Verfasst von: rbontour | Januar 27, 2011

Understanding Myanmar – A Country Suspended In Time

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Myanmar Photos

January 11th, 2011 – At first, some family and friends didn’t understand why we chose to visit a country that is still run by a military regime – a country suspended in time while the rest of Asia advances much faster into the 21st century. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is ruled by “the generals” for nearly 5 decades. They have direct and indirect control over all businesses. Of course, we always understood the worries of our beloved ones, but the more knowledge we gained about this nation, the more passionate we became about traveling to Myanmar.

Before and during our trip we engaged in a lot of research. We learned about the country’s burdened history, such as the massive pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988, the tourism boycott in 1996, the monk-led bloody protests of 2007 or the country’s over 2,200 political prisoners – with the world’s most famous political prisoner Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. We also became aware about the cruel regime – a regime that uses forced labor to improve the infrastructure while, for instance, ignoring people’s vote in prime minister elections (e.g., 1990). When cyclone Nargis hit the southern region in 2008, the generals prevented foreign aid to enter the country. Over 1.5 million people were in urgent need of food, basic medicines and shelter. A heartless, primitive and even barbarian government blocks foreign aid organizations (e.g., UN or Doctors Without Borders) to deliver support to their own dying population… it was an international scandal – hard to belief, but reality! It’s difficult to say how many people died in the aftermath of the cyclone, but according to estimates, over 300,000 people may have lost their lives.

New Hope
Since a couple of months you can see a sparkle of hope in the eyes of the people – hope lies in a courageous woman, who has fought for democracy and freedom during the past decades. She is not afraid to stand up to the junta (military regime) and inquires every international support she can possibly get. This is Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The country’s democratic figurehead was locked up 15 of the past 21 years, but she was set free from house arrest last November 2010. Although the ruling government treats her as if she doesn’t exist, ignoring her requests for peaceful talks, she promised not to give up as she puts the freedom of the nation as her top priority.

Shocking & Hard-To-Digest Facts
Here are some more interesting and good-to-know facts about Myanmar, which we gathered during the past year. (Note: No guarantee for the following bullets. We collected all facts from – in our opinion – reliable book and journal sources).

  • Myanmari people are among the poorest and most oppressed people on the planet. A third of the population lives below the poverty line. (Times Magazine)
  • Of the 50 poorest nations in the world, Myanmar is last in per-capita aid – receiving about $2.88 per person compared with an average of $58. The military government has curbed international aid for decades. (UN)
  • 40% of national budget is spent on the army; only 1% is left for health services and education. (Times Magazine)
  • Sudden power outages are still common throughout the country.
    • We experienced temporary power failures several times during our visit. This is truly exciting when you are just taking a shower… and showers in budget accommodations are often cold ones.
  • No TV’s were allowed until 1980 – free press is still illegal.
    • We learned that internet was introduced approx. 4 years ago (only in the bigger cities), but browsing on the web is incredibly slow and still very controlled by the regime. Thousands of websites are blocked and many international email providers inaccessible.
    • When we walked through the streets, we never saw any up-to-date papers, but we could have purchased tons of old and very outdated international books and magazines (see picture).
  • Gatherings on the streets of more than five people are illegal since one of the big monk demonstrations. (WSJ)
    • We are not sure if this law is practiced to date, but we know from local sources that it was still enforced 2 years ago… bad enough!
  • Myanmar belongs to one of the top ten humanitarian crises regions in the world. (Doctors Without Borders)
  • The military force currently consists of 400,000 soldiers and a humiliatingly record of rape, torture and forced labor. (Times Magazines)
  • 30% of children under the age of 5 are malnourished; 10% of them die before they are 5. (Unicef)
  • The dictatorship in Myanmar is the world’s longest-running dictatorship. (WSJ)
  • Government doesn’t allow local movies to depict poverty. (Mac McClelland)
  • Up until now, more than 3,000 ethnic villages are destroyed. Many people have been displaced for building governmental buildings and palaces. (Mac McClelland)
  • Military junta stated in an article: “Forced labor is voluntary labor!”
  • In 1999 and 2003, Myanmar won the title “the world’s top opium producer” usurped by Afghanistan.
  • Officially, locals have an annual earnings rate of US$ 1,900, but in reality, many people make much less – about US$440 per anno. It’s the world’s 13-th lowest income in the world. In comparison: The estimated value of wedding gifts at General Than Shwe’s daughter’s wedding exceeded US$ 50 million!!! (Lonely Planet)
  • The country has the largest oil and gas reserves out of all other countries in Southeast Asia. (New York Times)
  • Myanmar gets less than a tenth of the aid Cambodia does. (Mac McClelland)
  • In comparison to Thailand, Myanmar spends 40 cents rather than US$ 64, per capita, on health care. Myanmar provides 0% of child vaccinations rather than 100 in Thailand. (Unicef)

