Myanmar: Beauty hides repression
|A woman in one of the 'concentration' camps in Sittwe, Myanmar where people are suffering from famine. She has not eaten in four days, she says, Photograph by: Jonas Gratzer, Getty Images, Vancouver Sun|
By Adrienne Tanner
March 20, 2016
Ethnic cleansing. Concentration camps. Military road blocks.
Not topics you google when planning a winter getaway.
In January, my husband and I joined the small wave of tourists flowing into Myanmar as it emerges from its decades-long banishment as a pariah state. Our Lonely Planet guidebook was six years out of date, so we bolstered our research with Wikitravel and TripAdvisor.
As we planned our trip to the little-travelled Rakhine State, there was barely a whisper on the common travel sites about persecution against the minority Rohingya Muslims.
The information is out there, of course. But in our search for information about historic sites, beaches and good hotel rooms, we had not consulted Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.
Until we arrived, Myanmar's shame had, to us, remained largely a secret.
Myanmar has long had a bent for repression.
When I first visited in 1986, Burma, as it was then called, was ruled by a military dictatorship with an abysmal human rights record for its treatment of minorities, particularly the various hill tribes living far from the capital. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a national independence hero and unofficial opposition leader, was in exile, her views on democracy unpalatable to generals intent on absolute control.
The country was largely cut off from foreign trade and suspicious of foreign visitors. Independent travel was restricted to one-week visits.
Tourists were allowed access to only three cities: Yangon (then called Rangoon), Bagan (then Pagan) and Mandalay.
Foreign travel was similarly closed to locals.
It was strange at the time to fly into a country in Asia where the only people on the plane were fair-skinned backpackers chatting about the three-city circuit. The few available hotels were filthy and run down, and the bone-jarring 14-hour train ride to points north felt interminable.
Still, it was fascinating to be in a country that had for decades been closed to international commerce. Tattered, 10-yearold magazines were sold on the street by vendors wearing traditional longhis and chewing betel nut. There were almost no cars or trucks, and the buses, jammed with passengers, had been patched and re-patched, time and time again.
There was incredible beauty too: the golden glow of Shwedagon Pagoda at night; farmers herding teams of white water buffaloes trailed by snowy egrets; the generous smiles of a seemingly gentle Buddhist people.
Fast forward 30 years, to late December 2015. On landing in Yangon, we were greeted by signs of the country's new openness, in the form of notices in the airport encouraging locals to "warmly welcome" and assist all foreign visitors. After of parliamentary elections in 2012, Western countries lifted sanctions against Myanmar and foreign investors poured in to take advantage of a friendly government, new Asian market and cheap labour force.
Cranes now tower above the steel skeleton of a new airport terminal under construction, and the taxi stand was lined with air-conditioned (if somewhat humble) Toyotas. Our cabbie, who had a smartphone mounted on his dash, grumbled about our hotel location near the city centre. Traffic was gridlocked. Tourism is booming. Those who once balked at spending money in a country renowned for repression have bought the kinder, gentler image and are coming in droves.
Hotels have popped up by the dozens and our mid-range room was spotless and well-appointed. Near the old city centre, people from a mélange of religious and ethnic groups seemed to coexist quite happily. We stayed near the Muslim quarter where men wore white caps and women black hijabs adorned with sequins.
Our destination in Rakhine state was Mrauk U, an archeological marvel where a staggering number of temples were erected during a 300-year building boom which began in the late 15th century.
Getting there is not easy; first a flight to the capital of Sittwe and then a seven-hour ride up the river on a ferry that didn't run every day.
We chose Mrauk U to escape the high-tourist zones and see how much or little of the country had changed once you leave the well-worn tracks.
We found modern-day Sittwe reminiscent of Yangon in the 1980s.
There are buses and some small flatbed trucks, powered by tractor motors in front. But there are few cars and marginally betteroff locals still travel in tri-shaws pedalled by drivers in longhis and flip flops.
Our outdated Lonely Planet described Sittwe as "a source of pride for its mix of locals - Rakhine Buddhists, formerly known as Arakanese, Muslims and Indian Hindus."
We had been sightseeing for half a day when it hit me. There wasn't a Muslim in sight.
"Perhaps they were run out of town," I noted wryly.
We had heard about some isolated persecution of Muslims in Rakhine state and further north in Mandalay.
We had an eye out for the Jama mosque (circa 1859), billed in our guide book as one of the city's must-see attractions. On day three, we finally found it less than a block from our hotel, sealed behind an eight-foot high concrete wall.
Its once white walls and dome were grimy and blackened, many windows were smashed, and there was no longer an entrance into the grounds.
That night a British traveller confirmed our fears. Muslims had been ethnically cleansed from Sittwe.
They were forced from their homes following riots in 2012, leaving some neighbourhoods empty, and herded into concentration camps on the outskirts of town.
Witnesses report that the Muslims live in near starvation in shabby bamboo huts.
They are not allowed to vote or leave the camps without permission. Military checkpoints ensure foreigners remain blind to the misery.
We carried on as tourists with knowledge of the camps gnawing at our conscience.
Locals were exceptionally kind to us at every turn. When we asked our hotel staff about renting bikes, the energetic young porter ran to the homes of friends to dig up two well-worn single-speeds we could use.
