Myanmar – Travelogue

myanmar

My travel notes are a slight departure from the norm this time round, as I decided to visit Myanmar over Easter – home to an oppressive military regime and target of an international tourism boycott. My reasons for going are set out below, and I attempted to minimise the amount of money I gave to the regime, though this was not always straightforward. I’ve also attached this email as a word document and since internet access was restricted, this comes to you shortly after returning to Hong Kong!

Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later. Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the League for Democracy (NLD).

“We don’t want tourists on the government tours; we want more tourists like you.”
Retired civil servant, Yangon.

“The cost of a holiday could be someone’s life”
Free Burma Campaign UK

“[We] fully support tourism and travel to Myanmar (Burma) as part of its support for the emergence of an open society.”
Free Burma Coalition

“We thank you coming during this difficult time”
William, travel agent in Yangon.

Between 1987-88, the long-suffering Burmese people grew tired of their incompetent and arrogant military government and packed the streets in huge pro-democracy demonstrations. It was prophesised that Myanmar would finally become a free country on the auspicious date of 8/8/88 – instead, the state brutally came down on its own people, resulting in over 3000 deaths in 3 months. The socialist system was replaced with a capitalist one, the government doubled the size of the army (currently 400,000 strong) and called an election in 1990. The democrats won by 82% but were never allowed to take power; their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed under house arrest, where she remains today.

Since 1988, the widespread use of forced and child labour has been systematic – the UN rightly calls this a ‘crime against humanity’. Rape is used as a weapon of war against ethnic groups – women and children. At least 1,300 political prisoners are currently in detention, many of whom are routinely tortured (as the ‘fieriest’ corner of the British Empire, the junta inherited a large prison capacity). 1 in 10 babies die before their fifth birthday and there are more child soldiers (70,000) than any other country in the world. Nearly half the government budget is spent on the military, and just 19p per person per year invested in health. Over 60% of Burmese people live in extreme poverty, on less than 60p a day. Censorship is rife and people are afraid to speak out for fear of torture and detention. In an effort to clean up its image internationally, it hired a Washington DC public relations firm to help ‘re-brand’ its despicable activities. It went on to launch ‘Visit Myanmar Year 1996’ after employing forced labour to build up its tourism infrastructure, to which Suu Kyi responded with the quote above.

As we recently saw, it is suspected that thousands more peaceful protesters, led by monks – held in great reverence and respect in the communities they serve – were beaten or killed whilst standing up for their rights again last September.

Weighing up the pros and cons for several months I decided it would be right and good to visit, as an independent traveller. Such visitors are exactly the kind of tourist Myanmar – and every other country – doesn’t want; no tourist board targets their advertising towards tight-fisted backpackers. Whilst one side, namely the ‘Lonely Planet’ and ‘Free Burma Coalition’, claims the tourism boycott hurts ordinary people, the UK Burma Campaign says that only a small percentage of the country’s 48 million people come into contact with tourists, since 75% make their living from agriculture. Burmese people who have been forced from their homes to make way for tourist developments may prefer tourists stay away, although the campaign admits it is difficult to say how most people feel. With regards to directing tourist dollars away from the regime, the Campaign says that corruption and cronyism are widespread and, even in the private sector, the 12% VAT will – of course – go to enrich the junta. They also state that the Lonely Planet are in the business of selling guidebooks, although they maintain that their Myanmar guide sells under 5,000 copies per year, compared to the Thailand guide which sells 50,000.

Myanmar itself attracts a fraction of visitors compared to neighbouring Thailand and half of the less-than-a-million visitors to Laos. Around 500,000 Burmese are employed in tourism. I ended up spending about US$350, I estimate about US$55 went to the government in one way or another. I avoided government entrance fees, hotels and transport wherever possible. Myanmar bought in 350,000 visitors in 2006, 61% were from Asian countries (which are apparently not targeted by the pro-boycott groups) whilst 7,500 British nationals visited last year. 34% of tourists are independent travellers, 27% come on package tours, the rest are people on business or family visits. In 2003, tourism bought US$116million into the country, around US$25million is from Western independent travellers. With a VAT rate of 12%, it works out as US$3million annually going to the junta from Western tourists overall.

