Myanmar – indeed East Asia – is an entirely new world to me. As the name of my blog indicates, I have spent a lot of time learning and working in Africa focusing on spreading positive and real stories. Even though I left my job in Malawi feeling like I had so much still to learn, when I come to new places like Myanmar I realise just how much I had learned living in Africa… this is a whole new world!
My job now managing projects in various countries sees me shipping out to some very awe-inspiring places most recently Salta in Argentina and now Myanmar where Mothers’ Union has been working for 100 years. That is some history… more on that later, but for now I am still struggling to understand the balance between the fast and rapid progress taking place here in Yangon (the formerly shut-off country is now open to tourists, and western companies are increasingly investing) with the ethnic and religious conflict between communities, exarcebated by a powerful military and government.
I realise already that I am ignorant of many of the issues; so I caveat anything I write on Myanmar with this.
Last year a great deal of violence spread through Rakhine and Kachin states here in Myanmar; clashes between Buddhists (majority) and Muslims (minority) caused the government to declare a state of emergency (and introduce martial law) in Rakhine state. Many thousands were displaced from their homes and fled into neighbouring Bangladesh and over 200 were reportedly killed in the clashes. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18395788
By the time we have arrived in Myanmar though, it seems things have started improving. Just before our visit, President Thein Sein visited the UK and publicly declared his commitment on the release of political prisoners in Myanmar; a strong symbol of Myanmar progressing on the course to democracy and reconciliation. We drove the road to Mandalay which passes through/near the town of Meiktila – the site of some of last year’s violence. There was no obvious or apparent evidence of conflict or tension, and while in Mandalay itself we saw many tourists and found people to be relaxed and friendly dealing with foreigners. Furthermore, Myanmar is now taking the chair of ASEAN, and will be hosting the ASEAN games in 2014, as well as hosting the ASEAN conference in 2015. This is quite an achievement, and already there are remarkable signs of development and progress building up to these events.
In a country where rural culture seems to have hardly changed in centuries, there is rapid transformation taking place and I for one am very interested to see what impact this will have; there are already discussions around the manipulation of local resources/people as Chinese (and other) investors come in to a market that is unregulated, unprotected and leaves the people of Myanmar relatively vulnerable to an outside world they have been denied real interaction with for so long under military rule.
Incidentally, this week marks the 25th anniversary of the rise of the democracy movement, and Aung Sun Suu Kyi was here speaking in Yangon to mark the occasion. Despite not having permission to hold the rally/protests this week, police let it happen with no reported incident. That in itself is a good thing..