As we lifted off YVR and headed west across the Pacific I tried
to ignore my feelings of apprehension. Our decision to go to Myanmar (a.k.a.
Burma) was not made lightly or without considerable soul searching.
Pro-democracy protests triggered by a sharp increase in the cost of fuel began
sweeping across the country on Aug. 19 and by Sept. 23, the day we left for
Yangon, there were reports of massive civil unrest throughout the country. And
the brutal military junta that has ruled the country by force for nearly 50
years has little patience with protestors. More than 3,000 people were killed
when the same government put down a peaceful student protest in 1988.
I also felt a twinge of guilt. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung
San Suu Kyi, fearing that tourist dollars will be used to support the junta,
has urged visitors to boycott her country. Suu Kyi, whose National League for
Democracy was elected in 1990, has spent most of the last 18 years under house
arrest. It’s hard to disagree with someone of her stature and dedication but
there are strong arguments against a tourist boycott. “If the tourists stop
coming,” one shop owner told us, “half a million people will have no jobs.” In
the end we rationalized that by avoiding government-owned enterprises we could
channel most of our dollars to the people. And in a country where the average
per-capita income is less than one dollar a day a few tourist dollars can mean
the difference between eating and going hungry.
We ran into the paranoia of Burmese officialdom almost as soon
as we arrived at Yangon’s brand new International Airport. One of our packs was
missing and I wanted to report it to Thai Air. An airport official told me I
couldn’t go to the Thai Air office. “It’s upstairs,” he explained, “just wait
here.” He disappeared, along with everyone else in the building.
That’s when Maung (not his real name) asked if we needed help.
Dressed in the traditional skirt-like longyi, Maung had no official connection
with the airport but he knew the ropes. “You need security clearance to go
upstairs he explained.” He led us down a corridor and spoke to a uniformed
officer behind a tiny barred window. “Passports!” The guy demanded. And in
exchange for our passports we were given security tags that got us past an armed
checkpoint and up to the second floor where we reported our lost baggage to a
disinterested official. Not a great start.
We accepted Maung’s offer to get us a cab to the Panorama Hotel
in downtown Yangon, and to our surprise he came with us. Explaining that he
could not speak freely except in the car he told us about the demonstrations
and pointed out the road leading to Suu Kyi’s residence. Blocked by a barricade
of wood and razor wire, it was guarded by several soldiers with assault rifles.
A short distance farther our road was also blocked, not by soldiers but by a
crowd of demonstrators including hundreds of saffron-robed monks. The driver
detoured around them, through axel-deep puddles from the previous day’s monsoon