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Golden heritage

Print edition : Jun 02, 2006 T+T-

The Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon.-AP

Myanmar, though one of the most backward countries of the region, is incredibly beautiful and the people are exceptionally warm.

MYANMAR, or Burma, has an oppressive military regime that is singularly responsible for isolating the country from the rest of the world. As a result, it is perhaps one the poorest and most backward countries in the South-East Asian region. Yet it is unbelievably beautiful and, more important, the people are exceptionally warm and friendly.

There are two lines of thinking when it comes to visiting the country. One is that tourism legitimises the junta and contributes to its treasury. The other is that tourism is among the few avenues through which ordinary people can earn an income, especially if a traveller consciously avoids using government-run services and shopping at state-run establishments. Furthermore, international travellers to Myanmar can inform the rest of the world about what is going on in the country, particularly in the absence of free media.

The best-known Myanmarese, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, subscribes to the first theory. Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for varying periods since 1989, urges foreigners not to visit Myanmar as she believes such visits would endorse the junta's rule and add money to its coffers. Some local people this correspondent spoke to disagree with her; they believe that shutting tourists out serves no purpose. The situation in the country needs to be exposed and one way to do so is encouraging tourism, they argue.

It is against the law to discuss politics in Myanmar. "We are not allowed to meet in large numbers. We dare not discuss politics, as we do not know who will be listening. If they have even a slight suspicion that we are talking about democracy, we can be arrested. Without a legal system to protect us, we can spend years waiting for justice," said a taxi driver, who understandably does not want to be named. "Even owning a computer or a fax machine without government permission can land us in prison," he added. Few people have telephones. It is difficult to make international calls. Not many know about the Internet. Credit cards and international banks are non-existent. Of late, the country has become more tourist-friendly and this has been beneficial for many people, said the taxi driver.

But how beneficial and sustainable is tourism unless it is well planned? For instance, a trishaw (cycle rickshaw) driver earned 1,000 kyat ($1 or Rs.45) to take tourists up the famous Mandalay hill. (A thousand Kyat will buy about a kilo of rice.) This was his only work for the day. The previous day he had no visitors. In the coming summer months, there will be very few tourists and it is unlikely he will earn even this. He is landless and has no other source of income.

According to Human Rights Watch, an organisation that monitors the human rights situation worldwide, the worst affected people are the country's ethnic minorities, particularly those who live in the forest and along border areas. Thousands have been displaced by the military, women are raped and children are allegedly recruited into the Army. Child labour is rampant across the country. This correspondent saw children working in teashops, restaurants and other establishments. Human Rights Watch says often children are deployed in civil works such as the building of roads; parents are compelled to send them away because of abject poverty.

In spite of their circumstances, people look calm and peaceful. They go about their daily lives in a simple, silent way. Extremely hospitable, warm and polite, they are not resentful of the foreigner.

Myanmar's history is full of conflict and oppression. Before the British colonised the country in the early 19th century, it was ruled by a succession of monarchs who thought nothing of killing siblings and wiping out small populations to claim the throne. It was only in the 11th century, under the Bamar king Anawartha, who was responsible for bringing Buddhism to the country, that Myanmar finally saw some peace and prosperity. In fact, Anawartha's reign is considered the golden age of Myanmar. In the 13th century, the Mongol warrior Kublai Khan raided Myanmar, following which the country plunged into a decline.

The Portuguese arrived in the 16th century. The British came in 1824 after colonising India. As seasoned imperialists, they took over all of Myanmar in a very short period. They brought in Indians to work as civil servants, and then established close ties between the two countries. While the British modernised Myanmar by building railroads and ports, they also plundered the country's natural resources such as teak, precious stones and oil.

Very soon a nationalist movement rose. During the Second World War, the Myanmarese drove out the British with the help of the Japanese. However, the Japanese soon proved equally if not more arrogant than the white aggressors. The result was that the Myanmarese switched sides and fought with the Allies to get rid of the Japanese. Bogkote Aung San emerged as the leader of the nationalist movement that led the country to independence in 1948. Aung San was assassinated and Myanmar again went through a rough phase. Owing to factionalist in-fighting in the nationalist movement, the military was able to seize power in 1962.

