musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’

Monks & Politics

I popped into a branch of Asia Books last week to hunt down a copy of the new Neil Young biography that one of my customers said they had seen. I was ecstatic to find that book (and more about that in a later post), but I was also shocked to see another book in stock: Burma’s Plea by Dimitra Stasinopoulou.


The book was displayed behind the counter, but it was one of those huge coffee table-sized photo books so it was very easy to notice. My mouth must have dropped open when I saw the cover photo: a huge shot of one of the novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, a monastery that I visit frequently in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe. Perhaps “frequently” is an understatement. I usually drop by Shwe Yan Pyay on a daily basis when I’m in Nyaungshwe, taking donations of fresh fruit and snapping photos, sometimes chatting with the Abbot (Saya Daw), the novice monks, or senior monks. I’ve been going there for the better part of decade and in recent years have taken groups of the monks on trips to places in the area such as Kakku, Pindaya, and Taunggyi. They’re a nice, polite bunch of kids and the Saya Daw and his assistant monks do a fine job of educating and taking care of them.


So anyway, I see this huge book and the cover photo was clearly taken at Shwe Yan Pyay, and even the novice monk looks familiar; I’m just flabbergasted by the whole thing. But what I found most unsettling was the book title, Burma’s Plea, along with a big quote plastered on the cover: “Please use your freedom to promote ours.”


That’s more than a little creepy. I can understand and even empathize with the desire to promote “freedom” and other human rights issues in the country I know as Myanmar (I’ll leave the name debate alone for now; that’s something I’ve written about in the past), but I find it troubling that they are using the photo of a young novice monk to highlight their human rights agenda, no matter how righteous it may be. What does this young monk have to do with promoting freedom? You can rest assured that novice monks like this kid have scant knowledge of politics or human rights issues. Yes, many older monks in Myanmar are known to voice their political opinions and some have marched in various protests in recent years (witness the famous, but misnamed, “Saffron Revolution” in 2007), but novice monks from Shan State have not been among the participants. This book, published in 2011, looks like a gorgeous one (see the “YouTube” link below), containing 407 pages of photographs that highlight various parts of the country. While the photos may be captivating they don’t seem to focus on “freedom.” In any case, the author and/or publisher really should not have used a photo of a novice monk on the cover to make a political statement.


And what’s with that horrible book title? Burma’s Plea? It almost puts the locals on the same pitiful level as beggars: Help us because we can’t help ourselves! I have a problem with Westerners sticking their noses where they don’t belong, particularly when it comes to domestic political issues in other countries. I look at any sort of intervention or “assistance,” no matter how dire the situation may appear, to be the wrong course of action. To title a book “Burma’s Plea” makes it sound like “those poor pitiful people” can’t fight for their rights without the benevolent assistance of Westerners. I think that most people in Myanmar have enough pride that they don’t want to be seen as helpless in the eyes of the rest of world. That’s not to say that they don’t appreciate — or need — development work and humanitarian assistance, but whatever political problems the country may have, let them work it out amongst themselves without know-it-all Westerners trying to butt in and dictate the “proper” way to make changes or do things.


I’m also still not clear where the proceeds from the sale of this book are going. On the website of The Border Consortium (an organization that has an office in Bangkok) it states that:

“This private edition is available in Thailand from TBBC’s Bangkok office for 1,500 baht each. Dimitra has generously agreed that proceeds of books sold by TBBC in Thailand will be used for TBBC activities.”

And those “activities”, judging from what they say on their website, include a lot of worthwhile projects. But a news report on the website, states that “funds from the sale by the TBBC will be donated to Burma Campaign UK.” Now that gets a little trickier. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of Burma Campaign UK. They are one of those organizations that used to strongly discourage (condemn might be a better word) tourists from visiting Myanmar, deeming it not only politically incorrect but tantamount to enriching the coffers of the military junta. But in 2010, after Aung San Suu Kyi (along with her NLD party) changed her tune and decided that tourism ain’t such an evil thing after all, the folks at Burma Campaign UK, in parrot-like fashion, followed her lead and no longer opposed the idea of tourists visiting the country. Except for package tourists: they were still evil and were helping the generals get richer. At least that’s the opinion of Burma Campaign UK. Their heart may be in the right place, but I think that the strident, no-compromising stance of groups like Burma Campaign UK has done more harm than good over the past 20 years.