My main problem with the boycott is that, to be morally consistent, it would be equally – if not more – ethically abhorrent to visit and thus ‘support’ the regimes of certainly China, perhaps also Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and, of course, the USA and UK etc..etc… In many countries, ‘Western’ or otherwise, tax money often goes towards the killing of innocent civilians. Also, in contrast to Suu Kyi’s stance, another respected leader currently in exile, the Dali Lama, encourages visitors to Tibet in order that people may see the situation for themselves. Also, as detailed later on, it is clear that the real criminals are the neighbouring and Western countries who invest billions of dollars into the country.

Indeed, the cash gleaned directly and indirectly from tourism is a tiny fraction of that earned from gems and natural gas, which supported the generals to the tune of over $2 billion in sales to Thailand alone in 2007. Put another way, Senior General Than Shwe’s wedding attire wasn’t exactly missing an extra diamond accessory because of the tourism boycott. Dissident newspaper The Irrawaddy reported last month that there were 350,000 visitors to Myanmar in 2006 – and this had all but dried up since the September crackdown. I saw just few dozen tourists during almost two weeks and spoke to only 3 or 4.

I decided to go in the end, but one point I certainly oppose is the suggestion that contact with tourists ‘encourages democracy’. Oxford educated leader-in-exile Aung San Suu Syi said that “Burmese people know their own problems better than anyone else. They know what they want – they want democracy – and many have died for it. To suggest that there’s anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their own situation is not simply patronising – it’s also racist.” I agree, and those who bring photocopies of newspaper articles to Myanmar or (like a group of foreign activists in 1998) end up jailed after distributing leaflets, are naive and condescending. Locals risk punishment and imprisonment by discussing politics at all and in 2001 the government ordered local officials to ‘minimise’ unnecessary contact between Burmese and foreigners. Almost 40% of the population listen to the BBC World Service on shortwave radio, 30% listen to Voice of America – and as we saw last September, people are certainly aware about what is happening.

A couple of days before departure, the staff at the gleaming Myanmar consulate in Hong Kong belatedly informed me that there was no land entry/exit and I had to fly in. I already had a return to Bangkok booked, hoping to get a train to the border and avoid the US$10 government airport tax – now, it seemed, I had to buy another flight – 4 in total, equal in cost (and effort!) to a return trip home. After a sleepless overnight expedition to the sparkling new Yangon (Rangoon) airport, I wearily jumped into a taxi to a hotel with a couple of chirpy Germans, one of whom seemed utterly ignorant to the situation in the country. It goes without saying that coming here without reading up beforehand is somewhat criminal. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be the first gormless tourist I would encounter. Walking past the Yangon’s Shangri-La one evening, I was dismayed to see tourists sat in 5-star, government sponsored luxury. I overheard another European in Mandalay speak of his little venture exporting gems which, with the export fees, could never be ethical.

Yangon seems like a peaceful yet sprawling city, with crumbling old colonial buildings on every street, completely devoid of multinationals, with just a smattering of bill boards and no sky-scrappers whatsoever. It all appears so calm and innocent – yet this, combined with the warmth and friendliness of the Burmese people, could easily fool a visitor into thinking all is well. After a whirlwind tour of the dazzling pagodas, which are literally plated with real gold, one could easily believe the place was awash with treasure and wonder what all the fuss is about. Myanmar should indeed be a rich country – with an amazing potential for tourism and the only country in the region with oil and a huge wealth of natural resources (in particular gas, gems and teak); Burmese people are all too aware of this disparity.

Many of Yangon’s empty buildings are old government offices which were abandoned when the top general moved to the capital to Naypyidaw in 2006 on the suggestion of his astrologer. The vast and carefully designed new capital, set on a strategic greenfield site, is said to be the ultimate insurance against regime change. Whilst the biggest city, Yangon, has electricity for around 12 hours a day, Naypyidaw has a constant supply.

My first stop was Sule Pagoda, apparently home to one of Buddha’s hairs. Set on a roundabout, it was welcome respite from the pollution and 40c heat! I began talking to a young monk – fluent in English – who walked me around the pagoda, explaining how offerings to the 8 alters should be made in accordance with whatever day I was born on. There are 8 days in a Burmese week (and it’s currently the year 2551!), as Wednesday is split into two days – ‘Wednesday AM’ and ‘Wednesday PM’. We agreed that Sunday would be a good, lucky day to be born on, so I made an offering of flowers to the Sunday Buddha statue and poured water over it 28 times (because I’m 25 years old, apparently). After a while, the monk sat me down with another friend and, in hushed, somewhat nervous tones, said he’d like to go somewhere else and have a talk with me. Were this anywhere else, one would wonder if something dodgy were about to unfold, but it was clear that this was code for him wishing to, perhaps, speak about ‘the situation’.

