Letter from Burma.
By Alex Kerr, host of our Burma journeys departing 2012 and 2013.
There are certain moments in the history of a country that will never come again—and now is that time in Myanmar. I remember when I visited Moscow in January 1991 with a group of Japanese religious leaders invited by Gorbachev. We were taken inside the Kremlin and thus managed to see the inner sanctum of the Soviet Union in the last moments of its existence.
Myanmar, likewise, has been frozen in time for half a century, ever since strongman Ne Win toppled the democratic government in the 1960s and set up a military dictatorship that ruled Myanmar, closing it off from the world. Starting at the end of 2011, the leadership began a series of stunning reforms which have led to a flowering of new democracy and freedoms, personified by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, known in Burma as “The Lady.”
The dictatorship impoverished the country and it fell far behind its rapidly growing neighbors such as Thailand and southwestern China. But at the same time, due to that very lack of development and insulation from outside influences, Myanmar preserved its traditional culture and landscape in a way that was unique in Southeast Asia. Most people (men and women) still wear sarongs instead of Western dress; the countryside is pristine; the glittering temples and golden pagodas throng with faithful Buddhists. In Myanmar, you can see a dream of Southeast Asia: the vast plain of Bagan, with its temples built by ancient kings; the fantasy-like world of Lake Inle, with its leg-rowing fishermen and its villagers who tend floating fields. In the capital, Yangon, you can still see living relics of the British Empire in magnificent but crumbling colonial buildings. Tourists are rare, and so is a "tourist culture" created just for them.
All this is about to change, and very quickly. Hillary Clinton's visit to Myanmar earlier this year opened the floodgates. America and Europe are relaxing decades-old sanctions, and Myanmar is suddenly flooded with investors eager to do business, hotel chains looking to start up, banks planning to open branches, hundreds of newly established tour companies, oil executives, diplomatic missions, and so forth. Rock music, Facebook, Youtube, and other international cultural influences, long banned, are flooding in, a veritable tsunami of information, fashion, music, and ideas from the outside world. In Yangon, colonial buildings are being razed by wrecking balls as a building boom gets going, and it will soon burst forth with all the energy seen today in Saigon or Bangkok.
Art critic Kenneth Clark (speaking of Venice, which in the 19th century couldn’t afford to tear it all down and rebuild, as Paris did), "Poverty is the patron goddess of beauty." So it has been in Myanmar. This country has an incredibly rich heritage of architecture, sculpture, lacquer, textiles, music, dance, and literature. And it will all change. Already, tourist hordes are descending, young people are starting to give up longyi (sarongs) in favor of jeans. As citizens get richer, they're more interested in malls than pagodas. And the magical countryside’s grass huts, rice paddies, and golden-topped pagodas will soon yield to freeways, housing developments, plastic, and signage, as it has elsewhere in Asia.
But it hasn't happened yet. Myanmar, a truly miraculous survival of a beauty lost in most of the rest of East Asia, is still mostly intact. So now is the time to go. The change is coming with breathtaking speed, and the country, in the form we've known it, won't always be there.
There's another reason to go now, which is to see with one's own eyes the reality of sixty million people being liberated from tyranny. The excitement is palpable. Suu Kyi's photos are all over Yangon, when just a year ago you could be imprisoned just for talking about her. Everywhere people are thinking about how to start new lives, new education, new companies, new art, new everything. This exhilarating moment also will pass, and as the country moves into the 21st century, people will start to take their new freedoms for granted. Myanmar will experience the trials of a developing country—political squabbles, gaps between rich and poor, pollution, and so forth. But during this extraordinary year, the people of Myanmar are filled with excitement and joy. Liberation of a people: this, too, is something to see and remember, a precious moment in human history.
Interested in R. Crusoe’s journey to Burma hosted by Alex Kerr?