During one of my trips to Mandalay I saw a shocking reminder of just how negative and counter-productive that these “campaigns” can be. I was visiting the Moustache Brothers (the famous dance and comedy troupe who are very politically active, two the “brothers” having spent time in prison) at their house one afternoon. In between serving me tea, Lu Zaw (the “funny one”) played a DVD that had a public service announcement produced by Burma Campaign UK. It was in such bad taste, and catered to such pathetic stereotypes, that I was appalled. I don’t even think Lu Zaw — who has always encouraged tourists to visit his country and see the situation for themselves — was properly aware of just how insulting and one-sided that this video message was. It certainly wasn’t going to help his business or encourage anyone to visit Myanmar.

You have to wonder what organizations like this do with all the donations that they receive (consider their overhead, for starters: they have to pay healthy salaries for their director and staff members, rent an office, etc.) and how much of the money really goes to helping the people in Myanmar/Burma? On their website, they state their goal as:

“We play a leading role in raising awareness about the situation in Burma, and pressuring the international community to take action in support of the people of Burma.

Okay, those appear to be admirable goals on the surface, but what does “pressuring the international community to take action” involve exactly? More boycotts and sanctions? A lot of good that did! In other words; not at all. Meanwhile, all those “misguided tourists,” ones who defied calls for a boycott, visited the country over the past two decades, met many local people, and were able to put money directly into those people’s pockets, something that groups like Burma Campaign UK could never do.


Myanmar’s Tourism Dilemma


It’s often said, “Be careful what you wish for,” and in the case of Myanmar’s burgeoning tourism industry, no truer words were ever spoken.


In the past year or so, there have been incredible changes in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest, ran for election and won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament; the country’s president has engaged in various reforms and freed political prisoners; media restrictions have been lifted … and well, the world was watching all of these amazing developments, and all of a sudden many travelers want to visit the country. Perhaps too many.


Due to this sudden spike in tourist arrivals, the country’s tourism industry is fraying at the seams. You can safely assume that all hotels in Myanmar have raised their rates compared to a year ago, but many have gone beyond simple seasonal rate hikes and have doubled or tripled the cost of a night’s stay. One reason for this rate ugliness is the simple fact that there is a shortage of hotel rooms. Supply and demand, don’t you know. If you are planning on visiting in the next month or two, but haven’t booked a room yet, well … good luck. You’re gonna need it. There may be no room at the inn for you, your spouse, and 2.5 kids.



And it’s not only hotel rooms that are at a premium. Airplane flights, seats on boats, buses, and trains may also be hard to come by … and more expensive. Thinking of hiring a private car and driver to get from one town to another, or maybe the services of a tour guide who can speak your language with some competency? Once again, if you haven’t made those arrangements already, it’s probably too late. If nothing else, the good ones are taken.




And what about, uh, eating? Most people have to do that at least a couple of times each day. But where will you eat? And much will it cost? I was talking to a woman who owns a restaurant in Yangon earlier this week and I mentioned that business must be very good lately. She let out a big sigh, and confirmed that yes, her place was very busy, but because there were so many tour groups descending on her place, it was placing extra demands on her staff; from cooks to waiters and managers. When you are used to serving a certain number of customers each night and all of a sudden that number triples, how will you handle it? Plus, the fact that tour groups comprise the majority of customers at her restaurant, many independent travelers found themselves either being turned away or having to wait a very long time to be served. Such is the price of success.




Thus, I fear that anyone visiting Myanmar for the first time this year, or in the coming months, but not come away with the most positive of impressions. I’m sure they will be pleased by the friendliness and politeness of the locals, plus the fact that it’s an extremely safe country to visit, but it’s no longer a particularly affordable travel destination, and the quality of lodging and meals may not live up the standards of many veteran travelers. Also, there are still troublesome money issues: credit cards are not widely accepted, ATMs are just in the planning stages, and any US bank notes you wish to exchange must be in immaculate condition or they will be refused.




Hopefully, this new wave of tourists will be very patient and considerate, realizing that they are visiting a country that is still getting its sea legs. But if they give Myanmar a chance, they may end up loving it.





Politicians, Friends, and other Delights

Blink and you missed it. Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of the region earlier in the week, spending a half-day in Bangkok, about six hours in Yangon, and the better part of two days at an ASEAN summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Hillary Clinton also put in an appearance at each location, but then had to fly off to the crazy lands — The Middle East — in an attempt to pacify the Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and possibly other aggrieved nationalities. Does that woman ever get any sleep?


