Hot air balloons descend around the hundreds of ancient temples scattered throughout Burma.
TZN: Burma, also known as Myanmar, has long been closed off to the scrutiny of the outside world.

You’ve always been able to travel there as a tourist, albeit with restrictions, but with the leading opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the past couple of decades, and her calls for tourists to boycott Burma, relatively few made the journey.

It was certainly off the menu for journalists and camera crews. The only way in for them was to pose as a tourist and use a small camera. Asking ordinary Burmese about their real feelings was just too dangerous for most, as it could lead to imprisonment for those speaking out. 

For years the place has been ruled by a corrupt military junta that brutally suppressed all opposition, used forced labour and imprisoned thousands for their political views. Their main ally and investor has been neighbouring China, which has an eye on Burma’s many resources, including oil, gas, timber, gemstones and minerals.

But recently – and suddenly – things have changed. After elections that most observers regarded as a total sham, the new government made a series of surprise announcements. It released Aung San Suu Kyi, suspended a hugely unpopular dam project with China, freed thousands of prisoners and signed peace pacts with a number of warring ethnic groups. Even Hillary Clinton dropped in for a visit, hot on the heels of diplomats from countries all over the western world who are hoping they might be able to lift economic sanctions.

For a country that’s been under military dictatorship for the past 50 years, it’s heady stuff, and no-one really knows what to make of it all. 

The ABC’s Zoe Daniel has been covering it all, with growing amazement and excitement. Now finally, she and her cameraman David Leland, have been given an official visa and relative freedom to take a trip through Burma, filming openly and talking to the people.

It doesn’t go entirely to plan, and it’s clear that pronouncements from on high about journalistic freedoms don’t necessarily filter down to officials on the ground – but it’s certainly a start.

From the shabby but atmospheric old colonial capital of Rangoon (now Yangon), to the bizarre new North Korean-style capital Naypyitaw, the breathtaking ancient temple town of Bagan and the throbbing commercial hub of Mandalay – Daniel and her crew roam far and wide. 

On the way they meet ordinary folk, and score a remarkably frank interview with a Presidential advisor. He fesses up to the sins of the past, and insists that Burma is now heading in a new direction. It’s hard to judge the truth of that, but at the very least, we can now go there and see for ourselves.

DANIEL: It’s dawn and there’s a gentle breeze blowing a few hundred metres above this wonderland.

IAN MARTIN: [pilot and guide] “Up here is the wishing temple. It’s where the locals go when they want to make a wish”.

DANIEL: It’s a breath-taking view, from an incredible vantage point above one of the world’s most spectacular temple sites. The tourists aboard these hot air balloons have it almost to themselves, but perhaps not for long.

KRISTEN ELSBY: “I’ve come now because I feel like it is an exciting period of immense change and I wanted to be here right now to spend my tourism dollars in those changes and I also wanted to you know really see for myself what’s going on”.

DANIEL: I feel the same way. Burma’s been an important story but incredibly difficult to cover. Now the curtain’s coming up and the possibilities feel endless. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This journey started two weeks earlier when I couldn’t imagine what lay ahead. 

The last time I was at Rangoon International Airport for Foreign Correspondent I was slinking in on a tourist visa to secretly interview legendary democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Today, less than twelve months later, cameraman David Leland and I are legit, granted a relatively freewheeling visa to travel the country to assess first hand the effects of the government’s sudden, staggering democratic reforms. It’s the type of journey we’ve never been allowed to make and while the ability to operate openly is in itself a step forward, we’re not really sure just how much freedom we’ll actually have.

Burma may finally be on the move now but it’s way behind its Southeast Asian neighbours. Decades of authoritarian rule with little international investment have stunted development. On our way into Rangoon the first of many sights that remind us we’re in a very different world [fighter plane being wheeled down street]. 

[outside of people’s homes] “Leave the airport and you soon see just how frayed this place really is. The poverty and dilapidation are really quite breath taking, but then so is the potential and in the last couple of years since I’ve been coming here, there really is a new energy. Perhaps it is simply hope”. 