On New Year's Day, we rode to a lookout over the Bay of Bengal. There, we met a group of young teachers visiting Sittwe for a course. They struggled to tell us in English about their lives as teachers, encouraged us to visit them and stay in their homes - and prevailed upon us to pose for innumerable photos.
We were touched by their warmth and generosity.
Later we remarked how incongruous it was that people could be so kind to total strangers and so cruel to their own neighbours.
We wondered if the situation in Sittwe was an anomaly, sparked by some kind of one-off conflict.
But in Mrauk U we found more of the same. After two days of touring temples, we rented bikes and struck out into the countryside for a change of scenery. On our way out of town on the main highway we passed a military checkpoint unimpeded. But about three kilometres further down the road, a man driving the other way on a motorbike stopped us to inquire whether we were lost. Or so we thought.
"The temples are that way," he said in English, pointed in the direction from which we'd come.
We explained, yes we knew that and were just out for a country ride.
"There's nothing out here," he insisted.
Yes. That's fine, we said. He switched to a more direct approach.
"Nothing out here except Bengalis at kilometre 6," he said shaking his head.
We got the message and turned back. The glow of the majestic temples at dawn, the smiling schoolchildren waving from school buses, and the pastoral rice fields dimmed.
Flying out of Sittwe we met an internationally renowned scholar who specializes in social and religious issues in Southeast
Asia. He had connections with Rohingya sympathizers in Rakhine State and had been spirited into the camps the day before. He confirmed the Rohingya's dismal living conditions in the camps.
He was generous with his analysis of the conflict, but asked that I not name him as he was planning another trip to complete research for a book and feared publicity would hinder his chances of a return visa.
He said Myanmar, which defines itself as a Buddhist nation and is dominated by the Bamar ethnic group, has a low tolerance for all its minority populations. The Rohingya are seen as unwanted colonizers from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for centuries.
Many local Arakanese Buddhists harbour nationalist ambitions that put them at odds with the Bamar majority in the central part of the country, despite their shared religion.
Tensions in Sittwe exploded in 2012 over reports a group of three Muslim men had raped a local Arakanese woman, the professor said.
The situation was further inflamed by radical monks who whipped up the underlying racism into full-fledged persecution, not only in Rakhine but also elsewhere in the country.
One internationally known Mandalay monk, Ashin Wirathu, has made it his life's work to foster hatred against Myanmar's Muslims. In the post-911 environment, his sermons, playing upon Buddhist fears and prejudices, have been particularly influential.
The military encourages Wirathu. Keeping the Buddhist and Muslim conflict alive means less energy for secession attempts by the Arakanese nationals in Rakhine state.
Will Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, newly elected to a parliamentary majority, help the Rohingya? The signs are not good.
Publicly, Suu Kyi has so far remained noncommittal. Her party's hold on power is so tenuous she will be sure to tread cautiously, my scholar friend said. None of this bodes well for the Rohingya. The only sliver of hope is a greater willingness to allow aid workers into the camps with supplies. But that is far from a solution.
Breaking a promise
Myanmar visa applications must be accompanied by a letter confirming the applicant's occupation.
As a journalist, I knew members of my craft have traditionally been denied entry.
However, the Myanmar embassy in Ottawa issued me a visa for this trip after extracting my signed promise not to write anything.
When I asked my editor to sign the letter confirming my employment and told him about the caveat, he asked, "Why would you want to go to a place like that?" I thought about the question then, and I've thought about it a lot more after encountering evidence of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine.
I have always been drawn to travel in countries where the lifestyle, religion, culture and food are entirely different from my own. I have gone to any number of countries - Thailand, Cuba, China and Venezuela to name a few - knowing that press freedom and human rights takes a back seat to other economic and political concerns.
I justified travel to these places, in part, as an educational experience for myself and an opportunity for an exchange of ideas. Through knowledge comes understanding.
As a Westerner in Asia, I always found travelling in Buddhist countries enjoyable and hassle-free and in my own mind had elevated Buddhism to top spot for a religion defined by tolerance and peacefulness. This is a common mindset among Westerners.
When visiting Tibet in the late 1980s, just as it opened to independent travellers, a rush of starry-eyed Westerner rushed to visit. For many it was a way to show support for the Dalai Lama. Any mention of the region's extreme poverty and corruption under the Dalai Lama's reign met with scorn from fellow tourists.
Then, and now, Buddhism gets a pass.
I don't idealize Buddhist countries.
I knew about the clashes between the Buddhist majority and the minority Muslim population in the south of Thailand. And yet the extreme persecution of the Rohingya came as a shock to me and made me reflect again on my editor's question. Would we have gone had we known?
There is no doubt our discovery of the camps shifted the tenor of the vacation. We spent hours discussing the Rohingya. And the liberal guilt that nags at rich Westerners holidaying in a poor country was magnified by the knowledge that 10 km away people were locked in concentration camps.
Did I learn something on this trip? Yes. And it was a nasty truth.
We felt helpless at our inability to assist the Rohingya and could think of nothing we could do save spread the word when we got back.
As a journalist, I had no ethical choice but to break my promise not to write.