Stretching 1,275 miles (2,050 km) from the eastern arm of the Himalayas to the palm-fringed coast of the Andaman Sea, Myanmar encompasses an astonishing  array of landscapes. The country’s heart- land, enfolded by a giant horseshoe of  jungle-covered mountains, is a vast, semi- arid plain formed by the flat-bottomed  valleys of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy), Sittaung, Chindwin, and Thanlwin rivers, which flow south into the Bay of Bengal and Gulf of Mottama (Martaban). Fed by a maze of streams, rivulets, irrigation canals, and ditches, the low-lying deltas where these mighty rivers debouche into the ocean form sprawling patchworks of paddy fields – the country’s rice bowl.

To the north and east, the denuded hills and steep-sided river gorges of the limestone Shan Plateau ripple all the  way to the border of Yunnan Province in China, and the opium-growing belt of the so-called Golden Triangle region where the frontiers of Laos and Thailand intersect with those of Myanmar. In the west, meanwhile, a band of narrower, loftier mountains track the border with India and Bangladesh, culminating in the far north at the Hkakabo Razi massif, Myanmar’s – and Southeast Asia’s – highest peak at 19,294 ft (5,881m).

At the opposite, far southern end of the country, the land tapers to a narrow belt along the pristine Tenasserim coast, where the myriad coral-fringed islets and islands of the unspoiled Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago comprise one of Southeast Asia’s last true marine wilderness regions, the final stronghold of the nomadic Moken sea gypsies.

The People

Myanmar’s physical diversity is mirrored by its ethnic make up. The Burmese-speaking Bamars, descended from Indo-Tibetan nomads who conquered the central plains  in the 9th and 10th centuries AD, com- prise around 68 per cent of the 60-million- strong population, and dominate the  country’s government, civil, and military service. The outlying regions, however, host a complex jigsaw of minority peoples,  such as the Rakhines (Arakanese), Mon, Karen, Kachin, Chin, and Shan, all of whom have at one time or another fought – or are still fighting – insurgencies against the Burmese state.

The hill areas of the border zones and Shan Plateau are home to smaller, more fragmented groups such as the Pa-O, Padaung, Danu, and Akha, distin guished by their elaborate traditional costumes. The Burmese melting pot is further enhanced by the presence of large numbers of Indians, descendants of workers who came to Burma during the British era, and Chinese immigrants, who today dominate the economy of Mandalay and form the majority in several large towns in the northeast.

Religion and Culture

The hierarchical, feudal nature of traditional Burmese society, established by the rulers of medieval Bagan from the 11th century and cemented by their successors, largely disintegrated after the British annexation of the late 19th century, and was replaced by a radical form of autocratic, military-backed socialism during the post-Independence period. Gilded teak Buddha statue, crafted in late Konbaung style One constant, however, has spanned the A member of the Padaung ethnic minority, whose women are well known for wearing brass neck rings 2 0  introducing MYA n M A r  018-023_EW_Myanmar.indd 20 08/03/16 2:35 pm  country’s long and troubled history. A pervasive influence on Burmese culture for more than two millennia, Buddhism is believed to have taken root in the region during the lifetime of its founder, Gautama Buddha (c. 563–483 BC), and the faith is today followed by 89 per cent of Myanmar’s inhabitants. In a largely low-rise country, the huge golden zedis  (stupas), erected, enlarged, and embel- lished by generations of local rulers, are  striking manifestations of the enduring popularity of the religion.

Support for the sangha, or monkhood, is another constant. Around half a million young Burmese men are members of a monastic order, and 75,000 women are nuns – a higher share of the population than in any other country in the world. A greater proportion of income is also donated to religious orders in Myanmar than anywhere else, while nearly every Buddhist boy spends at least a few weeks living as a monk in a monastery from the age of seven.

Among the defining sights of the  country are long lines of monks in wine- colored robes, filing around the streets of  towns and cities as local residents spoon hot rice into their alms bowls – a striking example of Burmese “merit making,” through which people improve their chances of better future lives by doing good deeds in the present one. The school of Buddhism that is followed in Myanmar is Theravada, which was first brought to the region by the Pyus around the 5th century AD, flourished under patronage from the Mon kings in the early medieval period, and was later adopted as the state religion by the rulers of Bagan. Regarded by its adherents as a purer form of Buddhism, truer in spirit to the original teachings of the Buddha, the Theravada tradition emphasizes the role of Vipassana meditation as a path to enlightenment. The great importance placed by Burmese families on Buddhist philosophy and morality accounts in no small part for the overwhelmingly considerate,  nonconfrontational, and honest way people conduct their lives in Myanmar. Travelers better accustomed to more hard-edged Asian countries are often struck by the well-mannered way in which tourists are generally treated: it is relatively rare to be shortchanged in a restaurant, quoted an inflated fare by a taxi driver, or sold fake goods. That said, the Buddhist teachings of nonviolence have not prevented young monks from forming the vanguard of protests against Myanmar’s military government. Monks literally stood in the firing line during the mass revolt of 2007, which came to be known as the Saffron Revolution after the color of their robes.

