I first went to Indochina early in my life, to Cambodia before the war and the Killing Fields, to Laos during the "secret" war, and to Viet Nam during the early phase of an already unwinnable war. Myanmar was a different story. Although it had remained apart from the power struggle going on in Indochina, it had entered into a prolonged civil war and isolated itself from the international community. In 1965, my request for a tourist visa for Burma (Myanmar's name at the time) was denied, but I was able to get in through the back door from Thailand with some smugglers. Although I stayed almost ten days in the Kengtung (now Kyaing Tong) district, I saw only a small part of the country.
Today the governments of Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are making major efforts to attract foreign tourists. The choices are ours. But to visit more than one country on one trip is not advisable. The good traveler knows that less is more. Having to choose to visit one of the four interesting and attractive countries is not an easy task. All four went through a period in the latter part of the twentieth century of devastating wars that left them poor and underdeveloped. And the current political news from Myanmar is troubling. The country is led by a military junta that shows little willingness to reintroduce democracy to the inhabitants; the opposition appears to be disheartened, weakened, and divided. Any sort of national reconciliation seems years away. However, in February 2001 Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed to foreign visitors that secret talks between her and members of the military junta had begun in October 2000. Whether such meetings will eventually bring about national reconciliation and power sharing is impossible to predict. Then there is the drug problem regarding opium and heroin. Myanmar's northeast is part of the infamous Golden Triangle, and the country remains the second largest heroin producer in the world.
The causes of Myanmar's problems are several: the devastating effects of World War II; a failed democracy thereafter; the economic ruin caused by Gen. Ne Win's policy of socialism, nationalization and isolation; the civil war between the Burmese military and the many insurgent groups and feudal lords; and, last but not least, the emergence of heroin as a valuable export commodity. After Gen. Ne Win took over the country and closed it, the outside world followed developments in Burma with some interest for a while, but because all foreigners were banned from the country and little news found its way into the Western press, over time the rest of the world seemed to lose interest in this isolated country. Several years ago, in the 1990s, the military reopened the country to foreign visitors. Today visas can easily be obtained, and a tourist industry is gradually developing. However, not all areas of the country are open to foreign visitors--only those that the government considers safe to visit.
29 December 2003
Notice how virtually no news originates in Myanmar (Burma) unless it involves human rights battles? But here's a fascinating online travelogue by a writer/philanthropist, with helpful maps, beautiful photos, and the English translation of a recent (2002) German book on the reclusive country. An excerpt from the introduction follows.