28 Mar 2018

Oh Myanmar

Earlier this month I spent 10 glorious days In Myanmar (formerly Burma). I'll pause the narrative there. I know-why would I go to Myanmar when the Burmese have committed such appalling acts against the Rohingya people?  Allow me to explain. I went to Myanmar in 2012 and loved the country and the people. My boycotting it at this time would not impact the bad guys carrying out the atrocities-the military and their agents-but it would impact people who are dependant on tourism and who are unaware of what is going on in the north west of the country. The expedition I went on was the first tourist boat trip into the Irrawaddy Delta. I booked it a year ago when it was announced, I paid a substantial deposit and I really wanted to go. Note the Irrawaddy River is the main river in Myanmar and is also known as the Ayeyarwady

And what about Aung San Suu Ki, "The Lady", who has let us all down so badly apparently? She is the State Counsellor which in reality means that she has no real authority. Confusingly there is also a President with limited power. The military clique did a quick window dressing job back in 2015 when the last elections were held but nothing has fundamentally changed. The same bad guys who have run the country for the last 70 years are still calling the shots and milking the country dry.
Aung San Suu Ki was just 2 years old when her father, the newly installed PM, and six of his cabinet ministers were assassinated. Aung San Suu Ki's National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won the general election held in 1999. The military refused to hand over power. There were riots in Yangon-formerly Rangoon.The army shot and killed 3000 protestors and put Aung San Suu Ki under house arrest where she stayed for the next 20 years. She was not allowed to go and visit her dying English husband in England. She was not even allowed to go to his funeral. She was released in 2010 when international sanctions against the country were lifted. Her party won the majority of civilian seats in the 2015 election but the military have reserved the balance of parliamentary seats for themselves. The military governing clique are now so enmeshed with the administration and the economy and so used to enjoying the benefits of corruption it's difficult to see how they will finally be displaced.
The military changed the constitution so that someone who was married or had been married to a foreigner or had foreign children could not become president. How very convenient. So they made Aung San Suu Ki State Counsellor.
She may well trying to do the best for the people of Myanmar but she is between a rock and a very hard place. She has had a terrible life. She is 76 years old. It is very likely that if she speaks out against the military they will ruthlessly deal with her as they have done in the past and the gains she has made in terms of planting some green shoots of democracy will be lost.
When Aung San Suu Ki came to Sydney for the Asean meeting two weeks ago  the activists and a very hostile media were all out to damn her. Sad, very sad. She must feel wretched yet she cannot speak out which is a real pity as the atrocities against the Rohingya are genocide and reflect on all Burmese people including the innocent.
 I have no inside knowledge in postulating this scenario but other more informed commentators than me are saying the same.
Of course it may indeed be as her detractors are saying and she may have had another side all along and she really is an enormous disappointment. We may never know.

Myanmar has had a very turbulent history since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. There has been rampant ethnic strife and long running civil wars for the past 70 years. Only since 2010 when the US, the EU and Australia and Canada lifted sanctions has the economy started to improve and even then much of the improvement is down to Chinese infrastructure investment-the new imperialism.

Myanmar is a resource rich country with massive oil, gas, gem, jade and timber reserves however most of the economy is controlled by the military and they have plundered the wealth. It is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet-marginally better than Somalia at the bottom of the corruption league table.

So it's not your usual feel good tourist destination but it is a country with an amazing culture and very resilient people who despite their poverty seem always to manage to smile. Can you really blame me for going?

I flew into Yangon Airport from Hong Kong the afternoon before our morning sailing from Yangon port. Back on my previous trip in 2012 Yangon Airport International terminal was a small, tired and very inadequate building. Now it is a very modern building. After that the surprises kept coming. The journey into the city on the late Friday afternoon took 90 mins. It should normally take 20 mins out of the rush hour. Yangon traffic is now on par with Jakarta and Bangkok and far worse than Sydney. In 2012 the traffic was very light. Now there are over half a million vehicles in Yangon. The skyline is crowded with cranes. Chinese and to a lesser extent Japanese money is fuelling a construction boom. The economy is growing rapidly but it is off a very low base.  Even in the smallest and poorest villages we visited there were mobile phones and the networks are all 4G. Samsung and Chinese mobile phone brands dominate the market. No signs of Apple-way too expensive for Myanmar.

This trip was on a small ship, the RV Katha Pandaw, operated by a British Company, Pandaw, aka as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. It was very much an expedition as the huge Irrawaddy Delta is not an area usually seen by tourists and this was the first trip by Pandaw into the Delta.
There were just 19 passsengers on the ship-7 Australians, 2 Norwegians and 10 British and they were an interesting and very well travelled senior group.

The Delta consists of nine main channels and a capillary system of smaller creeks and waterways. It is heavily populated with 3.5m people living there. This waterlogged maze has played a critical role in Myanmar's history. In the heyday of the Raj in India the Delta produced much of the rice for the British Empire and it is still a major rice producing region. It was rice harvest time during the trip and bags of rice were on the move everywhere on heavily overloaded boats.
As well as harvest time it was one of the hottest times of the year ahead of the monsoon and even the locals were complaining about the heat. As we walked through very quiet towns in the heat of the day I was frequently reminded of the old saying about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun.

The ship meandered through the channels with bamboo huts on the banks and we looked out on kilometre after kilometre of napa palms fringing rice fields and stopped once or twice a day to go walkabout through a small village or town. Apart from the charming and very lively city of Pathein we were visiting small towns and villages where tourists and white people were unknown and often I felt that I was in a reverse zoo. Everywhere we went the people were so friendly. We disembarked at one small village mid morning and it seemed as if the whole village came out to greet the strange old white people.

The biggest challenge for the captain of the ship was navigating through the fishing nets fishermen -and fisherwomen -strung out across the channels and creeks not expecting such a largish ship to come sailing along.
In all the towns we visited the two central features were always the pagoda and its statue of buddha and the market. Everywhere there were lively markets selling everything from dried fish-a local and very pungent favourite-to plastic buckets.

With so many friendly and curious people and markets it was a people photographer's dream location. In fact I took no photos of tourist sights because well there were no tourist sights because there were no tourists-apart from us. I took only one camera with me, my Leica Q and as is my practice I took very few photos but I am very pleased with those few which you can see here MYANMAR PHOTOS
Again, as usual, I always tried to gain approval from my subjects before photographing them and employed my never fail photographic device-a broad and genuine smile. If I had to get down to be eye level with my subjects -and the Burmese are great for squatting down-I got down on one knee. Wearing shorts helps with this process but being 71years old does not. I invairably came back from a shore excursion with a dirty right knee. I suffer for my art.

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