He touched on what happened last September in Yangon and flashed a photocopy of a (blatantly illegal) Newsweek article about activist monks he had hidden in a pouch against his chest, along with a small book full of American and European contacts. We went to one of Yangon’s many teashops where I offered the monks dinner, blissfully unaware that they can’t eat after midday. They would touch on political points for a minute-or-two every so often, but I limited my questions and only allowed them to bring it up (initiating a political conversation with anyone could endanger them). After sodas-all-round, we took a taxi to the country’s most sacred site – the spectacular 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most magnificent, peaceful and – dare I say it – ‘spiritual’ places I’ve ever visited. I handed in my shoes and he walked me around clockwise, as local people stared and laughed at me (a standard evening, then). He explained how it was the full moon ‘Taboung’ festival tomorrow and many pilgrims – who rarely see Westerners – had come to Yangon from the countryside. Most would be sleeping at the temple complex tonight and my new friend found their reactions even funnier than I did. I took photos of the ceremonies, the jewel and diamond encrusted pagoda itself, the people’s alms offerings to monks and the ‘nuns-and-monks-to-be’ who were being paraded around in full golden head dresses and costumes ready for tomorrow’s initiation. I made a point of showing some of the children their image on my camera, much to their absolute delight – and the video camera sent them wild. Before disappearing for evening prayers, I gave a ‘donation’ to the monk (to ‘offset’ the government entry fee, if anything else) who pointed out the road in which he and others marched down, during last Autumn’s peaceful demonstrations. It was difficult to know what to say, he seemed to want some kind of response – I said how although our governments are rather lacklustre in their response to the junta’s atrocities, Westerners are aware of the conditions and support the monks. His face lit up when I spoke of our awareness and support for their cause. I then had a wander around on my own and read about how the tip of the stupa is tipped with 5,448 diamonds, 2,317 rubies and a 76 carat 15g) diamond at the very top.

The next day I jumped in a taxi to the market to do some filming, the driver was incredibly agreeable and said ‘yes, very good sir’ to everything I said… Burmese are famously welcoming to visitors and their word for foreigner translates as ‘sir’ or ‘guest’. After the obligatory banter about football, we arrived at my quite obviously closed destination; ‘yes sir, market closed today, festival day’. Er… cheers bud… I headed for the railway station and to the ‘circular train’, a system that encircles the city, dipping in and out of the surrounding countryside – a cheap method for local people to get around. With so many stops, it never builds up speed, perhaps hitting 20-30km per hour, tops.

The ancient train swayed on the warped rails (the sleepers being the originals laid by the British) whilst the carriages fluctuated between being ram-packed with people and produce to being almost completely empty. I showed my passport and paid US$1 for my ticket and presumed, for once, there apparently wasn’t an inflated ‘foreigner price’. Numerous fellow passengers – including a lovely couple from Bagan who were expecting a baby – asked how much my ticket was. They gasped when I revealed I’d paid a whole dollar – they’d only paid a cent. I don’t think ‘foreigner price’ is a bad thing, as my income is also probably over 100x more than a locals’ – Thailand and Russia used to have a duel-pricing system but then, there was less chance your US$1 would buy half a landmine for the state to use against their own people. Talking of which, it was during the journey that a second fellow – an old retired civil servant – spoke to me about ‘the troubles’. He chuckled saying how I was like a child hanging out of the side of the train and emphasised that he worked for the government before the junta came to power. He went on to say, “we don’t want tourists on the government tours, we want more tourists like you.” It was heartening that my beliefs in the trip had been reaffirmed, and it was becoming even clearer that people were quite aware of what was going on in their country.

So what else is there to do when it’s a full moon and everything’s closed? I headed to the Muslim Quarter which was still in full swing, I took some photos, played with (and/or scared) a few local kids and people-watched from tea shops every so often whenever the heat got too much. I watched dinky old blue Mazda taxis trundle by whilst a child played in the gutter with a stick strapped to a cigarette packet to make a tank and another with a long stick with a carrier bag on the end. A chugging old truck then flew past carrying battered oil canisters and spewing industrial clouds of black smoke, followed by a scraggly horse and cart. A police or military man swung around the corner on a motorbike, the presence of whom caused all the cycle rickshaw men in the vicinity to scarper – I imagine touting for business on the street is illegal.

