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A New Year's Wish for Myanmar

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In November 2009 I spent three weeks in Myanmar and was very moved by my trip. This country has so much to offer with its history, natural beauty and the genuine kindness of its people.

Its uniqueness starts with its double name. In 1989 the military government renamed the country "Myanmar," and that was what my guides called it. Before then it was "Burma," a name still preferred by opponents of the military junta and countries such as Great Britain, France and the United States. Burma's history is quite old and complex. Bagan was the capital of the first "Burmese Empire" in the 10th to 12th centuries. Like every visitor, I was mesmerized by the stupendous view on the plain of Bagan, with its "4,000 pagodas." Some contain important archeological treasures. Once a World Heritage Site, Bagan is no longer supported by Unesco. Following the terrible earthquake in 1975, Unesco did a lot of work to protect pagodas from further troubles but the organization became disgusted with the cheap and inaccurate restoration conducted by the government, and finally pulled out.

To these days the British influence (1824-1948) is certainly the most seen and felt. Burmese were not happy with colonialism, but at least the British built schools, roads and railroads. Under the British administration Burma was the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia. After independence in 1948 the tentative democratic Burma ended in 1962 with a coup d'etat, and the military junta is still ruling the country today. Myanmar is now one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.

2010-01-05-ccwoodcarry.jpg Myanmar's natural resources abound: oil, stones, teak wood... and the tropical weather certainly allows for a very diverse agriculture. But resources are being removed from the country very rapidly; almost everything seems to be for export, a lot to China. Inflation is high, about 17%, and the currency is very unstable. It is obvious that the government barely puts any money back into health, education or the improvement of roads. A December 2009 United Nations study reveals that in the western Chin State nearly 70% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Even though I traveled in "authorized" areas, I encountered situations that I am compelled to speak about. For example, one day I took a train North of Mandalay, coach class. Sitting across from me was young girl. This 11-year-old was coming home after working for 10 days in rice fields for 60 cents a day. My guide verified that she is not going to school anymore. Another day I had tea with a young woman, an elementary school teacher, who, with one other colleague, teaches 100 children.

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Shwedagon Pagoda

Tourism can certainly help the people of Myanmar because it brings a sensible additional income. As I found out through my own experience, it is possible to use only privately-owned businesses for guiding, driving, lodging, eating etc. The imprisoned Democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now encouraging responsible tourism. But this is obviously not enough to improve the harsh realities that these people face daily, nor is it enough to improve the government. And, as we all know, areas closed to tourism hide the horrendous situations of civil war, human rights violations, and the rapid increase of HIV/AIDS that NGOs cannot resolve alone.

The Obama Administration has started to re-engage the dialogue with the Myanmar government, allowing for some hope regarding Aung San Suu Kyi's liberation and fair elections in 2010. This diplomatic effort needs to be continued so 60 million people can finally be treated as human beings and strive for a better life.

2010-01-05-ccschool.jpg Over 100 different tribes live in Myanmar and approximately 90% of the population practices Theravada Buddhism. In spite of the hard life most of the people live, I was astonished by their politeness, charm, curiosity, and honesty. I cannot remember how many times I had tea in people's houses! It is obvious that their religious practice and faith are contributing factors to their gracious attitude. They seem to be able to live with very little, find the freedom within, share and give, more than we seem to be able to do in the West.

As we enter 2010 I wish for us to keep deepening relations between different parts of the world. We must keep learning from each other and help each other.

I also wish that the Myanmar government becomes more fair-minded. These photographs and the ones on my website, www.photocatherine.com, intend to be a tribute to Myanmar's beauty to be preserved.