It would be an understatement to say that Obama’s visits to Thailand and Myanmar were met with great excitement — and approval — from the populace in each country. People in Asia really like him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a great smile. Obama himself appeared to be delighted by the warm reception, and looked like he was enjoying the visits. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck “I Love Democracy” Shinawatra couldn’t keep from beaming in every photo that I saw, looking like a schoolgirl getting to meet a famous pop star. And then there were several photos of Obama in Yangon, hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi … uh, rather fervently. The Lady appeared a bit taken back from such an overt display of affection from Barry, but hey, it’ll certainly sell more newspapers in Yangon and give the fellows in the teashops something to talk about. And it sure beats having some creepy overweight dude, wearing a snorkel and flippers and carrying a bible, showing up on your doorstep late one night, dripping lake water and asking to spend the night. That’s one incident — and in case you missed it, yes, it really happened — that I’d love to know more details about.


Obama made visits to such sacred sites as Wat Pho in Bangkok and Shwedagon in Yangon, but by contrast, once he arrived in Phnom Penh he didn’t stop for any temple tours, but headed straight to the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where serious business was discussed. The tone was set when Obama greeted Hun Sen — Cambodia’s Prime-Minister-for-Life and don’t you dare think otherwise — with a firm handshake, absent of any back slapping or pleasantries. Even if it was “Give a Thug a Hug” week, I don’t think Obama would have lowered himself to embrace Hun Sen. And good for him. Hun Sen is one of the creepiest “leaders” in the region and it’s about time people started standing up to him. By all accounts, the meeting with Hun Sen was “tense,” Obama giving the old Khmer Rouge foot soldier a dressing down on the subject of land seizures, human rights, freedom of speech, and other such sticky issues that the Cambodian government brushes under the bamboo mat. Despite the millions of dollars in foreign aid money that floods into Cambodia each year — it reportedly receives the highest percentage of any country in Asia — poverty in the country is still rampant and infrastructure well behind that of Thailand. It’s the same old broken record: the rich get richer … and they drive SUVs and get away with…


On another Cambodian note, I’ve been flooded with phone calls from friends there this week. The subject of Hun Sen and/or Obama never came up, however. Nowadays, my Cambodian friends have more important things to worry about; like paying school tuition, paying hospital bills, and affording to eat. I talked to three of the Tri brothers, and also Chamrong in Siem Reap. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, but the baby was born one month premature, necessitating a multi-week stay in the hospital for mother and child. Rong took off from his job at the airport for over a full week to help take care of them. Happily, they are all home now and Rong is back at work. Another friend, So Pengthai has also had to help his wife and children recuperate from various illnesses. Blame it on the rainy season, which thankfully, now appears to have run its course.


Yet another Cambodian friend from Siem Reap, Chiet, has been calling me almost every day … from Thailand! He’s working in another province as a welder, trying to earn some extra money, Hell, trying to earn any money at all. He’s had a problem finding steady work this year in Siem Reap, so somehow he got hooked up with a job broker that brought him to Thailand. I don’t think he has legal working papers, which makes him one of thousands (perhaps the number runs into five or six figures … or more?) of Cambodians and Burmese who are working in Thailand without proper documents. Not exactly slave labor, but don’t think these people are getting paid a fair wage either. Whatever the case, Chiet is working every day of the week — no days off — and is quite tired, but in pretty good spirits overall. There is another Cambodian working with him, but the rest of the workers, I gather, are Thai. He’s obviously lonely, being away from friends and family, so I’m one of his few daily social contacts, albeit one that’s on the phone. If I can figure out exactly where he’s working — trying to get him to distinguish Sakhon from Nakorn and Pathom from Phanom and other similar words is a difficult task — I may visit him next month. He plans to work here until mid-April, the annual Khmer — and Thai — water festival period, before going back to Siem Reap. In the meantime, we talk each night, which is helping to improve my rusty Khmer skills; word and phrases I haven’t used in years are coming back to me. We joke about eating grilled dog for dinner, plus he’s learning some Thai words too, which he is thrilled to impress me with. I only hope he doesn’t fall into any bad habits — drinking and drugs come to mind — during his exhausting labor stint in a different country. It ain’t an easy life for people like him.


Welcome to Changing Myanmar!

Every time I return from a trip to Myanmar, especially during the past two years, friends and customers at my shop will ask me: “Do you see any changes happening there?”


Normally I shrug my shoulders and say: “Not really.” And that’s the truth. Any changes in the past have either been non-existent or very subtle ones. But this year the changes are more readily apparent and, for the most part, positive ones. If you follow the news, you obviously know that Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest last year, ran for a seat in parliament this year and was elected. She also seems to have finally accepted the fact that allowing tourists to visit her country is not such an evil thing. As I noted in a post last month, her once-banned image can now be seen everywhere around the country, and her name is in all the papers. Citizens can also now express themselves more openly when talking politics — in public, in newspapers, on radio, and on the Internet.  Things still aren’t as “free” as they are in Western countries (or, shall we say, “appear” to be in those countries) but the changes are for the better.


