Five years ago around this time, in one hot summer day in Singapore, I woke up to a good news from a dear friend that I’ll get a chance to tour Myanmar for free. I was set to go back home in Manila after finishing a 10 month-contract in an F&B company, so I thought it was great to have a bit of a side trip.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, lies on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea coast with Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and almost adjacent to Laos and Thailand from the east.
Back in 2012, visitors to Myanmar have to follow a very strict visa application in their embassy. In my case, it was the office near Tanglin Road. I paid the visa fees and hoped to go home with that elusive tourist visa. I lined up with a group of Bangladeshi workers hoping to get a work permit.
Myanmar is a country of around 56 million people where Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians live together. It’s unfortunate that up to this day, religious differences have caused ethnic conflicts in the country.
Like the Philippines, Myanmar underwent tumultuous political transitions since before the Industrial Revolution. The once mighty kingdom became a British colony in the 1850’s as part of its Indian Empire. Like other ASEAN states, Burma became a subject of Japanese Occupation during the Second World War until the nation finally declared independence from foreign powers in 1948.
Contrary to how picturesque the country is as presented in travel websites and magazines with, the Union of Burma I knew back then was under the rule of a military government.
Western countries were imposing strict economic sanctions against the military regime. Free Burma activists succeeded in pressuring corporations to withdraw businesses in Burma. In 2003, for instance, the US enacted the “Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act” banning imports from Myanmar.
Hope for Burma
But interestingly, just months prior to my first visit in Burma, the government recently initiated a series of political and economic reforms that included the release of political prisoners, nationwide ceasefires with the country’s ethnic armed groups, and the gradual reduction of restrictions on freedom of the press, association, and civil society.
A gleam of hope started to shine in this once secluded nation, especially in the very same month of my visit, pro-democracy campaigner and the nobel peace prize awardee Aung Su Ki ran for a parliamentary seat and won to become chair of the Committee for Rule of Law and Tranquility. She is currently state counsellor and a close confidante to partymate, President Htin Kyaw.
It was summer of 2012 when I first visited Yangon, welcomed by the extreme heat. I had nothing but my suitcase, a plastic film camera, a few US dollars to last me for the week and an instruction to give to the taxi driver to bring me to Winner Inn.
I had to let my family know that I arrived safely but of course roaming services either did not exist then or was ridiculously expensive. You can rent sim cards at the airport for $US100 so I used the desktop computers in the hotel lobby instead and paid an hourly rate. Connection was crazy I think I got to send an email after 30 minutes.
I spent the next days exploring downtown Yangon—walking around the streets and taking photos of people and random things I found interesting. I wanted to look like a casual tourist, since to be very honest I was too scared then to get arrested.
They speak so little English but I found some curious men in the pharmacy trying to strike a conversation asking me where I’m from. When I mentioned Philippines they started mimicking boxing champ Manny Pacquiao, throwing punches into the air, and we all ended up laughing.
Then and Now
Burma has just opened its doors again to tourism and business when I had to come back in 2015 for an emergency deployment. What three years could make a difference in a country—a massive billboard welcomed me, announcing the opening of KFC in downtown Yangon.
Local friends have had smartphones and can easily access Facebook via mobile data, even the monks in the farthest monastery in the northern state where I went to.
ATMs are now easily available around famous tourist landmarks where it was almost non-existently years back—when I had to heat a meat pie using a steam iron instead of eating out just so I don’t run out of dollars.
Myanmar has been in a massive transition since then. Former President Barack Obama has already lifted the remaining sanctions from the US last year.
It has only been more than a year since Burma had its first credible elections for a civilian government, after five decades of military rule. Now you get an e-visa or a visa on arrival. Yangon is no longer the capital city but Naypyidaw.
The development continues and concerned groups continues their call for business to be accountable to the social and environmental impact they leave as a result of this progress.
I hope that amidst these changes, Myanmar does not lose its culture and identity along the way. I’ll surely be back for Bagan.
[Entry 218, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Denvie Balidoy is a development worker working for a Cebu-based international organization, Johanniter Unfall-Hilfe, which supports local organizations to strengthen resiliency of various communities in Mindanao.
Previously she worked for Save the Children. An associate member of Photojournalists Center of the Philippines, Denvie goes on bike trips during weekends. Read her previous article here.