I wandered around some more, and I find that of the few touts who bothered me, even the shadiest were polite and civil. Men would often try and talk football with me – everyone supports Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester and Myanmar has 15 daily newspapers dedicated solely to the game. Nine times out of ten, conversations would begin ‘Where you from?”; I’d reply ‘England’ to which they’d simply say ‘Beckham’ – or the name of another popular player. I’d nod and agree, thankful that the language barrier prevents me from entering into a more in-depth discussion of a sport I neither like nor understand. Sometimes I was tempted to just reply with another random public figure: ‘Beckham’. ‘Boutros Boutros-Ghali’.

In the evening the city was alive with pagoda hopping pilgrims, so I went exploring. I managed to creep into one of the temples without paying – it’s not often when ‘stealing’ is actually the morally correct thing to do. Grundy 1, Junta 0. There were so many entrances, it wasn’t difficult, so I tried it again at the main Shwedagon Pagoda. I noticed that there were truckloads of armed military going from temple to temple and surrounding Shwedagon – I realised later that, with such an influx of people from the countryside, they were readying themselves for another possible crackdown. I discreetly began to sneak into the complex, being as discreet as one can when you’re an over-6-foot tall ginger beacon of whiteness. Suddenly, people switched directions and started running out down the entrance steps towards the exit in a mad panic. I’ll be honest, I pretty much shat myself at this point and began to think about what it’d be like to be shot, or shot at. For some reason, I continued walking and got my camcorder out, asking nearby people what the hell was going on – perhaps I detected that their running seemed to be more out of urgency than fear… It turned out that it was merely a fire in one of the shines to the side of the pagoda. It’s not often that you can be relieved that a mass fleeing has been caused by ‘just’ a blazing inferno. At least the place was ablaze and no-one’s getting purposely shot – I don’t think anyone was hurt and the cause seemed to be some overzealous incense and candle lighting. In such a superstitious part of the world, the people worshipping at the time must’ve thought it to be a rather bad omen – flaming Buddhas can’t be especially auspicious.

It was a welcome diversion, in a way, as I managed to slip in undetected. Perhaps foolishly, I chose to walk around rather than find a peaceful spot to sit – and I got caught. My conversation with a ticket inspector consisted of my pleading ignorance and asking to leave, and him insisting I go to the police station. Oddly, on my 5th assertion that I simply wanted to leave, he immediately relented and said ‘Oh, ok then’. He didn’t even follow me out! The drama of the evening reminded me that travel here was not a game; I had to be careful about upsetting officials and quit taking risks.

After a full afternoon meandering around the market the following day, I stopped for a drink and the waitress instantly started to fan me. I obviously put an end to it, and jokingly started to fan her instead – but I think this just caused more embarrassment. It was time to leave Yangon – having decided to avoid the government-run railway, I embarked on a 13-hour private bus ride to Mandalay in the north. The road wasn’t too bad and upon seeing how tall I was, the conductor gave me a seat with legroom (in Asia, it’s common to feel you’re somehow ‘disabled’, just by being freakishly tall by local standards). Despite this, I didn’t sleep for a minute and ended up feeling horribly ill – I’ve done worse journeys, but perhaps in my old age of 25, my tolerance level has waned. Suffice to say, I spent the following day in bed and got up in the evening to see The Moustache Brothers

The activist comedy troupe The Moustache Brothers were one of the big reasons I wanted to come to Myanmar – they claim they ‘are alive because of tourists’, and have been covered numerous times by the BBC and international press. To me, they are heroes – their live performance combined screwball comedy, classic Burmese dance, and satirical criticism of the totalitarian regime. This has, of course, led repeatedly to their arrest – Par Par Lay was recently released from prison after doing 7 years hard labour (breaking up rocks with iron bars across their legs). They were banned from performing in Burmese, in public, but today they perform to tourists from their front room. Apparently, when they first started doing this, the Myanmar secret police (or the ‘KGB’ as the comedy trio call them) watched and filmed their show. Since then, and perhaps due to the support of tourists, Amnesty International, the world’s media and comedians in the UK and US, they’ve continued. With tourism at an all time low, and a Manchester United game on in the bar next door, I sat down to the show with just two other people – the first Brits I’d met in the country.