By 1988, a pro-democracy movement had gained enough strength to protest openly. There were demonstrations and confrontations between pro-democracy activists and the military. About 3,000 people died in less than a month. Under pressure, the military instituted a new government under a State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and promised elections. The SLORC changed the country's name to Myanmar from Burma, which it said was linked to the a colonial past. In 1989, Suu Kyi, Aung San's daughter, led a movement against the SLORC. For that she was placed under house arrest. No outsider or NLD leader has seen her for years. The NLD, won a massive majority in the elections held in May 1990, but the SLORC did not allow it to form the government. Since then the country has remained in its total control.

Many Western countries have imposed sanctions on Myanmar. As a result the economy is in a shambles. It is said that no development project is taken up unless the generals who run the government have a personal interest in it. Roads in the main cities are well kept but this is not the case in the countryside. Electricity is available in the cities but there are power cuts through the day. Power supply is only a luxury in villages and smaller towns. Similarly, good health care is the preserve of the rich. In recent years, several star hotels, upmarket restaurants and shops have opened in Yangon, the capital, and local people say there are signs of increasing trade. But under military rule, Myanmar has a bleak future.

Known to travellers as the Golden Land, Myanmar has the most incredible gold-covered pagodas. The most spectacular one is the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon. Even for those who are not spiritually inclined, this 2,500-year-old Buddhist temple has an atmosphere nobody can afford to miss. Every Buddhist in Myanmar hopes to make a pilgrimage to this temple once in his or her lifetime. It is said that the stupa contains eight hairs of the Buddha. Legend has it that the stupa is covered with 53 tonnes of gold leaf and the top of the spire is encrusted with 5,000 diamonds and 3,000 other stones. The Shwedagon is Yangon's landmark; you can see the magnificent pagoda from most areas of the city.

Yangon is perhaps the only real city in Myanmar. The historically better-known Mandalay town is supposedly the country's cultural centre. Today however, other than the fort, which is closed to tourists, and the famous marionette shows depicting Myanmarese myths, there is little to see there.

The boat ride from Mandalay to the archaeological centre of Bagan down the mighty Irrawaddy river is like walking into an East India Company painting. It is mile upon mile of desolate riverbank, and virtually no river traffic. When you do spot people, they look extremely poor. When the boat docks at a few stops, villagers rush into the water trying to sell food and handicrafts.

Bagan is Myanmar's jewel. There are over 3,000 ancient and extraordinary monuments spread across just 40 square miles (102 square kilometres) on the banks of the Irrawaddy. The monuments date back to the early 2nd century A.D. However, it was during the reign of King Anawartha beginning in A.D. 1044, that Bagan became what it is.

In a span of 200 years the king and his successors built some of the most impressive Buddhist temples in South-East Asia. Despite being plundered by Kublai Khan and local thieves and despite a devastating earthquake, Bagan remains remar<130>kable.

Bagan's most beautiful temple is the Ananda Pahto. Modelled after the Nandamula cave in the Himalayas, the temple soars to a height of 51 metres. Four spectacular statues of the Buddha made of teak and coated in gold are housed in the temple.

For sheer drama the Shwezigon Paya is the pagoda to visit. Covered entirely in gold, this bell-shaped stupa was also built by Anawartha. It has several storeys, which make it look huge and impressive. Its architecture apparently became a prototype for all later stupas in Myanmar.

Perched on a slight incline is the Thatbyinnyu Pahto, Bagan's highest temple. Famous for its brickwork, it is built like an Indian temple. Another architectural marvel is the Gawdawpawlin temple. But the only temple that is possible to climb is the Shwesandaw Paya, another of Anawartha's creations. It offers a spectacular view of Bagan and the Irrawaddy. The Dhammayangi temple's pagoda was destroyed by raiders. Nevertheless it is a powerful and formidable structure.

There are hundreds of ruined monuments in Bagan. All over the region there are pagodas of varying sizes, some in ruins and others in reasonably good condition. An archaeological department exists but there is no visible sign of it. The monuments clearly need to be preserved; ancient frescoes lie exposed, parts of buildings look as if they might fall any time. Local people sell handicrafts and souvenirs inside the temples.

Since foreign help is not permitted and the Myanmarese do not have the resources, this valuable heritage, which has survived the onslaughts of history, may not survive neglect in the modern era.

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