There’s nervousness too. For as long as anyone can remember, Burma’s been an unhappy place. Until very recently political debate simply wasn’t tolerated, dissidents were gaoled, the media censored and ethnic minorities brutally repressed. Now there’s change, but no one knows whether it’s real and so we’re going to try to find out. 

Here in the old colonial capital of Rangoon, also known as Yangon, you can still find plenty of reminders that this used to be the richest country in Asia. In the early 1900s this city was an exotic gathering point for some of the world’s most famous thinkers. Then, the Strand Hotel, hosted the likes of literary greats Somerset Maugham and George Orwell. 

[having tea at hotel] “Like Burma The Strand has been through so much since it was opened in the boom time of 1901 - war, disrepair, dictatorship, not to mention a backpacker invasion and a rat infestation. Now it appears the boom is back. The hotel’s the busiest it’s been in more than 10 years. I guess what everyone’s wondering though, is will it last?”

As it’s always been The Strand is an oasis amid the heat and dust of Rangoon. It used to be the place to be seen when the Brits were still in charge. These days the centre of power has shifted. Next day we’re up early and on our way to the new capital, up a road that’s almost empty. A toll of about six dollars puts it way beyond most Burmese, who get by on less than a dollar a day. About six years ago the government simply upped stumps and moved to the middle of nowhere, abandoning Rangoon. No one really knows why, but the result is this – Naypyitaw – a kind of Canberra meets Pyong Yang.

Right now there aren’t too many people to fill it but if Burma takes off, that’ll change and in anticipation the building frenzy is well and truly on. 
We’re here to pick up an extra passenger, a compulsory government liaison officer who will be with us for the rest of our journey. Old habits die hard. And we want to talk to the President’s Chief Advisor. Naturally I’m expecting to meet a grim, circumspect official and record a guarded interview. That’s not how it goes.

KO KO HLAING: “Now Myanmar is genuinely changing to a new era. It’s not just…”.

DANIEL: “It’s just so hard to believe”.

KO KO HLAING: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Very hard to believe because the things are rapidly changing. We need credibility and we need legitimacy and we need to make trust between the people and the government, also political parties and the government”.

DANIEL: And this is where it’s all supposed to happen, inside this extraordinary looking building. 

[walking down the corridor] “We’re inside the parliament which happens to be sitting this week and of course the fact that we’re even in here proof once again that doors are opening everywhere”.

There’s a series of by elections coming up in April and for the first time in years, members of Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy will compete. If Aung Sun Suu Kyi wins a seat as expected, she and her colleagues will be sitting here among those who repressed and gaoled them for so many years.

“It sounds great and I hope it’s real. I guess what the international community is wondering, is it is real or is there an ulterior motive on the part of the government in what it’s doing?”

KO KO HLAING: “Yes actually real. I think that after long years of political stalemate, both sides have realised that this road is not effective, not works. So we have to change the directions and the destiny is come on the same destiny to make good, to make a betterment of the country”.

DANIEL: “Okay so what about stand over tactics against people who have political views, the gaoling of people for political activity, forced labour, forcing people to become convict porters in the ethnic conflicts, brutality and rape by the Burmese military – does all that stop now? Do you admit that that’s been happening and is that over? Is that in the past?” 

KO KO HLAING: “Okay actually yes it’s like maladies of the old age and according to the situations, the stability and security is the first priority for the previous government, as you know, and they have used such tactics.... but now we are democratic, elected government so we try to treat this malady with a very correct treatment of democracy so actually you should divide the previous government and the new government”.

DANIEL: During our journey we get to see for ourselves just what that means for many Burmese. We’ve come to a political rally for Aung Sun Suu Kyi. 

SUPPORTER: “Oh we love Daw Suu so much! This time is our chance... very very big chance to see her”.

