Spectating NLD – Aung San Suu Kyi Political Rally 2012 Myanmar – Burma. When the topic of travel is brought up, often the first question posed is “what is your favorite country?” For those who travel extensively, this query can often result in mere pretense. Most travelers I have spoken with or interviewed do not have one true “favorite”. They might have several or even a score of countries they would want to share with you.
I am the same. I do not have a true favorite. But, if I am forced … I will state Myanmar in South East Asia or in the old days known as Burma.
I have been to Myanmar five times with my first trip in 2005 and my last visit in 2019. (I had a canceled trip in 2020 after Covid killed so many travel plans.)
To me, Myanmar encapsulates a perfect plethora of positive reasons to travel. Rich culture and history, varying nature, a diverse population with multiple ethnic groups, friendly people, great cost structure, and enough infrastructure to explore the country.
I read with dismay this Monday that the military once again took control of this nascent democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League For Democracy party and the civilian leader of the country, was detained by the military.
I reached out to several people I know in Myanmar, a combination of foreigners and Burmese, to check on their wellbeing. Thankfully, they were OK.
I set out on a three-month tour of Asia in 2005, which included Myanmar. Myanmar was not a common choice for many itineraries at that time. SIM cards cost over $2,000 each, credit cards and ATMs were not accepted, and there was no online booking of hotels or flight tickets. And of course, there was no visa on arrival. In other words … not so welcoming for tourists.
I arrived in Yangon, the capital, in the fall of 2005 just weeks before a new capital, Naypyidaw, which was built from scratch in farm fields, was christened. I was about to partake on a whirlwind tour of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. I was mesmerized by the sights and sounds of this country. I loved Yangon for the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda. Bagan for its endless horizon of temples. Mandalay for hypnotic hammering of gold leaf. And Inle Lake for the beauty of life on the water.
“Brutality and neglect by Myanmar’s military regime have created a pariah state with a wretched and desperate people,” wrote the Economist in 2005, several months before my visit. Aung San Suu Kyi was in home detention. “The Lady” as she is known has been detained for years off and on starting in the late 1980s. In 1990, her party, the NLD, won the election, but the military nullified the results, and continued to hold power. Aung San Suu Kyi the following year was awarded the Noble Peace Prize while she was in home detention.
As time marched on, the military loosened their grip allowed partial elections in 2012, which paved the way for Aung San Suu Kyi to take a seat in parliament. Overtime, the military allowed more power sharing allowing The Lady and the NLD to play a more prominent role in the country.
And tragically this slow progress to a more open society ended abruptly on February 1, 2021. Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD were arrested by the military as the nullified the recent elections of 2020.
As I read about the coup d’état I recalled my second trip to Myanmar in 2012. I was living in Phuket for several months and needed to do a visa run. I elected to revisit Burma once again for short trip to Yangon and Bagan. The country had taken steps to open and even had ATMs.
My first trip in 2005 was a guided tour while in 2012 I traveled independently. The difference was stark in a positive manner. As I explored Yangon on foot, I felt the people displayed a sense of optimism and well-being. I was met with smiles.
And I also saw The Lady. Unbeknownst to me, elections were to be held within weeks. And locals were displaying pictures, wearing t-shirts, and reading about her. You would not have seen her photo displayed in 2005.
While being wowed by the temples of Bagan for my second time, a driver I had hired alerted me to a rally. A political rally for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.
In Old Bagan, I entered a large open-air courtyard and was immediately consumed by the throng. The overflowing crowd was full of electricity. The NLD’s red and gold was displayed with pride everywhere. Banners, signs, tshirts, posters, hats, and pictures of The Lady.
Men, women, and kids chanted, yelled, and sang. It was rousing and inspiring. A chill slipped down by spine and a tear met my eye. The people were overjoyed with hope. They could taste freedom.
Notes. This post was a recollection of my memories from eight and twelve years ago supplanted by my collections of photos from trips. I have several hundred thousand photos from my travels reasonably well organized across multiple terabytes of hard drives. So, every now and then and it nice to peruse some of the old photos which stir up some memories.
As you will note, I did not touch on the Rohingya genocide. This is beyond shameful. During my multiple visits I had only met kind locals and never saw any violence being directed to any other Burmese. Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the government will be judged harshly for their actions.
The other question to pose, is should I visit Burma? Is it moral, are you supporting a corrupt government? First, endeavor to spend your dollars on the locals when possible. Second, depending on how you sternly you hold your moral compass, it is possible you will no longer be able to visit any country in the world. KSA and Brunei threaten to put gays to death. The Turks planned a genocide against their own Armenian citizens and denied its actions. Russia is a dictatorship that kills reporters and dissidents. The Philippines supports extra judicial killings. The Australians practiced institutionalized racism against the Aboriginal people. And the former US President instigated a coup of his right-wing zealots against his own government. In short, there are varying moral reasons not to visit any nation on earth. As a traveler, you need to adjudicate your own moral benchmark.
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How interesting to hear that Myanmar is so high up on your list. I had never thought of it as a top location until now, even though I had seen lots of pictures of the main sights. To be frank, I hadn’t heard of Naypyidaw before, quite embarrassing…. always thought the capital continued to be Rangoon.
You’ve been right in the midst of big events during your visits to Myanmar.
Ethics and travel is a topic close to my heart, but I usually end up visiting the country in question at some stage, and I always find reasons to do so.
Keep on perusing old photos, Gaz.
It really is a fantastic country. So much to offer!
I think anyone can think of any reason to not visit or visit a country, whether it is Denmark or KSA.
I hope you get to visit, you will not be disappointed.