It makes one sick to read all of this and we know it’s overwhelming. Unfortunately we could list many more shocking facts! Nonetheless, it shouldn’t scare anyone, but why should we always talk about beautiful beaches here and amazing experiences there? We don’t want to hide the reality and the truth shouldn’t prevent anyone to visit this country. Risks are everywhere. Whenever you ride a car or fly in an airplane you take a risk, right?!

Our first priority before we flew to Yangon was ‘safety’ (Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city). We were always in touch with previous travelers and constantly checked the newest travel forum entries. We never heard that a tourist felt unsafe traveling in the country (at least not in the past 1 or 2 years).

Help From „Outside“
If you think about the fact that the military blocks international aid organizations, tourists can be one of the only source to at least provide little help to the population. Of course, we can’t fix the problems, but if we see an urgent need for something, why shouldn’t we react and support the people?!

In addition, tourism may be a way for tribal villagers in the hills to have contact to the outside world – in the mountainous regions there is hardly any access to electricity. Obviously, TV’s are rare. Eventually, the people sense that they are not forgotten and that the world is interested in their existence, their culture and unique customs. As a matter of fact, some of the tribes we intend to visit were forcibly relocated to make way for government buildings or other construction projects. Others try to co-exist and survive next to an increasing number of entrepreneurial Chinese immigrants, especially in the border states of Myanmar.

Spreading Money In The Private Sector
In Myanmar there are many government and non-government things. We try to make sure that the majority of what we spend flows into the private sector. We avoid entering tourist sites for which a fee goes directly in the military’s hand. When we pick a hotel, we always make sure it’s in private hands. There are many government-owned accommodations too, but we stay away from there. Unfortunately we can never prevent that some money goes to the regime – an estimated 12% of tax from our hotel expenses goes to the regime. Hence, the cheaper the private guesthouses we choose, the less money goes to the government!

Well, this was a lot to read. Conclusively we can say that it’s not only the political background of Myanmar that captured our interest. There are also distinctive cultural and historical attractions, which further strengthened our desire to come here. Every day, over 135 ethnic groups and ancient pagodas (Buddhist temples) scattered around the country evoke our excitement anew! We will send you many more stories in a couple of days.

PS: In case you are interested… Times Magazine published a very informative article about the country (January 2011 issue). It helped us to write this blog entry.

PPS: The internet is government-controlled in Myanmar. Access is limited to some larger cities and it’s extremely slow. While we were inside the country, we purposely didn’t want to publish our travel journals and we realized that and other blogging sites are blocked by the government anyhow.

Read more about our experiences in Burma:
Myanmar Culture, Authentic Stories & Travel Etiquette
Encounters We Will Never Forget


  1. Der Bericht über Myanmar ist wirklich erschreckend, aber ich denke, dort kann man verdammt viel Kultur erleben richtig? Freu mich auf den nächsten Blogg, eure persönlichen Erlebnisse und mehr Bilder.

  2. Dear Brigitte and Robert, fortunately we know a little bit more as you send us some email update during your ~3 weeks trip whenever you had internet. I only can say Burma was not on my radar, now it is and I learned a lot, crazy what’s going on, I hope these people have soon a better life. Anyhow thanks for taking part in your experience, keep going….love Dad

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