DANIEL: Her National League for Democracy won elections way back in 1990 but was never allowed to take power and she spent long stretches under house arrest. This time, as they say, it’s different. 

“This is a campaign rally NLD style and what’s really notable about this is that these people are allowed to be here, at least in theory and so are we. A campaign rally for Aung Sun Suu Kyi and her opposition where local people can legally attend and so can the international media, would have been unthinkable such a short time ago”.

SUPPORTER: “Last time we cannot come out on the road. Now you see a lot of people you can see on the road”.

DANIEL: In the Burma of old, it paid to keep your political allegiances to yourself. Now people are out and proud. Just a few months ago, publishing images of Aung San Suu Kyi was illegal. Now you can wear her face around town. 

“How many T-shirts are you selling every day?”

STALL HOLDER: “Many farmers are voters too and we could sell up to 300 or 400”.

DANIEL: “A day? Wow!”

Once again we see old habits die hard. We’re being watched and so is the crowd. It’s not enough to deflate the enthusiasm for most but some still fear the old consequences of being seen at a political rally. We press on regardless. We can’t afford to miss that all important shot. 

“We want to film her get out of the car and walk. See this is why we stand here”.

The presence of pushy international journalists is a side effect of democratic reform that no one’s quite sure how to deal with. 
Finally arriving into the heat and the dust like a cool breeze, the lady herself. It’s a rock star welcome. Aung San Suu Kyi is not only taking the military on trust, she’s also trying to overcome some restrictions on campaigning that appear to be designed to give government candidates an advantage. 

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: “We’re taking part in this election as a democrat opposition party. If we want the right to lead the country we must have the courage to act as an opposition”.

DANIEL: It’ll take more than just courage. There are endless practical problems as well. Aung San Suu Kyi is just hitting her stride when the generator fails, but the people don’t mind. 

CROWD CHANTING: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!

DANIEL: And pretty soon she’s off again. 

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: There is a way open for us to build a country we want. In order to bring the army and the people closer let’s work together for the implementation of democracy. This is what I wish for”.

DANIEL: She eventually departs in much the same way as she arrived and we’re leaving too. 
Aung San Suu Kyi is about the only thing many people know about Burma and we’re keen to get away and into the parts of the country most people never get to see. The vast majority of Burmese live in remote rural communities and it’s like stepping back in time. They survive off the land and the state does little for them.

“We’ve arrived at the village of Kone Dan in Western Burma and while we’re roaming far and wide like never before, there are some limitations. Our government minder told us that we can’t stay in the village with the local people but we can stay at the monastery so with the permission of the monks, that’s what we plan to do.”

The monastery’s Abbot has offered us a place to crash for the night. 
Buddha watches over us while we sleep. 

VENERABLE SATTKA PALA: “Come here, come. You four also come”. 

DANIEL: Each morning the Abbot tutors these young boys. Religion is one of the few areas where people can express themselves with some freedom. It offers them strength and safety. 

VENERABLE SATTKA PALA: “Buddhism is to teach people to be free from struggle”.

DANIEL: Some monks have played a brave role in Burmese political resistance. They’ve spoken out when the people were too afraid to and have been punished for it. Many were gaoled after a failed revolution in 2007 and they have only recently been released. Religion has endured and the monastery remains figuratively and literally at the centre of every community.

VENERABLE SATTKA PALA: “People cannot speak like me because for me, I’m not afraid of being imprisoned or arrested for saying the truth. Although villagers know the truth they do not dare to speak of it. Eighty percent of the people continue to live in fear”. 

DANIEL: This village is typical of those we encounter on our journey. Local chief U Hle Po explains that there’s no school for older children so they have to drop out as early as age ten or move to a larger town.

U HLE PO: “You see children here today because school is closed. Poor people live in these houses”. 

DANIEL: There are a few community facilities or even basic services. 

U HLE PO: “In our village we don’t have electricity, we only have candles. As for water, we have many wells which we dig on our own”. 

