More often in the newspapers for violence and corruption than tourism, Myanmar was once a great and powerful kingdom that has fallen far at the hands of the greedy. Sarah Rees gets to grips with a country at last stepping back into the realm of international acceptance.
Statistics aren’t kind to Myanmar. In a country of 55 million, in an area slightly smaller than Texas, over 30% of the population live in poverty. The average life expectancy is just 65 years, and the average wage is just RM500 per month. Myanmar is a country still putting itself back together after centuries of struggling factions and squabbling empires, and still reeling from the recent effects of a military dictatorship that only came to end in 2011.
However, a trip to Bagan – the country’s historical pride and joy – can paint a different picture: a kingdom that can afford to build 10,000 Buddhist temples just because, an empire rivalled only by the Khmer in terms of power in the region, and an influence that spread as far as the upper parts of the Malay Peninsula.
Ironically, it was wealth that allowed the mighty Bagan Kingdom to crumble in the 13th century. Tax-free religious wealth saw members of society grew so wealthy that the King struggled for control, leaving Bagan to become just another empire to come crumbling during Myanmar’s complicated history.
The earliest evidence of inhabitants dates the country back to 11,000BCE, and the Buddhism that remains a firm part of society to this day was brought by the Indian and Chinese who passed through on the trade route in subsequent years. The Burmans didn’t make an appearance until the 9th century, but they built their splendid Bagan before losing control to the various invaders who wanted a piece of this connecting country, the pathway between China and India.
Burma, as it then was, would have escaped the clutches of the British was it not for the Burmese king expanding his borders to the edge of British India, sending the Brits into a frenzy and resulting in Burma being officially part of India in 1886. Infrastructure and cultivation arrived, bringing jobs and wealth into the open hands of the British and Indians, and the Burmese people slipped into begrudging poverty, dreaming of independence. Japan offered assistance as the Second World War began to threaten the region, but this only presented the Burmese with a different master, and it was the British that were ultimately appealed to when independence was negotiated in 1948 by the young and driven man from the villages by the name of Aung San, father of the most famous Burmese woman in the world.
Stormy Recent History
While the independence day celebrations are still remembered as the greatest day in Burmese recent history, the joy was not to last. Aung San and most of his cabinet were brutally assassinated. A new leader managed to provide some stability amid rebellions and unrest, but all was thrown off kilter when a military coup placed power in the hands of the ruthless Ne Win, who forced the country down a path to socialism and began to shut out the world. Most memorable are perhaps the events that are most cruel – the four-day massacre of protestors in 1988 and the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of the assassinated leader) are the ones that spring to mind – and it is only in the past few years that that the country has stepped out from the tight control and insular times of military rule and towards democracy.
The Burmese borders are now open to foreigners, whether as tourists or investors, and relations with the rest of the world are steadily improving. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi has boosted the international reception, and with so many natural resources lying untapped within Myanmar’s boundaries, surrounding nations have needed little encouragement to begin their trade agreements.
Myanmar remains a young and unsure sibling of the Southeast Asian family, somewhat underexplored and underappreciated: is it any wonder it is becoming the place to go for tourists seeking the latest Asian adventure?
Being cut-off from the tourist trail for so long makes Myanmar an intriguing prospect, and it currently boasts a somewhat virginal status in the brief lull before tourism and marketing catches up with the open borders.
For those interested in a trip, there is much to see in this bruised but beautiful country, and what will strike the heart more than anything is the sad contrast between the poverty of the people and the jubilance of their welcome. These are people eager for tourist money and delighted to meet a range of nations after too long an era of insularity, swift to encourage a visit the parts of the country they are most proud of.
The ancient temples of Bagan can rival the splendours of Angkor Wat, Yangon whispers of colonial wealth fallen to ruin, while Mandalay brims with culture and Inle Lake delights with its traditional villages and customs. The glorious trappings of Buddhism dot every village and town twinkle, while the sheer number of indigenous tribes, practices, and traditions adds depth to a nation too often viewed as simply a provider of cheap labour to neighbouring countries.
Myanmar has much to offer those willing to overlook the underdeveloped infrastructure and the messy history, and is a country that will get under your skin, leaving you hoping that its fortunes are on the rise at last.
Size: 676,578 km2 (World rank: 40th)
Population: 60,280,000 (2010 census estimate)
Capital city: Naypyidaw
Largest city: Yangon
Government: Unitary presidential constitutional republic
Official language: Burmese
GDP PPP*: $1,393
HDI**: 0.498, low (World rank: 149th)
Currency: Myanmar kyat (1MYR = 313MMK)
*GDP per capita, purchasing power parity, international dollars **Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for 187 countries worldwide. (For comparison, Malaysia’s HDI is 0.769, high, and is ranked 64th.)
Myanmar is the largest nation in mainland Southeast Asia, though not the largest country in ASEAN (Indonesia is the largest by far).
Myanmar is a major producer of precious gemstones, particularly rubies and sapphires, producing around 90% of the world’s entire output of rubies.
Prior to the 1962 coup d’état that saw the military junta rise to power, Myanmar was among the wealthiest nations in Asia. Now, it’s one of the poorest and one of the most corrupt.
Many positive changes have occurred in Myanmar in very recent times, from the encouragement of tourism to the relaxation of censorship rules to new foreign direct investment laws. Now, foreigners can start businesses in Myanmar and legally lease property (but not own it). Moreover, economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, and other countries such as the US and Japan, are being reduced which will allow broader foreign investment.
Source: The Expat July 2013
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