Two things of note have become much cheaper in Myanmar this year: cars and cell phones. The price to buy a new car has suddenly become affordable for many, so drivers are ditching their old clunkers and buying new Japanese models. The downside to this is a lot more traffic. Yangon is increasingly becoming paralyzed by Bangkok-like traffic jams in some areas. The ability to buy a cell phone is also now within the budget of more people, and access to wireless Internet is also becoming more common. I’m already annoyed by all the loud, chatty morons I see — and hear — in local restaurants. I mentioned in a post last month about seeing the “Free Wi-Fi” sign at a teashop. The gadget revolution in Myanmar has begun. And credit cards and ATMs — yet more common conveniences that Myanmar never had — are now on their way too. Changes, changes, and more changes.


As expected, after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and the government engaged on a vigorous series of reforms, Myanmar started making the news and more foreigners became curious visiting the country. And since “The Lady” no longer forbids such excursions, tourists are now descending on Myanmar like the proverbial locusts. But this increase in arrivals is offering a mixed bag of results. Hotels are raising their rates to alarming new heights. A room in Yangon that cost me $18 a year ago is now $32 … and will probably be even more before the end of the year. At “nicer” hotels, I’m sure the rates are outrageous. The price of air tickets is also going up (even though there are more domestic airlines this year) and other transport options are also more expensive due to the cost of petrol and the increased demand.


The influx of more tourists will certainly offer more economic perks for the locals, but the extra demands from some overly picky western travelers — many of whom are used to being pampered in more traditional tourist havens — are creating headaches for local guides and tour operators. People working in the Myanmar tourism industry have become used to dealing with laid back, knowledgeable, and very reliable travelers; people who did their homework before visiting Myanmar and knew what to expect. They weren’t so demanding or prone to changing their minds or breaking commitments. The “new breed” of curious tourists, locals tell me, are proving to be much more difficult to deal with.


Myanmar is now seen as a “hot” new investment opportunity by many businesses. But I fear that this bevy of greedy developers and investors will do more harm than good. I look at what’s happened in Cambodia — where the rich are getting richer and the poor are as desperate as ever — and I fear the same fate will befall Myanmar. In the past several years, many poor people in Cambodia have been forced out of their old neighborhoods and “relocated” by the government, who use the seized land for new developments such as condos, office buildings, and shopping centers. Other residents can no longer to afford to live or operate small businesses in these prime locations and are also forced to move. And that’s what I fear is going to happen in Yangon and Mandalay, and even in small towns like Nyaungshwe. When the big cats come to town, how much longer can my friend Htein Linn afford to rent a shop on the main street in town? Say goodbye to lovely old neighborhoods, rich with tradition and a sense of community, and welcome another ugly high rise building or mall. Maybe that’s progress in the eyes of some of these greedy creeps, but not in mine.

The Lady and the General

Many people forget — or simply don’t realize — that Aung San Suu Kyi comes from a military background, her father being the famous Bogyoke (the word means “General” in Burmese) Aung San. General Aung San is often called the founder, or “Father,” of modern Burma, due to the fact that he was instrumental in securing the country’s independence from British colonial rule in the late 1940s. Tragically, he was assassinated in 1947, at the age of 32, only six months before Burma officially gained its independence. His daughter, Suu Kyi, was only two years old at the time.


Even though General Aung San remained a revered figure in the country, during the subsequent junta rule, particularly since1988, references to his legacy were rare. It didn’t help matters when his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988, after many years of living overseas, to care for ailing mother, and then became a very vocal supporter of student protests against the military government. That led to her forming the NLD (National League for Democracy) and becoming a potent political force in her own right. And we all know how that turned out. For most of the next two decades Aung San Suu Kyi lived under house arrest, not permitted to travel or speak to her followers.


That situation, of course has changed in the past year. Not only is “The Lady” now free to travel — both around Myanmar and overseas — but there has been a sudden and remarkable shift towards tolerance for things previously forbidden. Thus, you can now see Aung San Suu Kyi on the covers of local newspapers and magazines, and in framed photos on walls of homes, restaurants, and teashops. She’s everywhere! And her father, the handsome young General, has also made a comeback, his portrait adorning t-shirts, hats, signs, and even the sides of pickup trucks. Clearly, it’s the dawn of a new era in Myanmar.


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