The humour was very traditional, far from scathing and the show consisted mainly of Chaplin-esque buffoonery and their wives performing traditional dancing. The satire made up just a small part of the show and it was very mild – I wondered if it’d been deliberately watered down. Sometimes, it was difficult to follow as Par Par Lay spoke very fast in a thick accent littered with very old English idioms and sayings. One second he’d be comparing his wife’s and Jennifer Lopez’s respective ‘booties’, and the next he’d be joking about traffic police taking bribes. They’re all very brave and defiant guys and it was a truly unique experience – I was lucky to be able to speak to them all personally and interview them on camera afterwards. Since they’d met and performed for Suu Kyi, I asked whether they agreed with her call for a tourism boycott – they said the boycott was a direct response to 1996’s ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ and less relevant now. I noticed their collection of newspaper cuttings was missing a few recent BBC stories I’d read online. Using a proxy to bypass the internet filter, I printed them off the next day for them. Though I made a generous donation, I later questioned where this, and the US$8 they charge audience members, goes as surely they have to pay off some of the local authorities? But then, every penny you spend in Myanmar is questionable.

I felt better after a night’s sleep and hired a dilapidated motorcycle to venture out into the local countryside. Riding the two-wheeled equivalent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wasn’t too bad, as – in certain areas – the roads were filled with only bikes. On the main highways, the traffic level was low but the constant dust and pollution from the ancient vehicles caused me problems. Amarapura, one of the many old capitals, is home to the world’s longest teak bridge – one of the country’s most iconic sights. I successfully avoided the entrance fee and explored some of the surrounding temples – some of which were disintegrating or being slowly reclaimed by the jungle. It was reminiscent of Angkor in Cambodia, but without the hoards of tourists. I also explored some crumbling temples in nearby Sagaing before heading back to Mandalay for the marionette show.

The traditional puppet show was wonderful, if you accept it for what it is – and this performance for tourists, although relatively expensive, is probably the last vestige of the art form remaining in the country. What was once the prime source of entertainment within communities died out quickly with the introduction of TV and radio – which in Myanmar, of course, are strictly controlled. Occasionally, the curtain would raise a little higher revealing the puppeteers, perhaps to show any audience members who were wondering how it was done! The live accompanying music wasn’t exactly easy on the Western ear; some might go as far as to call it a racquet. There are strict rules on the materials and measurements used for the puppets, and – if done properly – a show lasts 8 hours and features up to 80 different puppets, some with up to 60 manageable strings.

Censorship and propaganda were more visible in Mandalay, huge red street signs warned citizens to reject foreign influences, ‘crush internal and external destructive elements’ and ‘oppose those holding negative views’. Fax machines are generally banned but sometimes the government doesn’t need to directly censor a medium as it can simply make it completely inaccessible to all but the wildly rich, who are unlikely to dissent. For example, a mobile phone costs US$2000 to set up (yes, two thousands American dollars), and the bills total US$100s each month with coverage only in large cities. In a country of 55 million, there are only 214,200 mobiles – neighbouring Thailand, with just a slightly larger population, has 40 million mobiles in use. International calls, when and if they work, cost from US$5 per minute, whilst – following September’s crackdown satellite TV costs have risen to US$800 – 3 times the average salary. Internet speeds are deliberately set at a painfully sluggish bandwidth, and is also censored and priced extortionately. Cyber cafes are legally obliged to take screenshots of every computer in use every five minutes, to present to the government on demand. This all adds up to the government being able claim that ‘everyone’, potentially, has access to these media if they choose.

During my last evening in Mandalay, a cycle rickshaw whispered his own thoughts on the regime. He spoke of his own situation, of how he was a carpenter until cheap plastic Chinese goods started flooding over the border. Now he makes a pittance, since most people prefer getting around by motorcycle. He showed off his rickety old rickshaw with pride, stating that it was made in Britain. As we parted ways, he handed over several old notes which were no longer legal tender. The national hero, Aung San – Suu Kyi’s father, was on each of them, they were immediately deemed worthless by the junta.