DANIEL: The chief introduces me to 27 year old Cho Thae Mar who’s only the third person in the village to ever go to university. Five years after graduation she’s still unemployed.

CHO THAE MAR: “I graduated with a major in accountancy”. 

DANIEL: In a country where the military controls every single thing, it’s all about who you know. 

CHO THAE MAR: “I could only get a job if I had the right connections”. 

DANIEL: Whether the regime actually passes the power to the people rather than just talking about it will be the ultimate test of the reform program.

VENERABLE SATTKA PALA: “Whenever there’s a case between the rich officials and people who do not have power, the rich officials win. There is no justice occurring yet”. 

DANIEL: With 60 million people and an abundance of natural resources, Burma could be a new Asian tiger. Until now the biggest investor has been China but if the West lifts economic sanctions, money from other countries will flood in. And along with that, will come curious tourists who want to see what all the fuss is about and they’re in for a treat. Until now Burma’s been a niche tourist destination despite its obvious wow factor. 

[entering temple] “The central plain has long been known as the spiritual heart of the country and Bagan is at the centre of the tourist trade now more than ever. Political change has brought about a tourist boom with flights and hotels fully booked”.

For many here in Bagan, life has barely changed since this extraordinary temple complex was built a thousand years ago and while for us that means lots of great photo opportunities, for the people who live here it means a very tough life. 

Balloons Over Bagan is a partly Australian owned company that’s been operating here for thirteen years despite military rule. Each year it caters for more tourists drawn to this extraordinary place. 

KRISTEN ELSBY: [New Zealand tourist] “I guess somehow I had some impressions that it would be a lot more closed then it is, but people are willing to talk very freely to me and people seem to be talking about having a sense of change themselves and what’s coming. You know very hopeful”.

DANIEL: And more recently with the relaxation of the military’s iron grip, the numbers have really taken off. More than 80 local staff are employed by the company. It’s making a big difference to the local economy. 

IAN MARTIN: “Yes I’ve seen a lot of increase in tourists, this year in particular. I mean over the last couple of years there’s been indications of change within Myanmar but this year in particular we know that the hotels are full, and that’s also reflected in us in the balloons because we’ve had lots of people to fly”.

DANIEL: Here’s hoping the bubble doesn’t burst. 

IAN MARTIN: [toasting with champagne] “And here in Bagan we say cheers, prost, salut, campai, chin chin, ah.... chakwa which is Burmese and soft landings”.

DANIEL: And so to the Road to Mandalay. It’s one of the world’s legendary routes thanks to the poem by Rudyard Kipling and thanks to many more writers, musicians and filmmakers who followed the mythology and legend has grown. But in the 21st century it’s a well-worn trail that leads to a city that’s arguably the engine room of the country. 

Surrounded by historic old cities, it’s become an economic hub propped up by Chinese money. Sadly, it’s our last stop. If, as is hoped, Burma’s tentative steps back into the world become strides that bring prosperity to the people then Mandalay will be an epicentre of a new nation. It’s a big if. 

[at train station] “We’ve had about two weeks to complete this journey not long enough but longer than we’ve ever had permission to stay before. Now the train is leaving Mandalay for Rangoon and it’s time for us to make a run for it too before our visas expire”.

Finally, some time to reflect. This country has so much to offer – natural wonders, a deep and enduring history and brave, hard-working and resilient people. But will they ever be allowed to reach their full potential?

KO KO HLAING: “The train is now leaving. Everybody’s on board. So nobody would like to drop out from the train. Everybody knows that the reform must go ahead”. 

DANIEL: It’s clear that this place is changing fast. Who knows if the people at the top will keep their word and what will it mean for those who until now they’ve never had a say in their future. There’s only one thing for it, down the track I’ll just have to come back and find out. 

TZN: Source: http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2012/s3459663.htm



Lam Cin
03/26/2012 05:20

Thu hoih ih zak man in hoih mahmah ei guai te.


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