George Orwell is one of my favorite writers so I was pleased to find out he spent 5 years posted in Burma in the 1920's serving for the British police before his writing career and used it as the premise of his very first novel, Burmese Days. The novel paints a very grim picture of the landscape in Burma in addition to the racial tension present between the British with the locals. Orwell was first posted in Maymo (now known as Pyin Oo Lwin), which I just arrived to a few hours ago by an overnight bus from Bagan and a 4 am train through the mountains from Mandalay. After dealing with 110 degree heat for the past week, I intend to stay here for 3 days to cool off and look around the town Orwell was posted in. Orwell's subsequent novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four have been likened to the recent status of turmoil in Myanmar under the government totalitarian regime and some people here call him "the prophet" for his ability to tell the future.
From the week I've spent here, I feel like I've stepped into a time warp to observe men wearing traditional longyis / chewing betel nuts and women walking around smeared with thanaka, a golden tree root bark, all over their faces. These practices have been ongoing for 2,000 years and Myanmar appears not to be affected by Westernized "fashion" trends due to its isolation from the outside world.
Buddhism is still highly practiced (pagodas dot the landscape everywhere) and the interaction between men and women is still very conservative, where the simple act of shaking a woman's hand is off-putting. The people are still dumbfounded in certain areas I've crossed to see foreigners like me and they've welcomed me with open arms and random Burmese children have asked to take photos with me. They've a smiling and very spirited bunch of people.
It's hard to believe the human rights record Burma is notorious for since its independence from Britain in 1948. In 1962, a man named Ne Win overtook the country by a coup d'etat and the country has since been under totalitarian, military rule since. He nationalized private industries and turned Burma into one of the most impoverished Asian countries. The military government has been known to stifle the Burmese, mainly minority groups, by hoarding resources such as rice, and inducing fear by spying on them, making them perform forced labour and imprisoning outspoken critics of those who speak out for democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, was placed under house arrest for 15 years after becoming an icon for democracy during the 1988 uprising, and was finally released in 2011. Since the infamous day of August 8, 1988, when students protested against the government and thousands of children / monks / students were slaughtered, the military government has effectively tried to re-write history and went so far as renaming the country to Myanmar, renaming the capital, re-locating the capital, renaming other cities and changing the flag. The education system is poor, with only 4% of the GDP allocated to education while over 50% goes to funding the military, which has no known enemies other than its own political dissidents. This has effectively implanted a fear in the Burmese to think for themselves and landed in a place of learned helplessness where they've accepted their fate and are helpless.
What I don't observe here, however, is a strong nationalism amongst the people in favor of the military government like typical brain-washed countries where totalitarianism thrives (North Korea), which will be the downfall of the current regime. The people seem to know they're in dire straights and quietly revere Aung San Suu Kyi as a symbol of hope in democracy, which is imminent by the way things have turned around the past 2 years. Since the Burmese are unable to speak out without consequences such as imprisonment, the only real aid can come from foreign government intervention, which luckily has been successful and is highly warranted in Burma's case. This is one of the exceptions where I think foreign intervention is necessary in favor of democracy to depose totalitarian rule.
Myanmar is unlike most of its counterparts in Southeast Asia. They're resource rich (precious stones, oil, gas, fertile soil) and border India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos and China with a large sea coast, providing a perfect opportunity to be a key Asian hub. Before World War II, Burma had the infrastructure and was earmarked to become one of the most prosperous Asian economies, but the infrastructure was destroyed by the British for fear of the Japanese utilizing it to their advantage and the country hasn't had the opportunity to recover and rebuild since. As a result, they're one of the poorest countries in Asia with wages lower than Cambodia, which has nothing in comparison to resources.
It's easy as a tourist to come here for the exotic appeal factor and tread along the safe route and take away memories of smiling people, pagodas and deeply rooted traditions. The government has their finger in everything, however. The hotels I've stayed in which are clearly government owned have required all of my details and I've received numerous questions about my intentions in Myanmar, why I'm visiting, what my job is and what my address / email address are.
The people here have blown me away by their friendliness, trust and forthcoming hospitality to welcome tourists like me. They appear to have a genuine interest in what life is like abroad, but on the same token are content with what they have because they've suffered so much and have stopped having expectations. They adore Korea and what the country stands for - progress for an Asian country. I wish the best for the Burmese people so long as its not another episode of British rule. My hunch is the country with make a positive turnaround over the next 20 years with the aid of countries like Australia, America, South Korea etc..