More controversially, Burmese monks have also been at the forefront of violence directed against the country’s Muslim minority in recent years. Around 5 per cent of the population follow Islam. Descended from traders, soldiers, prisoners of war, and refugees from India, as well as royal advisors from Persia and merchants from China, the country’s Muslims live in widely separated communities, the largest of which remains in Yangon – a legacy of the British era, when millions of Indian Muslims traveled to Lower Burma and the Ayeyarwady Delta in search of work.

Communal conflict between Buddhists and Muslims has erupted sporadically throughout the country since Independence, but has intensified  in recent years, particularly in the north- western state of Rakhine (Arakan), where  tens of thousands of Muslims of the Rohingya minority group have been displaced by outbreaks of violence.

Government and Politics

The proliferation of armed insurgencies mounted by ethnic minority groups was, in the late 1950s, the catalyst for the creation of a military government in Burma. Several subsequent coups kept the army in tight control of the country. Demonstrations, popular uprisings, and campaigns for greater democracy and freedom of expression were ruthlessly sup pressed by the ruling junta, leading to the implemen tation of sanctions and a tourism boycott by Western countries.

Myanmar has, however, seen major changes to its political system in recent years: a successful general election was held in November 2015, and the formerly  outlawed National League for Democracy (NLD), under its iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now the main elected force in parliament. The press enjoys much more inde pend ence than it has since British times, and several regional armies have signed landmark ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw (Burmese military), bringing long­running civil wars to an end.

The reforms and the move to democracy, however, have yet to amount to a total break with the old system. Neither the media nor the judiciary is truly free, and  little of the wealth generated by state- controlled businesses (such as the oil and  gas industries) reach the country’s poor. While spending on the armed forces remains in excess of 20 per cent of total government outlay, the budget for health provision languishes at 4 per cent. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the generals still retain a great deal of power and influence, including control of an unelected 25 per cent bloc of parliamentary seats. Even so, there exists in Myanmar today a great sense of optimism. People openly discuss the country’s politics in a way that they haven’t dared to for a generation, and feel the day is fast approaching when the opinions of ordinary citizens will be listened to by the ruling elite. A recent example was the suspension of building work on a massive dam across a tributary of the Ayeyarwady River after Burmese environmentalists garnered opposition  to the scheme. It was part of a hydro- electricity project set to provide power  to its Chinese backers, and hefty payouts for local officials.

Economy and Development

The primary driver for political change in Myanmar over recent years has been the moribund state of the country’s economy. While its neighbors have been living through a period of unprecedented prosperity, Myanmar has remained the poorest state in Southeast Asia. One third of its population is estimated to live below Chronic mismanagement of the economy by the country’s military junta is widely held to be the root cause of this. Vast sums have been earned by the government through foreign exports of gas, tropical timber, and gemstones, but the rewards have largely accrued to a crony elite of around 20 families who founded their fortunes on the back of favors from the military junta.

The same clique looks set to benefit most from the current upsurge in foreign investment, as promises to liberalize the country’s economy attract potential backers from abroad, in particular the global oil and gas industries, lured by Myanmar’s vast, untapped reserves.

Meanwhile, as export-oriented industries struggle to gather momentum, the country remains heavily reliant on agriculture to meet the needs of its poor. Farming currently provides employment for around 70 per cent of the population, and since the collapse of rice production during the period of military rule, most of what is grown is consumed domestically.


The other great hope for Myanmar’s economic future is tourism. Stagnant for decades due to the NLD-led boycott, visitor numbers have soared since 2010, with annual arrivals now numbering well over 2 million. This sudden spike has led to all manner of challenges, principally a shortage of accommodations. Hotel tariffs have, as a consequence, rocketed to levels comparable with those in Europe and North America. Shortages of water and electricity have also occurred in popular destinations as the authorities struggle to meet the demand.

On lifting the tourism boycott, NLD  leader Aung San Suu Kyi expressed con- cern that the rewards from mass tourism  in her country should not merely benefit the government and junta-backed elite who run the major domestic airlines and hotel chains, but also ordinary Burmese. To that end, she asked that foreign  visitors opt for “small-scale tourism,” avoiding large operators in favor of traveling independently and spending their money with locally owned businesses. Current trends, however, suggest that the overwhelming majority of visitors enter on prearranged tours and stay in luxury hotels owned by associates of the government.

Aside from Myanmar’s unique culture and visitor attractions, the great asset for Burmese tourism is the essential character of the Burmese themselves. Despite the country’s lack of adequate infrastructure and training opportunities for its people, the locals are unfailingly courteous and helpful, and clearly delighted to be able to share their way of life with a wider world from which they have been cut off for so long. It may be a cliché to say so, but the warmth and genuineness of Burmese hospitality linger in the memory every bit as long as impressions of the country’s exquisite monuments and landscapes.

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