Musings on the road from Myanmar
Trip Start Jan 14, 2008
141Trip End Jan 13, 2009
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First off, the government here is not at all what we expected. I guess we've seen too many movies about the former soviet union that portray totalitarian government as Orwellian as police states. In Myanmar, instead of it being an invasive force that tries to control the actions and even thoughts of its citizens, the much maligned government seems to exist on some sort of parallel universe
The people we met along the way were dedicated to helping their fellow countrymen and grateful for any help they received
Their is such a gulf of empathy, or even awareness, between the government and the people in this country that it is difficult to fathom for those lucky enough to live in a functioning society. One good example is that they have moved the capital to a brand new city open only to government employees (which achieves one of their goals of nullifying demonstrations). Another example is transportation: the roads are atrocious and intentionally kept this way to reduce travel. Additionally, you can only legally get two gallons of gas a day thereby creating a huge black market with roadside gas houses pouring petrol out of plastic containers. Even in education the government has promoted distance learning at the university level, not to reach more people, but to keep them at home and in the villages. This ensures that they can keep producing the cash crop of rice and removes the threat of student unrest and demonstrations
Another surprise for us was that the government does not try to prevent its citizens from leaving the country - it actually encourages it and then taxes their higher earnings - Burmese told us that the government wishes the whole population would go overseas and we're not sure if that was a joke or not.
Western societies tend to complain about irrational behavior from our own bureaucracies. But the Burmese junta and their minions take unpredictability to a whole other level. Can you name another government that changed all of it's currency to denominations that are multiple of 9 based Chinese's astrology? Or how about deciding to change the driving side on roads in the late 60's without changing the steering wheel? This has resulted in the odd practice (and perhaps unique) of the driver driving on the outside of the road (one shudders to think of the confusion and accidents that this must have caused shortly after the change). We think the number one instance of bizarre governmental practice was the habit of the leader of the country painting a horse white, gluing a horn on its head, putting it in an airplane, and sitting on it in the cargo hold of a transport plane. His goal was to ride a unicorn to ensure the longevity of his power, but a coup seemed to have thwarted his efforts.
The government is unequivocally dysfunctional. However, exactly what one should to about it is a more difficult question. Some say isolation. Some say coercion. Some say do ignore them. Currently most of the west has chosen to heavily isolate this country. So much so that there is no real industry. The country is under boycott from every western country including all the financial institutions and it is perhaps the only country where debit and credit card transactions are universally impossible
We all read a very interesting book on Myanmar called "The River of Lost Footsteps." It covers the fascinating history of this nation along with modern commentary by someone whose family has been operating in Myanmar politics for generations. Current challenges are colored by a proud and long history of kingdoms and empires that made Burma "the center of the universe" in the rulers minds; dozens of different ethnic communities with long histories wars and transgressions; a very diverse population including cosmopolitan Yangonians juxtaposed against a rural population still relying on oxcarts as a principle mode of transportation; and memories of abuse by various imperial and colonial powers. His advice was to try to influence the government with contact and carrot approaches. As we are not political experts we can only offer advice in terms of tourism and our recommendation is to go visit this mysterious land and wonderful culture. Both deserve our assistance!