Considering all I read about the situation, why did I go in the end? I’m not actually sure – it wasn’t for a holiday (and certainly, a holiday it was not!), but I was interested to learn more about the place and I believe that travel can rescue a place from ideology. Though I saw it as impossible to separate my travels from politics – isn’t it impossible to separate anything from politics? Is there such thing as an ethical act? Even before breakfast, you’ve indirectly contributed to all manner of questionable practices, regimes, companies etc… – whether it be the chemicals in your toothpaste, the ethics of your choice of coffee or the minerals used in the manufacture of the mobile phone that woke you up (an essential metal, cobalt, is sourced only in war-torn Congo).

The real criminals of the neighbouring governments and international companies who prop up the junta. China is the funder, weapons supplier (to the tune of US$2 billion), and the diplomatic protector to the military regime (and North Korea’s regime, for that matter). They deserve to be humiliated when they host the Olympics this summer – it’s an opportunity for the media and activists to raise awareness. The United Nations is paralysed, unable to take any action to prevent genocide in Myanmar as China has used its veto at the UN Security Council to block any meaningful action. In return, Myanmar sells natural gas to China at a fraction of its market cost, forgoing $8.4billion is return for international political support. China’s direct investment exceeded US$281million last year, and Chinese companies control projects with a value of over US$2.1billion.

One of the first things I noticed in Yangon was that Asian brands were everywhere – as Western companies are officially banned from doing business in Myanmar, it means a bigger market for neighbouring China and Thailand in particular, whose goods were all over the place. The northern Chinese border is wide open, so international sanctions are irrelevant – there was very little that is not available, at a price. In Iraq, a decade of economic sanctions are said to have caused more civilian deaths than Saddam did himself directly – and it seems clear that the it’s ordinary people who are affected by the Myanmar blockade. For instance, under-supplied pharmacies are awash with fake Chinese drugs. It’s not as if the boycott works anyway as corporations will always find a way around it – French oil firm Total and Unocal defy EU imposed sanctions by doing business through UK tax haven Bermuda. Britain could stop this tomorrow but – unsurprisingly – chooses not to. Instead we just banter on about how terrible all this monk slaughtering is. No need to go to war when the oil flows freely though Unocal’s pipeline, during the construction of which, incidentally, Burmese soldiers tortured and killed local people.

What does the future hold? The 8/8/08 will be the 20 year anniversary of the crackdown, I fear that any attempt the Burmese people make to rise up will again be crushed again, and overshadowed in the media by the Olympic opening ceremony. The media – and many governments – have already fallen for an empty promise of a constitution or ‘democracy road map’. In reality, if the proposed draft constitution is approved, the military regime will in effect be in control of the country’s new government. It already excludes Aung San Suu Kyi from running, as she is a widow of a foreigner.

So would I recommend others visit Myanmar? Wouldn’t it be hypocritical if I didn’t? The fact remains that travellers will never see prisoners tortured in jail, the slave labour, or the intelligence officers interrogating or arresting people who have spoken to tourists, demanding to know what was discussed. I contributed more to the junta than I’d anticipated, mainly because I’d made an awful mistake in booking an internal flight – something I usually avoid anyway. However, since time was the enemy, I flew back to Yangon from Mandalay on Air Bagan – what I understood was a new, private airline. Unfortunately, and somewhat to my horror, I found out later that Mandalay airport was constructed very recently with forced labour and the airline was part owned by the state.

I’m still not sure if tourism should be promoted, rather than boycotted – it’s truly a moral maze. However, personally, the experience has changed the way I travel – by thinking about the backgrounds and situations of those I encountered more, it’s perhaps led to a more sensitive and receptive outlook. Myanmar is full of beauty, unique in that there is a guaranteed return on smiles, it is untouched by Western influences and – unlike elsewhere – there is still a sense a community, a make-do-and-mend culture, organic seasonal food sold (only) in markets, small shops who are not having to compete with global megabrands… These are positives, but perhaps they endure for all the wrong reasons. I just hope that when – and if – Myanmar emerges from the darkness, it doesn’t sell its soul to the international institutions which are the ruin of so many other debt-ridden developing economies.

Tom.

PS – I referred to ‘Myanmar’, rather than the British colonial name of ‘Burma’, as ordinary citizens refer to their country as ‘Myanma’ and themselves as ‘Burmese’. ‘Burma’ is still used by the BBC and pro-democracy groups, as the ‘new’ pre-colonial name was revived by – and thus associated with – the junta.